TEHRAN, Iran >> After the handshakes, the signature ceremony and the diplomatic pomp of the historic meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un of North Korea, many Iranians could come to only one conclusion: We should talk, too.
Yes, Trump in May unilaterally pulled the United States out of the nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers. Yes, he has imposed new sanctions against Iran that are scaring away European investors. Yes, Trump has a long track record of changing his mind.
Despite that, some here say that perhaps Iran’s leaders should make a move similar to Kim’s and propose a meeting. If Trump can sit down with the leader of such an isolated country — with its gulags, summary executions and stockpile of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles — why not talk to Iran?
Trump has already said he is willing to authorize direct talks with Iran’s leaders to renegotiate the Iran deal.
“We are a country with municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections, our 80-million-strong society is open and dynamic, we share borders” with many countries, said Masoud Daneshmand, a member of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce. “Iran is a much more advanced and open society, compared with North Korea. So why wouldn’t Iran and America be able to sit down and have direct talks?”
One reason is that Iran’s leaders are ideologically opposed to talking to the United States. Like North Korea, Iran has no diplomatic relations with the United States. Iranian presidents visiting the United Nations for meetings have been known to duck into a restroom to avoid being seen with a U.S. president.
Another reason is that Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement vindicated hard-liners in Iran. They now say that the decision to enter into direct talks with the Obama administration, under the umbrella of the nuclear negotiations, has brought only pain. Never again, they say.
But it is that pain — of a faltering economy, rising prices and the restoration of old sanctions — that is causing some Iranians to say there is no other way out of the decades of tensions with Washington but through direct talks.
“The economy is so bad and our leaders need to sell oil, how can they under sanctions?” said Hadi Mokhatarian, 40, who owns an orange orchard near the Caspian Sea. “I think in the end we have no option but to talk to America.”
He said that like most people he knew, he had no inclination to rise up against Iran’s leaders. “But if they talk to Trump and things will get better, I think that will be great and many people will be happy,” he said.
In a small shop in West Tehran, where Mohammad Shahdadi, 33, sells plastics and disposable items like cups and buckets, business was slow, as it has been for a while, he admitted.
“My question is: Why should we continue our current foreign policy?” he said. “It’s time for change. For the sake of Iranians, to save us from this bad situation, our leaders should sit down with Trump and solve the old disputes between our countries.”
The list of those disputes is long.
In 1953, the CIA organized a coup against the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and Washington strongly backed the authoritarian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for years.
In 1979, Iranian revolutionary students occupied the U.S. Embassy and took 52 Americans hostage, and after that Washington supported Iraq during its bloody eight-year war with Iran. Over the decades there have been sanctions, cyberattacks and other secret operations, terrorist attacks and various diplomatic disputes.
Now, the Trump administration, besides withdrawing from the nuclear deal, is blaming the Iranian leadership for most of the problems in the Middle East and is talking about regime change.
“In reality, direct talks are not realistic under the current conditions,” said Saeed Laylaz, an economist close to the Iranian government. Not only is there a lot of old bad blood, he said, Trump also has set different conditions for Iran than he did for North Korea. “He wants Iran to give up everything, without offering any incentive in return,” Laylaz said. “Why should we sit down with him under such conditions?”
Iranian officials are also wary of Trump’s mercurial nature. A government spokesman, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, warned North Korea this week that Trump could not be taken at his word, pointing to his decision to rescind his signature on the communiqué of the Group of 7 meeting in Canada.
“I do not know who the North Korean leader is conferring with,” Nobakht said. “This man is not a wise representative of America. I hope that the American nation itself will do something about him.”
The idea of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meeting with Trump in front of the world’s news media and shaking hands is unthinkable. That would destroy his carefully crafted image as the leader of the “resistance axis,” a group of countries and groups in the Middle East that oppose United States policies.
“Perhaps Iran and the U.S. can talk secretly at first,” suggested Daneshmand, who pointed out that Iran even sat down with its archenemy at the time, Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader, to end the Iran-Iraq war. “Be sure that even now, somewhere talks are going on. If North Korea becomes a success, we will see direct talks with Iran.”
But others saw a different lesson in the meeting between Trump and Kim. Why was it that the U.S. leader was willing to fly all the way to Singapore to meet with a 34-year-old dictator?
“Because he has nuclear weapons,” said Housang Tale, an Iranian nationalist. Pakistan, India, Russia, China and now North Korea all have nuclear arms and the United States talks with all of them, he said, “but not to us.”
Iran never had a nuclear weapon, and it says the program it curtailed in the nuclear agreement was strictly for producing energy, not weapons. Iran said today that it planned to resume uranium enrichment at its Fordo site if the nuclear deal with the remaining parties completely falls apart.
“We should’ve made a nuclear bomb, then they would take us seriously,” Tale said. “Now, they can pressure us as much as they want.”