TEHERAN • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani back-pedalled yesterday on possible talks with US President Donald Trump, saying the latter must first lift sanctions imposed on Teheran, or a meeting between the two would be a mere photo opportunity.
Mr Rouhani's change of heart came a day after Mr Trump said there was a "really good chance" the two could meet over the nuclear impasse between their nations, which followed a surprise intervention by French President Emmanuel Macron during the recent Group of Seven (G-7) summit to bring Washington and Teheran together after decades of conflict.
"Without the US' withdrawal from sanctions, we will not witness any positive development," Mr Rouhani said in a televised speech yesterday, adding that Washington "holds the key" as to what happens next.
"If someone intends to make it as just a photo op with Rouhani, that is not possible."
Mr Rouhani had on Monday expressed readiness to negotiate a way out of the crisis, following Washington's pullout from the nuclear deal last year. "If I knew that going to a meeting and visiting a person would help my country's development and resolve the problems of the people, I would not miss it," he had said.
He also shielded Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif from hardliners' criticism over his surprise visit on Sunday to Biarritz, France, where leaders of the G-7 nations were meeting.
Mr Macron had said he hoped Mr Trump and Mr Rouhani could meet within weeks with the aim of saving the 2015 nuclear deal that Teheran struck with world powers, but which the US unilaterally withdrew from last year.
Under the deal, Iran had agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Yesterday, Mr Macron acknowledged that his efforts to bring Iran and the United States together are "fragile", but said he still sees a "possible path" to rapprochement between the two.
Since the US pullout from the nuclear deal, Iran has lost billions of dollars in business deals allowed by the accord as the US re-imposed and escalated sanctions largely blocking Teheran from selling crude oil abroad - a crucial source of hard currency for the Islamic republic.
Mr Rouhani's U-turn can be seen as a result of pressure from hardliners in the Iranian establishment who oppose taking a softer tone towards the West.
But it could also mean the paradigm of grand photo-op summits in exotic locations - like Mr Trump's meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - while stringent sanctions remain in place does not necessarily appeal to Mr Rouhani, whose signature accomplishment was the nuclear deal.