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Pompeo's Trip To Switzerland Could Signal The U.S. Is Working To Talk With Iran


President Trump has gone from threatening Iran to saying he'd like Iran to call him. But with no direct communication between the U.S. and Iran, it's not clear how that would happen. Several countries have offered to help, including Japan, which hosted President Trump this weekend, and Switzerland, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is headed this weekend. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran since Washington and Tehran don't have diplomatic ties. So it is a key country as the Trump administration presses for one of its priorities, the release of Americans jailed in Iran. It's among 12 demands spelled out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and he wants to talk to Iran about all of that, says spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.


MORGAN ORTAGUS: There is a path forward, and we will talk tomorrow if they would like to see the bright future that we believe is there for the Iranian people.

KELEMEN: She wouldn't say if Pompeo was ready to open a more limited dialogue. Babak Namazi certainly hopes so. His brother is in jail in Iran, and his elderly father, though on medical parole, can't leave the country. Both are American citizens.


BABAK NAMAZI: My father's health continues to decline at an incredibly alarming rate. My father needs immediate medical treatment, and he deserves to spend his remaining time with his family and in peace.

KELEMEN: North Korea released Americans before Trump had his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. A retired U.S. diplomat, Barbara Leaf, doesn't see talks with Iran playing out in the same way, though, because Iran, she says, is not as isolated as North Korea was.

BARBARA LEAF: I don't see the Iranians seeing themselves in the same setting of isolation. Indeed this whole last year, Tehran has been intent on portraying Washington and the Trump administration as being the isolated party.

KELEMEN: Iranian officials have alternated between saying they won't talk to the U.S. to saying they might if sanctions are lifted and the U.S. returns to the nuclear deal. The Trump administration pulled out of that deal and wants other countries to stop buying oil from Iran. Europeans who had been hoping to keep the nuclear deal alive are coming under pressure, too, says Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

MARK DUBOWITZ: So the Europeans are between a Trumpian rock and an Iranian hard place, and their only escape hatch is to work with the United States and bring the Iranians back to the table for a comprehensive agreement.

KELEMEN: Still, Dubowitz, who's in favor of the pressure on Iran, is worried that the Iranians could take a page from the North Koreans and simply flatter Trump to get concessions.

DUBOWITZ: There is a risk that the Iranians will force Trump into sort of a yap trap of diplomacy where they're going to use the negotiations in order to undermine the maximum pressure campaign. I think people like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo will be very important ensuring that the president doesn't give up too much too quickly.

KELEMEN: Dubowitz describes national security adviser Bolton as a hawk who's useful to Trump, a president who talks tough one day and calls for negotiations the next. In Japan this week, Trump distanced himself from Bolton, saying he's not interested in regime change and wants to talk to Iran about its nuclear program. Ambassador Leaf says that throws into question Bolton and Pompeo's tough line.

LEAF: The Tokyo declaration was really the most explicit to date that he is really looking for direct talks. He suggests he's exclusively interested in the nuclear dimension. And so that really kind of guts the whole notion of that - Pompeo's 12 points.

KELEMEN: Pompeo's spokesperson is still talking about those 12 points, saying the goal is to get Iran to behave like a normal country. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
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.