Ever since the Central Intelligence Agency’s coup d’état of August 1953 against then Iranian nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, it has been a tradition for Washington to exaggerate the significance of US power. And for Americans to forget that the rest of the world has been affected permanently by the US’s failure to achieve its objectives in the Middle East, whether through diplomacy or military intervention.
Ever since Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement in May, the US president and his collaborators have been unequivocal in their calls for a regime change in Tehran. There is also support for demands of a violent overthrow of the Iran government by an Iranian exile group, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, which is well-connected with Western governments and political elites but has little apparent support in Iran.
These offensive measures against Iran were completed strangely by Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that he is willing to talk to President Rouhani. However, as well-prepared and precognised by the Trump administration, Rouhani rejected the offer, knowing fully well that an agreement to engage in a talks with the US president would have increased domestic hardline pressure on him since given the US policy, any discussions would have little chances of success. Moreover, Rouhani’s advisor, Hamid Aboutalebi, affirmed publicly that the Iran president would be willing to meet Trump if the latter demonstrated “respect for the great nation of Iran, returned to the nuclear deal, and reduced his hostility towards the Islamic republic”.
However, as it appears, Trump and his advisors are doing exactly the opposite – having discussed the military option against Iran with Israel and their Persian Gulf partners as well as taking firm steps to garner international support for the sanctions against the Iranian regime. Among other things, Bolton’s suggestion to Trump is to destabilise Iran not only by squeezing it economically but also by inciting insurgencies among the country’s ethnic minorities. According to some analysts of the region, the plan envisions official US support for the Kurdish autonomy aspirations in Iran and military assistance to those fighting for Balochi independence in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Balochistan province. Let us not forget that Iran’s south-eastern and north-western regions have seen renewed violence by militant groups.
That being said, Iran’s deep-seated fear of being betrayed in any US-Iran dialogue has already reached its point of non-return. This comes at a time when the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has openly and publicly closed all channels for discussion with the US and accused the Iranian government of economic mismanagement in the face of re-imposed US sanctions. “I ban holding any talks with America… America never remains loyal to its promises in talks…. America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal is clear proof that America cannot be trusted,” said Khamenei at a gathering attended by thousands of Iranians.
Khamenei’s harsh words targeted not only Rouhani’s government and the US administration, but also thousands of Iranians who have protested in recent weeks against the devaluation of the rial, sharp rise in prices of some food items and lack of jobs. The first round of US sanctions was implementedon August 7. These will likely be followed by still tougher sanctions in early November on the oil industry. The date chosen for the second round of sanctions, November4, is the anniversary of the US embassy’s occupation in Tehran.
Iran’s economic problems have now gotten out of hand. In this period of heightened tension, the Iranian government is incapable of stopping the crisis in the short-term. For President Rouhani, the only face-saving way of responding has been to appoint a new central bank governor and accept the resignation of the government spokesman. The Iranian political establishment is struggling to devise a viable strategy for the economy and for managing a path forward. But it looks as if the Iranian leaders are out of any diplomatic energy or political will that would engineer a genuine high-profile summit with President Trump and his group.
Additionally, Iran is in a bitter dilemma. On the one hand, Iran could go for a tactical escalation in the Middle East. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards announced a few weeks ago that Trump would take any hope of talking to the Islamic Republic “to his grave”. On the other hand, Iran might decide to engage through the European mediation in meaningful negotiations with the US. With the UN General Assembly meetings in New York approaching quickly, Iran and the US might decide to listen to the voice of reason and bury the hatchet. But this looks more like wishful thinking than a pragmatic look at the present situation in the Middle East, where both sides continue to think in binary oppositions.
Ramin Jahanbegloo is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace at Jindal Global University.