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Paris and Tehran: Dialogue of the deaf

Christian Chesnot

Published: Updated:

The diplomacy of Emmanuel Macron had aspired to stand at an equal distance between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as with its allies. Advisers to the French president had a constant refrain: “We do not have to be involved between Sunnis and Shiites.” During his first year at the Elysee, Emmanuel Macron sought to open dialogue with Iran. He has had many contacts with his counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani, and has also stated his plan to pay an official visit to Iran this year. Obviously, the conditions have not been favorable in recent times.

Here we have the clear impression that ‘irritants’ (as diplomats say), have come in the way of tarnishing Franco-Iranian relations. Certainly, during the visit of the chief of the Quai d'Orsay Jean-Yves Le Drian to Tehran on March 5th, the inauguration of an exhibition of antiquities at the Louvre Museum created the perception that a new climate was building between the two countries. However, it is rather a diplomatic freeze that we are currently observing.

Iran’s double rejectionFrench Foreign Minister has received a ‘double-no’ to Paris’ appeals: ‘no’ to curtailment of the Iranian ballistic program and ‘no’ to putting a limit on Iranian domination of the region, especially in Syria and Lebanon. In short, the French envoy hit a wall. Should we be surprised? Iranians argue that the issue of ballistic missiles does not fall under the purview of the July 2015 nuclear agreement of Vienna. As for leaving the Syrian battlefield, the arena that offers Tehran a platform to reach out into the Mediterranean, there can be no way of retreat! Behind the scenes, an Iranian official told me: “There is no trust between us and the French.”

On the Elysee’s side, there is a lot of impatience with as well as tensions over Iran. It must be said here that the Trump ultimatum to revise the Vienna nuclear agreement by 12 May has shocked the European chancelleries. Paris, Berlin and London, who signed the agreement, do not want to renegotiate but are concerned about a possible US withdrawal from this agreement, signed under the leadership of Obama. This call into question would open the door for uncertainty and negative repercussions throughout the region.

For several weeks, France has led from the front, seeking to put pressure on Iran for setting limits to its missile program. Along with London and Berlin, Paris has led the diplomatic offensive and circulated a draft of new sanctions against Tehran that could be endorsed by the European Union. The idea is to mollify the Trump administration by twisting Iran’s hand in an attempt to save the Vienna deal!

France would then return to its traditional position as an ally of the Sunni monarchies, which was its position under Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande

Christian Chesnot

Will Trump scrap the nuke deal?

This is as far as the intentions go on paper. However, it is highly unlikely that Tehran would back down under pressure, which could lead to heightened tensions in May if Donald Trump decides to undermine the nuclear agreement. Iranians will have a field day in blaming the United States for going back on its word, since its deals can be subject of revision in the term of another president. At that moment, Emmanuel Macron is going to have a tough time playing the mediator. He will clearly side with the Western bloc and Gulf countries, because of his prospective failure to convince Tehran.

France would then return to its traditional position as an ally of the Sunni monarchies, which was its position under Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. This would signal the failure of the Macronian diplomacy of achieving equidistance between Tehran and Riyadh. We are not there yet. Emmanuel Macron wants to believe to take matters till the end of the dialogue process with Iran. But for him, Iranians have to make a move.

In Tehran, we see things from a completely different perspective. It is believed that Iran has already made many compromises by signing the nuclear agreement, that it respects the deal in form and in practice as has been regularly confirmed by the routine reports of the IAEA. In short, between Paris and Tehran, the dialogue of the deaf looms over the horizon.

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Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.

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