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Iran open to talks with US if Trump changes ‘approach’ to nuclear deal, top diplomat says

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during a joint press conference with U.K. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Philip Hammond in Shahrbani Palace. (Hamed Malekpour/Wikimedia)

As Iranians braced for the full restoration of economic sanctions imposed Monday by the Trump administration, their government signaled it would be open to talking to the United States about a new arms nuclear accord if Washington changes its “approach” to discussing the agreement it abandoned earlier this year.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s top diplomat, told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview over the weekend that his government would consider fresh diplomacy if there were “foundations for a fruitful dialogue” on the Iran nuclear reduction deal. President Donald Trump in May pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 pact made with world powers and Iran. Other signatories to the deal stayed in.

Zarif’s comments provided a rare indication from Iran’s senior leadership that Tehran might consider joining talks with Washington if certain diplomatic conditions were met.

“Mutual trust is not a requirement to start negotiations – mutual respect is a requirement,” Zarif said in a wide-ranging, 45-minute interview.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said on state TV in August that he would be willing to meet with Trump over the collapsing deal, but Rouhani then questioned Trump’s “sincerity” in any theoretical talks. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton later dismissed Rouhani’s comments as potential propaganda. The U.S. and Iran effectively broke off all diplomatic contact when Trump decided to exit the agreement.

The Trump “administration does not believe in diplomacy. It believes in imposition,” Zarif said in the interview, just before the White House on Monday reimposed crushing economic sanctions on Iran’s energy and banking sectors.

The administration says the sanctions, lifted under the nuclear arms deal Iran signed with the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany when Barack Obama was president, are aimed at taking stronger steps to curb Tehran’s nuclear program, its missile activity and the billions of dollars it spends funding terrorism and sowing discord across the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen.

The White House did not respond to a request to address Zarif’s remarks. The State Department also declined to comment. But on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, announcing who, and what, exactly will be targeted in the new sanctions, said: “The Iranian regime has a choice. It can either do a 180-degree turn from its outlaw course of action and act like a normal country, or it can see its economy crumble. We hope a new agreement with Iran is possible.”

The Trump administration sanctioned more than 700 Iranian banks, companies and individuals. It issued oil-sanctions waivers to China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. This will allow them to keep purchasing Iran’s oil.

As the U.S.’s “toughest ever” sanctions took effect, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said Monday the nation faces a “war situation” and vowed that Iran “will sell” its oil. Iran’s military announced it will hold new defense drills to prove its capabilities.

‘Horrible, one-sided Iran nuclear deal’

At a midterm elections campaign rally Sunday in Georgia, Trump said “Iran’s been a much different country” after he withdrew the U.S. “from the horrible, one-sided Iran nuclear deal.” Trump added: “When I came in it was just a question of how long would it take them to take over the whole Middle East.”

An earlier round of Washington-administered penalties, impacting Iran’s access to U.S. dollars and its ability to trade certain commodities, took effect in August.

While the U.S. government insists the sanctions do not target humanitarian goods, amid a currency crash and international companies pulling out of Iran, basic goods have become more expensive and some living-saving medicines unavailable.

“Mutual respect starts with respecting yourself, with respecting your signature, respecting your own word,” Zarif said, a reference to various international agreements Trump has abandoned or renegotiated since taking office.

Iran’s foreign minister spoke to USA TODAY in Antalya, a resort town on Turkey’s southwestern Mediterranean coast, where he was attending an economic conference. He addressed how Iran’s already-crippled economy will cope with the sanctions and attempts by European leaders to salvage the accord without Washington.

‘Iran is used to sanctions’

“The current U.S. administration is essentially asking all members of the international community to violate international law” by forcing them to break a deal that was enshrined in a United Nations Security Council resolution, Zarif said, later adding: “Iran is used to U.S. sanctions. We’ve had them for almost 39 years.”

Zarif also discussed Iran’s reputation as a bad actor in the Middle East region and its view of Saudi Arabia, the country’s longstanding regional foe. The Saudis have come under intense scrutiny in recent weeksfollowingthe murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Riyadh state operatives in Istanbul, Turkey.

