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Friday, 15 November 2019

Summit surprises

Iran made an unexpected appearance at the G7 Summit, a gathering marked by discord and dysfunction, writes Manal Lotfy in London

Manal Lotfy , Friday 30 Aug 2019
Summit surprises
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It was the perfect picture of the dysfunctional international family, where an empty chair signalled the absence of US President Donald Trump from a special session to discuss climate change and global warming.

At the same time Brazil was refusing international financial assistance to put out the Amazon fires, saying funds should be spent on reforesting Europe and not on “colonialist practices”.

Meanwhile, many held their breath to see Trump’s reaction to French President Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss a French initiative aiming to salvage the Iranian nuclear deal.

Trump, who is full of surprises, did not disappoint the media when he suggested that he could meet at some point with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Discussions at the G7 Summit spanned global warming, Iran, Brexit, trade wars and potential global recession. The elephant in the room was China.

The absence of the world’s second largest economy from the G7 meetings is clear evidence that the group needs to rethink its composition and role. No wonder the French presidency decided not to issue a final communiqué at the end of the summit.

To stop global recession, end trade wars, fight global warming and save the Iran deal, you need China to be around the table and on board.

A Gamble Worth Taking?

  In a complex international scene characterised by grave problems, and with an erratic, moody and unpredictable US president who hates criticism, the French president walked a fine line to end with a successful summit.

He knew he had a tricky guest in Trump, who came to the summit in a bad mood and with his pride hurt after Denmark refused to sell Greenland to the US, which led him to cancel a state visit to Denmark as “punishment”.

The French president seemed to have succeeded as the summit passed quietly, if uninteresting, until the announcement of the surprise invitation of Mr Javad Zarif for talks with world leaders in a high-stakes gamble by President Macron.

Mr Zarif spent about five hours in Biarritz where he met a few leaders, among them Mr Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A senior French official said Macron personally informed Trump about the invitation of Mr Zarif and the US president did not mind.

It is early days, but signals of a possible breakthrough are positive from Tehran and Washington. Mr Trump said that he was open to meeting Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani under the right circumstances, declaring he had “good feelings” about the prospect of a new nuclear deal with Iran.

“Iran is not the same country it was two and a half years ago when I came into office,” Trump told reporters at a joint G7 press conference with the French leader.

“I really believe that Iran can be a great nation... but they can’t have nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that they had to be “good players” before he would agree to a meeting.

Rouhani, for his part, said he was ready to meet anyone if he felt it would benefit Iran.

“If I am sure that attending a session or having a meeting with someone will help develop my country and resolve the people’s problems, I will not hesitate to do so,” he said.

Macron, who has taken an active role to try to save the Iran nuclear accord, said he believed the “conditions for a meeting” between Trump and Rouhani “in the next few weeks” had been established.

“Nothing is set yet and things are still fragile, but technical discussions have started with some real progress,” he said, adding that he had told Rouhani that “if he accepts a meeting with President Trump, I am convinced an agreement can be found”.

Nonetheless, Macron said he recognised that the Iranians would want “economic compensation of some form” to convince them to agree to additional security demands.

Trump appeared to be open to this, as he said talks were already under way for other countries to potentially provide Iran with credit, secured by oil, to keep its economy afloat.

A meeting between the US president and his Iranian counterpart would be a first since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. It would be on the same scale as the US president meeting his Chinese or Soviet counterparts during the 1970s, or the North Korean leader more recently. But the road is full of hurdles.

The Iranian president said the US president must first lift sanctions imposed on Tehran, else otherwise a meeting between the two would just be a photo opportunity and “that is not possible”.

Meanwhile, Trump said that for any new deal, he was “looking for no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles and a longer period of time”.

But Iran’s state-run Press TV, quoting unnamed sources, said that Iran had rejected talks about its missile programme as “non-negotiable”.

Given the historical hostility between Washington and Tehran and the depth of mutual suspicions and the importance of the Middle East in US strategy, Macron’s initiative is high-stakes diplomacy that could fail spectacularly or succeed in the same manner.

But Trump might like that high-stakes game with Iran; it mirrors his own high-stakes diplomacy with Russia or North Korea.

Breaking the mould of US-Iran relationships is not a small ask. It could transform the Middle East and reduce the tensions and wars that have exhausted the region and the world over the past 40 years.

“I am not getting ahead of myself, but strained Iranian-US relations are the root of all problems in the Middle East. No one in the region or the world wants a new war. The only way to stop this is through direct dialogue between Tehran and Washington,” a senior European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“At the summit there was consensus that dialogue is the best way forward to save the Middle East from this cycle of endless violence. We are all on the same page. But it won’t be easy to break the mould and defuse decades of hostility without real determination,” he said.

Short-Lived Optimism

The G7 was founded as a response to the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s and the recession that followed. So, the health of the international economy is always on the agenda.

At the summit leaders focused much on what they can do to boost growth at a time of heightened uncertainty. Businesses don’t know where tariffs will be imposed next. With the UK and US economies slowing, and Germany and Italy close to recession, everyone is extra worried.

And if there was any optimism after the summit, it faded very quickly as German business confidence sunk to its lowest level in nearly seven years and a handful of German industrial giants cut their forecasts.

The outcome of the G7 was “extremely meagre,” according to Holger Bingmann, president of the Federation of German Wholesale and Foreign Trade (BGA) in Berlin.

“Nowhere are there any signs of easing tension, let alone any noteworthy progress. And this at a time when the global economy has long since reached a delicate point,” said Bingmann.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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