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U.S. President Donald Trump made a rather surprising move on Monday by offering to meet Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. The spontaneous offer came during a White House news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in which President Trump said he would “certainly meet” with his Iranian counterpart “anytime they (the Iranians) want to,” without preconditions. This came after he had been asked whether he would be willing to meet the Iranian President. In words that are similar to the ones used to describe the leaders of both North Korea and Russia—two countries seen as rivals of the U.S.—Trump said he would “meet with anybody” and “there’s nothing wrong with meeting.” And in typical Trump fashion, he pointed to how he ended “the Iran deal” which in his words was “ridiculous deal.”
However advisers from both the Iranian and American administrations later rejected this possibility. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example, contradicted Trump by listing a set of preconditions that had to be met by the Iranians. Specifically, Pompeo said, “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 in a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have a conversation with him.” He wasn’t the only government official, from either side, with preconditions for talks: one of President Rouhani’s advisers, Hamid Aboutalebi, imposed Iranian conditions for a potential meeting with the U.S. president by saying “respect for the great nation of Iran,” returning to the nuclear deal and a reduction in hostilities were needed first.
This dramatic shift in tone comes only days after a heated Twitter exchange between the leaders of both countries—a consequence of the current U.S. administration’s decisions to pull out of the much-maligned Iran nuclear deal in May. The Trump administration had threatened countries with financial consequences unless they halt oil imports from Iran starting on November 4 of this year. In a speech he made in Tehran, Rouhani hinted that his country would block regional oil exports as a retaliatory measure to that threat. This of course, prompted a tweet by Trump to Rouhani, written in capital letters, in which he warned him to never “ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.” In the days that followed, the rhetoric from both Tehran and Washington only escalated further. And it’s hard not to think of how avoidable this all could have been if the U.S. had remained in the deal. The JCPOA, as it is formally know, had come to represent a positive step for all of the signatory parties (a group that included France, Germany and the China), since it lifted previous sanctions and effectively alleviated some of the economic pressures faced by regular Iranians. Now that process has been upended, it’s back to square one for the time being—unless Monday’s comments are followed up with concrete actions—and the enmity that has come to define relations between the two countries looks set to continue.
However, Trump’s apparent U-turn on the Iran issue does seem to follow on from his other comments post-twitter tirade last week, where he stated a willingness to welcome Iran back to the negotiating table, so that both sides could “make a real deal, not the deal that was done by the previous administration, which was a disaster.” If these talks were to materialize and a deal could be reached, Trump would truly live up to his long-held view of himself as a “master negotiator who is most effective when he meets his counterparts face-to-face.” But a failure to so, would render his latest off-the-cuff comments meaningless and another attempt at distracting viewers, both domestic and foreign, from the other pressing issues that his administration is currently facing.