Trump's photo-op diplomacy won't work in Iran
Bertram Niles

As the 2015 Iran nuclear deal unravels, hopes have been raised in the past few weeks that diplomacy may replace noisy saber-rattling.

President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the agreement, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), last year, has added an unwelcome layer of tension to the Middle East and brought further scrutiny to his unilateralist approach to global affairs.

On Wednesday, Trump did not rule out the possibility of meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the forthcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York to begin a dialogue, saying: "Anything's possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem."

But Trump is being cautioned that the Iranians are not looking to him just for photo opportunities. Foreign policy analyst Negar Mortazavi likened the U.S. president's apparent interest in a U.S.-Iran summit to how he interacted with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) on nuclear issues.

Appearing on the CGTN discussion program, The Heat, which reviewed developments surrounding the atomic deal, she said, "What President Trump is really after is a photo op and a summit but the problem is that Iran is not (the DPRK) and a photo op is not diplomacy." 

Mortazavi has argued that it suited the DPRK leader to be seen alongside the U.S. president but photo-ops with American leaders, especially Trump, won't play well domestically in Iran and could come at a high political cost for Rouhani if nothing concrete comes out of a summit with the U.S. president. Still, she told the program that the chances of a meeting were diminishing.

Also on Wednesday, Iran raised the stakes by announcing it would take another step away from the 2015 accord by starting to develop centrifuges to speed up its uranium enrichment.

Iran had agreed to rein in its atomic program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions in negotiations that involved the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – China, the United States, France, Russia, and Britain – plus Germany and the European Union.

Maximum pressure

After a period during which it stuck to the agreement, Iran has begun to chip away at the margins, such as moving just beyond its 3.67 percent-enrichment limit and its stockpile rules. 

"What we are going to see is a gradual step-by-step renunciation of elements of the JCPOA by Iran as well in the hope that they can probably spread this out over a long period possibly with the hope that President Trump will lose the election in 2020," Inderjeet Parmar, the head of department of international politics at City University of London, told The Heat.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) listens to the head of Iran's nuclear technology organisation Ali Akbar Salehi during "Nuclear Technology Day" in Tehran on April 9, 2019. /VCG Photo

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) listens to the head of Iran's nuclear technology organisation Ali Akbar Salehi during "Nuclear Technology Day" in Tehran on April 9, 2019. /VCG Photo

He sees no end to the "maximum pressure" of the U.S., which this week imposed fresh sanctions designed to choke off the smuggling of Iranian oil. The aim is to force Iran to accept far more comprehensive and permanent restrictions on its nuclear program. 

Professor Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran told The Heat that the Iranians had remained faithful to the agreement to allow Europe to salvage it following the U.S. pullout and also to steer any blame toward the Americans. Europe had pledged to work to find a mechanism to protect Iran from the impact of sanctions, 

"But after over a year, the Iranians lost patience ... and they told the Europeans that if you don't start committing yourself to the JCPOA then we are going to have to leave," he said. "The Iranians have been telling the Europeans that they can't have their cake and eat it too."

'Thuggish manner'

An 11th-hour French proposal offering a 15-billion-dollar line of credit to compensate Iran for lost oil sales was rebuffed this week by the Trump administration, at least for now.

Marandi does not expect Tehran to enter negotiations with Washington unless Trump agrees to rejoin the nuclear accord. "That would be encouraging the regime in Washington to behave in the same thuggish manner in future," he said. 

In supporting the U.S. administration on the discussion program, Michael Johns, the co-founder of the U.S. National Tea Party movement, said Americans had voted to support Trump's tough stance on Iran.

"The one thing that is an absolute guarantee; Iran will not develop nuclear weapons on the watch of this president. By negotiation, by isolation, by sanctions, and if necessary by military force, that will be stopped," he thundered.

The Iranians deny seeking nuclear weapons.

But Johns' comment does raise the question as to how much can be achieved on this and some other international issues between now and the U.S. presidential election just a little over a year away.