On August 26, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters after the G7 summit that he hoped to arrange a meeting between President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “in the coming weeks.” Trump told reporters that there was a “really good chance” for a potential meeting with Rouhani. “If the circumstances were correct, I certainly would agree to that,” he said. “What we want is very simple. It’s got to be non-nuclear. We’re going to talk about ballistic missiles... about the timing. But they (Iran) have to stop terrorism.”
Rouhani initially signaled his openness to negotiations. “If I knew that going to a meeting and visiting a person would help my country’s development and resolve the problems of the people, I would not miss it,” he said in a televised speech the same day. “Even if the odds of success are not ninety percent but are twenty percent or ten percent, we must move ahead with it. We should not miss opportunities.”
The following day, however, Rouhani seemed to backtrack. “Without the U.S.’s withdrawal from sanctions, we will not witness any positive development,” he said. Washington “holds the key” to negotiations.
For months, Macron has quietly tried to navigate a diplomatic solution to the impasse between Tehran and Washington over the nuclear deal. On August 23, the day before the G-7 summit convened, the French leader held preliminary discussions with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Paris. Macron shared their talking points with Trump after his arrival in Biarritz on August 24. Macron then summoned Zarif back to France for talks primarily with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and British and German officials; Macron joined for the final half hour. Zarif expressed openness to future diplomacy in a tweet after the discussions.
Iran's active diplomacy in pursuit of constructive engagement continues.— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) August 25, 2019
Met @EmmanuelMacron on sidelines of #G7Biarritz after extensive talks with @JY_LeDrian & Finance Min. followed by a joint briefing for UK/Germany.
Road ahead is difficult. But worth trying. pic.twitter.com/oXdACvt20T
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have mounted since the sabotage of six oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman just beyond the Strait of Hormuz in May and June 2019 (See timeline). On June 20, Iran shot down a U.S. drone and President Trump considered then called off military retaliation. On July 18, the United States downed an Iranian drone.
The Trump administration has long sought a dialogue with Tehran. On July 15, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul met with Zarif in New York and, on Trump’s behalf, extended an invitation to the White House. Zarif reportedly told Paul that it was not his decision and that he would have to discuss it with Tehran.
Japan has also tried to diffuse tensions through diplomacy. During his trip to Tehran in June, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conveyed a message from Trump to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Khamenei said Trump was not worthy of any message exchange. “I do not have any reply for him now or in the future,” he reportedly told Abe.
At the G7 press conference, Macron outlined two proposals: The U.S. ease economic pressure on Iran—by lifting sanctions or creating a “compensation mechanism”--in exchange for Iran’s full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Since June, Iran has taken two steps away from its obligations under the deal. In France, Trump ruled out lifting U.S. sanctions, but he said the United States might support “a short-term line of credit or loan” to help Iran’s economy. Trump said a loan could come from “numerous countries.”
Trump and Rouhani are both set to attend the United Nations General Assembly in September where a meeting could potentially take place.
The following are excerpts from the joint press conference between President Trump and President Macron, followed by Trump’s own comments to reporters.
Macron: As far as Iran is concerned, President Trump and myself have had discussions in the last few weeks and particularly the last couple of days. And we agree that Iran needs to comply with its nuclear obligations and have responsible behavior in the Gulf, and work with us.
And there were two very clear things that matter to us. Iran should never have a nuclear weapon, and its situation should not threaten the stability of the region.
France has taken a lot of different initiatives, and I’ve always informed President Trump on them, to be able to get the technical means to move forward, because the decisions that the U.S. has taken in the last few months have put a lot of pressure and have put us in a situation where it is indeed necessary to improve the security situation of the region.
So we coordinated our efforts and we reached the decision to bring together the foreign ministers — Foreign Minister of Iran, who had a meeting with the French Foreign Minister. And a roadmap has sort of been set, but nothing is absolutely set in stone. And we will have to move ahead together to find an outcome.
This morning, President Rouhani said that he was prepared to meet any political leader in the interest of his country. And that’s what I told Minister Zarif. And this is what I mentioned to President Rouhani on the phone as well: that if he would agree to a meeting with President Trump, that my conviction was that an agreement can be met. We know the terms, we know the objectives, but we have to just now sit around the table and make that happen. So I hope that in the next few weeks, based on our discussions, we will be able to achieve them.
The meeting that we just mentioned between President Rouhani and President Trump, myself, and the partners who have a role to play in nuclear negotiations, would also be fully involved in these negotiations. And I think that this meeting is very important. And the last few days have clarified the situation. A lot of messages have been conveyed. A lot of work has been done with our — between our ministers.
I would like to thank our ministers who have been totally involved into these discussions and have set the stage for these discussions and for an agreement.
Of course, I want to be very cautious and very modest. But I think that this is going to lead to bring an end to escalation and reaching a suitable solution to this.
The discussions that we had on Saturday afternoon and Saturday dinner have been very fruitful. And our purpose is to ensure the stability of the region. The idea is to make sure that Iran doesn’t get the nuclear weapon and have more visibility in the long term.
