WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday celebrated the return of an American imprisoned in Iran by urging Tehran to “make the Big deal” on its nuclear program, and dangled the possibility that they would get better terms if they negotiated before the presidential election, seeming to invite Tehran to help return him to office.
Mr. Trump’s offer was immediately rejected by the Iranian leadership, which now seems to harbor doubts that he will remain president, and is hunkering down to survive American-led sanctions until they see the results of the November election.
At the same time, hints from inside the International Atomic Energy Agency suggested that a forthcoming report on Iran’s nuclear progress could say that Tehran has boosted its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by about 50 percent in the past three months, and now possesses about eight times as much nuclear fuel as was permitted under the nuclear accord that Mr. Trump abandoned two years ago.
Ever since Mr. Trump chose to leave what he called a “terrible” and “failed” deal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others have said that the combination of escalating sanctions, diplomatic isolation and the threat of possible military force would prompt the Iranian government to come to the negotiating table. So far that has failed, and Mr. Trump’s offer on Friday was a remarkably transparent invitation to an adversary to give him a diplomatic win before what could be a close American election.
“Thank you to Iran,” the president wrote in a tweet about the release of a Navy veteran detained in Tehran, Michael R. White. “Don’t wait until after U.S. Election to make the Big deal. I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!”
Aides to Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Trump declined to explain why, if the United States was negotiating in its own national interest, Iran might get preferential treatment for negotiating with Mr. Trump before the election.
“That is probably something best directed to the White House,’’ said Brian H. Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, who would have to negotiate any agreement should the leadership in Tehran decide to come to the table.
“We had a deal when you entered office,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, responded to Mr. Trump in a tweet on Friday. Iran and the other participants in the 2015 agreement — Britain, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia and China — “never left the table,” he said. “Your advisers — most fired by now — made a dumb bet. Up to you to decide *when* you want to fix it.”
Hesameddin Ashena, the top policy adviser to President Hassan Rouhani of Iran also responded. “You are going down on November 3rd and we know that,” he tweeted. “So you’ll need to offer much more than Obama did!”
That aggressive tone marked a change. In recent months, Iran has seemed interested in turning down the temperature with Washington, negotiating on the release of prisoners and reducing attacks from its proxy militias on American forces in Iraq. But the calculus may have changed now that polls show Mr. Trump struggling; the presumptive Democratic candidate, Joseph R. Biden Jr., was involved in the negotiation of the 2015 deal and the Iranians may have concluded it can be reconstructed if he takes office.
“I think something has certainly changed on the Iranian side,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm. “Certainly last summer, they assumed Trump was going to be re-elected.”
Mr. Rome said he would draw two conclusions. “You don’t want to do anything that would help Trump be re-elected. That would give him a boost they simply don’t want to chance,” he said. “It also means if they wait long enough, and they are correct that Joe Biden becomes president, then you have a much different dynamic, and a much more sustainable one.”
He rejected the idea that the Iranians, sensing that Mr. Trump is desperate, might see an advantage in negotiating an agreement with him now. “The Iranian view is that this would not be a sustainable deal, with someone as volatile as Trump,” he said.
Mr. Hook argued that the release of Mr. White, who was detained for nearly two years, was evidence that the United States can negotiate from a position of strength, noting that he was returned with “no sanctions relief, no change of policy and no pallets of cash,” the last a reference to how the Obama administration returned to Iran funds it had in the United States that had been frozen for nearly 30 years.
But he also argued that the Iranian people were losing out on an opportunity to avoid have “their national wealth squandered, in the Middle East and Venezuela,’’ places where Iran is actively providing support. In the two years since Mr. Trump left the Iran deal, Mr. Hook noted, “he has met with Kim Jong-un three times.” He did not note that those meetings have, so far, been fruitless, and Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader, has continued with his nuclear weapons program.
The report from the International Atomic Energy Agency was only circulated to a small number of nations, but leaks of its contents, ahead of a meeting of the agency in a few weeks, suggest that Iran is continuing its slow but steady accumulation of nuclear material. While it is hard to calculate with any precision exactly how many months it wold take Iran to produce enough fuel to make a single bomb, Iran’s production of material — which it says is a reaction to the United States violating its commitments to suspend sanctions — has clearly slipped below the one-year buffer that was central to the 2015 agreement.
Even if Iran massed that amount of fuel, it would take months or years to produce a weapon. Iran had far larger stockpiles before the agreement was reached; as part of the accord, it shipped 97 percent of its fuel to Russia.
The Iranians consider their slow nuclear buildup a form of reverse pressure on Mr. Trump, in response to the sanctions.
“Our foreign policy has been very pragmatic in the past twenty years,” said Gheis Ghoreishi, an Iranian foreign policy expert who has advised Iran’s foreign ministry on the country’s relationship with Iraq. “Right now Iran has taken the approach of strategic patience to see what happens in November with U.S. elections and if Trump will get re-elected.”
David E. Sanger reported from Washington, Farnaz Fassihi from New York and Rick Gladstone from Eastham, Mass.
Updated June 6, 2020
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