US secretary of state Mike Pompeo attends a press conference in Bellinzona, southern Switzerland, June 2 2019. Picture: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo attends a press conference in Bellinzona, southern Switzerland, June 2 2019. Picture: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Bellinzona, Switzerland — The US is prepared to engage with Iran without preconditions about its nuclear programme but needs to see the country behaving like “a normal nation”, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo says.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani suggested on Saturday that Iran may be willing to hold talks if Washington shows it respect, but said Tehran will not be pressurised into talks.

Pompeo, in an apparent softening of his previous stance, said when asked about Rouhani’s remarks: “We are prepared to engage in a conversation with no preconditions, we are ready to sit down.”

However, he said Washington will continue to work to “reverse the malign activity” of Iran in the Middle East, citing Tehran’s support to Hezbollah and to the Syrian government.

Pompeo said US President Donald Trump has been saying for a long time that he is willing to talk to Iran.

“We are certainly prepared to have that conversation when the Iranians can prove that they want to behave like a normal nation,” Pompeo told a joint news conference with his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis in the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona.

Trump said last Monday he is hopeful Iran will come to the negotiating table. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday Tehran will not negotiate with Washington, even after Rouhani had previously signalled talks might be possible if sanctions are lifted.

Cassis voiced concern at Iranian people suffering from the impact of sanctions and said that neutral Switzerland wants to provide humanitarian aid, “especially pharmaceutical products and foodstuffs”.

He said Iran has to make payments for this, and that is possible only if the US allows banks to transfer payments. Cassis said he is confident the US will come up with the “best possible solution” to that problem in a short time.

Nuclear activity

Iran has stayed within the main restrictions of its 2015 nuclear deal, a quarterly report by the UN atomic watchdog indicated on Friday, at a time when Tehran is threatening to break the rules in future in response to new US sanctions.

Pompeo declined on Sunday to comment on the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He said Washington is tracking IAEA findings closely.

“We also have our own independent understanding of what is taking place there. And the world should be mindful that we are watching closely how Iran is complying with the requirements that were set out in the JCPOA, not only the heavy-water issue, but the amount of high-enriched uranium which they are accumulating,” he said, referring to the joint comprehensive plan of action that the Trump administration has quit.

“We are watching closely as they put centrifuges into work and whether they are actually beginning to spin those centrifuges and load those centrifuges,” Pompeo said.

In 2018, Pompeo outlined 12 ways Iran must change — including stopping its support for proxy groups and halting its missile programme — before the US lifts sanctions.

He also called on Iran to stop uranium enrichment, never to pursue plutonium reprocessing and to close its heavy-water reactor. He said it also had to declare all previous military dimensions of its nuclear programme and to permanently and verifiably abandon such work.

Switzerland has served as an intermediary between Iran and the US since shortly after the Islamic revolution in November 1979. Switzerland provides protective and consular services for about 100 US citizens and 12,000 people with both US and Iranian citizenship.

Missing since 2007

At least five American citizens, including four dual nationals of the US and Iran, are detained in Iran as well as at least two permanent US residents.

Another American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, has been missing in Iran since 2007. Iranian officials have repeatedly denied knowledge about his disappearance or whereabouts.

Pompeo declined to offer details about efforts to secure the release of the detainees and whether this would boost confidence with Tehran, but said their families should know it is an issue worked on “every single day”.

Iran and the US have been drawn into starker confrontation in the past month, a year after Washington pulled out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting international sanctions.

Washington re-imposed sanctions in 2018 and ratcheted them up in May, ordering all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil. In recent weeks it has also hinted at military confrontation, saying it is sending extra forces to the Middle East to respond to an Iranian threat.