Macron: An agreement was signed in 2015, on July 14th. We call it the JCPOA. And that agreement set forth guarantees for the international community, including the signatories of that agreement, saying that Iran would no longer enrich uranium over a certain period of time — I’m simplifying this, but up to 2025 — in exchange for reopening many economic sectors and massive investment largely made by the United States.
That agreement had a twofold advantage: stability and security, and also reopening, economically speaking, which was good for Iran. This agreement also had drawbacks and shortcomings. French negotiators, in 2015, were the most determined. And France was the country that hesitated most to sign this agreement because we considered we needed as many guarantees as possible.
President Trump, during his campaign, made a commitment to those who voted for him to be more demanding and tougher because he considered that this agreement was insufficient, which caused him to leave it.
Today, because of the sanctions made by President Trump, the Iranian economy is having serious consequences and a serious slowdown. And that situation very clearly is the aspect — we might say, “the positive side of things” — from one standpoint is creating pressure and therefore the necessary conditions to improve the terms of an agreement. On the other hand, it’s leading to reactions in Iran, who are saying, “Well, we’ve signed this agreement but those who have signed it are not respecting its terms, and so we’re starting to symbolically to enrich uranium.” And they risk that they’re going to go further still and leave the JCPOA.
So given the two goals that we have, where are we doing with this? We need to be sure that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon and that there will be no flare-ups in the region. And so, what we discussed very concretely was to see how we could improve very considerably, or really, in fact, build a new nuclear agreement with Iran.
President Trump was very clear, saying that we would need a much longer timeframe for it; that there needed to be surveillance of many more sites. And this is how we can build a much further-reaching agreement in terms of our security demands.
And on the other hand, we need to convince the Iranians to go in that direction. And we can do that if we give them economic compensation of some form, if we make some movement in terms of lines of credit or reopening certain economic sectors.
I can’t tell you, publicly, more about this because anything I will tell you in detail will jeopardize the conversations we’re going to have. But this is basically what we’re discussing on the basis on our initiative. There is also a Japanese initiative. I’m talking in total transparency with the President, but we agreed on the strategic goal and I want us to go further in this framework and to make proposals.
At a given point in time, there will have to be a meeting between the American and the Iranian presidents. And I would wish that in coming weeks such a meeting take place. France will play a role together with the other signatories who are our partners in the G7. But after that, we’ll need to create the necessary conditions because we’ll have the necessary visibility for this agreement to be signed and sealed and for this meeting between two presidents to take place.
So I would rather talk about concerted initiatives and exchanges rather than mediation, because at the end of the day, we have constant exchanges with President Trump. I share his goals. Sometimes we say we don’t agree on methods, but I want to get there. I want to have an agreement. And I think there has been a true change.
So, this morning, President Rouhani showed himself to be open this meeting happening, and President Trump has been saying for weeks that he’s being demanding, he’s been tough, he’s put forward sanctions, but I’m ready to meeting to make a deal. And I think that we’re making progress.
I want this meeting to happen and I want there to be an agreement between the United States and Iran. And France will play the role that it’s meant to play, together with the United Kingdom, with Germany, and all of the other signatory powers and the permanent members of the Security Council.
Trump: Iran is a country that is not the same country that it was two and a half years ago when I came into office. Iran was the number one state of terror throughout the world. There were 18 sites of confliction in my first week. When I spoke with the folks at the Pentagon, including lots of generals and lots of other military experts — 18 sites of confliction, meaning, 18 sites of big problems. Every one of them was backed by Iran, or, in some cases, actually using Iranian soldiers. But at a minimum, Iranian wealth — much of it given in the ridiculous deal where they were given $150 billion, plus $1.8 billion in cash. And they used that money for some bad purposes.
With that being said, I think that Iran is a country of tremendous potential. We’re not looking for leadership change. We’re not looking for that kind of change. This country has been through that many times before. That doesn’t work.
We’re looking for no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles, and a longer period of time. Very simple. We can have it done in a very short period of time.
And I really believe that Iran can be a very great nation. I’d like to see that happen. But they can’t nuclear weapons. Okay? Thank you.
Trump: If the circumstances were correct or right, I would certainly agree to that [meeting with Rouhani]. But in the meantime, they have to be good players. You understand what that means. And they can’t do what they were saying they’re going to do because if they do that, they’re going to be met with really very violent force. We’d have no choice. So I think they’re going to be good. I really think they’d like to.
And, by the way, President Macron told me every step that he was making yesterday. A lot of you said, “Oh, he came in and…” He told me long before he came in what was happening, what was — I didn’t think it was appropriate to meet yesterday. Too soon, and things have to be worked out first.
But President Macron told me exactly what was happening, who was coming, what time they were coming, where they were going to meet. And after the meeting, he told me exactly what happened. And I think he had a very positive meeting.
Prime Minister Abe of Japan also a large purchaser of oil from Iran. He was also very much involved. And, you know, look, he knows everybody there, so he was a very, very positive force. But I have to tell you the President has done an excellent job and we’re going to see how it all turns out. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. I say it all the time about everything: Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t.
