1216 GMT January 19, 2020
When the news broke that Trump had fired his national security advisor, John Bolton, it was assumed that the break was a result of their disagreement over a potential meeting with the Taliban at Camp David, which the president subsequently cancelled. But now we learn that the final straw was actually about Trump’s desire to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Erin Banco, (the National Security Reporter) and Asawin Suebsaeng (White House Reporter) broke the story.
President Donald Trump has left the impression with foreign officials, members of his administration, and others involved in Iranian negotiations that he is actively considering a French plan to extend a $15 billion credit line to the Iranians if Tehran comes back into compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal.
Several sources told The Daily Beast that foreign officials are expecting Trump to either agree to cooperate on the French deal or to offer to ease some sanctions on Tehran. Meanwhile, President Trump is also considering meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
“I do believe they’d like to make a deal. If they do, that’s great. And if they don’t, that’s great too,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “But they have tremendous financial difficulty, and the sanctions are getting tougher and tougher.” When asked if he would ease sanctions against Iran in order to get a meeting with Iran Trump simply said: “We’ll see what happens. I think Iran has a tremendous, tremendous potential.”
If the last line from the president sounds familiar, that’s because it is exactly the same thing he says now about North Korea, after initially threatening “fire and fury” against them.
Perhaps the president simply wants another photo-op.
Trump’s flirtations with—if not outright enthusiasm toward—chummily sitting down with America’s geopolitical foes are largely driven by his desire for historic photo ops and to be seen as the dealmaker-in-chief. It’s a desire so strong that it can motivate him to upturn years of his own administration’s policymaking and messaging.
If so, Bloomberg reporters note that Iran isn’t buying it.
Top Iranian officials have in recent weeks sought to stamp out talk of a direct meeting between the leaders, with Zarif calling it “unimaginable” and Rouhani saying he’s not interested in a photo-op with the American president. That’s a subtle reference to America’s outreach with North Korea, which despite three meetings between Trump and Kim Jong-un hasn’t resulted in any breakthrough.
All of this does, however, clarify why [Mohammad] Javad Zarif made a surprise visit to the recent G7 meeting at the request of French President Emmanuel Macron. While in Paris, Trump told reporters that “Iran might need a short-term letter of credit or loan that could get them over a very rough patch.”
As Trump attempts to buy Iran’s reentry into the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, we should keep in mind that he has consistently called it a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated.” Given how erratic the president can be, it is possible that he could flip on this issue once again—especially if senators who have always supported military intervention in Iran, like Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton, apply pressure. But what is more likely is that we will see yet another example of the pattern identified by Brendan Nyhan.
Present distorted version of the status quo: “Iran agreement is the worst deal ever negotiated.”
Create crisis over distorted version of the status quo: Pull out of the Iran agreement.
Restore status quo (often at substantial cost).
Take credit for status quo.
What we are witnessing is the beginning of step three. As I wrote previously, the recent partnership announced between China and Iran undermines much of the leverage the Obama administration had developed in an effort to bring Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. That is why President Obama didn’t have to make concessions simply to talk with Rouhani. Those are some of the reasons why, if the status quo is restored, it will be at substantial cost.
Beyond how this move plays in the US, Iran, and with our European allies, there are two other major players that have a stake in what happens. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a tough reelection challenge next week. He has opposed the Iran nuclear agreement from the beginning, taking the unprecedented step of addressing a joint session of congress to voice his concerns. Given Netanyahu’s position on Iran, it has always been clear that nothing short of regime change would suffice. On Wednesday, Trump told reporters at the White House that he’s not interested in regime change in Iran. That might be the first time we’ve seen the president part ways with the Israeli prime minister.
On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin is sure to be pleased with this turn of events. His country has always been a strong ally of Iran. Here is how Julia Sveshnikova described the relationship.
Ever since the Kremlin decided to launch the military campaign in Syria, Russia and Iran have been forging all types of ties. The Trump decision to pull out from the nuclear deal didn’t reverse this trend. To further build this image of being a powerful nation able to construct an alternative to the West-centered world order, Russia needs to see its Iranian partner strong, not weakened.
While Putin clearly supported the election of Donald Trump, his ultimate aim was to see the United States weakened on the global stage, something the US president has accomplished in ways that probably go beyond Putin’s expectations.
It is important to be clear. Stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons is ultimately the most important goal. If Trump stumbles back into the agreement forged by the Obama administration that would be a good thing. But that doesn’t mitigate the fact that it was this president who pulled out of the agreement in the first place. He started the fire that he is now attempting to extinguish. Whatever comes of these efforts will weaken the United States and result in an agreement that is inferior to the one that was previously in place. That is an appalling record for a president.
* Nancy LeTourneau is a Washington Monthly journalist.