Iranian President Hassan Rouhani went straight for the audience of one – Donald Trump – on Tuesday, skipping the United Nations’ General Assembly to grant an exclusive interview to Fox News, and dangling the prospect of a deal before the embattled American president.
“We must create mutual trust, and trust is something that Mr. Trump took away,” Rouhani told Fox News host Chris Wallace.
The timing could not have been better for the Iranian leader, with Trump having retreated to his Manhattan apartment at the same time the interview was scheduled to be aired – and amid the bombshell announcement by Congressional Democrats that impeachment proceedings would be launched against him.
“We had a deal,” Rouhani said, referring to the 2015 nuclear pact, and in implicit reference to Trump’s own desire to be the dealmaker.
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Rouhani equivocated on the possibility of a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei publicly forbade in a Tweet earlier this month. The two leaders should not simply “bump into one another,” Rouhani said.
“If we seek to pursue higher goals to benefit both countries, both people, it must be planned, and talks must be based on those plans,” Rouhani said. It is up to Trump, he said, to create the necessary conditions.
Appealing to the ego
Congressional Democrats hours earlier announced formal impeachment hearings would be launched against the president over a whistleblower report that he had allegedly pressured a foreign government to investigate the son of his political rival in the run-up to the 2020 elections.
Despite the distracting domestic development, Trump made time to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron after his UN speech, after which Macron shuttled to meet with Rouhani.
Trump, who has crafted an image of himself as a dealmaker in the business world, has been unable to hammer out a major diplomatic accord as president – not between the Israelis and Palestinians, not with the North Koreans, and not in Afghanistan.
It would be a “lost opportunity” for Trump, Macron warned, if he were to miss the chance for a meeting with Rouhani in New York.
As Macron kept the pressure on Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appealed to his American counterpart’s ego.
Johnson said he was hoping for a “Trump deal” to replace the 2015 accord brokered by the Obama administration – Trump’s loathed predecessor.
“I think there’s one guy who can do a better deal … and that is the president of the United States,” Johnson told NBC on Monday.
European leaders earlier this year tried and failed to stand up a financial vehicle to circumvent US sanctions. They now appear to be seeking to capitalize on recent developments from Washington to the Persian Gulf.
The firing of the hawkish US National Security Advisor John Bolton, the high-precision Iranian attack on a critical Saudi oil facility 10 days ago, and the nixing by Trump of a military retaliation all suggest the US “maximum pressure” campaign may be maxed out.
Macron, together with Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called for a revised global pact with Iran.
“The time has come for Iran to accept a long-term negotiation framework for its nuclear program, as well as regional security issues, which include its missile programs,” a joint statement read.
The game-changer appeared to be a September 14 attack on the Saudi oil giant Aramco, which jolted the country’s production. The three powers, which carried out separate investigations over the past week, ultimately held Iran responsible for the attacks saying: “There is no other explanation.”
The statement marks the first time the European powers have signaled they are prepared to shift gears and drop their insistence on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Trump abandoned in May 2018.
And it comes as key Gulf states appear to be distancing themselves from the anti-Iran posture of Saudi Arabia and its brash 33-year-old crown prince.
The United Arab Emirates, once in lockstep with the Saudis, pulled its forces out of a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in July – not only abandoning the fight against the Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen’s north, but also backing a takeover against the Saudi-backed government in the south.
Oman – long distrusted by Riyadh for its facilitation of the Iran nuclear pact – has now gained acceptance by the Saudis as the venue for fresh talks between Yemen’s government and the Houthi rebels.
French President Macron on Tuesday announced his support for a “regional security plan” for the Gulf states – Rouhani’s plan.
While the time may not be ripe for a new Iran deal, the tides in the Gulf have turned to Iran’s favor.