August 27, 2019
Last Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made an unexpected visit to Biarritz during the G7 summit. There he met with President Macron and had extensive talks with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian. He later shared a picture taken during the meeting with the French President saying “Iran’s active diplomacy in pursuit of constructive engagement continues. Road ahead is difficult. But worth trying.” The picture reflected the very cordial atmosphere of his meeting with the French President.
It thus became clear that the French presidency’s top priority in Biarritz was the relaunching of dialogue between Washington and Tehran through a diplomatic initiative which would take France to the center stage of international diplomacy.
On Monday, during his joint press conference with the US President, Mr. Macron, stating the obvious in an attempt to force Mr. Trump’s hand, said the G7 agreed that Iran should not possess nuclear weapons and should not threaten regional security. “I hope that in the coming weeks on the basis of these exchanges we can succeed to have a summit meeting between President Rouhani and President Trump…” he added.
Earlier in the day Iranian President Rouhani had said: “If I know that meeting with a person will resolve the problem of my country, I will not hesitate because national interests are the main principle.”
During the joint press conference, President Trump said he would be open to meeting with the Iranian President under the right circumstances. He added that he was not seeking regime change, but if Iran infringed on American national interests, “they’re going to be met with really violent force.” Then he continued with his usual criticism of his predecessor, something rather unusual in an international forum.
It is worth remembering that the way leading to the JCPOA was opened by a telephone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani on September 27, 2013 just before the latter left New York, where he had been attending the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Rouhani was elected President on June 14, 2013. His appointment of Javad Zarif as Foreign Minister was an indication of his preference for diplomatic engagement. On September 19, 2013, a week before he arrived in New York for the UNGA, the Washington Post published an op-ed in which Mr. Rouhani, like Mr. Obama underlined the importance of multilateralism. He pledged to engage in constructive interaction with the world. (*) Two years and a month later on July 14, 2015 Iran and the P5+1 agreed on the nuclear deal. In brief, the President and his Foreign Minister set important diplomatic tasks for themselves and have moved forward with considerable success. And the Syrian civil war in which many countries directly or indirectly have taken part only helped Tehran extend its regional outreach while creating important challenges.
President Macron hopes that a meeting between the US and Iranian Presidents could be held in New York during the 74th session of the UNGA which starts on September 17.
President Trump who had accused French President Emmanuel Macron of “foolishness” over a digital services tax heaped words of praise on his host at the joint press conference. There were long handshakes and hugs. Actually, President Macron has sought to cultivate a special relationship with the US like his predecessor Mr. Hollande. Following the chemical attack on eastern Ghouta on August 21, 2013 there was talk of a Western intervention against the Assad regime. But British MPs rejected possible UK military action. Seizing the opportunity President Hollande said the UK’s vote did not change its resolve on the need to act in Syria. Finally, however, President Obama rightly chose not to enforce his red line and opted for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons under the supervision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). How the France-US/Macron-Trump relationship would evolve remains to be seen in the face of many transatlantic differences.
Perhaps US and Iranian Presidents will meet in New York, perhaps they won’t. Because today President Rouhani said he will not hold talks with the United States unless it lifts sanctions against Iran.
Nonetheless, give we should give credit where credit is due: Biarritz is also a success for Iranian diplomacy. And there is more.
On July 4, British Royal Marines seized near Gibraltar the supertanker Grace 1 suspected of carrying Iranian oil to Syria. This was the first such detention of a ship under the European sanctions targeting supplies to Syria. The tanker was registered in Panama and owned by a Singapore-based company. On July 19, Iran retaliated. The Revolutionary Guard announced that the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero had been seized in the Persian Gulf.
Interestingly, a day before Stena Impero was detained, Javad Zarif offered a deal with the US in which it would formally and permanently accept enhanced inspections of its nuclear program. His offer and President Rouhani indicating his readiness to meet President Trump are carefully timed statements showing that Iran’s leaders take particular care to underline their readiness for dialogue and to soften the impact of their controversial actions with diplomatic proposals.
My conclusion at the time of tanker detentions was the following: “As things stand now, concurrent release of the two detained tankers under some face-saving formula seems to be the only solution. If that were the case Tehran may also insist on safe conduct for both tankers to their destination.”
Today, Adrian Darya 1 (formerly Grace 1) is sailing under Iranian flag in the Mediterranean after authorities in Gibraltar rejected a U.S. request to continue holding the ship in detention. And when Adrian Darya 1 reaches its “final destination”, Stena Impero will probably be allowed to leave Iran. On Monday Iran reportedly announced that the 2.1 million barrels of crude aboard Adrian Darya 1 has been sold to an unnamed buyer.
So, there remain two questions regarding the tankers:
First, who is the buyer of Iranian oil?
And second, why in the world “Gibraltar authorities” detained the vessel in the first place and why Foreign Secretary Hunt said his country’s reaction will be considered but robust only to add later that the UK was not looking at military options; it was looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation.
Indeed, when there is a will diplomacy works.