Mohammad Javad Zarif’s (Iran’s Foreign Minister) one day visit to the Biarritz G7 Summit caught the media by surprise. French President, Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to Iran’s top diplomat forced US President, Donald Trump, to be in the same venue as Zarif despite that the Iranian Minister is under US sanctions and that Washington and Tehran are at loggerheads on a number of issues.
Tensions significantly escalated following the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 and Washington’s imposition of crippling sanctions on the economy of the Islamic Republic. This is part of the US Administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy aimed at forcing Iran to change its foreign policy behaviour in the Middle East. The 2019 April-July period saw a series of incidents which almost triggered a military confrontation in the Gulf. This was most evident when, on 20 June, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) downed a US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. To contextualise, tensions between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbours—allies and partners of the US—had been on the rise before the US decision on the JCPOA. The 2016 assault and sacking of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions in Iran and Tehran’s prolonged support to terrorist groups in Bahrain, among other issues kept the embers burning in Arab-Persian relations.
Amid attempted de-escalation in August, Iran’s Foreign Minister launched a diplomatic offensive in Europe to ensure the continuation of the EU’s commitments to the JCPOA. But who is Zarif and why was he selected for such a delicate mission?
Career diplomat, Zarif has been Foreign Minister of Iran since 2013. Educated in the US at San Francisco State University and the University of Denver, Zarif led Iran’s negotiation with the UN Security Council's five permanent members—namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States; plus Germany (P5+1)—which produced the JCPOA on 14 July 2015. Zarif modernised the Islamic Republic’s negotiating tactics.
Despite being the Foreign Minister, Zarif was often unable to call the shots with regard to Tehran’s foreign policy. This is largely because Iran’s ultra-conservative ruling clergy often undermined the Minister and accused him of complacency towards the West. The Guardian suggested that Zarif’s temporary resignation—an incident which took place in March 2019 in relation to an official visit to Tehran by Syria’s President, Bashar Al-Assad—was a calculated move by the Foreign Minister to increase domestic support for his future initiatives(more info here). Crucially, Zarif’s recent Europe tour was endorsed by figures traditionally hostile to any rapprochement with the West such as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and IRGC General Qasem Soleimani—in charge of the activities on foreign soil of the IRGC. Clearly there is a shift in thinking about how to best promote Iran’s Security Interests. The IRGC and the Ayatollah have given Zarif the green light to increase its diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis European countries in an attempt to isolate the US from some of its most important allies—a task that will be unlikely to succeed.
Zarif commenced his August European tour in Finland, a decision related to the fact that Finland currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. The first goal of his mission was to present the perspective that EU countries and Iran have a similar understanding on how Middle East tensions should be eased. In Helsinki, meeting with Finland’s President, Sauli Niinistö, Zarif referred to a new initiative by Tehran calling for regional dialogue and, according to Zarif, similar to a plan that was proposed in the past by Finland. Zarif’s visit to Helsinki was a clear attempt by Iran to exert the maximum possible degree of influence over EU members states.
During a meeting with Margot Wallström, (Foreign Minister of Sweden), and again during a lecture delivered at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Zarif presented Iran as the “victim” of provocation rather than as a country seeking confrontation in the Gulf. Zarif attempted to reassure his hosts on the status of human rights inside Iran and, in particular, on the fate of Ahmadreza Djalali—a Swedish-Iranian scientist arrested in Iran in April 2016 and sentenced to death on espionage charges. Notably, the Swedish government has already demonstrated its willingness to mediate in crisis scenarios involving Iran and its proxies. This was the case when Sweden hosted the United Nations-brokered peace talks on the Yemen conflict which involved face-to-face discussions for the first time between Yemen’s government and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Iran hopes that Sweden will once again offer to mediate in case Gulf tensions result in another confrontation involving Tehran’s proxies or the Islamic Republic itself.
Norway proved to be the most challenging stop for Zarif Norway as it is among the countries that was hit during the wave of oil tanker sabotages in the Gulf last May—carried out by Iran’s IRGC according to the US and its regional allies. Oslo is still considering its participation in the US-led naval mission to secure trade through the Strait of Hormuz. In Oslo Zarif held bilateral meetings with his Norwegian counterpart, Ine Eriksen Søreide and Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, in which he stressed the importance for Norway not responding to the US call for military cooperation in the Gulf. This is part of an overall effort by Tehran to cement disagreement between the US and its European allies on how to deal with the Islamic Republic. However, in the case of Norway-US relations, such effort has so far failed.
Before his surprise appearance at the G7 Summit, Zarif was received by Macron in Paris at the Elysée Palace. Macron expressed concerns over Iran’s strategy to exit the JCPOA while hinting that he discussed with Zarif a plan to establish high level contacts between Washington and Tehran. France has recently stepped up its outreach to Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, and President Macron dispatched twice his diplomatic advisor, Emmanuel Bonne, to Tehran in recent months. These engagements outline why it should not be regarded as a complete surprise that Zarif’s Europe mission culminated in his sudden appearance at the France-organised G7. It is worth remembering that France retains a strong economic interests in mediating an end to the Iran-US standoff. Several French companies, including Peugeot, Citroen and Total, were forced to pull out of lucrative deals with Iran as a result of Washington’s sanctions against Tehran.
Zarif’s arrival in Biarritz and the recent talks have been lauded by German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. This further demonstrates unity between France, Germany and the United Kingdom (E3) in finding a way to save the JCPOA and continue their economic engagements with Iran. Despite that direct US-Iran negotiations remain an unlikely prospect, it is worth noting that Trump was informed by Macron before Zarif’s arrival and that the US President conceded the possibility of a future bilateral meeting with his Iranian counterpart. However, during the post-G7 press conference Trump declared that a Washington-Tehran summit was premature—hindering Macron’s hope to broker a summit between Trump and Rouhani.
EU leaders have not succeeded in convincing Trump to change his stance on Iran, as evidenced by Macron’s 2018 visit to Washington in which the French President failed to convince his US counterpart not to withdraw from the JCPOA. Meanwhile the ongoing provocations by Iran and its proxies in the Gulf and the wider Middle East have convinced the US Administration to increase sanctions against Tehran. Notably, the 2019 G7 was more successful than the 2018 edition in terms of synergy among the leaders. However, it demonstrated that the Iran dossier continues to represent a source of tangible E3-US disagreement.
04 September 2019