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OPINION

Iran will negotiate with Trump, but on its timetable

By JASON REZAIAN | The Washington Post | Published: July 2, 2019

Iran’s announcement Monday that it has surpassed the limit of low-enriched uranium it could stockpile under the 2015 nuclear agreement is an important development.

But in the long and twisted history of U.S. tensions with the Islamic Republic, it’s not that big a deal. In fact, in light of the military strikes that were being planned in response to Iran’s downing of a U.S. drone, this latest raising of the stakes was to be expected.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the move to amass uranium beyond the 300-kilogram cap in the deal was a warning to Europe. He gave notice that Iran could also reduce other commitments it signed onto in the agreement if the other parties — specifically the European Union — don’t start living up to their end of the deal.

But Tehran is also using the decision to send a message to Washington.

Both sides have been ratcheting up the antagonism for more than a year. Remember it was President Donald Trump who decided to pull the United States out of the deal in May 2018, setting off what would be best described as a manufactured crisis.

Until now, despite Washington’s increase of punitive sanctions on Iran and the heightened rhetoric in both capitals, Iran’s leaders have taken a wait-and-see approach, aiming to maintain the deal for as long as possible while hoping that Europe would begin delivering on promised economic relief.

Tehran’s calculations appear to be shifting, though, and the regime is now testing the patience and flexibility of world powers at a time when all channels of communications with the United States have been exhausted. And yet Trump’s impromptu meeting with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un over the weekend has certainly piqued the Islamic Republic’s curiosity about the possibility of similar outreach.

Trump has been publicly and privately begging for a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for months. He claims that his only precondition to new negotiations with Iran would be that it agrees to never get a nuclear weapon. Once that happens, Trump promises, “They’re going to have a wealthy country, they’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend. I hope that happens.”

For now, though, Iran’s leaders are playing hard to get. “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” Khamenei told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who made an official visit to Tehran last month.

History, though, shows that Khamenei will likely agree to fresh negotiations but probably not for a while. For one, a softening of his position would be a sign of weakness he can hardly afford with an increasingly restless population. But perhaps even more importantly, if Trump’s own record is an indication, his offer to talk is not likely to be rescinded.

In the short term, Iran hoped that European governments and companies would stand up to U.S. pressure and deliver on financial commitments under the deal. Despite a new bartering mechanism designed to keep money from trade with Europe flowing into Iran, the results have been negligible.

The United States has made its position clear, as it will sanction entities it finds trading with Iran. Brian Hook, the State Department special representative for Iran, said last week, “You can’t do business with the United States and Iran.”

That’s not a difficult choice for any international business. Investors won’t risk putting their money into Iran if it jeopardizes their trade with the United States.

Iran is waiting to see what happens in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. The leaders in Tehran are convinced that they can weather the economic difficulties currently facing the country for at least the next 18 months. But they are beginning to come to terms with the possibility that Trump might very well be reelected. They know that the status quo of a tense nonrelationship with Washington under brutal economic sanctions will not be sustainable for another five years.

It has been said before that Iran’s leaders play chess while U.S. leaders are playing checkers. That’s giving Tehran far too much credit. A much better analogy for the current situation would be a game of high-stakes poker — one in which, as usual, Iran’s leaders have a small stack of chips and are overplaying a poor hand. Now Trump has shown all of his cards. The question is: Who will fold first?

Jason Rezaian is a writer for The Washington Post’s Global Opinions. He served as The Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.

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