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Iran, the US and Gunboat Diplomacy

France leads Europe in efforts to bring Iran and the US back together to restore the JCPOA – but despite his best diplomatic attempts, Macron can’t seem to get Rouhani and Trump to sit down together

At the beginning of October, France gave both the US and Iran a one-month deadline to come together at the negotiating table. The country is in an ongoing bid to lead Europe’s diplomatic goals and resolve tensions between the two states. And yet, despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s best efforts, the outlook for compromise remains grim.

Failed Attempts in New York

Macron tried and failed to get both US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to speak on the sidelines during the UN General Assembly in late September. This move was part of France’s ongoing work to diffuse tension between the two states and salvage the JCPOA, commonly referred to as “the Iran deal”. When Rouhani learned that Trump was not going to lift the sanctions currently crippling the Iranian economy, he declined Macron’s invitations to meet. The French President even went so far as to install a secure telephone line on the same hotel floor where the Iranian president was staying, though to no avail.

Macron had hoped both parties would agree on parametres for negotiations, which include assurances that Iran can never acquire nuclear weapons, the development of a regional security plan with the conclusion of Yemen’s civil war, and the lifting of US sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration has repeatedly said that while it is prepared to hold talks on a far-reaching deal, those very same sanctions will bring Iran to the table – an assertion Tehran vociferously denies, demanding sanctions be lifted as a prerequisite to any talks.

President Trump exited the JCPOA last year and re-instated sanctions. In response, Iran has been slowly pushing boundaries and violating aspects of the deal, including enriching uranium to amounts forbidden by the JCPOA. Tehran plans to amp up their nuclear activities this November, which is sure to spark renewed tensions in the region. In turn, this will force the hands of European states who would rather salvage the deal than go head-to-head against Iran.

On September 14th, mere days before the UN General Assembly, Saudi Arabian oil facilities were taken out via airstrike. Despite their denials, Iran was determined responsible. Prior to the attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, France had been actively working on a way to extend Iran a credit line of nearly 15 billion euros – contingent upon their return to full compliance with the JCPOA. This offer, however, would rely on Washington’s agreement, and Trump has not acceded to these requests.

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said Europeans should defy the United States and make a deal with Iran without a “green light” from Trump. Under such a scenario, money would begin to flow and relieve the embattled Iranian economy, prior to them engaging in negotiations for a new deal with the US. “The credit that they are talking about is not charity. …The credit is in lieu of the oil they were supposed to buy”, Zarif said.

“We consider that these initiatives, which didn’t succeed, are still on the table and it is up to Iran and the United States to seize (them) in a relatively short amount of time because Iran has announced new measures to reduce its commitments to the Vienna accord in November”, announced Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian to parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

“These measures risk leading to a new period of tension and new escalation so we must take advantage of the political space that exists to move forward…There are parametres on the table today that we think we can move forward on them and France’s diplomacy is working on it”, Le Drian said.

After proceedings at the UN concluded, Rouhani reached out to Macron to thank him for his efforts at the General Assembly and insist the path of diplomacy was “not yet closed”, laying blame for lack of talks with Trump. “We came together, and the one that prevented the outcome was the White House, and Iran, Paris, Tokyo and the rest of the countries were not to blame.”

Both the US and Iran seem inclined to talk, but with neither willing to accommodate the other, the two nations remain at an impasse with France in the middle.

Send in the Troops

Last Friday, an Iranian oil tanker was struck by two air missiles off the coast of the Red Sea. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. Copyright: Elena Pavlovich /

Unfortunately, even just modest hope for cooperation looks out of reach now more than ever.

On the morning of October 11th, an Iranian oil tanker was struck by two air missiles off the coast of the Red Sea, a mere 96 kilometres from the port of Jeddah. This comes less than a month after the airstrikes on Saudi Arabian territory and strikes on Saudi tankers this past May and June. The attack has only served to further increase regional tensions and make Iran even less willing to come to the negotiating table. No one has yet claimed responsibility, and reports that they came from Saudi Arabia have been denied.

Oil prices have climbed as much as 2 percent, with Saudi Arabian dollar bonds dropping, after reports of the tanker incident. Shipping costs may also rise as a result. This is in addition to multi-year price hikes on tanker rates in the region, due to similar attacks on Saudi oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman earlier this year – which Iran denies responsibility for. “War risk insurance premiums for the Red Sea will now likely go up significantly, as will likely the freight (rates)”, said Ashok Sharma, Managing Director of shipbroker BRS Baxi in Singapore. Any further disturbances could disrupt shipping through the Red Sea altogether. This would in turn affect oil passing through the Suez Canal or the SUMED crude pipeline, which runs parallel to the canal and is used by tankers that cannot navigate the waterway.

Responses from around the world include Russia’s opinion that it is too early to assign blame for the tanker explosion. Meanwhile China, one of the biggest consumers of Iran’s oil, has said it hopes involved parties will work to uphold peace and stability in the region.

In response to the September 14th air strike on the Aramco facilities, the US has confirmed it is sending in a large number of troops to Saudi Arabia, in addition to air defenses and fighter aircraft, for support. The Pentagon released a statement announcing that US Defense Secretary Esper authorised the deployment of additional forces, including two fighter squadrons, two Patriot batteries, and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD). “Secretary Esper informed Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Muhammed bin Salman this morning of the additional troop deployment to assure and enhance the defense of Saudi Arabia”, it read.

This is a major boost of American firepower in defense of their ally – and Iran has reacted with apprehension. “Taken together with other deployments, this constitutes an additional 3,000 forces that have been extended or authorised within the last month”, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

Unrest in the Red Sea, coupled with the ever-increasing tensions between the US and Iran, indicates that it will take a major diplomatic effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table now. Will France be able to pull it off?

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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