NEW YORK/WASHINGTON/DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – U.S. President Donald Trump signaled he’s open to making a dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward Iran, extending his most expansive offer yet to meet with President Hassan Rouhani and perhaps to ease restrictions so the Islamic Republic can use some of its oil wealth to access credit.
Trump’s comments, at the conclusion of the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France, on Monday, echoed his initial outreach to North Korea — which has since resulted in three meetings with Kim Jong Un but no breakthrough deal. Yet movement toward face-to-face talks with Tehran would be even more politically fraught than with Pyongyang.
At a news conference before heading back to Washington, Trump said he’d meet Rouhani “if the circumstances were correct or were right” to discuss their standoff over the 2015 nuclear deal that the U.S. president abandoned. He didn’t offer more details or acknowledge the political risks he’d face in trying to reach an accord.
“Iran is a country of tremendous potential. We’re not looking for leadership change, we’re not looking for that kind of change,” Trump said. “We can have it done in a very short period of time, and I really believe that Iran can be a great nation. I’d like to see that happen, but they can’t have nuclear weapons.”
But Rouhani, for his part, said in a response Tuesday that Iran has no intention of talking with the United States unless all sanctions imposed on Tehran are lifted.
“Tehran has never wanted nuclear weapons,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state television, adding that the country was always ready to hold talks.
“But first the U.S. should act by lifting all illegal, unjust and unfair sanctions imposed on Iran,” he added.
“We will continue to scale back our commitments under the 2015 deal if our interests are not guaranteed.”
Direct talks between Trump and Rouhani would be far more complicated than those the president has had with North Korea’s leader. Unlike Kim, Rouhani confronts a complex political landscape at home, with Iranians disappointed with an economy that’s sputtering under the weight of U.S. sanctions and senior politicians often divided over whether to engage with Washington.
Rouhani would need approval to enter talks from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who so far hasn’t signaled a willingness to engage with Trump. The American president’s top aides, including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, have argued that Khamenei, not Rouhani or Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, must address U.S. demands if a lasting deal is to be struck.
North Korea is “not a state of complex bureaucracies and contending groups, like Iran,” said Paul Sullivan, an expert on energy and the Middle East at National Defense University in Washington. “It is really one-man rule.”
Another key difference: North Korea already has nuclear weapons, giving it leverage in a negotiation that Iran so far lacks.
Trump would have to overcome considerable political hurdles as well to reach a deal. Isolating and weakening the Islamic Republic is one foreign policy issue Republican lawmakers and conservative national security experts agree on. It’s also a rallying cry for conservative Jewish supporters of Israel and key Trump backers, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Any move to improve ties would also face stiff opposition in Congress and among key American allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Trump has proclaimed himself Israel’s closest ally and has worked to bolster Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And Trump made his first trip as president to Saudi Arabia, which he has counted on to help isolate Iran.
If Trump did sit down for talks it would be groundbreaking. No American president has met with a top Iranian leader in more than four decades, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the U.S. hostage crisis that followed.
Trump, however, has long signaled a willingness to break political convention on a range of issues, though it’s too early to know if his comments on Iran reflect a genuine shift or whether hard-liners in his own administration, such as national security adviser John Bolton, will lure him away from talk of diplomacy.
“If he seems to be softening on Iran there is a good chance that some of his staff who are hard-liners will bring him back to a hard-line position,” Sullivan said.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have spiked in recent months, with Trump saying he called off military strikes on the country at the last minute in July following Tehran’s downing of an unmanned American drone over the Persian Gulf. The U.S. has blamed Iran for being behind a spate of attacks on oil tankers. Iran has also detained a U.K. ship in apparent retaliation for the British seizure of an Iranian tanker, which has since been released.
Trump imposed harsh sanctions on Iran after abandoning the nuclear deal last year, an approach that has helped fuel inflation and undermined domestic support for Rouhani’s government. He called the 2015 accord the “worst deal ever,” in part because it didn’t permanently ban Iran’s nuclear program and even eased United Nations limits on its ballistic missile program.
The president’s remarks came at the close of a summit where he was surrounded by European leaders eager to find a negotiated solution to rising tensions with Tehran and still committed to salvaging the 2015 accord. French President Emmanuel Macron, the event’s host, went so far as to invite Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, to a meeting on the sidelines of the G7. Trump and other foreign leaders were given little advance notice of the visit.
Before Trump spoke in France, Rouhani reiterated a willingness to engage, saying in televised comments that “we have to negotiate, we have to find a solution, and we have to solve the problem.”
Signaling continuing European interest in building momentum toward a breakthrough, Macron said during a joint news conference with Trump on Monday that he hoped to arrange a meeting between Trump and Rouhani within weeks. One opportunity could be the annual United Nations General Assembly next month in New York.
Underscoring the message that France can act as a mediator on improvements to the 2015 nuclear accord, Macron recalled that French negotiators “hesitated most to sign this agreement” because it had “drawbacks and compromises.” Obama administration negotiators, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, chafed at French criticism at the time.
Broaching an issue — oil sanctions — that the Trump team has touted as among its greatest achievements in pressuring Tehran, Trump said he’d support extending what he called a “letter of credit” to Iran, secured by oil, to help the country meet short-term financial obligations. “It would be from numerous countries,” Trump said of that Macron proposal, and “it would be paid back immediately.”