It almost feels like springtime in Paris and Washington as President Trump is finding surprising new common ground with America’s oldest ally - France, and its young new liberal leader Emmanuel Macron.
Trump offended many in the nation of nearly 70 million by vowing during the campaign that he would not visit the country. “I wouldn’t go to France. France is no longer France” he said. Yet, there he was in Paris smoothing smooth over this and other lingering tensions in the Franco-American relationship. The Trumps even dined with the Macrons at the Eiffel Tower.
In a sign of their budding closeness, Macron barged through a pack of world leaders the G20 summit last week for a quick chat with Trump. The two leaders also engaged in an epic handshake which lasted over 30 seconds at the end of Trump’s Paris trip.
Hopefully, President Trump can use this budding influence to convince Macron to adopt a tougher line against Iran.
This will not be easy because the two nations have very different interests in Iran.
Last month Macron met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The meeting led to a major oil and gas deal with the French oil major Total.
Total possesses the knowledge necessary to help Iran develop the technically challenging South Pars Field. That field is jointly controlled by Qatar (where it is known as the North Field) and is the largest natural gas field in the world.
The new deal might earn $2 billion for Total. Total took a 50.1 percent share in the new deal with the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp. holding a 30-percent stake. Iran’s Petropars was content with a mere 19.9 percent as the Iranian government expects the deal to generate some $5 billion in investment.
American lawmakers worry that every dollar which flows to Iran is another dollar which could be used to fund terrorism and regional instability.
However, Macron appears to be keeping his options open.
Macron’s government also appears to be developing close ties with the Iranian opposition.
For Iranian hardliners, the signing of the Total oil deal was somewhat undercut by a large anti-Iran rally held in Paris that same weekend. The pro-regime Iranian Kayhan newspaper wrote in an editorial that the, “Signing [of] the contract with the French oil firm Total coincided with two negative events, the new EU sanctions against Iran that happened during Iran’s foreign minister’s trip to France, the other being the propaganda show of a very notorious Iranian group in Paris.”
That “notorious” rebel group is the Mujahedeen El-Khaq, or MeK, which again hosted the Free Iran rally in Paris that was attended by a variety of Iranian rebels. Once a leftist group, the MeK is now committed to ending the rule of the mullahs and crafting a democratic and capitalist Iran.
In addition to the MeK dominated National Council of Resistance of Iran, the rally was attended by a host of Arab, African, and European politicians who gave speeches to the crowd of well over 40,000. A bipartisan delegation of American politicians included Democrat Joe Liebermann and Republican Newt Gingrich.
The rally was also attended by at least one elected official from Macron’s own party: parliamentarian Michèle de Vaucouleurs. Vaucoulers was elected to the French National Assembly on 18 June just days before she addressed the conference.
She used her remarks to draw attention to a recent report from Amnesty International which stated that 55% of executions in the world took place in Iran last year. She spoke of France’s political responsibility to not “look away” from the path toward democracy promotion and against the dictatorship.
Her remarks were similar to a speech delivered by Former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a Sarkozy era official whose presence suggests continuity in the French approach to Tehran.
In some ways, the Total deal is to be expected. France was a major player in the Iranian oil market until 2006 when the Iranian sanctions began.
As with previous tremors in Franco-American relations, the United States should find creative ways to work with Paris to confront Iran’s efforts in the region. As Trump said in a joint-press conference with his French counterpart: “Today, we face new threats from rogue regimes like North Korea, Iran, and Syria, and the governments that finance and support them”
The United States should work with President Macron to ensure Iran abides by the nuclear agreement and stays focused on its commitment regarding democracy promotion regarding Iran. However, the two countries should also find common ground to thwart Iranian influence in the region. After all, France is not the only NATO ally seeking new economic ties with Tehran. Italian companies have also been aggressive in seeking opportunities in the 80 million strong Iranian market. Italy signed a 1.3 billion dollar high-speed rail deal with Iran following Total’s deal.
Indeed prior to their Paris meeting, Trump and Macron had already made a joint agreement regarding the Iranian-backed Assad regime. Trump and Macron have agreed that any future chemical weapons attack by Damascus will result in a joint Franco-American airstrike. Before the election of both men France and the United States also provided logistical support to the Saudi led coalition in Yemen. Both initiatives can provide the groundwork for further Franco-American efforts to pressure the mullahs in Tehran to stop destabilizing the region.