Who knows what was going through President Trump’s head when he tweeted out an all-caps threat at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani earlier this week. Perhaps even the president himself doesn’t know. It is possible that Trump has visions of regime change in his mind. Or he may be looking to repeat his North Korea gambit: a self-inflicted crisis followed by a theatrical summit that allows him to assume the mantle of statesman. Either of these scenarios could come to pass. Both would leave the United States worse off than if Trump had instead stayed in the Iran nuclear agreement.
The pathway Trump most likely will follow is toward confrontation. Iranian politics may simply not allow for rapprochement with Trump even if that is something he wants. President Rouhani made the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the centerpiece of his presidency, and since the American withdrawal he has come under withering attack from hard-line opponents in Iran. If he were to now meet with the man who walked away from the deal and re-imposed sanctions, he would be pilloried. Iran is certainly not a democracy, but factional politics exit and put limitations on its politicians.
As for the Trump administration, it may also be less motivated to pursue a high-profile summit with Iran than it was with North Korea because it sees a more appealing alternative. National security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Vice President Mike Pence all seem to have convinced themselves that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of internal collapse, and that increasing economic pressure and pursuing peaceful regime change is a viable and cheap option. It is certainly better than going to war, which remains a deeply unpopular choice with the American public.
A third factor working against a U.S.-Iran breakthrough is America’s regional partners. In the North Korea case, South Korea was invested in de-escalating the situation and finding a diplomatic solution. It played a critical role by bringing the offer of a summit directly to Trump. Israel and Saudi Arabia are not going to play such a role. They are deeply invested in a confrontational approach toward Iran that would weaken the regime or, even better, bring it down altogether. Bibi Netanyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman will do everything they can to discourage a spectacle like the one we saw in Singapore last month.
The lack of international unity to pressure Iran will also make this situation difficult. Any consensus to isolate Iran has frayed, as our European partners, Russia, and China all opposed the American move to walk away from the JCPOA and are now pursuing negotiated alternatives with Iran to keep the JCPOA alive and limit the impact of America’s re-imposed sanctions. As long as this remains the case, Iran will probably prefer to engage with the other members of the P5+1 and exacerbate a rift between the United States and its partners.
Given these limitations, the most likely scenario is that the Iran situation will just continue to putter along. The Trump administration will try to induce regime change via sanctions, a strategy that is unlikely to succeed. And even if it does, it could bring unpredictable and not necessarily positive results. As we saw during the Arab Spring, regime change could bring about significant instability or even civil war. In the case of Iran, the most likely scenario would probably be the replacement of a clerical regime with one ruled by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps with little change to Iran’s foreign or domestic policy. The Iranians will negotiate with the other members of the P5+1, though as the impact of the U.S. sanctions becomes more acute, they will also likely retaliate for U.S. violations to the JCPOA by restarting elements of their nuclear program in violation of the agreement. All sides will continue to try to avoid a major war. And the president will continue with angry tweets that will have little effect.
There is an alternative reality in which President Trump dreams of a high-stakes summit with President Rouhani, or even better with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This would play to the Trump’s instincts as a showman and may be more plausible than people believe.
The pathway to such a spectacle likely goes through Trump’s favorite foreign leader: Vladimir Putin. One of Putin’s strongest motivations is to present Russia as an indispensable player on the world stage, a superpower at parity with the United States. Convening a historic summit that includes the presidents of both Iran and the United States would be a major coup for Putin that would further cement that perception.
Russia also has an interest in preventing either a U.S-Iran confrontation or a nuclear-armed Iran. That is why during the Iran nuclear negotiations of 2013–15, Russia and the U.S. found common ground on Iran even as the U.S.-Russia relationship deteriorated badly in other arenas. The Russians were a critical player. They often took the Iranian side and made things more difficult for the United States, but there were times in the negotiations when they also put the screws to the Iranians and succeeded in wringing concessions that none of the other players could.
The Russians are also deeply invested in a successful end to their military intervention in Syria. Consolidating their military victory requires a political agreement among the key actors, including the United States and Iran. Despite years of meetings and processes in places such as Geneva and Astana, Kazakhstan, thus far all efforts at negotiation have failed. Therefore, a summit that yields progress on this front should be appealing to Putin.
Putin may also be able to bypass all of the objections of Trump’s advisers, as well as those of our Israeli and Saudi partners, by going to the president directly. One need only look to the president’s performance at the Helsinki summit for evidence that Putin can get Trump to agree to things that all of his advisers object to. And Trump’s persistent mistreatment of European and Asian allies should give our Israeli and Saudi friends some pause. Would he really not turn on a dime if Vladimir Putin offered him a high-profile diplomatic spectacle that allows him to play to the media on the global stage?
Perhaps the biggest question is whether Putin could sell this to the Iranian leadership. He would have to make the case that Trump, as he did in North Korea, will come unprepared and make major concessions without getting anything substantive in return. If the talks with the other members of the P5+1 are failing to get Iran meaningful sanctions relief, this option could also be appealing. At a minimum, a Rouhani-Trump summit would further weaken international compliance and implementation with U.S. sanctions as the world sees that Iran and the U.S. are re-engaging. And in the ideal world, Putin may even be able to get Trump to resume implementation of the nuclear agreement while declaring that he has wrung additional concessions out of Iran.
In this less likely scenario, the big winner would be Russia. Putin would come out with a major international victory enhancing Russia’s reputation. Trump would get his big photo-op. Iran and the U.S. would return to where they were before the president needlessly walked away from the JCPOA.
And so ultimately, this is where we stand two months after the president foolishly threw relations with Iran into chaos. The most likely scenario is that the U.S. pursues a fruitless regime change strategy and becomes more internationally isolated while Iran gradually restarts its nuclear program. The perhaps slightly better scenario is that by giving Vladimir Putin a huge win, we restore the chilly but functional peace with Iran that President Obama achieved in 2015. Neither of these possibilities are appealing, and both are the result of a president who is more invested in his public image than in America’s national security.