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What Would It Take for Iran’s President to Meet With Trump?

Tehran Needs to Know Washington’s Word Counts for Something

Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, September 2018 Brendan Mcdermid / Reuters

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.

A Photo Op Is Not Enough

For some years now, Tehran has viewed virtually

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