LONDON – President Trump is taking the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, but he expressed confidence that the Islamic Republic will, despite its protestations to the contrary, want to come back to the negotiating table.
“They are going to want to make a new and lasting deal,” Trump said. “One that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people. When they do, I am ready, willing and able.”
Not everyone is so sure. Sanam Vakil, an analyst at London’s Chatham House, said at a discussion about Iran this week such a coming together seems highly unlikely.
“It’s going to be very hard to convince [Iran Supreme leader] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to go back to the table when they perceive that the U.S. has yet again moved the goalposts and is not to be trusted,” he said.
But former Iranian diplomat Mehrdad Khonsari said Trump may pull off a “North Korea” with Iran. He may have a game plan for reeling the Islamic Republic in and cutting a deal. Vast untapped markets, not centrifuges, are at stake.
“Iran has over a trillion dollars-worth of projects that require external investment,” said Khonsari. “So it’s a huge market, and given an opportunity to participate in this, it would be difficult for someone like Trump to refuse.”
Khonsari did point out that the outreach to Iran at the very end of Trump’s otherwise punishing speech on Tuesday only served to alienate those Iranians who are dreaming of a regime change.
“President Trump made an overt gesture to the current leaders of Iran for them to come and make an offer to him to start negotiating a new deal,” he said. “So if you were hopeful that as a consequence of Trump’s actions you would be seeing the back of the regime, you were disappointed.”
Mahmood Sariolghalam, a professor at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University, took part in the Chatham House discussion as well.
“If we look at Iran from an economic perspective, Iran needs to cooperate with the rest of the world and to what degree the country will be prepared to reorient its foreign policy at the regional level so it can accommodate both the U.S. and Europe is an open question.”
He was referring to the U.S. and Europe’s complaints about Iran’s meddling in the Middle East – in Yemen, and in Syria. It’s one of the sticking points in relations that falls outside the framework of the nuclear deal.
Sariolghalam told Chatham House Trump’s decision was a breakthrough moment in U.S.-Iran relations, in terms of Iran being forced to at least reevaluate its position vs. the rest of the world. The Islamic Republic has long asserted that it does not need America or the rest of the world in order to thrive. But if its oil and gas imports are severely curtailed by renewed U.S. sanctions, it will be in a tough spot before a population that is expecting life to get better and more prosperous.
“Iran’s future will be shaped by how the country will resolve some of its soft issues—environment, education, its economy and the fact that there is a national problem with water resources,” he said. “In order to resolve these issues they need to coordinate with the rest of the world for technology transfer and capital investment, particularly in its oil and gas industry.”
There are estimates Iran would need $100 billion in foreign investment to get its oil exports back to the level they were in 2009.
Many agree that there is much more than uranium enrichment involved in the problem between United States and Iran. History is replete with examples of hostile acts and mistrust that each country often cites. But even at present there is powerful messaging and imagery that influence decision-making.
“One of the allegations made constantly against Iran, and in order to raise the hype against Iran, is this constant harping on the fact that Iran is the largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Khonsari told Fox News. “But the reality is the world is not concerned with the largest state sponsor of terrorism, because the biggest worry, the biggest menace in the area of terrorism comes not from states but non-state actors like ISIS and Al Qaeda.”
Sariolghalam believes Iran’s position on Israel lies at the heart of its conflict with the U.S.
“As long as Iran does not address this issue,” he said, “it will not be able to gain support within the U.S. for an improvement or change of perception within the U.S. towards Iran.”
Sariolghalam said while Iran’s attitude about Israel impeded rapprochement with the U.S., he did not suggest that would change anytime soon.
Anti-Israel, together with anti-American rhetoric, has been one of the pillars of Iranian foreign policy since the time of the Islamic Revolution. Whether or not anyone in Iran is ready for such a reassessment or reset remains the ultimate mystery for now.
More immediately, we are likely to get answers on how Iran’s economy responds to the effects of the end of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.