Uh oh, Macron’s at it again

I thought we were done with this nonsense.

At the conclusion of the G7 conference on Monday in Biarritz, France, French President Emmanuel Macron held a joint press conference with best bro U.S. President Donald Trump. In his prepared remarks, the French president hinted at a possible meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sometime in the coming weeks. This announcement came after a whirlwind of a week in which Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made a surprise appearance on the sidelines of the conference at Macron’s invitation.

Despite the drama surrounding the question of whether or not Trump knew about Macron’s invitation ahead of time (Trump claims he did, but I’m team skeptical) nothing substantive came as a result of Zarif’s brief appearance in Biarritz. He did not meet with any American officials, nor did he stick around long enough to do more than shake a few hands and take a few pictures before jetting off to China.

That didn’t stop Macron from hyping the possibility that his diplomatic maneuvering signified the first step on a path toward direct talks between the Trump administration and Iran. Macron, apparently after a prior conversation with Rouhani, said he believed that if Rouhani and Trump were to meet, “my conviction was that an agreement can be met.” Trump quickly latched on to the French President’s optimism. “If the circumstances were correct or right, I would certainly agree to that,” Trump responded. (Trump followed up that line by threatening Iran with “really violent force,” but for the sake of argument, let’s not dwell on that detail.)

If this Macron-Trump Iran discussion feels vaguely familiar, it should. We’ve done this dance before. Back in April 2018, Macron used a state visit to the United States to try to persuade Trump not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). During that visit, Macron tried to sell Trump on a vision of an enhanced agreement that would address some of what Trump had identified as the original deal’s “weaknesses” (these weren’t really weaknesses as much as they were items that went beyond the scope of the original framework, but that’s another discussion). It appeared as if Macron thought that if he could convince Trump to take ownership of the deal by allowing him to tack his name onto more robust enforcement mechanisms and a broader scope, this might be sufficient to maintain American participation and save the deal. Of course, that didn’t happen. Less than two weeks later, Trump torpedoed the whole thing when he formally announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the deal after all.

We watched a similar sequence of events play out again this week with the same predictable result. As before, Trump’s spur-of-the-moment statement sent the media into a frenzy. Headlines and push notifications gushed about a possible Truhani Summit. Reporters cited a semi-cryptic speech delivered by Rouhani the same day as firm evidence of his openness to talks. Here’s how the Washington Post framed his comments in an article entitled “Trump and Rouhani say they are willing to meet“:

Rouhani, in a televised speech in Iran, said he was open to talks. “If I knew that going to a meeting and visiting a person would help my country’s development and resolve the problems of the people, I would not miss it,” he said, in an apparent reference to Trump.

“We have to negotiate, we have to find a solution, and we have to solve the problem,” Rouhani said.

A day later, Rouhani issued a more definitive statement on potential U.S.-Iran negotiations, reiterating for what seems like the hundredth time Tehran’s stated position that no talks can take place until the United States lifts the economic sanctions it reimposed on Iran after Trump withdrew from the deal.

Naturally, the media flooded the zone with the latest update, with many of them framing the story as Rouhani backtracking from his initial commitment. NPR headlined their article “Rouhani Backs Off Meeting With Trump, Saying U.S. Must First Left Sanctions.” While it’s possible that Rouhani, facing blowback from hardliners and conservatives in Iran, had second thoughts, I think it’s more likely that Rouhani never intended to meet with Trump in the first place.

I’m speculating a bit here, but I don’t think that anyone at the Post, NPR, or any other major outlet that took the Macron-Trump press conference at face value bothered to check the Iranian President’s website for a more detailed report of what Rouhani said on Monday. The broader context of Rouhani’s speech reveals that he was talking more generically about the value of negotiations in the past tense, seemingly in an attempt to defend his decision to engage diplomatically with the P5+1 ahead of the original JCPOA: 

Power and diplomacy must work together; none can achieve results,” he added, saying, “After negotiations with the 5+1, we pushed 30-year resolutions aside, an immense amount of assets was unfrozen and oil exports returned to its previous state”.

“Some keep asking that what was the result of negotiation with major powers? After the negotiations, we were exporting over 2.8 million barrels of oil, and billions of dollars of our assets came back toe [sic] the country,” said Rouhani.

