Why did Trump-Rouhani UN meeting go sideways - analysis

With the tensions between Donald Trump and Rouhani, Khamenei still remains the leader of Iran.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR)
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR)
In late August, there was practically a miracle.
In one 24-hour period, both US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani publicly said they would meet in late September – this week – at the UN.
A major French initiative to break the nuclear stalemate between the US and Iran followed. Historic deal-making was in the air. And then it evaporated as fast as it had been built up.
Not only was there no meeting this week, but by the end of the UN speeches by Trump and Rouhani, it seemed that enmity between Washington and Tehran were back to the highest levels with talk of compromise off the table.
Those who thought a meeting was certain read too much into Trump and Rouhani’s statements, and forgot that the real decider in Iran is Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Obviously, Iran’s multifaceted attack on the Saudis oil fields also sent a message about where Khamenei really stood.
If Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif might have been open to temporary partial US sanctions relief in exchange for the Islamic Republic temporarily restoring its compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal’s limits, they have been set straight.
Khamenei is not interested in a compromise until Trump undoes what the Ayatollah views as the US president’s original sin of pulling out of the deal in May 2018 without being able to cite a specific violation of the deal by Iran.
Trump may have been under the misconception that Rouhani would crave a summit with him for legitimacy even if nothing substantive was agreed to, as with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, but Khamenei has a different world view.
Khamenei was a doubter of the 2015 deal up until the last moment when he allowed it to go forward.
In the days and weeks counting down to the deal signing, Khamenei unveiled harsher and louder nuclear threats, including spinning up 180,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium up from the around 20,000 they had at the time.
When he allowed Zarif to ink the nuclear deal, it was practically with kicking and screaming.
The real debate right now in Iran is whether Khamenei will allow his country to partially remain in the nuclear deal (with only partial violations) until the November 2020 US elections – as preferred by the Rouhani camp – or whether he will scrap the deal entirely much sooner, as preferred by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who always opposed the deal.
His writings and speeches have been incredibly consistent over the years.
Khamenei has a conspiracy-filled and hegemony-dedicated view of the world.
Because of the US allegiance with the Shah prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, he truly views the US as the “Great Satan.”
The Obama administration took a narrow deal on the nuclear issue precisely because Khamenei had no interest in a broader softening of relations between the US and Iran.
He simply wanted guarantees that the US would not interfere in Tehran’s plans for building up its proxies and influence in the region, and if the price was a temporary suspension of advancement with portions of the nuclear program, so be it.
Trump came into office and would have none of the disconnect.
He had no interest in allowing Iran to make havoc around the Middle East, while advancing its nuclear program in areas like ballistic missile testing under the guise of “peaceful” and “defensive” missiles.
For this reason, Trump will not do a full sanctions removal until he gets an opening from Iran about its broader behavior.
Partial and temporary sanctions relief for Iran temporarily returning to compliance with the deal he might have agreed to over his top Iran aides’ advice in order to get a historic meeting with Rouhani.
But with the Rouhani meeting missed, Trump’s interest in a compromise will also be lessened.
In some ways, Israelis are breathing a sigh of relief.
Almost no Israeli officials on the Left or the Right wanted US diplomacy with Iran to mirror North Korea, where Trump is viewed as having made concessions for nothing permanently concrete from Kim.
Israelis mostly favor the maximum pressure campaign on Iran.
But what if Tehran continues to successfully ride out the maximum pressure campaign and the next US president rejoins the deal? Or what if Iran leaves the deal and starts moving toward a weapon?
Regardless of whether tensions rise or there is another later round of diplomacy, the fateful decision of which way Iran will turn resides in the hands of Khamenei and no one else.