A senior Iranian legislator has called for the United States and Iran to hold talks in Iraq or Qatar to defuse tensions amid a US military build-up in the Gulf.
Hashmatullah Falahat Pishe, head of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, urged negotiations on Friday, citing attempts by “third-parties” to provoke a conflict despite senior officials in Tehran and Washington rejecting war.
“There must be a table in Iraq or Qatar where the two sides can meet in order to end this tension,” the independent legislator said in a post on Twitter.
The appeal came as US President Donald Trump also softened his rhetoric on Iran. Asked on Thursday if Washington was going to war with Tehran, the president replied, “I hope not”. That comment came a day after he expressed a desire for dialogue, tweeting: “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”
Trump’s tone contrasted with a series of moves by the US and Iran that have sharply escalated tensions in the Middle East in recent days.
On May 5, John Bolton, US national security adviser, announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group would be rushed from the Mediterranean to the Gulf ahead of schedule in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings”.
He did not give details on the nature of the threat from Iran, but warned that the US would use “unrelenting force” should Iran stage an attack on its troops in the region.
Since then, four oil tankers, including two belonging to Saudi Arabia, were targeted in an apparent act of sabotage off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, according to officials in the region, and Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels from Yemen attacked a Saudi pipeline.
The US also ordered non-essential staff out of Iraq and dispatched additional military assets to the region.
The US moves came a year after Trump pulled Washington out of a 2015 international accord that put curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The Trump administration then reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran and also designated the country’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a “terrorist” entity.
Iran responded by declaring US Centcom a “terror” organisation.
Trump has said he wants to negotiate a new deal with Iran that includes tougher curbs on its nuclear and missile programmes and on its support for proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
However, Washington’s hardline approach has exacerbated bellicose rhetoric and prompted fears of a conflict.
On Friday, an official with the IRGC warned that Iranian missiles can “easily reach warships” in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East. The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Mohammad Saleh Jokar, deputy for parliamentary affairs of the IRGC, saying that Iran’s missiles have a range of 2,000km.
The Mehr news agency quoted Iranian army chief warning the US against miscalculations.
“If the enemy miscalculates and commits a strategic error, it will receive a response which will make it regret [its action],” said Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi.
And soon after Falahat Pishe’s call for dialogue, Iran’s supreme national council, headed by President Hassan Rouhani, said “remarks by an individual should not be taken as a statement of policy”, according to Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi.
Reporting from Tehran, Basravi said the council reiterated that only it had the power to set policy on behalf of the government.
‘Sitting by the phone’
Senior Iranian officials, including an IRGC commander, have also rejected Trump’s previous invitations for talks, saying the US was “unreliable”.
Earlier this week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said Tehran would not negotiate another nuclear deal with Washington. He also said there would be no war with the US.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has urged the nuclear deal’s remaining signatories – Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany – to take “concrete steps” to protect the pact.
In Washington, a senior administration official said the US “sitting by the phone” but has heard no message from Tehran that Washington is willing to talk directly.
“We think they should de-escalate and come to negotiations,” the official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
Mohammad Marandi, professor of English literature at Tehran University, said Iran is unlikely to enter into fresh negotiations with the US on its nuclear programme as it does not trust the US.
“The Iranians are saying we cannot trust a government that does not abide by agreements made by the state. Hypothetically, if Iran reaches another agreement with the US, Trump could tear that up, too, whenever he wants,” he told Al Jazeera.
“In addition to this, by [engaging in talks] Iranians are saying they would be appeasing the US and encouraging it to violate agreements in the future in order to get more concessions.”