BELLINZONA, Switzerland — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that the Trump administration is ready for unconditional discussions with Iran in an effort to ease rising tensions that have sparked fears of conflict. But the United States will not relent in trying to pressure the Islamic republic to change its behavior in the Middle East, America's top diplomat said.
Pompeo repeated long-standing U.S. accusations that Iran is bent on destabilizing the region, but he also held out the possibility of talks as President Donald Trump has suggested. Trump himself had raised the idea of talks "without preconditions" in July 2018, although that was well before tensions had reached their current point.
In the 11 months since then, the U.S. has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, first in November and then again last month, targeting the most lucrative sectors of its economy.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the U.S. must return to the historic 2015 nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from in May 2018. He was quoted by Iran's state-run IRNA news agency as saying that if the U.S. "realizes that the way it chose was incorrect, then we can sit at the negotiating table and solve any problem." Otherwise, he said, Iran has no choice but resistance.
While the latest offer may not pan out, Pompeo made it during a visit to Switzerland, the country that long has represented American interests in Iran, as part of a European trip aimed at assuring wary leaders that the U.S. is not eager for war.
"We're prepared to engage in a conversation with no preconditions," Pompeo told reporters at a news conference with his Swiss counterpart. "We're ready to sit down with them, but the American effort to fundamentally reverse the malign activity of this Islamic republic, this revolutionary force, is going to continue."
Iran's foreign minister dismissed Trump's invitation for Iranian officials to contact him about possible talks.
"It's not very likely because talking is the continuation of the process of pressure. He is imposing pressure. This may work in a real estate market. It does not work in dealing with Iran," Javad Zarif told ABC's "This Week."
Pompeo's meeting with Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis in the southern Swiss town of Bellinzona came amid concerns about the potential for escalation and miscalculation with Iran — a situation that has many in Europe and the Middle East on edge.
Cassis, whose country has been an intermediary between the two before, made no secret of that nervousness.
"The situation is very tense. We are fully aware, both parties are fully aware, of this tension. Switzerland, of course, wishes there is no escalation, no escalation to violence," he said. "Both parties are now increasing the pressure, and for the rest this is a matter of worry, but we cannot do anything unless we get a mandate from both parties."
Cassis said Switzerland would be pleased to serve as an intermediary, but not a "mediator," between the United States and Iran. To do so, however, would require requests from both sides, he said.
Neither he nor Pompeo would say if such requests had been made of the Swiss.
Pompeo was in Switzerland on the second leg after Germany of a four-nation tour of Europe.
The U.S. is sending hundreds of additional troops to the region after blaming Iran and Iranian proxies for recent sabotage to tankers in the Persian Gulf and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure.