Among Some Iranian Hard-liners, a Surprising New View: Talk to Trump

Then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran during a news conference in Cairo in 2013. — Tara Todras-Whitehill/The New York Times

Iran’s most revered Revolutionary Guard commander says talking with President Donald Trump would be admitting defeat. The country’s supreme leader has ruled out any dealings with Washington.

But now, in a surprising split among Iranian hard-liners, some are expressing a different opinion: It’s time to sit down and resolve 40 years of animosity with the United States, by talking directly to Trump.

And the most striking voice in that contrarian group is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, largely known in the West for his anti-American bombast, Holocaust denial, and suspiciously lopsided victory in a disputed vote a decade ago that set off Iran’s worst political convulsions since the Islamic revolution.

“Mr. Trump is a man of action,” Ahmadinejad said in a lengthy telephone interview with The New York Times. “He is a businessman, and therefore he is capable of calculating cost-benefits and making a decision. We say to him, let’s calculate the long-term cost-benefit of our two nations and not be shortsighted.”

Ahmadinejad’s remarks are among several signals from different ends of Iran’s political spectrum that Iranian officials want to talk as the risk of armed conflict with the United States has escalated.

The tensions were punctuated Thursday by Iran’s disclosure that it had seized a foreign tanker in the Persian Gulf and by Trump’s assertion that U.S. naval forces in the region had downed an Iranian drone, which Iranian officials denied on Friday.

(Ahmadinejad, who spoke before the Americans first reported their claim about the drone, said through an aide on Friday that it had not changed his view that both sides should talk.)Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, who had previously insisted there could be no negotiations with the United States unless it rejoined the nuclear agreement Trump abandoned last year, said Thursday he was willing to meet with U.S. senators to discuss possible ways out of the nuclear crisis.

For the first time, Zarif floated modest steps that Tehran would be willing to take in return for the simultaneous lifting of sanctions Trump reimposed.

Within the rivalries that pervade Iran’s political hierarchy, the American-educated Zarif is a big contrast to Ahmadinejad, who as president pushed Zarif out of government. Yet both are now seeking ways to communicate with the Trump administration.While Ahmadinejad was disqualified from running for president again two years ago, he still travels around the country making speeches and writing open letters criticizing the government and the judiciary.

Unlike other hard-liners, he dares to criticize the Revolutionary Guard for its influence over Iran’s economy and the power it gives Khamenei, who has sole authority to direct the vast paramilitary force.

“Ahmadinejad is shaking things up by boldly talking about all the issues that everyone knows but nobody dares talk about publicly, and be willing to pay the cost,” said Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, an Iranian political analyst based in New York.

In The Times interview, which lasted more than an hour, Ahmadinejad said that Tehran and Washington should directly resolve the litany of disputes that began with the 1979 revolution, the seizure of the U.S. Embassy, the taking of American hostages, the mutual accusations of regional meddling and all the rest.

Ahmadinejad said Iran should scrap the approach of enlisting Europe and other intermediaries to influence Trump over his hostility to the 2015 nuclear agreement. This would be possible, Ahmadinejad said, if Trump first eased some of his “maximum pressure” tactics, most notably the onerous sanctions he reimposed after having abandoned the agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, between Iran and the big powers.

“World peace, economy and culture would greatly benefit from us working together,” Ahmadinejad said. “The U.S. wants to address wider issues than the JCPOA The issues at stake are more important and wider than whether the JCPOA should live or die. We need to have a fundamental discussion.”

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