Iran Spurns U.S. Talks as Rouhani Says No to Photo-Op With Trump
Hassan Rouhani in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg)

Iran Spurns U.S. Talks as Rouhani Says No to Photo-Op With Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Top Iranian officials all but ruled out talks with the U.S. a day after President Donald Trump extended his most expansive offer yet to the Islamic Republic.

The U.S. must lift sanctions on Iran if it wants to negotiate, President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday. His foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said during a visit to China and Japan that “a meeting between Iran’s president and Trump is unimaginable.” Zarif made a surprise appearance this week on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France.

Iran Spurns U.S. Talks as Rouhani Says No to Photo-Op With Trump

The reaction sets out the challenges facing Trump after he signaled he could meet with Rouhani and perhaps ease restrictions so Tehran can use some of its oil wealth to access credit. At a news conference before heading back to Washington from the G-7 gathering on Monday, 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.

“We are interested in solving problems in a reasonable way, but we’re not interested in taking photos,” Rouhani said in a televised speech to officials in Tehran. “The key to changing the relationship is in Washington’s hands.”

Trump’s offer echoed his outreach to North Korea. That gesture resulted in three meetings with leader Kim Jong Un but no breakthrough deal.

Big Difference

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, especially on its oil exports, and senior politicians often divided over whether to engage with Washington.

“If someone wants to have their photo taken with Hassan Rouhani, it’s not possible; it’s possible to do it with Photoshop,” the Iranian president said in an apparent reference to the idea of meeting with Trump.

Iran Spurns U.S. Talks as Rouhani Says No to Photo-Op With Trump

Rouhani would need approval to enter talks from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who so far hasn’t signaled a willingness to engage with the U.S. The American president’s top aides, including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, have argued that Khamenei, not Rouhani or Zarif, must address U.S. demands if a lasting deal is to be struck.

Trump imposed harsh sanctions on Iran after unilaterally abandoning the nuclear deal last year, an approach that has helped fuel inflation and undermined domestic support for Rouhani’s government. The U.S. says it wants new talks to address Iran’s missile program and its support for militant groups in the Middle East.

Oil Tankers

Tensions have spiked in recent months, with Trump saying he called off military strikes on Iran 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.

Iran has also withdrawn from some of its nuclear commitments under the 2015 accord and pledged further steps unless European nations step up their efforts to boost its economy.

Iran Spurns U.S. Talks as Rouhani Says No to Photo-Op With Trump

Zarif, who met with French officials during his visit to Biarritz, cast doubt on European attempts at mediation. French President Emmanuel Macron has led the European effort to salvage the nuclear deal, saying Sunday that leaders agreed they need to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons and destabilizing the region.

“Unfortunately Europeans need some permits from the U.S. to take measures and fulfill their commitments,” Zarif said in comments carried by the state-run IRNA news agency. “This situation where independent countries need to obtain permits from other countries for taking legal measures does not offer a suitable prospect for the future of international relations.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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