G7: Tensions rise as Iranian minister makes ‘surprise’ appearance

Trump reportedly not told in advance of summit meeting involving Iran representative

French police fire water cannons and tear gas against G7 protesters in Bayonne, just eight-and-a-half kilometres from the summit venue in Biarritz. Video: Reuters


Iran’s foreign minister made a flying visit to the G7 summit for talks with host France on Sunday, as Paris ramped up efforts to ease tensions between Tehran and Washington, a dramatic diplomatic move that the White House said had surprised them.

European leaders have struggled to tamp down the brewing confrontation between Iran and the US since US president Trump pulled Washington out of Iran’s internationally-brokered 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on the Iranian economy.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is under US sanctions, flew to the southwest French town of Biarritz where the G7 leaders are meeting. He held more than three hours of talks, including with French president Emmanuel Macron, before heading back to Tehran.

“Road ahead is difficult. But worth trying,” Mr Zarif tweeted, adding that in addition to meeting French leaders he had given a joint briefing to officials from Germany and the UK. French officials sought to bill the meeting as important to “refine Iranian propositions” to help defuse the crisis after G7 leaders had discussed Iran over dinner on Saturday night.

“The discussions that were held between the president and Zarif were positive and will continue,” a French official said after the meeting, declining to take detailed questions

A French official said earlier that there was no plan for Mr Zarif to meet members of Mr Trump’s delegation at the summit venue, the Basque beachside town of Biarritz.

Iranian UN mission spokesman Alireza Miryousefi posted on Twitter: “No meeting with Americans in Biarritz.”

Asked about reports of Mr Zarif’s arrival at Biarritz, which had been closed for the Saturday-Monday summit of the seven industrialised nations, Mr Trump said: “No comment.”

However, a White House official later said Mr Trump was not forewarned by France that Iran’s foreign minister would make an appearance, saying it was “a surprise”.

Other delegations said they had been informed at the last minute. The Élysée said delegations had been informed, but everything had happened very quickly.

Raft of issues

The G7 meeting was already troubled by differences between Mr Trump and western allies over a raft of issues, including Iran.

Earlier on Sunday at the summit, Mr Trump appeared to brush aside French efforts to mediate with Iran, saying that while he was happy for Paris to reach out to Tehran to defuse tensions, he would carry on with his own initiatives.

France said G7 leaders had agreed Mr Macron should hold talks on the issue and pass on messages to Iran. However, Mr Trump, who has pushed a maximum pressure policy on Iran, distanced himself from the proposal, saying he had not even discussed it.

Mr Macron, who has taken the lead in trying to defuse tensions, fearing that a collapse of the nuclear deal could set the Middle East ablaze, had met Mr Zarif on Friday. The aim of the meeting was to discuss plans to ease the crisis, including reducing some US sanctions or providing Iran with an economic compensation mechanism.

The US has made no indication it will ease any sanctions, with G7 leaders reportedly unable to persuade Mr Trump to soften his stance on Iran at a dinner on Saturday. It is also unclear what kind of compensation mechanism Mr Macron wants to offer Iran.

Mr Macron has said that in return for any concessions he would expect Iran to comply fully with the nuclear deal and for Iran to engage in new negotiations that would cover its ballistic missile programme and regional activities.

Highlighting just how difficult it will be to ease tensions, two Iranian officials and one diplomat told Reuters on Sunday that Iran wants to export a minimum of 700,000 barrels per day of its oil and ideally up to 1.5 million barrels per day if the West wants to negotiate with Tehran to save the nuclear deal.

One of the Iranian officials also said Iran’s ballistic missile programme was not open for negotiation.

Getting along

Mr Trump insisted on Sunday that he was getting along well with other leaders of a group that includes the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan as well as the US.

Indeed, the US and Japan agreed in principle on Sunday to core elements of a trade deal that Mr Trump and Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe said they hoped to sign in New York next month.

The agreement, if finalised, would cool a trade dispute between the two allies. The deal reportedly covers agriculture, industrial tariffs and digital trade. Auto tariffs would remain unchanged.

But rifts remain between the seven states on other issues, ranging from Mr Trump’s quickening trade war with China to the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, and the question of whether Russia’s president Vladimir Putin should be readmitted to the group.

Mr Trump had appeared at odds with Mr Abe earlier in the summit over the seriousness of North Korea’s series of launches of short-range missiles.

Mr Trump, who prizes his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, told reporters the launches did not violate an agreement and were in line with what others were doing. Mr Abe, sitting across from him, said they breached UN resolutions.

Russia was excluded from what used to be the G8 in 2014 after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and then backed an anti-Kiev rebellion in the industrial region of Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

A European official who declined to be named said Russia was the most contentious issue discussed at a dinner on Saturday evening, with Japan neutral and Italy leaning slightly towards the US position.

“[The conversation] became a bit tense over this idea of the G7 being a club of liberal democracies . . . that point was clearly not shared by the US president,” the official said.

Mr Trump’s argument was that on a number of issues, like Iran and Syria, it made more sense to have Mr Putin involved in the group’s talks, given that Russia is a key player there.

Global slowdown

The G7 gathering is taking place against a backdrop of worries that a global economic downturn could be exacerbated by the escalating tariff war between Washington and Beijing.

British prime minister Boris Johnson meeting US president Donald Trump for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
British prime minister Boris Johnson meeting US president Donald Trump for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Mr Johnson voiced concern on Saturday about creeping protectionism and said those who support tariffs “are at risk of incurring the blame for the downturn in the global economy”. Sitting across from Mr Trump on Sunday, he said: “We’re in favour of trade peace on the whole, and dialling it down if we can.”

Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte warned other leaders of the dangers of protectionism and urged Washington not to follow through on its threat to impose tariffs on German autos.

However, the White House doubled down on its aggressive stance towards trade with China.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham, explaining what Mr Trump meant at a summit news conference when he said he had had second thoughts after he raised tariffs against China last week, said he meant that he wished he had raised them higher.

Underlining the multilateral discord, even before the summit began Mr Trump had threatened the meeting’s host, saying Washington would tax French wine “like they’ve never seen before” unless Paris dropped a digital tax affecting US technology companies.

Broaden debate

Looking to broaden the scope of debate, Mr Macron has invited several African leaders to discuss problems facing their continent at the summit, while leaders from India, Australia, Chile and Spain were due to attend a dinner on Sunday with a focus on the environment and other issues.

However, senior US officials accused Mr Macron of looking “to fracture the G7” by focusing on “niche issues” rather than major global concerns.

France denied this, pointing to Sunday’s initial session covering the economy, trade and security – areas that used to draw easy consensus but are now sources of great friction.

Mr Trump upended last year’s G7 meeting in Canada, walking out early and disassociating himself from the final communique.

At the start of the day, Mr Trump said the UK would have a major trade deal with Washington after it leaves the EU. Asked what his advice on Brexit was for Mr Johnson, he replied: “He needs no advice, he is the right man for the job.”

While the transatlantic rift is the most stark, there are also deep divisions within the European camp, with Mr Johnson making his G7 debut at a time when he is struggling to persuade EU capitals to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s exit from the bloc, which Mr Johnson has said will happen on October 31st come what may. – Reuters