Switzerland offers to serve as intermediary
Rouhani says talks possible only if US shows 'respect'
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that the United States is prepared for unconditional discussions with Iran in an effort to ease rising tensions that have sparked fears of conflict.
“We’re prepared to engage in a conversation with no preconditions,” Pompeo told reporters at a joint news conference with his Swiss counterpart in the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona in an apparent softening of his previous stance.
Pompeo repeated longstanding US accusations that Iran is bent on destabilizing the Middle East, but he also held out the possibility of talks as President Donald Trump has suggested.
He said the United States will not relent in trying to pressure the Islamic Republic Iran with economic sanctions to change its regional policies and “behave like a normal nation”.
“We’re ready to sit down with them, but the American effort to fundamentally reverse the malign activity of this Islamic Republic, this revolutionary force, is going to continue.”
Pompeo said US President Donald Trump had been saying for a long time that he was willing to talk to Iran.
“We are certainly prepared to have that conversation when the Iranians can prove that they want to behave like a normal nation,” Pompeo said.
Last year, Pompeo outlined 12 ways Iran must change — including stopping its support for proxy groups and halting its missile program — before the United States lifts sanctions.
He also called on Iran to stop uranium enrichment, never to pursue plutonium reprocessing and to close its heavy water reactor. He said it also had to declare all previous military dimensions of its nuclear program and to permanently and verifiably abandon such work.
Pompeo’s meeting with Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis came amid concerns about the potential for escalation and miscalculation with Iran — a situation that has many in Europe and the Middle East on edge.
Swiss intermediary offer
Cassis, whose country represents US interests in Iran and has been an intermediary between the two before, made no secret of that nervousness.
“The situation is very tense and we are fully aware of these tensions. Switzerland, of course, wishes there to be no escalation no escalation to violence with Iran,” he said. “Both parties are now increasing the pressure and this is a worry for us.”
Cassis said Switzerland would be pleased to serve as an intermediary, but not a “mediator,” between the United States and Iran. To do so, however, would require requests from both sides, he said.
Neither he nor Pompeo would say if such requests had been made of the Swiss.
Pompeo thanked Switzerland, which serves as the “protecting power” for the United States in Iran, for looking after Americans detained there. Trump administration officials have suggested they would look positively at any move to release at least five American citizens and at least two permanent US residents currently imprisoned in Iran.
Pompeo was in Switzerland on the second leg after Germany of a four-nation European tour in which he is seeking to assure leaders that the US does not want war with Iran.
Iran conditions for talks
Despite that stance, Trump has signaled a willingness to talk with Iran’s leadership. Iranian officials have hinted at the possibility but also insisted they will not be “bulled” into negotiations with the United States.
Trump said Monday that the US does not seek "regime change" in Iran and held out the possibility of talks.
“If they want to talk, I’m available,” Trump said.
“It (Iran) has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership... We aren’t looking for regime change – I just want to make that clear.”
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani suggested again on Saturday that Iran may be willing to hold talks if Washington showed it respect.
"We are men of reason and negotiations ... if one sits at the negotiating table with total respect and in the framework of international law," Rouhani said.
"We have shown that we do not submit to bullying and covetous powers," he added.
In Saturday’s speech to a group of Iranian athletes, Rouhani noted Trump’s recent remarks and suggested they were a climb-down from statements last year that encouraged regime change in Iran.
“The same enemy which declared its aim last year to destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran today explicitly states that it does not want to do anything to (our) system,” Rouhani said.
Rouhani has repeatedly ruled out negotiations unless Washington lifts sanctions against the Islamic Republic and returns to the 2015 nuclear deal signed by Tehran and world powers.
But Iran's Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has likened negotiations with the Trump administration to "poison" since "they don't stand by anything," referring to Washington's withdrawal from the deal.
Iran is locked in a tense standoff with the US after Washington withdrew from the deal last year and reimposed sanctions. The US also ratchetted them up in May, ordering all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.
Washington has since May beefed up its military presence in the Middle East due to alleged Iranian "threats".
AP, AFP and Reuters contributed to this story.