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Emmanuel Macron could be the big loser from the Saudi drone attack

18 September 2019

10:38 AM

18 September 2019

10:38 AM

Saudis woke up last Saturday to find the crown jewel of their oil industry in smoke. The attack on the al-Abqaiq oil processing facility, allegedly conducted by cruise missiles and launched from a staging area inside Iran, resulted in the sharpest single-day increase in crude prices since the 1991 Gulf War.

Saudi Arabia’s largest oil installation, however, wasn’t the only thing that went up in smoke last weekend. The volley of missiles screeching into Saudi airspace may have also ruined French president Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to deescalate tensions in the Persian Gulf and save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal from a slow and agonising death.

The French president has been hard at work all summer trying to coax Washington and Tehran, two long-time adversaries, into the same room. Like all of his European colleagues, Macron is dumbfounded about why Donald Trump tore up an accord that, while far from perfect, capped Tehran’s enrichment, research, and development activities and provided the international community with far better access to Iran’s nuclear program than it ever had. For Trump, scrapping Washington’s participation in the deal was the fulfilment of a campaign promise made years before—a way to illustrate his anti-Obama bona-fides, stress his persona as a strong dealmaker, and throw red-meat to the Republican party’s foreign policy establishment. It goes without saying that Europe didn’t share Trump’s priorities.

The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign on Tehran remains a principle sore spot in the transatlantic alliance. While Washington remains convinced the Iranians will eventually wilt under the financial pressure and come back to the table with much less leverage, Macron is anything but persuaded by the argument.

Evidence would strongly suggest Macron is right and Trump is wrong. Not only are the Iranians unwilling to relaunch negotiations on Trump’s terms—Ayatollah Ali Khamenei just this week reiterated his resistance to any bilateral dialogue with the Americans. Tehran is also behaving far more aggressively than when the maximum pressure campaign began over a year ago. With Washington no longer complying, Iranian officials see no reason to do so either. Since the spring, Iran has been growing its uranium stockpile, gradually enriching at a higher level, and fiddling with civilian tankers in the Persian Gulf in its own campaign of maximum pressure. The Iranians are fighting fire with fire, and the Europeans have no intention of watching as the house burns down.

Macron wants to be the firefighter, partly due to his own ambition and partly because no other European leader—not lame-duck Angela Merkel, Brexit-consumed Boris Johnson, or wobbly Giuseppe Conte—is stepping up with the fire hose. So in a last-ditch plot to keep the foundations of the house standing, the French president has spent months undertaking one of his most important diplomatic initiatives. He has dispatched his top diplomatic aide to Tehran, invited the Iranian Foreign Minister to Paris and has spoken at length with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani about a way to stop the situation from getting more combustible. Macron even invited foreign minister Zarif to the same French town where the leaders of the big industrial powers were meeting for the G-7 summit. The £12bn ($15bn) credit line the French have proposed to Tehran in exchange for Iran reentering the nuclear agreement appeared to be interesting enough to keep diplomacy going. When briefed about it, Trump didn’t dismiss it out of hand. 

Unfortunately, the strike on Riyadh’s oil industry over the weekend may have killed whatever momentum existed for Macron’s initiative. As one French diplomat told Reuters, “The attack doesn’t help what we are trying to do,” an understatement if there ever was one.  

It’s hard to envision where Macron’s diplomatic gamble goes from here other than an early grave. Given the hardliners surrounding Trump, it likely never had a chance at life.


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