President Trump said Monday that he would meet Iran’s leaders “anytime they want,” an invitation for face-to-face dialogue with a country he appeared to threaten with war only days before and an affirmation of Trump’s faith in his brand of personal diplomacy.
“They want to meet, I’ll meet. Anytime they want. Anytime they want,” Trump said during a joint news conference at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. “It’s good for the country, good for them, good for us, and good for the world. No preconditions. If they want to meet, I’ll meet.”
Trump’s comments come as he is facing continuing criticism over his recent meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The president’s seeming embrace of Putin during their Helsinki summit this month drew concern from both Republicans and Democrats. His critics charge his meeting with Kim in Singapore last month has so far achieved little other than elevating the North Korean dictator’s stature on the world stage.
But Trump has heralded both events as great successes, and his announcement Monday that he would meet with Rouhani underscored that he has only become more emboldened to continue his personal approach to diplomacy.
“I’ll meet with anybody,” Trump said, adding, “Speaking to other people, especially when you’re talking about potentials of war and death and famine and lots of other things. You meet, there’s nothing wrong with meeting.”
Trump’s willingness to sit down with Rouhani followed an escalation in the tensions between the United States and Iran after Trump last week appeared to threaten military action against Iran and Iranian officials vowed to resist any attempt to destabilize their country.
“To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!” Trump tweeted on July 22.
Responding in English, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweaked the U.S. leader’s confrontational Twitter style.
“COLOR US UNIMPRESSED: The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago,” the U.S.-educated Zarif wrote on July 23, apparently referring to Trump’s threats against North Korea. “And Iranians have heard them — albeit more civilized ones — for 40 yrs. We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!”
U.S. defense officials have said they have received no instructions to gird for a military conflict with Iran. Instead, the administration’s game plan appears to copy what it considers its successful strategy with North Korea, exerting “maximum pressure” that will either press an adversary to capitulate to negotiations on U.S. terms or increase domestic pressure against the regime.
The United States will reimpose sanctions on Iran next week as part of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear compact with Tehran. Trump said Monday that he thinks Iran will want to negotiate with him eventually, opening the door to new talks about its nuclear program.
“I don’t know that they’re ready yet,” Trump said. “They’re having a hard time right now.”
That was an apparent reference to economic constraints and the loss of potential markets as a result of the U.S. sanctions.
Last week, Rouhani fired Valiollah Seif, head of the country’s Central Bank, as the value of the Iranian rial continued to drop. It fell Monday to a record low against the dollar, largely in anticipation of the return of U.S. sanctions that were lifted under the nuclear deal. The administration has also said it will reinstate penalties in November against countries and companies that purchase Iranian oil, including U.S. allies around the globe.
Direct presidential negotiations with Iranian leaders would be another break with Republican orthodoxy and a potential point of friction with Israel and with Arab allies in the Persian Gulf who are united in opposition to Iran.
Republicans, including Trump, were harshly critical of President Barack Obama for what they said were giveaways during direct negotiations with Iran. Obama spoke to Rouhani but never met him, extending a rift dating to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the taking of American hostages.
While reaffirming Trump’s willingness to meet with Rouhani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later Monday appeared to try to establish a set of conditions that would need to be met before any meeting despite Trump saying a sit down could occur with no preconditions.
“If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president has said he is prepared to sit down and have the conversation with him,” Pompeo said in an interview with CNBC.
For months, Trump has told confidants that he is interested in opening up dialogue with Iran even as his administration has tried to isolate Tehran financially and politically. Teams of State Department and Treasury officials have fanned out across the globe, pressuring foreign capitals to stop importing Iranian oil and reduce business ties to the country.
“It’s a stretch, but there is a plausible pathway for a Trump-Rouhani summit,” former Obama Middle East adviser Ilan Goldenberg wrote on Twitter after Trump’s remarks. “It goes through Vladimir Putin.”
Russia is a party to the nuclear compact and has full diplomatic relations with Iran. The United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Tehran and considers Iran the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
As Europe, despite its vow to remain in the nuclear deal, continues to withdraw, Iran has increasingly reached out to Russia, which signed the 2015 nuclear deal along with China, France, Britain, Germany and the United States. This month, both Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh and Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, visited Moscow for discussions on increased cooperation between their oil and gas industries.
Iranian state news media reported Trump’s offer to meet Rouhani and said that there was no immediate official response.
An adviser to Rouhani, Hamid Aboutalebi, wrote on Twitter late Monday that after Trump threatened Iran at the United Nations last year, “the subject of a meeting between the two presidents came up.” In an apparent swipe at Trump, Aboutalebi added that “those who believe in dialogue as a way of solving conflict” must also understand how to achieve such dialogue.
Earlier in the day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said there would be no engagement with the Trump administration.
“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,” Qassemi said in a news briefing, according to Iranian media. “Given the current circumstances and hostile actions of the United States, the country’s withdrawal from the [Iran nuclear deal] and continuation of hostile policies, its efforts to put economic pressure on the Iranian people and its sanctions, I think there are no conditions for such a discussion at all.”
Reports that the Trump administration is pushing toward regime change in Iran, Qassemi said, were “irrelevant” and a “raw dream that will never come true.”
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said Trump would have to offer Iran “concessions, and not just threats and demands” to bring a positive response. “If this is Trump’s idea of pivoting to diplomacy,” Parsi said in an email, “it stands little chance of success.”
But while there is little evidence to support Trump’s repeated claim in recent weeks that Iran has already become a “different” country, with reduced interested in regional expansion, since he withdrew from the nuclear deal in May, the Iranian economy is already suffering the effects of reduced foreign investment as major European companies have withdrawn. Protest demonstrations, largely sparked by the economic squeeze, have grown around the country as Iranians have seen their savings shrink and consumer products become unavailable amid massive capital flight.
Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani acknowledged the difficulties in a speech Monday, saying that the country would have to endure “a period of external and regional pressures” that would result in renovation of the economy, Iran’s Mehr News Agency reported.
A meeting with Rouhani would be of questionable value in resolving U.S.-Iranian conflicts, since he wields little real power in the country’s political system. The ultimate political and religious authority in Iran is Khamenei, the supreme leader, who controls the armed forces, internal security, the judiciary, the intelligence apparatus, foreign policy and key governmental institutions. Khamenei is known to be staunchly anti-American, often expressing his distrust of the U.S. government. He no longer travels outside Iran and rarely receives foreign dignitaries.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that if Trump does have a face-to-face meeting with Iranian leaders, he should meet with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rather than with Rouhani.
“He’s the only one who can really make these decisions,” said Dubowitz, a proponent of Trump’s tougher line against Iran. “Increasingly most people agree that Rouhani has very little power and he is a lame duck.”
William Branigin and John Hudson contributed to this report.