Days after he redirected warships toward their coast and spurred talk of U.S. military action against them, President Donald Trump says he wants to hold nuclear talks with the Iranians — and that he can help their economy get “back to great shape.”
Trump’s call for talks, uttered at least three times in roughly 24 hours, suggest that the president isn’t fully on board with his aides’ hawkish approach to Tehran’s Islamist rulers. And they further the impression that Trump is sometimes at odds with his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, which the president acknowledged in comments today.
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Trump’s promises on Iran’s economic potential also echo the approach he’s used, unsuccessfully so far, to push North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
“What I’d like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me,” Trump told reporters on Thursday.
The president even hinted that the 12 conditions his administration has outlined for talking to Iran weren’t set in stone.
Those conditions go well beyond demanding Iran give up its nuclear program, covering everything from releasing detained U.S. citizens to ending its support for proxy militias beyond its borders.
But on Thursday, Trump seemed focused on just one thing: “We just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons — not too much to ask. And we would help put them back to great shape.”
“We can make a deal, a fair deal,” he also said.
This is not the first time Trump has said he’s willing to talk to Tehran. At a Wednesday rally, Trump raised the prospect of talks with Iran as well, saying “we’re not looking to hurt anybody.” He also spoke last year about his willingness to chat with Iran, saying then that he’d do so without pre-conditions.
Yet, he has also pursued extremely tough measures toward Iran, imposing numerous economic sanctions on the country after pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last year — a strategy his administration has labeled “maximum pressure.”
Trump on Thursday did not rule out the possibility of a military conflict with Iran. Asked about the Pentagon’s dispatching of an aircraft carrier to the region, he said the U.S. had learned of Iranian threats that he didn’t specify.
But his invitation to Iran and suggestion that he’s open to a “fair deal” struck many Iran watchers as a possible shift in posture.
Trump’s comments came as recent reports indicate that he’s frustrated with Bolton over Venezuela, where the national security adviser has raised the prospect of military action.
Bolton has previously called for the U.S. to bomb Iran and vocally supported the idea of regime change in Tehran.
Trump dismissed reports of friction with Bolton on Thursday, while suggesting that they had disagreed on the appropriate use of force.
“He has strong views on things but that’s OK. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing,” Trump told reporters. “I’m the one that tempers him. That’s OK. I have different sides. I have John Bolton and other people that are a little more dovish than him. I like John.”
The president ran in 2016 pledging to reduce such U.S. entanglements abroad, and in office he has generally been skeptical of calls for direct military action. His administration’s official policy on Iran is that is seeks a change in the Islamist regime’s behavior, not to overthrow it.
However, the 12 conditions Trump aides have laid out are so broad — and so hard for Iran’s clerical rulers to swallow — that analysts say they amount to a call for regime change.
In a statement on Wednesday announcing new sanctions on Iran, and marking the one-year anniversary of his decision to quit the nuclear deal, Trump mentioned the conditions, yet also ended the missive with something of an olive branch.
“Since our exit from the Iran deal, which is broken beyond repair, the United States has put forward 12 conditions that offer the basis of a comprehensive agreement with Iran,” Trump said. “I look forward to someday meeting with the leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves.“
There’s no serious indication yet that Iran’s leaders will dial up Trump, or even send him a “beautiful” letter the way North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has done in the past.
Iranian officials have said that during the 2017 United Nations General Assembly, Trump reached out to them seeking talks, which they rebuffed. When Trump spoke of talks with Iran in 2018, the Iranians said the U.S. needed to rejoin the nuclear deal before they would consider it.
Trump supporters who favor an aggressive approach toward Iran have suggested that if Trump were to meet with an Iranian official, it should be with the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a cleric who has the final say on matters of state.
But Khamenei is not likely to agree to that, leaving such a role to the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani.
Iran’s economy has been badly hit by the Trump-imposed U.S. sanctions, which are structured in a way to punish other countries that do business with Iran. Trump mentioned Iran’s economic travails, including inflation and protests, in his appeal for talks.
“I look forward to the day when we can actually help Iran,” he said.
Trump has made a similar pitch in two summit meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who has promised to modernize North Korea’s isolated, anemic economy. Just days ago, the president tweeted: “I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it.”
Talks between the two sides broke down at Trump’s meeting with Kim in Hanoi, where the North Koreans offered to shutter only parts of their nuclear program in exchange for full and immediate sanctions relief, according to the U.S. account.
On Thursday, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea — a clear signal that Trump’s negotiating tactics have yet to succeed.