WASHINGTON — President Trump left open the possibility Wednesday of relaxing economic sanctions against Iran before starting new nuclear negotiations, seeming to undercut his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran in favor of striking a diplomatic deal.
Hours earlier, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran said that the United States must lift its bruising sanctions before officials in Tehran would be ready to talk. Trump stressed his view that Iran’s economy is suffering and that the leadership in Tehran is eager for negotiations.
“I do believe they’d like to make a deal,” 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,” Trump said.
Though Trump has previously offered to talk to Iran’s leaders, his comments Wednesday appeared to be the first time he has publicly left open the door to softening his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. The shift would have been stridently opposed by John Bolton, the White House national security adviser who was unceremoniously ousted Tuesday.
For nearly a year, the Trump administration has threatened economic penalties against foreign governments and businesses seeking to invest in Iran, or to buy its oil and other goods. The isolation campaign has crippled Iran’s economy and frustrated countries, including China and India, that rely on its oil.
Other allies, particularly in Europe, were infuriated in May 2018 when Trump withdrew the United States from a nuclear accord that Iran struck with world powers during the Obama administration. They have sought to create a barter system with Tehran that would keep financial channels open but not violate the US sanctions, and President Emmanuel Macron of France has dangled the possibility of a $15 billion bailout to bring Iran back into compliance with the 2015 deal.
Under the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the Treasury and State departments have ramped up sanctions against Iran to force it back into negotiations. Brian Hook, the State Department envoy overseeing Iran issues, told reporters last week that sanctions were essential to financially starving the government in Tehran and, in turn, making it more difficult to fund Iranian-allied fighters in conflicts across the Middle East.
“We are maintaining the maximum-pressure campaign,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at the White House on Tuesday.
In a telephone call with Macron, reported Wednesday by Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency, Rouhani said that “if the sanctions remain in place, negotiations with the US administration have no meaning.”
As he faces reelection next year, Trump has been searching for a diplomatic victory — not just with Iran, but also with North Korea and Afghanistan.