WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Monday that they were willing to meet, the first time the two have been on the same page at the same time about possible negotiations to resolve their escalating differences.
Trump agreed with French President Emmanuel Macron, who served as go-between, that the meeting could occur within weeks. "If the circumstances were correct, were right, I would certainly agree to that," Trump said at a joint news conference with Macron at the end of the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France.
Rouhani, in a televised speech in Iran, said he was open to talks. "If I knew that going to a meeting and visiting a person would help my country's development and resolve the problems of the people, I would not miss it," he said, in an apparent reference to Trump.
"We have to negotiate, we have to find a solution, and we have to solve the problem," Rouhani said.
No date for a meeting was set. But when asked if Macron's estimate of "within weeks" sounded realistic, Trump said, "It does." He and Rouhani are scheduled to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York during the last week of September.
Macron, who weeks ago was publicly chastised in a Trump tweet after rumors that he was working to set up a meeting, beamed at Trump's side. "I want to be very cautious and very modest, but I think that this is going to lead to putting an end to escalation and reaching a suitable solution to this," he said.
Trump last year abandoned the 2015 nuclear pact among world powers, which he said did not go far enough in curbing Iran's nuclear energy program in exchange for sanctions relief. His administration has since imposed harsh economic sanctions that have brought the Iranian economy to its knees and the two countries to the brink of a military clash.
In recent months, Iran has breached certain provisions of the accord in a bid to persuade the other signatories - France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China, who remain in the agreement - to push back against the Americans, reset the terms of the deal and keep it afloat.
Iran wants to continue to sell oil, despite a U.S. embargo that has drastically cut its exports. Much of the foreign investment promised under the deal has since dried up as foreign companies have left Iran to avoid being sanctioned.
As the two sides have edged closer to direct confrontation, the United States has accused Iran of mining oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and shot down what it said was a threatening Iranian drone. Iran then shot down a U.S. drone and has threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial seaway through which much of the world's oil travels from the Middle East.
Last year, when the administration voiced its interest in a meeting, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a harsh speech forbidding any dialogue with the United States.
But now, "there is simply no way Iran can reverse its economic decline absent a deal with the United States," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Iran "initially believed the world would side with them against Trump," he said. "When that didn't happen, they thought they could wait for Trump to lose in November 2020. But the choking of their oil exports - the lifeblood of their economy - has been so dramatic that it's going to be difficult to sustain for another year and a half, and potentially beyond if Trump is reelected."
Public stances on both sides show little room for movement. Trump said Monday that "We're looking for no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles and a longer period of time" for current sunset clauses in the nuclear deal. "Very simple," he said. "We can have it done in a very short period of time."
Iran has said repeatedly that it has no interest in nuclear weapons, and international monitors have said it has adhered to restrictions in the agreement. It has said that its ballistic missiles are needed for defense against regional enemies and are nonnegotiable.
But for both leaders, the politics of the moment may be spurring them forward. Entering into negotiations with Iran would allow Trump to claim, as he approaches his reelection campaign, that his tough line was the right one, despite opposition from European partners and the risk of open warfare.
Comparing Iran to North Korea, where he first threatened "fire and fury" and then sat down for summit meetings with leader Kim Jung Un, Trump said of Iran, "I think it's going to work out." He described Rouhani as "a great negotiator" and said that if the circumstances were right, he and others would be willing to loan Iran the money to quickly get back on its feet.
Rouhani, a moderate whose actions have been tightly circumscribed by Khamenei and his hard-line backers, said Iran would use diplomacy and "power" to stand up to the United States and achieve its goals. He said Iran would "resist" its enemies when it "benefits us" but also appeared to admonish domestic critics of diplomacy, saying both approaches were necessary.
"Those who think that only one of these instruments is enough are wrong," he said, adding that Iran needed to use its "military, security, cultural and political powers" to stand up to the United States.
"What is important is the national interest," Rouhani said, again turning to the prospect of talks.
The potential breakthrough came after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, at Macron's invitation, made a surprise visit to the Biarritz summit where, according to Macron, he transmitted his government's agreement to talks.
"The last few days have clarified the situation. A lot of messages have been conveyed, a lot of work has been done between our ministers" that have "set the stage for these discussions and for an agreement," Macron said.
Experts said that neither Zarif nor Rouhani would have acted without Khamenei's approval.
Hard-line opponents of Rouhani's government portrayed Zarif's trip to the G-7, where he met with French officials on the margin of the summit, as naive. The ultraconservative Kayhan newspaper said Monday that the foreign minister's meetings were set up to "deceive" Iran, and that the French and U.S. leaders would ultimately seek stringent controls on its missile program and regional presence.
But "Rouhani is at a place in his career" where easing beyond a tight rein "wouldn't really hurt him much," said Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran analyst at Rand. "His [second] term is over next summer, and he cannot run again under the Iranian constitution."
"There is a good chance we will see some sort of meeting, but of course the big issue is not so much the meeting itself, from an Iranian perspective, at least." Tabatabai said. "What matters at the end of the day is sanctions relief."
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Cunningham reported from Istanbul.
This article was written by Karen DeYoung and Erin Cunningham, reporters for The Washington Post.