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France cautious about China's role but welcomes Iran-Saudi agreement

Paris would have much preferred that the Saudi-Iran rapprochement would have been reached by means other than Chinese mediation.
France's President Emmanuel Macron (L) arrives with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a working dinner at presidential Elysee Palace in Paris on July 28, 2022. - French President Emmanuel Macron host Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for talks in Paris on July 28, 2022, outraging rights groups and the fiancee of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Photo by BENOIT TESSIER / POOL / AFP) (Photo by BENOIT TESSIER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

PARIS — The French Foreign Ministry is publicly supporting the agreement reached last week between Iran and Saudi Arabia to renew bilateral diplomatic relations, while also striking a cautious tone when it comes to China — the broker— and its growing role in region.

The ministry’s spokesperson, Anne-Claire Legendre, said on Tuesday that France supports all measures likely to contribute to the stability of the region.

That being said, Legendre refused to address the issue of the Chinese mediation that led to the agreement, nor would it address the possibility of a Chinese-Iranian-Saudi strategic alliance. The spokesperson simply noted that Paris has been following up for the past few years on trends of Chinese regional implications not just in the Gulf but also in other parts of the world.

“It had not escaped us that high-level meetings were held between China and Iran. Important agreements were signed between these two countries. [Iranian] President Ebrahim Raisi had visited Beijing and [Chinese] President Xi had visited Saudi Arabia. The strengthening of China's relations with this part of the world is a trend that we have observed in recent years,” Legendre told Al-Monitor.

The hailing of the Iran-Saudi agreement makes sense from the French point of view and in light of efforts by Paris for rapprochement with Riyadh. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna met in Paris with her Saudi counterpart, Faisal Bin Farhan, last Friday, shortly after the announcement of the Tehran-Riyadh deal. In a tweet posted after her meeting with Farhan, Colonna said they agreed to reinforce cooperation in several fields, including on security issues such as Iran, Lebanon, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.

A statement issued by the French ministry said that Paris welcomed the Saudi-Iran agreement. “France is in favor of dialogue and of any initiative that can help de-escalate tensions and strengthen regional security and stability. The need to promote dialogue in this region is therefore central to France’s involvement in the Middle East," Colonna said in the statement, citing the Baghdad format sponsored by France and intended to foster dialogue. 

The Baghdad format (the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership), has already convened twice since was inaugurated by French President Emmanuel Macron to promote stability in Iraq and its environs in 2021. Apart from France and Iraq, participants in this forum include Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, the Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Arab League and the EU. Leading this initiative together with Iraq and the Jordanians, the French are now deeply engaged in efforts to stabilize the region. Iran, with its involvement in Iraqi politics and as a regional power, is clearly a key player in that respect. Paris believes that Iraq cannot reach stability without Iran supporting the process. 

While congratulating on Friday Tehran and Riyadh over the agreement, the French foreign ministry added a cautious note, saying that “working closely with its partners, France will continue to attentively monitor developments in the Middle East situation.” 

In her statement last Tuesday, Legendre emphasized the need for Iran to stop all regional-destabilizing activities. Legendre reminded that the statement issued on Friday included also French demand “vis-à-vis Iran to cease all of its destabilizing activities in the region.” The spokesperson also said that France continues its close dialogue with Israel on this issue. The shaky relations between Paris and Tehran over its military support of Russia, its breach of human rights and its refusal to release three imprisoned French nationals certainly don’t inspire much mutual trust.

In view of the role it is playing in Iraq and with all that is at stake in Iran and Yemen, France could not afford not to support the Tehran-Riyadh agreement, but that does not mean that the Chinese involvement does not worry Paris. Macron had indicated earlier this year his willingness to review and rebuild French commercial relations with China. He intends to visit Beijing this coming summer. But what about the growing Chinese strategic influence?

When the Chinese espionage balloon affair was exposed, Paris was quick to note that this development did not concern it. Still, at her briefing last Tuesday, Legendre said that the French government is now discussing whether to ban all public servants from using TikTok as a measure of security. Chinese involvement in Ukraine is also a source of concern in France. For the moment, France has no proof that China is delivering weapons to Russia, noted Legendre. Still, she said, Paris have sent messages of caution to Beijing on this, including during the visit in Paris a few weeks ago of senior Chinese official Wang Yi and at the meeting Colonna held with her Chinese counterpart during the last G20 meeting. In a way, as much as it does not trust Iran, France does not trust China.

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