“Unfortunately, a person has been murdered in a very brutal way,” Zarif said, referring to Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudi consulate. “Who created the Taliban? Whose citizens were involved in the September 11 attacks? Who supported the Islamic State group in Syria? Who is bombing Yemeni civilians? Who abducted (Lebanon’s prime minister) and kept him in captivity for three weeks? … Look at all these realities,” he added, claiming Saudi involvement in these episodes, not all of which have been conclusively proven. “The United States has been not only making the wrong choice (by being a Saudi ally) but the West has been sending the wrong signal. Basically, literally, telling the Saudi royal family that you can get away with murder.”

Zarif noted that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear accord came over the objections of the USA’s closest allies – and despite repeated confirmation from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, that Iran has been complying with the accord’s terms by reducing uranium-enrichment.

“For somebody to simply say, ‘I don’t like it. I want to walk away from it because I believe I am powerful enough to do it.’ What is the guarantee that they won’t do that again in the next agreement?” Zarif said in the interview.

Return to negotiating table?

“It doesn’t have to be a different administration, but it does require a different approach,” Zarif stressed, referring to what it would take for Iran to join U.S. talks.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of Bourse & Bazaar, a media firm that supports business diplomacy between Europe and Iran, said of the foreign minister’s comments: “Zarif doesn’t say things unless he wants to signal where Iran’s thinking is … What’s significant is he is saying this on the eve of the sanctions being re-applied … Iran can’t be seen to be begging the U.S. to come back into the deal, but it is clear there is an undercurrent in the diplomacy, which is that Iran is open to this if the U.S. shows itself to be reasonable about respecting the JCPOA (nuclear deal).”

In an interview with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. supports the Iranian people, adding that the sanctions are directed at “ensuring that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s malign behavior is changed.”

“That’s the goal, that’s the mission, and that’s what we will achieve on behalf of the president,” Pompeo, the U.S.’s top diplomat, said.

Trump has said in recent weeks that he is open to the idea of holding talks with Iran’s leadership, without preconditions, about the prospect of a new nuclear deal – an offer that Iran has consistently publicly rejected since Rouhani’s August remarks as it has sought to rely on help from Europe to keep the nuclear deal alive.

“We reached an agreement with the United States, not a two-page agreement, but a 150-page agreement. And the United States decided to walk away from it,” Zarif said.

He then rattled off a litany of agreements the Trump administration has either withdrawn from or demanded be renegotiated, from the Paris climate change accords to the North American Free Trade Agreement to a landmark arms control agreement with Russia dating to the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

“It wasn’t our fault that the United States is not a reliable negotiating partner,” Zarif said in the interview. “It’s a problem that the international community is facing.”

USA TODAY pressed Zarif several times in the interview to elaborate on what he meant by a “different approach” and whether it implied a different president to Trump.

“I believe human beings can change. This administration can have a different approach,” he said, refusing to answer the question directly.

His only concession: “We are willing to wait out this approach.”

Other key points from the interview included:

How the sanctions are impacting Iran

“(Iran) is providing subsidies so the necessities for peoples’ lives will be provided at the previous prices, but nobody claims economic sanctions don’t hurt. Economic sanctions always hurt, but they don’t achieve the policy objectives they intend to achieve.”

Whether Europe’s efforts to save the nuclear deal were doomed

“The ‘special purpose vehicle’ (a financial mechanism being devised by European officials to enable trade and banking services with Iran to continue despite the sanctions) is one measure specifically designed as the first step to deal with the Iranian situation, but its ultimate objective is not simply to insulate trade between Iran and Europe, or between Iran and its third-party partners, but in fact (for Europe) to insulate themselves from the pressure it faces from the United States.”

Whether Iran’s oil industry will be crippled

“Trump and his administration said they would bring Iranian oil exports to zero (because of the sanctions targeting its exports). We said that was a dream that will never come true. … We have now seen we were right (because the U.S. issued oil export waivers to eight countries that still want to continue to buy Iran’s oil).”

How Iran views the midterms and U.S. politics

“We’re not pinning any hopes on (the elections in Congress) or 2020 (when there is a U.S. presidential election). What distinguishes Iran from some U.S. clients in the region is we have survived not only in spite of the U.S. but against U.S. … Iran has been through Democratic and Republican administrations in the past. … All of them hostile.”

Contributing David Jackson and Deirdre Shesgreen


© 2018 USA Today

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