Editor’s Note: Jamsheed Choksy is Distinguished Professor of Iranian Studies and Chairperson of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. Carol Choksy is Senior Lecturer in Strategic Intelligence in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Donald Trump is waiting for his phone to ring. After diplomatic relations ended between Washington and Tehran in 1980, backchannels for communications have existed, and negotiations have even occurred, but usually through the US Department of State and the Iranian Foreign Ministry. So after Trump expressed to reporters on May 9 that he wanted Iran to give him a call, American officials passed a direct telephone number for the White House to the Swiss government, which as a neutral nation represents US interests in Tehran in the absence of an American Embassy, to make available to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The US President may come to regard Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani with as much trust as he does North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un. On the other hand, Trump could become belligerent if the Iranian regime does not reach out peacefully soon. His acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan recently dispatched the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the Persian Gulf to counter a “credible threat.” The State Department now has warned Americans not to travel to Iran, while also moving all nonessential personnel out of neighboring Iraq for fear of violence against them from Tehran’s proxies.
Tehran’s leadership should bear in mind that for Trump, a deal seems to be “horrible” unless it is proposed by his administration. Only then can it be deemed “fair” if not “great.” By making his willingness for a phone call clear, President Trump is laying the groundwork for an attempt, through his bipolar style of negotiations, at an agreement bearing his signature, instead of those of the previous US administration and the other world powers. As Trump stated when he exited the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, better known as the Iran deal, in May 2018, he seeks “to negotiate a new deal.”
Trump marked one year since unilaterally pulling out of the JCPOA by designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization, revoking waivers granted to major importers of Iranian oil and gas like China and India, and imposing stiffer sanctions upon Tehran’s export of iron, steel, aluminum and copper. Having upped the pressure on Iran’s leadership by further constraining their geopolitical reach and economic survival, Trump then extended his offer to negotiate in person. Speaking with reporters at the White House on May 9, President Trump suggested: “I’d like to see them (Iran’s leaders) call me. … What they should be doing is calling me up, sitting down; we can make a deal, a fair deal.”
US National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have extensive requirements for any settlement. They seek to plug shortcomings in the Iran deal including limited verification of declared nuclear plants and materials, lack of access to suspected nuclear weapons development sites, the small window of time before nuclear activities can resume, and no curbs on nuclear weapons delivery systems. They emphasize Tehran must comply fully with the Non-Proliferation Treaty by no longer sharing nuclear technology. Another major concern is Iran’s missiles, which can reach across the Middle East to parts of Europe and Asia and need to be rolled back. Finally, they recognize that Iran’s regional expansionism not only unsettles America’s allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, but spurs instability and autocracy.
President Trump, while acknowledging the concerns of his appointees and often echoing their fierce words, has stressed a narrower focus. His goal, clearly stated in October 2017, is “to ensure that Iran never, and I mean never, acquires a nuclear weapon.” This position was reiterated when Trump spoke to reporters. “We just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons. Not too much to ask,” Trump said. The US president has even decried as “fake news” reports that his officials plan to deploy large numbers of American troops to the Middle East to counter Iran.
Trump’s actions on the global stage are not ideological, unlike those of Bolton and Pompeo – and Trump runs the show. Hence when offering to get on a call with Iran, the President claimed: “We’re not looking to hurt Iran. I want them to be strong and great and have a great economy.” Essentially it comes down to giving Trump an outcome that makes him look good and, in return, he’ll reincorporate Iran into the world system so “they can be very, very strong, financially.” The ayatollahs and IRGC, who in tandem control approximately one-third of Iran’s economy, could reap both regime survival and hefty profits.
Trump’s moves are aimed at self-aggrandizement and self-profiteering as well. The House of Saud understood his expectations very well, and therefore welcomed him to Riyadh in May 2017 with larger-than-life self-portraits, sword dances, lavish banquets, and economic opportunities. In return, Trump reiterated that Saudi Arabia is a “great ally,” effectively sweeping aside its role in fueling jihad worldwide, supporting other authoritarian Arab regimes, and repressing citizens at home.
Likewise, Iranian authorities will need to zip shut the “death to America, death to Israel” ideology and focus on material benefits. Their way to achieve this is by doing what is proven to work: wooing Trump. They could invite Trump to Persepolis, citadel of the ancient Persian Kings of Kings, and have him enter through the Gate of All Nations to feast within the Hundred-Column Throne Hall. They can show him the Alborz Mountains’ verdant northern slopes as sites for hotels overlooking the Caspian Sea. A tour of the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor, being re-engineered by the Chinese and British, would allow Rouhani and Trump an opportunity to publicly link denuclearization to economic assistance.
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Even if a positive relationship between the two nations is restored, a new agreement is the longest of shots. After all, on May 8, Iran announced that within sixty days it would curtail implementation of articles 26 and 36 of the Iran deal – i.e., restrictions on storage of enriched uranium and heavy water – unless Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China find ways to work around American sanctions on banking and energy. Yet just one day later, indicating that it’s all part of the art of the deal, President Trump responded with, “They should call, and if they do, we’re open to talk to them.” Those words reiterated his proposal from last July, made during another press conference at the White House: “No preconditions. If they want to meet, I’ll meet. Anytime they want. It’s good for the country, good for them, good for us, and good for the world.”
So, Ayatollah Khamenei should instruct his President Rouhani to take up the invitation to call President Trump. Yes, it will likely end up in another stalemate, but Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, among other Iranian officials, should not dismiss Trump’s words as empty offers. When facing, according to Rouhani himself, the “worst economic pressure in the past forty years” and the political equivalent of a “full-fledged and unprecedented war,” what’s there to lose? Trump, for his part, remains optimistic: “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”