Merkel: All ways of reducing tension should be explored
Rouhani defends Zarif G7 summit attendance
US President Donald Trump said Monday he had agreed to the Iranian foreign minister flying in for a G7 summit and insisted he was not seeking regime change in Tehran – a change of tone that could lower tensions.
Mohammad Javad Zarif made a surprise appearance at the summit in Biarritz, France, on Sunday for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, who is seeking to broker a deal between Iran and the United States.
Zarif also met with French and other European diplomats, but Trump said it was "too soon" for him to meet Zarif.
Trump would not say if any Americans met with Zarif during his brief time in Biarritz.
“It’s all very new,” he said.
"I knew everything he (Macron) was doing and I approved everything he was doing," Trump said, adding that the French president "asked for my approval."
It was not clear when precisely Macron extended the invitation to Zarif or when he informed the others that the Iranian was on his way. Trump said he and Macron spoke directly.
The French president’s office said everything came together in a matter of hours.
“I said if you want to do that, that’s OK. I don’t consider that disrespectful at all. Especially when he asked me for approval,” Trump said.
In early August, Trump lambasted Macron for sending "mixed signals" on Iran, and at the end of July the US administration imposed sanctions on Zarif.
Trump has put in place a policy of "maximum pressure" on Tehran over its nuclear program via sanctions that are seen as raising the risk of conflict in the Middle East.
The US president last year unilaterally pulled out of a landmark 2015 international deal that placed limits on Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for trade, investment and sanctions relief.
Trump proclaimed Sunday that the G7 summit was going "beautifully."
The G7 is an elite club of rich democracies comprising Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
Macron's priority for the three days of talks had been to help paper over divisions between them and tackle global crises.
Seated alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump claimed “great unity” among the leaders on the subject of Iran.
“We’ve come to a conclusion, more or less. But the biggest part of the conclusion: They can’t have nuclear weapons,” he said.
Iran insists that its nuclear program, under the constant watch of the UN nuclear agency, is for peaceful purposes.
Merkel said talks between the Iranian and French foreign ministers on Sunday were a side event to the G7 summit and every opportunity should be seized to resolve tensions between the United States and Iran.
“We have to find a way to de-escalate – if not we have to fear that Iran reneges even further on its (nuclear deal) commitments even further in September,” Merkel told reporters.
She said she had only been informed at short notice that Zarif would arrive for talks in Biarritz.
Zarif held talks with Macron, his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian and British and German officials. He described the discussions as "constructive."
“Road ahead is difficult. But worth trying,” Zarif tweeted.
A French official said Zarif had held talks for almost 3.5 hours.
The White House official said the Iranian minister did not meet any US officials before he flew out of Biarritz airport.
“There was a substantial discussion between G7 leaders and it is important to now update Zarif in order to keep closing the gap...on the conditions with which we could de-escalate the tensions and create breathing space for negotiations,” a French official said.
Macron has taken the lead in trying to defuse tensions, fearing that a collapse of the nuclear deal could set the Middle East ablaze. He met Zarif on Friday ahead of the G7 summit to discuss ways of easing the crisis, including reducing some US sanctions or providing Iran with a compensation mechanism.
Iran reportedly wants to export a minimum of 700,000 barrels per day of its oil and ideally up to 1.5 million bpd if the West wants to negotiate with Tehran to save the 2015 deal.
Any tool must be used
In a televised speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also appeared on the defensive, shielding his foreign minister’s Biarritz visit against criticism from hardliners who have rejected negotiations until sanctions are lifted.
Rouhani said Iran uses its military, cultural, and economic power in tandem with its political, diplomatic, and negotiating power as it proceeds toward its goals.
"I believe that for our country's national interests we must use any tool," Rouhani said of Zarif's trip in a speech aired live on Iranian television.
“We must get the job done using both hands; the hand of power and the hand of diplomacy,” he said.
But hardliners criticized the initiative, with the ultraconservative Kayhan newspaper saying the trip was "improper" and sent "a message of weakness and desperation."
The president stressed that his government would not refrain from attending a meeting when it serves national interests and helps resolve the problems of people.
“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,” Rouhani said. “Even if the odds of success are not 90% but are 20 or 10%, we must move ahead with it. We should not miss opportunities.”
Rouhani stressed that “we have to negotiate, we have to find a solution, and we have to solve the problem.”
He added there will be a meeting of Iranian officials to discuss Foreign Zarif’s visit Sunday to Biarritz.
AFP, Reuters and AP contributed to this story.