US President Donald Trump threw out a couple of suggestive remarks about Iran on two separate occasions apropos of his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. On June 7, during a White House press conference with visiting Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, he said Iran’s leaders are “much different” in recent months and “they are no longer looking to the Mediterranean or causing trouble in Syria and Yemen.” Pointing to his coming denuclearization talks with North Korea, Trump said he hoped the Iranian leadership would “come and sit down with us and we can make a deal that’s good for everybody.” He then added: “We’re going to be fine, with respect to Iran.”
Then, during a two-hour briefing to reporters after the summit, Trump obliquely described Iran as a different place compared to three months ago. “I hope that the appropriate time after sanctions, really harsh sanctions, kick in, they will negotiate a new deal. Right now, it’s too soon.”
It seems, therefore, that even while he made history at Singapore, the Iranian nuclear issue was still at the back of the president’s mind as major, unfinished business.
After his farewell handshake with Kimi Jong-un, the US president struck with a typical bolt-from-the-blue maneuver, by revealing to reporters that he had decided to cancel the joint war games, because they were “provocative” and “extremely expensive.” This major concession, not covered in the document the two leaders had just signed, sent US allies into nervous jitters and stunned the Pentagon. Neither did he name any North Korean counter-concession, for which another storm of criticism rose up at home. Trump declared flatly that a brink-of-war situation had been defused and the momentum for peace generated. He left the details omitted from the signed document for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton to fill in when they traveled to Seoul, Pyongyang and Beijing in the coming days.
But ahead of his journey, Pompeo began laying down parameters. Since like all accords, Kim’s “unwavering commitment to comprehensively dismantle his nuclear and ballistic programs,” would stand or fall on good faith – and Kim’s forebears’ were notorious renegades – Pompeo stipulated that if the North Korean leader failed the test of good faith, the war games would be resumed. He also set a two-year timeline for implementation of “major nuclear disarmament steps.” Meanwhile, sanctions remained in place and “300 more” are held in reserve.
Iran less susceptible to Trumpian tactics
This Trumpian brand of diplomacy may work for complex processes that are cloaked in total secrecy, as were the US-North-Korean-Chinese preparations for the Singapore summit. But in the case of Iran, this policy could misfire – especially against the Syria backdrop, where seven nations, the US, Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, are actively involved.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and Iranian sources report that Trump’s apparent throwaway comments depicting Iran’s leaders as “much different in recent months” may have been meant as a signal to Tehran: The door which opened for the North Korean ruler remains ajar for Iran’s leaders too – but not for long.
The “differences” in Tehran that Trump referred to held true in the immediate aftermath of his decision to quit the 2015 nuclear accord, which badly rattled Iran’s leaders and plunged them in fierce disputes over how to handle the new man in the White House and his decision. But the hardliners are meanwhile gaining the upper hand for adopting a tit-for-tat line and the regime is solidifying its tendency to abandon the accord.
On Tuesday, June 12, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pointedly warned his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron that staying in the accord carried no benefits for Iran since the US withdrawal. This show of impatience with European efforts to salvage the accord was backed up the next day, when Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi stated that work was ready to start on reviving uranium enrichment at Fordow “outside the nuclear deal – as soon as supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave the order.” Both statements sought to express Tehran’s defiant nonchalance for the Trump-Kim summit in Tehran.
To keep the ayatollahs on the run by other means, US secret services, aided by Israel and Saudi intelligence agencies, are spreading accounts, designed to drive a wedge between Tehran and Moscow, that Russia is intent on driving Iran and Hizballah proxy out of Syria. These accounts were made of whole cloth until recently, when they were unexpectedly infused with life by Moscow itself. Russian spokesmen are now saying that Iran and Hizballah will eventually have to withdraw from Syria.
Putin wants a summit with Trump
This ploy is seen as a Kremlin feeler for common ground with the Trump administration in Syria and lead to a summit between President Vladimir Putin and Trump. On June 10, Putin said plainly that he was ready for a face-to-face with Trump on the dangers of a new arms race. Talking to reporters at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Qingdao, China, the Russian president said: “I agree with him, and to have a meaningful discussion, our ministries of foreign affairs and experts should get involved and work close together, and of course a meeting in person is necessary.”
However, both leaders are at odds with their military chiefs on some key issues.
The US military has procrastinated for months on Trump’s call to bring US troops home from Syria and the Pentagon is very reluctantly digesting his decision to cancel joint war games with South Korea. In Moscow, Russian military and intelligence chiefs are ignoring Putin’s wish to limit the Iranian and Hizballah military presence in Syria, maintaining that they are needed to supply the ground troops for Russia-backed operations.
On Monday, June 11, Alexander Zasypkin Russian ambassador to Lebanon, came out openly against the line advocated by the Kremlin. He told a Beirut-based radio station that the Lebanese Hizballah “resistance movement” and Iran, “which have been helping the Syrian army in its counter-terrorism battle, should not withdraw from this Arab country until all terrorists are eliminated.” He dismissed calls by “the other camp” for them to be pulled out of Syria as an attempt to cause tension between Russia and its allies in Syria.
US clandestine services are also turning up the heat on the Iranian regime on its home front: Protests in the main cities of Iran are on an upward swing, although still modest in scale. However, several subversive teams mounted by Iran’s restive minority groups in the last ten days were ambushed by Revolutionary Guards units at the Iraqi-Iranian border and liquidated before they could reach targets inside the country.