During a recent speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared that “Obama, the president of the United States, asked me nineteen times for a meeting. But the government did not have the authorization to respond.” Most likely, President Barack Obama did not ask 19 times for such a meeting, but another U.S. president has made it publicly clear that he wants to have talks with Iran.
Rouhani was signaling to his own hard-liners that it was time to engage President Donald Trump. Iran cannot win a war against the U.S., but it is confident it can outwit Washington at the negotiating table. The most persistent question in Iran today is not about war but whether it is time to entrap the Americans in another lengthy diplomatic process.
For the past two years, the Trump administration has had the luxury of imposing a series of punitive sanctions on Tehran without the Iranians doing anything in response. They gave truculent speeches and pledged defiance while essentially waiting for 2020, when, they hope, a more accommodating Democratic president will come to power. The guardians of the Islamic republic assured themselves that the Trump team would not be able to persuade America’s allies to join in its sanctions policy, much less drive Iran’s oil exports to zero. They were comfortable with maintaining a state of confrontation with Washington and relished rejecting Trump’s persistent calls for direct talks.
All this has now changed. Iran’s economy is imploding, and the inflation rate there is skyrocketing. The Trump administration has deterred European commerce and Asian investment from going into Iran. And it may yet succeed in driving down Iran’s oil imports close to zero. These are ominous signs for a regime whose power is based on an elaborate welfare state that sustains its dwindling supporters. Today it is patronage and not piety that holds up the wobbly foundations of the Islamist regime.
For now, the Islamic republic has settled on a policy of calibrated terrorism. This has been one of the more ingenious innovations of the theocratic state, which engages in acts of terror where its complicity is clear but difficult to prove. It is unlikely that the Revolutionary Guards’ creaky speedboats will confront the U.S. armada in the Persian Gulf any more than they will directly attack U.S. troops in the region. But Iran will gradually escalate pressure by relying on its many proxies to target the United States’ accomplices, particularly the Saudis. Oil installations, diplomatic compounds and trade routes are likely to be menaced by Iran’s Arab agents. This will not be a systematic campaign of terrorism but a selective use of violence over a prolonged period. This policy is not without its risks, but it does have the advantage of putting pressure on the U.S. without risking retaliation.
The real targets of Iran’s moves are not the Saudis, or even American hawks such as national security adviser John Bolton, but Congress, the Democratic Party and the Europeans. Iran has retreated from some of its commitments under the nuclear deal, thus causing much alarm about the full resumption of its nuclear program. This is designed to press the Trump White House to ratchet down its coercive measures.
The subtle debate in Tehran today revolves around whether it is time to take up Trump’s offer of talks. Rouhani and his cagey Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have long been intrigued by the possibility of negotiating with Trump. The two led the Iran talks with the Europeans in 2005, as well as the more consequential negotiations in 2015 that yielded a nuclear accord that satisfied Tehran’s needs. The lesson that they have drawn from those experiences is that Iran seldom loses at diplomacy. The Obama team showed up at the talks seeking to proscribe domestic enrichment in Iran and left with an accord that recognized both Iran’s right to enrich and the industrialization of that capacity after a certain period. The Rouhani-Zarif team clearly perceives that it can use talks to similarly chip away at whatever prohibitions the Trump team brings with it. It is hard to fault their history or reasoning.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hard-line disciples stand in the way of Rouhani’s diplomatic gambit. They believe the Islamic republic should strive for insularity rather than integration in a global society that will only generate pressures for reform. They are comfortable with a policy of hostility and seemingly disregard the considerable success Iran has had in its various diplomatic encounters with the West. Their preferred confrontational policy is one that comes with limited cost. They appreciate — better than their Western defenders — just how fragile their republic has become. The Trump administration’s maximum-pressure strategy is empowering Rouhani as he seeks to press his supreme leader into granting him an opportunity to coax concessions from another set of Americans.
Should the Rouhani-Zarif strategy succeed, Iran is likely to couple its measured escalation with private hints of willingness to talk. The authorities in Tehran have already offered to negotiate over Americans held hostage in Iran. This was meant to jump-start the processes of diplomacy that could soon cover other areas of contention. The Trump team may find itself in its most significant Iran dilemma yet — namely dealing with Tehran’s diplomats rather than its soldiers.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.