A Trump, Rouhani meeting in the works? - analysis

Both Trump and Rouhani said the idea is feasible in the same day - an unprecedented sign of diplomatic potential.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Only in the era of Donald Trump could a meeting be in the works between the US president and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani while at the same time both sides are massively escalating their rhetoric and military actions, and the US is increasing its maximum economic pressure campaign.
Is this for real?
The answer is maybe.
It certainly is not out of nowhere.
First, both Trump and Rouhani said the idea is feasible on the same day - an unprecedented sign of diplomatic potential.
Second, during the 32 months of his presidency, Trump has alternately threatened to bomb Iran into the Stone Age and proposed bilateral talks.
Until now, Iran has rejected out of hand Trump’s repeated offers of talks.
It has demanded an end to all US sanctions before it will discuss the nuclear standoff and has refused any change to the 2015 nuclear deal.
This was a nonstarter for the US.
While Trump has floated the idea of a summit, Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, has said there would be no sanctions removal without Iran fulfilling a 12-point plan that would essentially mean Iran quickly transforming itself into a peaceful, Western democracy, or at least regime change.
Since most of the 12 points on Pompeo’s list are non-starters, why the sudden optimism?
The key seems to be a new formula suggested by France in which neither side completely changes its position, but both sides give a bit.
Iran has essentially said it would enter talks if the US permitted a seven-fold increase of its oil exports from a current gutter-low of 100,000 barrels a day.
The Islamic republic has also said that it would expect that number to further rise to 1,500,000 barrels per day during the process.
Prior to the US maximum pressure campaign, Tehran was exporting around 2,000,000 barrels per day. Until the US ended its waivers to eight key Iran-trade partners in May, it was still exporting around 1,000,000 barrels per day.
This means that the US could probably get Iran to its 700,000 barrels goal merely by restoring the waivers temporarily, and without having to remove the primary sanctions.
The US could also do this for a set temporary period to give talks a chance while keeping the issue over Iran if the talks were to fail.
In return, Tehran has said it would likely return to compliance with the nuclear deal.
While Iran’s violations of the 2015 deal which started in recent months have been limited, with no progress, it was expected to escalate its violations in about two weeks.
If Tehran escalated its violations, Trump would have to consider using military force to stop the Islamic republic’s potential breakout to an atomic bomb. But Trump has shown a lack of enthusiasm for using force.
So there might be a formula for starting talks. And since Trump is happy to conduct leader summits even before he has a deal - see North Korea - he and Rouhani may meet.
But that is likely as far as it will go before November 2020.
Although this might be the opening to a comprehensive deal to avoid further escalation which both sides have sought to avoid, Iran has not shown any signs of changing its basic behavior or nuclear positions in a way that the US under Trump would accept.
Iran even went out of the way to say that even if there are talks, it would still not make any concessions regarding its ballistic missile program.
All of this means that this is probably Iran’s back-up program.
In case Trump wins reelection, it could have a diplomatic process moving forward which might get it some relief.
If Trump were to be reelected, Iran might make even bigger concessions. But if he is not reelected, then it can hold off on a deal until it sees what a new US president might offer.
Israel will be watching like a hawk over developments and pushing for only a deal that addresses all of its concerns.