Iran’s most revered Revolutionary Guards commander says talking with President Trump would be admitting defeat. The country’s supreme leader has ruled out any dealings with Washington.
But now, in a surprising split among Iranian hard-liners, some are expressing a different opinion: It’s time to sit down and resolve 40 years of animosity with the United States, by talking directly to Mr. Trump.
And the most striking voice in that contrarian group is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, largely known in the West for his anti-American bombast, Holocaust denial, and suspiciously lopsided victory in a disputed vote a decade ago that set off Iran’s worst political convulsions since the Islamic revolution.
“Mr. Trump is a man of action,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said in a lengthy telephone interview with The New York Times. “He is a businessman and therefore he is capable of calculating cost-benefits and making a decision. We say to him, let’s calculate the long-term cost-benefit of our two nations and not be shortsighted.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks are among several signals from different ends of Iran’s political spectrum that Iranian officials want to talk as the risk of armed conflict with the United States has escalated.
The tensions were punctuated on Thursday by Iran’s disclosure that it had seized a foreign tanker in the Persian Gulf and by Mr. Trump’s assertion that American naval forces in the region had downed an Iranian drone.
Iranian officials on Friday denied that the Americans had downed one of their drones. (Mr. Ahmadinejad, who spoke before the Americans first reported their claim about the drone, said through an aide on Friday that it had not changed his view that both sides should talk.)
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, who had previously insisted there could be no negotiations with the United States unless it rejoined the nuclear agreement Mr. Trump abandoned last year, said Thursday he was willing to meet with American senators to discuss possible ways out of the nuclear crisis. For the first time, Mr. Zarif floated modest steps that Tehran would be willing to take in return for the simultaneous lifting of sanctions Mr. Trump reimposed.
Within the rivalries that pervade Iran’s political hierarchy, the American-educated Mr. Zarif is a big contrast to Mr. Ahmadinejad, who as president pushed Mr. Zarif out of government. Yet both are now seeking ways to communicate with the Trump administration.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s self-aggrandizing demagogy in some ways makes him Iran’s version of Mr. Trump, in the view of some Iranians.
But he still commands a following in the country of 80 million, mostly among low-income people who associate his tenure with better economic times and cash subsidies from the government.
He also has a seat on the elite Expediency Council, a body appointed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to supervise the work of elected officials.
While he was disqualified from running for president again two years ago, he still travels around the country making speeches and writing open letters criticizing the government and the judiciary.
Unlike other hard-liners, he dares to criticize the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps for its influence over Iran’s economy and the power it gives Mr. Khamenei, who has sole authority to direct the vast paramilitary force.
“Ahmadinejad is shaking things up by boldly talking about all the issues that everyone knows but nobody dares talk about publicly, and be willing to pay the cost,” said Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, an Iranian political analyst based in New York.
Lately he has become the most high-profile hard-line figure to advocate the unorthodox view of talking with Mr. Trump.
In The Times interview, which lasted more than an hour, Mr. Ahmadinejad said that Tehran and Washington should directly resolve the litany of disputes that began with the 1979 revolution, the seizure of the United States Embassy, the taking of American hostages, the mutual accusations of regional meddling and all the rest.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran should scrap the approach of enlisting Europe and other intermediaries to influence Mr. Trump over his hostility to the 2015 nuclear agreement. This would be possible, Mr. Ahmadinejad said, if Mr. Trump first eased some of his “maximum pressure” tactics, most notably the onerous sanctions he reimposed after having abandoned the agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, between Iran and the big powers.
“World peace, economy and culture would greatly benefit from us working together,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said. “The U.S. wants to address wider issues than the J.C.P.O.A. The issues at stake are more important and wider than whether the J.C.P.O.A. should live or die. We need to have a fundamental discussion.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad said he had written three letters to Mr. Trump: in February 2017 to congratulate him on his election; in June 2018 after Mr. Trump had exited the nuclear deal; and last month as the forces of both countries were facing off in the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said he sent all three letters, which offered long philosophical musings and governing advice, via mail to the care of the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, via message to Mr. Trump’s Twitter account and to a White House email address. The Swiss Embassy looks after American interests in Iran in the absence of direct diplomatic ties.
It was unclear if Mr. Trump ever received the letters. White House officials said they needed more information about precisely how and when they were sent but pointed out that Mr. Ahmadinejad could not have directly messaged them via Twitter because Mr. Trump does not follow him. The Swiss Embassy in Tehran declined through a spokesman to comment.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said he had not been reprimanded for attempting to correspond with Mr. Trump and that Mr. Khamenei can change his mind and approve negotiations with Washington if the administration shifts its approach. He pointed out that Mr. Khamenei, who has the final word on Iran’s relations with the United States, had allowed nuclear talks with the Americans under President Barack Obama.
The timing of the messages of both Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Zarif were notable: The Trump administration has sent several signals in recent days that it wants to begin talks with Iran with “no preconditions.”
And for the first time since Mr. Trump abandoned the nuclear agreement, both sides are talking about the need to negotiate, even if each has set out unilateral demands that the other must meet.
There is no guarantee, of course, that both sides will find a way. Mr. Khamenei has described Mr. Trump as an evil trickster and has prohibited talks with him under any circumstances. And Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards who is rumored to be a future president, has said that talking to Washington would be like surrender.
Mr. Ahmadinejad conceded that for talks to happen, in his view, the United States would need to soften its approach.
“If you choke the throat of anyone in the world and say come and talk it won’t be valid,” he said. “Negotiations must take place in calmer, more respectful conditions so they can be long lasting.”
In the past few weeks Iranian media have reported that besides Mr. Ahmadinejad, at least three prominent conservatives have advocated talks with the United States, underscoring the divisions in Iran’s hierarchy.
Brig. Gen. Hossein Alaei, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards joint forces and founder of its navy, said, “We must use the mechanism of negotiations and should not set aside talking.” He also criticized the decision not to sit down with Mr. Trump when he offered talks without preconditions.
Mojtaba Zonnour, a conservative cleric and head of Parliament’s national security committee, said that the “Islamic Republic is not running away from talks and the path to talking remains open,” but that it should take place within the framework of the Iran nuclear deal.
Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a prominent leader of a conservative political party, said the Islamic Republic had learned in its 40-year history how to turn “maximum threat from the enemy” into “opportunity.”
“In the current ping-pong situation between Islamic Republic and Trump’s craziness, intermediaries have entered and we’ve had some serious discussions and prepared several scenarios,” Mr. Bahonar said of the potential for negotiations.
In trying to present himself as a political alternative for Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad tried in The Times interview to walk back some of his comments and policies that are considered incendiary in the West.
On Israel’s right to exist and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said that he would accept whatever Palestinians decide in a free election.
On the brutal crackdowns by his government on protesters and dissidents contesting his re-election in 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad denounced the clashes and tensions but said that the other side should have accepted the vote. He contended it was not his decision to place his political adversaries, the opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi under house arrest.
Some Iran political analysts say Mr. Ahmadinejad’s eagerness to talk with a Western news organization shows that Iranian leaders are pursuing several policies simultaneously to see which one works in their standoff with the United States: escalating tensions, decreasing nuclear commitments and exploring diplomatic routes.
“Engagement with Trump directly is an idea that has gained currency in Iran,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group. “Not because they think they can get a better and broader agreement than the J.C.P.O.A., but they think it can provide them with some relief.”