What does Trump-Rouhani meeting mean for Israel? - analysis

What are the chances that the two will meet, and what could a possible meeting mean for Israel?

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)
WASHINGTON – Two years ago in New York, US President Donald Trump threatened during his speech at the UN General Assembly to “totally destroy North Korea,” and that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
Eight months later, on June 12, 2018, Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un stunned the world when they first met one-on-one to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Since that meeting, the two have developed warm personal relations despite fundamental disagreements on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Could Trump apply the same approach to Iran?
In three weeks, the United Nations will open its 74th General Assembly in New York. Last year Trump gave a hawkish speech and slammed the Islamic Republic of Iran, mentioning the country 14 times in his speech.
“We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues,” he said. “And we ask all nations to support Iran’s people as they struggle to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny.”
Is there a chance that a year later the same event would bring the leaders of the two countries together? Trump said earlier this week during the G7 summit that he would be open for a meeting with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani.
“The sanctions are absolutely hurting them horribly,” Trump told reporters in Biarritz. “I don’t want to see that. But we can’t let them have a nuclear weapon. So I think there is a really good chance we would meet.”
The moving power behind this surprising move is French President Emanuel Macron, who is trying to save the 2015 nuclear deal from falling apart. Since the announcement, the Iranians sent conflicting messages. The immediate reaction of President Rouhani was positive, followed by a couple of declarations that put the meeting into question.
First, the Iranian president called to remove all sanctions against the Islamic Republic before the meeting – a condition with no chance of Trump agreeing to it. Later, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called to restore the 2015 nuclear deal before any meeting takes place.
So what are the chances that the two will meet, and what could a possible meeting mean for Israel?
Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive of FDD, a Washington think-tank that is known for its hawkish stance on Iran. Just last Saturday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry threatened Dubowitz personally, as well as FDD as an organization.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “The president has indicated repeatedly a willingness to meet with officials from the regime in Iran.”
According to Dubowitz, “Israel and US supporters of the president should be making it very clear to Trump that his maximum pressure campaign should not be diminished in any way, and if there is an agreement it has to be an agreement that meets the 12 demands that the president and Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo laid out last year.”
Dubowitz said that a meeting by itself is not a negative development, but that he’s worried about the possibility that such a meeting would come with American concessions.
“When the president is now talking about what he expects from Iran, he doesn’t even mention terrorism,” said Dubowitz. “He mentioned the nuclear program and the sunsets. He mentioned ballistic missiles. But he doesn’t mention Iran support for terrorism. He doesn’t mention Iran’s destructive regional behavior. So at least rhetorically he sounds like backing off from these 12 very specific demands that were laid out by the president through Secretary Pompeo last year.”
As for the Iranian threats against his think-tank, Dubowitz said, “We’re certainly taking the threat seriously. We’re taking the proper steps to secure and defend our organization and our personnel. We’re heartened by the significant support that we’ve received across the policy and political spectrum. But we also hope that our think tank colleagues would not meet with Zarif in New York when he comes for UNGA.”
Ned Price, former National Security Council spokesperson, told the Post: “It’s interesting and not surprising that Macron had to literally separate and remove Trump from the presence of his advisers, chiefly National Security Adviser John Bolton, in order to arrange this meeting, at least in principle. It has become abundantly clear that the Trump administration’s policies have been set by people like Bolton and Mike Pompeo. This so-called policy of maximum pressure that, at least in my view, is a policy of regime change in everything but name. I think Macron understood that in order to get Trump to agree, at least in principle to engaging directly with the Iranian, he would need to get Trump by himself.”
Now that Trump is back in Washington, Price added, he is not optimistic that such a meeting will take place, given that Trump’s advisers are against such a move. Price said that just one month ago, Trump supposedly agreed to allow Senator Rand Paul to serve as a mediator with Zarif, but a leak to the press foiled it.
If such a meeting would take place, said Price, it would be a positive development. “At the very least, it would take the near-term threat of conflict off the table.”
He added, however, that while the meeting itself could be a good thing, Israel has a reason to be worried.
“If you look to the North Korea example, I think what had happened to Japan and South Korea is a cautionary tale,” Price said. “Donald Trump has engaged in this personal diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, essentially giving the North Koreans the green light to conduct short-range missile tests, the kinds of missile that are an acute threat to Japan and South Korea, essentially saying we don’t care about that.
“I think Netanyahu is concerned that Trump, because he has no principles, because he has no convictions other than his own political viability, would be inclined to take a similar approach with Iran if it comes to that, and to take a lesser deal and to market it as a better deal,” Price added. “That would be a long-term challenge for the United States, but it would be an immediate challenge for the state of Israel.”
Suzanne Maloney is deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, where her research focuses on Iran and Persian Gulf energy.
“It’s difficult to imagine that President Trump has a really nuanced appreciation of what a real negotiation with Iran might entail,” Maloney told the Post. “What he does know is that he values personal relationships very highly; that he believes that his meetings with Kim Jong Un have created a kind of breakthrough opportunity between the US and North Korea; and he always has, since the 2016 presidential campaign and even during the primary, emphasized his interest in renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal rather than simply walking away or ripping it up. He places a high value on his own negotiating skills.”
Asked if she sees a scenario in which Trump could get a better deal from the Iranians, Maloney said, “I think it’s going to be difficult to extract significant new concessions from the Iranians. They understand how to manipulate negotiations to their own advantage. They did that with the Obama administration. They have been walking away from their own obligations under the nuclear deal very deliberately as a means of trying to create some leverage. So what they’re likely to give up is essentially very little beyond what they’d already committed to doing under the JCPOA.”
Dan Shapiro, former ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration, said that he is convinced that Jerusalem and Washington would discuss such a meeting in advance.
“I expect there to be a lot of close consultation and coordination around those negotiations if they take place,” Shapiro said. “But I think many Israelis will be nervous that Trump’s record on negotiating with dictators, including dictators with nuclear weapons, is less than inspiring. So it will require a lot of reassurance from the administration that these negotiations will not go on the same route as the negotiations with North Korea.”
According to Shapiro, “Trump has basically one tactic, which is maximum pressure. But when the negotiation starts, his record is very spotty. In the case of Mexico and Canada after the threats of the tariffs, he reached an agreement that was a minor modification of NAFTA, and [presented it] as a huge improvement. In the case of China, after the threats and the tariffs, he has reached a stalemate, and he has no leverage to get out of that.”