Trump makes big-time overture to Iran

(US President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chat during dinner in Tokyo, Sunday, May 26, 2019)

The extraordinary remarks on Iran made by the US President Donald Trump at his joint press conference with his host Japanese PM Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on May 27 merit careful analysis. There are several elements in it which suggest that the worst part of the US-Iran military standoff may have got over and the two sides are tiptoeing toward the negotiating table. 

First, Trump’s remarks. The transcript shows that Trump was far from answering any specific question on Iran but seized a window of opportunity which presented itself while dwelling on the candidacy of Joe Biden, former vice-president under Barack Obama, to weigh in on Iran with some meaningful remarks. The extracts are reproduced below: 

“Well, when I look at what’s been done by our Vice President (Biden) and the President (Obama), when I look at the horrible Iran deal that they made — look what happened since I terminated the Iran deal.  Look what has happened to Iran.”

“Iran, when I first came into office, was a terror.  They were fighting in many locations all over the Middle East.  They were behind every single major attack, whether it was Syria, whether it was Yemen, whether it was individual smaller areas, whether it was taking away oil from people.  They were involved with everything.”

“Now they’re pulling back because they’re got serious economic problems.  We have massive — as you know, massive sanctions and other things.  I mean, we just said the other day: steel, copper, different elements of what they used to sell.  The oil is essentially dried up.  And I’m not looking to hurt Iran at all.  I’m looking to have Iran say, “No nuclear weapons.”  We have enough problems in this world right now with nuclear weapons.  No nuclear weapons for Iran.”

“And I think we’ll make a deal.  I think Iran — again, I think Iran has tremendous economic potential.  And I look forward to letting them get back to the stage where they can show that.  I think Iran — I know so many people from Iran.  These are great people.  It has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership.  We’re not looking for regime change.  I just want to make that clear.  We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.

“If you look at the deal that Biden and President Obama signed, they would have access — free access — to nuclear weapons, where they wouldn’t even be in violation, in just a very short period of time.  What kind of a deal is that?” 

Prima facie, this must be taken as a conciliatory statement. What needs to be noted here is that Trump was speaking after talks with Abe where the situation around Iran figured in the agenda of discussion. And these were anything but impromptu remarks.

The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had visited Tokyo very recently. On May 16, Abe received him. The Kyodo news agency reported that the Japanese leadership expressed concern over the US-Iran standoff  and promised to “spare no efforts to ease tensions and try to resolve outstanding issues” — to quote Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono. 

It stands to reason that Tehran sought Japan’s help to impress upon Washington that the “escalation” of the situation by the US was “unacceptable”, despite Iran exercising “maximum restraint.” Kyodo quoted Zarif as saying to Kono, “(We) will certainly defend ourselves and respond to any threat against our national security.” 

Without doubt, against the backdrop of Trump’s impending visit to Japan, Tokyo would have promptly briefed the Americans about Zarif’s discussions. At any rate, Kyodo reported on May 24, quoting Japanese government sources that “Abe is considering visiting Iran in June for talks with its leadership to help ease escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran… (and) is expected to make a final decision after consulting with U.S. President Donald Trump, who is scheduled to arrive in Japan as a state guest” on May 25.

It is entirely conceivable that Japanese mediation is on cards. Evidently, Tokyo has made sure that both the US and Iran are open to holding negotiations. Abe is staking his prestige. At the press conference in Tokyo on Monday, Abe all but acknowledged that the US expects Japan to play a mediatory role: 

“Regarding Iran — regarding the JCPA, we have expressed our position at the appropriate timing.  Peace and stability of Middle East is very important for Japan and the United States, and also for the international community as a whole.  It’s very important.”

“In this context, in order to make contribution for the peace and stability of the region, we would like to discharge whatever we can do.  So whatever it is possible for Japan to do, we absolutely would like to do this going forward.  Between Japan and the United States, there should be close collaboration so that this tension surrounding Iran should be mitigated and alleviated, and it shouldn’t culminate in the armed conflict.” 

Significantly, Trump’s remarks focused exclusively on the nuclear issue. Broadly speaking, he is adopting the same approach as he does with North Korea — promising peace dividends in the nature of a mutually beneficial economic relationship and business opportunities. Trump is aware that Tehran always sought an economic partnership and integration into the western world. 

The Trump administration is in a chastened mood. Trump has thrown out of the window the controversial 12 demands that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had listed last year in May for Iran’s compliance and for inclusion in a new nuclear treaty. The US realises that the “maximum pressure” approach failed to bring about any changes in Iran’s regional policies through the past one-year period. 

Having said that, the salience of Trump’s statement indeed lies in his categorical assurance that the US is willing to normalise with the Islamic regime in Iran and is not looking for a regime change.    

If Washington is in a chastened mood, so is Tehran. Despite the strident rhetoric, the fact remains that the US’ economic pressure has hurt Iran and influential voices within the ruling elite in Tehran seem to believe that it is essential to conduct negotiations with Washington. The point is, Iran feels disappointed that the European powers’ verbal support does not translate as concrete actions to neutralise the effect of US sanctions. 

Of course, a long and winding road lies ahead since conditions will need to be created first for any negotiation process to commence between Washington and Tehran. But there are some positive signals already that the expected US military build-up has actually failed to materialise in the Persian Gulf. 

On May 26, a senior general in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Brigadier General Ali Fadavi disclosed that the number of American warships in the Persian Gulf has been scaled down and is at its lowest level at present. He said in particular that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which was scheduled to move towards the region, has stopped in the Indian Ocean and did not even enter the Persian Gulf. 

On the other hand, it must be noted that Abe sought assurances from Zarif that Iran will not quit the 2015 nuclear deal. The bottom line, however, is that the Iranian leadership understands that Trump is quintessentially a man of peace who has no intentions of waging a war.

The thing to be watched is how Trump calibrates the sanctions regime. Unlike with Russia sanctions, there is no legislation against Iran and Trump can take detours through executive orders to the Treasury or the State Department.. Some sort of easing of sanctions to ‘incentivise’ Iran becomes necessary from this point. It can be incremental.

To be sure, Trump’s conciliatory remarks on Iran will resonate in the world capitals. The signs are there already. The Indian government sources told the media today that talks are expected to be held with Tehran at the earliest, as India is keen to resume oil supply from Iran and is looking at ways to make payments in Indian rupee to get around the US sanctions. 

Meanwhile, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Tuesday, “Although Indians have not voiced readiness for expanding Farzad B gas field, we intend to do the final negotiations with them and if they remain reluctant, we will start the job with an Iranian company instead. The National Iranian Oil Company has prepared a plan for financing the project. Other issues including the contract are getting prepared.” 

Again, Moscow announced earlier today that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov is traveling to Tehran on Wednesday to hold consultations on the situation surrounding the Iran nuclear deal. Separately, Russia’s energy leviathan Gazprom has renewed its interest in participation in projects in Iran and announced in Moscow that a joint coordination committee with the Iranian side will go into details. 

Clearly, Trump’s overture to Tehran and the Japanese meditation to kickstart US-Iran talks amounts to a paradigm shift. This turn of events was inevitable since a stalemate had developed in the US-Iran standoff and neither Washington nor Tehran can afford to live with it, while a military confrontation is simply unthinkable too. Trump is looking for a foreign policy breakthrough with Iran, which will work to his advantage politically in his re-election bid next year.