File photo of Donald Trump speaking during a Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal (Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

Trump Says He’s Willing to Meet With Iran’s Rouhani Without Precondition

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump said he would be willing to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with “no preconditions” as tensions between the two countries climb following the U.S. president’s decision to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear deal.

“I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet,” Trump said Monday during a joint press conference at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. “I don’t know if they’re ready. They’re having a hard time.”

Hours later the White House appeared to walk back those comments.

“If the Iranian regime changes its behavior in the ways we’ve identified, the United States is prepared to take actions to end sanctions, reestablish full diplomatic and commercial relations, permit Iran to have advanced technology, and support the reintegration of the Iranian economy into the international economic system,” Garrett Marquis, a National Security Council spokesman, said late Monday afternoon.

Trump Says He’s Willing to Meet With Iran’s Rouhani Without Precondition

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has laid out a list of demands addressing everything from Iran’s ballistic missile program to its involvement in the war in Yemen, as requirements for Iran to become a “normal country.” He reiterated those preconditions to talks in an interview Monday on CNBC.

“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 said he’s prepared to sit down and have the conversation with them,” Pompeo said.

A White House official said the administration doesn’t expect Iran to seek a meeting.

A top Iranian cleric said his country shouldn’t immediately reject Trump’s proposal and that the Supreme National Security Council should assess the matter.

“In principle, the idea isn’t negative and it was predictable,” Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a conservative member of an administrative body that advises Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was cited by state-run Islamic Republic News Agency as saying. “We shouldn’t reject negotiations from the outset and dismiss him; we have to be considerate and not get agitated.”

Earlier on Tuesday and Iranian government official said the U.S. would need to show that it respects Iran and is returning to the nuclear deal that Trump rejected. Such steps “would pave the current bumpy road of talks,” Hamid Aboutalebi, an adviser to Rouhani, said in a tweet.

During his news conference, Trump cited his experience meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month as a sign of his willingness to help address concerns of war and peace. Trump has said the summit -- the first ever between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea -- has fostered his goal of denuclearizing North Korea, though its unclear if Kim shares that commitment.

Trump Says He’s Willing to Meet With Iran’s Rouhani Without Precondition

When discussing critical issues, “you meet,” Trump said on Monday. “There’s nothing wrong with meeting.” One possible opportunity would be during the annual United Nations General Assembly in late September. Rouhani typically attends the meetings in New York.

Trump began ramping up the public pressure on Iran about a week ago, saying on Twitter that the U.S. won’t tolerate Iran’s “DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH” -- a response to a warning that Iran’s leader made to Trump. The tweet followed a speech by Pompeo labeling Iranian leaders “hypocritical holy men” and calling out many by name for alleged corruption.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Trump’s tweet last week, posting on Twitter, “color us unimpressed.” He added that “the world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago” and “We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!”

Trump Says He’s Willing to Meet With Iran’s Rouhani Without Precondition

Trump’s tough public line echoes the one he used against North Korea last year -- warning of “fire and fury” he could rain down on Pyongyang -- provoking fears of a military conflict that eased when the two leaders agreed to meet.

The U.S. president was an opponent of the 2015 nuclear deal -- which eased some economic sanctions in exchange for specific curbs on Iran’s nuclear program -- for years, calling the accord the “worst deal ever.” His withdrawal from the agreement prompted widespread international criticism, including from allies France, the U.K. and Germany.

Vienna Meeting

Economically, Trump may have some leverage with Tehran, which has faced months of protests about corruption and slow economic growth. Earlier this month, the other participants in the nuclear deal met in Vienna to look for ways to ensure Iran still gets the benefits it’s seeking from the accord despite the U.S. threats. But world powers were unable to offer concrete proposals, and diplomats have warned there may be little they can do.

Behind the president’s tougher rhetoric, according to administration officials and analysts, is Trump’s desire to goad Iran back to the negotiating table to hammer out a new, more comprehensive deal to replace the nuclear accord the U.S. withdrew from in May.

Politically, however, many analysts say it would be very hard for Iran’s political leaders to meet with Trump, given his opposition to the nuclear accord they spent years negotiating, his travel ban that effects many Iranians interested in studying or working in the U.S. and his rhetoric against the government.

Some U.S. sanctions on Iran are due to kick in next month, while more serious penalties targeting countries with companies importing Iranian oil take effect in November. The administration has signaled to allies that it won’t consider broad exemptions to sanctions.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.