PARIS — In diplomacy, there's always room for talk, even when the window for negotiation seems all but shut.
Such is the scenario that Emmanuel Macron faces in wake of the assassination by the United States of Ghassem Soleimani, an act that has kicked up a whirlwind in the Middle East, with consequences that remain unclear.
After a telephone call with Donald Trump on Sunday, the French president called on Tehran to refrain from any "military escalation likely to further aggravate regional instability" and to put an end to the "destabilizing activities of the Quds Force" in the region. The statement, released by the Elysee presidential office, also noted "full solidarity" with Paris' allies in regards to attacks that have taken place in recent weeks on coalition forces in Iraq.
Iran announced overnight that it had fired missiles at several Iraqi military bases that host American troops. No casualties were reported.
Macron, who has invested heavily in recent months to save the Iranian nuclear agreement (from which the United States withdrew in May 2018), wants to maintain a position of balance, without overtly criticizing the Trump administration. The Elysee says it wants to keep an eye on Iranian influence in the region, but without joining one camp or the other. The focus, in other words, is on prioritizing and anticipating.
Our role is to make calls for calm.
Fearing greater regional destabilization, the French president's top priority is the fight against armed jihadism. Tellingly, the Elysee was careful in its press release to avoid any mention of Soleimani's killing. The issue didn't appear either in the official reports that followed Macron's talks, since Friday, with other actors in this developing crisis, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed ben Zayed.
On Sunday night, Macron signed a joint statement together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling for "deescalation." U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Europeans had not been "helpful" enough in supporting Washington.
Rouhani, Putin & Erdogan in 2017 — Photo: Kremlin
"There's a strategic context here in which it wasn't absurd for the United States to move against Iran and raise the stakes," he adds. "Soleimani's death is not a declaration of war, but an act in a war that had already begun. The United States had been losing ground since it failed to respond to the Sept. 14 attack against oil installations in Saudi Arabia. The Americans have now rewritten the rules of engagement in the region, making them more robust when their interests are attacked. The problem is that the deterrence strategy doesn't also cover American allies."
The situation, with questions now being raised over the U.S. military presence in Iraq, worries France on the operational level with regards to the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). "We're not at all ready for an immediate withdrawal," the Elysee stated.
Right now, U.S. forces deployed in the region are having to focus on their own security as they wait to see Tehran's response. France's priority, in the midst of this uncertain escalation, is to save the international coalition, as Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian explained directly Sunday night in a telephone conversation with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdoul Mahdi.
This is a quintessential case of escalation.
But there isn't a lot of room for France and Europe to maneuver. "This is a quintessential case of escalation, with a classic problem of interpretation, on both sides, of the adversary's intentions, and we're right in the middle of the crisis," says Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) think tank.
"France has neither the mandate nor the legitimacy to exercise any mediation. But that doesn't mean she's wrong to try. Together with Russia, it is one of the only countries able to speak to everyone."
During his meeting with Vladimir Putin on Friday, Macron spoke about the situation in Libya, which is becoming, like Syria, a crossroads for all local and regional rivalries. The French president "underlined the risk of escalation as a consequence of increased foreign military interference."
He also discussed with his Russian counterpart the humanitarian situation in Idlib, in Syria, where Moscow remains the main supporter of the regime. The two leaders expressed their "shared interest," according to the Elysee press release, in reaching an agreement by Jan. 10 at the UN Security Council to preserve cross-border aid for people in distress.
Making space for diplomacy, consultation and compromise. A considerable challenge indeed given the way the winds are blowing — in the exact opposite direction.