Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s; view more opinion articles on CNN.
What should we make of President Trump’s offer this week to meet with Iran’s leaders without preconditions? Five hundred days into the chaotic Trump presidency, not much.
Like rats in a maze or in some elaborate Skinner box, we’ve become far too easily conditioned to react to Trump’s comments and tweets and take them seriously.
He is the first president in American history who cannot define the national interest untethered to his own personal vanity, political needs and obsession to dominate every story. This isn’t foreign policy; it’s a soap opera.
Indeed, without a broader policy toward Iran, which this administration does not have, there is far less going on here than meets the eye.
First, the offer to meet the Iranian leader may have made headlines, but it’s hardly new. After blasting the Iranian regime as murderous last year at the UN General Assembly, Trump approached France about setting up a meeting with the Iranian president.
Apparently, the offer was rebuffed by Tehran. A second offer of negotiations came in Trump’s speech in May about exiting the Iran nuclear deal, when he said he was “ready, willing, and able” to negotiate.
And only last week, after threatening to rain down Armageddon on Iran, Trump again offered to make a deal. This is a “wash, rinse and repeat” cycle with Mr. Trump – and we should know by now not to take it all that seriously.
Second, rather than some harbinger of a new diplomatic initiative toward Iran, the comment today may well reflect old business. And that old business – the only business that dominates Trump’s being – is Robert Mueller’s investigation about collusion and Russia. Perhaps Trump believes that by offering to meet with Iranian leaders he will dilute some of the criticism he received for his meeting with Putin.
He said as much today during his presser with the Italian Prime Minister, commenting that he will “meet with anybody.” Or maybe with the Manafort trial beginning this week, he’s looking for a way to change the channel from bad news to a dramatic offer for another summit.
We can’t know for certain.
Trump’s remarks weren’t part of his formal script, but rather a response to a question. What seems pretty clear though, given Trump’s whiplash track record – one day threatening war with Iran the next looking to make a deal – is that foreign policy wasn’t the motivation for his comment today.
Third, the offer of a meeting with Hassan Rouhani – after Trump walked out of the Iranian nuclear deal, took steps to impose crushing sanctions and threatened war – is ill-timed and ill-advised. Indeed, Iran seems to have realized this, rejecting the offer soon after it was made.
At a minimum, Iran isn’t going to agree to what Trump considers a real deal to replace the 2015 accord unless Trump first returns to implementing the old one. And any new deal presumably would be tougher on the nuclear issue. If Iran were to agree to new terms, the US would have to make much deeper concessions to a regime Trump believes is Satan’s finger on earth.
Then there’s the issue of US allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia – around whom Trump has constructed a formal alignment to oppose Iran. Since Iran will not give up its regional ambitions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Trump would be accused of doing business with the devil. None of this will sit well politically with his base or Congress.
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Finally, the idea that Trump is doing with Iran what he did with North Korea – threatening to blow things up and then wanting to make a deal – misunderstands why Kim Jong Un came to the table. Unlike Iran, Kim came to the summit as the victor, not the vanquished. Unlike Iran, North Korea has a real nuclear deterrent and the capacity to nuke the US – something Trump could not ignore. And North Korea’s neighbors, China and South Korea, were also pushing for talks with the US.
Iran stands to gain little from a summit with Trump under these circumstances. And it’s not at all clear what Trump could possibly offer.
Trump was foolish to end the nuclear accord, imperfect as it was, without a clue about what would replace it and how to deal with Iran going forward. He has no concept of what constitutes America’s national interests unhinged from his own immediate personal likes, dislikes and political survival.
We should have channels to Tehran, if only to lessen the dangers of an unnecessary and dangerous war. But without a broader policy toward Iran, a summit with a senior Iranian is not only a key to an empty room, but another one of Trump’s unproductive and potentially dangerous “all-about-me” summits.