Washington: United States President Donald Trump is not afraid of surprises, but could he take one of the biggest shifts of all in his foreign policy — easing sanctions on Iran?
Washington is widely sceptical that Trump will shift course on Iran, with his hawkish advisors long pushing a hard line aimed at crippling the clerical regime.
On Tuesday, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said that the US would only remove sanctions from Iran after a comprehensive deal was reached on its nuclear programme.
“Regarding the US — unless the US lifts the sanctions and strikes a line over the wrongful path they selected, we will witness no positive development.”
Bolton said that the US would not just lift the sanctions to bring Iran to the table.
“The idea that Iran would receive some tangible economic benefit merely for stopping doing things it should not have been doing in the first place is just a non-starter. If there is a comprehensive deal, then of course the sanctions will come off at that point,” Bolton said.
“When the regime in Iran is ready to talk about that, then there will be a meeting,” Bolton said.
But Trump, who earlier shocked by meeting North Korea’s leader, appeared open on Monday as French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a summit in the coming weeks with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.
Responding to a suggestion by Macron, the host of a Group of Seven summit in the coastal resort of Biarritz, Trump said that Iran “may need some money to get them over a very rough patch” in the form of a line of credit.
The idea is part of a French-led effort to keep alive a 2015 deal under which Iran drastically scaled back its nuclear work.
Hurting the economy
The accord was negotiated under former president Barack Obama and trashed by Trump.
Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said Macron was likely trying to buy time and keep Iran in the deal — sending a message as well that Trump could be gone after elections next year.
Iran has played down the possibility of a summit, with Rouhani saying that the United States must first lift all sanctions — which have badly hurt an economy that had soared following the nuclear agreement.
Slavin doubted Trump would end sanctions — or that any gesture would lead to a summit, the most likely venue for which would be on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York next month.
“Rouhani wouldn’t meet Obama, who negotiated the deal. All Obama managed to get is a phone call with Rouhani; they didn’t even get an handshake on the sidelines of UNGA,” Slavin said.
“Trump has punished Iran more than any president in American history, for complying with an international agreement! So why would Rouhani reward Trump with this photo-op?” she said.
Unlike with North Korea, where Kim Jong Un has relished the image of standing next to Trump for leader-to-leader talks, the United States has been toxic for Iranian politicians since the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the Western-oriented shah.
Any sanctions relief would face heated resistance from aides led by Bolton, who before his appointment advocated attacking Iran and toppling its regime.
The Trump administration has demanded far-reaching changes from Iran beyond its nuclear programme including ending support for groups around the region such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants and Yemen’s Al Houthi rebels.
Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, which pushes a hard line on Iran, said the idea of a summit could show that sanctions drove the regime to diplomacy.
But he warned against the credit line proposed by Macron, which reportedly could be worth as much as $15 billion (Dh55.17 billion) to help stabilise Iran’s economy.
“This is a supremely stupid idea. Those who rightly condemned Obama in 2013-2015 for offering premature sanctions relief to the regime in Iran, instead of increasing the pressure, should be all over this,” he tweeted.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations who is popular with pro-Israel advocates, criticised Macron for inviting Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to the G7 summit.
“Manipulative of Macron to do this and very insincere. #NotWhatFriendsDo,” she tweeted.
But Nicholas Burns, a veteran US diplomat who is now a professor at Harvard, said Macron’s efforts have at least succeeded in shifting the conversation.
In June, Trump authorised an attack on Iran in retaliation for its downing of a US spy drone, although he abruptly called off the operation.
“Macron is right to try to assist in opening a channel between Washington and Tehran,” tweeted Burns.
“That could possibly allow the two to shift the issue away from the use of force to diplomacy.”
How Trump took Iran to task
Relations between Tehran and Washington have spiralled since US President Donald Trump came to power and promptly quit the international deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, reimposing sweeping sanctions on the country.
In a landmark address to Middle Eastern leaders in Saudi Arabia on May 21, 2017, just months after taking office, Trump urges nations to work together to isolate Iran “until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace”.
“From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.”
Iran, Trump claimed in an address to the UN on September 19, 2017, “has turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos.”