In a June 13 Washington Post article, former US ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad argued that the Trump administration’s approach towards Iran – withdrawing from the nuclear deal and imposing crippling sanctions – has a reasonable chance of bringing its leadership to the negotiating table.
The logic behind this idea is that imposing “the highest level” of economic sanctions will not only prevent Iran from supporting its proxies and destabilizing the Middle East, but will also lead to economic hardship and possibly mass discontent, which could shake the regime’s stability.
This approach was tested under the Obama administration and eventually resulted in Iran sitting down for talks in 2013 and signing a nuclear deal in 2015 under President Hasan Rouhani.
But the idea that this could happen again in the aftermath of US President Donald Trump withdrawing from the nuclear deal is not just optimistic – it is flawed. It is not in the interest of the hardliner leadership in Iran to sit down for direct talks with the Trump administration.
Unlike North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei does not need the US to legitimize his regime and, in fact, negotiating with the Americans might have the exact opposite effect. It would not only delegitimize his domestic rhetoric, but also push away supporters at home and abroad.
Ayatollah Khamenei has always expressed suspicion about the US and its foreign policies. Even after the 2015 deal was signed, he warned against and blocked any further negotiations. The US withdrawal from the nuclear deal was the ultimate proof he needed for his claim that Washington could not be trusted.
Khamenei’s anti-Americanism is the central component of his political appeal. Resisting the Western attempts to overthrow the Islamic Republic, dominate Iran and colonize the region is one of the main pillars of his politics. In his speeches and statements, the ayatollah constantly refers to the so-called “axis of resistance”, which includes Iran, its proxies, and even sometimes Venezuela and which is tasked with resisting the US and its allies.
Khamenei’s rhetoric has been based on the belief that US policies towards Iran have always aimed at regime change, not “behavior change” since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. In this logic, any concession in the face of US intimidation would inevitably inspire the US to increase its pressure.
This idea of “the axis of resistance” against American imperialism seems to be the biggest hallmark of Khamenei’s 30 years as supreme leader. At age 79 and in poor health, he wants to leave a legacy. Iran’s nuclear program, which could have brought Iran into the nuclear powers club under his leadership, was disbanded after the signing of the 2015 deal.
Hence, his only legacy is his “anti- American” and “anti-imperialist” agenda. He would rather stick with it and die as an anti-American anti-imperialist than succumb to US pressure and be delegitimized in the eyes of his supporters.
With the failure of the talks, he is able to rally even more support for his regime and continue previous policies that helped Iran survive international pressure for decades. As a country accustomed to sanctions, Iran has learned how to bypass them and it’s much easier to start employing these strategies again.
Khamenei is already stirring Iran back to “resistance economy”, a term he coined to refer to a form of economic nationalism, in which the country strives to decrease imports and increase domestic production, substituting local products for imported ones. The idea is to shield in this way Iran’s economy from the risks of international sanctions and global financial crises.
But isn’t this also Khamenei’s best option. Considering the state of Trump’s presidency, there is absolutely no reason to engage with him. He must sit Trump out. And if won’t be for long. (That at least is also the North Korean strategy).
Whatever the turning point, thinking about Trump as a lame-duck president seems a better rubric for making sense of his administration than any other scenario.
Things could get even worse and Trump could be impeached. But Trump’s best-case scenario is to see out his term as a lame-duck.
And let’s consider what could happen in his lame-duck period. His legislative agenda will stall out. Members of Congress are just no longer interested in following the president’s lead, especially where it might create a political liability for them. Big bills start to waste away on Capitol Hill, and where a new president would bring both political capital and novelty to bear, a lame duck just doesn’t have the juice.
By the time he reaches his lame-duck period, his scandals will have begun to pile up. Either way, the taint of controversy tarnishes the president, diminishes his political capital, and starts to absorb time and energy that once would have been spent on constructive rather than defensive actions. Trump is already facing an open-ended investigation, unmatched in breadth by anything except the Clinton-era Whitewater scandal—taking in allegations of money-laundering, of espionage, and of violations of campaign-finance laws, and potentially reaching into Trump’s own personal financial dealings prior to becoming president. It’s already proving a large distraction, as demonstrated by Trump taking time while returning from a trip to Europe to dictate a statement on behalf of his son, Donald Trump Jr. The statement he dictated turned out to be an obfuscator that only made the matter worse. Meanwhile, Trump’s personal lawyer is busy sending defenses of Trump’s Charlottesville comments to conservative journalists.
Another problem for a lame-duck president is that exhaustion sets in. Barely a day goes by without a new Trump-involved controversy. The public, and even the journalists paid to care, have become numb. Some of Trump’s aides and allies want him to take a less public approach, but that’s beyond him. He has one mode: on, and public-facing. Just take his alleged vacation over the last week or two, which has produced a surfeit of presidential news even by Trump standards.
None of this makes Trump a good partner for Iran’s mullahs. He simply does not project strength and he can’t be trusted. And at the end of the day, he will carry no political capital. Negotiating with Trump under the current circumstances is not just silly, but outright idiotic.
The Mullahs have seen worse, they can weather this one out. Meanwhile Trump will have alienated everyone in the region – including now Pakistan, and virtually the whole Arab world (except Saudi Arabia – of course). Iran’s influence can only grow. And Trump will have diminished America’s role globally. In the end, if Trump’s real agenda is to de-globalize the U.S., then why negotiate with him at all. The U.S. will not be a player on the global stage anyway.
And one last thing. Trump and his administration have directly attacked the Mullahs – verbally. If there one thing to know about the character of Iranians, is that if you dis-honor them, they won’t care about their pocket books or other factors, they will go for your jugular (forever). You will never be forgiven. Honor Trumps everything.
At the end of the day, even if Trump caves in, and agrees to terms and conditions that Iran’s Mullahs might like; they won’t deal with him because he’s been nasty towards them (and Iranians). He has no friends in Iran or in most of the region.
There is therefore nothing to talk about! No?