As Iran weighs the merits of talks with the U.S. and tensions remain high in the Persian Gulf, the Islamic Republic’s leadership is preparing for a second Donald Trump term and mindful of how two key countries fared in high-stakes negotiations with him: Mexico and North Korea.
“There is a better than 50% chance that he might still be in office, so we will need to deal with him for another six years,” Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif said Wednesday in a television interview with Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait.
Tehran and Washington remain at an impasse, and President Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday that he’s in no hurry for a deal, as Iran is having “tremendous problems” because of U.S. sanctions. “We can do something quickly or we can take our time,” he said. “I’m in no rush.”
While U.S. officials say they’re open to talks without preconditions, Iran’s government wants some easing of the sanctions that have crippled oil sales and undermined its economy. One example looming over Tehran’s thinking, Zarif said, is the treatment of Mexico, America’s neighbor, ally and key trading partner.
“After renegotiating NAFTA, he raised a new demand and he tried to push Mexicans into giving in a bit more,” Zarif said of Trump’s recent threats to impose new trade penalties over undocumented border crossings. “So he always believes, it seems, that ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.'”
Iran’s economy has been crippled by the ratcheting up of U.S. sanctions that have restricted the OPEC member’s oil sales, fueled inflation and undermined domestic support for President Hassan Rouhani’s government. Fears of a new Middle East war have climbed after a spate of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, the downing of an American drone and the British seizure of a tanker carrying Iranian oil.
On Thursday, Iran said it seized a foreign ship on July 14 that was smuggling fuel in the Persian Gulf. The statement appeared to be a reference to the Panamanian-flagged Riah, which was passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping chokepoint at the mouth of the Gulf, before it went silent. Also on Thursday, a U.S. official said that 500 troops were sent to Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia.
As the standoff following Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark 2015 nuclear accord continues, Iran is pressing European parties to the deal to live up to promises that Tehran would continue to get economic benefits from sticking to its side of the agreement. But he also signaled that Iran will continue to enrich uranium beyond levels agreed to in the deal, saying it’s entitled to do so until Europe delivers on its commitments.
“We will continue with the steps, and these steps are legal, in line with the agreement,” Zarif said, when asked about the likelihood of continuing uranium enrichment. He said the U.S. “shot itself in the foot” by abandoning the accord, which Trump has frequently called the “worst deal ever.”
And while maintaining that Iran has no plans to build nuclear weapons, Zarif said Iran already had engaged far more seriously with the U.S. than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ever has, only to get burned.
“We worked out not a two-page document but a 150-page document,” he said, comparing the 2015 accord with last year’s vague declaration between Trump and Kim in Singapore, which analysts say hasn’t stopped North Korea’s nuclear program.
Zarif, who has been Iran’s foreign minister since 2013, was the lead negotiator in the multi-party nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It was supposed to yield economic advantages for Iran but instead renewed U.S. sanctions have shattered that expectation. Iran is producing oil at the slowest clip since 1986, making U.S. sanctions one of the most brutal episodes confronting Iran’s economy since the 1979 revolution.
No ‘photo opportunity’
Zarif said Iran has no interest in a high-profile summit for the sake of show – such as a hypothetical meeting with Trump at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort – and is waiting to see what the U.S. is prepared to do to restart discussions.
“The Supreme Leader doesn’t leave the country,” Zarif said, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s head of state and commander-in-chief of its armed forces.
Pressed on whether he, as foreign minister, would accept such an invitation, Zarif said, “It’s not the question of a photo opportunity, it’s the question of moving forward.”
Comparing trying to broker a new nuclear or missile deal with the U.S. to buying “a horse twice,” Zarif effectively dismissed what has been a core demand from U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Michael Pompeo: that Iran include its missile program and its funding of proxy groups in the region as part of a new agreement.
“We did not leave the negotiating table,” Zarif said. “It was the United States which abruptly decided to leave the negotiating table. They can come back.”