US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reportedly both agreed with a recent plan to restart US-Iran talks, however things went off course before the agreement could proceed further. French leader Emmanuel Macron acted as a go-between to get the two parties together, but Rouhani walked away from a later planned phone call with Trump after demanding the US first explicitly promise to lift heavy sanctions as a precondition to further discussion.
The four-point document drafted by Macron was aimed at restarting talks between the countries and deescalating the currently high tensions. Macron attempted to mediate between the two leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly along with support from other leaders such as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The diplomatic document saw Iran promise to “never acquire a nuclear weapon” and “fully comply with its nuclear obligations and commitments.” It also stipulated that Iran “refrain from any aggression” and “seek genuine peace and respect in the region through negotiations.” In return, the US government agreed to lift sanctions that were re-levied in 2017 and allow Iran to openly and fully export its oil. The document would have let Trump claim diplomatic victory for reining in Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional expansion and Iran claim victory from crippling sanctions. It would also let France reclaim a place as a world player in geopolitics.
Iranian leader Ali Khamenei recently stated that any negotiations should be a no-go until the US signs back on to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or as it is colloquially known “Iran Deal” to limit Iranian nuclear development. Two years ago President Rouhani also stated that “no one will trust America again” if Trump were to exit the JCPOA. In remarks prior to this year’s UNGA, Rouhani said that “mutual trust” would have to be reestablished for him to meet with Trump but “the trust is something that Mr. Trump took away from this framework.” Speaking at the UNGA, Trump castigated Iran’s influence in the Middle East and Gulf, saying it is a nation full of “bloodlust” and “menacing behavior.” Tensions between Iran and the US and West have spiked this past year after various incidents, especially since the Sept. 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities that Trump and various European nations blamed on Iran.
Macron, for his part, said the deal fell apart partly due to differences in the leadership realities of President Trump and President Rouhani. Whereas Trump makes many executive decisions and sometimes moves apart from his administration, Rouhani is only one rung of the ladder in a complex hierarchy and must consistently consider the opinions of many other individuals, including hardline elements in Iran who are opposed to resuming talks with the American government in any capacity.
Ultimately, after making sure audio equipment was set up in a secure room of the hotel ready for Rouhani, Macron was disappointed that Rouhani would not leave his room and Trump was reportedly left hanging on the line. The French are continuing to push for a diplomatic solution, despite the fact that this attempt failed.
This situation is reminiscent of North Korea peace talks which reportedly fell apart when North Korea asked for an end to all sanctions as part of the deal. Trump simply would not concede anything to the North Koreans and demanded that every American demand be fully accepted in order to proceed, especially that North Korea turn over all nuclear weapons and bomb fuel prior to reduction of sanctions. Remarks by former US National Security Advisor John Bolton that Trump would follow “the Libya model” if North Korea didn’t agree to all its demands also contributed to the tense environment in which the deal fell through. For his part, Bolton is now saying military strikes may be the only option to halt the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear program and that Trump was too diplomatic.
While it is undeniable that diplomacy is exceedingly difficult, but sometimes even bad guys need to get a few concessions in order to keep them at the table. President Trump’s strategy of approaching diplomacy by only making demands is ineffective, and Bolton’s strategy of attacking first and asking questions later is disastrously ill-advised. Further, Trump’s action in walking away from the JCPOA and his choice in pursuing an erratic foreign policy of half-cocked statements and wild threats is not conducive to creating a future deal. As other leaders like Macron work to come up with answers, it’s all too likely that Trump’s behaviour and policy decisions will have already contributed to new—and worse—problems by the time initial solutions to resuming Iran negotiations are in place.