By Majid Rafizadeh
May 17, 2019
Several TV outlets and newspapers controlled by the Iranian government this week put significant emphasis on US President Donald Trump’s call for negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
This was a totally unexpected message for the Iranian leaders. Trump stated in remarks to reporters at the White House: “What I’d like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me… What they should be doing is calling me up, sitting down; we can make a deal, a fair deal… We’re not looking to hurt Iran.” He added: “I want them to be strong and great and have a great economy. But they should call, and if they do, we’re open to talk to them.”
To Iran’s surprise, the White House even passed a phone number to Swiss officials in Tehran in order to give to the Iranian government in case it wanted to call the president directly.
The Trump administration is likely carrying out the carrot and stick approach, combining rewards and pressure, in order to hopefully change Iran’s aggressive policies and induce constructive behavior from Tehran.
The US this month deployeda Patriot missile battery, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, the USS Leyte Gulf guided missile cruiser, Carrier Air Wing Seven, and destroyers from Destroyer Squadron Two to the Middle East in order to deter the Iranian regime from carrying out its threats, which include closing the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly a thirdof the world’s traded oil passes.
Gen. Ali Reza Tangsiri, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy, was last month quoted by the semi-official Tasnim News Agency as saying: “If we are banned from using it (the Strait of Hormuz), we will close it.” In addition, the US has reportedly received credible intelligence that Iran is planning to attack US bases and forces in the Middle East through its militias and proxies.
How did Iran portray Trump’s announcement that Tehran should call him? The regime attempted to show that the US president’s call for negotiations was a sign of weakness on the side of the White House. Iranian leaders are trying to project power and appease its proxies and hard-line base.
Meanwhile, some state-controlled newspapers arguedthat Trump is seeking to negotiate in a bid to achieve an important foreign policy objective and utilize it to win his bid for re-election in November 2020.
Putting Tehran’s rhetoric aside, the key question is whether or not the Iranian leaders will respond to Trump’s statement and give him a call. The theocratic establishment will, more than likely, contact the White House for two critical reasons. Firstly, history has shown us that, whenever the Iranian regime is under significant pressure economically and geopolitically, it has resorted to negotiations and bilateral talks. This is due to the fact that financial austerity can pose a threat to the ruling clerics. In addition, the loss of revenues makes it extremely difficult for Tehran to continue supporting, training, sponsoring, funding and arming its proxies and militias across the region.
For example, during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic reached their peak, as four rounds of UN Security Council sanctions crippled the regime’s economy. This led to a new era of negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the US and the other members of the P5+1 (Germany, the UK, China, Russia and France). If it was not for the green light given by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to the so-called moderate administration of Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president would have not pursued the negotiations. This is because Iran’s supreme leader and the IRGC’s senior cadre enjoy the final say in critical matters regarding both domestic and foreign policies.
As a result of the negotiations, the Iranian government received billions of dollars in revenues thanks to sanctions relief, joined the global financial system, gained legitimacy, and secured and ensured its hold on power. Now, however, as Rouhani has admitted, the Islamic Republic is facing the worst economic crisis since its establishment.
The second reason behind the belief that Iran will most likely call the White House is the fact that Tehran will view this as an opportunity to buy time. The Iranian leaders believe Trump is unlikely to get re-elected in 2020 and, if they can stall until another president — this time from the Democratic Party — assumes office, they believe they can weather the storm.
In a nutshell, Iran is facing its worst economic crisis since 1979. As a result, the regime will likely reach out to Trump in order to buy time until the US presidential elections in 2020.