Iran's Zarif arrives for surprise G7 talks, no plan to meet U.S.

BIARRITZ, France (Reuters) - In a surprise move, Iran's foreign minister flew in for talks at the group of seven leaders' summit on Sunday as French President Emmanuel Macron ramps up efforts to ease tensions between Tehran and Washington, although a U.S.-Iran meeting was not scheduled.

European leaders have struggled to tamp down the brewing confrontation between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled his country out of Iran's internationally-brokered 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on the Iranian economy.

However, in a dramatic diplomatic move at the G7 summit, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif jetted into the southwestern town of Biarritz, delaying a planned trip to Asia.

If any advances are made on the Iran crisis, it would represent a huge coup for French President Emmanuel Macron, though it is not without risks.

"Zarif came to Paris on Friday with Iranian propositions which obviously must be refined," the French official said.

"Yesterday there was a substantial discussion between G7 leaders and it is important to now update Zarif in order to keep closing the gap...on the conditions with which we could de-escalate the tensions and create breathing space for negotiations."

Zarif was holding talks with France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the official said.

It was not clear whether U.S. President Donald Trump had been informed of Zarif's visit, although Macron lunched with the U.S. leader on Saturday and the leaders discussed Iran at length in the evening.

The French official said the decision to invite Zarif was made after the dinner.

Trump declined to comment when asked whether he was aware of Zarif's presence in Biarritz. U.S. authorities earlier this months placed him under U.S. sanctions.

"Zarif will convey the Iranian leadership's response to French President Emmanuel Macron's proposal aimed at saving Iran's 2015 nuclear deal," a senior Iranian official told Reuters.

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said Zarif would return to Tehran on Sunday before heading to China.

Trump had earlier appeared to brush aside French efforts to mediate with Iran, saying that while he was happy for Macron to reach out to Tehran to defuse tensions he would carry on with his own initiatives.

AUDACIOUS MOVE

Macron, who has taken the lead in Europe in trying to salvage Iran's nuclear deal and avert a deeper crisis in the Middle East, met Zarif in Paris on Friday.

They discussed proposals to de-escalate tensions between Washington and Tehran, including easing some U.S. sanctions or providing Iran with an economic compensation mechanism to make up for oil revenues lost under U.S. sanctions.

Trump has pushed a maximum pressure policy on Iran with the aim of forcing it into a new negotiation that would include its ballistic missile program and regional activities.

While his European allies also want new talks, they believe the nuclear deal must be upheld, given it puts curbs on Iran's nuclear program.

"We'll do our own outreach, but, you know, I can't stop people from talking. If they want to talk, they can talk," Trump had said earlier when asked about Macron's mediation efforts.

In response to the tougher U.S. sanctions and what it says is the inability of European powers party to the deal - France, Britain and Germany - to compensate it for lost revenues, Tehran has responded with a series of moves, including retreating from some of its commitments to limit its nuclear activity made under the deal.

The United States has made no indication it will ease any curbs and it is unclear what kind of compensation mechanism Macron wants to offer Iran, given at this stage a proposed trade channel for humanitarian and food exchanges with Iran is still not operational.

Macron has also 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.

"It's unprecedented and given the context it's pretty audacious," said a French diplomatic source.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Writing by John Irish; editing by Richard Lough, Angus MacSwan, Toby Chopra, William Maclean)

08/25/2019 15:27

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