France is trying to calm tensions between Iran and the United States as Tehran breaks out of the international deal meant to stop it from developing nuclear weapons.
President Emmanuel Macron’s top diplomatic adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, has been in Tehran for two days of high-level talks, as European officials discuss ways to keep the nuclear pact alive. According to European diplomats, options being considered include a so-called “freeze-for-freeze” where Iran would stop ramping up nuclear activity and the U.S. would hold sanctions at current levels to allow time for dialogue to resume.
The difficulty of trying to get the two sides to cool off was underscored on Wednesday when U.S. President Donal Trump, in a tweet, once again denounced the nuclear deal and declared that “Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!” His outburst came just as Bonne was wrapping up his second day of meetings.
Bonne delivered a handwritten message from Macron to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and met with Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, according to Iranian media, as well as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Shamkhani is reported to be playing a central role in Iran’s calibrated breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In the latest violation, the IAEA confirmed this week that Iran was now enriching uranium above the permitted level of 3.67 percent.
At the EU level, no decision on the way forward is expected until foreign ministers gather Monday.
Iran has put pressure on European countries to keep the deal alive following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the pact last year and reimpose crippling economic sanctions on Tehran. Tehran and Washington’s ratcheting up of tensions has sparked fears of a military conflict that could set the Middle East ablaze.
It is Bonne’s second visit to Iran in a month, while Macron has had four conversations on the issue with Trump in recent weeks, as well as two conversations with Rouhani.
“We are in a critical phase because there is an interest on both sides [Iran and the U.S.] to ramp up pressure,” a French presidency official told AFP on Monday. But the official said there was room for compromise because Iran’s violations have so far been calibrated and Trump has expressed his desire to make a new deal and avoid war.
Whether Macron and the EU can make any headway remains uncertain. The French leader’s last attempt at saving the nuclear deal failed in April 2018, when he tried to dissuade Trump from withdrawing.
The European Union and the three European powers that co-signed the deal — the so-called E3 of France, the U.K. and Germany — find themselves squeezed from two sides.
On the one hand, Tehran wants the E3 to better counter U.S. sanctions by finding a way to resume Iranian oil exports, a crucial revenue stream for its struggling economy. On the other, the U.S. has aggressively curtailed European efforts to preserve trade with Iran by asserting that European companies that pursue that path will not have access to U.S. markets.
At the EU level, no decision on the way forward is expected until foreign ministers gather on Monday, and France has not yet shared details of its current efforts with all its EU counterparts, according to diplomats.
“The French have called to use all diplomatic
means to avoid escalations” during preparatory meetings ahead of Monday’s gathering but, according to a senior EU diplomat, so far they have remained “generic” on their plans, at least when dealing with EU countries that are not part of the E3.
Diplomacy not dead
Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador in Washington and Brussels who is credited with setting up the EU’s diplomatic service, said diplomacy could yet yield results. He noted that efforts by countries as diverse as Japan, Oman and nations that sometimes try to intervene as honest brokers, like Switzerland or Norway, have not delivered a breakthrough but “it could come.”
De-escalation as a first step, and some sort of deal to lift at least some sanctions as a second step, “is a scheme we have seen in many other places,” argued Vimont, who was the first secretary-general of the European External Action Service. He suggested a third step could be a broader agreement on regional security, an idea that has been advocated by Zarif.
The difficulty, he stressed, is how to get there and “how to build trust” between Americans and Iranians. But he said the two sides have tried “in recent days to avoid anything that could complicate and worsen the situation.”
Iranian officials maintained their publicly defiant position on Wednesday in their meetings with Bonne.
So far the EU reaction has focused mainly on saving the Iran deal and trade with Iran.
The Europeans have set up a trading system known as Instex, designed to allow EU companies to do business with Iran. It has only involved food and humanitarian goods so far, and has been shunned by major European companies that have preferred not to risk U.S. sanctions. Tehran says Instex does not go far enough and is pushing the EU to do more to help the Iranian economy.
European officials say Iran is wrong to insist it’s up to them to make up for U.S. sanctions and rescue Tehran’s economy. They say Iran’s major oil consumers — including China, a signatory of the JCPOA — could not use Instex anyway as they are not European, and argue that Russia and China could do more to help maintain the deal.
Nevertheless, they are anxious to prevent a further increase in tensions and are hoping their diplomatic relations with both sides give them a shot at brokering a way out of the standoff.
The current effort is focused on “buying time” and persuading both sides to make “discrete gestures… to return to the status quo ante,” according to a high-level European official involved in the discussions.
A first step would be the “freeze for freeze” agreement to provide a window for talks. A next step could be Iran returning its uranium stockpiling and enrichment to levels permitted under the JCPOA, as E3 foreign ministers and Federica Mogherini called on Tehran to do in a statement on Tuesday.
But Iranian officials maintained their publicly defiant position on Wednesday in their meetings with Bonne. Shamkhani reportedly said Iran’s step-by-step reduction of commitments within the JCPOA is irreversible, according to Iranian media reports.
One possible incentive for Iran to take that step would be for the United States to reinstate some waivers that would allow a resumption of a limited amount of Iranian oil exports.
“The heart of de-escalation efforts
… supposes that there would be some Iranian oil shipments that can go to the principal countries that import Iranian oil,” meaning China, India and Japan, according to the high-level European official.
But that idea faces stiff resistance in Washington.
“There will be no waivers issued for the import of Iranian oil, in accordance with the president’s direction. Importing Iranian oil is a sanctionable activity under U.S. law. U.S. secondary sanctions will be fully enforced,” said a senior U.S. administration official.
Other possible elements of a compromise would be to convince the U.S. to ease off on sanctions that European companies may face for trading with Iran, while the E3 could contribute more to maritime security in the Gulf, addressing a complaint by Trump that the United States polices the area to the economic benefit of other countries.
These elements could give Iran an economic lifeline and hand Trump a win in getting Europeans to share the burden of policing the Gulf, where Iran has attacked oil tankers, according to U.S. intelligence.
“Can the question of maritime security in the Gulf be part of this general discussion on de-escalation? We think so, how we put that in place is part of the issues we have to figure out,” said the high-level European official.
Macron has set July 15 as a deadline for the resumption of dialogue between all parties.
But European officials also say they struggle to understand the Americans’ endgame, and worry they could suddenly discover Tehran and Washington have sealed a grand bargain — with Europe left out.
“The E3 could try to facilitate dialogue between the two sides [U.S. and Iran]… [but] there’s a fear to end up cut off, that we help both sides to sit at the table and then we get excluded,” a second senior European diplomat said. “It wouldn’t be the first time… It’s basically what happened with the six-party talks and North Korea.”
Macron has set July 15 as a deadline for the resumption of dialogue between all parties. But if Iran does not come back into compliance with the deal, Europeans could resort to a provision in the accord to buy more time.
“We’re considering to use the dispute settlement mechanism in the JCPOA. It would buy us some time, probably more than two months, to try to rescue the deal,” said the first senior European diplomat.
Nevertheless, triggering this mechanism is also potentially the precursor to the reimposition of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council — a drastic measure that the E3 have consistently tried to avoid.