Trump, Iran’s Rouhani descend on same corner of New York but remain far apart
After months of lobbing threats and vowing military reprisals, President Trump will find himself on the same block of midtown Manhattan as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani this week at the annual U.N. General Assembly.
At times, Trump has flirted with the idea of meeting with Rouhani for a historic tete-a-tete, only to retreat to a position of imposing tougher economic sanctions.
Trump’s top advisers privately opposed such a meeting and appeared to win that debate after an attack on Saudi oil facilities Sept. 14 prompted the United States to impose more sanctions on Tehran. But Trump has not ruled anything out.
“Nothing is ever off the table completely, but I have no intention of meeting with Iran, and that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” the president told reporters Sunday on the South Lawn of the White House. “I’m a very flexible person.”
Even if Trump changed his mind and extended an invitation, however, it is far from clear that Rouhani would accept, something critics attribute to the Trump administration’s mixed messages.
Trump has tried to appeal to Tehran in various statements, ruling out regime change and entertaining a French plan to extend a line of credit to Iran to return to the 2015 nuclear deal the United States withdrew from last year. But the president’s hawkish advisers have taken a tougher posture: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that Iran is “bloodthirsty and looking for war,” and his diplomats did little to help facilitate a meeting in the run-up to the General Assembly, said U.S. officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations.
On Wednesday, Pompeo is scheduled to speak at an event hosted by Iran hawk and former diplomat Mark Wallace, who has drawn criticism for including a fringe Iranian diaspora group, Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK, in his programming surrounding the U.N. gathering.
Until 2012, the MEK was listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States for allegedly killing U.S. personnel in Iran in the 1970s and for its links to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It is largely reviled inside Iran because of its alliance with Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war. It is participating in a dissident convention hosted by Wallace a day before Pompeo’s speech at the Iran summit.
Analysts said Pompeo’s involvement in Wallace’s event risks confusing Trump’s declaration last month that “we’re not looking for leadership change.”
“This is an extremely unwise and dangerous decision,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the center for Middle East public policy at the Rand Corp.
“The message this will send is that regime change is still in the mix despite the president’s statements to the contrary,” she said. “There’s already confusion about U.S. aims on Iran, so this will only raise more questions about what the U.S. has been trying to achieve since its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.”
An Iran scholar scheduled to speak at the same event as Pompeo has dropped out because of the MEK’s involvement in the event Wallace is hosting Tuesday.
Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution said in a statement to The Washington Post that she “would never knowingly engage with the Mujahideen-e Khalq, a cultlike terrorist organization that is despised by many Iranians.”
“Although the summit and the diaspora event will be held on separate days, the overlap in the sponsorship of the two events was too close for my comfort,” she said.
Pompeo has previously distanced himself from the group when asked about the attendance of Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and then-national security adviser John Bolton at MEK events. The group offers generous speaking fees and has cultivated close connections in Washington among Democrats and Republicans, including to former senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and former Vermont governor Howard Dean (D).
“Let’s not beat around the bush,” Pompeo reportedly said during a meeting with Iranian American leaders in April. “Ambassador Bolton spoke at an MEK rally. President Trump and I have not.”
A senior State Department official dismissed the concerns about the MEK’s participation in Wallace’s event, saying, “Have you looked at the people attending the U.N.?”
When asked about his decision to include the MEK, a spokesman for Wallace said he “decided early on that the convention will not discriminate or make value judgments on participation.”
His spokesman, Joshua Silberberg, added that Wallace’s organization, United Against Nuclear Iran, “admires Suzanne Maloney and respects her decision about participating in the Iran summit on Wednesday, which is an unrelated event.”
Ali Safavi, an official with the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which speaks for the MEK, said Maloney “has no credibility whatsoever to comment on the MEK.”
As diplomats from around the world streamed into New York for the United Nations’ 74th annual General Assembly, Pompeo and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif continued to trade barbs.
Pompeo, going further than Trump in assigning blame for the attack on Saudi Arabia, said, “This was an attack by Iran on the world.”
“We’re looking for a diplomatic resolution to this, unlike the Iranians,” he told CBS.
Unlike Pompeo, Trump has not directly blamed the country for the assault, saying last week that “as soon as we find out definitively, we’ll let you know.”
Trump did, however, approve new sanctions on Iran’s state bank Friday and signed off on a new deployment of U.S. troops to the Middle East to enhance Saudi Arabia’s air defenses.
With those moves, Iran’s foreign minister told reporters that Trump “knowingly or unknowingly on Friday closed the door to negotiations.”
“I think it’s all going the wrong direction in addressing this issue,” Zarif told CBS on Sunday. “I don’t think this type of posturing helps.”
U.S. officials said the Trump administration would try to build a coalition to denounce Iran’s activities in the Middle East this week. Rebels in Yemen, known as Houthis, took responsibility for the strike on Saudi oil facilities, but Pompeo and Saudi Arabia have said the militants do not possess the type of drone and cruise missile weaponry used in the attack. Even some Democrats reluctant to embrace Trump’s messaging have rejected Iran’s denial of involvement, including former secretary of state John F. Kerry, who said Iran was responsible “one way or the other.”
In an acknowledgment of the worsening tensions, France’s top diplomat, who has tried to broker a meeting between Rouhani and Trump, said it was now more important to de-escalate the “dangerous” situation rather than set up a meeting between the two governments.
“What is at stake during this week is whether or not we can carry on with this de-escalation process,” Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Carol Morello contributed to this report.