As the US administration continued to bang the war drum against Iran by announcing the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan and the deployment of 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East, President Donald Trump surprised observers by stating that a deal with Tehran remained possible and denied that his goal was regime change.
“I really believe that Iran would like to make a deal, and I think that’s very smart of them, and I think that’s a possibility to happen,” Trump said during a news conference with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Monday.
“It has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership,” Trump said. “We aren’t looking for regime change – I just want to make that clear. We are looking for no nuclear weapons.”
In Tehran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran was not seeking nuclear weapons, which its supreme leader has banned in an edict. He added on Twitter that US policies were hurting the Iranian people and causing regional tensions.
“Actions – not words – will show whether or not that’s #realDonaldTrump’s intent,” Zarif said.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in October that the United States was seeking “regime change” in Iran, adding that the current US administration was the most hostile that the Islamic Republic had faced in its four decades of existence.
Tensions have risen between Iran and the United States after this month’s attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region. Washington, a firm backer of Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, has blamed the attacks on Iran, which denies the accusations.
The United States has deployed a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East and announced plans to deploy 1,500 troops to the Middle East, prompting fears of a conflict.
Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Saturday that the United States had “deep and serious” intelligence on threats posed by Iran, without providing details.
Trump, on a four-day visit to Japan, welcomed Abe’s help in dealing with Iran after broadcaster NHK said Japan’s leader was considering a trip to Tehran as early as mid-June. Iran said a visit was unlikely in the near future.
“I know for a fact that the prime minister is very close with the leadership of Iran, and we’ll see what happens,” Trump said. In his joint news conference with Trump, Abe said Japan would do what it could on the Iran issue.
Trump last year withdrew the United States from the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, and he has been ratcheting up sanctions seeking to end Iran’s international sales of crude oil and strangle its economy.
Japan was a major buyer of Iranian oil for decades before the US sanctions, which Trump said were taking effect.
“They were fighting in many locations,” he said of Iran. “Now they are pulling back because they have serious economic problems.”
Bolton, who has spearheaded an increasingly hawkish US policy on Iran, described the recent bomb attacks on tankers off the United Arab Emirates and a pipeline pumping station in Saudi Arabia, as well as a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone, as “manifestations of concern” about Iran.
Iran has distanced itself from the bombings, and on Sunday Zarif said his country would defend itself against any military or economic aggression. One day after Trump’s conciliatory statements in Japan, Tehran continued to stress that it was looking for action, not words.
Asked about Trump’s comments in a news conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted by the semi-official Fars news agency as saying that “we currently see no prospect of negotiations with America.”
“Iran pays no attention to words. What matters to us is a change of approach and behaviour,” he said.
Morteza Qorbani, an adviser to Iran’s military command, also lashed out at Washington for announcing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the deployment of more US troops.
“If they commit the slightest stupidity, we will send these ships to the bottom of the sea along with their crew and planes using two missiles or two new secret weapons,” Qorbani told the semi-official news agency Mizan on Saturday.
The latest US troop deployments are small compared with the nearly 70,000 American troops stationed across the Middle East and Afghanistan and are not enough to change the Pentagon strategy. But a period of protracted tensions could set it back.
A US official said the hope was that the deterrence measures being used by the Pentagon in sending aircraft and ships to the region would be enough to stave off a major conflict with Iran.
Rather than absorb the shocks, Iran retaliated, however. It announced a part-suspension of its commitment to the nuclear accord and said it would increase its uranium enrichment, a potential step to creating a nuclear weapon.
A series of flashpoints in the region then began to flare up.
“The main premise of the maximum pressure campaign has been economic coercion,” said the NGO the International Crisis Group’s Iran analyst, Naysan Rafati.
“By issuing close to 1,000 sanctions designations, by putting a ‘foreign terror organisation’ tag on the [elite wing of Iran’s military] Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by cutting Iran’s oil’s exports... [the US hoped] that Iran would come back to the table.”
“But what we’ve definitely seen is a response from Iran on the nuclear front... and the risk has always been that there would be a response on the regional front,” Rafati said. “It’s as if [the Iranians] suggest that ‘you can put us under significant economic duress, but we also have cards to play.’”
“Even if [the US] aim is not to initiate some sort of armed conflict, the higher you raise tensions the more chance for a mistake, for something to happen that will spiral out of control really fast,” said former US secretary of the navy and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ray Mabus.
“I think we’re significantly closer [to war], certainly than we were when we negotiated the [nuclear] treaty which from all appearances was working,” Mabus said. “Now we have a president that pulled us out of it and said ‘I can make a better deal.’ Well, he hasn’t. In fact, he’s made things much worse.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to approve the sale of over $8 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, has angered Congress.
The Trump administration informed congressional committees that it would go ahead with 22 military sales to the Saudis, United Arab Emirates and Jordan, infuriating lawmakers by circumventing a long-standing precedent for the congressional review of major weapons sales.
Members of Congress had been blocking sales of offensive military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for months, angry about the huge civilian toll from the air campaign in Yemen as well as human rights abuses such as the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Lawmakers and congressional aides warned earlier this week that Trump, frustrated with Congress holding up weapons deals including the sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia, was considering using a loophole in the arms-control law to go ahead by declaring a national emergency.
“President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove... There is no new ‘emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen, and doing so only perpetuates the humanitarian crisis there,” said senator Chris Murphy.
Several of Trump’s fellow Republicans, as well as Democrats, said they would object to such a plan, fearing that blowing through the “holds” process would eliminate Congress’s ability to check not just Trump but future presidents from selling weapons to whom they wanted.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump’s offer to Iran