The dictator is desperate, grabs it and bags the benefits. The autocrat smiles and sits smugly through it. The ayatollah doesn’t answer.
This will be President Trump’s conundrum with Iran: whatever he does, Iran will play the long game.
His latest offer of an unconditional meeting with Iran’s leaders — not necessarily the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, although he would have to sign off on the meeting — has so far been met with silence.
Trump told the world on Monday: “I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet. I don’t know that they’re ready yet.” That may be one of his more accurate statements of late.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani met with the new British Ambassador to Tehran Tuesday where he announced, not for the first time, the US withdrawal from the multilateral nuclear deal in May was “illegal,” adding that “the ball is in Europe’s court.”
It seems that Iran — and Rouhani is the face of it right now — is playing the pragmatist. For Iran, it’s better to keep some enemies on its side rather than alienate them all at once.
After all, it wasn’t the UK, Germany and France who withdrew from the six-nation Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but the US alone.
Rather than ripping up the JCPOA and ramping up nuclear production, Iran has only talked about building up its stockpile of centrifuges for uranium enrichment that could be used to make a bomb.
Iranian officials have said it is up to the JCPOA’s European signatories to make the agreement work to Iran’s benefit, meaning Tehran don’t suffer financially because of it.
That is in itself an implicit threat, because Trump is set to slap secondary sanctions on European businesses trading in Iran. But it’s not a commitment to confrontation.
Iran is talking as much to divide its enemies as to conquer. This is what the Iranians do well. Just ask former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the JCPOA with them. It was a long and tortuous process, with concessions only coming at the eleventh hour, partial and offered only grudgingly.
Whereas Trump does angry and impetuous to a tee, Iran’s theocratic leaders are masters in the art of the ambiguity and sleight of hand.
Where Trump wields the diplomatic equivalent of a battle ax, they excel with the subtle skill of death by a thousand cuts.
They haven’t, for example, massively ratcheted up retaliation by reverting to the use of regional proxies, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia militias in Syria, to attack US allies and interests. This strategic restraint, outside of a few isolated incidents, is a measure of the caution with which Iran is wielding those knives.
Trump’s one-on-one summits — all style, little substance — have been with completely different types of people.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, like Kim Jong Un of North Korea, is not as vulnerable as Iran’s leaders. Kim’s economy might be hurting, but his grip on power seems rock solid and public dissent is almost unheard of.
Putin rules his roost and controls the media and the national narrative, keeping him popular and allowing him room to indulge in a little showmanship with Trump, whom he seems to find to be a US President with much potential for benefiting Russia.
In the mind of Iran’s Ayatollah right now must be the saying President George W. Bush managed to mangle: “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”
Having agreed to destroy, ship out or mothball much of its nuclear capabilities in return for the lifting of sanctions once already at America’s behest, why should Iran trust Trump, or any leader that follows him, to keep America’s word?
The answer Trump is giving right now is that the Iranians have no choice: He’ll cripple its economy if they don’t. That said, when he stood next to Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Monday, Trump sounded almost subtle: “I do believe that they will probably end up wanting to meet … I think it’s an appropriate thing to do. If we could work something out that’s meaningful, not the waste of paper that the other deal was, I would certainly be willing to meet.”
And therein lies the rub: Even if the Iranians were tempted to talk — which its lawmakers are most definitely indicating they are not — there is little evidence that his recent summits have been anything more than glorified handshakes.
The minimalist four-point agreement with Kim is already breaking down, as the North Koreans appear to renege on what Trump said was agreed while complaining that Trump’s officials are “bullying” them.
As for Putin, Trump’s race to get face time with him seems to have amounted to little that he could take home to the bank.
Iran’s deputy Foreign Minister, Bahram Qasemi, warns that “Washington’s hostile measures against Tehran and its efforts to put economic pressure on the country and impose sanctions, there will remain no possibility of talks.”
For now, it seems Trump is more likely to have a second round with Putin than he is to have a first face-to-face with Rouhani. However much the Iranians are hurting, political capital — not just the economy — is at stake.