Iran talks unlikely despite window of opportunity

Iran talks unlikely despite window of opportunity
© Getty Images

Both supporters and opponents of increased diplomacy with Iran say talks are unlikely at the moment despite a window of opportunity appearing to open this past week.

Iran hawks argue it’s too early for a sit-down, warning President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment MORE that engagement could take some weight off Tehran just when the “maximum pressure” campaign is starting to hurt.

Trump has proved unpredictable regarding which foreign leaders he is willing to meet with, and he often seeks to advance relations where he feels previous administrations have failed, both evidenced by his turnaround toward North Korea’s Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnSouth Korea: US pursuing nuclear talks with North Korea 'very actively' North Korea blasts Japanese prime minister as an "idiot and villain" over weapons test criticism The US must support the Chinese people against the Chinese communists MORE after originally being openly hostile. But with administration officials including Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Cheney calls for Turkish leader's bodyguards to be banned from re-entering US Pompeo: Trump to discuss political solution for Syria in meeting with Erdoğan MORE and national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonTop diplomat said request for specific probes in Ukraine was 'contrary' to US policy White House struggles to get in sync on impeachment House Democrats, ex-Bolton aide ask judge to block Mulvaney from joining lawsuit MORE among the Iran hawks, hopes for a breakthrough are dim.


“I just find it very hard to believe that talks are going to take place, especially with Bolton and Pompeo in the positions that they’re in,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative. “It’s really important that anything that can be done to de-escalate tensions be done to de-escalate tensions. Remember that over the summer, we almost went to war with the Iranians. ... So if this is about just sort of cooling things down, that’s fine with me. I just don’t think it’s going to lead to the new deal, a better deal that Trump pretends he’s in search of.”

Tensions with Iran have been high since Trump withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear deal in 2018, but they spiked even more over the last few months after he tightened sanctions, oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf region in incidents he has blamed on Iran and Iran breached two key limits of the nuclear deal for the first time.

In June, Trump nearly launched a military strike on Iran after it downed a U.S. drone but called off the strike at the last minute.

After months on edge, a risky gambit by French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronTrump, NATO chief to meet at White House Macron: NATO experiencing 'brain death' Man arrested in France mosque attack MORE last weekend appeared to yield some dividends in lowering the heat.

Macron invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the Group of Seven (G-7) summit in France. Zarif did not meet with Trump, but on Monday, both Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed a willingness to talk.

Trump said he would meet with Rouhani under the “right” circumstances and raised the possibility of giving Iran a line of credit to cope with sanctions. Rouhani, meanwhile, said he was open to a meeting with any world leader if that meeting advanced Iranian interests.

A day later, Rouhani appeared to backtrack, saying he would meet with Trump only after sanctions are lifted.

On Friday, Trump appeared to taunt Iran over a failed satellite launch, denying U.S. involvement in the rocket exploding on the launchpad and wishing Iran an apparently sarcastic “good luck” in determining the cause.

The New York Times reported Thursday, however, that Iranian leaders, increasingly concerned Trump will win reelection, which could mean six more years of punishing sanctions, are shifting their thinking toward meeting with him. The Iranian strategy now is both to express a willingness to meet under certain circumstances and to dial up military tensions to strength their hand in negotiations, according to the Times.


Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Pentagon says Syrian oil revenue going to Kurdish forces | GOP chair accuses Dems of using Space Force as leverage in wall fight | Dems drop plans to seek Bolton testimony Pentagon: Revenue from Syria oil fields going to Kurdish-led forces The Hill's Morning Report - Dems poised to air alleged Trump abuses on TV MORE said this past week that while he’s not “ready to call the crisis over yet,” it’s “so far so good.”

“We are not seeking conflict with Iran. We want to engage with them diplomatically,” Esper told reporters. “The president once again said that he's more than willing to meet with Iran's leaders to resolve this diplomatically. ... And we hope that the parties, that the Iranians would agree to meet and talk and help us resolve these issues.”

After the G-7, Macron expressed hope a meeting would happen “in the next few weeks.”

He was mostly likely referring to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September, experts said.

It’s not unprecedented for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy to happen on the sidelines of the UNGA, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Former President Obama and Rouhani spoke on the phone on the sidelines of the meeting in 2013, and former President Clinton tried to meet then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at the 2000 meeting before Khatami pulled out at the last minute.

But Taleblu said it would be a “mistake” to hold a summit at this “early juncture.”

“High-level summit diplomacy for its own sake is definitely a bad idea, and it plays into Iran’s strategy of incentivizing premature diplomacy, and that diplomacy only rewards Iran for coming to the table as opposed to rewarding Iran for a genuine change in behavior,” he said. “And if the administration does that, again, it would be replicating the same exact mistake of the previous administration.”

Despite Trump’s penchant for summitry, Taleblu takes solace in Trump not meeting with Zarif in France and the administration’s announcements this week on sanctions against Hezbollah and Iranian military technology networks.

Taleblu put the chances of a General Assembly sidelines meeting at 10 to 20 percent but added that “we will have to look to UNGA to see what the American delegation does there.”

Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaOvernight Health Care: CDC links vitamin E oil to vaping illnesses | White House calls Pelosi drug price plan 'unworkable' | Dem offers bill for state-based 'Medicare for All' Justice Democrats official denies that progressives struggle with electability Progressive House Democrat unveils bill to allow state-based 'Medicare for All' MORE (D-Calif.), who authored an amendment to the annual defense policy bill to block Trump from taking military action against Iran, said he doesn’t anticipate new talks happening without the administration taking the lead.

“I am hopeful for a diplomatic solution, but what we’re missing is American leadership,” Khanna said Thursday. “We had Macron basically try to assume the position of the leader of the free world, and France has no ability to do that. ... Even though he invited the Iranian foreign minister, there’s nothing that can be done in my view until the American president, until our administration engages.”

In the meantime, Khanna is continuing to push for his amendment to make it into the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), despite opposition from Senate Republicans.

“I’m very confident that will be part of the final agreement,” he said, citing conversations with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerIlhan Omar blasts Pete King as an 'Islamophobe' after he announces retirement: 'Good riddance' Top Senate Dem: Officials timed immigration policy around 2020 election Senate fight derails bipartisan drug pricing bills MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithJudd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem 'Marketplace of ideas' turns 100 — it's not what it used to be Overnight Defense: Pentagon says Syrian oil revenue going to Kurdish forces | GOP chair accuses Dems of using Space Force as leverage in wall fight | Dems drop plans to seek Bolton testimony MORE (D-Wash.). “I’ve spoken to Sen. Schumer a couple times, and he’s optimistic, and I take great confidence in that. ... I’m confident that it will be a priority for Sen. Schumer, and I’m confident it’s a very high priority for Adam Smith and for Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.]. And they’re going to need the buy-in of our leadership to move the NDAA forward, so that’s why I’m very, very optimistic it will be in there.”