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Can France influence Iran?

Atta Kenare, AFP | French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Iranian counterpart Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran on 5 March 2018.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived in Tehran Monday for talks with senior officials, with the foreign ministry promising “a frank and demanding dialogue with Iran”. But some experts warn that France’s influence on Tehran is limited.


“There are lots of things to discuss: the nuclear deal, [Iran’s] ballistic programme, Syria,” said David Rigoulet-Roze, an Iran analyst at l'Institut Français d’Analyse Stratégique (IFAS) in Paris, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“It is a very complicated visit for Le Drian.”

On the eve of Le Drian’s trip, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by phone, saying that France wants Iran to make a “constructive contribution” to help resolve the crises in the region.

It is the first visit to Iran by a high-level official from a signatory nation of the 2015 nuclear deal since US President Donald Trump said in January that he would ditch the agreement if it is not “improved” before a May 12 deadline. The deal between France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and the United States eased economic sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Le Drian’s officials have told Tehran that he is no “emissary of Donald Trump” and that he wants to maintain the deal. But on Sunday he warned Iran that if it does not stop its ballistic missile tests, it will “always be suspected, with reason, of wanting to develop nuclear weapons” and will “expose itself to new sanctions”.

His Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, responded by telling an Iranian newspaper on Monday that, “in order to keep the United States in the Iran nuclear deal, European countries are suffering from extremism”.

“France is in a difficult position between Trump and Iran,” said Rigoulet-Roze. “Europeans want to keep the deal, but that’s not the case for the Trump administration.”

“It is in Iranian interests to maintain the agreement,” he continued. “But it will be difficult for Le Drian to persuade Iran to make certain changes, to fulfil all the requirements.”

France was quick to capitalise on the nuclear agreement, with Airbus, Total oil, Peugeot and Renault all signing deals with Tehran that would be jeopardised by a US withdrawal.

‘France is completely out of the game’

Concern over Iran’s weapons programmes is linked to worries about its activities across the Middle East. France, the US and the UN say Iran shares ballistic missile technology with the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have fired the weapons into Saudi Arabia.

Tehran has also provided significant support for President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. France, on the other hand, has been a vocal critic of Assad’s government.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Fabrice Balanche, an Iran specialist and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, suggested Le Drian has little chance of persuading Iran to water down its commitments to Assad.

“France is completely out of the game in Syria and the Middle East more broadly,” he said. “The five years of François Hollande’s presidency were disastrous for French diplomacy in the region. France didn’t understand that Iran and Russia won’t give up their ally Assad.”

“There is a long way to go. France has to get back to a more realistic policy if it wants to weigh in on the Syria crisis again.”

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