One week after the verbal vociferations between the Iranian and US presidents, President Trump surprised everyone by announcing he was ready to talk to Hassan Rouhani with no pre-conditions. He made his remarks at a time when, a week beforehand, President Rouhani had said that war with Iran would be the mother of all wars and warned Trump not to twist the lion’s tail. Trump also tweeted his reaction by warning Rouhani never to threaten the United States. But now, he is talking of unconditional talks with Iran anywhere, anytime Iran is ready. This offer has met with various reactions in Iran. The Persia Digest reporter has interviewed Trita Parsi, NIAC President Emeritus, on the tensions building up between Iran and the US over the last weeks, and Trump’s offer of talks with Iran with no pre-conditions. You can read the interview here.
Some experts believe that Trump intends to bring Iran to the negotiating table by intensifying verbal attacks, as it did with North Korea. Trump had said that if it did not attack the North Korean leader verbally, he would never had conducted talks with him. Can the intensification of verbal tensions between Iran and the United States be the start of negotiations between the two?
That may very well be Trump’s intent, but there are many reasons to believe the Iranian case will play out very differently. First of all, none of Trump’s close advisors favor diplomacy with Iran. Neither do Washington’s allies in the Middle East – in fact, they favor war or the destabilization of Iran. And they have significant influence in Washington. Thirdly, Iran has politics unlike North Korea, where Kim Jong Un can singlehandedly make decisions without facing internal political resistance. Moreover, Trump appears to think that pressure alone can force Iran to back down. Obama thought that too at first, but then realized he had to offer concessions to get concessions. Trump seems to get his Iran analysis from Benjamin Netanyahu, who argues solely for pressure precisely because he wants a US-Iran war.
Some experts have assessed the current situation as having the highest potential for military confrontation between Iran and the US. Is there a possibility of military confrontation between the two, especially if Iran is faced with obstacles in selling its oil?
Yes. The situation is very tense and even though Trump may not desire a war, the path that he is on – pressure and sanctions – will at some point elicit a strong response from Iran. Perhaps in the Persian Gulf. Perhaps elsewhere. The US and Iran will then easily get stuck in an escalatory cycle that can lead to war.
Faced with the pressures of public opinion, Trump was forced to withdraw from the issue of separating children from their illegal immigrant parents. Can public opinion prevent a military confrontation between Iran and the US?
Yes, it certainly can. But if the Republicans continue to control both the House and the Senate, it will be more difficult to translate public opinion and pressure into effective political capital.
The Trump Administration has shown that it has planned a special role for The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran or the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). This Organization has no public support in Iran. Why is Trump so interested in this group (even more so than the royalists supporting the last Shah of Iran’s family)?
The support for the MEK is partly because the terrorist organization has bought itself into the American political system through massive donations. But it is also because some favor neither war nor regime change, but rather regime collapse. That is, rather than replacing the government in Iran with another regime, the aim is to replace it with chaos. That would lead to massive instability in Iran and potentially a civil war. Under such circumstances, Iran’s energy will be consumed internally and it will be disabled from projecting power externally or to pose a challenge to US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. For this scenario, the MEK can be useful precisely because of its expertise in terrorism.
Trump’s Secretary of State had earlier announced 12 demands as a new US Strategy for talks with Iran. Recently, President Trump said he was ready for negotiations without preconditions. Is this a step down for Trump or just a trap to bring Iran to the negotiating table and impose his demands then?
I think it reflects a division between Pompeo and Trump. Trump may very well really want to get a deal and once at the table he may show significant flexibility precisely because he so strongly desires being seen as a deal maker. But Bolton and Pompeo clearly oppose diplomacy and only seek Iran’s capitulation.
What answer must Iran give to Trump’s proposal of unconditional talks? It seems Trump is trying to portray himself as a proponent of diplomacy and talks. Can negotiations with Trump achieve any benefits for Iran?
It is not unclear negotiations with Trump can lead to a lasting deal. He relishes on being unreliable and is untrustworthy. But at the same time, not speaking directly to Trump leaves him only listening to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Any dialogue with Trump will likely spread panic in Riyadh and Tel Aviv – precisely because they know they cannot trust Trump. At a minimum, that can create tensions and mistrust within the US-UAE-Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran.
Trita Parsi is author of Losing an Enemy – Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy and President Emeritus of the National Iranian American Council.