Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States had “a productive week” of discussion with allies on Iran and suggested the US remained open to negotiations with the nation, despite Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hours earlier squashing any prospects of a meeting with his US counterpart.
“We want peace, we want a peaceful resolution with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We’re hoping we can get that way. In the end it’ll be up to the Iranians to make that decision,” Pompeo said Wednesday in a news conference alongside President Donald Trump. “We hope we can get the opportunity to negotiate with them and get an outcome that’s good for both them, for the United States to make sure they never have a nuclear weapon and that they can’t foment their terror with ballistic missiles and in the way they have all around the world.”
“And I thought we made real progress uniting the world on that here over the past few days,” Pompeo added.
However, just hours earlier, Rouhani declared that negotiations can’t take place until sanctions are lifted – a step the US not only refuses to take, but doubled down on earlier in the day by announcing new penalties.
“On behalf of my nation and state, I would like to announce that our response to any negotiation under sanctions is negative,” Rouhani said Wednesday in his address to the United Nations General Assembly.
Shortly after Pompeo voiced the US desire for peace, the White House announced sweeping visa restrictions on senior Iranian officials and their immediate families. Citing Iranian behavior that “threatens peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond,” Trump wrote in a presidential proclamation, “I have determined that it is in the interest of the United States to take action to restrict and suspend the entry into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of senior government officials of Iran, and their immediate family members.”
The proclamation notes that there would be exceptions in accordance with “United States Government obligations under applicable international agreements.”
Ahead of the General Assembly, Iran accused the US of slow walking visas for its official delegation. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was already subject to visa restrictions due to earlier US sanctions.
’Edge of collapse’
In his general assembly speech, Rouhani spoke of the precarious situation in the region and issued a warning.
“Our region is on the edge of collapse,” Rouhani said, “as a single blunder can fuel a big fire. We shall not tolerate the provocative intervention of foreigners. We shall respond decisively and strongly to any sort of transgression to and violation of our security and territorial integrity.”
He decried the US presence in the Middle East and American efforts to create an international maritime security force in the Persian Gulf. Urging countries in the region to work together, he said the issues facing Iran and its neighbors are too big and important for Washington to solve.
Rouhani spoke as Trump has been signaling his interest in starting talks with Tehran, but the European Union warned the Iran nuclear deal is increasingly under pressure and US allies, particularly French President Emmanuelle Macron, are pushing the two sides to begin a dialogue.
In his own address to the UN General Assembly Tuesday, Trump 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 meeting with Iran made sense. “They’re here. We’re here … it certainly makes sense, but we haven’t agreed to that yet.”
For a second day Wednesday, tensions in the Persian Gulf were overshadowed by the day’s dominating news of Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate his chief political rival at the moment, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the House of Representatives decision to launch an impeachment inquiry.
’The harshest sanctions’
In his remarks, the Iranian leader condemned the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign and the impact on Iranian people. He called on the US to return to the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that the US exited in May 2018.
“The government and people of Iran have remained steadfast against the harshest sanctions in the past one and a half years and will never negotiate with an enemy that seeks to make Iran surrender with the weapon of poverty, pressure and sanctions,” Rouhani said. “The only way for talks to begin is to return to commitments and compliance. If you are sensitive to the name of JCPOA, then, well, you can return to its framework.”
Rouhani laid out his conditions not long after Pompeo announced new Iran-related sanctions on Chinese companies transporting oil from Iran and their executive officers.
“We’re telling China and all nations, know that we will sanction every violation of sanctionable activity,” Pompeo said at a conference organized by the group United Against Nuclear Iran.
Pompeo also said the US was “taking new action to disentangle” Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps “from the Iranian economy.”
“The United States will intensify our efforts to educate countries and companies on the risk of doing business with IRGC entities and we will punish them if they persist in defiance of our warnings,” he said.
The Treasury Department said in a release that based on a determination by Pompeo it would sanction COSCO Shipping Tanker (Dalian) Co. and COSCO Shipping Tanker (Dalian) Seaman & Ship Management Co., along with a few other companies and a slew of individuals.
The Trump administration has steadily ratcheted up economic pressure on Iran since leaving the 2015 international pact that constrained its nuclear program in exchange for economic relief. Those penalties now cover all essential pillars of the economy, including its central bank and sovereign wealth fund.
The US says its goal is to get Iran back to the table to renegotiate the nuclear deal to include Iran’s ballistic missile program and its activities in the Middle East.
But Tehran has pushed back.
The US has blamed Iran for attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and for the devastating strike on a Saudi Aramco facility that American officials say was conducted by drone and missile. Germany, France and the UK have also said Iran bears responsibility. Yemen-based Houthi rebels have claimed the attack was their doing.
On Wednesday, Rouhani argued that the US was not capable of being a stabilizing force in the region and called for regional countries to band together to join an Iranian maritime security initiative he called the “Coalition for Hope.”
’Coalition for hope’
With such a maritime group, “the free flow of oil and other energy resources could be guaranteed, provided that we consider security as an umbrella in all areas for all the countries,” Rouhani said.
In contrast, Rouhani said the US effort to organize an international force to patrol the Persian Gulf “is a clear example of interference in the affairs of the region. The securitization of navigation” contravenes the right to free navigation and would escalate tensions, and increase “mistrust in the region while jeopardizing regional peace, security and stability.”
The Iranian leader also argued that security will come to the region “when American troops pull out.” Calling on “neighbors” to work together, Rouhani said that, “security shall not be supplied with American weapons and intervention.”
“The United States has failed to resolve the issue in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria,” Rouhani said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “Such a government is clearly unable to resolve more sophisticated issues.”
Iran continued to comply with the nuclear deal for more than a year after the US began its sanctions push, until recently, when it has begun violating some of its terms.
Speaking to media outside the UN General Assembly hall, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said it’s becoming harder to preserve the nuclear deal. “I will not hide that is increasingly difficult to do it and we have discussed today that fact that we will try to continue keeping the agreement in place and overcome the difficulties that we’re facing,” she said.
“What I believe is that every step that has been taken so far by Iran, and I underline, so far, is reversible,” Mogherini added. “We have constantly called upon Iran to reverse these decisions and go back to full compliance, which has been the case till recently because this is in the interests of all.”
CNN’s Richard Roth and Elizabeth Joseph in New York contributed to this report