President Trump edged closer Monday to a historic meeting with Iran’s president as he wrapped up the Group of Seven summit in France, a conference that ended on friendlier terms than a year ago but still displayed sharp differences among the globe’s leading industrial democracies over trade, climate change and Russia.
After days of plotting by French President Emmanuel Macron to get U.S. and Iranian officials together at the summit site of Biarritz, France, Mr. Trump said he wasn’t ready to discuss a new nuclear deal with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
“I knew he was coming,” the president said. “It’s too soon. I didn’t think it was appropriate to meet.”
But the president expressed a willingness to consider Mr. Macron’s proposal to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani within the next few weeks “if the circumstances were correct or right.”
“I would certainly agree to that,” Mr. Trump said during a joint press conference with Mr. Macron. “I think there’s a really good chance we will meet. I have very good feelings about it. I think Iran wants to have this situation straightened out. They are hurting badly.”
He warned that the Iranians “have to be good players” in the Middle East in the meantime and will still face tough U.S. sanctions. If Tehran carries out threats against U.S. interests in the region, Mr. Trump said, then “they will be met with very violent force.”
France is a strong supporter of the six-party 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, signed during the Obama administration, that imposes curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programs in exchange for lifting economic sanctions.
Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the pact in May 2018, saying it would not stop Tehran from building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and had not moderated Iran’s support for terrorist groups and proxy groups hostile to the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East.
Tehran has responded to ever-tightening U.S. sanctions with hostile actions in the world’s busiest oil shipping channel and has vowed to break the nuclear deal’s limits on uranium enrichment if the other signatories — France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia — cannot overcome the U.S. trade sanctions.
Another sign that U.S.-Iranian talks could be nearing was Mr. Trump’s willingness to consider what Mr. Macron called additional “compensation” for Iran to enter into a new nuclear deal. Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for returning to Iran billions of dollars in assets and about $1.7 billion in cash as part of the deal four years ago. He did so again Monday alongside Mr. Macron.
Asked about Mr. Macron’s proposal for Iran to receive more compensation for U.S.-led sanctions, Mr. Trump said any money would be a loan for Tehran that must be paid back.
“No, we are not paying, we don’t pay,” Mr. Trump said. “But they may need some money to get them over a very rough patch, and if they do need money, and it would be secured by oil, which to me is great security. So we are really talking about a letter of credit. It would be from numerous countries, numerous countries.”
Open to talks?
Presidents of the U.S. and Iran have not met since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the two countries don’t have diplomatic ties. But John F. Kerry, Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, and Mr. Zarif worked closely together in 2015 to nail down the nuclear deal.
Mr. Macron said he had spoken with Mr. Rouhani in recent days and that the Iranian leader is open to talks with Mr. Trump.
“I think there’s been a true change,” Mr. Macron told reporters. “This morning, President Rouhani showed himself to be open to this meeting. I think we’re making progress. In the next few weeks, [I hope] we will be able to achieve the meeting between President Rouhani and President Trump.”
The French president said he and Mr. Trump agree on the basic requirements for a nuclear deal. He said Mr. Trump wants a much longer time frame for barring Tehran’s weapons program and international surveillance of many more suspected nuclear sites in Iran.
“We need to convince the Iranians to go in that direction,” Mr. Macron said. “We can do that if we give them compensation in some form. This is basically what we’re discussing. Two things are very important for us: Iran must never have nuclear weapons, and this situation should never threaten regional stability. What I hope is that in coming weeks, based on these talks, we can manage to see a summit between President Rouhani and President Trump.”
The Iranian leader and Mr. Trump are expected to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York in late September.
In a televised speech, Mr. Rouhani seemed eager to address criticism by hard-liners at home who are deeply skeptical about reengaging with the U.S. The U.S. sanctions have imposed a heavy economic price on Tehran, with trade in oil and other key commodities plummeting and the Iranian currency losing much of its value.
