WASHINGTON — Even though the Iranian and US presidents did not meet or share a phone call during the UN General Assembly meetings in New York last month, the French say that important progress has been made on a substantive framework for possible talks, and it is largely a matter of sequencing — and overcoming mistrust — to see if the parties can get to the table.
“The conditions to start those discussions were there,” a French diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “One key issue is sequencing though, and there is probably a problem of trust.”
“I think … that the conditions have been created for a swift resumption of the negotiations,” French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists at a press conference in New York Sept. 24, after noting that he had held multiple discussions with Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over the previous days and identified four points to serve as a framework for negotiations.
The four points Macron described are:
- Ensuring that Iran would never acquire nuclear weapons;
- Redoubling efforts to end the Yemen war as a near-term priority to defuse a critical regional flashpoint;
- The building of a broader regional security plan. This might also address the issue of ballistic missiles, which Iran says it needs to defend itself, including from the advanced arsenal the United States and Europe sell to its Gulf rivals and Israel;
- And, paramount for Iran, the lifting of economic sanctions.
“It’s now up to Iran and the United States of America to look at these conditions and work together to reactivate a process,” Macron said. “I say this very humbly and cautiously because all this is still fragile, but I think the discussions we’ve had and the initiatives taken have created the conditions for a swift return to dialogue and the negotiations, while allowing us to build an agenda of long-term security and stability for the region.”
Both Iran and the United States apparently gave their provisional ascent to the framework — or “package” — that the French initiative helped develop as a basis for possible negotiations, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group. The challenge is sequencing, he said.
“It is reality that both sides believe that the package Macron put together was workable,” Vaez told Al-Monitor. “It is a question of sequencing. Both sides were interested and comfortable with the elements that were in the package."
“Again, the only problem was choreography, and that is why both believe that this is not the end of the road,” Vaez said. “The concept of the package remains viable.”
In New York, the sequencing conundrum manifested itself in no Trump-Rouhani encounter.
Diplomats said, in essence, the Iranians would not agree to a meeting with Trump without the United States offering in advance some assurance on sanctions relief. Trump was open to a meeting, but without preconditions — in other words, without offering assurances on sanctions relief first.
The sequencing conundrum could be heard referenced obliquely in a video of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson teaming up with Macron to persuade a smiling Rouhani to meet Trump before he left New York.
“You need to be on the side of the swimming pool and jump at the same time,” Johnson could be heard telling Rouhani Sept. 23, replete with body motions pantomiming jumping into a pool.
“The Iranians are not willing to meet without getting something … some form of relief on economic sanctions,” said Quentin Lopinot, a French foreign policy expert serving as a visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS. “I think this is where we might need to be a bit creative.”
“On specific issues, can you create space for negotiation,” continued Lopinot, the author of a new CSIS paper on how Europe can de-escalate US-Iran tensions in the Persian Gulf. Potential relief "will have to be matched with something from the Iranian side, some form of concession. … We need a couple of sparks [to ignite the engine] to get to direct dialogue.”
“There is no silver-bullet solution to this,” Lopinot said. But despite the lack of a Trump-Rouhani encounter, “things have moved forward a bit.”
In the runup to the G-7 summit that Macron hosted in Biarritz, France, in August, the French had been working on a more narrow cease-fire plan. But between the Biarritz summit and the UN General Assembly meetings in September, Trump indicated to the French that he was interested in a broader, “grander bargain” over a narrow cease-fire plan, said the Crisis Group’s Vaez.
“The idea initially was basically to reach a cease-fire agreement in which the US would stop imposing sanctions on Iran and provide it with some economic reprieve,” Vaez said. “In return, the Iranians would stop their escalation both in the nuclear realm and in the region. That was the idea.”
“But then the president [Trump] appeared more anxious for a grander bargain,” Vaez said. “And so the French proposal turned into something that amounted to a much more substantive deal than was initially imagined, which would get the US to go back to the status quo ante back in May 2018,” before Trump exited the nuclear deal.
“And so this would … open the way for the US to come back to the P5+1, and to engage in broader negotiations,” Vaez said, referring to the acronym for the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany that negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
In many ways, a joint statement issued by the leaders of the E3 — the UK, France and Germany — on Sept. 23 — suggests that the E3 are trying to revive an effort undertaken by the United States and E3 from January to May 2018 to address the issues unresolved by the nuclear pact-sunsets, ballistic missiles, regional threats and the Iranian interest in sanctions relief.
“Conscious of the importance of collective efforts to guarantee regional stability and security, we reiterate our conviction that the time has come for Iran to accept negotiation on a long-term framework for its nuclear program as well as on issues related to regional security, including its missiles program and other means of delivery,” the E3 leaders’ statement said. “We urge Iran to engage in such a dialogue and refrain from further provocation and escalation.”
“I think both the Iranians and the Trump administration … understand that there are not a lot of different formulas that would help them avoid further escalation that could easily spin out of control,” Vaez said. “That is why they are not keen on new initiatives to mediate between them. … The French initiative remains the only game in town.”