Rouhani retreats: On second thought, lift sanctions and then we’ll talk


This smells of a stunt that backfired on Hassan Rouhani. The Iranian president semi-crashed the G-7 summit in Biarritz this weekend (at the invitation of French president Emmanuel Macron), and then suggested that he’d be willing to sit down with Donald Trump to deal directly with the crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. His arrival and his expressed openness to direct talks seemed calculated to paint Trump as unstable and irrational, with the Iranians as all sweetness and rationality.

Then Trump surprisingly embraced the idea as a way to dial down the tensions between the US and Iran, and suddenly Rouhani hit reverse. Consider this bluff called:

A day after what looked like a possible diplomatic breakthrough with the U.S., Iranian President Hassan Rouhani backed off the idea of direct talks with President Trump, saying Washington must first lift sanctions against Tehran.

At the conclusion of the G-7 Summit in France on Monday, Trump had said that the leaders could meet, “if the circumstance were correct or right.” Rouhani initially seemed warm to such a meeting, remarking, “I would not miss it.”

However, by Tuesday, Rouhani’s initial enthusiasm appeared to have ebbed. Unless the U.S. ended economic sanctions on Iran, he said, any such meeting between the two leaders would be just a photo op and “that is not possible.”

Really? Then why show up at the G-7 where Trump was ostentatiously available for a meet-and-greet? Macron was too busy hosting the gig to spend much time on a side summit with Iran, even if Macron was inclined to conduct one at all. There would be no other reason for Iran to participate even as an observer to the G-7, especially at the high-ranking level of its president acting as such.

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After Rouhani backed off, Javad Zarif protested, perhaps a bit too much, at the idea of direct talks:

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also told Iran’s news agency IRNA Tuesday that a one-on-one meeting between Rouhani and Trump was “not imaginable.”

“I said this in Biarritz — unless the U.S. comes back to the 5 plus 1 and performs the JCPOA but still at that time there will be no one-on-one talks,” he said referring to the five members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the official acronym for the Iran nuclear deal.

It certainly seemed imaginable enough when Rouhani arrived in Biarritz and suggested the possibility. It must have also seemed imaginable to Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the true power in Iran, when he allowed Rouhani to conduct this stunt. Rouhani’s sudden backpedal suggests not only that this was a bluff, but also that Rouhani doesn’t have the authority to enter into negotiations anyway.

Trump must have seen this coming when Macron told him about Rouhani’s invitation. If Rouhani had accepted Trump’s suggestion to meet, that would have dominated the G-7 coverage and forced the media to paint him as a reasonable leader — even if others would have understandable concern over what Trump might do in such a meeting. Rouhani rejecting the invitation makes Iran and Rouhani look foolish and weak, and it will likely set back their efforts to split the EU from the US on sanctions. Next time, Khameini should send a better stuntman.

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