Trump's charm offensive!
US policy is putting significant pressure on the Iranian economy as it braces for August 7 when the first lot of economic sanctions will be imposed afresh.
President Donald Trump seems to be on a charm offensive with countries the US has found difficult to deal with over the years. In less than two months he has met North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un in Singapore and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland. Now he has surprised the world by announcing that he is willing to meet Iranian leadership without "preconditions."
Trump's declaration last Monday at a press conference at White House came just as the US prepared to impose new sanctions on Iran this week, next month and three months, after the US pulled out of the landmark nuclear deal it had signed in 2015 with Iran along with other world powers.
Iran has reacted sceptically to the announcement with Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi saying that the US President's offer contradicts his actions, pointing to the American move to impose sanctions on Iran and put pressure on other countries not to conduct business with it.
"Sanctions and pressures are the exact opposite of dialogue," Qasemi was quoted as saying by Fars news agency. "How can Trump prove to the Iranian nation that his comments reflect a true intention for negotiation and not been expressed for populist gains.
Deputy speaker of Iran's Parliament, Ali Motahari, said negotiations would be a "humiliation" after the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. "If Trump had not withdrawn from the nuclear deal and not imposed (new) sanctions on Iran, there would not be a problem with negotiations with America," he told Iran's official news agency IRNA.
However, a senior cleric and member of the influential Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri does not seem to be averse to Trump's suggestion. "It should be discussed in the Supreme National Security Council," said Nouri, who is also a former aide of the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"We should not reject negotiations from the outset and dismiss him (Trump). We have to be considerate and not get agitated," he said. Iran's hesitation seems to be justified, as hours later Trump's announcement the White House appeared to walk back from his softening gesture.
This is evident from the comments of a National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis who said "if the Iranian regime changes its behaviour in the ways we've identified, the US is prepared to take actions to end sanctions, re-establish full diplomatic and commercial relations, permit Iran to have advanced technology and support the reintegration of the Iranian economy into the international economic system."
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo put out a list of demands that virtually included everything from Iran's ballistic missile programme to its involvement in the war in Yemen as requirements for Iran to become a "normal country".
"If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behaviour, can agree that it's worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the President has said he's prepared to sit down and have the conversation with them," Pompeo told in an interview to CNBC.
Trump's policy is already putting significant pressure on the Iranian economy as it braces for August 7, when the US is due to re-impose the first lot of economic sanctions, following Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal. This includes re-imposing sanctions on Iran's purchases of US dollar as well as its trade in gold and precious metals. Iran's currency plummeted to a new low, dropping past 120,000 riyals to the dollar last week.
Another round of sanctions basically covering commerce, including oil purchases, goes into effect on November 4. The US administration is also pushing for a new security and political alliance with six Gulf Arab states plus Egypt and Jordan, all Sunni Muslim allies, to counter Shi'ite Iran's expanding influence. Such an alliance is being called the "Arab NATO."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has suggested that Iran could cause major disruptions in the Gulf region by attempting to block key shipping lanes, saying "Iran has never sought tensions in the region and does not want there to be any problem for the world's waterways, but it will never let go of its rights to export oil."
Iran believes that the US is acting in bad faith by withdrawing from the nuclear deal and is also seeking to promote unrest in the country by pushing toughing measures against it. The US posture has reunited Iranian hardliners who opposed the nuclear deal.
Rouhani has urged other countries involved in the deal to forge ahead with their commitment of trying to salvage the pact.
"Today we are at a very critical point in history regarding the deal, and Europe's transparent measures to compensate for the United States' unlawful withdrawal from it are very important for the Iranian nation," he is reported to have said after talks with the new British Ambassador Rob Macaire last week.
Six countries—China, France, Russia, Germany, the UK, and the US – and the European Union agreed to lift UN sanctions imposed on Iran, giving it greater access to the global economy. In return, Iran agreed to take steps to curb its ability to make a nuclear bomb. Iran's enrichment capacity, enrichment level, and stockpile were also limited for specific periods. The deal was brokered by the former US President, Barak Obama.
Trump pulled out of the deal saying it did not cover Iran's ballistic missile programme and its alleged involvement in the Middle East conflicts. European signatories to the deal have been searching for ways to salvage it without much success so far.
The tougher US posture against Iran has raised apprehension that Washington is seeking to unseat the rulers by fuelling unrest in the country whose economy is already in a shamble, observers say, adding that such a move would only embolden the hardliners in the country.
With different statements coming out from Washington, it is very difficult for Iranians to believe if Trump was genuine about his offer of talks with Teheran. As it is, the US President has little to show from his meetings with the North Korean and Russian leaders. Observers say that an Iran summit, if at all it takes place, might not be different.
(The author is a former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)