- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Iran’s top diplomat has opened the door for the first time to talks with the U.S. over Tehran’s disputed ballistic missile programs, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday, as President Trump emphasized he is not seeking “regime change” in Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an interview with NBC News on Monday night, went further than Iran has gone in the past. He said Tehran is willing to put its ballistic missile programs on the table if the U.S. is willing to halt its weapons sales and military support to Iran’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“American weaponry is going into our region, making our region ready to explode,” said Mr. Zarif, who was in New York for talks at the United Nations despite the Trump administration’s economic sanctions on him. “If [U.S. officials] want to talk about our missiles, they need first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles.”

It was not clear whether Mr. Pompeo was specifically referring to those comments when he told a Cabinet meeting Tuesday morning that the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions on Iran was clearly having an impact.

U.S. officials say harsh economic sanctions imposed after President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year have clearly changed the calculus for Iran’s theocratic leadership.

“The Iranian regime is struggling to figure out what they’re going to do with their economy because we’ve been terribly effective,” Mr. Pompeo said. “And the result is … for the first time the Iranians have said that they’re prepared to negotiate about their missile program.”

Demands for change

Mr. Trump and senior U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they are ready to talk to Iran, but only if there are clear signs Tehran has changed its security policies and support for proxies hostile to the U.S. and its allies across the Middle East.

Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy on Iran, told NPR on Tuesday that it was Iran that turned down a U.S. offer for talks delivered by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month.

Mr. Pompeo “has said in the past he would sit down and talk without preconditions,” Mr. Hook said, “but Iran has got to start changing its behavior.”

Although Mr. Zarif set what analysts say was an unrealistically high price to start talks, his mentioning it at all could represent a change in policy. The country’s ballistic missile program remains under control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a paramilitary organization that answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Tehran has in the past fiercely insisted on its right to test and improve its arsenal.

Mr. Pompeo told the Cabinet meeting, “We will have this opportunity, I hope, if we continue to execute our strategy appropriately … to negotiate a deal that will actually prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

The president told his Cabinet that Iran wants to talk with the U.S., but he did not offer specifics.

“A lot of progress has been made,” Mr. Trump said. “And they’d like to talk. We’ll see what happens. But a lot of progress has been made.”

The spokesman for Iran’s mission to the U.N. denied any potential breakthrough. A Twitter message said, “Iran’s missiles … are absolutely and under no condition negotiable with anyone or any country, period.”

Fluent in English and having attended college and graduate school in the U.S., Mr. Zarif has often been a figure of suspicion to Iranian hard-liners back home, who accuse him of being too committed to diplomacy with the West.

A State Department spokesman said he couldn’t elaborate on Mr. Pompeo’s remarks.

The president pulled the U.S. out of a six-nation nuclear pact with Iran in May 2018. He said he wanted to negotiate a new deal that also would address Tehran’s missile program and its funding of armed extremist groups in the Middle East. Mr. Trump said Tuesday that the agreement reached under President Obama in 2015 with five other international powers was too weak to prevent Tehran from eventually developing atomic weapons.

“They can’t have a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Trump said. “We want to help them. We’ll be good to them, we’ll work with them. We’ll help them in any way we can, but they can’t have a nuclear weapon. We’re not looking, by the way, for regime change.

“I’ve watched President Obama and many other presidents try that,” Mr. Trump said. “It doesn’t work out too well. We’re not looking for that at all.”

Iran and the other signatories to the deal — China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany — point to U.N. inspections that have found Tehran had largely been living up to its nuclear commitments under the 2015 deal and that it was Mr. Trump’s withdrawal that precipitated the crisis. European powers have been desperate to keep the deal alive, but Iran says it is losing patience.

Iranian threats

Ayatollah Khamenei on Tuesday said the Islamic Republic will continue to pull back from its commitments in the nuclear deal because the European powers that remain in the deal have been reneging on their obligations to restore Tehran’s access to global trade and its oil market.

“According to our foreign minister, Europe made 11 commitments, none of which they abided by. We abided by our commitments and even beyond them,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech broadcast by state television. “Now that we’ve begun to reduce our commitments, they oppose it. How insolent! You didn’t abide by your commitments. We have started to reduce our commitments, and this trend shall continue.”

Iran announced this month that it was exceeding the agreement’s limits for enrichment of nuclear fuel.

Mr. Zarif gave the hopeful sign of talks on Iran’s missile program after months of escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran, which included tightening U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports and the Iranian military’s downing of an unmanned U.S. Navy surveillance drone last month over the Strait of Hormuz. In May, the U.S. also sent warships, bombers and troops to the region to counter unspecified threats from Iran.

Mr. Zarif said U.S. sanctions are to blame for critical shortages of medicines in Iran that are causing “huge humanitarian pressure.”

“They are terrorizing our people,” he said. “They are targeting ordinary Iranian civilians. That’s worse than war.”

Mr. Zarif said if sanctions were lifted, then “the room for negotiation is wide open.”

Mr. Pompeo said the U.S. oil embargo as of last month had “taken down 90%, maybe 95%, of all the crude oil that was being exported from Iran around the world.”

Mr. Trump reiterated that the Obama administration’s participation in the nuclear deal was a “disaster” because it provided $1.8 billion in cash for Tehran, failed to address Iran’s missile program or its sponsorship of terrorism, and had sunset clauses that would have only delayed Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

⦁ Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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