Paris (CNSNews.com) – French President Emmanuel Macron is drawing praise at home for his efforts to facilitate Iran-U.S. talks, but few here are questioning the appropriateness of his dealings with a regime accused of plotting terrorism on French soil.
Macron met in Paris on Friday with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and then a second time on Sunday on the fringes of the G7 summit in Biarritz, after which Macron announced the possibility of a summit between President Trump and President Hassan Rouhani.
The regime has since placed hurdles in the path of Macron’s initiative, but French media are nonetheless hailing it as a diplomatic coup.
Just 11 months ago, Macron’s government froze the assets of two Iranian diplomats and those of Iran’s ministry of intelligence (MOIS) internal security division, in response to a foiled plot to bomb a meeting of Iranian dissidents in a suburb of Paris in June 2018.
As it did so, the government said the “extremely grave attack” planned against the annual gathering of the exiled Iranian opposition group National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)/Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) “cannot go unanswered,” and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the foiled plot “confirms the need for a tough approach in our relations with Iran.”
On Sunday, Le Drian was one of Macron’s ministers who met with Zarif in Biarritz.
The “Free Iran” event targeted by the alleged plotters was attended not only by NCRI/MEK members and supporters, but also some high profile French and foreign guests, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
On the day of the rally, police in Belgium arrested an Iranian couple in possession of explosives and a detonation mechanism. German police then arrested an accredited Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, who was later extradited to Belgium to face trial with the couple, and a fourth suspect, a Belgian of Iranian origin who was arrested in France and transferred to Belgium.
French and Belgian police forces concluded that Tehran was behind the plot. Tehran denied the charges, and demanded the release and return of Assadi.
Just weeks after his government announced punitive measures against Assadi, another senior Iranian official, and the MOIS, Macron said he was awaiting answers from Rouhani about the alleged plot, but suggested that he was probably not involved in it.
On the day Zarif met with Macron in Paris, opponents of the regime protested his presence. Gathered at a square near the Eiffel Tower, demonstrators carried a large banner reading “Expel Zarif,” amid chanting “Zarif is a terrorist. Expel him.”
Placards called on European governments to stop “making concessions to the mullahs” and to shut down Iranian diplomatic missions – “espionage centers” – in Europe.
The NCRI/MEK was highly critical of Zarif’s visit and reception, with spokesman Shahin Gobadi saying the foreign minister’s role was “to whitewash the regime’s crimes in Iran and its terrorism abroad.”
Despite that background, Roland Lombardi, a Mideast specialist at JFC Conseil, an analysis group in Marseilles, said he was not surprised that Zarif’s invitation brought little criticism overall.
“Diplomacy is for discussion, even and especially with one’s enemies,” he said.
Lombardi recalled past incidents where the regime in Tehran has harmed French interests, including “the bloody attacks against French soldiers and hostage taking of our nationals in Lebanon during the civil war, or the wave of attacks in France in the 1980s.”
(In Oct. 1983, a suicide bombing in Beirut brought down a nine-story building and killed 58 French paratroopers. The same day, 241 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers were killed in a separate truck bombing at the U.S. Marine barracks in the capital. Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite proxies were blamed for the attacks.)
Still, Lombardi said France’s policy in the Middle East is not clear or consistent. Government leaders always take advantage of international events to try to establish or re-establish credibility, especially at home, he said.
Lombardi also pointed out that France sees Iran as a huge potential market of more than 80 million people.
After the nuclear deal was reached with Iran and international sanctions eased, trade between France and Iran rose to $1.6 billion in 2017, almost double that of the year before.
But after the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear agreement and restored U.S. sanctions on the regime, several French companies were compelled to leave the Iranian market, including automakers Peugeot and Citroen, Airbus, and oil giant Total.
Alain Rodier, research director at the French Center for Research on Intelligence, an independent think tank, saw positives in Zarif’s visit, saying that if Macron becomes a go-between, it could calm tensions and be good for Iran and for the United States.
Besides, he said, “in recent months, there has been a change in the foreign policy of Paris. France is not a blind follower of the U.S. anymore.”
(Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)