Iran talks unlikely despite window of opportunity

Iran talks unlikely despite window of opportunity
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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 TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 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 UnLike his predecessors, Biden faces a formidable task with North Korea North Korea displays ballistic missiles at parade Pelosi's risky blunder: Talking about Trump and nuclear war MORE after originally being openly hostile. But with administration officials including Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoWhite House installs new leadership at federally-funded international broadcasters US carrier group enters South China Sea amid tensions between China, Taiwan Biden can hold China accountable for human rights abuses by divesting now MORE and national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonPence, other GOP officials expected to skip Trump send-off NSA places former GOP political operative in top lawyer position after Pentagon chief's reported order After insurrection: The national security implications 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 MacronBiden talks NATO, climate change in first presidential call with France's Macron Kerry promises Europeans Biden will seek to make up time on climate action The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' 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 EsperTrump administration official Norquist sworn in as acting Pentagon chief Watch Out: Progressives are eyeing the last slice of the budget Biden needs to fill the leadership gaps on Day One 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) KhannaHouse Democrats introduce measures to oppose Trump's bomb sale to Saudis House impeaches Trump for second time — with some GOP support Stacey Abrams gets kudos for work in Georgia runoff election 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 SchumerChuck SchumerCapitol insurrection fallout: A PATRIOT Act 2.0? Schumer calls for DOJ watchdog to probe alleged Trump effort to oust acting AG Student loan forgiveness would be windfall for dentists, doctors and lawyers MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Top Senate Democrat backs waiver for Biden Pentagon nominee 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.”