Thursday 19 September 2019

Iran rules out Trump talks unless US lifts its sanctions

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo; Getty Images
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo; Getty Images

Nasser Karimi

Iran's president has back-pedalled on possible talks with Donald Trump, saying the US president must first lift sanctions imposed on Tehran, otherwise a meeting would be a mere photo op.

Hassan Rouhani's change of heart came a day after Mr Trump said there was a "really good chance" the two could meet on their nuclear impasse after a surprise intervention by French President Emmanuel Macron during the G7 summit to try to bring Washington and Tehran together after decades of conflict.

US President Donald Trump, with wife Melania. Photo: Getty Images
US President Donald Trump, with wife Melania. Photo: Getty Images

"Without the US's withdrawal from sanctions, we will not witness any positive development," Mr Rouhani said yesterday, adding that Washington "holds the key" as to what happens next.

"If someone intends to make it as just a photo op with Rouhani, that is not possible," he said.

Earlier, Mr Rouhani expressed readiness to negotiate a way out of the crisis following America's withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

"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 had said. "Even if the odds of success are not 90pc but are 20pc or 10pc, we must move ahead with it. We should not miss opportunities."

Mr Rouhani also shielded his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, against criticism from hard-liners over his surprise visit to Biarritz, where leaders of the G7 were meeting. Iran's English-language Press TV issued a vague, anonymous statement on Monday, rejecting Mr Macron's initiative.

Mr Macron said he hoped Mr Trump and Mr Rouhani could meet within weeks in hopes of saving the 2015 nuclear deal. Under the deal, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Yesterday, Mr Macron acknowledged his efforts to bring Iran and the US together are "fragile", but said he still sees a "possible path" to rapprochement between the two.

Inviting Mr Zarif to the G7 summit as a surprise guest was a risky diplomatic manoeuvre, but it helped create "the possible conditions of a useful meeting", Mr Macron said.

It's France's responsibility to play the "role of a balancing power", Mr Macron said, adding that his efforts allowed hope for a "de-escalation" of tensions.

Since the US pullout from the nuclear deal, Iran has lost billions of dollars in business deals as the US re-imposed and escalated sanctions largely blocking Tehran from selling crude abroad, a crucial source of hard currency for the Islamic Republic.

Mr Rouhani's U-turn can be seen as a result of pressure from hard-liners in the Iranian establishment who oppose taking a softer tone towards the West.

But it could also reflect that the paradigm of grand photo op summits in exotic locations - such as Mr Trump's meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - while stringent sanctions remain in place, does not necessarily appeal to Mr Rouhani, whose signature accomplishment was the nuclear deal, which started unravelling with Mr Trump's pullout.

The hard-line 'Javan' daily, which is close to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, warned Mr Rouhani in large font on its Tuesday front page: "Mr Rouhani, photo diplomacy will not develop the country."

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Iran and its Lebanese Shiite proxy, the militant Hezbollah group, that Israel "knows how to defend itself and how to pay back its enemies".

Mr Netanyahu's remarks came in response to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's threats to retaliate against an Israeli airstrike in Syria that killed two Hezbollah members.

Mr Netanyahu said he heard the threats, saying: "I suggest that Nasrallah relax."

He also sent a message to Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, whom Israel accuses of masterminding a drone attack from Syria that it thwarted with its airstrike.

"Be careful with your words and even more so be careful with your actions," Mr Netanyahu said.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in 2006. The Israel-Lebanese border has been mostly calm since then.

Tensions with Lebanon have been rising after Beirut said Israeli drones attacked a Palestinian base in the country's east on Monday.

The strike in eastern Lebanon came a day after an alleged Israeli drone crashed in a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut while another exploded and crashed nearby.

Israel has not commented on either event.

Irish Independent

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