The fundamental flaw of Macron’s stunted attempts at Iran-U.S. diplomacy, besides the fact that they rely primarily on bravado rather than mutual understanding, is that he effectively ignores any considerations of Iranian interests when floating his plans publicly. In 2018, this meant offering the Trump a vision of an expanded nuclear deal that included issues such as Iran’s missile development program, which Iranian officials have repeatedly declared off-limits for negotiations. In 2019, it means heavy-handedly suggesting that he’s obtained Rouhani’s commitment to effectively break with a consistently stated Iranian bargaining position, then turning around and offering it up to Trump as an easy diplomatic win.

We don’t have any way of knowing what Macron actually said to Rouhani, nor is it possible to see inside Macron’s thought process. What we do know is that in both of his efforts to jumpstart Iran-U.S. diplomacy, the French President’s plan was dead on arrival. Until Macron can prove he fully comprehends the Iranian position, I suggest everyone — and most especially the international media — should disregard his half-baked gambits.

This Doesn’t Help

INSTEX was already dead in the water, but this week it took another blow when the German ambassador tapped to oversee its implementation suddenly resigned. INSTEX, which stands for Instrument Supporting Trade Exchanges, is the financial special purpose vehicle the European Union set up to help facilitate trade with Iran outside the scope of U.S. sanctions.

Bernd Erbel, Germany’s former ambassador to Iran, resigned from his position following the publication of an explosive report from the German tabloid Bild. The article quoted past statements Erbel made about Iran while appearing on an internet radio show hosted by a Holocaust denier.

Erbel’s statements consisted mostly of boilerplate leftist critiques of Israel’s origins. For example, Erbel observed that the Jewish State was founded “at the expense of another people,” i.e., the Palestinians, and that those people lost their homes as a result of Israel’s creation. He went on to say that the Palestinians “are the victims of our [Germany’s] victims.”

Erbel dipped into slightly more troubled waters with other statements, including one in which he called Israel a “foreign body” in the Middle East. He also made several comments about Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, observing that Hezbollah’s ability to resist the Israeli invasion was an important psychological development for the region because it demonstrated that there are forces capable of opposing Israel militarily. Hezbollah is not considered a terrorist organization in Germany, and its political wing operates openly there.

It’s likely that most of the outrage surrounding Erbel’s interview stems from the show’s host, Ken Jebsen. Bild describes Jebsen as an anti-Semite and conspiracy theorist, which, judging by some of his past comments, is a fair characterization. In 2011, the Jerusalem Post reported on a long, rambling email authored by Jebsen in which he questioned the veracity of the Holocaust, writing, “I know who invented the Holocaust as PR.” He also made comments alluding to a conspiracy theory that posits the September 11, 2001 attack was an inside job, calling the destruction of the Twin Towers a “warm demolition.” Jebsen was fired from his position in public broadcasting shortly after these comments came to light.

The purpose of this post is not to debate whether or not Erbel deserved to lose his job. Both his words and his choices indicate at the very least a strong anti-Israel bias. He’s clearly anti-Zionist, although whether or not he has crossed the line into anti-Semitism would likely depend on one’s interpretations of the term. We’ll never know whether his views would have affected his ability to run INSTEX, but this is a question that ultimately doesn’t require an answer. Erbel is out, and he won’t be coming back.

More interesting than the scandal itself is how certain factions in Israel and Iran have reacted to it, or, more accurately in this case, how they haven’t.

On the surface, the details of this story seem to fit neatly within the paranoid molds of the Israeli right-wing and Iranian hardliner worldviews. Despite their opposing views on virtually every subject, there are two things on which these groups can agree: First, they both despise the Iran Deal. And second, there is always some sort of international conspiracy or cabal working clandestinely to undermine their agenda.

I’ll come back to the first point in a minute, but first, let’s consider how hypothetically each could have exploited the Erbel resignation to score a few cheap political points.

On the Israeli side, right-wing politicians and Iran hawks could have portrayed Erbel-Gate as yet another example of a European politician harboring virulently anti-Israel views. On the Iranian side, hardliners might have interpreted Erbel’s dismissal as a validation of their long-held belief that Israel secretly controls Western Iran policy.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, this is not what happened. This story hasn’t made much of an impact in either Iranian or Israeli media. Other than a few smaller matter-of-fact news items (several different outlets published the same short dispatch in the Persian papers), there hasn’t been much discussion or debate about the incident. It has not produced the levels of scandalous outrage and hysteria-inducing headlines that one might have expected, and prominent politicians have mostly been silent on the matter.

