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Trump says he’s willing to meet with Iranian leader without preconditions

Bloomberg, Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump said he would be willing to meet Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani with “no preconditions” as tensions between the two countries climb following the U.S. president’s decision to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear deal.

“I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet,” Trump said Monday during a joint news conference at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. “I don’t know if they’re ready. They’re having a hard time.”

But, he added: “I do believe that they will probably end up wanting to meet and I’m ready to meet any time that they want to.”

Trump said he had “no preconditions” for a meeting with the Iranians, adding: “If they want to meet, I’ll meet.”

The U.S. leader cited his experience meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month as a sign of his willingness to help address concerns of war and peace. Trump has said the summit — the first ever between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea — has fostered his goal of denuclearizing North Korea, though its unclear if Kim shares that commitment.

When discussing critical issues, “you meet,” Trump said on Monday. “There’s nothing wrong with meeting.” One possible opportunity would be during the annual United Nations General Assembly in late September. Rouhani typically attends the meetings in New York.

Trump began ramping up the public pressure on Iran about a week ago, saying on Twitter that the U.S. won’t tolerate Iran’s “DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH” — a response to a warning that Iran’s leader made to Trump. The tweet followed a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labeling Iranian leaders “hypocritical holy men” and calling out many by name for alleged corruption.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Trump’s tweet last week, posting on Twitter, “color us unimpressed.” He added that “the world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago” and “We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!”

Trump’s tough public line echoes the one he used against North Korea last year — warning of “fire and fury” he could rain down on Pyongyang — provoking fears of a military conflict that eased when the two leaders agreed to meet.

The U.S. president was an opponent of the 2015 nuclear deal — which eased some economic sanctions in exchange for specific curbs on Iran’s nuclear program — for years, calling the accord the “worst deal ever.” His withdrawal from the agreement prompted widespread international criticism, including from allies France, the U.K. and Germany.

Economically, Trump may have some leverage with Tehran, which has faced months of protests about corruption and slow economic growth. Earlier this month, the other participants in the nuclear deal met in Vienna to look for ways to ensure Iran still gets the benefits it’s seeking from the accord despite the U.S. threats. But world powers were unable to offer concrete proposals, and diplomats have warned there may be little they can do.

Behind the president’s tougher rhetoric, according to administration officials and analysts, is Trump’s desire to goad Iran, which has seen repeated public protests over corruption and slow economic growth, back to the negotiating table to hammer out a new, more comprehensive deal to replace the nuclear accord the U.S. withdrew from in May.

Politically, however, many analysts say it would be very hard for Iran’s political leaders to meet with Trump, given his opposition to the nuclear accord they spent years negotiating, his travel ban that effects many Iranians interested in studying or working in the U.S. and his rhetoric against the government.

Some U.S. sanctions on Iran are due to kick in next month, while more serious penalties targeting countries with companies importing Iranian oil take effect in November. The administration has signaled to allies that it won’t consider broad exemptions to sanctions.

Hours before Trump’s statement, Tehran had ruled out talks with Washington.

“With current America and these policies, there will definitely not be the possibility of dialogue and engagement, and the United States has shown that it is totally unreliable,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi told a weekly news conference on Monday.

Qasemi criticized the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and economic sanctions that follow, noting “there are no conditions for such a discussion at all.”