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U.N. General Assembly Could Offer An Opportunity For U.S.-Iran Talks


French President Emmanuel Macron is taking a big gamble. He's trying to get the Trump administration to start talking with Iran, and President Trump sounded open to the idea of meeting in remarks today at the Group of Seven summit. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Macron says he kept Trump in the loop over the weekend when he decided to meet with Iran's foreign minister during the G-7 summit.


PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: I decided to invite - as friends - Minister Zarif, so I informed - before making it - I informed President Trump that it was my idea.

KELEMEN: He says he didn't expect Trump to meet Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif since the two are not at the same level. Still, Macron is sounding hopeful that there could be a meeting in the coming weeks between President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Here's Macron speaking through an interpreter about that.


MACRON: (Through interpreter) I think there's been a true change. This morning, President Rouhani showed himself to be open to this meeting happening. And President Trump has been saying for weeks that he's being demanding, he's being tough. He's put forward sanctions. But I'm ready to have a meeting to make a deal.

KELEMEN: France is trying to salvage the nuclear deal with Iran - the one the Trump administration left - and for that, Macron needs the U.S. to ease up on its oil sanctions. Trump's advisers are pursuing what they call a maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, though Trump appears open to negotiations and today even talked about the possibility of a short-term line of credit for Iran's economy.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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.

KELEMEN: And unlike his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who's laid out 12 demands for Iran to behave like a, quote, "normal country," Trump is zeroing in on a few goals to fix the nuclear deal.


TRUMP: 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 great nation. I'd like to see that happen. But they can't have nuclear weapons.

KELEMEN: President Trump says he has good feelings about Iran. A former Obama administration official - Rob Malley - though, says this White House is sending mixed signals.

ROB MALLEY: With a president who says he doesn't want a war and has every reason to believe he doesn't, who says he wants a deal and has every reason to believe that he does, and yet whose policies conceived of and implemented by his national security team are pulling the United States in precisely the opposite direction.

KELEMEN: Malley, who now heads the International Crisis Group, says there are many flashpoints in the Middle East which could scuttle a potential summit, including Israel's recent attacks on Iranian-backed militias in the region. A former French ambassador to the U.S., Gerard Araud, says Macron is nervous about the rising tensions, and that's why he's taking this diplomatic gamble.

GERARD ARAUD: Macron may fail. The odds are for a failure for Macron. But the stakes are very high, and I feel that it's necessary to try.

KELEMEN: Presidents Trump and Rouhani are both expected to attend the U.N. General Assembly the third week in September. Any summit between them would normally require a lot of diplomatic preparation. And as Araud points out, Trump's aides have been leery about talks with Iran. That's why he says Macron is speaking directly to President Trump.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.