Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's trip to Tokyo on December 20-21 will be the first such trip by an Iranian president since 2000. Rouhani will be reciprocating an earlier trip to Tehran by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last July. While Abe then did not manage to end the U.S.-Iran diplomatic impasse, as was his stated aim, there are 6 significant signs that Rouhani's trip at this juncture may break the deadlock.
First, the political winds in Tehran have shifted to a degree that may lead to diplomatic progress between the U.S. and Iran. Importantly, leaders in the U.S. and Iran have both been divided over the issue of new negotiations. On the U.S. side, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has alternated between laying out 12 preconditions for new talks to saying that there are no preconditions. Meanwhile, President Trump has at times has said that all he seeks is for Iran to have no nuclear weapons and for its leaders to "call" him. This almost happened during September's U.N. General Assembly, according to the New Yorker, by way of a three-way phone call between Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Rouhani. Trump was reportedly ready for it, but Rouhani was not.
On the Iranian side, any trust in the U.S. built during the negotiations that led to the July 2015 nuclear deal has been destroyed. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has strongly opposed entering new negotiations while bearing the brunt of the U.S.'s "maximum pressure" campaign, based off the concern that any U.S.-Iran meeting would validate the pressure track and invite more pressure. Rouhani has voiced similar concerns and has made sanctions removal a prerequisite for new negotiations. However, he has contended the U.S. was prepared to ease sanctions during U.N. General Assembly, and the key stumbling block was only the sequencing of sanctions removal.
However, over the past month, Rouhani has been more forceful and public in voicing support for new negotiations. On November 12, he stated that the Prophet of Islam made "agreements with the nonbelievers," and when they "broke their agreements, he made a second agreement." In another speech around the same time he discussed Iran's dire economic straits and asked: "When the country is faced with problems exporting oil, how can the country be managed?" Earlier this month, Rouhani also said that negotiations can be "revolutionary," proclaiming: "The enemy seeks to put pressure on our people. The people are resisting but this doesn't mean that if we find a way to defeat the enemy's plan, we shouldn't take that path. Negotiations are a necessary and revolutionary act."
Rouhani's remarks reflect an intense domestic feud over entering new talks with the United States. Rouhani following through on the Japan trip now may indicate he has gained the upper hand and at minimum reflects that he has the authority from Khamenei to explore avenues for renewed U.S.-Iran diplomacy.
The second reason that Tokyo could lead to a breakthrough is that, according to Japanese media, Washington green-lighted Abe hosting Rouhani. Abe has stated regarding Rouhani's trip: "By steadfastly pursuing dialogue, we will continue to make every diplomatic effort possible to ease tensions and achieve stability in the region." According to Iranian press reports, Rouhani and Abe will discuss Japan getting a U.S. waiver for importing Iranian oil, establishing a new bilateral financial channel, and releasing $5.1 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenues. If these occur, it would be a major step forward for indirect U.S.-Iran negotiations.
Third, there has been a change in regional dynamics, with the Emiratis and Saudis seemingly seeking de-escalation with Iran. Following Iran's downing of a sophisticated U.S. surveillance drone in June, and attacks in the Emirati port of Fujairah and on Saudi Arabia's Kurais and Abqaiq oil facilities, these staunch regional supporters of the Trump White House's Iran policy show signs of pivoting away from the "maximum pressure" campaign. The UAE recently reached a maritime agreement with Iran and reportedly released $700 million in Iranian assets, while the Wall Street Journal reports that Saudi Arabia is "quietly trying to mend fences with Iran." Coupled with reports that the Saudis are pursuing a durable truce in Yemen with U.S. support, the apparent departure of the UAE and Saudi Arabia from "maximum pressure" may augur — if not necessitate — a broader shift in U.S. policy.
Fourth, efforts to establish formal channels for humanitarian trade with Iran are advancing. While medicine, food, and other humanitarian goods are ostensibly exempt from U.S. sanctions, the Trump administration's failure to designate proper financial channels to facilitate these transactions has depleted such trade with Iran. However, Reuters reports that U.S. and Swiss officials are now at the final stages of setting up a new humanitarian channel for Iran. According to a member of Tehran's Chamber of Commerce, Washington has given several U.S. companies licenses recently to export medicine to Iran. Two Iranian banks have reportedly been approved by the Treasury Department to facilitate these transactions.
Fifth, the recent U.S.-Iran prisoner exchange is catalyzing diplomatic momentum. Both President Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif lauded the successful exchange of Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani and Princeton Ph.D. student Xiyue Wang and said it could lead to more deals. Such prisoner exchanges are the low-hanging fruit for U.S.-Iran diplomacy and help build confidence between the two sides. Iran's foreign ministry has since expressed its willingness to exchange all U.S. and Iranian prisoners as "part of a package." Notably, the U.S. recently dropped charges against two other Iranian scientists.
The sixth and final reason for why the U.S. and Iran may be on the verge of diplomatic progress is the change in personnel in the Trump administration. The major drivers of Trump's Iran policy have been Pompeo and former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Both have track records of opposing U.S.-Iran diplomacy in principle and favoring U.S. military strikes against Iran. They have not shared Trump's seeming aim for "maximum pressure" to lead to diplomacy and not war or regime change. With Bolton's ouster rooted in conflicts with Trump, including over Iran policy, and Pompeo's expected departure from the administration to run for Senate, the main hardline forces within the administration obstructing diplomacy will be gone.
The U.S. and Iran are currently locked in a stalemate. However, the status quo has borne costs for both countries and regional and global stability. For President Trump, getting any sort of diplomatic progress with Iran now — whether in the form of a phone call or meeting with Rouhani or some other Iranian concession — could be sold as a political victory ahead of the presidential election. For Rouhani and his moderate-reformist faction, de-escalation with the U.S. and economic reprieve is vital for their political survival and chances in February's parliamentary election.
A "small" deal now, perhaps in the form of some sanctions relief for Iran and for both sides to cease further escalation, is possible and vitally necessary to build trust and set the stage for a potential bigger deal in President Trump's second term — should he be victorious in November.