WASHINGTON — President Trump appeared to take a step back from his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran on Wednesday, leaving open the possibility of easing economic sanctions before starting new nuclear negotiations with Tehran.
Although he also warned Iran against restarting production of the material necessary to make a nuclear bomb — as the clerical government in Tehran has threatened — Mr. Trump made clear he was ready for diplomatic talks.
“I do believe they’d like to make a deal,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House. “If they do, that’s great; and if they don’t, that’s great too. But they have tremendous financial difficulty, and the sanctions are getting tougher and tougher.”
He shrugged when asked if he would consider easing the sanctions to secure a meeting with Iran. “We’ll see what happens,” Mr. Trump said.
His subtle yet startling signal about relaxing the sanctions came just a day after the president unceremoniously ousted John R. Bolton, the White House national security adviser who opposed détente with Iran.
Iran’s leaders have long insisted that the United States must first lift its sanctions before they will agree to meet with Mr. Trump. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran repeated that demand just hours before Mr. Trump’s comments.
“If the sanctions remain in place, negotiations with the U.S. administration have no meaning,” Mr. Rouhani said in a telephone call on Wednesday with President Emmanuel Macron of France, according to Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency.
The earliest, and most easily arranged, meeting would be at the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly this month.
Mr. Trump is to address the world body on Sept. 24, followed by Mr. Rouhani the next day. Discussions on the sidelines of the forum are a routine part of the diplomatic pageantry, although Mr. Rouhani has yet to meet with an American president; the closest he came was a 2013 telephone call, from his car as he was leaving the United Nations, with President Barack Obama.
Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both floated the possibility of a meeting at the United Nations. A similar effort for Mr. Trump and Mr. Rouhani to meet at the United Nations in 2017 collapsed.
The American sanctions against Iran were imposed last year, after Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from an accord that was struck with world powers in 2015 to limit Tehran’s nuclear program. The economic penalties have largely stopped foreign governments and businesses seeking to invest in Iran, or to buy its oil and other goods.
It is part of the “maximum pressure” campaign to isolate Iran and force it back into negotiations for a new deal — one that Mr. Trump wants to not only limit Iran’s nuclear program, but also stop its production of ballistic missiles and halt support for extremist groups across the Middle East, including Hezbollah, Hamas and, in Yemen, the Houthi rebels.
And it has frustrated France and other close American allies, who are now working to create a barter system with Tehran that would keep financial channels open but not violate the American sanctions. Mr. Macron has also dangled the possibility of a $15 billion bailout to Iran to bring it back into compliance with the 2015 deal.
As he faces re-election next year, Mr. Trump has been searching for a diplomatic victory involving a host of adversaries, including North Korea, Venezuela and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Signs of Mr. Trump’s softening against Iran have surfaced over the summer.
In June, and at the last minute, Mr. Trump called off missile strikes against Iran that his advisers had endorsed to punish Tehran for downing an unmanned American surveillance drone.
Last month, at the Group of 7 meeting in Biarritz, France, Mr. Trump said “we’re looking to make Iran rich again” and made clear he did not support attempts to overthrow Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
At a speech last week in Manhattan, Kan., Mr. Pompeo described Mr. Trump as “happy” to meet Iranian leaders and said the administration wanted to end the standoff with Tehran. Besides Mr. Bolton, Mr. Pompeo has been one of the Trump administration’s fiercest hawks against Iran’s government and, experts said, has largely stopped talking about 12 demands he wants Tehran to meet before sanctions are lifted. (Mr. Pompeo quickly clarified himself in Kansas to note that “‘happy’ might overstate it a bit.”)
On Tuesday, Mr. Bolton walked out of his White House job. And on Wednesday, Mr. Trump opened the door to easing sanctions on Iran to get Mr. Rouhani to a meeting.
“Trump really needs something before the election, and Iran knows that,” said Gary Sick, an Iran scholar at Columbia University who worked on the National Security Council for three presidents in the 1970s and 1980s. “So, in effect, Iran is negotiating from a position of strength.”
Mr. Sick said the American sanctions have indeed stung Iran’s economy, and pointed to strong steps the Trump administration continues to take against Iran, including designating its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization last spring.
Just last week, the Trump administration imposed a new set of sanctions against an elaborate shipping network that Iran uses to sell oil, offering a $15 million reward to those who help disrupt it.
Mr. Sick said the United States could now consider again waiving sanctions against some countries that rely on Iran’s oil exports, such as India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey. China was by far the biggest buyer of Iran’s daily export of one million barrels but is unlikely to be given a waiver after one of its state-owned companies was found in June to be violating the sanctions.
“It was clear from the outset that the kind of strangulation that was being applied to Iran made it impossible for any Iranian leader to give in,” Mr. Sick said. But, he added, “Iran was not going to collapse, and now Trump is clarifying his policy.”
This summer, Iran has taken a series of technical steps that violate the terms of the 2015 accord, a gambit to force European leaders to hasten efforts to ease the sanctions’ bite. Mr. Sick said all of Iran’s moves, to this point, were easily and quickly reversible.
Over the weekend, Mr. Rouhani announced that Iran was preparing to restart its production of highly enriched uranium, the material needed to build a nuclear weapon. Doing so would most likely scuttle any hope of resurrecting the nuclear accord with world powers, as Mr. Macron has been trying to do.
“If they’re thinking about enrichment, they can forget about it,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday. “Because it’s going to be very dangerous for them to enrich.”
In his remarks, Mr. Trump ridiculed Mr. Bolton as “Mr. Tough Guy,” accusing him of warmongering in the Middle East and hurting the now-stalled negotiations with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. The president also said Mr. Bolton was “way out of line” against the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, although he did not say how.
“You know, John wasn’t in line with what we were doing,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Bolton’s departure quickly precipitated the beginning of a broader housecleaning at the National Security Council, which will complicate policymaking and diplomacy at least in the near future until vacancies are filled. Several of Mr. Bolton’s longtime advisers left the White House on Wednesday, including Sarah Tinsley, Garrett Marquis and Christine Samuelian. Others are expected to leave in the coming days.
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