AnalysisShapiro: God knows what could happen if Trump meets Rouhani

Israel says it’s unfazed by specter of US-Iran summit, but anxiety brews

One minister sees ‘opportunity’ in Trump’s overture and says Washington and Tehran may already be talking, but others are uneasy after what happened with North Korea

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An Iranian woman walks past a mural on the wall of the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran, November 9, 2016. (AFP/Atta Kenare)
An Iranian woman walks past a mural on the wall of the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran, November 9, 2016. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Donald Trump for an all-caps tweet in which the US president threatened his Iranian counterpart with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before” if he ever dared to threaten America again.

“Over the years this regime has been spoiled by the major powers, and it is good to see that the US is changing this unacceptable equation,” Netanyahu gushed.

This week, as Trump appeared to dramatically change his tune, offering Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani a meeting without any preconditions, Netanyahu said nothing.

Nearly 24 hours after Trump said the Iranians will “probably end up wanting to meet, and I’m ready to meet any time they want to” because “it’s an appropriate thing to do,” the prime minister had not publicly commented on the matter.

Almost all of his senior ministers, too, refrained from weighing in on the dramatic development, notably including those who had previously hailed the US administration for its aggressive stance toward Tehran.

While Israel has unequivocally supported the administration’s every move on Iran, the radio silence may indicate Israeli unease or at least confusion over what a possible summit between Rouhani and the famously mercurial Trump could mean.

On Tuesday evening, a source in the Prime Minister’s Office finally issued a brief statement on the matter, suggesting that Jerusalem was not worried in the least about a possible US-Iranian rapprochement.

“Senior US officials conveyed to Israel that there is no change in the tough policy against Iran,” the Israeli official told reporters, insisting on anonymity.

This official did not say whether Jerusalem was updated about Trump’s offer, and whether Israel had any thoughts about a possible American-Iranian summit in the near future.

However another Israeli official, also speaking to The Times of Israel on the condition of anonymity, did not hide a certain uneasiness about the president’s open invitation to the leader of the Islamic Republic.

He cited the June 12 summit in Singapore with Pyongyang’s dictator Kim Jong-un as an example of how quickly Trump can switch from insulting and threatening the leader of a rogue country to considering him a respectable statesman worthy of friendly gestures and honest negotiations.

The official noted, though, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took pains Monday to add caveats to Trump’s comments, saying the US president would only sit with Rouhani if the Iranians “demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior.”

Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, said that the seeming about-face from the administration could be a problem on its own.

“Donald Trump’s famous unpredictability has now entered his Iran policy,” Shapiro told The Times of Israel. “He says he wants to meet Rouhani without preconditions. Pompeo then lists a series of preconditions. The trouble, if you are an ally of the United States, is: Who do you believe?”

This image made from video released by KRT on June 14, 2018, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiling at the media as he shakes hands with US President Donald Trump while his sister Kim Yo Jong, left, looks on during a summit in Singapore, June 12, 2018. (KRT via AP Video)

If Jerusalem has any qualms about Trump’s comments, National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz, the only senior Israeli official willing to speak on the record about the matter, was careful not to reveal them.

Trump’s invitation to talk to Iran was actually an “opportunity,” he told the Ynet website.

“If such contacts were to lead to a complete, not a partial, dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, on a permanent, not a temporary, basis… and perhaps also the reining in of Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region and its activities in Syria, this would of course needed to be welcomed,” he said Tuesday.

Whether such a scenario would be the outcome of a possible Trump-Rouhani summit remains to be seen, he allowed.

But if a Trump-Rouhani meeting were to take place, it would prove that “the Iranians understand that they are headed toward financial disaster and therefore toward a very severe internal crisis,” added Steinitz.

The new US sanctions, the first round of which will kick in early next month, showed the Iranians that “they don’t have another choice,” he said.

