Donald Trump’s surprise declaration that he is willing to meet Iran’s leadership without “preconditions” has been met with deep distrust in Tehran, just as Washington’s top diplomat already walked back some of the US president’s comments.
On Monday, a week after threatening Iran and nearly three months after withdrawing the United States from a landmark multinational nuclear deal with Tehran, Trump offered to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to discuss how to improve ties.
In response, Bahram Qasemi, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, said on Tuesday that Trump’s offer contradicts his actions, pointing to US moves to impose sanctions on Iran and put pressure on other countries to avoid conducting business with it.
“Sanctions and pressures are the exact opposite of dialogue,” Qasemi was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.
“How can Trump prove to the Iranian nation that his comments of last night reflect a true intention for negotiation and have not been expressed for populist gains,” he added.
Ali Motahari, deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament, said negotiations “would be a humiliation” following the US’ withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear pact with world powers.
“If Trump had not withdrawn from the nuclear deal and not imposed (new) sanctions on Iran, there would be no problem with negotiations with America,” he told state news agency IRNA.
Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, who heads the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, suggested a US return to the nuclear deal would be needed before Tehran could think of negotiating, while Kamal Kharrazi, the head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, said Trump’s offer was worthless.
Still, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a senior cleric and member of the influential Expediency Council, said Trump’s offer should not be rejected out of hand.
He said “we have to contemplate” the gesture, but also cautioned “we should not rejoice over this offer and not get excited,” according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
But despite Trump’s comments about meeting without any preconditions, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later listed several demands for such a summit to take place.
“The president wants to meet with folks to solve problems,” Pompeo, who in May set out 12 steep conditions for inclusion in a new nuclear deal with Iran, told CNBC.
“If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to making fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behaviour, 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.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Foad Izadi, professor of world studies at the University of Tehran, pointed to the different statements coming out from Washington and said “no one in Iran” could accept Pompeo’s latest conditions.
“[it would] be political suicide,” he said.
“When you translate those preconditions in Farsi, the general sense is that the US is asking Iran to let the US run Iran’s domestic policy; the second precondition sounds like they want us to let the US runs Iran’s foreign policy; and the third precondition sounds … that they don’t want Iran to have missiles or a peaceful nuclear programme.”
Earlier this month, Pompeo compared Iran’s leaders to a “mafia” and promised unspecified backing for Iranians unhappy with their government. He also said the US government was launching a Farsi-language channel on TV, radio, digital and social media platforms.
On July 14, 2015, six countries – China, France, Russia, the UK, the United States and Germany – and the European Union agreed to lift sanctions imposed on Iran, giving it greater access to the global economy. In return, Tehran agreed to take steps to curb its ability to make a nuclear bomb. Iran’s enrichment capacity, enrichment level and stockpile were limited for specific durations.
In his first public appearance after Trump’s remarks, Rouhani himself avoided mentioning the US president, instead stressing the need for the other countries involved in the nuclear deal to forge ahead with their pledges of trying to salvage it.
“Today we are at a very critical point in history regarding the nuclear deal, and Europe’s transparent measures to compensate for the United States’ unlawful withdrawal from it are very important for the Iranian nation,” Rouhani said after talks with new British Ambassador Rob Macaire.
Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi, reporting from Tehran, said Iranian officials’ lack of trust towards Trump made the issue of any future talks “a non-starter”.
“Any time the Trump administration has thrown a curveball like this to Iran, especially with regards to the nuclear deal, Rouhani has … turned to European partners … telling then that it is ‘now your turn to step in and make sure the deal survives – we are doing our part, and now you must do yours’,” said Basravi.
With the first US sanctions due to come into effect next Monday, the economy in Iran has already been hit, giving rise to growing fears of prolonged economic suffering.
Another round, covering other types of commerce, including oil purchases, goes into effect November 4.
Rouhani on Tuesday again suggested Iran could cause major disruptions in the Gulf region by attempting to block key shipping lanes, saying: “Iran has never sought tensions in the region and does not want there to be any problem for the world’s waterways, but it will never let go of its right to export oil,” the semi-official Mehr news agency reported.
The Iranian currency has been in freefall, hitting a new low on Monday at 122,000 to the US dollar on the thriving black market.
It recovered slightly to 115,000 on Tuesday, but concerns are growing as Iranians have seen their savings dwindle and purchasing power drop.