Softened Trump Tells Iran, ‘We’d Like to Talk’

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TOKYO — The U.S. is “not looking for regime change” in Iran, President Trump said Monday, distancing himself from the more bellicose views of some of his advisors amid a period of rising tensions.

In recent weeks, the administration has dispatched an aircraft carrier to the waters near Iran, ordered 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East and tightened economic sanctions, prompting many Democrats — as well as U.S. allies in Europe and Asia — to fear that the two nations are heading toward combat.

Trump, however, took a more conciliatory tone during a news conference here with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, downplaying tensions with both Iran and North Korea.

“These are great people — has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership,” he said of Iran. “We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”

That’s a considerably more modest goal than top administration officials have suggested.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, for example, has laid out a far-reaching case against Iran in a series of speeches over the last year. In the first, just over a year ago, he described Iran in uncompromising terms as a security threat and vowed an all-out campaign of economic sanctions that would leave the country “battling to keep its economy alive.”

National security advisor John Bolton has long advocated regime change in Iran. In 2015, as he campaigned against the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Tehran, he wrote that “the real solution to the ayatollahs’ nuclear weapons program is to get rid of the ayatollahs.”

Trump has periodically pushed back against his aides’ saber rattling toward Iran. Whether his comments reflect a true difference in views or just one of rhetorical emphasis has been the subject of intense speculation in Washington and elsewhere, according to Noah Bierman of the Los Angeles Times.

As a candidate, and since, Trump has often denounced U.S. policies that led to wars in the Middle East, and he has advocated pulling U.S. troops out of conflict zones in Syria and Afghanistan. But he has surrounded himself with hard-line advisors who supported those past military efforts.

But yesterday he appeared to give backing to his host, Mr Abe, to mediate, amid reports the Japanese Prime Minister was considering a trip to Tehran to negotiate.

“I know for a fact that the Prime Minister is very close with the leadership of Iran … nobody wants to see terrible things happen, ­especially me,” Mr Trump said ­before the summit with Mr Abe.

The goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons more closely resembles the Obama administration’s policy toward Tehran. Just over a year ago, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal that Obama approved, which he harshly denounced.

Trump’s latest remaks came two days after more than seventy former senior national security officials, including retired admirals, generals and ambassadors, wrote an open letter to thepresident urging restraint towards Iran.

The letter coordinated by the American College of National Security Leaders, said that the accelerated deployment of troops and weapons to the region raised the potential of a deadly confrontation, either done on purpose or by accident.

“A war with Iran, either by choice or miscalculation, would produce dramatic repercussions in an already destabilized Middle East,” the letter read. “[It would] drag the United States into another armed conflict at immense financial, human, and geopolitical cost.”

“Crisis de-escalation measures should be established with the Iranian leadership at the senior levels of government,” the letter continued. “The protection of U.S. national interests in the Middle East and the safety of our friends and allies requires thoughtful statesmanship and aggressive diplomacy rather than unnecessary armed conflict.”

Iran has responded to the American moves by threatening to abandon aspects of the 2015 multipower nuclear deal that remains in force despite Trump’s withdrawal a year ago.

“The crux of the message by President Trump is that he doesn’t really want war with Iran, what he is trying to do is de-escalate the calls for war, ” said Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics. His message “to the Islamic Republic is that his latest moves are all about deterrence and not war.’’

The Trump administration has made confronting Iran the cornerstone of its Middle East policy, and last year it exited the 2015 international accord that reined in Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump has said he wants Iran back to the negotiating table for a grand deal that would curb its regional influence and ballistic missile program. His rhetoric this month has ranged from offers for Iran to “call me” to threats to “end” the nation if it seeks to picks a fight.

Trump’s conciliatory comments about the Iran probably won’t comfort Gulf allies that view Iran’s leadership with deep suspicion over its growing influence, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political analyst in the United Arab Emirates. These include Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

“But Trump changes his mind within 24 hours,’’ Abdulla said. “Today, he can say this about Iran but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him going to war with Iran tomorrow.’’

 


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