Iran’s Zarif holds surprise talks with Macron at G7 summit

Unannounced visit comes as France ramps up efforts to ease tensions between Iran and US over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Iran‘s top diplomat has held talks with France‘s President Emmanuel Macron at the sidelines of the G7 summit following a surprise invite to the gathering. 

Mohammad Javad Zarif landed on Sunday in the French seaside town of Biarritz, where leaders of the G7 nations – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States – were meeting to discuss a host of issues, including global trade, climate change and Iran’s nuclear programme.

Zarif immediately went into a three-and-a-half-hour meeting with French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, according to Reuters news agency.

He spent half an hour with Macron, the second meeting in a week after the two leaders had met in Paris on Friday. 

Zarif did not meet Trump, who was also at the G7 meeting.

“Iran’s active diplomacy in pursuit of constructive engagement continues,” Zarif said in a post on social media. “Road ahead is difficult. But worth trying.”

Zarif in France

His plane departed moments after the whirlwind meeting ended.

An official in Macron’s office told AFP the discussions were “positive”.

Surprise invite

Macron decided to invite the Iranian foreign minister to Biarritz after hosting a dinner of G7 leaders on Saturday night, a French official told AFP.

Macron had also hosted Zarif for talks in Paris on the eve of the summit on Friday.

Following the meeting, Zarif said the French president’s suggestions were positive for Iran but that a lot more work was needed on the matter.

“President Macron made some suggestions last week to President (Hassan) Rouhani and we believe they are moving in the right direction, although we are not definitely there yet,” said in an interview with AFP after the interview.

Macron, the host of this year’s G7 summit, has been leading efforts to defuse tensions triggered by US President Donald Trump‘s decision to pull out of an international agreement that offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.

After its exit, Washington reimposed punishing sanctions on Iran, including on its oil and banking sectors. 

While the nuclear deal’s remaining signatories – China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK – oppose the US move, they have struggled to protect Iran from US sanctions.

The French president is urging Trump to offer some sort of relief to Iran, according to Reuters and AFP, such as lifting sanctions on oil sales to China and India, or establishing a new credit line to enable exports.

Trump, Macron/EU and Iran

The invite had been made “in agreement with the United States”, A French official said, contradicting a claim by the White House that Trump had not been informed of Zarif’s arrival.

Trump himself denied that shortly afterwards. Asked if he had signed off on a statement that Macron intends to give on behalf of the G7 on Iran, he said: “I haven’t discussed this. No, I haven’t.”

He added: “We’ll do our own outreach, but, you know, I can’t stop people from talking. If they want to talk, they can talk.”

But few hours later, Trump said of the visit “I knew he was coming,”. “I knew everything Macron was doing and I approved everything he was doing,” Trump said, adding the French president “asked for my approval”!!

The US president did say, however, he did not think the time was right yet for him to sit with Zarif.

“It’s too soon to meet, I didn’t want to,” Trump said, adding that he wants to see a “strong Iran” and that he was not looking for regime change in the country. 

Trump has said he wants to force Iran into new talks that would include its ballistic missile programme and support for regional armed groups. But Iran has rejected that, saying Washington could not be trusted.

Zarif’s unannounced visit played out against apparent divisions between Trump and Macron/EU on how to deal with Iran.