Iran crisis hits stalemate as France says window for diplomacy is closing

US President Donald Trump says he won't meet Hassan Rouhani

French President Emmanuel Macron looks on as he prepares to welcome the Lebanese Prime Minister at The Elysee Palace in Paris on September 20, 2019, ahead of meetings in the French capital.  / AFP / ludovic MARIN
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The window for diplomacy with Tehran appeared to be closing on Sunday, as France called the recent air attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities a “game changer” and US President Donald Trump ruled out meeting Iran’s Hassan Rouhani.

The possibility of a major conflict in the Gulf has boiled all summer but as world leaders arrived for the UN General Assembly, the risks of conflict came into sharper focus.

The US stands by its belief that Iran was responsible for hitting Saudi Aramco installations on September 14. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said that this year’s UN gathering would be judged on its ability to restore calm.

“We are approaching these events with our trust in multilateralism and our ability to reduce tensions,” Mr Le Drian said. He recalled French President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt at the G7 summit in Biarritz last month to bring Iran and the US to the negotiating table.

“At the time of the G7 there were some possibilities, some space for discussion,” Mr Le Drian said.

“Today, the potential of the negotiations are more limited. This period in time is dangerous for the world.”

Mr Macron’s diplomacy appears to have unravelled as Mr Trump scotched months of speculation that he would shake the hand of Mr Rouhani on the sidelines of the summit at a time of rising tensions.

“Nothing is ever off the table but I have no intention of meeting with Iran,” the US leader said on South Lawn of the White House.

A senior US official said on Sunday that countering Iran’s malign activity was a priority for officials as the General Assembly week played out.

Washington’s strategic game plan is to take a “smart and patient” response to the attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s claims that Yemen's Houthi rebels carried out the attacks was rejected again on Sunday.

“If you have Google Maps and a brain you wouldn’t believe this came from the Houthis,” the official said in New York.

“We view Iran as a threat to global peace and security. Countering the influence of malign autocratic states is one of our priorities.”

The official confirmed that the US granted “well over 50 visas” for the Iranian delegation but Tehran has complained that Mr Rouhani’s travelling media had not been granted visas.

His movements and those of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will be closely followed and US officials would respond to “misinformation” as the Iranian leaders spoke in New York.

The attacks in Saudi Arabia caused disruption to the global energy supply and led the price of crude into a steep rise.

Houthi rebels in Yemen said they carried out the air strikes but US officials said the attacks were launched from Iranian territory.

Mr Le Drian welcomed the establishment of an international investigation, saying there must be evidence beyond words before judgment could be made on who was behind the attacks.

Bringing Iran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal will be a priority this week at the UN, with foreign ministers from leading powers, including the US, meeting on Thursday.

Mr Zarif told American broadcaster CBS that the consequences of even limited retaliatory strikes would not easily be contained.

“I’m not confident that we can avoid a war,” he said. “I’m confident we will not start one but I’m confident that whoever starts one will not be the one who finishes it.

“That means there won’t be a limited war.”

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, responded by saying all options, including US military action, remained on the table.

“Our administration’s taking this on in a serious way and we are working diligently to see that this has a diplomatic outcome,” Mr Pompeo told ABC.

“But make no mistake about it, if we’re unsuccessful in that and Iran continues to strike out in this way, I am confident that President Trump will make the decisions necessary to achieve our objectives.”

Mr Pompeo is to host the GCC and Jordanian foreign ministers on Tuesday.