BELLINZONA, Switzerland — In a second major softening of American policy toward Iran in recent days, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that the Trump administration was ready to negotiate with the country’s clerical leaders with “no preconditions.”
The statement followed President Trump’s comment last week that he was ready to talk to Iranian leaders and was not seeking regime change, overruling a longtime goal of his national security adviser. Mr. Pompeo’s statement also recalibrated his earlier position that the United States would not lift sanctions on Iran unless it complied with a dozen sweeping demands, suggesting that those demands could be part of negotiations instead of preconditions.
Iran’s leaders consider the demands unacceptable.
Tensions between the United States and Iran have escalated sharply in recent weeks, raising fears that the two countries were edging toward war. The less combative language does not change the fact that the Trump administration has tightened economic sanctions on Iran, ordered 1,500 additional troops to the Persian Gulf and revised military plans against Iran.
Even in opening the door to talks, Mr. Pompeo said the United States would continue to try to counter Iran’s support of groups in the Middle East that undermine American interests.
“We’re prepared to engage in a conversation with no preconditions,” Mr. Pompeo said at a news conference in Switzerland, which acts as a conduit between Washington and Tehran. “We’re ready to sit down with them. But the American effort to fundamentally reverse the malign activity of the Islamic Republic, this revolutionary force, is going to continue.”
Mr. Trump appears to be trying to walk a tightrope on Iran policy. He has told aides he wants to avoid a war, yet his top foreign policy officials are pressing him to amplify a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that relies on sanctions and shows of military force.
The talk of negotiations by Mr. Trump and now Mr. Pompeo play to Mr. Trump’s dealmaker image. It suggests that even as he ratchets up military and financial pressure against Iran that he is also seeking a new deal to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
“I think the administration is trying to de-escalate tensions to accommodate the president’s recent statements that he’d like to negotiate with Iran,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a Middle East analyst at the RAND Corporation, a research group. “But the problem is Secretary Pompeo’s statement is still talking about negotiations only when Iran starts acting like a ‘normal’ country. That type of language is not likely to entice the Iranians to the table, especially as maximum pressure policies continue on the ground.”
Mr. Pompeo had previously insisted that Iranian leaders comply with a dozen sweeping demands before the United States would lift sanctions or reestablish diplomatic and commercial ties with Tehran. Iran’s leaders consider the demands unacceptable.
His comments on Sunday were responding to an opening by President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on Saturday. Mr. Rouhani said Iran was willing to talk with the United States if it “sits respectfully at the negotiating table” rather than ordering Iran to hold discussions.
“We have shown that we do not submit to bullying,” Mr. Rouhani said, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency.
An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said Sunday that Mr. Pompeo’s statement was “word play” and that what mattered to Tehran was a change in the American government’s “general approach and actual behavior toward the Iranian nation,” Iran’s Mehr News Agency reported.
Mr. Trump abandoned a nuclear deal with Iran a year ago, fulfilling a campaign promise, and reimposed major economic sanctions in November. More recently, his administration has designated an arm of the Iranian military as a terrorist organization, ended permission for eight countries to buy oil from Iran despite economic sanctions, accused Iran of plotting to attack American targets in the Middle East and sent a battle group to the region.
Nuclear experts said Iran had been complying with the nuclear agreement, which it had negotiated with six world powers in 2015 in exchange for the lifting of harsh economic sanctions. The agreement limited Iran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel for 15 years.
European nations still abide by the agreement and have urged Iran to stick with it.
Last month, Mr. Rouhani said Iran would stop abiding by parts of the agreement, and would resume the production of nuclear centrifuges and begin accumulating nuclear material. He said Iran was not following “the path of war,” but choosing “the path of diplomacy.”
Mr. Pompeo met Sunday with Ignazio Cassis, the Swiss foreign minister, to discuss Iran and other matters in a centuries-old castle in Bellinzona, a medieval Italian-speaking town of pastel-painted homes nestled among steep, green valleys.
Switzerland has acted as an interlocutor between the United States and Iran since Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran in 1980, and it hosted negotiations over the 2015 nuclear deal forged by the Obama administration.
Mr. Cassis stressed the urgent need to bring down tensions between the United States and Iran. He said Switzerland was willing to broker any diplomacy, but only if both governments commit to talks.
Mr. Cassis added that Iranians are suffering from the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, and Switzerland is ready to provide humanitarian medical aid and food. But the Trump administration must allow banks to transfer payments from Iran.
His plea rebutted earlier remarks from Mr. Pompeo, who has insisted that the sanctions do not bar humanitarian aid from Iran.
As representatives of American interests in Iran, Swiss diplomats have also tried to make visits to American prisoners in the country. Iran is holding at least six American citizens and one permanent resident.
Mr. Pompeo declined on Sunday to speak in detail about any talks conducted through Switzerland or other third parties to free the prisoners, but did not deny that such negotiations could be taking place.
“The United States is working with all willing nations to assist us in getting them returned,” he said.
Last July, Mr. Trump said he was willing to talk to Iran with “no preconditions,” but that was well before tensions soared. On May 5, John R. Bolton, the hawkish national security adviser, said the White House had ordered the accelerated movement of an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers to the Persian Gulf from the Mediterranean Sea.
American officials told reporters afterward that they had gotten intelligence that showed the Iranian military or allied Arab militias might attack American interests. Mr. Pompeo ordered almost all American diplomats to leave Iraq, which borders Iran.
But European officials and some American legislators who had seen the same intelligence said the threat level did not look much higher than usual and did not warrant the measures and tone of urgency adopted by the Trump administration.
They criticized Mr. Trump’s announcement on May 24 that he was ordering 1,500 more troops to the region and declaring an emergency over Iran to push through arms sales to Tehran’s main regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Those sales that had been blocked by Congress because the weapons are used to kill civilians in the disastrous Yemen civil war.
Against the backdrop of tensions with Iran, there has been a conspicuous flurry of diplomacy between top American and Swiss officials. On May 16, Mr. Trump hosted Ueli Maurer, the Swiss president, at the White House — a first by an American president.
Last Wednesday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top leader, said his nation would not negotiate directly with the United States. But he said talks could be conducted through a third party. Mr. Rouhani’s comments on Saturday left open the possibility of direct talks.
Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton have prioritized confronting Iran over what the State Department calls Tehran’s “expansionist foreign policy.” Last year, Mr. Pompeo made 12 demands of Iran that included a call for Iranian leaders to drop support for political groups and militias in nearby Arab countries and for the release of all American prisoners.
Hua Qu, the wife of Wang Xiyue, a Princeton graduate student imprisoned by Iran since 2016 on a charge of espionage, wrote on May 24 in The Washington Post that she was imploring world powers to get Tehran to free her husband.