Iran’s latest position in talks to revive the nuclear agreement has taken the process backwards, the French ambassador to the United States told Al-Monitor, adding that Iran “must cooperate” with an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into Tehran’s undeclared nuclear materials.
“Unfortunately, the last position expressed by Iran brings us backwards, and in particular, establishes links between the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and the obligations of Iran under its international commitments,” French Ambassador to the United States Philippe Etienne said in an interview in Washington on Thursday.
“It is not acceptable for us to put pressure on the Vienna agency (IAEA), which is the international actor in charge of these issues, and with which Iran must cooperate,” he added.
Etienne, who served as chief diplomatic advisor to French President Emmanuel Macron before his appointment as ambassador in 2019, said France has “spared no efforts" to help revive the nuclear deal.
Asked about Iran’s engagement in countries like Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, Etienne said it’s important that “the regional security dimension” is addressed alongside the nuclear issue in dealing with Iran.
Etienne also discussed Macron’s historic visit to Algeria last month, during which the French president and his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune signed a pact aimed at resetting the partnership and announced a joint commission to study France's colonial rule in Algeria and the deadly independence war.
“They decided as successfully to turn to the future, which doesn't mean that we ignore the past,” Etienne said. “There was a strong focus on the common challenges for the future, especially for the youth.”
On matters elsewhere in the region, Etienne said that the situation “has not changed a lot” in Lebanon since the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, adding that “our expectation is for the Lebanese government to deliver on the urgent necessary measures that frankly the Lebanese people first of all are waiting for.” Etienne described as “encouraging” France’s partnership with Saudi Arabia to address urgent humanitarian concerns in Lebanon.
Etienne added that France supports Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s call for political leaders to engage in a national dialogue to resolve the political crisis.
The ambassador also described the “very close” coordination and cooperation between Washington and Paris on the Middle East and a wide range of international issues, including Ukraine and combatting terrorism.
This interview was conducted by Andrew Parasiliti and Elizabeth Hagedorn. A lightly edited transcript follows.
Al-Monitor: The Iran nuclear deal appears stuck mostly over a dispute over an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency over Iran’s lack of engagement into an investigation of possible nuclear activity at undeclared sites. Last week, France, the United Kingdom and Germany, signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is known, signaled their concern about the state of the process. And there was a non-binding resolution at the IAEA board meeting [Thursday] in Vienna. Could you give us some background on what is France’s position and how the negotiations can be unstuck? And do you expect any high-level diplomacy at the UN General Assembly next week on this issue?
Etienne: France, together with Germany and the United Kingdom — the so-called E3 — has been working indeed very hard for years and since this new administration started with the goal to come back to the JCPOA to get this negotiation to a positive end. This is a reality. We have not spared any efforts. Unfortunately, the last position expressed by Iran brings us backwards, and in particular, establishes links between the JCPOA and the obligations of Iran under its international commitments and non-proliferation, which are something else.
It is not only the US plus the E3 which have expressed their concerns in this regard. As you mentioned, there was a meeting of the Vienna agency, and 56 countries issued a statement calling on Iran to fully cooperate with the IAEA and to resolve all outstanding safeguard issues, because it is their obligation. And it is not acceptable for us to put pressure on the Vienna agency, which is the international actor in charge of these issues, and with which Iran must cooperate.
Al-Monitor: Would it be helpful in your view and France’s view for Iran to engage positively on regional issues as well, such as Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, as a sign of goodwill of its regional intentions? And are you seeing any signs of change in their foreign policy?
Etienne: For sure, the regional security dimension is really important. It's really important in parallel to the negotiation of the nuclear activities to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. It's a region where stability is so important for these countries and worldwide. France, indeed, has also been acting very strongly for this. And in particular through the Baghdad conference, which [was] last year in August, together with President Macron, made it possible to gather all countries of this region — which means Iraq, but also Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and the other Gulf countries. And of course, this was positive, and we decided with all the partners then to continue to work on this.
Al-Monitor: President Macron concluded a historic trip to Algeria last month, including the signing of an agreement that introduces what was described as a “new, irreversible dynamic of progress.” Could you comment on that agreement? And what do you see as the next steps in the reset of this bilateral relationship?
Etienne: It was a very important visit considering the both very close and sometimes complex relations due to the history between Algeria and France, the incredible network of human relations. And this visit was qualified as a real success by the two countries, the two heads of state, because they decided as successfully to turn to the future, which doesn't mean that we ignore the past. One of the three major results is focused on the dialogue and memory with the creation of the joint committee of French and Algerian historians and the opening of archives. But this is understood as something which will make it possible to look more with more serenity to the future. And the other important result is in the field of political dialogue, including security and defense issues, because I mentioned for instance the terror threat and other challenges to the security both of Europe and Africa. And this will take the form of a high Cooperation Council at the level of heads of state, which is quite an important step.
