Is President Trump on a charm offensive with America’s most implacable foes?
In less than two months, he has met with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Singapore and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Finland. Then, on Monday in response to a reporter’s question, Mr. Trump offered to meet Iran’s leaders “anytime they want to” and without preconditions. Such a summit would be the first between Iran and the United States since before the 1979 revolution that created the Islamic Republic.
His aides later indicated Iran must first make some “tangible” shifts in its policies. And Iran said talks were not possible with an “unreliable” US. Still, Trump was clear about why a potential summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would fit his strategy of negotiating with adversaries: “I believe in meeting ... speaking to other people, especially when you are talking about potentials of war and death and famine.”
His strategy is similar to that of President Barack Obama, who also offered at one time to meet with Iran without conditions. Mr. Obama believed that not talking to adversaries should not be considered punishment to them. Negotiations can force an enemy to shift positions. And, as he spelled out in a national security strategy, Obama sought opportunities to “learn about the intentions and nature of closed regimes, and plainly demonstrate to the publics within those nations that their governments are to blame for their isolation.”
Trump has certainly contributed to Iran’s isolation over its actions in the Middle East and its weapons program. In May, he took the US out of the Iran nuclear deal reached under Obama in 2015. And new sanctions are being imposed in August and in November on an Iranian economy that is already laid so low that the country’s merchants have frequently protested since December.
Yet no matter the economic hardship on the people or the rising anti-regime feelings, the regime of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would find it hard to hold a summit with the US. “The reason for this 40-year tension is that opposing the United States has become a part of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s identity. If the establishment abandons fighting the United States, it will face an identity crisis,” said Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, to an Iranian news site.
Still, in the past couple decades, more top leaders in Iran have come to accept that the country must become a full democracy rather than rely on the absolute authority of a Muslim cleric. Mr. Rouhani is someone who promised more freedom and rights to the people.
A US-Iran summit could have many unknowns about its outcome, which is just one reason diplomats prefer presummit preparations. Trump, as a longtime business negotiator, prefers to take a measure of the other leader in person and go from there. So far, he has little to show from his recent meetings with the leaders of North Korea and Russia. Would an Iran summit be any different?
At the least, talking about talks with Iran might, as Obama would say, reveal the intentions and nature of the regime.