US defense chief says Iran ‘inching toward that place’ where talks can be held

Mark Esper says Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is aimed at compelling Tehran to negotiate a new deal that would ‘forever’ prevent it from having nuclear weapons

In this photo from August 28, 2019, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
In this photo from August 28, 2019, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday said Iran appeared to be nearing a situation in which talks could be held with the United States on a new deal that would limit its nuclear program “forever.”

“It seems in some ways that Iran is inching toward that place where we could have talks,” Esper said during a speech in London at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank.

In response to a question about the US approach to Iran, Esper acknowledged differences with some allies but stressed that US President Donald Trump is determined to stay on his course of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions.

He said the goal was to compel the Iranians to negotiate an agreement to replace the 2015 nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew the US last year. Many in Europe consider the US withdrawal a mistake.

Esper said a new nuclear deal would have to assure that Iran “doesn’t pursue or acquire a nuclear weapon not just in 10 or 15 years but forever,” and he suggested that such talks may be in the offing.

US President Donald Trump, left, on July 22, 2018, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on February 6, 2018. (AP Photo)

His comments came after Trump on Wednesday left open a possible meeting in the near future with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. Iran so far has ruled out such a meeting, saying the US must first lift sanctions imposed on Tehran as part of the US pullout from the deal.

Rouhani had announced earlier Wednesday that Tehran was poised to take another step back from its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers if Europe fails to provide a solution on reviving it by a deadline that expires Friday.

In recent weeks France has made significant efforts to bring the American and Iranian leaders together to try to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear impasse. During recent G7 talks in Biarritz, French President Emmanuel Macron unexpectedly invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to fly in for talks. Zarif and Trump did not meet, but Trump stated he would “certainly agree” to meet Rouhani soon under the “correct circumstances,” and that there was a “really good chance” this would happen.

Israel has been reported to be deeply worried by Trump’s declared readiness to meet Rouhani, fearing the US president will open a dialogue with Iran similar to the ongoing one he has with North Korea, taking pressure off Tehran.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that a meeting between Trump and Rouhani, which he has vehemently opposed, could nonetheless take place in the near future.

“The possibility of a meeting between Trump and Rouhani exists,” he told reporters after meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London. “I don’t tell the president who to meet.”

Still, if such a meeting were to take place, Netanyahu said, he was “certain the president will bring a tougher and more sober approach [to such an interaction] than what we have previously seen.”

On Thursday morning, as he left for London, Netanyahu called to increase pressure on Tehran rather than relieve it.

“This is not the time to conduct talks with Iran,” he said.

Zarif’s visit to the G7 on August 25 came on the same day that Israel struck in Syria, saying it had acted preemptively to thwart a planned attack on Israel by Iran-backed fighters using armed drones.

Netanyahu said Thursday that “Macron’s invite to Zarif on the same day Iran committed an aggression was exceedingly inappropriate. I said this to Macron.”

Netanyahu added that any international negotiations with Iran must be “broad negotiations: on nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and conditioning any agreement on an end to [Iran’s] aggression around the world.”

While in London, Netanyahu also met with UK Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace and Esper.

At a news conference on Friday, Wallace, with Esper at his side, said he would not predict Iran’s intentions toward negotiations but noted that Iran is still holding a British-flagged vessel.

“We’ll take them at their actions rather than their words,” Wallace said.

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