There was a strong focus on the common challenges for the future, especially for the youth — be it through education and digital issues, energy, economy, research and development and culture. A strong focus on what can be of relevance and importance for the young populations in our two countries. All those things have been decided, now of course your question is what next? We will work with Algeria to implement these decisions and get to those concrete results, which can be important for the future and for the French and Algerian people.
Al-Monitor: On Iraq, what is the French position? Obviously because of the summit, President Macron has taken quite a personal interest in this. What do you think might be required or what can the international community do to help shake free the stalled government formation process? And are there plans to follow up on Baghdad II?
Etienne: Obviously, to be stable the region needs in particular a stable and sovereign Iraq, which is of course something we support very much. And of course we have supported the call on political leaders in Iraq to engage in dialogue and consultation as Prime Minister [Mustafa] al-Kadhimi has made. So we hope that the different actors will work in this direction. And also we are very much committed to deepening our own relations with Iraq. Because it's a very important partner, but also the stability and the sovereignty of Iraq are absolutely essential for all of us.
Al-Monitor: President Macron has given priority to trying to head off the economic crisis in Lebanon, including through close partnership with Saudi Arabia. Can you explain the steps that France wants Lebanon to take to ensure reform and stability?
Etienne: It has not changed a lot since after, and even before, the explosion at the port of Beirut. Our expectation is for the Lebanese government to deliver on the urgent necessary measures that frankly the Lebanese people first of all are waiting for. And the list of these reforms is well known. In this context, after the legislative elections which took place, we hope that the presidential election will take place in compliance with the schedule, which has been set, which is set in the constitution of Lebanon. Indeed in this respect, there is something which is encouraging, which is the cooperation we have established with Saudi Arabia and this humanitarian mechanism. Because the first priority, of course, is to support the population, which is the most urgent step together with structural reforms, which are essential for the longer term. So, domains like health and food security are absolutely essential to support in the humanitarian field the population of Lebanon. It's important for us that we can work on this with other partners in the region and in Arab countries.
Al-Monitor: How do you characterize overall the French relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at this point?
Etienne: We had a lot of meetings with those countries at the level of heads of state. Those partners are really important. You know the strategic partnership we have with the United Arab Emirates. We have had high-level exchange not only with Saudi Arabia and Emirates, but also with other countries in the region. It's for us very important in complement with what we said before about Baghdad to have this strong bilateral dialogue, to contribute to more stability in the region without prejudice of the bilateral relations with those countries, which is important, no doubt.
Al-Monitor: The US and France are NATO allies and coordinate across a wide range of issues in the Middle East and worldwide. How do you see that partnership evolving?
Etienne: We have very good relations, and very close cooperation on issues like Yemen, like the Middle East. On Lebanon, France and the US are very closely coordinating their position. On Yemen, we have one voice. We meet very often. We work towards the same goals, which are to prolong the truce and to make it a sustainable ceasefire. Beyond the Middle East, we are very closely also coordinating our positions in every aspect of the fight against terrorism in particular, but not only in Africa, in Sahel.
We had a difficult moment in our bilateral relations exactly one year ago with the announcement of the US with the countries of the AUKUS project. But since then we have very quickly restored a very high level of relations, consultation. It all happened between middle of September, end of October last year, and of October, the summit between the two presidents in Rome. The statement made in Rome between President Joe Biden and President Macron. And this was really important. Just some months before the invasion, the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia. As France had the presidency of the European Union, the Council of the European Union, at that time during the first six months of this year, the consultation between the EU and the United States even before the invasion was absolutely crucial and really successful. And it remains so. So in view of the most important challenge to international security, which is now this war in Ukraine, I can say that the relations are very close. And our consultations on the war in Ukraine extend to the issues directly linked to this war around Ukraine, and especially energy and food security.
Al-Monitor: The Israel-Palestine issue also seems stuck. Israeli elections will be held Nov. 1. Do you anticipate any major initiatives from Paris or Brussels or the UN next week?
Etienne: We welcome the normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries. I think it was two years ago, the Abraham Accords. We think that we must also remain strongly committed to the two-state solution. So I don't know how much, and to what extent these issues will be discussed in the near future. We are aware of the difficulties, but we think that in the future, of course, this negotiation, also direct negotiation, at one point should be resumed. The Europeans are really close neighbors, both to Israel and to the Palestinians, and we want to closely cooperate with the United States, which has such a big role and influence.
Our president recently had the opportunity to have the leaders of Israel — Prime Minister [Yair] Lapid was in France — also the president of the Palestinian Authority. The Egyptian president [Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi] is a very important partner, and not only for this issue of course. That there is no movement doesn't mean that we do not very closely talk to partners in the region. The relations of France with Israel, like with the Arab partners, are really essential for us.