Pompeo: US needs Iran to 'come to the table'
US President Donald Trump said Friday he had authorized Sen. Rand Paul to speak with Iranian officials – a day after denying he had done so.
“Rand is a friend of mine, and Rand asked me if he could get involved. The answer is yes, and if the other senators ask me to get involved, I’d probably say yes depending on who they were,” Trump told reporters at the White House, referring to the Kentucky Republican known for arguing strenuously that the US should pull back from foreign engagements and conflicts.
"I have many people involved," Trump added, though he didn't elaborate, he said he was eager to resolve the ongoing crisis with Iran.
On Thursday, when asked whether he would appoint Paul as a negotiator to Iran, Trump had said, "No, I don't know anything about that."
“I would listen to him, but I didn’t appoint him, no,” he said. “No, he’s somebody I listen to, and I respect Sen. Paul, and if he had some ideas I would listen.”
US media reported Wednesday that Paul, a staunch isolationist, proposed meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to try to restart negotiations on the White House’s behalf and that Trump approved.
Paul has clashed with some of the US president’s more hawkish advisors, including national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Trump’s acknowledgment Friday that he had, in fact, allowed Paul to reach out to Iran is the latest indication that he is interested in talks. In recent weeks, the US president has publicly suggested that Iran "call me," said he could be Tehran's "best friend" and emphasized that he is willing to talk without preconditions.
But there are signs of division within the administration over whether to make overtures to Tehran, as other US officials have sent conflicting signals, with some saying that despite the initiative with Paul, Trump has become more hawkish of late, not less.
On Thursday, Zarif dangled an opening for talks, saying Tehran was willing to accept enhanced and permanent nuclear inspections in exchange for a permanent lifting of US sanctions. Zarif was speaking to reporters at Iran's UN mission in New York.
"If Trump wants more for more, we can ratify the Additional Protocol and he can lift the sanctions he set," Zarif said, referring to an addendum to the 2015 nuclear deal that expands UN inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities and that the pact requires Iran to sign by 2023.
"He has said that he will take any measure to Congress – fine," Zarif said, according to reports of the briefing. "Lift the sanctions and you'll have the Additional Protocol sooner than 2023."
Trump pulled the US out of the deal in May 2018 and has pushed the idea that he can produce a better, more comprehensive deal, levying increasingly intense sanctions against Iran in a bid to force it to the negotiating table.
Trump veered from telling reporters that tensions with Iran will ease, to arguing that he has been right about Tehran all along.
"Iran is going to work out very nicely," Trump said. "It's very easy to straighten out or it's very easy to make it a lot worse."
On Friday, Pompeo that the US needed Iran to “come to the table” for negotiations.
Pompeo, speaking at a counterterrorism summit in Buenos Aires, also repeated Trump’s offer for talks without preconditions.
“The Iranians continue to say they will talk about it, but only if the United States does something. We need them to come to the table, it’s the right way to resolve these challenges,” Pompeo told reporters.
"You know, Foreign Minister Zarif can talk to members of Congress, that's fantastic."
Pompeo said that Zarif had met with lawmakers for many years, but those talks never stopped Iran from developing its missile program.
"In the end, President Trump will make the decision on how to proceed," Pompeo said.
CNN, The Hill and Reuters contributed to this story.