Iran Crisis: French Envoy Heads to Tehran in Bid to Ease Nuclear Tensions

An Iranian technician works at a Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) in Isfahan 20 November 2004. Representatives and ambassadors from Cuba, Algeria, South Africa and Malaysia along with IAEA`s inspectors visited the Isfahan facility and became acquainted with uranium processing in the center. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images

(AFP) — French envoy Emmanuel Bonne is in Tehran on another attempt to convince Iran to come back into compliance with the landmark 2015 deal as the IAEA convenes an emergency meeting in Vienna Wednesday on Iran’s nuclear programme.

France’s envoy Emmanuel Bonne will spend two days in Iran, on a mission from the Élysée Palace to “create factors [that will lead] to de-escalation”.

French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to lead European diplomatic efforts to find a face-saving solution to the latest crisis between Tehran and Washington, with the EU looking to buy time and soothe tensions, diplomats and experts say.

The International Atomic Energy Agency will hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme.

All actors ‘buying time’

After President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of the deal in May 2018, Iran began enriching uranium to higher levels, leading to fears the faltering accord could be doomed.

If it falls apart and Iran continues enriching uranium all the way to levels approaching those that could be used in a weapon, diplomats see a high risk of conflict in the Middle East involving the United States and possibly its ally Israel.

“We are buying time. The Iranians are too,” a European diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity. “We need to bring Iran back on board in exchange for a symbolic gesture from the United States.”

Analysts agree that European efforts in the short-term have to be two-fold: convincing Iran to stop enriching, then convincing Trump to suspend some of the crippling new economic sanctions he has imposed on Tehran.

“It’s about creating the conditions for both sides (the US and Iran) to back away from the corners they are stuck in because the end-game here is negotiation,” Sanam Vakil, an Iran specialist at the Chatham House think-tank in London, told AFP.

“For Iran to come back to the negotiating table, they have made it abundantly clear there will have to be sanctions relief granted.”

“Macron is using the space [France] has got to try to arrange a situation which could be helpful to the Iranians, of course, but also helpful to the US and to Trump, who is in a very bad position, in my view,” added Dominique Trinquand, a former head of the French UN military mission and a defence advisor to Macron during his 2017 presidential campaign, on FRANCE 24’s Debate programme.

A Macron trip to Tehran?

Macron has taken an active mediation role, speaking to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Trump in recent days.

Last year, he was weighing whether to become the first French leader to travel to Tehran since 1976. But tensions over the nuclear issue and Iran’s involvement in the wars in Syria and Yemen meant he never accepted an invitation to visit.

Iran’s alleged role in a plot to bomb a meeting of opposition activists at a political meeting near Paris in June killed off any possibility, diplomats say.

That’s while France maintains a tough stance on many of Iran’s actions in the Middle East. “I’ve heard some pretty strong language from Paris particularly when it comes to ballistic missiles, and when it comes to Iran’s regional behaviour,” Michael Pregent, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, told FRANCE 24’s The Debate.

“So I think Macron’s position on the Iran deal is actually shoring up Trump’s,” Pregent continued.

Nevertheless, recent French media reports suggest Macron might once again be considering travelling to meet Rouhani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“Individually he is probably the best placed to be the E3 leader,” said Vakil, referring to the E3 group of European powers which comprises France, Germany and Britain.

“Everyone is talking to each other,” the European diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Mixed results on Middle East intervention

Macron relishes the world stage, but his efforts at mediating in the Middle East have led to mixed results.

He successfully intervened in November 2017 to free Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri after he was detained by Saudi authorities during a trip to the country.

But his efforts in create a solution to the crisis in war-torn Libya have yet to yield fruit and he has made enemies in Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, as well as in the UN-recognised government in Tripoli.

Past efforts at lobbying Trump to respect the nuclear deal, particularly during a state visit to Washington in April 2018, came to naught.

Experts say that for the moment Iran is not close to enriching uranium to levels that could be used for a weapon, which would spark a regional arms race and acute security fears in Israel.

But it is considered by the European powers to be in breach of its commitments.

The country’s atomic energy organisation announced on Monday that it had surpassed a cap on the level to which it can enrich uranium, reaching 4.5 percent, above the 3.67 percent limit stipulated in the deal.

It has also exceeded limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium set in the 2015 accord signed by the US, Iran, Russia, China, Britain, Germany, France and the EU.

European nations are seen as wanting to avoid triggering a dispute mechanism in the text which could lead to sanctions being reimposed.

Such a move would heighten tensions, while the threat of fresh sanctions remains one of few levers available to the Europeans as they seek to convince Iran to respect the deal.

“But the road they are taking [by enriching further] could force us to take a road we don’t want to take,” another French diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

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