The White House has denied reports that President Trump requested an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
On Sunday the Associated Press reported the claim of Iran’s foreign ministry, initially issued through Iranian state television, that the White House approached the Iranian delegation with a request for the meeting. The meeting request was said to have been made a day after Trump gave a fiery speech before the UN assembly which included denouncing Iran as a state-sponsor of terror and a “corrupt dictatorship” which spreads violence across the Middle East – a speech which many saw as a closer step toward the unraveling of the Iranian nuclear deal brokered under Obama.
Though the two heads of state haven’t communicated directly since 2013, when then President Obama spoke to Rouhani by telephone, which provoked a reaction by Iranian hardliners, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said over the weekend that, “a request indeed was made by the U.S. side but it wasn’t accepted by President Rouhani.”
Soon after reports of the rebuffed meeting were circulated, the White House told The Hill that the Iranian official’s account “is false” while not elaborating further. If Iran’s account of the events are true, it would put the Trump White House in a highly embarrassing position of weakness regarding it’s tough stance on the nuclear deal – Trump has been aggressively critical of the deal, yet has stopped short of taking concrete steps to pull the plug altogether.
However, last week Congress passed a series of bills which took aim at Iran’s ballistic missile program, which critics point out was never part of the deal to begin with, apparently in a move to undermine the deal. On Wednesday and Thursday of last week Congress also took aim at both Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah – long seen as a proxy arm of Shiite Iran – through the The Iran Ballistic Missiles and Sanctions Enforcement Act and the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act.
But while the US has made moves to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal, Europe has largely stuck by Iran while to some degree isolating Trump over what European partners perceive as attempts to weaken and back out of the agreement – the international powers backing the deal include the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany. Rumors that France’s Emmanuel Macron had been attempting to mediate between the US and Iran were denied by Iran’s foreign ministry on Sunday, according to Bloomberg.
Meanwhile, Tehran has repeatedly affirmed its position that the existing terms of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the nuclear deal) are non-negotiable, and reiterated to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency over the weekend that it would continue to comply with the terms of the deal and wouldn’t be the first to abandon it, perhaps in a subtle passing reference to the United States.
Iran’s Rouhani previously warned, prior to Trump’s UN speech, that US abandonment of the deal would come at a “high cost” to Washington. And Rouhani’s own September speech before the UN assembly included a fierce reaction to Trump’s address, calling Trump a “rogue newcomer” bringing “ugly, ignorant words”.
But the fact that Iran chose to make public it’s version of events over the weekend – that it rejected a secret face-to-face dialogue with Trump – at the very least shows that Iran feels increasingly confident it has the backing of other world powers that are part of the deal. The information is most certainly designed to make the US administration look bad as Rouhani may be calling Trump’s bluff.
Trump’s September speech condemning Iran was likely part of a broader “carrot and stick” approach: a strategy which would perhaps involve publicly signalling escalation of hostilities designed to induce the Iranian president to agree to the “reward” of secretive direct talks. But Rouhani knows that as soon as he’s in the room with the American president it’s a diplomatic win for the US as the bar can be moved apart from other signatory countries of the JCPOA (or Rouhani’s own words at that point could be later used against Iran).
It appears Rouhani didn’t fall into the trap, however, and the weekend revelations coming out of Iranian state media are perhaps a way of rubbing it in while asserting a new Iranian confidence on the world stage.
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