U.S. Wants to Hear From Top Iran Leaders After Downing of Drone

Margaret Talev and Alyza Sebenius

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration wants to hear directly from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, about whether the Islamic Republic is interested in negotiations, a U.S. official said.

The official spoke to reporters in Washington Friday amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. President Donald Trump said Thursday the U.S. “immediately destroyed” an Iranian drone that approached the USS Boxer near the Strait of Hormuz, but officials in Tehran denied losing one.

Iran and the U.S. have been at loggerheads since last year, when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear agreement he called the “worst deal ever.” In May, the administration refused to extend waivers to eight governments for Iranian oil purchases, ratcheting up the pressure on the country’s already battered economy.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Thursday told reporters at the Iranian mission to the United Nations that he’s willing to meet with U.S. senators to discuss possible ways out of the nuclear dispute with the Trump administration, according to the New York Times. But he also said Iran’s escalation of its nuclear enrichment program could be reversed if the U.S. drops sanctions that Trump imposed after withdrawing from the nuclear agreement.

‘Tremendous Problems’

The Trump administration doesn’t believe Zarif has significant decision-making authority, the official said. That’s why the administration wants to hear from Rouhani or the supreme leader.

“We are starting to see the Iranians signal that they are willing to come to the negotiating table,” Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said Friday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “Whether those are the right signals is an open question.”

Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday that he’s in no hurry for a deal, as Iran is having “tremendous problems” because of U.S. sanctions. “We can do something quickly or we can take our time,” he said. “I’m in no rush.”

While U.S. officials say they’re open to talks without preconditions, Iran’s government wants some easing of the sanctions that have crippled oil sales and undermined its economy. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has laid out a list of 12 conditions he says Iran will have to meet before sanctions are lifted.

Iran’s economy has been crippled by the ratcheting up of U.S. sanctions that have restricted the OPEC member’s oil sales, fueled inflation and undermined domestic support for Rouhani’s government.

Sanctions against Iran are working “without a doubt,” as the country doesn’t have revenue to develop its ballistic missile program or to support Syria, Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Mandelker said.

War Concerns

Fears of a new Middle East war climbed after a recent spate of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, the downing of an American drone and the British seizure of a tanker carrying Iranian oil.

“We hope for their sake they don’t do anything foolish,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday.

The U.S. announcement on the Iranian drone was the latest sign of tension.

Countering Tehran’s denial that an Iranian drone was downed, the U.S. official said the Trump administration has clear evidence for its assessment and added that it may release video of the incident later.

“There’s no question that this was an Iranian drone,” U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton told reporters at the White House on Friday.

‪Iran’s state-run Press TV aired what it said was aerial video captured by the Iranian drone. The video shows close-ups and birds-eye view images of the USS Boxer, according to Press TV.

The time code on the video shows that drone was still operating and surveilling the vessel after the time Trump claimed it was shot down and destroyed, Press TV said, citing the IRGC.

The drone was a threat to the U.S. amphibious assault ship and its crew, Trump said at the White House on Thursday. The president said he was calling “on other nations to protect their ships as they go through the Strait.”

Also Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department said it’s imposing sanctions on Salman Raouf Salman, a senior member of Hezbollah, which the U.S. says is backed by Iran.

The U.S. said Salman coordinated an attack in Buenos Aires 25 years ago against the largest Jewish center in South American, killing 85 people and wounding hundreds more. The U.S. also offered a $7 million reward for providing his whereabouts.

(Updates with Trump, Bolton comments starting in 12th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Golnar Motevalli and Josh Wingrove.

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net;Alyza Sebenius in Aspen, Colorado at asebenius@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Justin Blum, Bill Faries

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