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[David Ignatius] Why Macron’s Iran gamble didn’t pay off

What really happened in Biarritz last weekend, with the mysterious visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif? US officials saw it as a bit of diplomatic freelancing by French President Emmanuel Macron that sought to foster negotiations but highlighted the obstacles that are in the way.

The intrigue surrounding the summit was described by knowledgeable sources who requested anonymity to describe the sensitive diplomacy. “It felt like a gamble,” said one source, a bet by Macron that he could engage President Trump’s flair for the dramatic by providing a venue for a face-to-face meeting. A French Embassy spokesperson in Washington declined to comment.

Macron has been trying to coax Iran and the US toward talks that would produce a new, broader nuclear agreement ever since April 2018, when he proposed during a visit to the White House “four pillars” of such a revised agreement. Macron wants to add curbs on Iranian ballistic missiles and regional meddling to an extended version of the 2015 nuclear pact.

Macron, understanding Trump’s penchant for disruptive diplomacy, apparently thought that if he brought Zarif to the G-7 summit meeting on the French coast, it might prompt a US-Iranian meeting that would jump-start talks. Macron may have been modeling his effort on South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s success in leveraging the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics to encourage rapprochement with North Korea and Trump’s subsequent meetings with Kim Jong-un.

Macron’s bet didn’t pay off, and there are some obvious explanations why: Zarif wasn’t senior enough, he’s personally disliked by the Trump team as the favorite interlocutor of the Obama administration, and he didn’t bring any concessions from Tehran. Perhaps if President Hasan Rouhani had arrived in Biarritz, carrying a meaningful message, then Trump would have found a dramatic meeting irresistible.

Trump’s approach to such freelance diplomacy has been coy. He encourages the flirtations with Iran but doesn’t ease off on US sanctions. That was the case with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wanted to play peacemaker when he traveled to Tehran in June. Abe’s good relations with Trump made him a credible messenger, and Trump assented.

But the Abe initiative proved a bust. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebuffed the channel, saying: “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future.”

After thanking Abe for his effort, a miffed Trump tweeted: “I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!”

Enter Macron. Despite Abe’s failure, the French president thought he might be able to save the 2015 deal by repackaging it through a new negotiation. Macron sent his top diplomatic adviser to Tehran in June and July to chum the water.

“Hey, give me a shot,” was Macron’s message to Trump, a source said. Trump again assented. But he underlined in an Aug. 8 tweet: “I know Emmanuel means well, as do all others, but nobody speaks for the United States but the United States itself.”

After the Biarritz gambit, Trump himself seemed to be inviting a meeting with Rouhani. “I have a good feeling. I think he (Rouhani) is going to want to meet and get their situation straightened out. They are hurting badly,” he said Monday as the G-7 ended. But the next day, it was Rouhani’s turn to express disdain, saying, “We will not witness any positive development unless the United States abandons its sanctions.”

There’s an element of cognitive dissonance here. The US is waging what amounts to economic war, but it keeps insisting it wants to negotiate. The Pentagon seems pleased that the low-key US military response to Iranian provocation this summer has averted escalation. “We want to talk with Iran and talk about a diplomatic path forward,” said Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday. The State Department worries, meanwhile, that the US may be sending Tehran a message of weakness.

Trump clearly doesn’t want war with Iran, and neither do key US allies. The United Arab Emirates recently floated the idea of a “Helsinki process,” under United Nations sponsorship, that would allow discussions among nations of the Persian Gulf, perhaps focused on maritime security. And the US confirmed this week that it’s conducting secret talks with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Yet the war drums still beat. Israel last weekend attacked Iranian-backed rebels in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, in what seemed a significant escalation. Confused about where the Iran confrontation is heading? Welcome to the club. 

David Ignatius

Follow David Ignatius on Twitter: @IgnatiusPost -- Ed.

(Washington Post Writers Group)