As Iran and U.S. leaders trade barbs, big deals proceed

The New York Times | Thomas Erdbrink: President Trump, who has never made a secret of his hostility toward Iran, called recently for a grand regional strategy among Sunni nations to isolate the country. But Tehran received that threat with surprising equanimity because, in practice, the Trump administration has shown a willingness to do business with the country.

On the surface, it looked as if there was a lot of bad news recently for the Islamic Republic. At the recent Arab-American summit meeting in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Trump was the guest of the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a sworn enemy of Iran, and the countries signed a record-breaking $110 billion arms deal.

“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace,” Mr. Trump said at the meeting, “all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism.”

In what seemed to be a response to the arms deal, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Saturday that such purchases would lead to nothing.

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“These fools think by spending money they can win the friendship of the enemies of Islam,” Mr. Khamenei said in remarks posted to his personal website. “They are like dairy cows. They will be milked, and when they are out of milk, they will be slaughtered.”

Tough talk from both sides, but back in Iran, they are awaiting the delivery of a fleet of American-made Boeing airliners, the result of two deals worth $22 billion for the United States company. The most recent contract between the plane maker and the Iranian airline Iran Aseman was signed two months after President Trump was sworn into office.

Mr. Trump, whose America First campaign was based in part on the promise of reviving industrial employment, was apparently not eager to kill an order estimated to create 18,000 jobs.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump heaped scorn on the nuclear agreement with Iran, calling it “the worst deal ever.” But in April and May he quietly signed crucial waivers of certain sanctions that allow the deal to remain in place and let Iran conduct international business and gain access to funds long frozen by the United States.

Further evidence that the Trump administration is willing to engage with the Islamic Republic came during Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s news conference in Riyadh, which followed the president’s hard-line speech. What if Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, happened to telephone him? Mr. Tillerson said he would take the call.

“In terms of whether I’d ever pick the phone up, I’ve never shut off the phone to anyone that wants to talk or have a productive conversation,” Mr. Tillerson said.

The Trump administration appears to have grasped an important point about Iran: The very thing that the administration complains and worries about — Iran’s expanding influence in the region — makes it imperative that the two countries maintain at least a working relationship.

The United States will have a hard time solving problems in the Mideast without Tehran’s cooperation: in Lebanon, where it backs the Shiite militant group Hezbollah; in Syria, where it is propping up the government of President Bashar al-Assad; in Iraq, where it supports the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and trains powerful Shiite militias; and in Yemen, where to some extent, it is backing the Houthi rebels against the government.

That is why some analysts are saying there would be room for compromise if the two countries ever sat down to talk, with the United States trading its control over the Iranian economy for concessions in regional affairs from Iran.

The Trump administration did impose a series of sanctions on individuals and companies after Iran conducted a missile test in February. But that was in line with policies set out by President Obama.

And on Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a sweeping set of sanctions against Iran for human rights violations and its support of terrorism.

The senators did so over the objections of the former secretary of state, John Kerry, who negotiated the nuclear deal. In a series of Twitter posts on Wednesday, Mr. Kerry called on the Senate committee to refrain from imposing sanctions and warned against “confrontation without conversation.”

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s recently re-elected president, suggested that the two sides could possibly arrange talks after the Trump administration had more time in power and Tehran had more time to evaluate the American leader. “We are waiting for the new U.S. government to achieve stability in terms of taking a stance, agenda and mentality,” Mr. Rouhani said at a news conference last week. After that happens, he added, “we will have a more accurate view regarding Washington.”

Iran and the United States broke off diplomatic relations in 1979, after the hostage crisis at the United States Embassy. But they did speak directly during the negotiations over the nuclear agreement, which began in secret in 2013, even before Mr. Rouhani was first elected later that year.

The Iranian president is under pressure from hard-liners in his country to shun direct talks with the United States. But he can point to tangible benefits that have resulted from face-to-face meetings with the West. The nuclear agreement would never have been reached without such dialogue, and the deal has helped ease the suffocating, worldwide sanctions that brought the Iranian economy to a standstill and Tehran to the bargaining table.

“They took part in the negotiations; and at the table, they respectfully spoke to the representatives of the Iranian nation,” Mr. Rouhani said of the American representatives to the nuclear negotiations. “We had a win-win outcome there, one which I believe was to the benefit of Iran, all P5+1 member states and the world,” he said at the news conference, using the diplomatic name for the countries at the negotiating table: Iran, plus the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France.

Mr. Rouhani needs such additional talks now to make good on his campaign promise to obtain relief from the unilateral United States sanctions that are still choking the Iranian economy. While many sanctions were lifted under the nuclear agreement, those remaining are still discouraging European banks from providing desperately needed financing for business deals and infrastructure projects in Iran.

Mr. Rouhani said on Monday that if Iran’s supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei, agreed, he would try to start the process to get those sanctions lifted. “It will be difficult, but possible,” he said.

On the American side, the private sector experience of many in the new administration in Washington may make them more amenable to the idea of negotiations, suggested Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a reformist analyst of Iranian politics. “Trump, Tillerson, the others; this is an administration of businessmen. They solve problems by dealing, not fighting,” he said.

One official, an adviser to Mr. Zarif, the foreign minister, said he did not rule out direct negotiations, but added that the Iranians were still trying to read Mr. Trump. “He is a businessman,” said the adviser, Hossein Sheikholeslam, “but even in business he acts impulsively and unpredictably.”