President Donald Trump said Monday that he would “certainly meet” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and without preconditions, if the Iranian leader was willing. Speaking at a joint news conference with Italy’s premier, Trump said he would meet with the Iranians “anytime they want to”. “I’ll meet with anybody. There’s nothing wrong with meeting,” he said.
The overture marks a significant shift in tone and comes as Trump and the Iranians have been escalating their rhetoric following Trump’s May withdrawal from the landmark Iran nuclear accord. The administration is set to begin reimposing sanctions that had been lifted under the 2015 deal next month and has been ratcheting up a pressure campaign on the Islamic republic that many suspect is aimed at regime change.
And it’s unclear whether Rouhani has any interest in meeting. Rouhani’s chief of staff claimed earlier this month in Iran’s state-owned newspaper that Rouhani had rejected eight requests from Trump for one-on-one talks last year. Rouhani recently warned the US that “war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” prompting an all-caps retort from Trump.
“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,” Trump tweeted. He ended the message with a warning: “BE CAUTIOUS!”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif fired back with his own message that began, “COLOR US UNIMPRESSED.” Trump tempered his threatening rhetoric two days later when he said his administration stands ready for Iran to come back to the negotiating table. “We’re ready to make a real deal, not the deal that was done by the previous administration, which was a disaster,” he said.
Trump has long cast himself as a master negotiator who is most effective when he meets with his counterparts face-to-face. He pointed to his recent one-on-one with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin as examples of the benefits of such get-togethers, though both drew bipartisan criticism.
“I believe in meeting,” he said, talking up the benefits of “speaking to other people, especially when you’re talking about potentials of war and death and famine and lots of other things”. Asked whether he would set any preconditions for the meetings, Trump was clear.
“No preconditions, no. If they want to meet, I’ll meet anytime they want, anytime they want,” he said. “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 said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNBC on Monday that he was onboard with the president’s invitation, but he appeared to add several qualifications. “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 in a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have a conversation with him,” he said.
Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the president’s National Security Council, later said in a statement that the US would not be lifting any sanctions or re-establishing diplomatic and commercial relations until “there are tangible, demonstrated, and sustained shifts in Tehran’s policies”. “Until then,” he said, “the sting of sanctions will only grow more painful if the regime does not change course”.
Reaction among Trump critics in both parties on Capitol Hill was mixed, with Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, telling reporters, “I actually think that’s a good idea.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn, characterised the overture as fine, but only “as long as they are willing to talk about being a normal country in the future”.
Senator Bob Menendez, D-NJ, was more skeptical, calling it “another recipe for bad outcomes”. “It’s the same as North Korea,” he said. “No preconditions, no preparation. And what do we have? We have Kim Jong-un was elevated from an international pariah to someone who seems like a legitimate statesman,” he said.