A risky American-Iranian summit

Hussein Haridy
Wednesday 8 Aug 2018

Is an American-Iranian presidential summit on the cards? If so, what would each side stand to gain

In one of his well-known tweets, US President Donald Trump warned Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani never to threaten the United States.

The latter had said that a war by the United States against his country would become the “mother of all wars”, and threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz if and when the US government would re-impose sanctions against Iran.

In his tweet, President Trump wrote, in all capital letters, to the Iranian president: “Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.

”Such dire warnings do remind us of the “fire and fury” that President Trump had promised the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un last year, only to meet him a few months later in Sentosa, Singapore on 12 June this year.

The same scenario was repeated in case of Iran. Less than a week after posting this tweet, President Trump proposed a summit with his Iranian counterpart.

The idea of the American and Iranian presidents sitting together in the context of present American-Iranian relations seems a bit strange, but not surprising given the way President Trump has conducted American diplomacy and relations with allies, adversaries and foes of the United States alike in the last 18 months.

The first question as to this proposal is whether the American president is serious in his offer, and if the answer is affirmative, what are his short- and long-term objectives in engaging the Iranian regime?

Does the American president have a game plan? And if yes, how does this game plan relate to the overall strategy of the US administration in the Middle East in light of the understandings reached at the Helsinki summit between President Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that took place 16 July?

As expected, the Iranian government has not, till the time of writing this article, taken an official position with regards to the summit invitation coming out of the White House.

However, Tehran has everything to gain from accepting it. The regime in Tehran badly needs a political boost of great magnitude, internationally, regionally and domestically — one that would certainly follow from a meeting between Rouhani and Trump, even if the meeting didn’t provide solutions to some intractable questions in American-Iranian relations.

From an Iranian perspective, such a summit would be an occasion to postpone, even for a few months, American sanctions targeting Iran’s petroleum exports, that would take effect early November 2018.

Politically, the regime will see its domestic prestige enhanced without giving in, at least for the time being, to American demands detailed in the speech that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had given before the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC in May, two weeks after President Trump had announced the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, and the signing of a presidential memorandum to re-impose economic sanctions against Iran.

The sheer fact of the summit taking place in front of the world would grant the Iranian regime renewed international legitimacy that it needs in an attempt to rehabilitate its policies in the Middle East.

It goes without saying that the revolutionary diehards within the Iranian establishment will not endorse the idea of a summit with the American president, particularly after he decided to take the United States out of the nuclear deal of 2015, and its unwavering support for Israel.

For them, this is the American president who recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and actually moved the American Embassy in the Hebrew state to Jerusalem.

However, the final say would come from the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Given the dire economic and financial situation in Iran, it is highly doubtful that he would decline to take the lifeline offered by President Trump in proposing a summit meeting with President Rouhani.

If the Iranian side has everything to gain from accepting the American invitation, what is in it for the United States going into such a summit?

The US administration is on record, officially, with a list of demands that Iran should accept in order to be reintegrated — from an American strategic perspective — in the concert of nations, especially in the Middle East.

Does the US administration really think that Tehran would agree to all 12 demands spelled out by Secretary of State Pompeo? I have my doubts.

According to this list, Iran should give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a full account of the prior military dimensions of its nuclear programme. I think this is out of the question.

Secondly, Iran should stop enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing. The Iranians would be open, under certain conditions, to meet this demand.

Thirdly, provide the IAEA with unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country. Personally speaking, short of normalisation of relations with the United States, and in the absence of a new nuclear deal with Iran, it is out of the question that Tehran would accede to such a demand, and as long as a state of war exists between Iran and Israel.

Fourthly, to end ballistic missile proliferation is something that Iran would hardly accept as long as it feels threatened by future American or Israeli strikes. For the Iranians, their ballistic missiles work as a deterrent force.

The fifth demand relates to the situation in Yemen and to work for a peaceful settlement of the Yemeni crisis. I suppose the Iranians would be willing to pay this price against the withdrawal of American sanctions. Whether the United States would accept such a position remains to be seen.

The remainder of the demands are related to what the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have called the “malign role” of Iran in the Middle East.

And as a matter of fact, the 12th demand calls on Iran to “stop [its] threatening behaviour against its neighbours, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates”.

As an example, Iran is called upon to withdraw all its forces from the entirety of Syrian territory.

I believe, the United States would be opened to the idea that this matter could be left to the Russians to negotiate with both the Syrian and Iranian governments, and in due time, and not before the total withdrawal of Turkish forces from northern Syria.

In the meantime, the Omani government has been acting as an intermediary between the Americans and the Iranians of late, which is not unusual for Omani diplomacy since 1979, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and the severance of diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran after the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979.

If the American-Iranian summit would take place, the road would still prove long, with its many ups and downs, before we witness the acceptance of Iran as a status quo power in the Middle East.

For on its face value, the American proposal to convene such a summit runs against the so-called Middle East Strategic Alliance, that would reportedly include Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The avowed purpose of such a strategic alliance is to confront Iran.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A risky summit  

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