- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2019

BELLINZONA, Switzerland — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States is willing to get direct talks going with Iran without any preconditions, but will continue to increase pressure on the Islamic republic unless it ends its “malign activity” around the world, including its support for Hezbollah.

“We’re prepared to engage in conversations with no preconditions,” Mr. Pompeo said Sunday at a news conference after meeting in this southern Alpine city with Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis.

Although President Trump has expressed willingness for dialogue with Iranian leaders, even saying last year that he would take a meeting without preconditions, Mr. Pompeo’s comments carried new weight because Switzerland is Washington’s protecting power in Iran. The country represents American interests in Tehran, where there is no U.S. diplomatic footprint.

The secretary of state said he had discussed Iran with Mr. Cassis, although there was no clear indication that any direct talks between U.S. and Iranian officials are on the horizon.

The Swiss foreign minister told reporters that Switzerland can offer a “channel of communications” with Tehran and has discussed the escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran with Iranian diplomats.

But Mr. Cassis was also sober about the prospect of U.S.-Iranian talks. He said Swiss officials can be “intermediators — not mediators if there is no goodwill from the two sides.”

The developments Sunday came at the midway point of Mr. Pompeo’s weeklong trip that included an initial stop in Germany. Throughout the trip, discussions on Iran have appeared to fit within a U.S. attempt to tamp down fears of a military conflict between Washington and Tehran.

Such fears rose in early May amid Iranian threats to begin enriching uranium to near nuclear bomb production levels after the Trump administration suddenly bumped up the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Persian Gulf. The move coincided with the one-year anniversary of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The carrier move, coupled with administration claims to have intelligence that Iranian attacks on American interests in the Middle East were imminent, triggered frustration among European allies that were signatories to the nuclear deal and have spent the past year trying to keep it alive.

During a joint press conference Friday with Mr. Pompeo in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters that Germany remains determined to hold the Obama-era nuclear deal together, even as Washington increases pressure to isolate Iran with a global embargo on Iranian crude oil and unilateral sanctions.

Trump administration officials have said their goal is to pressure Tehran toward negotiating a new deal that addresses not only nuclear issues but also Iranian missile provocations and support for terrorism and militant proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.

But Mr. Trump recently said he would be willing to talk with Iranian leaders. At a press conference in July 2018, months after he pulled out of the nuclear deal and began ramping up pressure on Iran, the president told reporters that talks could be arranged with no preconditions.

“If they want to meet, I’ll meet. Anytime they want,” Mr. Trump said at the time. “It’s good for the country, good for them, good for us, and good for the world. No preconditions. If they want to meet, I’ll meet.”

Before Mr. Pompeo’s announcement Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made headlines by asserting that Tehran might be open to dialogue with Washington but would not be “bullied.”

Iran’s Fars News Agency quoted Mr. Rouhani on Saturday as saying he and other Iranian officials “are for logic and talks,” but only if Washington “sits respectfully at the negotiating table and follows international regulations, not if it issues an order to negotiate.”

“We have shown that we do not submit to bullying and covetous powers,” Mr. Rouhani said, according to Al-Jazeera.

Mr. Pompeo said talks with no preconditions would not mean an easing of the Trump administration’s sanctions or demands that Tehran change its posture. Even if talks suddenly come to the fore, the secretary of state said, the “American effort to fundamentally reverse the malign activity of this Islamic republic — this revolutionary force — is going to continue.”

Mr. Cassis showed a willingness to work with Mr. Pompeo, but he lamented that U.S. sanctions cause suffering for innocent Iranians. He said Switzerland seeks to provide food aid and pharmaceuticals for Iranians but is wary of violating sanctions.

Mr. Cassis said he is confident that the Trump administration will work with Switzerland to remedy the situation.

Mr. Pompeo previously said Washington won’t stand in the way of a system that European nations are developing to shield companies dealing with Iran from American sanctions — so long as the system, known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), provides only humanitarian and other goods not subject to the sanctions.

“When we think about INSTEX, if it’s aimed at facilitating the movement of goods that are authorized to move, [that] is unproblematic,” Mr. Pompeo said.

The secretary of state did not mention INSTEX on Sunday, but he did stress that talks won’t progress unless the “Iranians conclude that they want to behave like a normal nation.”

“There’s real challenges inside Iran, and they’re not caused by economic sanctions,” Mr. Pompeo said. “They’re caused by 40 years of the Islamic regime not taking care of its people and instead using their resources to destroy real lives.”

The Iranian government, he said, has used its resources to, among other things, underwrite Hezbollah terrorist activities and back the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in a civil war that has displaced 6 million people.

Iran reacted swiftly to Mr. Pompeo’s announcement Sunday. A spokesman at the Foreign Ministry dismissed the secretary of state’s comments as “wordplay and [an] expression of hidden agenda.”

“What matters is the change of U.S. general approach and actual behavior towards the Iranian nation,” ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted as saying by Mehr News Agency, according to Reuters. “Pompeo’s emphasis on the continuation of maximum pressure on Iran is the same old wrong policy that needs reform.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appeared separately in an interview Sunday on ABC News that was recorded before Mr. Pompeo made his remarks in Switzerland.

Iran has the right to defend itself against U.S. aggression and will use “whatever missiles it wants” as a deterrence against increased American military presence in the region, said Mr. Zarif, who defended Iran’s recent arming of small boats with cruise missiles in the Persian Gulf.

“We call this place the Persian Gulf for a reason. So it’s next to us; we have the right to defend ourselves,” said Mr. Zarif. “Just imagine if Iran were to come to California coast or to come to Florida coast. How do you feel — how would you treat that?”

“These ships are located very close to our waters,” he said. “We have the right to put whatever missiles we want to put on them.”

Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report from Washington.

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