Dennis Horak was Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2015-18 and Canada’s head of mission in Iran from 2009-12. He retired after a 31-year diplomatic career.
Coming out of the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, a meeting between the Iranian and United States presidents seems a genuine possibility. But even if it does happen – and it remains a big if − the prospect of a meaningful agreement between the two remains remote.
We have seen the Korean-language version of this movie before and it produced little of significance beyond a budding bromance between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. North Korea is still a strategic challenge and any meeting between Mr. Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is likely to be equally unsatisfying.
While Mr. Trump’s apparent willingness to personally engage Iran caught most observers off-guard, a meeting with Mr. Rouhani presents him with another ego-boosting opportunity to enhance his historical legacy. He would be the first U.S. president to meet his Iranian counterpart since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It would be the Middle East version of his crossing of the DMZ in Korea.
The international community, especially Washington’s partners in the Iran nuclear agreement, would applaud this effort to de-escalate tensions and return some sanity to the Iran nuclear file.
But both sides face important obstacles and challenges in moving off their established and confrontational positions.
Engagement with Iran will not be universally welcomed. Hawks in Mr. Trump’s own administration and among his base will be wary. The United States’ key regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, will be apoplectic at the prospect of any weakening of U.S. pressure on the Islamic Republic at a time when Iran is starting to feel the real pinch of the policy of “maximum pressure.” They are, also, doubtless worried that Mr. Trump’s demands fail to address their key concerns about Iran’s meddling and destabilizing regional behaviour.
Mr. Rouhani also has a tough road ahead in clearing a path to a meeting with Mr. Trump. Iran has already ruled out a meeting without the removal of “unlawful” U.S. sanctions (which the U.S. has rejected). Hardliners in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei chief among them, will be reluctant to be seen to be caving into U.S. pressure by turning up for a meeting while still subject to escalating U.S. pressure.
While a meeting between the two presidents would be a welcome development and potentially could shift the Iran-U.S. narrative to more constructive grounds, the reality is that neither side is likely interested in making the strategic compromises necessary to fully bridge the wide gap that exists between them on the core issues at play.
The United States wants significant concessions on Iranian enrichment and severe restrictions on its missile program to make this new deal better than “Obama’s failure." The Iranians will not give up their right to enrich and their missile program is a core element of their strategic defence, which is off-limits to negotiation.
The Iranians are feeling the pain of sanctions, but they are famously resilient. Iran’s supreme leader is unlikely to approve any moves that smack of capitulation. Mr. Khamenei has long been concerned that concessions by Tehran will leave the door open to further demands and pressures. The concessions made by Tehran in the original nuclear deal were a difficult sell in Iran. Mr. Trump’s subsequent withdrawal from that deal likely only confirmed the Ayatollah’s suspicions about the risk of showing weakness in the face of pressure.
Despite these challenges and obstacles, it would be foolish in Trump-world to rule out the unexpected. A Trump-Rouhani meeting could produce a deal that merely tweaked the former agreement sufficiently for Mr. Trump to declare victory and laud his legendary negotiation skills, even if it didn’t shift the ground substantially on either the nuclear or missile fronts. The new North American Free Trade Agreement and his largely meaningless “agreement” with North Korea are useful models.
The Iranians, too, will need something to justify even paper concessions. Better and broader movement on sanctions relief than those that emerged after the signing of the previous agreement would help. But American moves on the economic front will have to extend beyond Mr. Trump’s promise to “make Iran rich again." Iran’s neighbours (and his hawks) will also need something to address concerns about what a newly flush Iran would do with all those extra funds.
Despite the challenges, a Trump-Rouhani summit is worth a shot. It won’t produce the kind of love affair Mr. Trump claims to have with Mr. Kim. Anti-Americanism remains a pillar of the Islamic Revolution and that is unlikely to change any time soon. But direct engagement could reduce tensions and improve understanding. Who knows, it might even produce a few surprises.
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