France has evidently taken the mantle of Europe’s leadership as Angela Merkel prepares for retirement. The French President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated his leadership qualities by tackling the most complex issue at hand facing Europe, i.e., saving the Iran nuclear deal. With eyes on the United Nations General Assembly session, the French leader tried to arrange a face-to-face meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. To save the day, he even tried to organize a direct telephone conversation between the two. However, Macron’s efforts were unsuccessful in connecting Trump and Rouhani as both Tehran and Washington failed to show any flexibility and they stuck to their positions.
On the eve of the G-7 summit in August, Macron apprised the American president about his meetings with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The French leader convinced Trump to give him a chance to thrash out a solution. On the other hand, he invited Zarif to France after the G-7 leaders reached “points of agreement.” Zarif had a three-hour-long meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, which Macron later joined for the final half-hour. Iran’s insistence of no talks until US sanctions are lifted frustrated the chances of a direct US-Iran meeting on the sidelines of the G-7 summit. A certain degree of flexibility was evident but neither side appeared willing to walk back from their existing positions. Iran’s spiritual leader had consented to his foreign minister accepting Macron’s invite without any preconditions but the French intended a summit-level meeting between Iran and the United States which was a different matter altogether.
As per Ayatollah Khamenei’s directions, the Iranian government is continuing a phased retreat from its commitments signed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On September 7, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that Iran was installing advanced centrifuges at its Natanz reactor. The IAEA added in its statement that it had “verified that the following centrifuges were either installed or being installed…: 22 IR-4, one IR-5, 30 IR-6 and three IR-6s.” Iran itself informed the IAEA through a September 8 letter of its intent on reinstalling the piping at two research and development lines to accommodate a cascade of 164 IR-4 centrifuges and a cascade of 164 IR-2m centrifuges. It already violated two aspects of the JCPOA in July when Tehran surpassed a 3.67 percent limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile. The IAEA verified on September 25 that all of the centrifuges “were accumulating, or had been prepared to accumulate, enriched uranium.”
Yet, President Rouhani stated that Iran agrees to the main framework of the Macron plan but “with some minor changes in the terms and vocabulary.” The French plan hinges on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and seeking its support for regional peace, as well as the immediate lifting of American sanctions to unfreeze Iran’s oil exports. Paris had also proposed a $15 billion credit line to Iran, the sum is about half of the revenue Tehran would earn from its yearly export of oil.
Evidently, the prudence of Rouhani and Zarif is not welcome by the most powerful person in the country. Khamenei tweeted, “These few European countries’ motives of enmity toward Iran doesn’t differ much from those of the US. Of course since they’re not as powerful as the US, they’re different in effecting their enmity. They act as mediators, negotiate, call, do long talks, make empty promises – ALL EMPTY!” He went on to say, “After signing #JCPOA, a few #European officials visited Iran. They met with me, too. I told them, “These visits alone are useless. You should prove your honesty in action.” They didn’t act upon it & declared adherence to US’s cruel secondary sanctions. There’s no hope in them.”
Apart from Khamenei’s skepticism towards the Europeans in general and French plans in particular, another significant development that could falter French proposals, is the retirement of Federica Mogherini who negotiated the JCPOA as EU foreign policy chief. She enjoys significant clout in Tehran. The new EU Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister, could possibly play a supportive role in facilitating French efforts but unlike Mogherini does not have the influence among Iran’s political elite. “We have to keep this agreement alive in order to defend our interests, our security and avoid something worse,” he told a parliamentary confirmation hearing.
There remains much work cut out for President Macron’s top diplomatic adviser Emmanuel Bonne as the French plan remains the only channel at the present time to keep the JCPOA from drowning. The situation offers a bright opportunity for Russia and China to exert their influence on Iran and fill the void left by the Trump presidency and Europe’s failure in keeping Tehran tied down to the JCPOA conditions.