The art of the Iranian deal: How Trump can talk to Tehran

Iranian experts say US needs to deliver confidence-building measures for Tehran to open its doors to negotiations.

Zarif Kerry
In 2015, Iran, the US and other world powers reached a nuclear deal - only to be trashed by Trump in May [File: Reuters]

Tehran, Iran – It was September 1980. The Iran hostage crisis involving 52 American diplomats and citizens was in its 10th month. On the streets of the capital, there were no signs of the anti-American sentiment fading away. Within a few days, the Iran-Iraq War would erupt, drowning the region in more blood.

In Bonn, capital of then-West Germany, an Iranian diplomat was on a mission to deliver a message to the Americans from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The secret memo delivered by Sadegh Tabatabai would serve as the first draft of the 1981 Algiers Accord, between Iran and the US, which would pave the way for the release of the American hostages after 444 days in captivity. 

As the Algiers agreement demonstrated, Iran proved it was willing to cut a deal with the US even at the peak of hostilities between the two countries, Iranian political experts said. With the right conditions, based on “mutual respect”, Tehran and Washington, DC can engage in new talks, despite President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran.

“The door to negotiations is never closed,” Fereshteh Sadeghi, a Tehran-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera. 

Sadeghi said the Iranian leadership has decades of experience talking with the Americans, including top secret discussions with a Republican administration in the run-up to the war in Afghanistan, and later the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So it is not far-fetched that negotiations could happen again amid heated rhetoric, she said. 

While Iran expressed defiance over the return of US sanctions, there was no outright rejection of talks from the highest level of the Iranian government.

Responding to Trump’s offer to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Tehran-based Iran Daily in a front-page story that Iran “has never been a country to reject a proposal for negotiations”. 

“We will move forward based on our national interest,” he said, adding Iran must see to what extent the US “is willing to show goodwill”. Zarif made the statement on the day the first round of sanctions returned. 

Zarif held bilateral talks with the US secretary of state John Kerry following the nuclear deal [File: Reuters]
Zarif held bilateral talks with the US secretary of state John Kerry following the nuclear deal [File: Reuters]

The same government publication even highlighted in its banner headline Trump’s suggestion for a new deal, and National Security Adviser John Bolton’s call for Iran to “take up” the president’s offer.  

In recent days, there has been speculation that Rouhani could meet Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September. For now, though, Zarif ruled out that possibility. Instead, he suggested the US should first “rehabilitate its addiction to sanctions and bullying”.

‘Trump’s unpredictability’

Although critical of Trump’s “unpredictability”, Mohammad Eslami, editor of the Khorasan Diplomatic Magazine in Tehran, said for Iran diplomacy always remains an option to resolve conflicts. 


“If President Trump shows the political will to pursue useful negotiations with Iran, why not?” he asked. But he also noted the US leader “is not trustworthy”.

At this point in the diplomatic brinksmanship, Trump could only break the impasse if he returns to the framework of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Eslami stressed.

“After that, the door would be open to other steps,” he said, suggesting Tehran is willing to sit it out until Trump finishes his term, if he remains unyielding with his stand on Iran sanctions.

If Trump is serious about his offer to negotiate with Iran, his administration has to take “preparatory measures” to pave the way for a new round of talks, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former Iranian ambassador to Germany, told Al Jazeera. 

Mousavian said the talks should be based on the UN principles of mutual respect. The former diplomat, now a Middle East and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University, was instrumental in repairing ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia during the 1990s.

He said the US should also commit to non-interference in Iran’s domestic policy. Tehran has accused the Trump administration of pushing for “regime change” in Iran, deepening distrust. The US has denied the allegations, despite its ties to the Iranian exile group, MEK

“As a confidence-building measure, he (Trump) should cease the hostilities and violating the JCPOA at least for the period of negotiations,” said Mousavian.

For its part, the US has demanded that Iran curb its ballistic missile programme and scale back its military presence in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, among other issues.

Hawks in Washington have also insisted on a confrontational approach with Iran, believing the pain of financial sanctions would force Tehran back to the negotiating table.

‘Insults and threats’

But Kaveh Ehsani, a professor of international studies at DePaul University in Chicago, said the US must respect Iran’s standing in the Middle East before it can pursue meaningful negotiations.

The United States is not a regional country in the Middle East. Iran is. I have little sympathy for its presence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, but I can understand why they are there,” he told Al Jazeera, saying Tehran is only looking after its own security.

In the streets of Tehran, there is little sympathy for Trump’s approach towards Iran.

Mohammad, an Iranian American on a short family visit from New York, said the US president is “not a politician”, so he favours straight talk. “That might be what the Iranian government needs to hear.”

Sadeghi said as a businessman, Trump is “looking for profit everywhere”, so he would eventually talk to Iran.

Sadeghi also expressed doubt Trump would want “regime change” in Iran, saying the US president knows that such action “would bring disaster to the American forces in the Middle East” and its regional allies, and “would throw the entire region into chaos again”.

Eventually, if the US takes the diplomatic steps and the right conditions are met, Sadeghi said Iranians would even be willing to overlook the insults and threats from Trump in order to secure a deal. 

“As the Iranians would say, words and insults are like the wind, it just blows and goes away.”

Experts say Iranians have little sympathy for Trump but remain open to US talks [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]
Experts say Iranians have little sympathy for Trump but remain open to US talks [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera