Trump-Rouhani Summit Hopes Wither in Ten Days of Rising Tensions
U.S. President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump-Rouhani Summit Hopes Wither in Ten Days of Rising Tensions

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(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump wanted to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani badly enough to break with his national security adviser, entertain a French initiative that would undercut U.S. oil sanctions on Tehran and defy the wishes of a stalwart ally, Israel.

But in the span of ten days that saw John Bolton’s ouster and a brazen drone and cruise missile assault on key Saudi oil facilities, talk of a historic meeting between the two presidents during the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week has withered. Now Iran’s foreign minister is warning there’s a risk of “all-out war.

Trump-Rouhani Summit Hopes Wither in Ten Days of Rising Tensions

Saturday’s strike on one of the world’s largest oil installations hit the nerve center of Saudi Arabia’s energy industry, sending a jolt through the global economy and delivering an embarrassing blow to a country that’s at the center of Trump’s Mideast strategy.

While Iran was quick to deny involvement, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia blamed the Islamic Republic, without saying whether the attacks were launched from Iranian territory. Trump said on Wednesday that he wanted tougher sanctions on Iran while signaling wariness about getting the U.S. enmeshed in another Middle East conflict.

“It’s very easy to attack,” Trump told reporters during a trip to Los Angeles. “How did going in Iraq work out?,” he added of a conflict that he’s long criticized. Yet later in the day he talked tough, saying, “Just one phone call, we could go in -- that might happen.”

Landing in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday on a hastily arranged two-day visit, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo signaled his immediate focus was on working with allies, saying the goal of his trip was to “build out a coalition to develop a plan to deter” Iran.

Even after the attacks on Saudi Arabia, Trump, who relishes one-on-one meetings with adversaries such as North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, has predicted Iranian leaders will sit down with him when the time is right. “I don’t think they’re ready yet,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “But they’ll be ready.”

At least for now, though, “it’s much harder for the U.S. to be seen meeting with Iran in the aftermath of this action,” Richard Haass, a veteran U.S. diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. “The U.S. is now weighing its response to the attack, and the question is how do you hit back in a way that doesn’t push diplomacy further away.”

Trump-Rouhani Summit Hopes Wither in Ten Days of Rising Tensions

If Iran was in fact behind the latest attacks, they signal that the country remains capable of inflicting pain on its regional rivals and the global economy even after U.S. sanctions cut off much of the oil revenue that sustains its economy. Some officials in Tehran believe regime change is America’s ultimate goal and are demanding that sanctions are eased before any talks with Trump.

“Dialogue between Iran and the U.S. at the UN is impossible unless the U.S. policies change by that time,” said Diako Hosseini, director of the World Studies Programme at the Tehran-based Centre for Strategic Studies, which advises Rouhani. That echoes the position of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said on Monday that without “repentance” Trump can forget about talks.

On Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that any U.S. or Saudi strike on his country in response to the attacks on the kingdom’s critical oil facilities would lead to “all-out war.” Later on Twitter, he wrote, “Iran does NOT want war, but we will NOT hesitate to defend ourselves.”

Pompeo initially suggested he wouldn’t issue travel visas to Rouhani and Zarif to attend the UN gathering, saying they are “connected to a foreign terrorist organization.” But issuing the documents is a pro forma requirement of the U.S. agreement for hosting the global body and by Thursday, Iranian and U.S. officials said visas had been granted.

Bolton’s Dismissal

Nothing did as much to fuel the possibility of a Trump-Rouhani meeting on the sidelines of the UN as Bolton’s dismissal last week. The former national security adviser had a long history of advocating preemptive strikes on Iran and scored an early victory when he joined the Trump administration last year, persuading the president to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal brokered by President Barack Obama.

With Bolton gone, a meeting with Iran’s leaders would have been another precedent-shattering achievement for a president who has touted his ability to forge personal relationships with authoritarian leaders from Kim to Russian President Vladimir Putin. A meeting during the annual UN gathering of world leaders also would have been relatively easy to organize because Trump and Rouhani were expected to be in New York, staying just a few blocks apart.

Trump-Rouhani Summit Hopes Wither in Ten Days of Rising Tensions

With Trump having a penchant for dismissing the advice of his top aides, the bigger hurdle to such talks always seemed to be the Iranians and the political calculus they would face: a meeting that didn’t result in eased sanctions would be seen as a humiliating “photo op” that would undermine the regime.

Mindful of the potential pitfalls, Iranians have long favored quiet talks or discussions through intermediaries instead. Iranian leaders have in recent weeks pressed European nations that are still in the 2015 nuclear deal to help broker a breakthrough that would allow it to get its crude back on the market.

Losing Face

“If Iran came to the table tomorrow, without caveats, it would lose face,” said Ariane Tabatabai, adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

European sponsors of the nuclear deal had grown optimistic that Trump might reverse course and help salvage the accord, albeit with tougher restrictions on Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron floated a $15 billion financial package that would ease the pressure of U.S. sanctions and Trump at one point suggested he might go for the idea.

Instead, the attacks in Saudi Arabia have sparked a discussion of how the U.S. and its allies should retaliate, casting a pall over the fitful efforts at diplomacy.

European officials are now choosing their words carefully -- trying to keep their efforts to salvage the accord separate from any coordinated response to the strike on Saudi Arabia. U.K. Ambassador to the UN Karen Pierce said her country was still assessing where the attacks came from, but acknowledged that the bombing complicates diplomatic efforts.

Pierce predicted lower expectations for an impromptu meeting even if Rouhani and Zarif come to New York, saying “I’m not expecting them to be walking down the same corridor at the same time” as Trump. Still, she added, “Meetings can happen at a very short notice in the margins of UNGA.”

Trump left the thinnest of cracks open this week to talks, appearing to contradict his secretary of state by saying Rouhani should be allowed to come to UN.

“I would let them come,” he said. “I’ve always felt the United Nations is very important.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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