French President Emmanuel Macron has been working tirelessly during the last few months to stop the escalation in the Gulf between the United States and Iran.
If the immediate goal has been to prevent the outbreak of hostilities between Washington and Tehran, the objectives of French diplomacy have become more ambitious of late.
One of the basic objectives has been to salvage the Iranian nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was signed in July 2015 under the Obama administration.
The agreement has been considered, and rightly so, a very effective instrument for denying a path for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, through diplomatic and legal means.
US President Donald Trump did not see it this way, unfortunately. On 8 May 2018, he announced the withdrawal of the United States from JCPOA, to the great disappointment of other signatories of the landmark deal; namely, France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia and China.
The aforementioned European powers have been pushing hard ever since to save this deal which is considered a cornerstone in Gulf security.
The French government, in particular, for economic, commercial and strategic reasons, has been trying to prevail on the Trump administration to refrain from any action that could precipitate, even unintentionally, a conflagration in the Gulf that would wreak havoc across the Middle East, and probably beyond.
The world was taken by surprise when the Iranian foreign minister descended on Biarritz the week before last during the G7 Summit, at which Mr Trump was in attendance. When asked about his reaction to the surprise visit of the Iranian minister, the US president replied by saying, “No comment.”
From a diplomatic point of view, it is not feasible to arrange such a surprise visit and taking into account the stalemated confrontation between the United States and Iran without notifying the US president beforehand, if not gaining his prior consent.
In a joint press conference with French President Macron on 26 August, President Trump said he would be open to meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. He even added that he would be willing to offer short-term loans to help Iran’s “battered economy”.
In this regard, the US president has not opposed a proposal by the French president to establish a line of credit for Iran worth $15 billion. President Trump commented that if the Iranians need money, “certainly we are… talking about a letter of credit… It would be from numerous countries,” but not the United States.
So, it seems from the above that the principle of arranging a meeting between President Trump and his Iranian counterpart could be on the cards in the next few weeks.
Some observers talked about New York City as a possible venue when the UN General Assembly begins in the second half of September; that is, less than three weeks from today.
President Macron, after meeting with President Trump at Biarritz, said he would attempt to arrange a meeting for the American and Iranian presidents in the next few weeks to end decades of combative relations between the two countries. He further added that it is his conviction that “an agreement can be met.”
For this meeting to take place, the consent of the Supreme Leader of Iran is paramount. Without the green light from the highest political authority in Iran, such a meeting would be next to impossible.
At the time of writing of this article, this green light has not flashed yet. It is difficult to predict with certainty what would be the final position of the Iranian Supreme Leader, but we could surmise that if the Trump administration would relax its sanctions regime on Iran, in terms of oil exports and financial transactions, the odds of his agreement would become more favourable.
On 27 August, one day after President Trump said in France that he would be willing to meet President Rouhani, the Iranian president had this to say: “In the relations between Iran and the United States, we will not witness any positive development unless the United States abandons the sanctions and corrects the wrong that it has chosen.”
He assured whoever wants to listen carefully that Iran is not looking to create tension and prefers regional security and will abide by its commitment to the 2015 nuclear accord with the P5+1 group (before American withdrawal from JCPOA).
President Rouhani, and not to leave any doubts, stressed that the “key to positive developments is in Washington’s hands”.
The main obstacle to a Trump-Rouhani meeting is hawkish officials on both sides. To overcome their stubborn objections to any de-escalation between the two countries, both President Trump and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, should trace the path ahead unequivocally.
Not only the hawkish elements in Washington and Tehran have proven so far that they are hurdles to begin a process of de-escalation in the American-Iranian confrontation, but also some regional powers see the fulfilment of their national security interests in the perpetuation of such a dangerous confrontation.
Israel for one is a very dangerous regional hawk when it comes to Iran, on the unfounded and hallow pretext that Tehran is an existential threat to Tel Aviv.
Ironically enough, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in February 1979, not a single shot has been fired by the Iranians against Israeli targets.
The relaxation of some sanctions targeting Iran and the US presidential elections next year could be the main drivers for starting a process of de-escalation between the United States and Iran, via the French connection.
On Friday, 30 August, an explosion occurred in a main launching site for satellites in Iran. It was the third large explosion at this site this year while Iran is trying to launch satellites into orbit.
The first two had taken place in January and February. Lest the Iranians think that the United States was involved in the third explosion, President Trump tweeted the same day that the United States “was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”
What the Iranians make of this message is anyone’s guess. Surely, cooler heads would reason that there is no other alternative but to engage the Americans to prevent further escalation in the Gulf and more destabilising economic deterioration within Iran.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.