There are indications that French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s recent visit to Iran was not very successful in terms of achieving its goals. The trip took place with the aim of paving the way for an upcoming landmark visit by French President Emmanuel Macron as well as softening Iran’s position on engaging in talks on regional issues and its ballistic missile program. Instead, both Tehran and France continue to maintain their stances on these issues.
Just hours ahead of his arrival in Tehran, Le Drian said that Iran needs to address international concerns over its ballistic missile program or risk new sanctions. Although the reason for his tough tone, especially on the brink of his visit, is unclear, the negative impact it had on the outcome of his trip cannot be ignored.
Indeed, the French foreign minister did not receive a very warm welcome. Despite meeting various high-ranking government officials in Iran, the content of the encounters indicates a lack of progress toward resolving differences.
Le Drian met March 5 with Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. Shamkhani, a former commander with the rank of rear admiral, attended the meeting in military uniform, a move described by Iranian media as Tehran’s way of sending a message to the French envoy. It should be noted that Shamkhani is considered a Reformist and has not appeared in military attire for quite some time.
Le Drian also met March 5 with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, but according to official sources, that meeting was focused mostly on the nuclear deal and how France should abide by its obligations. During the meeting, Zarif had criticized France and Europe for not playing a more active role to keep the accord alive while only attempting to appease the United States. In a series of tweets posted following their meeting, Zarif said he had reminded France that the EU should compel the United States to abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) rather than trying to appease it by repeating its extraneous demands. The Iranian minister’s tweets also suggested that Tehran maintains its stance regarding the non-negotiable nature of its missile program.
This comes at a time when Iranian hard-liners have become extremely sensitive to any type of negotiation with the West over the country’s missile program. It should be noted that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has continuously reiterated this point as well. In an address at the graduation ceremony of military cadets Oct. 25, Khamenei said, “As we have repeatedly announced, we announce again that the country’s defense capability is not open to negotiation.”
But what is interesting is that even Iranian moderates do not seem to welcome the idea of negotiating over the country’s missile program. President Hassan Rouhani had previously expressed a similar stance regarding potential missile talks with the West. In a Feb. 4 address, Rouhani had said, “In a world where the US flagrantly threatens other countries with new atomic weapons, can you say that you do not need defense capabilities? We do not need to negotiate with anyone or reach an agreement with any [foreign] power on our defense capabilities.”
Meanwhile, as both Zarif and Rouhani pointed out to Le Drian, Tehran is not content with Europe's seemingly bowing to US pressure over the JCPOA. Thus, the firm "no" by Tehran to the French foreign minister — especially in light of a potential visit by Macron to Iran — could serve as an important message to both Europe and the United States.
To the Iranians, President Donald Trump’s policy of pressure — and the European response — is reminiscent of the events over 2003-05 when Iran engaged with Britain, France and Germany over its nuclear program. Both Rouhani and Zarif led those negotiations, which involved an Iranian agreement to voluntarily and temporarily suspend uranium enrichment activities as a trust-building measure. The talks collapsed in the end, as Europe — under pressure from the G.W. Bush administration — demanded a permanent end to enrichment on Iranian soil. Mindful of that experience, which ultimately had no benefit for Iran, they are now from the get-go resisting any supplements or additions to the JCPOA.
In fact, it seems the non-negotiability of Iran’s defense capabilities — including its ballistic missiles — is one of the few points on which both the hard-liners and moderates in Iran agree. At the same time, Tehran is worried that if the current erosive trend continues, it could result in Tehran gaining no benefits from the JCPOA whatsoever. This is while, as Zarif pointed out to Le Drian, the International Atomic Energy Agency has in 10 consecutive reports confirmed Iran’s adherence to its commitments under the nuclear deal.
On Feb. 23, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi warned that Iran may leave the JCPOA if its promised economic dividends do not materialize and major banks continue to shun the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, in a March 10 interview with Shargh newspaper, Zarif highlighted engagement with the Europeans over regional issues and said, “Iran and Europe have been negotiating for 30 years, and this includes our regional dialogues. But if the Europeans want to use this as a tactic to appease the US, they will face other challenges.”
Zarif and Rouhani have always pursued the idea of Iran as a player and potential Western partner that can promote stability and security in the region. This endeavor appears to have been somewhat successful, as Europe now is engaging with Iran to seek its assistance in solving the regional crisis. As such, the bigger picture appears to be that Iran now knows how influential its role is for Europe when it comes to providing regional security and fighting instability in the Middle East. But it should not be ignored that, at the same time, it expects Europe to resist becoming part of Trump’s game of gradually destroying the JCPOA.