US, Iran tiptoeing toward engagement
With Tehran's foreign minister in New York for a UN meet, the big question is whether top Trump officials will establish direct contact with him on the nuclear deal
Even as the May 12 deadline draws close for US President Donald Trump to waive his country’s sanctions against Iran, as required under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran has carried the war of words into the enemy’s camp.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in New York over the weekend for a six-day visit, ostensibly to attend the High-Level Meeting on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace on Tuesday and Wednesday at the United Nations.
Zarif is on a Track 1.5 mission to reach out to the US audience as well as to be simply available, on call on American soil, throughout the week as the leaders of two key allies of the US – French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – are scheduled to meet with Trump in Washington to discuss policy options with regard to the JCPOA, among other things.
The big question is whether Trump will instruct his top officials to establish direct contact with Zarif in New York on the sidelines of the UN meet. Zarif has arrived in New York well prepared, drawing encouragement from the remarks last Thursday by Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and secretary of state-designate, regarding the JCPOA at his confirmation hearing for the latter post in the US Senate.
Pompeo told the senators, “I want to fix this deal. That’s the objective. I think that’s in the best [US] interests.” Alongside this, he acknowledged that Iran had not been pursuing a nuclear-weapons program even before the joint deal – nor would it in future.
Pompeo emphasized that as CIA director, he had not found any evidence that Iran had violated the nuclear deal and he believes that Tehran could not expand its nuke program quickly, even after a hypothetical US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Even more intriguing was this remark by Pompeo:
“If there’s no chance that we can fix it [the nuclear deal], I will recommend to the president that we do our level best to work with our allies to achieve a better outcome and a better deal. Even after May 12, there’s still much diplomatic work to be done.”
Pompeo signaled that his stated position as a politician in the past would not be the policy he adopts as Trump’s trusted, hand-picked confidant in the US State Department. Quite obviously, there is a significant body of opinion in the US, especially among influential lawmakers, opposing the rejection of the JCPOA. Pompeo’s remarks hinted that Trump might not make a final decision by the May 12 deadline.
He seemed to suggest that Trump might opt to continue consultations with European allies with a view to “fixing the flaws of the JCPOA.”
Tehran too appreciates that “the White House hasn’t come to a determined and clear decision on how to deal with the JCPOA yet,” as a commentary in the influential Tehran Times (which reflects official thinking) noted while weighing Pompeo’s remarks.
The Iranians have never branded Trump as a one-dimensional man. Besides, Tehran is greatly experienced in moving past US rhetoric. It also factors in that Trump is speaking and acting on a slippery domestic platform.
From the Iranian perspective, John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser is a confusing signal. ‘Bomb Iran Bolton’ is known to have long backed the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, which Tehran holds responsible for multiple murders of Iranian officials
From the Iranian perspective, John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser is a confusing signal. “Bomb Iran Bolton” is known to have long backed the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, which Tehran holds responsible for multiple murders of Iranian officials and for seeking regime change in Iran.
As national security adviser, Bolton has so far kept mum on the JCPOA, but these are early days on knowing for sure whether he’s merely on pause mode or is being kept on the sidelines at Trump’s behest.
At any rate, Zarif fired his opening salvo after reaching New York when he told the moderator of the Columbia Broadcasting System’s Face the Nation program, Margaret Brennan, that Tehran had kept a number of options ready, “including options that would involve resuming [the nuclear program] at a much greater speed,” but would “make the necessary decision when we see fit.”
Zarif chalked up the bottom line that Tehran could not be expected to “unilaterally and one-sidedly implement the deal.” President Hassan Rouhani has also warned from Tehran that the range of Iran’s policy options include “what they [the Americans] cannot imagine.”
Macron seeks ‘bromance’ with Trump
Meanwhile, France’s Macron will have Trump’s ear on Tuesday when he visits the White House. Tehran sees the French president as a Saudi pawn. During his visit to Paris on April 10, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman dangled the prospect of lucrative deals worth US$18 billion for major French companies including Total, TechnipFMC and Suez. Total’s $5 billion deal with Saudi Aramco alone could add 8,000 jobs to the French economy.
Macron is also pitching for a European leadership role in the Middle East and hoping to fill the void created by Britain’s exit from the European Union. But his mythical “bromance” with Trump may not help win for France a role in the JCPOA affair. Iran has always sought direct engagement with the US.
Interestingly, Zarif told CBS that Tehran was open to a prisoner swap if there were a “change of attitude” on the part of the US. “The United States needs to approach this from a position of dealing with another sovereign government,” he said. “And if that approach led to change, then the United States would see a difference.”
Pressed by Brennan on whether the Iranians were open to a prisoner exchange, Zarif offered an opening: “It is a possibility, certainly from a humanitarian perspective, but it requires a change in attitude.”
Zarif just signaled that he’s ready to meet with his American counterparts. Trump has a job cut out for Pompeo.