Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that Iran appeared willing to negotiate over its missile program “for the first time,” in what he and President Trump presented as evidence that sanctions and military pressure were working, less than a month after the president halted a planned military strike against Iran.
But within hours of the statement to reporters, delivered before a cabinet meeting at the White House, the idea was shot down by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was in New York for a meeting at the United Nations. His spokesman said that the two men had misinterpreted Mr. Zarif’s public statements, in which he repeated past demands that if the United States “wants to talk about missiles, it should stop selling weapons, including missiles, to regional states.”
It was a clear reference to American weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran’s other Arab adversaries.
The odd exchange, and the apparent misconstruing of Mr. Zarif’s comments, seemed to underscore the eagerness of the White House to turn weeks of confrontation with Iran into some kind of negotiating opportunity — and a reminder of how hard that will be to accomplish. Iranian officials have repeatedly said they would engage with Mr. Trump only after he rejoined the 2015 nuclear accord, which he withdrew from last year.
Mr. Trump appeared to ignore that demand, backing up his top diplomat’s assessment that American restrictions on Iranian oil exports had left the regime “struggling to figure out what they’re going to do with their economy.”
“They’d like to talk, and we’ll see what happens,” Mr. Trump said.
But the Iranians say their position is unchanged.
“I think the administration is desperately looking for any sign that this is working and that Iran is willing to talk,” said Philip Gordon, a Middle East official in the Obama administration who helped to negotiate the 2015 accord.
But Mr. Gordon, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, added that “even if both sides overcame the obstacles to talks, there’s no sign that Iran is remotely willing to accept the sort of deal the administration has said would be its bottom line.”
The exchange between officials of the two countries followed a string of private messages and efforts at outreach that seemed intended to de-escalate a series of confrontations that many feared could lead to war, either accidentally or deliberately.
A visit a month ago to Iran by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, went badly, with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declaring that he would never speak with Mr. Trump and had no intention of repeating the “bitter experience” of negotiating a hard-fought agreement with the United States, only to see a new president renounce it.
But over the weekend France sent an emissary to Tehran, seeking a modest short-term agreement to calm tensions. And Mr. Pompeo, at the last moment, approved a visa for Mr. Zarif, though the State Department stipulated that he was being admitted to the United States “for the sole purpose of attending U.N. meetings” and “should restrict his activities to U.N. business only,” according to a letter obtained by The New York Times.
Then, after Mr. Zarif gave an interview with Lester Holt of NBC on Sunday, the administration seemed eager to find any opening. Missiles provided that basis.
But Mr. Zarif’s spokesman declared on Tuesday that Iran’s missiles “are absolutely and under no condition negotiable with anyone or any country, period.”
That was “not a new position by the Iranians,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director of the nonprofit Crisis Group. “They have been saying this for many, many years now.”
For years Iran ignored a United Nations resolution that effectively barred it from conducting missile launches, and it developed a sophisticated arsenal, capable of reaching the edge of Europe. Missiles were not covered in the 2015 nuclear agreement, but the secretary of state at the time, John Kerry, negotiated language with Mr. Zarif that watered down the restriction.
The United Nations resolution passed alongside the embrace of the nuclear accord said that “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” Iran said that the “called upon” language did not bar it from such tests, and that none of its missiles were designed to be nuclear capable.
The rebuff to Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo came a day after European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed that Iran’s recent, carefully calibrated breach of its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal were not serious enough to warrant “snapback” sanctions. In the European view, it is Mr. Trump who is primarily responsible for the current standoff.
Nonetheless, Iran has begun to exceed the deal’s limits on its stockpile of nuclear material and is enriching uranium to slightly higher levels of purity than the agreement sanctioned.
Yet most experts agree that so far the Iranian actions have not pushed the country over the key measurement: that it remain at least a year away from enriching enough uranium to fashion a single nuclear weapon. Mr. Zarif said on Monday that if Iran wanted nuclear arms, it would have already produced them.
In a televised speech on Sunday, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran said that his country would hold talks with the United States if Washington lifted economic sanctions and returned to the nuclear deal. But on Tuesday, Mr. Khamenei, struck a more hostile tone, railing against the United States and Europe in a speech on Iranian state television. On his English-language Twitter account, he said that Iran “will continue the process of cutting down on its #JCPOA commitments,” a reference to the 2015 nuclear deal, which is officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Mr. Khamenei was particularly angry over the impoundment by British forces of an Iranian tanker suspected of transporting oil to Syria in defiance of European sanctions.
Mr. Vaez said France’s government was trying to encourage dialogue by proposing that the United States refrain from imposing new sanctions on Iran and possibly grant waivers from sanctions against nations that import Iranian oil. In return, Iran would return to its commitments under the nuclear deal, refrain from further attacks on oil tankers and potentially even release American citizens imprisoned in the country.
President Emmanuel Macron of France told reporters on Monday that he hoped to speak with Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Trump, as well as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in pursuit of de-escalating tensions. But Mr. Vaez believes that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo are, for now, engaged in a form of wishful thinking.
“For the administration to jump on this as a sign of ‘maximum pressure’ softening the Iranian position and opening up the door over negotiations over the missile program is at best a sign of desperation, and at worst a complete misreading of the dynamics in Iran,” Mr. Vaez said.