Trump, Pompeo give new priority to diplomacy with Iran

While many see a shift in tone rather than substance, the diplomatic channel seems to be heating up.

al-monitor US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis attend a joint news conference at the medieval Castelgrande castle in Bellinzona, Switzerland, June 2, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann.

Jun 3, 2019

WASHINGTON — In a sign of President Donald Trump’s growing impatience with stalled nuclear diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo generated headlines when he offered Sunday to hold talks with Iran without any preconditions, even as he subsequently insisted that the position was not a new one.

“We’re prepared to engage in a conversation with no preconditions,” Pompeo told journalists at a press availability with Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis in Bellinzona, Switzerland, on Sunday. “We’re ready to sit down with them.”

Pompeo, asked in an interview today if that statement marks a change in policy, insisted that it does not.

President Trump said well over a year ago that he was prepared to meet without any preconditions, [was] willing to talk to the Iranians about the full range of their malign activity, their missile program, their nuclear program,” Pompeo said in an interview with EuroNews today. “This is not a new statement.”

Nonetheless, it would be hard to consider the signaling of the past weeks as more of the same. Besides a few episodic attempts for a meeting, the diplomatic channel has been mostly ice cold since Trump took office. 

In the past few weeks, however, Trump and Pompeo have gone all out to signal, both in statements and via potential intermediaries, that they are ready to talk.   

Trump, speaking in Japan last week, made explicit that, unlike some of his aides, including national security adviser John Bolton, he is not seeking regime change in Iran.

Iran “has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership. We’re not looking for regime change,” Trump said at a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on May 27. “We are looking for no nuclear weapons."

Pompeo’s shift in tone may be a sign of Trump’s growing frustration that his administration’s maximum pressure policies have not advanced his goal of reaching a deal with North Korea or gotten him to the negotiating table with Iran, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group.

 “My impression is that Pompeo understands that the president has been running out of patience with the maximum pressure policy,” Vaez told Al-Monitor. “So, I think, given the fact that the president is seeking a way out and does not want a conflict, if Pompeo were to insist on preconditions, it would undermine his own position.”

Abe is reportedly expected to travel to Iran this month. He accompanied his father on a trip to Iran in 1983 when his father, then Japan's foreign minister, tried unsuccessfully to mediate during the Iran-Iraq War.

“My guess is probably what PM Abe is going to suggest is a meeting between [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani and President Trump on sidelines of the UN General Assembly [in New York this fall],” Vaez said. “This might be the last good opportunity for a meeting like this.”

Trump, in a sign of a seeming gap with his aides, in numerous recent public statements has notably said that he just wants to make sure that Iran does not ever get nuclear weapons. That was the principal purpose of the Iran nuclear deal he withdrew from last year, citing other Iranian malign behaviors that the nuclear deal did not address, such as its ballistic missile program and support for militant proxy groups in the region.

“I think that there is some degree of divergence within senior ranks of the administration around where the diplomatic opportunities lie,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official who worked on Iran who now is with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor. “I think all the senior officials are trying to avoid the perception that Trump is off the reservation or that the policy has changed, and that the US is only interested in a fix of the nuclear deal.”

“What Trump would settle for personally in a room with the Iranians … may be very different from the position that his Cabinet officials have articulated,” Maloney added.

It seems clear that the more conciliatory Pompeo tone regarding dialogue with Iran is being driven by the president, said Suzanne DiMaggio, who has led a discreet “track 2” dialogue between current and former Iranian and American diplomats.

“There is an adjustment in Pompeo's tone, no doubt due to President Trump's keen interest in getting talks started,” DiMaggio, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al-Monitor. “But the substance of Pompeo's remarks do not point to any significant change. He said the Trump administration is open to negotiations without preconditions, but he then rattled off the same refrain conditioning talks on changes in Iran's behavior.”

“I think this is coming about surely at the initiative of the president,” DiMaggio continued. “We have seen a maximum pressure campaign that has doubled down at every point, but has not actually resulted in any progress. So I am not surprised the president has turned his attention to Iran and getting talks started.”

The presidential push for talks with Iran comes as talks with the North Koreans have hit a hard impasse, DiMaggio said.

But the more conciliatory tone in overtures for talks with Iran coming from Pompeo at the initiative of Trump may not be enough to get the Iranians to the table or to make substantial progress in talks if they do, she said.

“I think it is clear that there is a high level of discomfort with how far the tensions have increased between Washington and Tehran,” DiMaggio said. “The question is if the administration is setting the right environment for talks. And they are nowhere close to where that needs to be in order to bring the Iranians back to the table. Unless and until that is addressed, I don’t see any room for progress.”

“The Iranians see the [maximum] pressure campaign as all-out war on Iran’s economy, with regime change as the goal,” DiMaggio said. “Without some give on the sanctions, I don’t think the administration should expect the Iranians to agree to talks.”

DiMaggio suggested that the United States and Iran could begin talks on a humanitarian dialogue aimed at the release of prisoners held by both countries. Some give on secondary sanctions might also be a face-saving way to move forward, she suggested.

Vaez agreed.

“I have the impression, because the pressure of sanctions has been more effective than the Iranians anticipated, that they are now considering in a more serious way the North Korean option,” Vaez said. “Not necessarily talks that result in a deal, but talks that result in a freeze. Or that would create some kind of reprieve.”