Trump’s got a ‘good feeling’ about Iran? Netanyahu should be nervous

The possibility of face-to-face talks or even a photo opportunity between leaders of two nations that have been iconic foes for four decades would almost seem like a fantasy scenario.

By
August 28, 2019 23:26
Trump, Rouhani and Netanyahu

United States President Donald Trump (L), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C), and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R). (photo credit: WHITE HOUSE/TASNIM NEWS AGENCY/U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT)

Could US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meet this fall on the sidelines of the high-level opening session of the UN General Assembly?

It wouldn’t take much more than good will to arrange a few smiles for the cameras, plus some platitudes about a future agreement.

The possibility of face-to-face talks or even a photo opportunity between leaders of two nations that have been iconic foes for four decades would almost seem like a fantasy scenario.

The last such meeting was in 1977 when US president Jimmy Carter hosted Iran’s shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Washington. Fresh from a first-ever US presidential visit to North Korea in June to discuss the country’s nuclear weapons program, Trump could easily be looking for a second such diplomatic coup to broaden his historical legacy and give him a boost in the polls in advance of the November 2020 elections.

Trump hinted at the possibility of such a meeting on Monday, when he told reporters in France at the end of the G7 summit, “I think he [Rouhani] is going to want to meet and get their situation straightened out.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, who hosted the summit, also tweeted that such a meeting could take place. It was a suggestion that Rouhani rejected just one day later, when he insisted that no talks would be held until US sanctions are first lifted. US National Security Adviser John Bolton shot back that sanctions will remain in place until a deal over Iran’s nuclear program is reached.

BUT WOULD it be bad, really, for the US and Iran to stop beating the war drums? Wasn’t it just two months ago that Trump spoke of the American army as being “cocked & loaded,” ready to retaliate against the Iranian downing of a US surveillance drone? Had Trump not aborted the retaliatory mission at the last moment, the two countries might now be at war.

If a Trump-Rouhani tête-à-tête were to occur, couldn’t it lead to a deal that would eliminate any possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, address Iran’s ballistic missile threat and stop its support of international terrorism? Isn’t that what the US, Israel and much of the international community want?

Wouldn’t such a deal be seen as a significant Israeli victory, given that it would likely ensure that Tehran can’t make good on its threats to annihilate the Jewish state?

Given that the Trump administration dramatically reneged on the 2015 Iran deal because it was flawed and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, why would it now sign a second flawed deal? Wouldn’t it be certain to make sure that this was a much better deal?

Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said she felt a deal could be struck that would be good for both the US and Israel.

Iranian nuclear facilities are spread across the country, so it would take a prolonged military campaign to destroy them, she said.

In light of the failed 2003 war in Iraq, the international understanding has been that the best way forward is negotiations, Landau said.

The Trump administration has been serious from the beginning about combating the threat of weapons of mass destruction from Iran, Syria and North Korean, she added.

THE SPECTER of Trump-Rouhani negotiations was not greeted with any celebratory comments in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the country’s defense minister, made no comment.

Instead, it was left to Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to briefly reassure Israelis on Army Radio that “there is no reason to be worried,” since the US and Israeli strategic objectives were aligned” and the Israelis trust the Trump administration.

His words were hardly reassuring to those who worry that the art of how Trump makes the deal might embolden Iran and isolate Israel in the region, especially if the process is rushed or cosmetic to fit the dictates of a US election cycle.

Prof. Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said he doesn’t believe the threat of a nuclear Iran could be eliminated through a diplomatic deal, so all moves in that direction are problematic.
“I do not see the Iranians signing on any deal that will force them to give up their nuclear capability,” Inbar said.

Iran’s nuclear program is popular with the public and is an insurance policy of sorts when it comes to security, he said.

A Rouhani-Trump meeting can’t be much more than a high-profile photo opportunity, he said. It would be cast as an Iranian success and a display of US weakness, particularly in light of the anti-Iranian rhetoric in Washington.
Both Inbar and Landau are concerned about the possibility that Trump-Rouhani talks would be modeled after the North Korean ones.

In June, Trump met with Korean leader Kim Jong-un and left with an agreement to keep talking, but it did not resolve the nuclear threat to the US.

Former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak said the “same thing can happen with Iran.”

North Korea already produces nuclear weapons and the chance of a rollback is very slim, so any progress in reducing tensions is an achievement, Landau said.

Iran is not yet producing nuclear weapons, so the stakes are higher because there is still time for Trump and/or the international community to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear power, she said.
“If Trump thinks that he is able to resolve this in a very short time, I do not think that is going to work,” Landau said.

The Iranians are likely to play for time, in hopes that Trump will be voted out of office next year. Iran is also likely to push for economic relief as part of the talks, a move that would only weaken the US position.

The only hope for the Trump administration is to use the leverage it gained through crippling economic sanctions by keeping them in place until a document is signed, she said.

But the implications of Trump stating at a public press conference that he had a “good feeling” about the possibility of US-Iranian rapprochement while Israel is under fire by Iranian proxies created its own damage, even if no other actions follow.

Netanyahu has built his reelection campaign, in part, on his tight ties with world leaders, including Trump.

But Trump’s words raised the specter that the US might change its policy on Iran, in spite of its overwhelming series of actions in opposition to the regime and in favor of Israel’s security. Part of Trump’s negotiating tactics appears to be to isolate a country first as an enemy, only to work to draw it close as a friend.

For a country that lives on a diet of doomsday scenarios, it doesn’t take much to push the panic button.

It also reminds the public that a turnabout is also possible with the Palestinians, and that Trump’s peace plan is still unpublished.

The possibility of a US turnabout harms Netanyahu in the final weeks of his campaign. His opponents wasted no time in exploiting that dilemma for their own electoral gains. Barak, of the Israel Democratic Party, said the G7 press conference was a warning sign regarding Netanyahu’s overdependence on Trump.

It also signaled to the wider Middle East, including Tehran, that there is daylight between Israel and the US when it comes to Iran, an idea that would only be strengthened by a handshake and photograph with Trump and Rouhani.

Inbar said that if a deal were reached that did not end the nuclear threat, “Israel would be alone” in countering Iranian aggression.

Israel would then “have no choice but to take military action against the critical Iranian nuclear installations,” he said.


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