French Foreign Minister Visits Tehran as Tensions Grow Between Iran and Its Adversaries

Questions persist, however, about whether France or its European partners will be able to satisfy the demands imposed on the survival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by both the US and the Islamic Republic. Those two countries were joined in nuclear negotiations by France, the UK, Germany, China, and Russia. The latter two countries have largely championed Iran’s position on the nuclear issue and related points of dispute, while the European signatories to the JCPOA have stood by the agreement but have also trended continually closer to agreement with the Trump administration over the need for tighter restrictions.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly found Iran to be in compliance with its basic obligations under the accord, but the White House has decertified Iran’s compliance on the basis of perceived violations of the “spirit” of the deal. Prominent among these are more than a dozen ballistic missile tests that fly in the face of a provision in the UN Security Council resolution governing the JCPOA’s implementation. That resolution calls upon Iran to avoid all work on nuclear-capable weapons, but its wording is sufficiently vague to allow Iran to ignore the provision with little immediate consequence.

The reporting on Le Drian’s visit to Tehran indicated that the foreign minister and his fellow French officials had come to take serious issue with these violations and were committed to pursuing a resolution of the conflict. But Tehran has repeatedly rejected the notion of any negotiations over its military capabilities, and this message was certainly reiterated in the context of Le Drian’s trip. The Iranian position even seemed to be presented publicly as an ultimatum that runs contrary to that which was offered by US President Donald Trump in January.

At that time, Trump renewed the sanctions waivers that were initially put in place by the JCPOA, but he warned that he would not do so at the next deadline, in mid-May, unless the US Congress and its European partners settled on an agreement that would restrain Iran’s missile activities, expand the mechanisms for nuclear monitoring, and eliminate “sunset clauses” that allow the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities to begin expiring after 10 years.

If no agreement to this effect is concluded, Trump may pull the US out of the deal, effectively killing it. But Reuters quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as saying, “If the EU is trying to salvage the accord… they should try to keep Iran, not the US, in [it].” Iranian officials, like the Trump administration, have threatened the deal’s survival on numerous occasions, saying for instance that they will resume full-scale uranium enrichment and retaliate against Western powers if the JCPOA fails to provide the Islamic Republic with the desired economic benefits.

This threat was clearly repeated on Monday by Behrouz Kamalvandi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. A separate Reuters report quoted him as saying, “If America pulls out of the deal … Iran could resume its 20 percent uranium enrichment in less than 48 hours.” Additionally, previous statements have suggested that this course of action would be considered justified even if the US did not formally put out but simply continued to enforce sanctions in a manner that prevents international banks from providing financing for Western investment projects in the Islamic Republic.

Of course, the White House is very much in favor of this continued exertion of pressure, and various critics of the Iranian regime are still urging the US to take more aggressive measures, including some that might halt Western trade agreements that have already been established. Prominent among these are the planned sales of commercial aircraft to Iran Air by both the US-based manufacturer Boeing and the French-headquartered Airbus. Last week, The Tower highlighted arguments that President Trump should re-impose the sanctions that were lifted from Iran Air with the implementation of the JCPOA.

The Tower pointed to reports that Iran Air and other commercial carriers in the Islamic Republic have been used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to transport paramilitary fighters and weapons to other areas of the Middle East, especially to Syria throughout its seven-year civil war. “Because the terms of the nuclear deal only allow commercial planes to be sold to Iran,” the article concludes, “the fact that Iran uses its civilian plane for military purposes makes Iran Air a fair target for renewed sanctions.”

This argument emerged on Friday in the midst of reports that a federal judge in the US had ordered Boeing to release details of its contract with Iran Air to victims of Iran-sponsored terrorism who are trying to recoup legal penalties from the Iranian government. Boeing’s compliance would allow lawyers to examine relevant Iranian assets to determine whether any can be seized to pay the default judgment of 67 million dollars that was handed down in a civil case in 2003 related to an attack by Palestine’s Islamic Jihad. The Boeing contract is valued at 16 billion dollars.

According to the Washington Post, the recent order by Judge Ruben Castillo also found that the Trump administration is in compliance with the JCPOA, a fact that may help to undermine Iran’s justification for retaliatory actions. At the same time, the report quoted Illinois Republic Representative Peter Roskam as praising the chilling effect that this order could have on Western investment in Iran, insofar as it is “indicative of the risks of doing business with the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.”

Meanwhile, foreign allies of the US continue to put forth their own efforts at highlighting the persistent nature of this terror sponsorship. The New York Times reported on Monday that the Middle Eastern island nation of Bahrain had announced the arrest of 116 member of a terror cell with apparent links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Of that number, 48 individuals were identified as having received training at IRGC-run camps in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.

Lebanon is home to Iran’s most firmly established terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. That organization has been identified as a prototype for emerging Iran-backed forces throughout the region, including the coalitions of Shiite paramilitary groups that fought in defense of the Assad regime in Syria and have since become firmly entrenched in the country.

That entrenchment was expected to be a key point of focus for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he met on Monday with President Trump. According to Haaretz, Iran’s missile activities were also high on the agenda, thus adding to the pressure being exerted on the American president to follow through on his policy of assertively confronting Iran over its destabilizing activities.

These pressures are sure to be extended to the European signatories to the JCPOA as they continue to struggle with the prospect of an agreement that somehow splits the difference between the positions advocated by Iran and its direct adversaries. This sort of compromise may become increasingly difficult to achieve as tensions continue to escalate between Iran and those adversaries.

In February, an Iranian drone incursion into Israeli airspace resulted in the shoot-down of that drone and an Israeli jet, as well as the destruction of a dozen military sites in Syria, including several that were reportedly controlled by Iran. The Islamic Republic’s entrenchment in Syrian territory is viewed as an existential threat by Israel, and for good reason. The Tower reported last week that Tehran had announced plans to hold a festival to celebrate Israel’s destruction “within 25 years.”

Predictions for the collapse of the Jewish state are familiar features of Iranian rhetoric, and The Tower quoted Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a foreign policy advisor to the speaker of the Iranian parliament, as saying that Iran “has not spared any effort” in its support of anti-Israeli terrorist groups and that it has an undisclosed plan to realize Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s 25-year projection.

Publication of all this rhetoric, along with the corresponding Iranian foreign policy activities, can be expected to cut against Iran’s efforts to encourage European governments to side with the Islamic Republic over their longstanding allies. Nevertheless, as long as figures like Jean-Yves Le Drian continue to pursue interchange with Iran, they will face such pressures from their Iranian counterparts.

Illustrating this phenomenon, the Associated Press reported on Monday that Javad Zarif attempted to use Le Drian’s visit to turn familiar criticisms of the Islamic Republic back on its Western adversaries. “The United States and other countries that have turned our region into a gunpowder depot by selling arms must stop such actions,” he said, adding that Iran’s missile activities would continue at their full scale, being examples only of “deterrent power”.

But the AP also reported that Le Drian rejected this argument, noting that “having such tools is not uniquely defensive, given the distance they can reach.” In light of this, he said, the Iranian missile program “worries us enormously”.