White House Says Iran Lied About Trump Asking To Meet With Rouhani

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, who is probably lying that Trump wanted to meet with him. Reuters

Donald Trump asked to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and was turned down, according to Iranian news reports. But White House officials deny that the request was ever made.  

President Trump allegedly asked to meet Rouhani the day after his visit to the United Nations General Assembly in September.

"An intention was expressed by the American side that was not approved by President Rouhani," Iranian spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said in reference to the request, according to an Iranian media report. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday denied the allegations and called the report “false.”  

The story may be an attempt to make the Iranian leadership appear tough on Trump to its domestic audience. Religious hardliners in Iran have viciously attacked Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for supporting the Iran nuclear deal, which scraped international sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear weapons program.

The story about Trump’s attempt to meet with Rouhani was likely invented to bolster Rouhani’s image as the Trump administration takes a harder line on Iran and works to dismantle the Iran deal, experts say. 

“Circulating this rumor makes Rouhani look good in the context of Iranian politics,” Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, told Newsweek. "The Trump administration is incoherent on many levels, but it wouldn’t make sense after playing hardball with Iran that they would reach out. Rouhani stands to benefit from this.

“If Iran is so certain that Trump asked for this meeting then they should produce the email or the evidence," Hashemi added.

In his speech to the UN, President Trump blasted Iran and called it a “murderous regime” that is in “pursuit of death and destruction." Iran and the United States cut diplomatic ties following the 1979 Iran hostage crisis in which 52 American diplomats and citizens were held in Iran for months. Since then, only President Barack Obama has spoken directly with Iran’s top leadership. The conversation between Obama and Rouhani sparked outrage from Iran’s hardline religious leadership.

Iranian religious zealots also demanded an apology from the country’s foreign minister after he shook hands with Obama during a UN visit in 2015.

“The hardliners went ballistic and wanted to charge Iran’s foreign minister with treason,” Hashemi noted.

Iran may also be spreading the rumor about the meeting to capitalize on the fact that the other signatories of the Iran deal disagree with Trump’s hardline stance on Iran, said Ali Nader, a Middle East expert with the Rand Corporation. Trump opted to decertify the Iran nuclear deal this month, despite the fact that international experts agree that Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement. 

“The Iranian government is using [the rumor] for propaganda purposes by portraying itself as having leverage over the U.S. on the nuclear issue, especially as Washington seems isolated after having decertified Iran despite opposition from the agreement's other signatories," Nader said. 

Rouhani has warned that the U.S. would pay a “high-price” if it decides to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement altogether. It is now up to congress to decide whether it will renew sanctions against Iran. 

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