French President Emmanuel Macron is leading European efforts to defuse a possible military confrontation in Iran, which was on the agenda of his talks in Washington last week. There, he repeated European concerns that the US could be dragged into using force against Tehran, pending the settlement of the nuclear question with Iran and the revival of negotiations.
Both the US and the Europeans are also worried about the incoming right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, and its implications not just for the Palestinians, but also in terms of the potential military confrontation with Iran, both directly and in proxy arenas led by Syria.
And in Syria, there are Russian concerns over Turkey’s determination to establish a "buffer zone" that requires a military ground operation, which could raise the risk of Moscow and Tehran having to intervene to defend the regime. In turn, this has caused worries in Washington and Nato capitals, which are anxious to maintain the coherence of the alliance – of which Turkey is member – and focus on Ukraine.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made clear that his country intends to launch a military ground offensive in Syria to create a buffer zone on Syrian territory, enforced by Turkish forces, to quell the danger from the “terrorist threat” across the border.
While Iran appears ready to take on a greater role in Syria as required to protect Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government, Mr Erdogan’s threats put Moscow in a challenging position. Failing to protect its ally, the Syrian regime, could show weakness but taking any steps to do the opposite may entrench Russia further in the Syrian conflict.
Ankara also has the advantage; Mr Erdogan understands his country’s importance to Nato, and also understands that exposing any weakness in Russian forces, Syria’s chief protectors, would be viewed favourably by western powers, in spite of their other concerns regarding his Syrian intervention.
These concerns are indeed significant. The Europeans are worried the situation in Syria could escalate into a full-blown conflict, not just between Turkey and Iran and Russia, but also between Israel and Iran. Indeed, Iran remains of crucial importance to the European powers, who do not trust Mr Netanyahu’s confrontational stance towards it, and who worry that stance might pull the US into conflict, too.
For these reasons and others, during his visit to Washington Mr Macron is thought to have sought guarantees the US would not be dragged into such a conflict with Iran. Mr Macron, like many European and even some US leaders, is concerned about possible Israeli adventurism in Iran and Palestine. American voices, including two former senior officials in previous administrations – Aaron David Miller and former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel C Kurtzer – have been demanding President Joe Biden be firm with Mr Netanyahu and his “radical right-wing government”. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, they urged the administration and regional governments that have established relations with Israel to stand up to Mr Netanyahu’s coalition government, as it plans to build more Israeli settlements, escalate violence against the Palestinians and alter the facts on the ground in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The same concerns are thought to have been voiced in Mr Macron’s talks with Mr Biden.
But Mr Macron’s primary focus in the region is Iran. He took a European message to Washington stressing that Europe was not willing to support any military action against Tehran. Such a stance, of course, is music to Iran’s ears. For Iran still hopes to drive a wedge between the US and Europe and hopes the latter will be able to revive the nuclear talks and bring the Biden administration back to the table.
But for there to be any hope to resume talks for a nuclear deal, there are new conditions that may need to be met. First, Iran must suspend its nuclear activities under a rigorous monitoring regime. Second, the issue of Iran’s missiles and drones has to be included in the negotiations, as well as Iran’s regional activities such as supplying weapons to its partners and proxies.
In other words, the French equation is to get everyone to step back from the brink. This message has two main destinations: Israel, which will back down if it ascertains the US will not support it militarily. and Iran, which will breathe a sigh of relief. The additional French message to Iran is that France and the European powers can help Iran get rid of sanctions by returning to negotiations and making a deal, but this requires Iranian good conduct, at home and abroad, to buy time until the talks can resume.
Ultimately, there are two opposing views on the outcomes of President Macron’s visit to Washington. One holds that the visit has succeeded in helping push forward a strategy that will ease tensions. But the other view holds that the success is more imagined, satisfying Paris’s desire to play deal broker while failing to secure any solid guarantees from Washington. Only time will tell which turns out to be correct.