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U.S. President Donald Trump has lost faith that his campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran will bring that country to its knees. Trump’s firing last week of John Bolton, the latest of the administration’s national security advisers, signaled as much. And the recent attacks on Saudi oil sites suggest that Bolton’s approach, which was supposed to bring about Iranian capitulation, may instead have begotten Iranian counterescalation and a short brush with war.
By firing Bolton, Trump has telegraphed a possible willingness to ease his Iran sanctions, in order to secure at least one foreign policy success before his reelection campaign kicks into full gear. But the success of any U.S. outreach will depend on how it is received in Tehran, where an intense debate has raged for several months over whether to engage Trump directly or not.
Thus far, Tehran has resisted negotiations so long as the United States won’t re-implement the nuclear deal. Having already struck—and adhered to—a risky deal with Washington, the Iranians have been in no mood to give more concessions to a party that has violated the agreement and made a mockery of the painstaking negotiations that produced it.
Moreover, Tehran understands Trump’s ultimate objective as regime change, followed by Iran’s total capitulation. Trump’s choice of national security personnel—and of allies in Iran’s neighborhood—has long reinforced this impression. The presence of Bolton, in particular, in the Trump administration signified an unyielding hard line that was a deal killer.
By sacking Bolton, Trump may have prompted Tehran to reassess one part of its calculation. But Tehran’s assessment runs deeper and entails more reservations than can be addressed with a simple change of personnel. If Washington hopes to negotiate with Iran, it will need to convince Tehran that it’s looking for a deal rather than capitulation, and that the United States’ signature counts for something.
For some years now, Tehran has viewed virtually all of Trump’s moves through the prism of regime change. If Washington offered dialogue, Iranian leaders reckoned, Trump probably intended to engineer the collapse of the talks, blame Tehran for the failure, and then rally the international community behind his economic warfare. Diplomacy with Trump was simply a trap.
Even if Tehran could imagine that Trump’s intentions were not so nefarious, it had no basis for confidence that negotiations could lead to a deal, let alone one that Trump would honor. The U.S. president had surrounded himself with hawks who had a distinguished track record of opposing—or in Bolton’s case, sabotaging—diplomacy. Trump further treated staunch opponents of U.S.-Iran talks, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with deference. Iranian leaders assessed the U.S. president as not only untrustworthy but also in thrall to detractors of diplomacy within his circle.
Where Trump has shown the willingness to negotiate, the Iranians have noted, he has often proved unable to follow through: Tehran has closely studied Trump’s interactions with the North Koreans and concluded that the U.S. president lacks the ability and the attention span to push his own bureaucracy to implement his promises. Tehran’s consultations with Moscow and Pyongyang have reinforced this conclusion.
Tehran has closely studied Trump’s interactions with the North Koreans and concluded that the U.S. president lacks the ability and the attention span to push his own bureaucracy to implement his promises.
More than follow-through, Trump produces photo ops—and these are particularly problematic for the Iranians. While some in Washington argue that U.S. presidents “legitimize” foreign governments by meeting with them, Iranian leaders see such encounters from quite the opposite perspective. To be considered beholden to the United States is politically ruinous in Iran’s political context. For this reason, photo ops with American officials carry tremendous costs while offering few, if any, benefits. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accordingly declined an opportunity to meet with President Barack Obama in New York even after the nuclear deal was struck. A handshake with Trump would be far riskier for Rouhani.
Trump has indicated that he would like to meet with Rouhani as the world’s nations gather for the UN General Assembly meetings over the coming week. He may imagine that he will come away with a satisfying photo op and a declaration that he is the first American president to meet with his Iranian counterpart since the 1979 Revolution. But Rouhani would need much more than that to make such an encounter (and the risks it entails) worthwhile. The Iranian president would need to be able to say that he had secured his country’s objectives of de-escalation and an end to Trump’s economic warfare—not just a pause in hostilities but a rollback.
