(Persia Digeset) - Last week, I went to a roundtable hosted by the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, near the United Nations, writes Robin Wright in the New Yorker. The Scottish-educated cleric, who wore a white turban and a black robe, strode through a chandeliered hotel ballroom with an entourage of bearded aides in dark suits but no neckties, a fashion item discouraged in the Islamic Republic. I also counted six U.S. Secret Service agents—conspicuous by their ties and clean-shaven faces—who fanned out in the corners. The Secret Service is charged with protecting any foreign head of state who visits the United States, whatever their nationality or relationship with Washington.
I’ve been going to these annual events since 1987, when President Ali Khamenei became the first leader since the 1979 Revolution to attend the U.N. General Assembly. He’s now Iran’s Supreme Leader. Four Iranian Presidents have hosted these get-togethers, some several times. They often include senior White House and State Department officials from previous Administrations—Republican and Democratic—and former members of Congress, as well as a few think tankers and journalists.
On paper, tensions between Tehran and Washington haven’t been so troubled since the early years of the Iranian Revolution, in the nineteen-eighties. Last week, President Trump unleashed his fury at “the corrupt dictatorship,” in two speeches at the United Nations. “Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death, and destruction,” he told the General Assembly. “They do not respect their neighbors or borders” and instead “spread mayhem across the Middle East.” In his own address in New York, the U.S. national-security adviser, John Bolton, warned Iran’s leadership that it would have “hell to pay” if “you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive.” Whatever the Trump Administration’s denials, Iran’s leaders now believe the United States wants them overthrown.
A few hours later, Rouhani responded from the same dais. The U.S. approach to foreign relations is “bullying” and “authoritarian,” he charged. He cited unnamed rulers who invoke nationalism, racism and xenophobia “resembling a Nazi disposition” to trample global rules and institutions.
Neither President was in the chamber when the other spoke. Yet, in striking ways last week, both hinted that the door to diplomacy is not shut, despite Trump’s renunciation, in May, of the historic 2015 nuclear deal. In a bizarre tweet on Tuesday, Trump wrote, “I have no plans to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Maybe someday in the future. I am sure he is an absolutely lovely man!” Rouhani said something similar at the roundtable last week. “I don’t believe there are any challenges in the world that can’t be resolved,” he told us, from the head of a U-shaped table adorned with flowers from the colors of the Iranian flag. “There is no dead end. There is always a way forward.” More than once, he said it would be easier for both countries to go back to where they were six months ago—when the diplomatic channel was open, before the U.S. abandoned the nuclear deal—than to go back six years.
I asked how vulnerable Rouhani felt to internal pressure, since his Presidency was staked on dealing with the United States. Past Presidents, including Mohammad Khatami and the late Hashemi Rafsanjani, were penalized by their rivals in the political system after flirting with Washington. Khatami, who first suggested bringing down “the wall of mistrust,” two decades ago, is still banned from travelling, speaking publicly, or being quoted in the Iranian media. Rafsanjani, who orchestrated the arms-for-hostage swap in the eighties and offered the largest oil deal ever to Conoco, in the nineties, to launch rapprochement, was disqualified from running for office again; two of his children (one a former Member of Parliament) have been imprisoned. Even the hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was disqualified from running for Parliament after his Presidency; one of his Vice-Presidents was found guilty of corruption, another of threatening national security.
Renewed U.S. sanctions have also led big international companies—France’s Total, Germany’s Siemens, Italy’s Danieli—to withdraw from the Iranian market this year. Iran’s currency has lost two-thirds of its value in the past six months. In one four-day period this month, the rial lost a quarter of its value. In December and January, protests over economic conditions erupted in all but one of Iran’s thirty-one provinces.
“I have no regrets. I am not sorry,” Rouhani replied. “We reached a positive point.” The revolutionary regime had “proved to the world” that it was “willing to sit around the table,” negotiate, and then comply when it signed an accord. Twelve reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors nuclear proliferation, have verified Iran’s compliance. The five other major powers to the deal—Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—have stuck by it. To circumvent renewed U.S. sanctions, the European Union announced plans during the U.N. General Assembly week to create a new financial entity to facilitate transactions with Iran—a move that could also challenge U.S. domination of the international financial system. It will be open to “other partners in the world,” the E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said, after meeting the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif.
On Saturday, after Rouhani had returned to Tehran, I spoke twice with Zarif, who was educated in the United States. He compared diplomacy with the United States to the 2004 movie “50 First Dates,” starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, about a man who keeps having first dates with a woman who has short-term memory loss and forgets him the next day.
“We live in a world of possibilities, so nothing is impossible, but we need to see,” he told me. “First of all, we’re not angry. Now, if it’s going to lead to resolution, you need to be able to build on what you already have, because, I mean, you remember the movie ‘50 First Dates,’ when you start all over again the following day. We can’t. This is impossible. You need to be able to have a relationship that is based on some foundations. And we have a document”—the nuclear deal—“that is a hundred and fifty pages long. It's not a two-page document,” he said, referring to Trump’s agreement with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at their June summit.
So the door to diplomacy is still ajar? I asked.
“I’m not ruling out the prospect of talks provided the necessary conditions for talks, and that is reliability,” Zarif said. “Reliability is different from trust. Reliability is that when you sign something you are bound by it. Pacta sunt servanda is the old idiom, the basis of international relations.” (It translates, from Latin, as “treaties shall be complied with.”) “Otherwise everything will fall apart,” he told me. “We are waiting for some sense of realism.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, Trump predicted, “Iran’s going to come back to me and they’re going to make a good deal, I think.” Rouhani said something similar when I met him. The U.S. can’t sustain its decision to walk away, he predicted. “Sooner or later, this hasty and immature action will come to an end.”
It’s happened before. The Trump Administration also pulled out of NAFTA after labelling it a horrible deal that hurts U.S. interests. On Wednesday, the President said he was “very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiating style of Canada” and was prepared to move ahead just with Mexico. He also said that he’d rejected a request to meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the U.N. Over the weekend, however, the two nations brokered a rebranded deal that is not all that different from NAFTA.
Negotiating a rebranded nuclear deal with Iran that also includes its missile program, interventions in the Middle East, and human-rights abuses is comparable to North Korea in terms of the complexity and fraught relationship. The volatility of the regional issues was reflected again on Monday, when Tehran fired missiles—from Iran—on ISIS targets in Syria. It was retaliation for an attack claimed by ISIS in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, on September 22nd , that killed more than two dozen people. But Iran’s broader role in Syria, where it supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, is uppermost among U.S. concerns.
The Administration is set to impose its toughest sanctions on Iran—on all oil exports—next month, tellingly on the November 4th anniversary of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Whatever the slim prospects of another deal—to avoid a more ominous confrontation—there’s no sign yet of that fifty-first date.
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