France's Emmanuel Macron assembles elite team to defuse Iran tensions

Mr Macron has moved highly experienced negotiators to French diplomatic postings in the US and Iran

French President Emmanuel Macron waits for Ivory Coast's President at the Elysee palace, on July 9, 2019, ahead of their meeting, in Paris. / AFP / Ludovic MARIN
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French president Emmanuel Macron has assembled an elite diplomatic team to spearhead the Elysee’s diplomatic initiative to allay the tensions over Iran.

Highly experience negotiators on the Iran file have in recent weeks taken over key posts in the French diplomatic service. Mr Macron’s own recently appointed diplomatic adviser Phillipe Bonne arrived in Tehran on Tuesday on a two-mission to talk to the regime.

Meanwhile in Washington, Phillipe Etienne, who has played a key role in Iran talks in Paris, Berlin and Brussels over a decade, was presenting his credentials as the new French ambassador. At the United Nations, France is now represented by Nicolas de Riviere, who as political director of the French foreign ministry and before that as chief negotiator in the talks, is a veteran of the Iran diplomatic track.

President Macron held phone calls with both Donald Trump and the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on successive days as he tries to broker an understanding.

As a Middle East specialist, Mr Bonne has been tasked with assembling the “elements” of de-escalation in the crisis with Tehran. The former ambassador to Lebanon is said by officials to have deeply engaged with factions throughout the Iranian power structure.

Having also headed the cabinet of Jean Yves Le Drian, Mr Bonne will have handled the fallout from Mr Trump’s original decision to quit the 2015. Since jobs in May tensions in the Arabian Gulf have spiralled over alleged Iranian aggression and missile attacks by its proxies on neighbouring states.

The plan that has emerged in recent weeks puts Paris in position to conduct a blitz of shuttle diplomacy. The first objective is to calm down both the rhetoric and the sense that the situation is spiralling out of control.

Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council for Foreign Affairs, believes the purpose of the French initiative – shared with Germany and Britain – is to avoid the dilemma of having to back the US or Iran in a confrontation.

To ease confrontation, Iran has sought both assurances from the Europeans that trade with Iran can continue in defiance of US sanctions and for some sign that Paris can squeeze concessions from Washington.

During the G20 summit in Japan last week, Mr Macron asked Mr Trump to reduce some of the US oil sanctions pressure on Iran, even as American officials were travelling around Europe warning they were ready to drive Tehran’s exports as close to zero as possible.

Speaking last year after Mr Trump rejected the agreement, Mr Etienne said that the US decision was a test for Europe. He reminded his audience that officials such as himself had been working on the negotiations for more than 15 years. “Since 2003, Paris, London and Berlin had taken the lead in promoting a diplomatic path to solve the Iran nuclear crisis,” he said, adding they would continue to work “relentlessly” to preserve it.

In photos released from the Oval Office late on Monday, Mr Etienne appears to have had a good induction meeting with the US leader. The image shows Mr Trump grinning widely and making a thumbs up gesture.

The veteran diplomat will now have the task of corralling the goodwill that French diplomacy has relentlessly sought to build up with Mr Trump into finding a way forward on Iran.

From New York Mr de Riviere will have the equally important task, as a representative among the permanent five members of the Security Council, of reflecting growing international pressure of Iran’s ballistic missile programme while resisting any attempt to undermine the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), an international agreement that is backed by UNSC resolution.

As political director of the French foreign ministry, Mr de Riviere was part of a key contact group with Iran as the accord broke down. He was also an instrumental member of the three country group that set up the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) that was established to barter with Iran.

Brian Hook, the American  Iran envoy, last week revealed that Washington was considering the establishment of an international coalition of naval forces to ensure freedom of navigation through the Arabian Gulf and Sea of Oman.

The US diplomat suggested that the coalition could be closely modelled on the UN-backed force set up to tackle piracy on the Indian Ocean by Somalian gangs. That would require a mandate from the UN Security Council.

If the push comes, Mr de Riviere could be uniquely placed to persuade the body to accept the US request.