Tehran has doubled down on a course of diplomatic brinkmanship that may inadvertently consolidate the Western alliance. President Rouhani spurned a long-planned overture by French President Macron to broker a clandestine meeting with U.S. President Trump, while publicly expanding Iran’s list of demands before agreeing to any negotiation. In response, the White House has re-committed itself to isolating Tehran and accelerating a cyber-campaign against its nuclear program.
Tehran’s Unrealistic Demands
According to a September 30 New York Times report, Iranian President Rouhani rebuffed a French effort to broker backchannel negotiations with U.S. President Trump. Following months of clandestine negotiations, French President Macron had carefully arranged a secure room where Rouhani could speak over the phone with President Trump. But, in the end, Rouhani refused to even leave his room, effectively bringing the French effort to nought.
Rouhani’s behind-the-scenes intransigence cast his remarks to the UN General Assembly that same day in an ominous light. While addressing reporters at UNGA on September 25, the Iranian President laid out a series of improbable conditions to precede any American-Iranian reconciliation: ”First, the [JCPOA] deal should be fully implemented ... meaning that sanctions should be lifted and America should return to the nuclear deal."
Even while laying out these preconditions, Rouhani called on Washington to abandon its own terms for negotiations: "We want America to remove its preconditions for talking to Iran, including its 'maximum pressure' policy against the Iranian nation" before any talks can be possible, he said. A few days later, Rouhani claimed that President Trump had offered to remove all U.S. sanctions, but that Tehran declined the offer due to the current “toxic atmosphere.”
Iran’s Foes Parry
For his part, President Trump wasted little time in pouring cold water on both Rouhani’s version of events and his expansive calls for sanctions relief. On September 27, Trump tweeted, “Iran wanted me to lift the sanctions imposed on them in order to meet. I said, of course, NO!”
On a September 28 interview with NBC, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif indicated that the US had accelerated non-kinetic efforts to degrade Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, claiming that “the United States started that cyber war, with attacking our nuclear facilities in a very dangerous, irresponsible way that could’ve killed millions of people. You remember Stuxnet?” He added: “So there is a cyber war ... and Iran is engaged in that cyber war. But the United — any war that the United States starts, it won’t be able to finish.”
A few days later, Iran’s Passive Defense Organization chief Gholamreza Jalali appeared to corroborate Zarif’s claims, noting that “America has started its cyber war against Iran,” while remaining guarded about providing more details. In his remarks, he warned that Iran would “decisively will resort to cyber defense,” and that, in his view, this should be considered a “strategic mistake” by the United States.
For his part, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman hinted at the ramifications of the escalating conflict in the Gulf in a September 29th interview with PBS: "If the world does not take a strong and firm action to deter Iran, we will see further escalations that will threaten world interests," he said. "Oil supplies will be disrupted and oil prices will jump to unimaginably high numbers that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes." He also added, "The political and peaceful solution is much better than the military one.”