Macron's diplomatic bet pays off as Trump strikes more measured tone on Iran

French President Emmanuel Macron took a calculated gamble in bringing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to this weekend's G7 conference — betting that the prospect of reducing tensions between Iran and the United States would outweigh the risk of irritating U.S. President Donald Trump in public.
President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron wrap up a joint press conference at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

French President Emmanuel Macron took a calculated gamble in bringing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to this weekend's G7 conference — betting that the prospect of reducing tensions between Iran and the United States would outweigh the risk of irritating U.S. President Donald Trump in public.

For now, the gamble appears to have paid off. Zarif — who is himself the target of U.S. sanctions — touched down briefly in Biarritz, France on Sunday for meetings with G7 leaders about preserving the 2015 multilateral deal to curb Iran's nuclear program.

Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of that deal last year, did not meet with Zarif. But the president — perhaps reacting to media reports saying the White House was blindsided by Zarif's appearance in Biarritz — put away his usual bellicose rhetoric and expressed a willingness to pursue diplomacy when asked about Iran earlier today.

"I knew (Zarif) was coming in and I respected the fact that he was coming in," Trump said, adding that the United States is not "looking for regime change" in Tehran.

"We're looking to make Iran rich again, let them be rich, let them do well, if they want."

'It was my idea'

Macron told reporters he informed Trump he was inviting Zarif to the summit.

"I decided to invite, as friends, Minister Zarif. So I informed ... President Trump that it was my idea," he said. "Not to involve the United States, not to say, 'This is on behalf of you,' but to say, as friends, I think it would be a good idea to ask him to go back and try to negotiate something superb."

It was a bold gamble, given the high level of tension between Iran and the Trump administration, and given the president's reputation for reacting badly to perceived public slights — but Macron said it needed to be done to halt the sabre-rattling over Iran's nuclear ambitions and the associated seizure of oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.

This photo, taken from the Twitter account of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, shows French President Emmanuel Macron, third left, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian, second left, meeting Zarif, bottom right in white shirt, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 in Biarritz, southwestern France. (Twitter account of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif/The Associated Press)

"(Iranian) President (Hassan) Rouhani clearly said that he was ready to meet any political leader if it was in the interests of his country," Macron said in French today. "What I told Zarif, and what I told President Rouhani over the phone, is that if he accepted to meet President Trump, I'm convinced that an agreement can be found.

"We know the terms, the objectives, now we need to get round the table and manage it. So I hope that in the next few weeks, on the basis of these conversations, we can manage to organize a meeting at the highest level between President Rouhani and President Trump."

Renewed push for nuclear talks

Bloomberg reports that, shortly after Trump arrived in Biarritz on Saturday, Macron met with him to propose a plan for lowering the tensions over Iran — one that would allow the Tehran government to export more of its oil if it returns to compliance with the nuclear accord and joins formal talks with the U.S.

Ever since the Trump administration ripped up the Iran nuclear deal, there has been a slow but steady march toward armed confrontation between the two nations in the region. In late June, just days after Iran shot down a U.S. spy drone off its coast, Trump said he'd called off an airstrike on Iranian targets at the last minute.

France has been pushing for a diplomatic approach to the confrontation, which has led Iran to begin breaking free of some of the restrictions on its nuclear programme imposed by the nuclear deal.

While he signalled a willingness to listen to Iran, Trump said any agreement on Iran's nuclear program would have to meet a few basic conditions.

"We're not looking for leadership change. We're not looking for that kind of change. This country has been through that many times before. That doesn't work," he said.

"We're looking for no nuclear weapons. No ballistic missiles. And a longer period of time. Very simple. We can have it done in a very short period of time."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a bilateral with President of France Emmanuel Macron at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France on Monday, Aug 26, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the dramatic developments.

"We had a very robust conversation on Saturday night on the subject of Iran, where we agreed that not only do we need to ensure that Iran doesn't develop nuclear weapons, we need to see a de-escalation and more peace and security in the region," the PM said.

Trudeau's careful reaction reflects his government's uneasy relationship with Iran. In 2015, the Liberals ran in part on a promise of warmer relations with Tehran.

Four years on, that relationship is still frosty and the Canadian embassy in Tehran remains closed. Trudeau hinted that the reason for that diplomatic impasse lies in a handful of unresolved cases of Canadians detained and mistreated in Iran.

With files from Reuters

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