“We should not miss opportunities,” Mr. Rouhani said. “I believe that for our country’s national interests, we must use any tool. And if I knew that I was going to have a meeting with someone that would [lead to] prosperity for my country and people’s problems would be resolved, I would not hesitate. The main thing is our country’s national interests.”
The French effort at starting U.S.-Iranian talks was arguably the most significant development from the annual summit of the world’s most industrialized economies. The participants produced only a one-page joint statement of shared goals instead of the usual multipage document of common priorities.
But even a one-page statement was an improvement over last year’s G-7 summit in Canada, where Mr. Trump instructed his aides not to sign the traditional communique. He called the summit’s host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “weak” and “dishonest” for criticizing U.S. tariffs.
This time, Mr. Trump had nothing but praise publicly for Mr. Macron. He even hugged the French leader as he departed the summit.
“If there’s any word for this particular meeting of seven important countries, it’s unity,” Mr. Trump said. “We got along great.”
Tension over Russia
“Great” is a relative term. Tension behind closed doors was reported as Mr. Trump pushed the G-7 leaders to readmit Russia to the group. Russia was expelled after its forced annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
“A lot of people say having Russia, which is a power, having them inside the room is better than having them outside the room,” Mr. Trump said. “By the way, there were numerous people during the G-7 that felt that way. We didn’t take a vote or anything, but we did discuss it.”
Mr. Trudeau later told reporters that he was one of the leaders not ready to invite Russia back into the club.
“Russia has yet to change the behavior that led to its expulsion in 2014 and therefore should not be allowed back into the G-7,” he said at a news conference.
Mr. Trump skipped a session on climate change, a major priority of his French hosts, though the other six world leaders attended.
Mr. Trump’s U.S. critics were far more dismissive of his performance. They said his remarks on China, trade, Iran and the environment were often contradictory and too often left the U.S. isolated in the club of global industrial democracies.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called the summit “another missed opportunity for Mr. Trump to show America’s strength by unifying key global partners to address the numerous challenges facing our planet.”
“As the United States takes on the responsibility of organizing and hosting the next G-7 summit, it is appalling that President Trump appears hell-bent on inviting Vladimir Putin back as Russia continues to forcibly occupy Crimea, interferes in our elections, and initiates a new arms race,” Mr. Schumer said. “Allowing Russia back into the G-7 would only show President Trump’s weakness in the face of Putin and his oligarchs and make the United States less secure.”
The president said he would invite Mr. Putin to next year’s summit, which he said may be held at his Doral golf resort near Miami. He spent a good chunk of his meetings with the press Monday extolling the resort’s facilities and convenience, including roomy bungalows that could house the seven delegations, although he said he did not expect to profit financially if the summit is held there.
Some of the other leaders expressed anxiety about Mr. Trump’s trade feuds with China, the European Union and others. They said the tensions are contributing to a worldwide economic slowdown.
“Our deep wish is for an agreement to be found between the United States and China concerning trade,” Mr. Macron said. “What’s bad for the economy is uncertainty.”
But the differences at the summit, when aired publicly, were mostly polite.
Mr. Macron said France and the U.S. reached a “very good agreement” to resolve their feud over a planned French tax on giant digital companies. Paris has complained that the companies shield much of their activity in France from taxation by setting up a nominal headquarters elsewhere.
Under the deal, France will recompense companies hit by the 3% tax once the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — a coalition of 36 developed economies — replaces it with an international tax structure.
Mr. Trump was livid over the unilateral French tax. He said it unfairly singled out U.S. companies like Google and Facebook and threatened to slap tariffs on imported French wine in retaliation.
Mr. Macron said the leaders were able to defuse the fight, though he added that France imposed its levy because it’s “unfair” that some firms don’t pay sufficient tax.
“It’s not against any company in particular,” said Mr. Macron, adding that French companies would be subject to the same tax.
Mr. Trump didn’t say whether he would drop the idea of a wine tax, though he joked that first lady Melania Trump enjoyed the wine while in Biarritz.
“I can confirm the first lady loved your French wine,” Mr. Trump said.
As the summit concluded, Mr. Macron said admiringly of the president, “He works hard for his country.”