Trump's offer to meet with Iran is surprise shift

President Donald Trump said Monday that he is willing to meet Iran’s leaders “any time they want to” and without preconditions, a break from his policy of confrontation with Tehran’s Islamist regime.

Trump’s statement came just days after he and Iran’s president exchanged threats, with Trump warning his counterpart with severe but unspecified “consequences” for defying the U.S., and at a time when Trump officials seem determined to undermine, if not overthrow, the Iranian regime.

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But Trump’s words tracked with his past willingness to sit down with U.S. foes, including ones he had threatened — including North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

Earlier Monday, an Iranian official had rejected the notion of a meeting with U.S. officials.

“With current America and these policies, there will definitely not be the possibility of dialogue and engagement, and the United States has shown that it is totally unreliable,” said Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Qassemi, according to the Iranian government-backed PressTV.

Still, Trump’s words could alarm some Republicans who oppose any accommodation with Tehran, as well as Israel and other U.S. allies who see Iran as an implacable adversary. Trump did not appear worried about the political implications when a reporter asked him about the possibility, however.

“I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet,” Trump said during a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. “If they want to meet, I’ll meet.”

Although Trump said he’d be willing to meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions, he cautioned that he wasn’t sure if the Islamic Republic is “ready yet” for a sit-down, but that he expected it would “end up wanting to meet” with him now that he has pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal reached under President Barack Obama in July 2015.

The president also appeared to nod to Iran’s economic woes in laying out his reasoning. The country’s currency has plunged in value and Iranians have staged street protests in recent months. U.S. sanctions suspended under the nuclear deal are due to kick back in starting on Aug. 4, adding to Iran’s economic pain.

“They are having a hard time right now. But I ended the Iran deal. It was a ridiculous deal,” Trump said. “If we could work something out that’s meaningful, not the waste of paper that the other deal was, I would certainly be willing to meet.”

Trump seems to be hoping that his administration’s months of pressure on Iran – which, along with several rounds of sanctions, includes an information warfare campaign — will force Iranian leaders to the table, the same way a similar pressure campaign on North Korea preceded a meeting with that country’s dictator.

Speaking on CNBC Monday, Secretary of State Pompeo said he backed Trump’s willingness to see the Iranians without preconditions — but then suggested that Iran would first have to meet certain conditions.

“If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people — reduce their maligned 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,” Pompeo said, in what appeared to be a mischaracterization of what Trump said.

Some supporters of the administration said the president’s reasoning made sense.

“It’s a well-timed offer made as the leaders of the Islamic Republic are facing increasingly severe economic and social crises,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Trump is saying, you want the pain to stop, meet me. If not, the pain will only get worse.”

So did at least one frequent Trump critic in Congress. “I’m more than fine with that happening,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), said of a Trump meeting with Iran’s leaders.

One potential opportunity for such a meeting would be at the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering in September. Trump unsuccessfully sought such a meeting with Iranian officials during the same gathering last year, although the effort attracted little public attention at the time.

But others observers are not so sure the Iranians are willing to risk meeting Trump anytime soon.

They note that Iran’s government does not see Trump as reliable, and that Tehran appears willing to wait Trump out, in the hope that he doesn’t win re-election. Iran’s government also has multiple power centers, each vying for popularity, as well as a “supreme leader” in the cleric Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate say on matters of state.

If Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is considered a moderate by standards of the Islamic Republic, agrees to meet Trump, he may face attacks by Iranian hardliners who would cast him as appeasing a country they call the “Great Satan.”

“I find it hard to believe that the Iranians would reciprocate,” said Richard Nephew, a former State Department official who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump also used sanctions to pressure North Korea over its nuclear program and threatened it with military strikes before suddenly agreeing to meet with Kim at the North Korean’s invitation in June. The meeting resulted in a vague joint statement that committed North Korea to work toward denuclearization.

Trump has said the summit with Kim was a success, but Pyongyang has taken no visible action to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, and some reports indicate that it’s actually upgrading its nuclear facilities.

Kim, on the other hand, got a propaganda coup by scoring a meeting with the U.S. president.

Republicans were largely muted in the reactions to Trump’s comments on Monday. But one of Trump’s biggest supporters on Capitol Hill, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), has in the past argued that it made little sense for Trump to meet with Iranian leaders, because, unlike North Korea, the Islamic Republic does not yet possess a nuclear arsenal.

“You know, countries like Iran and Cuba and other two-bit rogue regimes don’t have nuclear weapons, yet. They can’t threaten the United States in that way,” Cotton told interviewer Hugh Hewitt. “Once North Korea had nuclear weapons, once they have missiles that can deliver them to use, I would liken it to past presidents sitting down with Soviet dictators.”

Cotton was traveling and not able to be reached Monday afternoon.

Some experts worry that if Trump meets with Iranian leaders, he might settle for a vague agreement and quickly declare victory, as he did with Kim, even if nothing substantive actually results.

For his part, Trump has said the 2015 nuclear deal — brokered between Iran, the U.S. and five other nations — was too narrow and insists that any new deal must cover other Iranian activities, including its sponsorship of terrorism and use of proxy militias in neighboring countries. It’s unclear whether Iran would even consider such terms.

Still, Alireza Nader, an Iran expert who has supported the Trump administration’s pressure campaign, said: “This will increase fears among Iran’s opposition that the U.S. is willing to abandon them in return for a new nuclear deal.”

Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group said it appeared that Trump above all wants to strike some sort of a deal with Iran, whereas others in his administration — such as Pompeo — want outright regime change. “But they’re all using the same means, which is sanctions,” Vaez said.

Pompeo has been among the administration’s most vocal critics of Iran. Not long after Trump quit the nuclear deal, Pompeo delivered a speech laying out 12 demands on the regime in Tehran that were so broad some analysts said it was effectively a call for regime change.

Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are key U.S. allies in the Middle East who consider Iran a dangerous enemy, and may resist the notion of a Trump-Rouhani get-together.

In a column published last week, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Khalid bin Salman, warned world leaders against appeasing the clerical leaders in Tehran. In doing so, he compared Iran’s rise to that of Nazi Germany.

“Those who have not learnt history’s lessons counsel us to let the Iranians subvert the entire Middle East while granting them as many financial enticements as possible,” he wrote. “A wiser and ultimately more moral approach is to pressure Iran to correct its awful behavior immediately.”

The Iranian delegation at the United Nations in New York did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment. Last year, during the U.N. General Assembly, Iranian officials rejected a request for a meeting with Trump, which was relayed via the French, according to Vaez.

The president’s willingness to meet with Iran comes roughly a week after he blasted the Middle Eastern nation with a threatening tweet. Rouhani had made remarks hours earlier warning Trump not to interfere in Iran.

“NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” Trump tweeted.

The threat was reminiscent of Trump’s promises last summer of “fire and fury” against North Korea should it keep making threats against the United States. Less than a year later, he was sitting down with Kim in Singapore.

Stephanie Murray and Elana Schor contributed to this report.

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