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

ANTALYA, Turkey – 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 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 diplomacy if there were “foundations for a fruitful dialogue” on the Iran nuclear reduction deal. In May, President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the pact made with world powers and Iran. Other signatories stayed in. 

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

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on state TV in August that he would be willing to meet with Trump over the collapsing deal, but Rouhani questioned Trump’s “sincerity” in any theoretical talks. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton dismissed Rouhani’s comments as propaganda. The United States 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 before the White House reimposed crushing economic sanctions on Iran’s energy and banking sectors Monday.

The administration said the sanctions, lifted under the deal Iran signed with the United States, 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 declined to comment. Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo 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 sanction waivers to China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. This will allow them to keep purchasing Iran’s oil.

Rouhani said Monday his nation faces a “war situation” and vowed that Iran “will sell” its oil. Iran’s military announced it will hold 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 “from the horrible, one-sided Iran nuclear deal.” Trump said, “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, cutting Iran’s access to U.S. dollars and its ability to trade certain commodities, took effect in August.

Though the U.S. government insisted the sanctions do not target humanitarian goods, basic items have become more expensive and some lifesaving medicines are unavailable amid a currency crash and international companies pulling out of Iran.

“Mutual respect starts with respecting yourself, with respecting your signature, respecting your own word,” Zarif said, referring to various international agreements Trump 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 attended an economic conference. He addressed how Iran’s 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. “Iran is used to U.S. sanctions,” he said. “We’ve had them for almost 39 years.” 

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

More: Read transcript of USA TODAY interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

“Unfortunately, a person has been murdered in a very brutal way,” Zarif said, accusing the Saudis of involvement in global turmoil. “Who created the Taliban? Whose citizens were involved in the Sept. 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.” 

 Zarif said, “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 United States’ closest allies – and despite repeated confirmation from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, that Iran complied 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. 

Return to negotiating table?

For U.S.-Iranian talks, “it doesn’t have to be a different administration, but it does require a different approach,” Zarif said.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of Bourse & Bazaar, a media firm that supports business diplomacy between Europe and Iran, said, “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 reapplied. … 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 nuclear deal. 

In an interview with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, Pompeo said the United States supports the Iranian people, and 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,” said Pompeo, the United States’ top diplomat. 

Trump has said 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 Iran has consistently rejected, relying 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 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. “It’s a problem that the international community is facing.”

Pressed to elaborate on what he meant by a “different approach,” Zarif said, “I believe human beings can change. This administration can have a different approach.” 

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

Other points from the interview: 

How the sanctions affect Iran

“(Iran) is providing subsidies, so the necessities for people’s 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 are 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 United States issued oil export waivers to eight countries that 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 will be 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.”

More: USA TODAY journalist got rare access last summer to report inside Iran

More: America’s contentious history in Iran leads to mix of anger, wonderment and weariness

Contributing David Jackson and Deirdre Shesgreen

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