Trump’s offer to speak to Iran isn’t a grand gesture. Here’s why.

Meeting with Iran on his own terms would be a PR victory for President Trump.

A man takes a glance at a newspaper with a picture of US president Donald Trump on the front page, in the capital Tehran on July 31, 2018. CREDIT: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images.
A man takes a glance at a newspaper with a picture of US president Donald Trump on the front page, in the capital Tehran on July 31, 2018. CREDIT: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images.

Reporters clamoring to be chosen to ask President Donald Trump and Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte the allotted four questions that were allowed during Monday’s news conference had some tough choices to make: Should they ask about immigration? The president’s trade war with Europe? The FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections? Or, perhaps, the Iran nuclear deal?

A Reuters reporter went for the Iran option, and Trump replied that he would speak to Iran “without any preconditions” — a phrase that filled the top line of news stories everywhere.

Indeed, this might have seemed like a generous grand gesture given how heated things got around 10 days ago, when a trifecta of two speeches and a Tweet set tongues wagging from Washington to Tehran on the potential for war against Iran.

To recap: On July 22, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in speaking to Iranian diplomats, warned the United States against antagonizing Iran and threatening its national security.


He delivered this speech shortly before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave his own speech in California, in which he essentially called for regime change in Iran. Around that same time, President Trump took to Twitter in an all-caps missive, warning that Iran should not threaten the United States or else it “WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

Iran, though, sees the Trump administration as the aggressor, having pulled the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) it had signed with Iran, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and Germany (the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, also knowns as the P5+1) in 2015.

In doing so, President Trump violated the multilateral agreement that gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for placing strict controls on its nuclear program (which is an energy program), repeatedly and regularly verified by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.

But back to President Trump’s offer of engagement — here’s his full answer:

Although he veered into other topics for a few seconds (though, surprisingly, there was no reference to a witch hunt), he essentially said he was willing to speak with Iran.


“I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet. I don’t know that they are ready yet. They are having a hard time right now … I believe they will wind up wanting to meet. I’m ready to meet any time they want. I don’t do that from strength or from weakness … No preconditions,” he said.

Let’s take a close look at what the president actually means.

“I don’t know that they are ready yet”: He should know, given that Iran has said that it would not renegotiate the terms of a deal it has already signed and with which it has fully complied.

Furthermore, the sanctions he’s reimposing, most notably, the oil ones, will certainly start hurting Iran’s already ailing economy by November 4 — two days ahead of the U.S. congressional midterm elections (all but confirming that much of this is intended to rile up his voter base — which support the president’s mission of undoing his predecessor’s policies).

“They are having a hard time right now”: Well, yes. By leaving the JCPOA and threatening the remaining partners in the agreement with sanctions should they deal with Iran, Trump has essentially pushed Iran’s already fragile economy into a tailspin, with the currency in freefall and inflation rates running rampant

I believe they will wind up wanting to meet”: Essentially, Trump is taking a page out of the previous administration’s handbook, when the crippling banking sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table. Only, back then, the United States worked in concert with the P4+1 countries. This time around, not so much. Which brings us to…


“I’m ready to meet any time they want”: President Trump does not like multilateral deals. The European partners already came with the “fixes” Trump had requested for the deal, but the president walked away anyway, because what he wants is a bilateral deal between Iran and the United States. You’ll notice there is no “we” or “us” in his language. Just “I.”

I don’t do that from strength or from weakness”: “Weak,” “Strong,” and “Strength” are words that the president has used hundreds of times in his tweets in expressing opinions on just about everything, so it’s hard to believe that he’s not trying to project strength in strong-arming Iran back to negotiating another nuclear deal. Also, the embattled Iranian president is unlikely to agree to meet with Trump, as it would certainly signify weakness at this time.  

And finally…

“No preconditions”Trump’s own Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, immediately placed conditions on any future meeting, telling CNBC:

“If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have the conversation with them.”

In other words, Iran would have to go through regime change and renegotiate the nuclear deal so that it encompasses a whole range of entirely non-nuclear related activities (as dictated by the U.S.) in order to get this meeting.

Bahram Ghasemi, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry picked up on the disconnect between Trump and Pompeo, telling reporters that while it remains to be seen whether President Trump has actually decided to stop using threatening language toward Iranian people, Pompeo’s immediate response to the president’s statements “indicate a bewilderment and confusion in U.S. foreign policy.”

Pompeo laid out the 12 conditions Iran is to accept in May, when Trump pulled out of the JCPOA. The conditions included everything from Iran’s ballistic missile program to its involvement in virtually any country in the region, while placing no limits on U.S. presence there.

Iran, for its part, has indicated that it would meet with Trump, but it has a few of its own preconditions, per tweets from President Rouhani’s adivsor, Hamid Aboutalebi. Here are the top three conditions (roughly translated): Respect for the great nation of Iran, the lessening of hostilities, and America’s return to the JCPOA.

From there, Aboutalebi wrote, the two nations could work on building trust and moving forward.