Macron treads fine line in Iran-Saudi Ara­bia mine­field

France po­si­tion­ing it­self as a bro­ker be­tween the Sunni and Shi­ite ri­vals

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - WORLD - By John Ir­ish and Marine Pen­netier

PARIS: With U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tightly aligned with Saudi Ara­bia against Iran, France is po­si­tion­ing it­self as a bro­ker be­tween the Sunni and Shi­ite ri­vals, but neu­tral­ity may leave it with lit­tle lever­age.

With ten­sions be­tween Riyadh and Tehran ris­ing sharply since Saad Hariri’s res­ig­na­tion as Le­banon’s prime min­is­ter, Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron made an un­sched­uled stopover to meet Saudi’s pow­er­ful Crown Prince Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man Thurs­day.

The move, made ahead of a pos­si­ble visit by Macron to Iran next year, is in line with the young pres­i­dent’s for­eign pol­icy style of be­ing en­gaged but non­com­mit­tal, try­ing to me­di­ate be­tween all sides with­out un­set­tling any­one.

“There is a stronger ca­pac­ity for ini­tia­tive than be­fore,” for­mer For­eign Min­is­ter Alain Juppe told jour­nal­ists Fri­day. “It re­minds me a lit­tle of [Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las] Sarkozy leav­ing for Ge­or­gia in 2012. It’s good that the pres­i­dent is get­ting his hands dirty. It’s an ini­tia­tive he has taken and may work.”

Dur­ing a visit to Dubai Thurs­day, Macron was care­fully bal­anced, call­ing for a firm in­ter­na­tional stance over Iran’s nu­clear and bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram while im­plic­itly warn­ing that Riyadh’s ap­proach to­ward its ri­val was ex­ces­sive.

That tightrope-walk­ing may help pro­tect French busi­ness ties in Iran and buy time with the Saudis, but diplo­mats are con­cerned the 39year-old pres­i­dent, new to in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, may ul­ti­mately leave France ex­posed.

“We should be re­duc­ing our ex­po­sure to the re­gion. We have a lot of hits to take with­out hav­ing pres­sure points to weigh on them,” a French diplo­matic source said. “I don’t think it’s in our in­ter­est to play a role in quar­rels be­tween pow­ers.”

Un­der Sarkozy and Fran­cois Hol­lande, who re­spec­tively aligned them­selves with Qatar and Saudi Ara­bia, France nur­tured new links with the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states and adopted a tough stance on Iran dur­ing nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions.

But dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign, Macron promised a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. He openly crit­i­cized Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar for their per­ceived sup­port of Is­lamist groups across the re­gion, and since the nu­clear deal brought an end to sanc­tions, France has re­vived old busi­ness and in­vest­ment ties to Iran.

Yet over the same pe­riod, Saudi Ara­bia’s 32-year-old crown prince has shaken up the land­scape. He has forged close ties with Trump, adopted an ever more con­fronta­tional line against Iran and, in the past week, dra­mat­i­cally up­rooted his own na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal struc­tures.

“France is try­ing to act as a bal­ance be­tween Iran and Saudi Ara­bia,” said Dominique Moisi, spe­cial ad­viser in charge of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the Paris-based Mon­taigne In­sti­tute. “At a time when the sit­u­a­tion is wors­en­ing in the re­gion, it is of­fer­ing it­self as an in­ter­me­di­ary af­ter Trump chose one camp over the other,” he said, re­fer­ring to Trump’s de­ci­sion to de­cer­tify the Iran nu­clear deal.

Macron has tried to be nu­anced, of­fer­ing some­thing to ev­ery­one. He has vowed to stick to the nu­clear deal with Iran, while talk­ing up ties with Trump and Saudi Ara­bia. At the same time, he has threat­ened new sanc­tions against Tehran over its bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram and promised to ad­dress its grow­ing hege­mony in the re­gion. Iran for one isn’t buying it. “I don’t think this pol­icy works,” a se­nior Ira­nian of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity. “If a coun­try like France tries to ap­pease, the ef­fect on some­one like Trump will be con­trary and will sim­ply em­bolden the ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

French of­fi­cials in­sist Paris has a role to play in var­i­ous in­ter­na­tional con­flicts given its po­si­tion as a ve­towield­ing mem­ber of the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and its his­tor­i­cal ties in the Mideast. They say that by re­main­ing neu­tral, France will prove cred­i­ble and con­sis­tent in the long term.

Since Macron took power he has of­fered to me­di­ate in Libya, Ukraine, Syria, the Qatar cri­sis and even Venezuela, each time care­fully try­ing to avoid tak­ing sides. But it may not pay off.

“France has un­der­stood full well that there is a lead­er­ship prob­lem on the part of the Amer­i­cans and it un­der­stands that it’s po­ten­tially an op­por­tu­nity to make a dif­fer­ence,” said Jalel Har­chaoui, a geopol­i­tics re­searcher at Paris 8 Uni­ver­sity.

“But so far it seems that Macron and his team have been very dis­tracted, in a hurry to an­nounce big ini­tia­tives but de­liv­er­ing very lit­tle.”

‘I don’t think it’s in our in­ter­est to play a role in quar­rels’

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