French Mediation Attempts Between the United States and Iran in Limbo


In recent months, France has stepped up its efforts to convince the United States and Iran to talk. But the French initiative has suffered setbacks.
Washington refuses to lift sanctions against Iran after pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the nuclear deal, last May.
The French President Emmanuel Macron’s mediatory role between the United States and Iran might be a failed gamble for now as far as Iran is concerned too. Iran thinks that France has not invested enough to save the nuclear deal.
For months, Iran has insisted that the Europeans should open up a line of credit, known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), to allow the country to sell its oil and to receive cash despite US sanctions. But Europe has failed to convince the United States to allow INSTEX to become fully operational.
Not surprisingly, the mood in Iran toward Europe has shifted. Iran’s hardline supporters of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reject talks with the Trump administration. The so-called “Hezbollah Line” (a title given to groups that promote a culture of resisting sanctions and US pressures) posted an article on the supreme leader’s website which mentioned that it was not a good time to talk to the United States. In a threatening tone, the article suggested that any person or group in Iran that promoted talks with Washington was stepping into unchartered territory.
In late August, backed by President Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was stepping into unchartered territory when he flew to Biarritz, France, to meet with Macron who was hosting the G-7 summit. The trip aimed to promote talks with the United States.
Macron and Zarif agreed on a phased plan to resume talks between the United States and Iran, and a meeting between the leaders of the two countries. But the plan was nipped in the bud as soon as Zarif returned to Iran, and after President Rouhani suggested that he was open to a face-to-face meeting with President Trump.
Macron’s initiative also proposed a possible meeting between Iran and the United States if Tehran remained fully compliant with the JCPOA. In exchange, the United States would offer temporary sanctions relief to Iran by supporting a $15 billion credit line to provide Tehran with cash in return for selling its oil.
Macron seized on Trump’s seemingly flexible attitude towards his initiative while in Biarritz, though the US president made no promises to support it. Iran subsequently sent its diplomats to Paris to hash out the details of the plan. The diplomats returned home hopeful. France offered Iran an initial $5 billion line of credit and another $10 billion if Tehran entered into talks with the West about its regional influence. Iran said it was ready to engage in talks, but it offered no specifics about how it planned to roll back its regional influence.
As a compromise, President Rouhani stressed that Iran’s announced steps to reduce its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA were reversible if the Europeans operationalized INSTEX. In May 2019, Iran announced three steps to reduce its commitments to the JCPOA. In the first and second steps, each with a 60-day grace period in between, Iran violated JCPOA conditions by increasing its uranium stockpile beyond 300kg to advance its nuclear capacity and enriched uranium exceeding the 3.67 percent concentration limit. It also operationalized more advanced nuclear centrifuges, an array of 20 IR-6 and IR-4s to enrich uranium. These new centrifuges are 10 times faster than the old generation of IR-1 centrifuges that Iran once had.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has since announced that the country’s strategic patience is over as Europe has failed to live up to its obligations under the JCPOA. While Iran expects France to convince the US president to support the INSTEX line of credit to Iran, President Trump has told Macron that he will not reduce sanctions against Iran without a comprehensive agreement.
The United States has since imposed new sanctions on Iran’s oil and shipping industry, blacklisting dozens of Iranian owned-tankers, companies and insurance firms that are controlled by Tehran’s Al Quds Force, an elite military unit designated by the United States as a terror group.   Iran says that the new sanctions are unprecedented and refuses to make further concessions, and would rather set an example of resisting sanctions than being forced to comply with US demands.
As a result, the French mediation attempts seem to have hit rock bottom. There is speculation that the French might try to revive their multi-phase plan during the upcoming UN General Assembly meetings in September in New York. France, meanwhile, continues to offer assurances to the United States that Iran’s latest nuclear agenda is intent on forcing a compromise deal and not to send negative signals to Washington.

Editorial Team