Hard-line sentiment has grown since Washington’s decision to withdraw from nuclear deal

Iran's moderate President Hassan Rouhani has used more hard-line, anti-U.S. rhetoric as domestic pressure has grown.
Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani has used more hard-line, anti-U.S. rhetoric as domestic pressure has grown. PHOTO: LISI NIESNER/REUTERS

Domestic pressure on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to take a more hard-line stance toward the U.S. after Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal gives him little leeway to accept President Trump’s offer to meet.

Mr. Trump on Monday suggested that a meeting between the two leaders could take place with no preconditions, just a week after trading threats with the Iranian president. But anger among Iranians has swelled against the Trump administration since it pulled out in May from the 2015 deal, an Obama -era pact that gave Tehran relief from international sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Ali Motahari, the deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that now that the U.S. has withdrawn Iranian engagement could be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

“Today, negotiations with the U.S. bring humiliation,” he said Tuesday according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. “For now, it’s not appropriate to talk with the U.S.”

The withdrawal is reverberating through Iran’s political system, damaging moderates and reformists who championed the diplomacy and saw relief from sanctions as the ticket to economic prosperity. Hard-line opponents of engagement with the West, in turn, have gained stature from Mr. Trump’s move, which validated their argument that the U.S. can’t be trusted.

Mr. Trump’s brusque tone hasn’t endeared him to Iranian officials, either.

“As long as the Americans bring up negotiations with a forceful attitude, there will be no negotiations,” Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, chairman of Iran’s national security and foreign policy commission, said Tuesday, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency.

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Mr. Falahatpisheh said it was productive to have a back-channel of communication with the U.S., but noted that the Trump administration’s threats didn’t make such diplomacy practical for now.

Mr. Rouhani, a moderate, has himself moved toward hard-line, anti-U.S. rhetoric as domestic pressure has grown, both from stinging critiques and an economy spinning out of control. In early July, he threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if new U.S. sanctions cut off its oil sales, which have already begun to decline as the U.S. pressures allies to reduce purchases.

Mr. Trump responded with an all-caps tweet on July 22 threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.” A round of new U.S. sanctions are set to be imposed on Iran early next week.

Mr. Rouhani’s office couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested on CNBC Monday that there were preconditions to a meeting. The top U.S. diplomat had released 12 demands for talks with Iran in May, following Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

“Why would the Iranians negotiate with an administration that is internally inconsistent?” said Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group. “Should they believe Pompeo’s 12 preconditions or the president’s unconditional proposition? At this stage, no Iranian leader can afford to negotiate with a gun to their head.”

Iran’s leaders are facing rampant unemployment, high inflation and a currency weakening at a historic pace. It took about 112,000 rials to buy one U.S. dollar on Tuesday, nearly double what it cost when Mr. Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal.

Mr. Trump sought talks with Iranian officials at the United Nations General Assembly last year, but Iran rebuffed the advances, Mr. Rouhani’s chief of staff said in July. Bahram Ghasemi, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday that talks required a level of evenhandedness not found in Mr. Trump’s words or deeds.

“The Islamic Republic’s logic is dialogue and interaction, which needs reciprocal respect and adherence to international commitments,” he said, according to IRNA. “Sanctions and threats are the opposite of dialogue.”

Mr. Trump appeared to be modeling a meeting with Mr. Rouhani—and the rhetoric around it—after his glitzy Singapore summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in June. Mr. Trump called that meeting a major success, but critics said it hadn’t produced any real concessions.

Iran is less isolated than North Korea and less amenable to a media spectacle that doesn’t restore the benefits Iran lost.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted Tuesday that the nuclear deal had been working, and that the U.S. had only itself to blame for exiting it. “Threats, sanctions & PR stunts won’t work,” he said. “Try respect: for Iranians & for int’l commitments.”

Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, lashed out at the notion that Iranian officials would meet with Mr. Trump, saying the U.S. president would take that wish “to the grave.”

“You won’t see such a day,” he said, addressing Mr. Trump directly in comments published Tuesday by the semiofficial Tasnim News Agency. Using a play on words, Mr. Jafari said: “Sit in your Black House and live in the illusion that you will meet with Iranian officials. This is a wish you will carry until the end of your presidency, and even U.S. presidents after you won’t see it come true.”

Write to Asa Fitch at asa.fitch@wsj.com



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