Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday. In the week leading up to the gathering of world leaders, there was discussion about a possible meeting between Rouhani and United States President Donald Trump. Before the conference began, however, both sides downplayed the idea.
“Nothing’s ever off the table completely, but I have no intention of meeting with Iran, and that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I’m a flexible person,” Trump said on Sunday. His remarks came only two days after he imposed new sanctions on Iran’s central bank and sovereign wealth fund in addition to sending more American troops to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Previously, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated Trump would be willing to meet with his Iranian counterpart with no preconditions and several members of his administration — and even Trump himself – corroborated that position before Trump accused it of being “fake news.”
During a Fox News interview, Rouhani said before meeting, there must be concessions on the American’s side.
“Why would we bump into one another?” he said. “If we seek to pursue higher goals to benefit both countries, both people, it must be planned, and talks must be based on those plans. But prior to that, we must create mutual trust, and the trust is something that Mr. Trump took away from this framework. We had an agreement. Mr. Trump exited without a valid justification, and illegally, from an international agreement.”
Rouhani went on to accuse the US of spreading terrorism across the region, using Syria as an example. This idea carried over into his speech at the UN Wednesday.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Middle East is burning in the flames of war, bloodshed, aggression, occupation and religious and sectarian fanaticism and extremism,” Rouhani declared. Then Rouhani introduced a new initiative he called the security coalition of HOPE, an acronym standing for the Hormuz Peace Endeavor. The basis for the plan is to leverage the Strait of Hormuz as a political tool to force cooperation among the region. A large portion of the Persian Gulf stretches alongside Iranian coastline, making it a key player in the issues surrounding the strait. Rouhani did not expand upon how HOPE would operate, but emphasized that peace in the Middle East could only be made through Middle Eastern states cooperating, not by foreign powers such as the US occupying countries.
“The security of our region shall be provided when American troops pull out,” he said. “Security shall not be supplied with American weapons and intervention.”
In addition to calling for a US withdrawal from the region, Rouhani also stated Saudi Arabia must end its aggression in Yemen. Iran has also been involved in the civil war by supporting Houthi rebels, which claimed responsibility for the Sept. 14 on Saudi oil facilities. Yemen, together with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, terrorism in the Middle East has gone unabated since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
Rouhani warned that a “single blunder” could “fuel a big fire” in the Middle East in regards to military activity. Many feared that blunder happened during the drone attack, but much to the surprise of Saudi Arabia, Washington leaders refused to commit to a retaliatory strike on Iran. The US initially blamed Tehran and on Monday, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany all joined Washington in pointing the finger at Rouhani’s government, which continues to deny involvement.
Those same countries continued their plan to meet with Rouhani regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as the Iranian nuclear deal. Talks with American negotiators have been stalled for some time during which Iran has gradually begun exceeding the limits imposed under the framework of the agreement. European leaders have met with Iranian representatives on several previous occasions to try and bring Tehran back to compliance, but the major barrier has been the disastrous economic effects caused by American sanctions. European signatories to the accord created INSTEX, a bartering exchange system in an attempt to curtail some those effects, but it has thus far been unsuccessful according to Federica Mogherini, European Union foreign policy chief.
“As you know, the agreement has two pillars — the nuclear commitment and the economic side that is linked to the sanctions lifting. On both elements, there is full determination to try and preserve the agreement,” Mogerhini said following a meeting with Rouhani.
Ultimately, even if EU powers are able to create a workable arrangement with Rouhani that helps its economy, discussions with the US must resume at some point. For that to happen, Rouhani said Washington must cave on sanctions.
“We once negotiated under sanctions. We will not do so again. Halt the sanctions and return to your commitments so the dialogue may reopen,” he said told the General Assembly. “Our patience has a limit.”
The General Assembly was the perfect opportunity for Trump to have a change of heart on Iran. He reportedly had been previously considering a $15 billion stimulus package before the attack in Saudi Arabia, so the willingness was at least once there to resume negotiations. Rouhani’s insistence that Washington remove sanctions before meeting is unrealistic, especially in light of the newest round on Sept. 20. However, it is possible that European leaders who have shown a continued desire to meet with Tehran could convince their American counterpart to do the same.