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Trump open to talks with Iran’s president and it could be disastrous

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President Donald Trump on Monday signaled he’d be open to talking to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, offering the first sign in months that the US and Iran might find a path to ease recent tensions that have brought the countries to the brink of war.

There are numerous obstacles to these potential talks — including Trump’s hawkish advisers — and experts on the region say that even if they happen the president is unlikely to come away with a deal better than the Obama-era nuclear pact he pulled the US out of in May 2018.

Trump at the G7 summit in France on Monday said that if the “circumstances were correct or right” then he would “certainly agree” to sit down with Rouhani.

“But in the meantime, they have to be good players,” Trump added.

Read more: How the Trump administration got into a showdown with Iran that could lead to war

Initially, Rouhani also seemed open to the idea and on Monday said he’d meet with “anyone” if was beneficial to his country’s interests.

But by Tuesday the Iranian leader backed up somewhat and said the talks could only happen if the US agrees to lift sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy— a condition that is almost certainly a non-starter for the Trump administration.

When asked if this changes Trump’s position, a National Security Council spokesperson told Insider, “No further comment — the president spoke about this extensively yesterday.”

In short, both sides are flirting with talks, but a lot is still up in the air. There are also broader questions as to what Trump would hope to accomplish by talking to Rouhani.

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a conference in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. Rouhani defended his foreign minister’s surprise visit to the G-7 summit, saying he ready to go anywhere to negotiate a way out of the crisis following the U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Associated Press

The prospect of talks between Trump and Rouhani comes after months of tensions and fears of war.

The US and Iran have been adversaries for decades but tensions have reached historic heights in recent months, leading the US to send military assets to the Middle East.

On top of oil tanker attacks and seizures, Iran shot down a US drone in June, which nearly led to retaliatory military strikes from Trump. Meanwhile, Iran in July began to break from aspects of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the 2015 nuclear deal orchestrated by the Obama administration. And in late July, the Trump administration slapped Iran’s top diplomat with sanctions.

Read more: Here’s what’s in the landmark nuclear deal that Iran just violated amid tensions with Trump

This can all be traced back to Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the JCPOA last year, which has caused the historically antagonistic relationship between Tehran and Washington to spiral toward a military confrontation as mounting US sanctions hammer Iran’s economy. Trump, a longtime critic of the 2015 nuclear deal, has signaled that he wants to negotiate a more robust version.

With anti-Iran hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at his side, Trump has sought to push Tehran into a corner via a maximum pressure campaign involving relentless economic sanctions.

It’s difficult to see Bolton or Pompeo wholeheartedly supporting a diplomatic route, especially if it involves easing up on Iran economically.

Trump’s hawkish advisers will ‘use every trick’ to derail diplomacy with Iran

Ned Price, who served as a National Security Council spokesperson under former President Barack Obama, told Insider he has “every expectation” that Bolton, Pompeo, and others in the Trump administration will “use every trick in the bureaucratic playbook to stymie this opening.”

Price said this is one of the “many reasons” people should temper their expectations about potential talks.

John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Randa Slim, director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute, told Insider that though Trump has consistently advocated for a new deal on Iran’s nuclear program he too often leaves the follow-up to his advisers “who have a different agenda than his.”

Similarly, Jon Wolfsthal, who served as the nuclear expert for the National Security Council under Obama and is now a senior adviser at Global Zero, told Insider, “Bolton and Pompeo are not going to support engagement and deal-making with Iran, and Trump’s inability to create any discipline or follow through on complex issues means even if Rouhani and Trump meet, any real deal will prove elusive.”

“Engagement would be helpful in diffusing some tension and could help avert accidental conflict, but Trump’s efforts to negotiate could also lead to a worse than no deal deal — one that hands Iran multiple wins for the illusion of progress,” Wolfsthal added.

Trump wants a win on the global stage as he seeks re-election, but Iran is unlikely to hand him one.

With 2020 on the horizon and little to no foreign policy accomplishments under his belt (and a recession looming), experts say Trump is getting desperate for even the appearance of success on the global stage.

“Trump is getting nervous about his re-election prospects and I think it has given him a great appetite to get deals done that he can tout as successes — even if they are not. His recent back and forth with himself over where he stands on China is a sign of this,” David Rothkopf, a foreign policy expert and CEO of The Rothkopf Group, told Insider.

Read more: Iran’s top diplomat says his country executes gay people because of ‘moral principles’

Trump has “no appetite for conflict,” Rothkopf said, so the “only win for him is to somehow do a ‘better’ deal than Obama’s,” adding that it’s “unlikely” he’d be successful in this regard.

Echoing these sentiments, Slim said, “Facing elections in 2020, Trump needs a win. Whether Iran will help him achieve this win is doubtful.”

Much like his approach to talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the president is “looking for a photo opportunity” with the Iranian leader, Slim said. But she added that the “Iranians have talked with the North Koreans and understand that photo ops with Trump do not necessarily mean he is willing to engage in deal-making.”

If Trump held talks with Rouhani, it would be the first time US and Iranian leaders have met face-to-face in roughly four decades.

But Slim said that Rouhani setting preconditions for talks “indicates that the stalemate the US and Iran are stuck in is not about to change soon.”

Trump thinks he’s a better negotiator than his track record shows

“Trump would love to negotiate a deal with Iran, regardless of how much he and his advisors have pursued a hard line against Tehran.” Wolfsthal said.

“Trump, despite all evidence to the contrary, considers himself a great negotiator and deal-maker,” Wofsthal went on to say. “Even now, he thinks he has a deal, and a good one, with North Korea despite that country continuing to advance its nuclear and missile capabilities.”

President Donald Trump, right, meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sentosa Island in Singapore on June 12, 2018.
Evan Vucci/AP

Rothkopf said Trump entertaining the prospect of speaking with Rouhani is “an example of him thinking that his powers of personality are so great he can solve any problem if he personally gets involved.”

But the lack of progress in denuclearization talks with North Korea, the trade war with China, and contentious trade talks with our allies “suggest that is not the case.”

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