Iran’s most revered Revolutionary Guard commander says talking with President Donald Trump would be admitting defeat. The country’s supreme leader has ruled out any dealings with Washington.
But now, in a surprising split among Iranian hard-liners, some are expressing a different opinion: It’s time to sit down and resolve 40 years of animosity with the United States by talking directly to Trump.
And the most striking voice in that contrarian group is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, largely known in the West for his anti-American bombast, Holocaust denial, and suspiciously lopsided victory in a disputed vote a decade ago that set off Iran’s worst political convulsions since the Islamic Revolution.
“Mr. Trump is a man of action,” Ahmadinejad said in a lengthy telephone interview with the New York Times. “He is a businessman, and therefore he is capable of calculating cost-benefits and making a decision. We say to him, let’s calculate the long-term cost-benefit of our two nations and not be shortsighted.”
Ahmadinejad’s remarks are among several signals from different ends of Iran’s political spectrum that Iranian officials want to talk. Those signals reveal a fracture with the hard-liners led by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which has seized or harassed foreign ships in the Persian Gulf — including at least one British-registered tanker impounded Friday — and raised the risk of a slide into armed conflict.
The risk was further punctuated by Trump’s assertion Thursday that U.S. naval forces in the region had downed an Iranian drone, which the Iranians have denied.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, who had previously insisted there could be no negotiations with the U.S. unless it rejoined the nuclear agreement Trump abandoned last year, said Thursday he was willing to meet with U.S. senators to discuss possible ways out of the nuclear crisis. For the first time, Zarif floated modest steps that Tehran would be willing to take in return for the simultaneous lifting of sanctions Trump reimposed.
Within the rivalries that pervade Iran’s political hierarchy, the American-educated Zarif is a big contrast to Ahmadinejad, who as president pushed Zarif out of government. Yet both are now seeking ways to communicate with the Trump administration.
In the Times interview, Ahmadinejad said Tehran and Washington should directly resolve the litany of disputes that began with the 1979 revolution, the seizure of the U.S. Embassy, the taking of American hostages, the mutual accusations of regional meddling and all the rest.
Ahmadinejad said Iran should scrap the approach of enlisting Europe and other intermediaries to influence Trump over his hostility to the 2015 nuclear agreement. This would be possible, Ahmadinejad said, if Trump first eased some of his “maximum pressure” tactics, most notably the onerous sanctions he reimposed after having abandoned the agreement between Iran and the big powers.
The timing of the messages of both Ahmadinejad and Zarif were notable: The Trump administration has sent several signals in recent days that it wants to begin talks with Iran with “no preconditions.”
And for the first time since Trump abandoned the nuclear agreement, both sides are talking about the need to negotiate, even if each has set out unilateral demands that the other must meet.
Ahmadinejad conceded that for talks to happen, in his view, the United States would need to soften its approach.
“If you choke the throat of anyone in the world and say come and talk, it won’t be valid,” he said. “Negotiations must take place in calmer, more respectful conditions so they can be long lasting.”