U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday that he’d “certainly meet” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and without preconditions, if the Iranian leader expressed willingness.
Speaking during a joint news conference with visiting Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Trump said he would meet with the Iranians “anytime they want to.”
“I’ll meet with anybody,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with meeting. I don’t know that they’re ready yet. I ended the Iran deal. It was a ridiculous deal. I do believe that they will probably end up wanting to meet and I’m ready to meet any time that they want to.”
The overture marks a significant shift in tone and comes as Trump and the Iranians have been escalating their bellicose rhetoric following Trump’s May withdrawal from a landmark Iran nuclear accord.
Next month, the American administration is set to begin reimposing sanctions that had been lifted under the 2015 deal, and Washington has been stepping up its pressure campaign on the Islamic republic.
It’s unclear whether Rouhani has any interest in meeting Trump. Rouhani’s chief of staff claimed earlier this month in Iran’s state-owned newspaper that Rouhani had rejected eight requests from Trump for one-on-one talks last year.
On Tuesday, Iran said the way back to talks was for the United States to return to the nuclear deal.
“Respecting the Iranian nation’s rights, reducing hostilities and returning to the nuclear deal are steps that can be taken to pave the bumpy road of talks between Iran and America,” Hamid Aboutalebi, an adviser to Rouhani, tweeted.
Rouhani recently warned the U.S. that “war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” eliciting an all-caps retort from Trump.
“To Iranian President Rouhani,” Trump tweeted. “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH.”
He ended the message with a warning: “BE CAUTIOUS!”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif fired back with his own message that began, “COLOR US UNIMPRESSED.”
Trump tempered his threatening rhetoric two days later when he said his administration stands ready for Iran to come back to the negotiating table.
“We’re ready to make a real deal, not the deal that was done by the previous administration, which was a disaster,” he said.
“I believe in meeting,” he said, talking up the benefits of “speaking to other people, especially when you’re talking about potentials of war and death and famine and lots of other things.”
Asked whether he would set any preconditions for the meetings, Trump was clear.
“No preconditions, no. If they want to meet, I’ll meet anytime they want, anytime they want,” he said. “Good for the country, good for them, good for us and good for the world. No preconditions. If they want to meet, I’ll meet.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNBC on Monday that he was on board with the president’s invitation, but appeared to add several qualifications.
“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 said.
Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the president’s National Security Council, later said in a statement that the U.S. would not be lifting any sanctions or re-establishing diplomatic and commercial relations until “there are tangible, demonstrated, and sustained shifts in Tehran’s policies.”
“Until then,” he said, “the sting of sanctions will only grow more painful if the regime does not change course.”
Reaction among Trump critics in both parties on Capitol Hill was mixed, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., telling reporters: “I actually think that’s a good idea.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., characterized the overture as “fine,” but only “as long as they are willing to talk about being a normal country in the future.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was more skeptical, calling it “another recipe for bad outcomes.”
“It’s the same as North Korea,” he said. “No preconditions, no preparation. And what do we have? We have Kim Jong Un was elevated from an international pariah to someone who seems like a legitimate statesman.”