Macron seeks lead EU role in Iran crisis

Paris (AFP) –


French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to lead European diplomatic efforts to find a face-saving solution to the latest crisis between Tehran and Washington, with the EU looking to buy time and soothe tensions, diplomats and experts say.

Macron dispatched an envoy to Tehran for the second time in a month on Tuesday in another attempt to convince the Iranian government to come back into compliance with a landmark 2015 deal limiting its nuclear programme.

After President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of the deal in May 2018, Iran has begun enriching uranium to higher levels, leading to fears the faltering accord could be doomed.

If it falls apart and Iran continues enriching uranium all the way to levels approaching those that could be used in a weapon, diplomats see a high risk of conflict in the Middle East involving the United States and possibly its ally Israel.

"We are buying time. The Iranians are too," a European diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity. "We need to bring Iran back on board in exchange for a symbolic gesture from the United States."

Analysts agree that European efforts in the short-term have to be two-fold: convincing Iran to stop enriching, then convincing Trump to suspend some of the crippling new economic sanctions he has imposed on Tehran.

"It's about creating the conditions for both sides (the US and Iran) to back away from the corners they are stuck in because the end-game here is negotiation," Sanam Vakil, an expert at the Chatham House think-tank in London, told AFP.

"For Iran to come back to the negotiating table, they have made it abundantly clear there will have to be sanctions relief granted."

- Macron to Tehran? -

Macron has taken an active mediation role, speaking to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Trump in recent days.

Last year, he was weighing whether to become the first French leader to travel to Tehran since 1976. But tensions over the nuclear issue and Iran's involvement in the wars in Syria and Yemen meant he never accepted an invitation to visit.

Iran's alleged role in a plot to bomb a meeting of opposition activists at a political meeting near Paris in June killed off any possibility, diplomats say.

But recent French media reports suggest Macron might once again be considering travelling to meet Rouhani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"Individually he is probably the best placed to be the E3 leader," said Vakil, referring to the E3 group of European powers which comprises France, Germany and Britain.

"Everyone is talking to each other," the European diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

- Mixed results -

Macron relishes the world stage, but his efforts at mediating in the Middle East have led to mixed results.

He successfully intervened in November 2017 to free Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri after he was detained by Saudi authorities during a trip to the country.

But his efforts in forge a solution in war-torn Libya have yet to yield fruit and he has made enemies in Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, as well as in the UN-recognised government in Tripoli.

Past efforts at lobbying Trump to respect the nuclear deal, particularly during a state visit to Washington in April 2018, came to naught.

Experts say that for the moment Iran is not close to enriching uranium to levels that could be used for a weapon, which would spark a regional arms race and acute security fears in Israel.

But it is considered by European nations to be in breach of its commitments.

The country's atomic energy organisation announced on Monday that it had surpassed a cap on the level to which it can enrich uranium, reaching 4.5 percent, above the 3.67 percent limit stipulated in the deal.

It has also exceeded limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium set in the 2015 accord signed by the US, Iran, Russia, China, Britain, Germany, France and the EU.

European nations are seen as wanting to avoid triggering a dispute mechanism in the text which could lead to sanctions being reimposed.

Such a move would heighten tensions, while the threat of fresh sanctions remains one of few levers available to the Europeans as they seek to convince Iran to respect the deal.

"But the road they are taking (by enriching further) could force us to take a road we don't want to take," said a French diplomat on condition of anonymity.