President Donald Trump brandished a closed fist and extended an olive branch to Iran in remarks at the United Nations Tuesday, threatening more sanctions even as he signaled his willingness to talk.
The comments, part of the President’s address to world leaders at the UN’s General Assembly, were part of a series of mixed messages on Iran, as French President Emmanuel Macron and other American allies pushed hard for the Trump administration and Iran to engage in dialogue.
“No responsible government should subsidize Iran’s blood lust,” Trump said during his speech to the General Assembly. “As long as Iran’s menacing behavior continues, sanctions will not be lifted. They will be tightened.” But he also noted that that many of America’s “greatest friends” used to be enemies. “The United States has never believed in permanent enemies,” Trump told the audience.
Later in the day, Trump told reporters that Iran “would like to negotiate. We haven’t really worked that out. They’re here. We’re here … it certainly makes sense, but we haven’t agreed to that yet.”
‘They’re here, we’re here’
Trump’s hints about potential US-Iran talks and the possibility that Persian Gulf tensions could be diffused were overshadowed by the day’s dominating domestic news that the House of Representatives will launch an impeachment inquiry.
“Such an important day at the United Nations, so much work and so much success, and the Democrats purposely had to ruin and demean it with more breaking news Witch Hunt garbage,” Trump tweeted. “So bad for our Country!”
Signs of movement on Iran were visible Monday, when Iran had signaled a willingness to talk and key European allies issued a statement ascribing some responsibility to Iran for the attacks on a Saudi oil facility – a step US officials had urged.
Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed the attack and Iran has denied it played any role, but Trump administration officials have insisted that Tehran bears sole responsibility.
On Tuesday, Trump had told reporters that Iran “would like to negotiate. We haven’t really worked that out. They’re here. We’re here, but we have not agreed to that yet. They would like to negotiate. And it certainly makes sense.”
Trump’s inclination for negotiations and deal making could pose pitfalls when it comes to Iran, said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who warned of the “yap trap of diplomacy.”
“There’s clearly a desire on the part of the President to sit down with Rouhani,” he said, referring to the Iranian president.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the Iranians try to get a last-minute negotiation,” Dubowitz said, drawing a comparison to the situation with North Korea. “They could pull a Kim Jong Un on him, use the diplomacy to undermine the sanctions on the assumption that Trump is unlikely to escalate further if he’s talking to Iran.”
When reporters asked Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif earlier in the day if President Hassan Rouhani would meet with Trump on the sidelines of the meeting, the foreign minister shouted, “No!”
But the day before, Zarif had raised the prospect of a new agreement that would see permanent sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran’s permanent denuclearization in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
Behind the scenes, US allies have been working hard to push for some sort of dialogue. Trump acknowledged this, saying that Macron had been speaking to the US about an Iran meeting, as well as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
‘We have the time’
“She’s very much involved. We have a lot of people involved. A lot of people would like to get us to the table,” Trump said.
He added that there’s “a chance” that Khan could mediate between the US and Iran. Khan “actually asked me, he thought it would be a good idea to meet and we’re here, we’re in New York together and we have the time to do it,” Trump said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Rouhani for an hour Tuesday, part of an effort to “achieve de-escalation and stabilization of the situation in the region as well,” said Masato Otaka, press secretary for Japan’s ministry of foreign affairs.
Iranian state media said Rouhani had also held talks with Khan and Macron on Tuesday, and was set to meet with Merkel later in the day. The Iranian leader also met with the UK’s Boris Johnson.
Trump wasn’t the only one under pressure to enter diplomatic talks.
In a meeting with Johnson and Rouhani, Macron said it would be a “lost opportunity” if the Iranian leader left the US without meeting with Trump.
‘A lost opportunity’
If Rouhani “leaves the country, without meeting with President Trump, honestly this is a lost opportunity,” Macron said to Johnson, while standing next to the Iranian president. “Because he will not come back in a few months … and President Trump will not go to Tehran.”
Johnson agreed with Macron, telling Rouhani, “you need to be on the side of the swimming pool and jump at the same time.”
The most forceful push for talks came from Macron, who used his General Assembly address to call for talks and gently criticize the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
When the US pulled out, Macron said he predicted that the decision “could only lead to an increase in tensions in the region unless there was a clear prospect for a diplomatic solution … Well, what do we have today?” he asked.
“Iran has responded with a strategy of maximum pressure on its region and environment,” in response to the US strategy of maximum economic pressure, Macron said. “The growth in tensions we’ve seen over the past few months have been constant … Today, we have a risk of a serious conflict based on a miscalculation or a disproportionate response. Peace is at the mercy of a miscalculation … and the consequence for the region would be very serious.”
“More than ever, I very sincerely and profoundly believe that the time has come to resume negotiations between the US, Iran, signatories of the JCPOA, and the countries of the region that are first and foremost affected by the security and stability,” Macron said.
The goals should be to ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon, to find a solution to the ongoing war in Yemen, to create a regional security plan that addresses “other crises in the region” and maritime security, as well as “a lifting of economic sanctions,” Macron said.
Rouhani, speaking on Tuesday to a group of American media managers, said Macron’s efforts will only be effective if the US lifts the unilateral sanctions it imposed on Iran after leaving the nuclear pact. Those penalties now cover all essential pillars of the economy, including its central bank and sovereign wealth fund.
“It is only at that time that the negotiations within the Group 5+1 will be possible,” Rouhani said, referring to the group that negotiated the nuclear deal.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Elizabeth Joseph, Richard Roth and Maegan Vazquez in New York, and Nilly Kohzad in Atlanta contributed to this report.