With the mid-term elections steadily approaching, President Trump is now desperately trying to deflect attention from his difficulties. On one front, he is trying to cast himself as a world statesman. On Monday, the President floated a trial balloon for a possible Summit with Iran. At a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Trump told reporters that he would be willing to meet with the Iranian leadership with “no preconditions.” (CNN). He continued, “They want to meet, I’ll meet, whenever they want.” A day later, Iran’s senior leaders rejected the President’s idea, calling it “a humiliation.” (Reuters)
Americans can probably take comfort in Tehran’s decision. Each day, the wreckage of Trump’s bilateral Summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Singapore becomes more apparent. The latest development concerns North Korea’s construction of new missiles (The Washington Post). Each day, the question of what President Trump agreed to in his one-on-one session with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki grows more urgent. That concessions were made appears increasingly likely. The latest hint of American concessions arises from the Trump Administration’s plan to lift sanctions on Russian aluminum giant Rusal (CNN). Rusal might well represent an opening that leads to a larger dismantling of America’s existing sanctions regime against Russia, even as Russia shows little evidence of accommodating U.S. needs.
Both the Singapore and Helsinki Summits were characterized by a noted lack of preparation by President Trump. No substantive agreements were negotiated in advance of either Summit. The Singapore Summit concluded with North Korea’s merely recycling its repeatedly broken pledges to denuclearize, even as President Trump unilaterally announced the suspension of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises. The Helsinki Summit ended with considerable uncertainty about understandings or agreements that had been reached between the U.S. and Russian Presidents. Such concern was exacerbated by President Trump’s dramatic undercutting of the U.S. Intelligence Community in his post-Summit press conference.
So, taking into consideration President Trump’s bad Summits, why would Iran reject an offer to meet with the American President? After all, President Trump’s track record in Summitry strongly suggested that Iran would likely “win” in terms of substance. Further, the combination of President Trump’s absence of in-depth knowledge, lack of preparation, exceptional impatience, and enormous overconfidence in his “deal making” capacity strongly tilt the odds in favor of the President’s international interlocutors. Nevertheless, Iran rejected President Trump’s overture. Iran had at least four basic reasons for doing so.
First, Iran fundamentally does not trust President Trump. Reliability is essential currency for statecraft. In abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement with America’s North American and Asian allies, walking away from the Paris Accord on climate change, reopening NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, and withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, President Trump has established a strong track record of abdicating from American commitments. His periodically questioning America’s need to honor its Article 5 mutual defense NATO guarantee and his granting a unilateral concession to North Korea without having informed either South Korea or Japan in advance further diminished President Trump’s credibility. All of these actions have depreciated the value of American commitments. Therefore, Iran has little confidence that it could rely on President Trump to live up to any of his obligations. Thus, from Tehran’s perspective, a Summit with President Trump would either be an exercise in futility or it would produce a diplomatic agreement that would be the equivalent of Francium-223, with its extremely short half-life.
Second, Iran rejects President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA as “illegal.” As a result, it will not take any steps that could be perceived as yielding to pressure from Trump’s decision to abandon the JCPOA. Iran is determined to avoid providing the Trump Administration with any reward for its decision, either in fact or perception. That stance all but rules out diplomatic engagement for the foreseeable future.
Third, based on President Trump’s post-Summit conduct, it is evident that Trump has been using Summitry to elevate his profile. He has boasted of extraordinary achievements. An early Summit with Tehran might actually be intended to position the President as a serious leader, but not for purposes of advancing the American national interest or starting a process to resolve some of the nation’s large differences with Iran. Instead, it would be aimed at strengthening the position of Trump’s Republican allies going into the mid-term elections. Therefore, such a summit would not constitute an act of foreign policy making to further the national interest. It would amount to a political act in pursuit of partisan interests.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the differences between the United States and Iran are fundamental in nature. In the short-term, the differences between American interests in the Middle East and Iran’s revolutionary aims are irreconcilable. They cannot be bridged in the near-term. Iran’s quest to build Shia hegemony in the Middle East at the expense of America’s Sunni allies and Israel is incompatible with American strategic interests.
President Trump may be eager to engage Iran. Iran is not eager to engage President Trump.
At present, Iran continues to believe that the regional balance of power is evolving in its direction. Iran has gained a foothold in Syria. Its assistance to Syria’s embattled Assad regime has all but assured that a grateful Damascus will permit Syria to serve as a conduit through which Iran can furnish weapons and technical assistance to Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorist organization. Iran has begun to build meaningful relations with great powers such as Russia and China. Iran is exploiting current U.S. differences with a revanchist Russia. It is seizing the opportunities being created by the Trump Administration’s expanding protectionism to engage China on a full spectrum of economic, political, and military considerations. Iran is seeking to preserve emergent economic ties made possible by the JCPOA with the European Union, which has also been targeted by the Trump Administration’s protectionism and pettiness. All of these developments give Iran a sense of confidence that time is on its side.
With historical roots that extend as far back in time as the 6th century BC to the birth of the Persian Empire, Iran is content to remain patient in pursuing its ambitions. It is unwilling to hand President Trump anything that he cannot achieve through deliberate strategy. Deliberate strategy requires a clear assessment of the American national interest, careful thought about scenarios and contingencies, and a steady nurturing of a balance of power that ultimately makes it necessary for Iran to deal with the United States on American terms. None of that is evident in Trump’s Washington. Instead, a condition oscillating between disarray and chaos largely defines Trump’s foreign policy.
On Monday, President Trump took the first tentative step to ask Iran, “Deal?” Iran answered, “No Deal!”