President Donald Trump is a “crazy president” whose threats against Tehran aren’t going to work, a senior Iranian official said Monday, adding that if the President wants to talk, he’ll not only have to show some respect, but come up with a consistent message.
Trump is “crazy” and his administration is “confused,” Iran’s director of foreign affairs for the country’s parliament, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, told CNN in an exclusive interview Monday. Hossein pointed to the US leader’s ongoing campaign to strangle Iran’s economy on the one hand and his requests for Iran to talk on the other.
“In his mind, Trump thinks he has a gun to Iran’s head with sanctions and he is trying to shut down our economy,” Amir-Abdollahian told CNN’s Fred Pleitgen. “This is all in his imagination. Now he wants us to call him? This is a crazy president!”
“Within the White House there is a lot of conflicting opinions,” Amir-Abdollahian continued, pointing to “warmongers” in the West Wing and naming national security adviser John Bolton. “Also, Trump is not quite balanced and stable in his decision making, so we are dealing with a confused White House. Iran receives various signals which show that no one knows who owns the White House.”
Hours after Amir-Abdollahian made that observation to Pleitgen, Trump split from his most senior officials’ message about an imminent Iranian threat, reflecting another possible conflicting opinion within the West Wing.
“We have no indication that anything’s happened or will happen, but if it does, it will be met obviously with great force,” Trump said at the White House Monday. “I think Iran would be making a very big mistake if they did anything. If they do something it will be met with great force, but we have no indication that they will.”
Trump’s assessment differed sharply from the message conveyed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton, both “hawks” intent on changing the regime’s behavior, if not its leadership. Pompeo warned of escalating and “imminent” attacks by Iran in early May, Bolton said the US would respond with “unrelenting force.”
As further evidence, Amir-Abdollahian added that “Trump’s tweets are self-contradictory.”
Just hours after the Iranian official made that observation to Pleitgen, Trump doubled down on the mixed messages by denying the US is trying to talk to Tehran at all. They day before, the President had threatened on Twitter that a fight with the US would be “the official end of Iran.”
“Fake News put out a typically false statement, without any knowledge that the United States was trying to set up a negotiation with Iran. This is a false report,” Trump tweeted Monday. “Iran will call us if and when they are ever ready. In the meantime, their economy continues to collapse - very sad for the Iranian people!”
But there are several signs – not least from the President himself – that the US has in fact been trying start a conversation with Tehran.
Trump said Monday that if Iran called, “we would certainly negotiate, I only want them to call if they’re ready,” he said.
The Monday tweet followed his May 9 declaration that what Tehran “should be doing is calling me up,” and his May 16 comment that he not only hoped the two countries don’t go to war, but that he was sure “Iran will want to talk soon.”
That same day, Trump welcomed the president of the Swiss Confederation, Ueli Maurer, to the White House for visit announced on short notice. Their talks were expected to be about establishing a channel the President could use to talk to Iran, according to a person familiar with ongoing discussions inside the White House.
White House officials later said the subject did not come up extensively. But the Swiss represent US interests in Iran and CNN reported in early May that the White House had given them a phone number to share with Iranian leaders in case they wanted to discuss with Trump the recent sharp rise in tensions.
In recent weeks, Washington has ended waivers for Iranian oil imports, announced sanctions on Iran’s non-proliferation activity associated with the 2015 nuclear deal and sent a Navy strike group and bomber into the Persian Gulf as US officials leaked reports that claimed a heightened threat from Iran.
Trump said Monday that there was “no indication that anything’s happened or will happen, but if it does it will be met obviously with great force.”
“I think Iran would be making a very big mistake if they did anything. If they do something it will be met with great force, but we have no indication that they will,” he said.
Increased uranium enrichment
In response, Iran announced it would stop fully complying with the nuclear deal. On Monday, an Iranian energy official announced the country has increased its uranium enrichment fourfold and informed the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Pompeo, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford are set to brief US senators about the situation with Iran on Tuesday, according to a Senate official.
In what is seen as another attempt to establish a back channel to Iran, Pompeo spoke on the phone on May 15 with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has close ties to both Tehran and Washington and has functioned as a go-between in the past.
Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah arrived in Tehran on Monday to discuss important regional and international issues, Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA and Oman news agency said. He met with his Iranian counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
After the Trump administration’s April 22 decision to end waivers for Iranian oil imports, Oman’s ambassador to Washington said publicly that her country is ready to mediate between Iran and the US to ease tensions if the two sides would find such support helpful.
In the meantime, Trump appears to be sending contradictory signals. He tweeted on Friday that “with all of the Fake and Made Up News out there, Iran can have no idea what is actually going on!”
That message received a quick rebuttal from the Iranian foreign minister, who referred to a circle of Trump advisers and allies as the “B Team” – Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – and claimed they are trying to drive Washington into a war with Tehran.
“With the #B_Team doing one thing & @realDonaldTrump saying another thing, it is apparently the US that doesn’t know what to think,” Zarif tweeted Friday.
Referring to the US-backed coup that toppled Iran’s democratically elected government in favor of a Shah who was more friendly to US and UK oil interests, Zarif said, “we in Iran have actually known what to think for millennia—and about the US, since 1953. At this point, that is certainly “a good thing!””
Amir-Abdollahian, signaled Monday that Iran isn’t entirely opposed to talking, it’s just a matter of how.
“Trump can discuss talking to Iran through a phone when he does not use the language of threat and force,” the parliamentarian told Pleitgen. “He can talk about phoning us when he goes back to the nuclear agreement.”
Amir-Abdollahian said that Trump has “got no idea about the culture and mentality of the Iranian people” if he thinks threats will work against Iran.
“Forty years of Islamic Revolution in Iran have shown that you cannot talk to Iran through threats… If he thinks by bringing in some air craft carriers and bombers he can take advantage of Iran and to force Iran to negotiate from an unequal position, he is wrong,” Amir-Abdollahian said. “But when their ships get close to us, it is a threat to them. We never welcome war, but we stand steadfast.”
Zarif offered a shorter version on Twitter Monday, saying “never threaten an Iranian. Try respect; it works.”
CNN’s Fred Pleitgen, Kevin Liptak, Hamdi Alkhshali, Alla Eshchenko, Shirzad Bozorgmehr, Ted Barrett, Ashley Killough, Jeremy Diamond and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report