For years Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sounded the alarm about Iran — its quest for a nuclear weapon, its threats to destroy Israel, its support of terrorist groups throughout the region.
Now, just a week before Netanyahu faces his toughest re-election bid, President Trump, his chief supporter, appears to be pulling the rug out from under him.
Trump repeated again this week that he sees “no problem” to sitting down in two weeks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when the two are in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. And he said he was not interested in seeing “regime change” in Iran, but rather “would like to be able to solve their problem [inflation]. We could solve it in 24 hours.”
Should the two meet, it would occur after Israel’s Sept. 17 election and would not “negatively impact” coalition talks, according to Aaron David Miller, who has served as an adviser to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state and is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will find a way to argue that if the administration is going to pursue dialogue with Israel, he is the person best equipped to defend Israel’s interests or is best equipped to be America’s partner in any tough negotiations with Iran,” Miller said.
Asked his thoughts about U.S.-Iran talks, Miller said simply, “We are a long way away from meaningful negotiations.”
That sentiment was echoed by Dennis Ross, a former assistant to President Barack Obama and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“I’m not persuaded they will get together,” he said.
Should it happen, it would reflect the fact that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave the green light in the hope of getting Trump to ease the sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Iran and tightened again last week, Ross said.
“But, I’m not convinced it will happen,” he stressed. “Trump seems to be on one page with the Iranians and most of his administration is on a different page.”
Trump did something about that on Tuesday by announcing in a tweet that his national security adviser, John Bolton, had been fired because he had “disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions.” Bolton tweeted in response that he had offered to resign Monday night.
It is believed that Bolton was against the summit meeting, insisting that the U.S. had to play hardball with Iran.
“He was a strong advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship who has long led the effort to assure that Iran did not become a nuclear weapons power,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The president generally acts on his own assessment and there appears to have been a difference of views.”
He pointed out that it is Khamenei who decides whether Rouhani will meet with Trump and that in a letter to Rouhani that was made public, Khamenei wrote that there would be no meeting until all U.S. sanctions are removed.
Almost as if to convince Trump that any talks with the current Iranian regime would be pointless because they do not abide by their agreements, Netanyahu held a hastily called press conference on Monday to reveal that Israel had detected an additional Iranian site that was at one time used to develop the country’s nuclear weapons program. He then urged world powers to join him in putting “maximum pressure” on Iran.
This was the second time Netanyahu called a press conference to reveal secret sites of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which Iran committed in 2015 to not pursue. The International Atomic Energy Agency last week confirmed Netanyahu’s previous claims, saying it found traces of uranium at the site Netanyahu identified. It has asked Iran for an explanation.
Netanyahu was roundly criticized by his political opponents for using classified information for political purposes just a week before the election. But observers said Netanyahu, who is convinced that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, did not wish to leave one stone unturned in his efforts to derail a possible Trump-Rouhani summit.
French President Emmanuel Macron pushed for such a summit when Trump met him in France last month for a gathering of the G7. Macron even invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zariff to the G7, much to the surprise of Trump.
Trump had invited Zarif to the White House last July, but Zarif declined because of pressure from hardliners. But Trump rebuffed the suggestion that the two meet in France, saying it was “too soon” for that.
When he returned to Iran, Zariff was “roundly criticized by religious, political and military leaders” there for even flying to France for the G7 meeting, according to Hoenlein.
When he learned that Macron had invited Zarif to France for the G7 meeting and a possible meeting with Trump, Netanyahu made frantic phone calls to France in an attempt to get Trump on the phone to dissuade him from setting up such a meeting. But he reportedly was unable to get through to Trump.
Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Presidents’ Conference, said however that he supports such a summit, saying “it is important to talk to your enemies [and that] if the president wants to take a crack at it, with the proper expertise from the State Department, why not talk? He has nothing to lose.”
Asked about the angst that would cause Netanyahu, Reich said, “It’s worth a try, and Trump is seemingly not returning Bibi’s calls. If there is hope of success, I think it’s worth pursuing.”
But “any kind of deal, even one in which the U.S. returns to supporting the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] is one Netanyahu would oppose,” said F. Gregory Gause, III, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University. “I can’t imagine he would be pleased, and given the fact that he has made Iran a part of his campaign, it would not be helpful for him or Israel. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bibi is on the phone with him in the lead up to the General Assembly.”
But the likelihood of such a summit — never mind a successful one — is not great.
Menahem Merhavy, a lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he too “wouldn’t count on such a meeting even if it took place.” He noted that Iran agreed to enter into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action along with the European Union, the U.S., France, China, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom in 2015 because it was under pressure to suspend its quest to develop a nuclear bomb.
“I would say that today Iran is not with its back to the wall the way it was in 2012 and 2013 and that the motivation to modify the agreement is not there,” he said.
But before there are any talks, there must be preliminary meetings to prepare the groundwork for substantive negotiations, according to Robert Rabil, a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University.
“They know they need secret negotiations … just like there were secret negotiations with North Korea before any meeting,” he said.
But Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center, said it is “difficult to conduct diplomacy under the current circumstances because too many people are leaking and you wouldn’t be able to have quiet diplomacy.”
Although Israel is very important to Trump, Raj Bhala, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, said he believes Trump wants talks with Rouhani so he can “get Iran off his list of problems, allowing him to then concentrate on China. He has to deal with economic competition, foreign exchange rate competition and competition with China in the South China Sea. The U.S. has been distracted from addressing those things, and it is self-inflicted because Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear agreement.”
Illan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington foreign policy think tank, said in an email from Israel that a Trump-Rouhani meeting at the U.N. could occur or, “at the very least, some sort of informal U.S.-Iranian diplomatic contacts could happen. That is, after all, what the president [Trump] wants. He has said he is prepared to negotiate with Iran ‘without preconditions,’ provided the Iranians come to the negotiating table. Whether they will is a different story.”
The only thing stopping a summit meeting at this point are the “Iranian hardliners,” observed Jamsheed Choksy, chair of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University.
But the pressure is on Khamenei to permit a summit meeting with Rouhani, Choksy said, noting that “even [former Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is publicly calling for talks with the U.S.”