In remarks to reporters at the White House, Trump this month sent a message to the Iranian leaders, saying: “What I’d like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me… What they should be doing is calling me up, sitting down; we can make a deal, a fair deal… We’re not looking to hurt Iran. I want them to be strong and great and have a great economy. But they should call and, if they do, we’re open to talk to them.” The White House has also passed to Swiss officials in Tehran a phone number to give to the Iranian government in case it wanted to call the president directly.
Iran has resisted holding diplomatic talks with the US so far but, if the economic pressure continues, Tehran will most likely change its mind. If that should occur, the critical question is: Who should the US or international community negotiate with?
Washington should refrain from negotiating with the same Iranian team as the previous US administration. This primarily includes President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. This is due to the fact that negotiations with the Iranian president would most likely be fruitless, unproductive and useless for several reasons.
First of all, Rouhani is seen as a lame duck and unpopular president in Iran. When he first ran for president in 2013, he made several promises in an effort to rally people behind him. One of the promises was to improve people’s living standards by having four rounds of UN sanctions against Iran lifted. Diplomatic initiatives were subsequently conducted between the Islamic Republic and the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US), plus Germany. Rouhani and his technocrat team succeeded in removing sanctions against Tehran through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in July 2015.
Tehran rejoined the global financial system, gained legitimacy, increased oil exports, and billions of dollars of extra revenues flowed into the regime’s treasury. Nevertheless, this extra income did not trickle down to the ordinary Iranians. The main beneficiaries were the Office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its affiliates, including the Quds Force and the paramilitary Basij group. The regime also funneled the money into arming and empowering militia groups in the region in order to expand its influence and achieve its hegemonic ambitions.
The Iranian people have lost faith in Rouhani, particularly in the last year, as the economy has substantially deteriorated. In fact, the poor living standards of an overwhelming majority of the Iranian population and the widespread protests that have occurred among many sectors of society (including teachers, truck drivers and the unemployed) forced the so-called moderate Rouhani to admit that the country is facing its worst economic challenge in four decades.
According to Iran’s presidential website, Rouhani in January spoke at a ceremony at the shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stating that: “Today the country is facing the biggest pressure and economic sanctions in the past 40 years.”
Zahra, an Iranian human rights activist, said: “The government tells us that it is the fault of the US, Israel and Iran’s enemies that the economy has gotten worse, but people are pointing a finger at Rouhani for his policies, mismanagement and silence in the face of the hard-liners.”
In addition, after scoring a victory through the nuclear deal, Rouhani and his team enabled and empowered the IRGC and the hard-liners to ratchet up their military adventurism in the region. Conflicts in the region escalated and Tehran increased its meddling in the internal affairs of several countries, including Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
Furthermore, it is not only the ordinary people who view Rouhani and his team as discredited, but also those who have the final say in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. Last week, Khamenei chastised Rouhani and Zarif. According to the Supreme Leader’s official website, he pointed out: “To some extent, I did not believe in the way that the nuclear deal was implemented. Many times I reminded both the president and the foreign minister.”
Khamenei has also previously criticized Rouhani’s administration over the country’s economic crisis and for failing to address the people’s demands. “If all necessary measures regarding the resistance economy had been implemented, we would have witnessed a tangible difference in the country’s economic conditions and in people’s lives,” he said in 2017.
In a nutshell, any potential negotiations with Iran’s President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif would prove to be fruitless because Rouhani’s administration is discredited in Iran, in the region, and on the global stage.