President Trump sought to lower tensions with Iran on Saturday, extending an olive branch to “start all over” with nuclear talks and even thanking Tehran for its “wise” decision not to shoot down a U.S. military plane with personnel on board.
Trump’s refusal to move forward Thursday with a military strike for the downing of a drone in the Persian Gulf averted a potentially devastating new crisis in the Middle East as Iran and its proxy forces stood ready to retaliate against U.S. targets across the region.
But while the specter of an imminent attack has faded, the prospect for renewed conflict remains as the underlying problems between the two countries continue to fester.
Iran, furious about a raft of U.S. sanctions imposed after Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, has shown no interest in renegotiating a new agreement with a Trump administration that has worked to strangle its economy and prevent it from selling oil on the international market.
Trump, addressing reporters before leaving for Camp David on Saturday, said he wants to do great things for the longtime adversary. “Iran wants to become a wealthy nation again. Let’s make Iran great again,” Trump said. But he has shown no interest in relieving the sanctions — and even promised more, despite Iran insisting they must be lifted before any dialogue begins.
In a tweet on Saturday, Trump said he would impose “major additional Sanctions on Iran on Monday.” He also approved an offensive cyberstrike that disabled Iranian computer systems used to control rocket and missile launches, according to people familiar with the matter.
Following the dramatic events Thursday, a number of top U.S. officials traveled to the Middle East for meetings, but with none of the countries that hold sway with Iran. On Saturday, national security adviser John Bolton arrived in Israel, and on Friday, the State Department’s Iran point man, Brian Hook, arrived in Saudi Arabia. Both countries have cheered on Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which they see as a principal threat in the region.
U.S. and Iranian officials have historically engaged in back-channel communications through a third party. But after reports emerged on Thursday that the United States was using Oman, a gulf state, as an interlocutor to broker talks with Iran, officials in both Washington and Tehran strenuously denied the claim.
“President Trump did not pass a message through Oman calling for talks with Iran. We have made our position abundantly clear. We are willing to engage when the time is right,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Saturday. “When the Iranian regime decides to forgo violence and meet our diplomacy with diplomacy, it knows how to reach us. Until then, our diplomatic isolation and economic pressure campaign against the regime will intensify.”
The head of Iran’s media services also told news outlets that there was no communication between the two sides.
Analysts have said the combination of deep antagonism and the lack of a well-functioning diplomatic channel creates a combustible environment.
“Avoiding further escalation will be difficult, given both sides’ determination not to back down,” wrote Philip Gordon, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Obama administration official, in Foreign Affairs magazine. “A new nuclear negotiation, which Trump claims to want, would be one way to avoid a clash. But Iran is not likely to enter talks with an administration it does not trust, and even less likely to agree to the sort of far-reaching deal Trump says is necessary.”
U.S. officials say they want a deal that has restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that don’t expire; bans all types of uranium enrichment; and reins in Tehran’s regional ambitions and ballistic missile program.
But such an outcome appears highly unlikely given Iran’s view of the United States as an aggressor bent on the country’s economic collapse, to be followed by regime change.
That outlook was cemented a year ago when Trump withdrew from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, reimposed sanctions and pledged to get Iranian oil exports down to zero.
The move rankled the other major powers who signed the deal — Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — and pledged to remain in the agreement. Despite their stance, foreign companies fled Iran because of concerns they would lose access to the U.S. financial system.
Iran, which had been abiding by the restrictions of the nuclear accord, began demanding that European powers find a way to circumvent U.S. sanctions so that Tehran could receive the economic benefits it was promised in the deal.
In April, as inflation soared and Iran’s economy shrunk, the Trump administration continued to increase the pressure, adding a powerful wing of the Iranian military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. In doing so, Trump overruled the Pentagon, which worried that the designation would put at risk U.S. military personnel operating in close proximity to Iranian forces in the region.
On May 8, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said his country would stop complying with key parts of the nuclear deal and pull out of it entirely in 60 days if Europe didn’t find a way to compensate for Iran’s losses. Shortly after that, oil tankers traveling through the Persian Gulf were sabotaged and unmanned aircraft flew into oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, which shut down a pipeline.
Tensions culminated on Thursday when Iran shot down an RQ-4A Global Hawk, a U.S. surveillance drone.
On Saturday, Iran’s foreign minister published new maps on Twitter that he said proved that the U.S. drone had entered Iranian territorial airspace.
“There can be no doubt about where the vessel was when it was brought down,” Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted alongside the images.
Trump’s decision to call off the strikes was supported by senior Pentagon officials but opposed by Bolton and Pompeo. On Saturday, Trump called Bolton a “hawk” who had been wrong for his previous support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. Trump said he doesn’t always agree with Bolton, who has called for regime change in Iran but said he likes hearing a range of views.
“Ultimately, I make the decision. The only one that matters is me. I listen to everybody. I want people on both sides,” Trump said.
While the president struck an unusually friendly tone toward Iran on Saturday, he underscored his opposition to the country’s obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“We are not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon. And when they agree to that, they are going to have a wealthy country, and they are going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend. I hope that happens, but it may not,” he said.
Trump did not rule out the possibility of a future attack on Iran, but he appeared to be satisfied with his decision, which he said came out of concern that a strike might be a disproportionate response, leading to the deaths of as many as 150 Iranians.
“I’m getting a lot of praise for what I did,” he said. “My expression is, ‘We have plenty of time.’
“Everyone was saying I’m a warmonger, and now they’re saying I’m a dove, and I say I’m neither. I didn’t like the idea of them unknowingly shooting down an unmanned drone and we killing 150 people.”
Erin Cunningham in Dubai contributed to this report.