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regime change or a summit meeting with Rohani, mediated by Putin.



  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a joint press conference with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz after meeting in Vienna on 4 July

Who knows what went through President Trump's mind when he threatened the Iranian President earlier this week en Hassan Rouhani spread. Maybe even the president does not know. It is possible that Trump has visions of regime change in his mind. Or he could try to repeat his North Korea move: a self-inflicted crisis, followed by a theatrical summit that allows him to accept the statesman's coat. Any of these scenarios could occur. Both would put the United States in a worse position than if Trump remained in the nuclear deal with Iran instead.

The path Trump will most likely follow is confrontational. Iranian politics simply can not allow it to approach Trump, even if that's what he wants. President Rouhani has made the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the centerpiece of his presidency, and since the American withdrawal, he has been bitterly attacked by stubborn opponents in Iran. If he met with the man who left the agreement and imposed sanctions, he would be pilloried. Iran is certainly not a democracy, but factionalism leaves and limits its politicians.

As for the Trump administration, it may also be less motivated to hold a high-level summit with Iran than North Korea because it sees a more attractive alternative. National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence seem to have convinced themselves that the Islamic Republic is on the brink of internal collapse and that economic pressure and peaceful regime change are viable and cheap. It is certainly better than going to war, which remains a deeply unpopular decision among the American public.

A third factor that militates against a breakthrough between the US and Iran is America's regional partners. In the case of North Korea, South Korea has been invested in de-escalating the situation and finding a diplomatic solution. It played a crucial role in bringing a summit offer directly to Trump. Israel and Saudi Arabia will not play such a role. They are deeply invested in a confrontational approach to Iran that would weaken the regime or, better yet, bring it down completely. Bibi Netanyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman will do everything in their power to prevent a spectacle like the one we saw in Singapore last month.

The lack of international unity to pressure Iran will also make this situation more difficult. Any consensus to isolate Iran is frayed as our European partners, Russia and China, rejected the American move from the JCPOA and are now negotiating negotiated alternatives with Iran to keep the JCPOA alive and limit the impact of the re-imposed America sanctions. As long as this persists, Iran is more likely to work with the other members of the P5 + 1 and worsen a split between the United States and its partners.

The lack of international unity to put pressure on Iran will also make this situation difficult.

Given these limitations, the most likely scenario is that the situation in Iran will continue to give way. The Trump government will try to bring about a regime change over sanctions, a strategy that will be unlikely to succeed. And even if, it could bring unpredictable and not necessarily positive results. As we saw during the Arab Spring, a regime change could lead to considerable instability or even civil war. In the case of Iran, the most likely scenario would likely be the replacement of a clerical regime by a regime governed by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, with little change in Iran's foreign and domestic policies. The Iranians will negotiate with the other members of the P5 + 1, and while the impact of US sanctions will become more acute, they will likely also seek revenge for US violations against the JCPOA by restarting parts of their nuclear program in violation of the agreement. All sides will continue to try to avoid a major war. And the president will continue with angry tweets that will have little effect.

There is an alternative reality in which President Trump dreams of a high-level summit meeting with President Rouhani, or even better, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This would be the showman's instincts and could be more plausible than people think.

The road to such a spectacle is probably about Trump's favorite foreign leader: Vladimir Putin. One of Putin's strongest motivations is to portray Russia as an indispensable actor on the world stage, a superpower equal to the United States. The convening of a historic summit involving the presidents of Iran and the United States would be a big coup for Putin, which would further consolidate this perception.

Russia also has an interest in preventing a confrontation between the US and Iran. For this reason, Russia and the US found a common position in Iran during the Iranian nuclear talks of 2013-15, although relations between the US and Russia in other areas deteriorated sharply. The Russians were a critical player. They often took the Iranian side and made it harder for the United States, but there were times in the negotiations in which they also gave the Iranians the strings and discarded concessions that none of the other players could.

The Russians are also deeply invested in a successful end to their military intervention in Syria. Consolidating their military victory requires political agreement between key players, including the United States and Iran. Despite years of meetings and processes in places such as Geneva and Astana, Kazakhstan, so far all negotiation efforts have failed. Therefore, a summit on this front should address Putin.

Putin can also avoid all objections from Trump's advisors, as well as those from our Israeli and Saudi partners, by going straight to the president. Just look at the President's appearance at the Helsinki Summit to prove that Putin can make Trump agree to things that all of his advisors reject. And Trump's continued mistreatment of European and Asian ally should pause our Israeli and Saudi friends. Would he really not make a penny if Vladimir Putin offered him a high-profile diplomatic spectacle that would allow him to play in front of the media on the global stage?

Perhaps the biggest question is whether Putin could sell that to the Iranian leadership. He would have to argue that Trump, as he did in North Korea, will come unprepared and make significant concessions without getting anything in return. If the talks with the other members of P5 + 1 Iran do not bring meaningful sanctions relief, this option could also be appealing. At least, a Rohani-Trump summit would further weaken international compliance and US sanctions, as the world sees Iran and the US get back into business. And in the ideal world, Putin could even get Trump to resume implementation of the nuclear deal, while declaring that he has pushed extra concessions out of Iran.

In this less probable scenario, the big winner would be Russia. Putin would strengthen Russia's reputation with a major international victory. Trump would get his big photo op. Iran and the US would return to where they were before the president unnecessarily left the JCPOA.

And so we finally stand two months after the president foolishly threw relations with Iran into chaos. The most likely scenario is that the US is pursuing an unsuccessful regime change strategy and becoming more internationally isolated as Iran gradually resumes its nuclear program. Perhaps the slightly better scenario is that we reward Vladimir Putin with a big profit and restore the cool but functional peace with Iran that President Obama achieved in 2015. None of these options are attractive, and both are the result of a more invested president in his public image than in America's national security.


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