Le Drian’s constructive Tehran visit

Iranian Diplomacy | Kaveh L. Afrasiabi: Despite his expressed concerns about Iran’s regional behavior and missile program, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has made a crucial, timely, and by all indications constructive, visit to Tehran to discuss “bilateral, regional, and international” issues.  France under President Emmanuel Macron is trying to play a visible and assertive role in the Middle Eastern affairs and, simultaneously, increase France’s commercial portfolio with Iran in the so-called “post-sanctions” era, in light of the entry into the Iran market of various energy, car manufacturing, and other French businesses, thus making France into Iran’s No. 1 European trade partner surpassing Germany and others. 

These existing and potential future Iran-France trade agreements need to be safeguarded from any American backlash, which could materialize as early as May, 2018, when President Trump is due to waive the sanctions lifted under the nuclear accord; should he fail to do so and, in effect, re-impose the US sanctions, these will adversely affect the European trade with Iran, likely to trigger a European counter-measure to protect the commercial interests with Iran.

Although he has categorically denied that his purpose of Tehran visit was to act as “emissary for the United States,” Le Drian is keenly aware of the American sensitivities and their probe of whether or not he has been able to extract any concessions from Tehran on such issues as Iran’s missile tests, transparency, and regional affairs?  For sure, the subject will arise as the impending US-European meeting on Iran that is due to take place in Berlin later this month.  The big question is, of course, if Europe can bring US into line on the nuclear accord (JCPOA) or will simply cave in to the American pressure?

From Iran’s vantage, as stated by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in his recent London visit, the other JCPOA parties must first prove their loyalty to the agreement before they can advance any request for any other agreement. There is an issue of trust deficit in play right now that must be addressed, otherwise no amount of “smart diplomacy” will succeed in salvaging the sinking ship of Iran nuclear accord.

Coinciding with the Le Drian’s visit was yet another Iran report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) re-confirming Iran’s faithful implementation of its obligations under the JCPOA.  These reports clearly undermine the American argument that Iran has been in non-compliance with the JCPOA, thus rendering the present American coercive diplomacy toward Iran a harder sell to the Europeans and others.

With respect to the Iranian missile program, it is noteworthy that the French officials have focused on the range of Iran’s missiles and, at the same time, accused Iran of non-compliance with the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which simply focuses on Iranian ballistic missiles “designed” to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Iran insists that it has not made any such designs and all its missiles are conventional in nature and for defense purposes only.

President Macron, on the other hand, has raised the prospect of couching the missile discussion in the net of “wider region,” in light of the fact that both Saudi Arabia and Israel possess missile technology, which would need to come under the radar of any region-wide dialogue on missiles, instead of singling out Iran.  But, that seems unlikely and the French and others know it, which is why the whole French idea of placing Iran’s missiles under “surveillance” is unworkable and contrary to Iran’s national security interests.

But, of course, Iran and France do not need to meet eye to eye on every single issue in order to deepen their bilateral relations.  The important barometer for the success of Mr. Le Drian’s trip is the ability of both sides to listen to each other and consider the various concerns and interests of the other side instead of ignoring them.  This is a two-way process however, as Iran is rightly concerned about the role of French arms in the Saudi hands causing mayhem in Yemen and alarming the world’s rights organizations.

It would be sheer French hypocrisy to echo the Saudi criticism of Iran’s alleged assistance to Yemen’s Houthis without at the same time heeding the call of rights organizations to suspend arming the warmongering Saudis, in fact in violation of France’s own arms export standards.  France is not active in mediating the Yemen conflict simply because this horrendous conflict serves the interests of the French arms industry that has sold billions of dollars of arms to the Gulf Cooperation Council member states during Macron’s brief presidency so far, thus fueling the regional arms race.

In regards to the situation in Syria, Iran has expressed its willingness to cooperate with the UN resolution on ceasefire, but the important question remains what is the long-term French policy on Syria, since it is virtually impossible for Damascus to tolerate a rebel enclave in its suburb resulting in constant shelling of the Syrian capital city.  A Western strategy to evacuate the mostly-terrorist rebels in Eastern Ghouta, similar to the evacuation in Aleppo that has brought normal life back to the shattered city.  A one-sided emphasis on ceasefire without taking into consideration the likely lengthening of the cycle of violence and bloodshed in the absence of an evacuation plan is France’s biggest lacunae when it comes to Syria today.

On the whole, however, Paris’ genuine attempt at engaging with Iran is laudatory and in the mutual interests of both countries and can, hopefully, have salutary effects in terms of the much-needed longevity of the Iran nuclear accord, that is a landmark international agreement and binding on the parties in light of the UN Security Council resolution 2231 that has put a seal of approval on it.  As a result, any re-imposition of lifted sanctions under new guises would be tantamount to violating the terms of the JCPOA, and that is a crucial issue that the Europeans must impress upon the Americans when they meet in Berlin to discuss Iran in March.  Ultimately, the Americans must step back from their threats to scuttle the deal, or they will be rupturing new gaps in transatlantic relations.