Which brings us back to the Iran Deal. One way to interpret the relative quiet is that both the Israeli right and the Iranian hardliners no longer feel politically threatened by INSTEX as a mechanism for producing the types of economic benefits promised to Iran under the JCPOA. If they did, there would likely be have been a much more vociferous outcry in response to last week’s events. Instead, Europe’s continuous failure to live up to its lofty promises to neutralize American sanctions and provide meaningful sanctions relief has gone on for so long now that the Iranian and Israeli factions that oppose the deal no longer see the value in continuing to highlight its setbacks.

INSTEX will surely receive a new figurehead in the coming weeks who will take up the banner of its implementation. This micro-scandal probably won’t even register as a footnote when the final history of the JCPOA gets written, but it’s precisely this apathy, rather than anger, that signals the JCPOA’s demise may be near.

Sanctions Incoherence

The Trump Administration continued its sanctions campaign against senior Iranian officials last week. This time, the target was Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Personally sanctioning the chief diplomat of a foreign country might seem like a drastic and shocking step, but this wasn’t a surprise. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin signaled the administration’s intent to sanction Zarif before the Foreign Minister’s highly-restricted trip to New York for UN meetings in mid-July. Even as the administration was making overtures to the Foreign Minister to visit the White House for what everyone, including Zarif, understood would be a cheap photo-op, the decision to levy sanctions against him had already been made.

It’s worth noting at the outset that individualized sanctions against another nation’s Foreign Minister are entirely pointless from a technical standpoint. It’s unclear whether or not the administration understands this. Virtually no serious Iran or sanctions expert thinks that these measures will have any meaningful impact on Zarif’s finances or behavior. The same was true when the administration placed sanctions on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Given that, we can skip the part of the discussion where we discuss the financial impact of these sanctions and instead focus on the symbolism.

From the administration’s point of view, these sanctions are primarily about humiliation. By directly and publicly insulting Iran’s top diplomat, the administration is broadcasting its uninterest in any kind of negotiations process with Iran’s diplomatic corps. This isn’t a guess. As an unnamed official told journalists in a background call in the wake of the sanctions announcement last week, “If we do have an official contact with Iran, we would want to have contact with somebody who is a significant decision-maker.”

This idea that the foreign minister doesn’t play a meaningful role in Iranian decision making has a long history in U.S.-Iran diplomacy (or lack thereof). Opponents of engagement with Iran often make vague references to power distribution within the Islamic Republic as the reason negotiations with its officials — and particularly those serving within the elected branch of government — can’t be trusted. These critics point to the Supreme Leader’s ultimate authority as justification for doubting any Iranian commitments that do not come directly from him.

To some extent, this is a valid concern, but it’s also a gross oversimplification of a complex and multifaceted Iranian political structure. This isn’t the time or place for an Iranian civics lesson, but dismissing an entire faction of the Iranian government because it doesn’t fit some preconceived notion of Iranian authority is willfully ignorant at best, and deliberately so at worst. And herein lies the pure incoherence of the Trump approach to Iran: If the reason for sanctioning the Foreign Minister stems from his lack of real authority on any matters of value, then why did the administration also sanction Ayatollah Khamenei back June?

An exasperated Zarif pointed out the absurdity of the American position in a speech earlier this week. “America cannot claim it wants to negotiate [with Iran],” Zarif said. “It is America who has left the negotiation table. It is America who has sanctioned the foreign minister of the country it wants to negotiate with. It is America who has sanctioned the highest figure in the Islamic Republic, meaning the Supreme Leader. Who does it want to negotiate with?”

Whatever the justification, the result is the same. The United States has, by now, systematically eliminated all potential Iranian negotiating partners. In the process, they’ve also eradicated any remaining hope of rebuilding trust or goodwill. Of course, that has not stopped administration officials, as well as the President himself, from continuing to profess a commitment to the diplomatic process. But if they think they’re deceiving anyone as to their real intentions, they’re only fooling themselves.

These contradictions reside comfortably in the administration psyche, but that’s only because the consequences of cognitive dissonance are relatively benign. Meanwhile, the effects of the actual U.S. sanctions — the ones targeting the economy — are wreaking havoc on the lives of everyday Iranians.

The only way any of this makes sense is if you accept the fact that the Trump administration’s strategy — to the extent there is one — was never to engage in good faith. It’s better to think of it as a hodgepodge of conflicting actions and demands, all vaguely based around the abstract ideas of pain and humiliation until they finally bend the knee.

Capitulation remains the point.