Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that Iran appeared willing to negotiate over its missile program “for the first time,” in what he and Presiden Donald Trump presented as evidence that sanctions and military pressure were working, less than a month after the President halted a planned military strike against Iran, The New York Times reported.
However, within hours of the statement to reporters, delivered before a cabinet meeting at the White House, the idea was shot down by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was in New York for a meeting at the United Nations. His spokesman said that the two men had misinterpreted Zarif’s public statements, in which he repeated past demands that if the United States “wants to talk about missiles, it should stop selling weapons, including missiles, to regional states.”
It was a clear reference to American weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran’s other Arab adversaries.
The odd exchange, and the apparent misconstruing of Zarif’s comments, seemed to underscore the eagerness of the White House to turn weeks of confrontation with Iran into some kind of negotiating opportunity – and a reminder of how hard that will be to accomplish. Iranian officials have repeatedly said they would engage with Trump only after he rejoined the 2015 nuclear accord, which he withdrew from last year.
Trump appeared to ignore that demand, backing up his top diplomat’s assessment that American restrictions on Iranian oil exports had left the regime “struggling to figure out what they’re going to do with their economy.” “They’d like to talk, and we’ll see what happens,” Trump said.
But the Iranians say their position is unchanged. The exchange between officials of the two countries followed a string of private messages and efforts at outreach that seemed intended to de-escalate a series of confrontations that many feared could lead to war, either accidentally or deliberately.
A visit a month ago to Iran by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, went badly, with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declaring that he would never speak with Trump and had no intention of repeating the “bitter experience” of negotiating a hard-fought agreement with the United States, only to see a new president renounce it.