But I’ll tell you what, we made a ridiculous deal. We gave them $150 billion. We gave them $1.8 billion, and we got nothing. We got nothing.
And, by the way, that agreement was so short term that it expires in a very short period of time. With a country, you don’t make a deal that short. Countries last for long times, and you don’t do short-term deals, especially when you’re paying that kind of money.
So I have — I have good feelings about Iran. I have good feelings that it will work. I know many Iranians living in New York City. I have many friends from Iran. They’re incredible people. Incredible people. So the last thing I’d like to see is a big problem. But we have to do what we have to do.
Macron: To be very clear, we are part of the JCPOA. We decided to remain in this deal. So we are very much interested by the situation as a sovereign country. That’s why we want the different parties to move.
On the other side, as President Trump made it very clear over the summer, we never spoke on behalf of other countries. We just tried, tested some solutions and to see if we can find an agreement with different countries.
So we took an initiative this summer to make a proposal, a technical one. I got the reaction from Iran, through President — Zarif’s visit, on Friday — on Friday morning, in person. After the discussion we had at the G7 dinner on Saturday evening, I thought that it was very clear about where we can go to together.
So the day after, I decided to invite, as friends, Minister Zarif. So I informed, before making it — I informed President Trump that it was my idea. Not to involve the United States, not to say this is on behalf of you, of everybody, but to say, as friends, I think it would be a good idea to ask him to go back and try to negotiate something separately.
So I did it on my own. I informed, before making it, President Trump. He was informed at each minute about the solution — the situation, sorry. And the idea for me was, in case of structural move and — important move and appropriate solutions — perhaps to have meetings between ministers, not at President Trump’s level, because President Trump’s level is President Rouhani.
So this is my (inaudible). This is a French initiative but made by a clear information of the U.S. President before. Information as well of the three Europeans. And each time I informed President Trump in order to monitor the situation and to appreciate together if something more was adapted.
Trump: I have to say, the JCPOA was a bad deal. Should not have been entered into. A lot of things could have happened that would have been much different. They’re allowed to test ballistic missiles. You’re not allowed to go various sites to check, and some of those sites are the most obvious sites for the creation or the making of nuclear weapons. And those things have to be changed, and other things have to be changed.
And I will tell you, I have very good feelings about it. I think that we’re going to do something. It may not be immediately, but I think, ultimately, we’re going to do something. As I said, Iran is a much different country than it was two and a half years ago. And we can get that back, and I’d encourage it.
I actually had friends years ago — many years ago — they were in the real estate business and they were in Iran, and they were building houses and building housing and building office buildings and apartment houses. And they did very well. They made a lot of money. And to this day, they’re not exactly the youngest developers anymore, I tell you; they were young when they went over there. They made a lot of money and they loved the people and they loved what was going on. And it’s a country with tremendous potential.
Trump: With respect to Iran, same thing. Iran has incredible people and incredible country, potentially. Location, that’s a little rough neighborhood, but eventually it’s going to be a beautiful neighborhood. I think that it’s going to be — I think it’s going to work out.
And I really believe that those countries that went into the original deal — that more and more are agreeing with what I did — but I think those countries are going to be saying “thank you” someday. I hope they’re going to be saying it, including France, including the President, because I think we did the right thing. I know we did the right thing. If for no other reason, it’s just too short. It’s almost expiring, if you think about it.
And somebody said, “Well you’ll go and make an extension.” No. No. They’re great negotiators. Look at what they did to get the deal. Look at what they did to John Kerry and to President Obama. Look what happened where they’re bringing plane loads of cash. Plane loads. Big planes — 757s. Boeing 757s coming in, loaded up with cash. What kind of a deal is that?
Trump: I don’t know the gentleman [Rouhani]. I think that — I think I know him a little bit just by watching over the last number of years what’s happened. I’ll tell you one thing: He’s a great negotiator.
But he — I think he’s going to want to meet. I think Iran wants to get this situation straightened out. Now, is that based on fact or based on gut? That’s based on gut. But they want to get their situation straightened out, Jonathan. And they’re really hurting badly.
Their inflation, as you know, because I saw you reporting on it, their inflation is through the roof. Their economy has tanked entirely. The sanctions are absolutely hurting them horribly. I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see that. They’re great people. I don’t want to see that. But we can’t let them have a nuclear weapon. Can’t let it happen. So I think that there’s a really good chance that we would meet.
Trump: What he’s talking, in terms of compensation, is they are out of money. And they meet — may need a short-term letter of credit or loan. No, we’re not paying. We don’t pay. But they may need some money to get them over a very rough patch. And if they do need money, certainly — and would be secured by oil, which means — it means great security. And they have a lot of oil. But it’s secured bail. So we’re really talking about a letter of credit-type facility. It would be from numerous countries. Numerous countries. And it comes back. It would be — it would expire. It would be paid back immediately and very quickly.