US President Donald Trump declared Monday that he would be willing to hold a historic meeting with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani within weeks, in a bid to quell tensions which have been sharply mounting in recent months.
"I think he wants to meet," Trump said in a press conference following the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, adding that he would agree to meet Rouhani if "the circumstances were correct or right".The two nations, once friends, have experienced decades of animosity and have had no formal relations since 1980.
Trump's host at the G7 summit, French President Emmanuel Macron, said he had told Rouhani in a phone call hours earlier that if the two men met, "my conviction was that an agreement could be reached". There was no immediate official response from Tehran to the dramatic developments at the summit in the French resort town, but signs that Iran would go along have been emerging in recent days.
Earlier in Tehran, Rouhani had backed the effort for more diplomacy, saying that "if it's clear to me that a meeting could help solve the problems of the Iranian people, then I would certainly do it."
Trump last year pulled the US out of a 2015 agreement on controlling Iran's nuclear activities, despite no violations by Tehran, and has since applied crippling sanctions as part of a strategy of "maximum pressure" against the Islamic republic.
"Nothing has been done yet. Things are still extremely fragile,"
Macron warned, but it was still a diplomatic coup for France and for the EU, which has been trying frantically to preserve the 2015 deal.
Speculation is widespread in Iran that a meeting between Rouhani and Trump could be set for the UN General Assembly meeting in New York next month, which both are due to attend.
There had been inklings of a possible breakthrough on Sunday afternoon when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif made a surprise visit to Biarritz, meeting Macron and French ministers.
Rouhani defended Zarif's trip to Biarritz, saying that achieving 20% of what Iran wants was "better than nothing."
Macron said the G7 — the US, Canada, Japan and four major European states — was unanimous that Iran "must never have a nuclear weapon, and that this situation must not destabilise the region."
A new deal could involve surveillance of extra Iranian sites and longer timescale, beyond the main 2025 expiry date of the 2015 agreement, Macron suggested, speaking alongside Trump.
In return, Iran could get economic relief such as credit lines and the reopening of sectors, he said, adding that he would not go into detail so as not to prejudice talks.
"We are looking for no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles and a longer period of time."
"Very simple," Trump said. Macron did not mention ballistic missiles.
Iran has previously rebuffed US attempts to seek a broader deal that would also restrict its ballistic missiles.
The US president held out the prospect that Iran could use its main export, oil, sales of which have been badly hit by US sanctions, as security for a "letter of credit type facility" to "get them over a very rough patch."
Trump said he had a "very good feeling" about reaching a new deal with Iran, but also warned that if Tehran acted aggressively they
"will be met with really violent force."
Speaking on the sidelines of the G7 summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was glad to see that Iran and the US were open to talks.
"The willingness to talk is great progress," Merkel said, adding that during discussions at the summit, the Europeans had explicitly welcomed any talks with Iran.
Recent tensions in the Gulf had sparked concerns that the US and Iran may push themselves into a war that could destabilise the region.
Trump upset European allies after he withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, despite no sign at the time that Tehran was violating the agreement.