In Phone Call with Macron, Rouhani Defends Hezbollah, Rejects Any Change to Nuclear Deal

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Nov 22, 2017
In Phone Call with Macron, Rouhani Defends Hezbollah, Rejects Any Change to Nuclear Deal

In a phone call on Tuesday, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani urged his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron not to support Washington’s policies vis-à-vis Tehran, particularly regarding Iran’s missile program and regional policies and actions. “From Iran’s perspective, one the one hand, a complete and thorough implementation of JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; the 2015 nuclear agreement], is an important test for many other significant collaborations at the international level; and on the other, adding to or removing any parts of JCPOA will result in the complete collapse of this agreement,” Rouhani warned Macron, according to the Iranian media. The Iranian president also tried to assure his French counterpart that Iran’s military involvement in neighboring conflicts is for counterterrorism rather than expansionism purposes. He also defended Hezbollah, telling Macron that “Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese nation and enjoys extraordinary popularity in the country.”

In an explicit criticism of French officials’ latest remarks about Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region, Rouhani said France should play a “constructive” role in the Middle East by taking a “realistic and impartial approach.” The Iranian president stressed that his country is keen to expand its relations with France in all fields. According to the Iranian press, Macron stressed that implementing the JCPOA helps build trust between all sides. He also assured Rouhani that he has done his best to encourage French banks and businesses to boost their relations with Iran.

The phone conversation between the two leaders came after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Iran should clarify its “uncontrolled” ballistic missile strategy. During a press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel Jubeir last week, the top French diplomat added that “Iran’s role and the different areas where this country operates worries us.” He continued: “I am thinking in particular of Iran’s interventions in regional crises, this hegemonic temptation and I’m thinking of its ballistic program.”

Comment: As the Trump administration is increasing economic pressure on Iran and is threatening to “terminate” the Iran nuclear deal, an intense debate is taking place inside Iran about whether the Islamic Republic can count on European support to preserve the nuclear accord.

Macron’s recent suggestion that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal can be supplemented with an additional agreement to address the Islamic Republic’s controversial missile program has particularly worried Tehran. In recent months, the Rouhani government has launched a diplomatic offensive to drive a wedge between European powers and the United States. Tehran believes that having the backing of European powers is essential to “isolate” Washington in the latest nuclear standoff and minimize the impact of new U.S. sanctions. The three European signatories of the nuclear accord – France, Germany and Britain – have all rejected the Trump administration’s suggestion to cancel the nuclear deal. But Macron’s proposal for separate negotiations to deal with Iran’s missile program and regional activities has been a matter of concern in Tehran. Hardliners, in particular, point to Macron’s statements to argue that Iran should not negotiate any further with an “unreliable” West. They say European countries will ultimately side with Washington not Tehran.

The head of Iran’s powerful Judiciary, for example, recently ruled out any negotiations over the country’s missile program, and warned European countries not to side with Washington. “The Europeans should understand that if they cooperate with America, we will stand up against them the same way we have confronted the United States,” Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani said. He particularly cautioned that Iran will not accept any demand to negotiate and relate the country’s missile program to the nuclear deal. “In addition to the nuclear issue and JCPOA, American officials’ statements predominantly focus on two issues: Iran’s missile power and the Islamic Republic’s presence in the region. The answer to both issues is clear and the U.S. officials need to pay attention to it,” Larijani added. “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s missile power is for defense and we will definitely not have any JCPOA-2 or JCPOA-3 and any negotiations about it.” He emphasized that Tehran will continue to further enhance its missile power and deterrence capabilities.

Larijani also defended Iran’s military involvement in regional conflicts, stressing that Tehran has deployed its forces to Syria and Iraq upon requests from the two countries’ governments. He further stressed that Iran “is present in its own geographical region” and questioned the U.S. intent on establishing military bases in faraway Middle East.

Similarly, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts and close aide to Khamenei, called on the Rouhani government “not to rely on European support because if Europe has to choose between Iran and America, it will choose America.”

Javan Online, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, wrote that Zarif’s idea to work with Europe to isolate America is unrealistic. It said the Rouhani team was similarly optimistic about negotiating with the United States, but all Iran got was more sanctions and more military threats. Javan also pointed to the latest proposal by France that the nuclear deal could be supplemented with “consultations” on loopholes within the accord, including the post-2025 period and Iran’s missile program. It argued that such talks show that Europe will still be keen to work with America against Iran in the future.

In contrast, officials within the Rouhani government and pro-Rouhani media outlets count on European support to prevent U.S. from walking away from the deal.