FRANCE: US President Donald Trump said Monday at the G7 summit that he is prepared to meet his Iranian counterpart within weeks in what would amount to a stunning change of direction in the two countries' smouldering standoff.
The potential breakthrough was announced by Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron, who said he would facilitate the first face-to-face meeting between the US president and the Iranians.
The surprise news came after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a dramatic, unscheduled appearance on the sidelines of the summit held in Biarritz on Sunday at the invitation of Macron.
The 41-year-old French leader said the "conditions for a meeting" between Trump and Iran's Hassan Rouhani "in the next few weeks" had been created through intensive diplomacy and consultations.
"If the circumstances were correct, I would certainly agree to that," Trump said at a press conference with Macron at the end of three days of G7 talks.
Asked if he thought the timeline proposed by his French counterpart was realistic, Trump replied: "It does."
Trump was equally confident that Rouhani would be in favour.
"I think he's going to want to meet. I think Iran wants to get this situation straightened out," he added.
Both men will be in New York for the UN General Assembly at the end of September which could provide the stage for the talks.
Trump has put in place a policy of "maximum pressure" on Tehran over its disputed nuclear programme via crippling sanctions that critics see as raising the risk of conflict in the Middle East between the United States and Iran.
The US president last year unilaterally pulled out of a landmark 2015 international deal that placed limits on Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for trade, investment and sanctions relief.
Trump said the deal gave the Iranians cover to keep pursuing a secret nuclear military programme which they insist does not exist.
Rouhani appeared to accept the idea of opening to talks with Washington.
"I believe that for our country's national interests we must use any tool," Rouhani said of Zarif's Biarritz visit in a speech aired live on state television on Monday.
But hardliners criticised the initiative, with the ultra-conservative Kayhan newspaper saying the trip was "improper" and sent "a message of weakness and desperation."
- 'Real progress' -
Macron has urged the US administration to offer some sort of relief to Iran, such as lifting sanctions on oil sales to China and India, and has raised the possibility of a new credit line to enable exports.
In return, Iran would return to complying with the 2015 deal.
Commenting on the talks about Iran at the G7, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "It's a big step forward. Now there is an atmosphere in which talks are welcomed."
Macron and Trump hailed the common ground found by G7 leaders at their summit, which was dominated by the Iranian nuclear crisis, global trade tensions and fires in the Amazon.
"We have managed to find real points of convergence, unprecedented, very positive, that will allow us to go forward in a very useful way," Macron told the press conference.
Trump said Macron had done a "fantastic job" at the G7.
"This was a very special, a very unified two and a half days and I want to thank you," Trump told his host.
Just a few weeks ago, Trump lambasted Macron for sending "mixed signals" on Iran, and at the end of July the US administration imposed sanctions on Zarif.
Macron acknowledged there had been "nervousness" ahead of the summit because of tensions between the US and Europe on a host of issues.
"A lot depends on the return to the United States of Donald Trump and the way he manages everything," analyst Thomas Gomart from the French foreign affairs think-tank IFRI told AFP.
- Trade war worries -
Commenting on his escalating trade war with China, Trump held out hope of a deal to thaw the bruising year-long dispute that has seen tariffs imposed on billions of dollars' worth of goods by both sides.
"I can say we are having very meaningful talks, much more meaningful, I would say, than at any time," he had said at a press conference with Merkel.
Trump said senior Chinese officials had been in contact, though there was no confirmation from the Chinese side.
"I'm not sure they have a choice (on making a deal)," he said. "I don't mean that as a threat. I don't think they have a choice."
Trump arrived in the famed surfing town of Biarritz on Saturday shortly after upping the ante in his trade war with a new round of increased tariffs on Chinese goods.
European leaders have lined up to urge caution and warn about the danger of recession from the conflict.
- 'Preserve our lands' -
On the final day of the summit, the G7 agenda also included action to help fight fires destroying swaths of the Amazon.
The members agreed to spend $20 million (18 million euros) on the world's biggest rainforest, mainly to send firefighting aircraft to tackle blazes.
Macron said later they also hoped to raise "at least 30 million" dollars for a reforestation plan, to be discussed at the UN in September.
On Monday evening, he held talks in Biarritz with Brazilian indigenous chief Raoni Metuktire who said he had asked the French leader to "help us preserve our lands".
Trump was less vocal on this issue than his partners.
He also stood out from the rest of the G7 leaders in his budding friendship with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army officer who has given freer rein to industrial farmers and loggers who have made the country an agribusiness power -- at a huge cost to the environment.
Macron had threatened to block an extensive new trade deal between the European Union and Latin America unless Bolsonaro takes serious steps to combat global warming.