Yuval Steinitz in Jerusalem, February 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Steinitz, who served as Israel’s point man on Iran in the months that preceded the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, declined to say whether the White House updated Jerusalem on Trump’s overture to Iran.

“Generally,” he said, “when we hear an American president speak of his readiness to meet or to conduct a dialogue or to reach an agreement, that means that initial contacts are already taking place behind the scenes.”

But that applies to “ordinary presidents,” he added, noting that the current occupant of the Oval Office is not one of those.

“With Trump, you can never know for sure,” Steinitz said.

Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor, joked that Israelis should always worry about everything, but on a more serious note estimated that Trump’s remarks do not yet signal a significant departure from his aggressive approach toward the regime.

“Trump said he’d be willing to meet with no preconditions, but he didn’t change any of his policies. Most importantly, he did not say he would reduce the sanctions,” the former general told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview.

As long as the US implements the new sanctions as planned on August 6, and a second set on November 4, Israel has no reason to fret, he said.

Amidror, today a fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said he doesn’t believe Iran will agree to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Trump without preconditions.

But even if a Trump-Rouhani summit were to take place, as long as the sanctions stay in place, Israel has nothing to worry about, he reiterated.

Former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror.(Flash90)

“What’s important is not whether there is a meeting or not, but to see how Iran manages to deal with the sanctions. And for now, the Iranian leadership is failing,” he said.

Amidror pointed to Iran’s flailing economy, which has crumbled even before sanctions have taken effect.

That is reason for optimism in Jerusalem, he said.

But he did admit unease at the fact that Trump’s drive to reimpose sanctions had no international support. It is still unclear whether US sanctions alone are enough to force Tehran into making the necessary concessions, he said.

One more chance for diplomacy?

Dore Gold, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and close Netanyahu confidant, said the gulf between the American and the Iranians positions on the nuclear issue is so wide that Israel has no reason to fear another bad deal. But they shouldn’t necessarily hope for a good deal either.

“It’s extremely unlikely that the Iranians are about to come around and accept the kind of dramatic modification the US is thinking about,” he told The Times of Israel.

Trump’s overture could be tactical, Gold said.

“It is not uncommon for a party engaged in adversarial diplomacy to give diplomacy one more chance,” he said, citing then-US foreign secretary James Baker’s meeting with the Iraqi foreign minister shortly before the first Gulf War started.

“The fact that you have a meeting doesn’t mean that you’re solving all the problems,” Gold said.

Asked whether Trump, who threatened North Korea with hellfire and then quickly accepted leader Kim Jong Un as a respectable statesman worthy of the benefit of the doubt, could similarly come to embrace Iran’s president, Gold said there was a “huge difference” between the two.

As opposed to the Islamic Republic, North Korea does not have hegemonial ambitions, he said.

Then director-general of the Foreign Ministry Dore Gold at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 26, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I don’t see President Trump and his team adopting a benign attitude toward the Iranians, who are continuing to undermine the security of the Middle East,” Gold said. “As long as Iran is motivated by the kind of expansionist ideology that lays at its core, you’re not going to see a great diplomatic opportunity.”

Shapiro said, though, that Trump’s behavior in past summits raised serious concerns.

Former US ambassador Dan Shapiro speaks at a Times of Israel event in Jerusalem, July 2, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“In Singapore, he praised Kim Jong Un and spontaneously canceled military exercises with South Korea. Then he claimed to have ended the North Korean nuclear threat, while US intelligence makes clear that is not the case,” said the former ambassador, who is now a fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Trump’s Helsinki meeting with Russian President Putin also did not inspire much confidence in his diplomatic skills, Shapiro added.

“So it’s hard to know what would come out of a Trump-Rouhani summit. If the policy is to build maximum pressure through sanctions, it is better to give more time for the economic crisis in Iran to deepen,” he said.

This was likely Israel’s advice to the administration as well, Shapiro surmised.

“Because if Trump actually gets in a room with the Iranians, God only knows what could happen. Certainly his advisers and America’s allies don’t know.”

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