In the power circles of Tehran, where “Death to America” is regularly chanted, the idea has taken hold that Iran must eventually negotiate with...

In the power circles of Tehran, where “Death to America” is regularly chanted, the idea has taken hold that Iran must eventually negotiate with President Trump, according to several people with knowledge of the shift.

These people said Iran’s leadership had concluded that Mr. Trump could be re-elected and that the country cannot withstand six more years of the onerous sanctions he has imposed.

It is a remarkable turnabout for the political establishment in Tehran, which for the past 40 years has staked its legitimacy on defiance of the United States but has been particularly hostile toward Mr. Trump.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran teased a possible meeting with Mr. Trump earlier this week, indicating he would be willing if it would benefit Iranians.

Mr. Rouhani reversed himself within 24 hours, suggesting he may have been overruled by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the people with knowledge of the Iranian hierarchy’s thinking said Mr. Rouhani’s behavior should be viewed as part of the emerging new strategy.

They said the strategy was following two parallel tracks: displaying a more defiant position on Iran’s military and nuclear energy policies to irritate Mr. Trump, while signaling a willingness to talk under certain conditions, appealing to what are seen as his deal-maker instincts.

ImageThe ultimate decision on whether to negotiate with Mr. Trump lies with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
CreditOffice of the Iranian Supreme Leader

“Iran has completely shifted,” said Abbas Abdi, a onetime leader of the students who took hostages at the United States Embassy in 1979 and now a prominent figure in a faction known as the reformists, which is open to dialogue with the Americans.

Hard-liners who have opposed such dialogue, Mr. Abdi said, had “concluded that what works now with America is being tough but open to talks if Trump offers some guarantees.”

Iranian leaders were predictably outraged last year after Mr. Trump abandoned Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers, demanded a more stringent accord and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran.

While some may have hoped Mr. Trump could be dismissed as a one-term president, that view has faded.

The new strategy, those who spoke about it said, was also predicated on dangling a foreign-policy victory to Mr. Trump that he could use to bolster his re-election prospects.

In early August, First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri held a meeting with a group of advisers and political affiliates to discuss the government’s approach to dealing with the United States, according to one person who attended the meeting and another who had knowledge of it.

If Mr. Trump wanted a “more comprehensive” deal than the existing accord, then Iran would consider his demand — and even discuss parts of its ballistic missile program and Iran’s role in the region — but in return Iran, too, would seek a more comprehensive guarantee from the United States for long-lasting economic relief, the people at the meeting said.


CreditBryan Denton for The New York Times

“This golden window of opportunity will likely not repeat in the next decade,” Sadegh Alhusseini, a senior foreign-policy and economic adviser to Mr. Jahangiri, said in a Twitter message. “This is the start of the game for Iran. Approaching U.S. elections give Iran a rare card to play with Trump.”

The “maximum pressure” campaign decreed by Mr. Trump has not threatened to collapse the Iranian government or led to a popular uprising, as some critics of the government had hoped. But rising tensions with the United States carry the risk of a military conflict, which Mr. Trump has said he wants to avoid.

Signs of Iran’s strategy for dealing with Mr. Trump have become clearer in recent weeks.

Iran has downed an American drone, seized a British tanker, unveiled an improved missile defense system and exceeded the amount of enriched uranium permitted under the nuclear agreement.

As part of the strategy, people with knowledge of it said, the Iranians intend to escalate tensions even more in the next few months to strengthen their hand in potential negotiations.

Iran is expected to announce a further disengagement from the nuclear deal by the first week of September and Iranian officials have said they might increase uranium enrichment up to 20 percent, far higher than needed for civilian power use.

At the same time, Iran has strengthened diplomacy. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif toured Europe, stopped at the Group of 7 summit on a surprise invitation from France, and traveled to China, Japan and Malaysia to meet heads of states.

Mr. Trump did not meet Mr. Zarif at the Group of 7 gathering, and it remains unclear what the Iranian foreign minister might have sought from the United States there. But sanctions relief of some kind was almost certainly raised, Iranian analysts said.


CreditMorteza Akhoondi/Tasnim News Agency

“Iranians are in a deep economic crisis and there is only one way out,” said Nader Hashemi, director of the Middle East Center at Denver University. “They are going to try to push for making the deal as sweet as possible.”

Mr. Zarif’s appearance heightened speculation about direct talks after President Emmanuel Macron of France announced on the sidelines that Mr. Trump and Mr. Rouhani could sit down within weeks.

Mr. Trump gave no indication at the summit that lifting or suspending sanctions was on the table but he said other countries could give Iran a line of credit for its oil to “get them over a very rough patch.”

For Mr. Rouhani’s part, even while he rejected an imminent meeting with Trump, he offered a conditional opening.

“We won’t reach a positive change in our relations with the U.S. without America ending sanctions and rectifying its mistakes,” Mr. Rouhani said on Tuesday.

Opponents of such a meeting, in both countries, remain vocal, reflecting the history of mistrust that has shaped relations since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

After Mr. Rouhani broached the mere possibility of a meeting with Mr. Trump, Kayhan, a Tehran newspaper that is a mouthpiece for the hard-line factions, asked: “Are you crazy?”


CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times

United Against Nuclear Iran, a New York-based group that supports Mr. Trump’s repudiation of the nuclear deal, said, “The momentum created by maximum pressure could quickly evaporate should talks between the United States and Iran take place prematurely.”

The ultimate decision on whether to negotiate with Mr. Trump lies with Ayatollah Khamenei. Iranian analysts and politicians said that Mr. Zarif would not have been dispatched to the Group of 7 meeting without Ayatollah Khamenei’s approval.

While Ayatollah Khamenei has always railed against the United States, he has in the past shown flexibility when all options were exhausted, if a compromise could be achieved with face-saving for Iran.

Iranian analysts and politicians have pointed to three examples when the government reversed itself and conceded to unbearable pressure: the release of American hostages in 1981, consent to the United Nations resolution to end the eight-year war with Iraq in 1988, and the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic, famously said that stopping the war with Iraq had been “more deadly than taking poison.” Since then expression “chalice of poison” has become a synonym in Iran for capitulation. (“Showing heroic flexibility” was the term preferred by Ayatollah Khamenei after the nuclear deal.)

Iranian politicians and analysts said the 1981 hostage negotiations with the United States are being studied as a potential precedent for discussions with Mr. Trump.

At that time, which also coincided with a presidential election season, Iran negotiated the release of the hostages with the administration of President Jimmy Carter but delayed freeing them, denying Mr. Carter an achievement that could have helped him win re-election.

The hostages were released as President Ronald Reagan was giving his inaugural address.

“The rhetoric you hear against talking to America is all part of the tactic,” said Saeed Shariati, leader of an Iranian reformist political party. “Iran and the U.S. will never resolve their issue completely but they’ve made concessions before and they will have to do it once again.”

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