New Delhi: If the world has to choose between Iran and the United States, there is not much left to choose. Worsening US-Iran relations followed by US sanctions on Iran will hurt Iran and scarcely singe the United States. It is true that Donald Trump has been obnoxious towards Iran partly guided by history and partly at the goading of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump was also wrong to crash out of the Iran nuclear deal. But having done that, the nuclear deal is a dead letter. Co-signatories Western Europe had vowed to preserve the deal in the early days. Hit by US tariff threats on automobiles etc, Western Europe has lost the stomach to challenge Donald Trump on anything. In any case, European companies are winding up commercial relations with Iran in anticipation of crippling sanctions. The nuclear deal is unlikely to retain West European support for long in the circumstances. Typical of Donald Trump to spring surprises, he says he is prepared for unconditional talks with his Iranian counterpart. Aides of the Iranian president have previously disclosed strenuous attempts on the part of the White House to effect a Trump-Hassan Rouhani summit. Iran should set aside its sense of victimhood and seize the American president’s offer. The atmosphere of anger and distrust needs immediate clearance. Iran cannot sustain another long period of economic decline from whose effects it may never recover. The Iranian economy is already under strain from the first shocks administered by the Trump administration and more are on the way.

If North Korea had stood its ground against Trump and wide-ranging US sanctions which have really begun to hurt, it should have bolstered Iran’s position. Further, if Trump had not initiated the trade war against China, there should have been scope for Iran to withstand US heat. But China is crumbling as the United States tightens the screw and Western Europe is not taking chances. Russia is not a geo-economic player of any consequence. Can Iran keep its pride and still prevent an economic meltdown? Not possible. If China and Western Europe show distinct signs of capitulating to Trump’s pressure, wisdom dictates that Iran grab the US president’s offer of talks. Iran’s trading partners, including India, would be relieved if Iran and the United States start talking. It would provide an opening for Iran’s West European well-wishers to temper US demands made of Iran. This is the age of geo-economics and diplomacy. Donald Trump has also proved that the United States is the only Major Power capable of setting the world’s agenda. To save itself from ruin, Iran should open negotiations with the United States.

While national egos come in the way, the real trouble lies in Iran’s domestic politics. The nuclear deal is Rouhani’s child which the clergy has never been keen to uphold and preserve. The clergy overrates Iran’s capacity to reorder the Middle East. While nuclear weapons do deter regime change, regime change is not a serious threat for Iran. No one seriously believes the United States can change Iran’s regime. Internal convulsions could undo the clergy, but the tipping point still seems far away. On the other hand, nuclear weapons could have such unintended consequences for Iran as to even undermine its principal champions, the clergy. Iran wants nuclear weapons to chiefly neutralize Israel, but Saudi Arabia will feel primarily threatened and go nuclear when Iran does. Even should it not go nuclear immediately, the US nuclear cover will automatically extend to it, and Iran would face such crippling sanctions as to go under, taking the clergy down with it. The India-Pakistan example should serve as a warning. The moment India conducted the Pokhran 2 test and Pakistan followed suit in a space of a fortnight, India lost the military advantage it previously possessed. As military-nuclear equals, India has few strategic options to overcome Pakistan. The denouement would be no different for Iran.

Which is not to say Iran does not have legitimate complaints against the United States. This is not about Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Israel, the support to Palestinians, etc, in which blame is to be shared by more than one party, including Iran. After the 9/11 tragedy, however, Iran tried to befriend the United States, but the George W. Bush administration still chose to count it among adversary countries. Strangely, the Bush administration ignored Chinese mercantilism while scouting for friends and partners in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, could not put a closure to the historical bitterness with Iran although he tried with the nuclear deal. While Donald Trump tore up the deal as one of his first major executive acts as president, that was partly also to do with breaking from Obama’s legacy. While Donald Trump’s loathing for Obama is irrational, that does not mean Iran cannot do business with Trump. If Iran can convince him that the past is past and that it holds no animus against the United States, it may end up finding Donald Trump to be surprisingly warm. But some things are non-negotiable for even Donald Trump. Iran has to definitely give up its nuclear ambitions. It cannot pose a military threat to any state in the Middle East, and particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. It has to terminate its proxy wars in the region. Most Iranians would want the regime to focus inwards and fix the economy so that Iran reaches its true potential. Donald Trump would be quite happy with that. And so would be most of the rest of the world (and especially India) which finds Iran valuable.