The New Yorker | Robin Wright: On the evening of Tuesday, September 24th, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, went to see his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, at the Millennium Hilton Hotel, across the street from the U.N. headquarters, in New York. The hotel is one of only three places that the Iranian leader could go in the city, because of U.S. sanctions. Macron intended to set up a three-way telephone conversation with Rouhani and President Trump. A team of technicians arrived to set up a secure line, in a meeting room on Rouhani’s floor, for the call at 9:30 P.M. The telephone conversation was supposed to cap twenty-four hours of frenetic diplomacy—including personal appeals to Rouhani by the British, Japanese, and Pakistani Prime Ministers and the German Chancellor—after months of quiet French diplomacy.
Earlier in the day, Macron, alongside the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had urged Rouhani to talk with Trump. Their exchange was caught on video. “If he leaves the country without meeting President Trump, honestly, this is a lost opportunity,” Macron directed an interpreter to tell Rouhani, amid a scrum of diplomats and photographers. “Because he will not come back in a few months and President Trump will not go to Tehran.” Rouhani threw his head back and laughed. “So they have to meet now!” Macron insisted. Johnson chimed in, as cameras flashed, “You need to be on the side of the swimming pool—and jump at the same time.”
For decades, timing—the sequencing of diplomacy, and which side takes the plunge first—has derailed attempts to ease hostilities between Washington and Tehran. In 2013, President Obama dove first, during Rouhani’s first visit as President to the U.N. General Assembly. He reached out to Rouhani in a telephone call. The two men never met in person, but the call led, after two years of tortuous diplomacy, to the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers. It was widely considered the most significant nonproliferation agreement in the world in more than a quarter century, even as all sides acknowledged its shortcomings. Trump abandoned it in May, 2018.
Rouhani, who has staked his Presidency on ending Iran’s tensions with the outside world over its nuclear program, is now a lame duck. The fate of his last major diplomatic gamble will almost surely impact Iran’s parliamentary elections next year and its Presidential election in 2021. In Iran’s deeply polarized politics, the nuclear deal has been as unpopular among the regime’s hard-liners—for concessions made by Iran—as it has been with Trump’s advisers—for concessions made by the United States.
Macron’s mission in New York was to secure a verbal agreement from Trump and Rouhani on a four-point plan to jump-start diplomacy—and to avoid another Middle East war. Tensions have escalated since Trump reimposed sanctions this past November which were designed to cut off Iran’s oil exports. This summer, Iran and the U.S. shot down each other’s drones; Trump called off U.S. military retaliation in the operation’s final minutes. Iran also threatened to cut off oil from other Persian Gulf countries if its main source of revenue were blocked. This month, Washington blamed Tehran for an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities that temporarily severed five per cent of global oil supplies.
Macron hoped that the telephone conversation would lay the groundwork for the first meeting between an American President and an Iranian President since Tehran’s 1979 revolution. Macron’s four-point plan covers Trump’s demand for an expansion of the central terms and issues in the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran would pledge new talks on permanent restrictions on its nuclear program. The plan also addresses Iran’s demand that the United States lift the sanctions that were reimposed last year. And Tehran would be able to resume oil exports, which have plummeted from 3.2 million barrels per day in 2016 to below half a million barrels this summer. More broadly, the plan also incorporates regional flash points; Iran would help end the five-year war in Yemen and make pledges on security and freedom of navigation throughout the Persian Gulf.
Trump has repeatedly signalled an interest in meeting Iranian leaders. During the previous two U.N. General Assembly meetings, in 2017 and 2018, he has conveyed secret messages, through the French, asking to meet Rouhani. In July, Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and Trump golf partner, hand-carried an invitation to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to visit the White House—that very week. In late August, during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, Trump asked Macron to set up a meeting with Zarif, who was holding talks nearby with French officials. At the U.N. last week, Trump expressed his interest to reporters. “They’re here, we’re here, but we have not agreed to that yet,” he said. “But they would like to negotiate. And it would certainly make sense.”
The Iranians, however, don’t trust Trump. Four days before Trump arrived in New York, the Administration added another layer of sanctions, this time on Iran’s Central Bank. “We’ve never done it at this level,” Trump boasted to reporters, in the Oval Office. “It’s too bad what’s happening with Iran. It’s going to hell. They are broke, and they could solve the problem very easily.”
This year, the Trump Administration has imposed at least sixteen new rounds of sanctions on Iran, beyond those reimposed last year. Some are unprecedented—including those against the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, everyone in his office, the entire Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Zarif. The United States has also at least twice launched secret cyberattacks against Iran.
After every Trump overture, Rouhani and Zarif have responded that the United States must first publicly promise to lift sanctions. Rouhani said last month that he was not interested in the type of flashy summit that Trump had with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. “If someone intends to make it as just a photo op with Rouhani, that is not possible,” Rouhani said, in a televised address. The Iranians also preferred that any encounter include the other signatories of the 2015 pact—Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia.
Trump’s speech to the U.N. last week didn’t foster trust, either. “No responsible government should subsidize Iran’s bloodlust,” he declared. “As long as Iran’s menacing behavior continues, sanctions will not be lifted—they will be tightened. Iran’s leaders will have turned a proud nation into just another cautionary tale of what happens when a ruling class abandons its people and embarks on a crusade for personal power and riches.” The same day, Rudy Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer, was the keynote speaker at an event organized by the Iranian opposition. “I am for regime change,” he told protesters gathered near the U.N. headquarters. “Down with the tyrants in Iran. Down with the Ayatollah and the mullahs and all the crooks.”
By the end of Tuesday, Rouhani was in no mood to believe that Trump would take the first step and promise to lift sanctions. When Macron showed up, Rouhani had already retreated to his bedroom. “This was just a game to get us to a meeting without any assurances that Trump would deliver,” Zarif later told me.
The call to Trump’s line came through at nine-thirty, according to sources familiar with events that evening. Macron took the call. But Rouhani never emerged from his room. “As we have been doing for several months, we worked in New York to get Iran to make new commitments and for the U.S., in exchange, to ease sanctions,” a French diplomat told me. “We made technical arrangements in the event that a telephone call could take place. That call did not take place.” The next day, Trump banned Iranian officials and their families from the United States.
Diplomacy may not be dead, however. French officials told me that Macron would continue pushing his plan. On Wednesday, Rouhani addressed Trump directly in his speech to the U.N. “Stop the sanctions so as to open the way for the start of negotiations,” he said. “If you require more, you should also give more.” He added, “A memorial photo is the last step of negotiation, not the first one.”
On Thursday, Rouhani told a press conference that Tehran is prepared to negotiate beyond the terms of the 2015 agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A. “What we believe in is that the J.C.P.O.A. is not a maximum form of agreement. It is what was possible at its time,” he said. “Now, if we wish to take a step above and beyond the J.C.P.O.A., that is possible. But the proper foundation would lie upon the full and exact implementation of the J.C.P.O.A. first”—meaning lifting sanctions.
Rouhani flew home later that day. Yet again, the United States and Iran had opposite impressions of what went wrong. At the Tehran airport, Rouhani told reporters that he had been assured by the British, French, and German leaders that Trump was ready to negotiate—and to promise to lift sanctions, to start the process. After Rouhani’s comments were reported, Trump denied it. “Iran wanted me to lift the sanctions imposed on them in order to meet,” Trump tweeted. “I said, of course, NO!”