President Donald Trump’s desire to avoid a war with Iran appears to be prevailing in his own administration — for now.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is willing to talk to Iran’s Islamist leaders without preconditions, even as the U.S. deploys hundreds more troops to the region amid rising tensions.
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“We are prepared to engage in a conversation with no pre-conditions, we are ready to sit down,” Pompeo said.
While Pompeo added the U.S. still wants Iran to behave like a “normal nation,” his overall remarks appeared to be a climb-down from the past, including his insistence that Tehran meet 12 far-reaching conditions as part of any deal. Pompeo is known for his closeness to Trump and willingness to adjust his own messaging to fall in line with the president’s thinking.
His announcement followed reports that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had said Tehran would talk to the Americans if they showed “respect” instead of issuing orders. Iranian officials previously had ruled out talks with the Trump team.
Taken together, the developments suggest that international efforts, either publicly or behind the scenes, to convince the two sides to de-escalate tensions were having an effect. Pompeo spoke while visiting Switzerland, which often serves as an intermediary between the U.S. and Iran, though the Swiss have been unwilling to details what role, if any, they now play.
The statements from both sides also come as Trump has made it increasingly clear that he does not want a military conflict with Iran. His stance has put him publicly at odds with aides such as Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, who have taken a harder line.
Bolton has been especially bellicose, even though it has strained his relationship with Trump. He has threatened Iran with “unrelenting force,” and in recent days blamed Iran for a spate of attacks on U.S. allies, including drone attacks carried out by Houthi rebels on targets in Saudi Arabia.
Pompeo has been more cautious, indicating he’s trying to channel the president, an effort that is not easy given Trump’s mercurial nature.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment Sunday.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution said the Trump administration is asking Iran to believe both that the U.S. will be very hard line and that it doesn’t want war. “It remains to be seen if that combination represents a viable basis for talks,” he said. “Certainly, skepticism is in order.”
Trump ran for office in 2016 pledging to reduce U.S. entanglements abroad. He’s reached out to Iranian leaders in the past, such as during the 2017 U.N. General Assembly, only to be rebuffed, and even as early as July 2018 said he’d be willing to talk to Iran without pre-conditions.
More recently, however, Trump has appeared to effectively dismiss the 12 conditions Pompeo had placed on Iran for any serious negotiations to take place.
Those conditions included everything from Iran ending its support for militias outside its borders to halting its ballistic missile program. They were so far reaching that analysts said they were essentially a call for regime change.
Trump, however, has said in recent weeks that he’s only interested in making sure Iran never obtains nuclear weapons. “We aren’t looking for regime change,” Trump said this past week while in Tokyo. “I just want to make that clear. We are looking for no nuclear weapons.”
The president also stressed that if Iran and the United States could come to an acceptable agreement, the U.S. would be able to help Iran save its economy, which has been battered by American sanctions.
The mixed signals from Trump and his team have frustrated Middle Eastern officials, Democratic lawmakers and other observers of the region, some of whom fear that even if both sides don’t want a war, a miscalculation could lead to it.
Critics note that many of the tensions today stem from Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015. That deal lifted many U.S. sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran shuttering its nuclear program.
In the past, Trump has complained that the 2015 deal didn’t do enough to restrain Iran’s non-nuclear misbehavior, including its support for terrorist groups. His more recent comments suggest he’s willing to make essentially the same kind of deal.
“I really believe that Iran would like to make a deal,” he said while in Tokyo. “And I think that’s very smart of them. And I think that’s a possibility to happen also.”
According to reports that quoted Iranian state media, Rouhani, the country’s president, said Saturday: “We are for logic and talks if (the other side) sits respectfully at the negotiating table and follows international regulations, not if it issues an order to negotiate.”
It’s not at all clear that Iran will view Pompeo’s latest offer as showing enough respect, or whether it will believe Trump’s words given his actions toward Tehran. In an interview with ABC‘s “This Week,“ Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran isn’t likely to negotiate with the United States.
“It’s not very likely because talking is the continuation of the process of pressure,” he said. “He’s imposing pressure. This may work in a real estate market. It does not work in dealing with Iran.”
The president has levied extremely tough sanctions on Iran, badly damaging its economy, even threatening other countries with sanctions if they keep buying oil from Iran. He also decided to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — a government body — as a terrorist group, a move some believe has contributed to the recent tensions.
Even as he’s said he wants to talk to the Iranians, Trump approved a decision last month to speed up the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, in response to alleged Iranian threats against U.S. troops and facilities in the region.
Days ago, he deployed or extended the tours of some 1,500 U.S. troops to the region amid suspicions that Iran was behind attacks on oil and related infrastructure of U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia.
Trump administration officials say this “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is designed to cut off its funding so that it cannot support militia or terrorist activity outside its borders, eventually forcing it to come to the table for talks.
Officially, the administration’s position is that it is not seeking regime change in Iran, but rather a change in the regime’s behavior. There are some in the administration, however, who hope that economic conditions will become so dire that the Iranian people will rise up and overthrow their Islamist rulers.
Matthew Choi contributed to this report.