Brace yourself for the next few weeks of headlines asking variants of the question: “Can Donald Trump Strike a Deal with Iran?”
Here’s your short answer: No.
I could probably end this post here, but the renewed discussion of the possibility of U.S.-Iran negotiations provides an opportune moment to remind everyone of the actual intent of Trump’s Iran strategy, as well as offer a refresher on some of the past dynamics of U.S.-Iran negotiations.
Speculation about what negotiations between Trump and Iran could produce is nothing new. Ever since Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) back in May 2018, there has been a steady stream of articles, blog posts, and Tweets from the expert commentariat pontificating about the potential for a Trump Iran Deal.
Here’s Politico’s Nahal Toosi writing about how “Trump has been attempting to start negotiations with Iran for months,” noting his “letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an attempt to use Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an emissary to Tehran, and public comments expressing his desire to talk.”
Here’s Sina Toosi, a National Iranian American Council (NIAC) research associate, hinting at a Trump policy shift toward Iran opening up the possibility of negotiations.
Here’s Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment, recommending that Trump should “[keep] the door of diplomacy open.”
Here’s Zalmay Khalilzad, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, writing credulously about Trump’s alleged willingness to reenter into negotiations with Iran, even after he withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions.
Here’s Suzanne Maloney, Brookings’ Iran point person, declaring back in August 2018 that the “barrage of threats and appeals” Trump levels at Iran merely “betray his exasperation that Iranian leaders have yet to take him up on the offer [to negotiate].”
Here’s Sanam Vakil, a research fellow at Chatham House, who took the time to conduct a poll of 75 diplomats to assess their views on a hypothetical “Art of a New Iran Deal,” some of whom, shockingly, think it’s a realistic possibility.
The list goes on.
Don’t be fooled by recent reports that Trump is looking to open a backchannel for negotiations with Iranian officials. The actual goal of this administration’s Iran strategy has never been about achieving some kind of grand bargain or strategic endgame. It is and has been about one thing: capitulation.
It’s important to note that capitulation is not the same thing as regime change, nor is it regime collapse, though many in the administration would welcome either outcome. Instead, capitulation is better understood as a specific type of narrative development, the next plot point in a long-running story of conflict between the United States and Iran. Capitulation, in this context, represents a public admission of defeat, a concession of one’s weakness in the face of the opponent’s strength. Following capitulation, subsequent interactions between the two parties are no longer negotiations between equals, but rather the defeated supplicating to the victor.
This desire to achieve dominance over one’s opponent motivates nearly all of Trump’s actions toward Iran (perhaps toward everyone). From the punitive sanctions to the threats of military action, Trump’s goal is to get the Iranian regime to admit the reality of its situation and come crawling back to the negotiating table from a position of declared weakness. The collapse or destruction of the regime would be an acceptable byproduct of this process, but it’s not necessarily a requirement. Far more important in this administration’s eyes is the appearance that they have somehow “won” something from the Iranians and humbled them in the process.
Compare this mindset with the previous administration’s approach to Iran. A lot was made of the Obama administration’s attempts at narrative spin in 2013, which suggested that the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran in June of that year had created a diplomatic opening for talks. This allegedly helped convince Iran skeptics at home that diplomacy might achieve results.* But this narrative was also useful for the Iranians, who were able to portray their decision to pursue negotiations with the Americans as a positive result of Rouhani’s “charm offensive” instead of a desperate response to the building pressure of economic sanctions. Similarly, once knowledge of the talks became public, the personal relationship that developed between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif over multiple rounds of negotiations helped resolve differences through a dialogue of mutual respect and laid a foundation for future developments.
The Trump administration, by contrast, has no interest in developing a sense of goodwill or mutual respect, nor do any of its officials — many of whom are still eager for war — have the personality or temperament to build rapport with their Iranian counterparts. (This is probably the reason they’ve outsourced this task to Rand Paul, which shows just how unserious an effort this is.) In the unlikely event that any talks do take place between the Trump administration and Iran, they will almost certainly fail. Iran has stuck to its position that the United States must first drop sanctions and return to the JCPOA as a precondition for resuming negotiations. They have been similarly steadfast in their rejections of the possibility of a more comprehensive deal that includes limitations on its strategic interests, including its ballistic missile program. Any suggestions to the contrary have been met with forceful rebukes from Iranian officials.
Trump is likely hoping that the pain of sanctions along with the constant threat of war might force Iran to concede, but Iran’s history of resilience in the face of international pressure suggests this may be in vain. In its relatively short history, the Islamic Republic has already endured a brutal eight-year war with Iraq, as well as multiple rounds of punishing economic sanctions without acknowledging defeat. It seems unlikely that they’ll suddenly do so in the face of Trump’s bullying. As long as Trump needs to win and Iran refuses to lose, the prospect of substantive negotiations between Washington and Tehran will remain purely hypothetical fodder the expert and pundit cohort.
The only scenario in which I could see this dynamic shifting would be if war were to break out, in which case all bets are off. Given some of the people in this administration, this isn’t out of the realm of possibility. It’s terrifying to think that the only thing holding Trump back at the moment might be Tucker Carlson.
For now, at least, this story is at an impasse.
*In truth, Obama’s efforts to open negotiations with the Iranians began months earlier while the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still in office. A small “crisis” resulted from the disclosure of this fact. Many members of the DC foreign policy establishment, which Obama and his advisors dismissively referred to as “the blob,” interpreted the administration’s portrayal of events as duplicitous. In hindsight, however, there may have been more truth to this argument than contemporaneous media accounts suggested. I went to a talk in DC a few weeks back featuring an Obama administration official who had participated in both the Ahmadinejad and Rouhani-era talks. I asked him about his experience with the Ahmadinejad officials versus the Rouhani contingent, and whether he believed that they could have successfully negotiated the same deal with the former group. He said that he did not think that the discussions with the Ahmadinejad group would have progressed much beyond the initial phases, and noted that there was a significant difference in tone between the two groups. I suspect many of the accusations that Obama officials had been “misleading” in their portrayal of the narrative was a result of the antipathy many in the DC foreign policy establishment held for the administration.