United States Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said that it appeared Iran was inching towards a place where talks could be held, days after US President Donald Trump left the door open to a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly in New York.
“It seems in some ways that Iran is inching toward that place where we could have talks and hopefully it’ll play out that way,” Esper said at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London on Friday.
In response to a question about the US approach to Iran, Esper acknowledged differences with some allies but stressed that Trump is determined to stay on his course of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions.
He said the goal is to compel the Iranians to negotiate an agreement to replace the 2015 nuclear accord, from which the US withdrew last year.
The deal – agreed on by the US, Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union – gave Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for accepting curbs on its nuclear programme.
Esper said a new nuclear deal would have to assure that Iran “doesn’t pursue or acquire a nuclear weapon not just in 10 or 15 years but forever”, and he suggested that such talks may be in the offing.
Friction between the two countries has grown since the US withdrew from the pact, reimposed and intensified its sanctions on Tehran, slashing Iran’s crude oil sales by more than 80 percent.
At the same time, the US has rebuffed, but not ruled out, a French plan to give Tehran a $15bn credit line. Rouhani, for his part, on Wednesday gave European powers two more months to try to save the multilateral pact.
The moves suggested Iran, the US and European powers may be leaving the door open for diplomacy to resolve a dispute over Iran’s nuclear work, which the West has suspected was aimed at developing a nuclear weapon, even as they largely stuck to entrenched positions.
Iran denies ever having sought a nuclear bomb.
Trump on Wednesday left open the possibility of a meeting with Rouhani at the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York.
Asked about the prospect, Trump told White House reporters anything was possible. “Sure, anything’s possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem,” he said, referring to inflation in Iran. “We could solve it in 24 hours.”
A senior US defence official said Esper and his French counterpart will discuss on Saturday how the French navy could coordinate with Washington to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran said on Friday it had taken a step to further downgrade its commitments to the 2015 deal with the world powers, according to Iranian media, in retaliation for US sanctions reimposed on Tehran. Rouhani on Wednesday said the third step would involve abandoning limits on research and development
On Tuesday, Rouhani ruled out holding bilateral talks with the US, but said that if Washington lifted all sanctions it reimposed on Iran after it withdrew from the deal, then it could join multilateral talks between the remaining signatories to the landmark accord.
Germany, one of the signatories to the deal, reacted to Iran’s decision to downgrade its commitments by saying it was not too late for Iran to change course.
“We urge Iran not to aggravate the situation further,” a German Foreign Ministry spokesman said. “It is not too late for Iran to leave the wrong path it has gone down.”