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Trump says he's willing to meet Iran's president without preconditions

Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, during a news conference in Bern, Switzerland, on July 3, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Stefan Wermuth.

President Trump declared Monday that he would meet Iran's leaders "anytime they want," an invitation for face-to-face dialogue with a country he had appeared to threaten with war only days before and an affirmation of Trump's faith in his brand of personal diplomacy.

Trump said he would meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without preconditions, because "I believe in meeting."

"No preconditions," Trump said of a meeting with Iranian leaders. "No. They want to meet, I'll meet. Anytime they want. Anytime they want. It's 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."

Trump was responding to a question at a joint news conference at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Last week, tension between the United States and Iran escalated after Trump appeared to threaten military action against Iran in a tweet and Iranian officials vowed to resist any attempt to destabilize their country.

The United States will reimpose sanctions on Iran next week as part of Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear compact with Tehran. Trump said Monday that he thinks Iran will want to negotiate with him eventually, opening the door to new talks about its nuclear program.

"I believe in meeting. I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet. I don't know that they're ready yet," Trump said. "They're having a hard time right now."

That was an apparent reference to economic constraints and the loss of potential markets as a result of the U.S. sanctions.

Last week, Rouhani fired Valiollah Seif, head of the country's Central Bank, as the value of the Iranian rial continued to drop. It fell Monday to a record low against the dollar, largely in anticipation of a round of U.S. sanctions that were lifted under the deal but are due to be restored next week. The administration has said it will reinstate penalties in November against countries and companies that purchase Iranian oil, including U.S. allies around the globe.

"I ended the Iran deal," Trump said. "It was a ridiculous deal. I do believe that they will probably end up wanting to meet, and I am ready to meet anytime they want to."

He added: "I don't do that from strength or from weakness. I think it's an appropriate thing to do. If we could work something out that's meaningful, not the waste of paper that the other deal was, I would certainly be willing to meet."

Trump also claimed he had "a great meeting" with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki two weeks ago, despite what he said was unfairly negative press coverage of a session that produced unusual criticism from congressional Republicans. Trump similarly defends his June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a bold stroke that has made the world safer.

"I'll meet with anybody," Trump said.

"Speaking to other people, especially when you're talking about potentials of war and death and famine and lots of other things. You meet, there's nothing wrong with meeting."

Trump was stung by criticism of his Helsinki summit, especially a news conference in which he appeared to take Putin at his word that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump and aides spent days attempting to recover, with Trump even asserting that he had misspoken during the news conference and had meant to indicate that he thinks Russia was at fault.

Direct presidential negotiations with Iranian leaders would be another break with Republican orthodoxy and a potential point of friction with Israel and with Arab allies in the Persian Gulf who are united in opposition to Iran.

Republicans including Trump were harshly critical of President Barack Obama for what they said were giveaways during direct negotiations with Iran. Obama spoke to Rouhani but never met him, extending a rift dating to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the taking of American hostages.

For months, Trump has told confidants that he is interested in opening up dialogue with Iran even as his administration has tried to isolate Tehran financially and politically. Teams of State Department and Treasury officials have fanned out across the globe, pressuring foreign capitals to stop importing Iranian oil and reduce business ties to the country.

"It's a stretch, but there is a plausible pathway for a Trump-Rouhani summit," former Obama Middle East adviser Ilan Goldenberg wrote on Twitter after Trump's remarks. "It goes through Vladimir Putin."

Russia is a party to the nuclear compact and has full diplomatic relations with Iran. The United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Tehran and considers Iran the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism.

As Europe, despite its vow to remain in the nuclear deal, continues to withdraw, Iran has increasingly reached out to Russia, which also signed the 2015 nuclear deal along with China, France, Britain, Germany and the United States. This month, both Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh and Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign policy adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, visited Moscow for discussions on increased cooperation between their oil and gas industries.

Iranian state news media reported Trump's offer to meet Rouhani while noting that there was no immediate official response.

An adviser to Rouhani, Hamid Aboutalebi, wrote on Twitter late Monday that after Trump threatened Iran at the United Nations last year, "the subject of a meeting between the two presidents came up." In an apparent swipe at Trump, Aboutalebi added that "those who believe in dialogue as a way of solving conflict" must also understand how to achieve such dialogue.

Earlier in the day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said there would be no engagement with the Trump administration.

"With current America and these policies, there will definitely not be the possibility of dialogue and engagement, and the United States has shown that it is totally unreliable," Qassemi said in a news briefing, according to Iranian media. "Given the current circumstances and hostile actions of the United States, the country's withdrawal from the [Iran nuclear deal] and continuation of hostile policies, its efforts to put economic pressure on the Iranian people and its sanctions, I think there are no conditions for such a discussion at all," he said."

Reports that the Trump administration is pushing toward regime change in Iran, Qassemi said, were "irrelevant" and a "raw dream that will never come true."

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said Trump would have to offer Iran "concessions, and not just threats and demands" in order to bring a positive response. "If this is Trump's idea of pivoting to diplomacy," Parsi said in an email, "it stands little chance of success."

But while there is little evidence to support Trump's repeated claim in recent weeks that Iran has already become a "different" country, with reduced interested in regional expansion, since he withdrew from the nuclear deal in May, the Iranian economy is already suffering the effects of reduced foreign investment as major European companies have withdrawn. Protest demonstrations, largely sparked by the economic squeeze, have grown around the country as Iranians have seen their savings shrink and consumer products become unavailable amid massive capital flight.

Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani acknowledged the difficulties in a speech Monday, saying that the country would have to endure "a period of external and regional pressures" that would result in renovation of the economy, Iran's Mehr News Agency reported.

A meeting with Rouhani would be of questionable value in resolving U.S.-Iranian conflicts, since he wields little real power in the country's political system. The ultimate political and religious authority in Iran is Khamenei, the supreme leader, who controls the armed forces, internal security, the judiciary, the intelligence apparatus, foreign policy and key governmental institutions. Khamenei is known to be staunchly anti-American, often expressing his distrust of the U.S. government. He no longer travels outside Iran and rarely receives foreign dignitaries.

"Trump should demand to meet Khamenei. Rouhani is more irrelevant than ever. Trump-Khamenei 2019 Summit in Baku," Mark Dubowitz, a proponent of Trump's tougher line against Iran, wrote on Twitter.

John Bolton, who became Trump's national security adviser earlier this year, had advocated a U.S. policy of regime change in Iran before he joined the White House, and in 2015 advocated military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. He has said regime change is not the Trump administration's policy.

In a July 22 tweet composed entirely in capital letters, Trump warned Rouhani that if Iran threatened the United States again, it would face severe consequences.

Trump's message came after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would step up broadcasts into Iran critical of the country's theocratic rulers.

"To Iranian President Rouhani: 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. BE CAUTIOUS!" Trump tweeted.

Responding in English, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweaked the U.S. leader's confrontational Twitter style.

"COLOR US UNIMPRESSED: The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago," the U.S.-educated Zarif wrote on July 23, apparently referring to Trump's threats against North Korea. "And Iranians have heard them - albeit more civilized ones - for 40 yrs. We've been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!"

U.S. defense officials have said they have received no instructions to gird for a military conflict with Iran. Instead, the administration game plan appears to copy what it considers its successful strategy with North Korea, exerting "maximum pressure" that will either press the government to capitulate to negotiations on U.S. terms or increase domestic pressure against it.

This article was written by Felicia Sonmez, Anne Gearan and Karen DeYoung, reporters for The Washington Post. William Branigin and John Hudson of The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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