A meeting that doesn’t have this guaranteed outcome may be too perilous for Rouhani. Tehran now insists that Trump lift sanctions before a meeting can take place: Rouhani can’t return to Tehran having shaken the hand of the person who has bragged about crushing Iran’s economy, threatened Iran with annihilation, and sought to destabilize the country, particularly if U.S. policies remain unchanged. Tehran understands that to agree to a meeting, with all the attendant risks, is a valuable card for it to play, and it will be careful not to waste it.
For all that, some kind of U.S.-Iran encounter at the United Nations is not inconceivable. Both countries have political capital and leverage to lose if they don’t engage. And both leaderships could pay a hefty political price if they are seen as bringing about a confrontation by rejecting or mishandling an opportunity to defuse tensions.
Iran’s economy has suffered immensely from the sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed, but there are few signs of collapse. On the contrary, Tehran has withstood the pain far more effectively than Trump seems to have expected. Moreover, the open hostility that the Trump administration has shown to the Iranian nation—from instituting a visa ban that disproportionally affected Iranians to imposing “the strongest sanctions in history” while disingenuously claiming they wouldn’t hurt the Iranian people—seems to have ensured that blame for the country’s hardships is laid at the feet of the United States. The Iranian population appears disinclined at the moment to stage mass protests against its government. In fact, an Israeli report published last month reveals that protests in Iran have dropped significantly since October 2018, despite the deteriorating economic situation.
But Trump’s firing of Bolton and near-desperate messaging that he wants talks may complicate matters for Tehran. If no talks take place, and Trump further escalates the economic pressure, the population could conclude—rightly or wrongly—that Iran had an opportunity for de-escalation but spurned it. Iranians might then shift their frustration to the clerical establishment. And though Tehran has proved that it can withstand Trump’s sanctions, it has not proved that it can withstand the anger of the population if a critical mass of Iranians view the Iranian leadership—and not Trump—as the cause of the country’s economic misery.
In order not to appear to have missed an opportunity to de-escalate, the Rouhani government might consider carefully orchestrating some movement toward an encounter with Trump. Back in 2012, Iran’s former foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, made a similar calculation when he raised the idea of a backchannel to the United States with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Salehi’s winning argument was that in case tensions would lead to war, Iran’s leadership needed to show the Iranian populace that it had done everything in its power to resolve the conflict peacefully. Ayatollah Khamenei greenlighted the backchannel, which set the stage for the nuclear deal.
Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that Iran has been preparing for negotiations at some point in the future by building up its leverage. In the last few months, Iran has ceased adhering to some restrictions of the nuclear agreement, including the limits to its stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium. It may or may not be behind attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, which rattled markets and increased the risk of war. It shot down a sophisticated American drone it claimed was in Iranian airspace, demonstrating both a capability and a political will that surprised the United States and its allies. Most countries would have turned a blind eye to an American drone sneaking into its territory. By shooting one down, Iran demonstrated that it was ready for war with the United States if attacked.
And then came the fires engulfing Saudi oil refineries. The attacks caused the greatest drop in oil production in history, prompting oil prices to jump 19 percent. If oil prices rise further, the world will inch closer to a global recession, which, among other things, could cost Trump his reelection. If Iran is behind this, whether directly or indirectly, it has shown that it can inflict significant damage with dire consequences for all.
By flexing its capabilities and political will, Tehran likely seeks both to build leverage and to deter aggression. But just as Trump could not translate his sanctions into real leverage without pursuing direct talks with Iran, Tehran, too, will need to bring its strength to the table for it to be effective. Leverage is a tricky thing. If you don’t use it, you may lose it.
When President Obama finally broke through with the Iranians during the secret negotiations in Oman in 2012–13, he did not do so because the United States simply wielded overwhelming leverage over Iran. The breakthrough came because Iran, too, had leverage, and as a result both sides were less reticent to engage. Both felt that they came to the table in positions of strength, and both also recognized that they could lose their best negotiating cards if they didn’t engage. Trump and Rouhani may be in a similar situation today.