Facing unpopularity at home over callous remarks associated with his controversial labour reforms, French President Emmanuel Macron is looking east in order to establish himself as Europe’s leading figure in the diplomatic rush to ‘save’ the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) from Donald Trump’s threats to fully withdraw from the agreement, after the US domestically de-certified the JCPOA, thus sending it to Congress for extended debates.
Whether Macron cares about the Iran deal as a matter of principle, seeks to enhance his personal prestige or is feeling the pressure from French companies who are successfully conducting business with Iran, is ultimately, a moot point. In reality, Europe does need to take a lead in representing the western half of the east-west agreement that is the JCPOA. Thus far, the most robust statements clarifying the EU’s continued support of the deal have come from the European Union’s High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, who spoke minutes after Trump’s speech confirming US de-certification of the JCPOA.
Mogherini’s words have now been echoed by the French President who recently stated,
“I hope that we will stay within the framework of this agreement, and President Rouhani has also pledged to stay. Europe and the other negotiators will stay because we have better control over the situation and my goal is the security of the French people. At the necessary time, I’ll be there to have exigent dialogue with Iran. We might have differences but they should not be unresolvable”.
The key to this statement is Macron’s acknowledgement of the EU’s “differences” with Iran. These differences include an EU policy of hostility towards Iran’s Syrian ally, an EU policy which is seen as unbalanced in respect of Palestine and an EU policy which has since 1979, carried anti-Iranian prejudices that are similar, albeit less extreme, than that which comes out of the US.
If, as many indicate, the US will eventually withdraw from the deal or make it so that Iran believes (justifiably) that the US is failing to hold-up its end of the JCPOA, it will fall to the other parties to the agreement to either salvage the agreement without Washington or to otherwise replace it with a similar agreement that does not involve the US.
Because Russia and China have been totally consistent in their support of the deal, support of expanding commercial ventures with Iran and also supportive of Iran’s allies, the onus for meaningful change in order to make up for US opposition to the JCPOA, will naturally fall on Europe. If Emmanuel Macron wants to be the leading voice of the European side in future negotiations with Iran, he will have to make the necessary concessions to win Iran’s respect after the US struck a big blow for wider western credibility. Furthermore, for Macron personally, since he has rapidly lot credibility among a generally unforgiving French electorate, foreign policy may be his only option if he wants to regain personal prestige that he apparently covets more than even most political leaders.
The fact that after Donald Trump’s anti-Iranian remarks, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani expressed his willingness to work with Europe to preserve the letter and spirit of the JCPOA, is proof positive that Iran is entering into the next phase of discussions with the EU in good faith. To his credit, Emmanuel Macron’s willingness to visit Tehran, making him the first French leader to do so since prior to 1979, is also a sign of good faith from the EU.
Beyond this though, as a foreign policy novice, Macron, like even many of his more experienced EU partners, will have to understand something crucial about Iran in 2017. Iran today is approaching possible JCPOA re-negotiations in a post-US environment, not with a spirit of desperation but of confidence tinged with righteous anger at US hypocrisy. Unless European leaders can show a genuine pivot away from the American attitude problem about Iran, Tehran’s anger could easily shift towards Europe.
For France in particular, there are important steps Paris must take in order to win Iran’s medium and possibly even long-term respect. Because European air power in Syria has always been something of a fig leaf to cover America’s aggressive and illegal campaign in Syria, something Vladimir Putin alluded to during his press conference with a newly elected Macron, there is no point in any European nation or body continuing to associate itself with the so-called Syrian opposition. Even forgetting the Iranian component, the EU would be best to walk away from Syria altogether. This would send a message to the US, that the EU is capable of an independent foreign policy (whether it is or not, would be tested in just such a move) and it would also save a great deal of money among EU powers.
In the longer term, France also ought to de-list Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. The EU, while proscribing Hezbollah’s military wing as such, does not target the party as a whole. The same is true for Germany and the UK, the two other EU states represented individually as part of the JCPOA. If France toned down its rhetoric and official position on both Syria and Hezbollah, it would show Iran that while France will never be as friendly towards Tehran as are Russia and China are, nor would France pretend to be in a position of being an adversary to Iran, something it would be incapable of, even if it tried. Furthermore, if France made steps to show that it would at least be more even handed in respect of Palestine, this too would account for a great deal of good will.
At this juncture, it becomes necessary to state that my personal view is that Iran, Hezbollah and Palestine are on the morally correct side of the political divides which concern their existence. But just because myself, Iran and the general opinion of Russia and China feel this way, doesn’t change the fact that any true art of a deal, is the art of compromise. Hence, my aforementioned proposals are designed to preserve France’s inevitable geo-political trajectory, while making important rhetorical concessions that will go a long way during negotiations with Iran, but effectively change nothing in respect of the Middle East’s balance of power.
In return, Iran could build a genuine basis for good commercial relations, based on the previously agreed upon framework of the JCPOA, but one that could potentially open up even more east-west commercial highways, without the ‘ball and chain effect’ of having a reluctant United States as a party to the deal.
I for one, do not pretend that the EU is as independent of the United States as it sometimes pretends to be. However, with US geo-political influence clearly in decline, the EU ought to at least try and navigate the potential of a multi-polar world where new realities will confront everyone. Rather than wait for the US to give up on Europe, Europe should instead strike first by putting action behind its words in respect of Iran. In doing this, Europe has little to lose and potentially a great deal to gain.