President Donald Trump declared Monday, at a joint press conference at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, that he would meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with “no preconditions.”
The pledge was a curious echo of a much-criticized promise that then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) made during a Democratic presidential primary debate in 2007. When he was asked by a YouTube user whether he would be “willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea,” Obama responded: “I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.”
The Obama campaign worked feverishly to undo the perceived damage of that remark. Susan Rice pretended he never said it. The campaign also attempted to distinguish between the Holocaust-denying then-president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the “Supreme Leader,” Ali Khamenei.
(To listen to Obama administration alumni today criticizing Trump’s summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin, it might seem Obama never wanted to meet foreign adversaries at all.)
Vox.com and other observers have suggested that Trump will escape the backlash that greeted Obama when he offered to meet Iran with no preconditions, because of the supposed double-standard held by conservatives.
Actually, when then-candidate Trump first proposed the idea of talking with foreign adversaries, on the campaign trail in 2015, this author criticized him. His policy on Russia was “virtually indistinguishable from Barack Obama’s failing policy,” I wrote.
But today, there is something fundamentally different about Trump’s pledge and Obama’s pledge, which is that Trump’s offer to meet comes after he has already taken several tough measures against the Iranian regime.
These include pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal; re-imposing tough sanctions; supporting protests against the regime; and threatening Iran’s leaders with “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
In contrast, Obama’s offer to meet came from a position of weakness, and depended almost entirely on diplomacy. When his administration negotiated with Iran, it was thanks to the pressure of international sanctions that Obama had resisted, as well as a military threat from Israel and Obama had done his best to undermine.
Trump is not basing his entire policy on diplomatic outreach, but offering diplomacy as an alternative once he has applied massive pressure — military, economic, diplomatic, and internal — on the regime. He is dealing from a position of strength.
In that context, there can be “no preconditions” because Trump has already created the conditions under which American diplomacy is more likely to succeed.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.