“Iran, Trump, France: What’s left from the nuclear deal?”
The live talk on “Iran, Trump, France: What’s left from the nuclear deal?” to Mr. Regis LeSommier, deputy Editor-in-Chief of the French magazine ParisMatch was held in July 2020 via the Instagram page of the Foundation of Dialogue and Solidarity of United Nations. You can watch the video of this conversation here.
Hello, let’s introduce myself, I’m Bruno Lédion, the director of Fodasun (France) who is an endowment fund dedicated to bringing together and establishing peaceful relations, culturally and in various aspects, between Iran and France and it is for this reason that I receive you today for this live which will be followed in France and, at the same time, in Iran and which will aim to consult you to take advantage of your lights, you who know Trump well as well as the news from the Middle East region, on the France-Iran relationship, between Iran and the rest of the world, and what future for Europe and France in the “big game” of nations which is taking place right now.
My first question, actually I understand you have never been to Iran yourself?
No, I have never been to Iran, I have been to many states in the region, but I have never been to Iran, no.
On the other hand, I understand that Paris-Match went to Iran not too long ago, especially to report on the consequences of the sanctions on the population?
Indeed, we had two journalists at the time of Qassem Soleimani’s funeral who went to Tehran and actually reported, in any case in their report, it was Manon Quérouil and Véronique de la Viguerie of the impact of the sanctions and also of this particular moment which was the death of General Soleimani at the beginning of the year, to see a little the feeling and the state of mind in Iran at that time.
We will come back a little later on the death of General Soleimani but you who have been quite often in Syria which is also a country affected by American and European sanctions, how does this translate among the populations, is it really having difficulty accessing basic commodities, even food? Or are there circuits that are being set up? How do people organize themselves there?
I actually know very well the Syrian question to have carried out ten reports in five years in this country, obviously the question of sanctions, it is crucial today, since was passed by the American Congress a law that is called the “Caesar law”, this law comes on top of a certain number of sanctions which had already been taken against the Syrian Government, which are not quite the same sanctions as those which were taken against the Iranian Government. But in any case, it consists in reducing the financial and economic cooperation of a certain number of actors. Not only States, but also companies, partners etc. People likely to be interested in investing in the country to obviously dissuade them so it has become a formidable weapon, which has already been used. It is not new, the sanctions against Iran, they exist since the 90s. One can consider that the embargo also on the weapons, which is discussed at this time, him, exists since precisely this time and goes up even to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
So there it is, this is for Iran. For Syria, these are slightly more recent sanctions, but the “Caesar law” obviously aims to prevent the reconstruction of Syria. After 8 years of war, Syria is exhausted. It is a country which, it should be remembered, lost part of its population, which was forced into exile. About 5 million Syrians live outside of Syria and about 6 million Syrians have been displaced inside Syria, Syrians of whom little has been said, alas. Not to mention the 500,000 dead who caused this war.
So we have a country whose basic economy, wealth, etc. can hardly be used today for the renaissance, or in any case for the reconstruction of the country. It is an additional handicap because there are a certain number of companies which do not invest, for fear of being under the thumb of American sanctions, and of being fined. I will give this figure, European companies, to simply take Europe, today, if there were to be reconstruction of Syria, one of the main actors could be Europe. However, since the start of the 2010s, European companies have had to pay close to $ 40 billion in fines, just for maintaining transactions with Iran. I am only talking about Iran here. Obviously, this is part of the same idea, the same philosophy, that is to say to tax anyone who would be interested in rebuilding the country. So in fact, if you like, it is a new war that has started, at least for Syria and for Iran, in a certain way.
Precisely, this is the term I was going to use, it is literally about an “economic war”?
Yes, it is another way of waging war. That is to say, seeing that we are not achieving our goals, that the government of Bashar al-Assad is still in place with regard to Syria, that the Iranian government is still in place, and that he did not give in on a certain number of points, so we will wage war in another way and we will tax people or in any case threaten them with sanctions those who could trade and could, in a in a certain way, contribute to the improvement of the standard of living, or in any case to trade with these countries.
And in your opinion, because we remember that the Europeans, after the signing of the nuclear agreement, via their companies had rushed, so to speak, in particular very large groups such as Total, Renault, Peugeot- PSA, etc. All these companies which left overnight, following the strategy known as of “maximum pressure” of the United States since their exit from this agreement, very quickly also, by pressure to take fines, which forced them in anyway to leave very quickly, can we imagine a return? They came, they left, if there was ever a change in American policy, would they come back to Iran as if nothing had happened and can we imagine on the other side that, and the Iranians and the Syrians, since the two situations are still relatively linked, don’t they really want to reconnect with countries that have sometimes supported American policy in half-words?
So yes, maybe there will be this argument but I think that if today, and knowing a little bit about Syria, seeing what is going on there, we are still in a situation where in addition, there is the COVID pandemic which is developing, it has developed in Iran, there has even been what is called a “second wave” so the situation is quite critical in both countries. The question that arises in Syria is that it is quite difficult to know the exact number of people affected, contaminated and the exact number of deaths. What we do know is that both in government-controlled areas, that is, ¾ of Syria, there have already been deaths and a number of people infected, and also in the last rebel-controlled areas in Idlib, where a doctor succumbed to the virus a few days ago, so the pandemic is here. Now this pandemic, it is worsening the situation to the point that Iran has asked for a relief from sanctions which has been refused by the United States and it turns out that even China has intervened there to support this request by saying, for humanitarian reasons we must allow the Iranians to be treated, we must reduce the sanctions, but it had no impact.
And precisely, to come back to the Syrian case, the implementation of the “Caesar law” took place at the time when Syria was beginning to be affected by the epidemic. So there is really the idea of putting the head of these countries under water by imagining, for the Syrian case, through the “Caesar law”, that this economic asphyxiation will affect, in one way or another other, government, dignitaries, their families, etc. Which is completely false.
And get the people to “rise up” …?
Yes that’s it. So the people, I can tell you that they have no desire at all to rise up, even if they are suffering a lot, even if there are protests in Syria, in particular on the part of Druzes recently, there is a certain number of things that have not been done. So does this government have the means of its policy and to do things, it is still to be seen. Because given the state of decomposition of the country, it is very difficult. But people are absolutely exhausted by this war, which has been going on for 9 years, and have only one desire, it is to find a semblance of life they had before. So the question of saying that, here, thanks to this kind of sanctions, which will ultimately affect the man in the street, and not at all the dignitary, here, it is to imagine that we will bend the Government , that we are going to “bring him to his knees”, it is completely, in my opinion, wrong, and it will not happen. The question today is how to prevent countries like Syria can prevent this decomposition.
Can we imagine that this American policy facilitates by impact the emergence of other economic actors in the region, I am thinking in particular about China but possibly also about Russia, which we know rather from the military side , but who also has economic activities?
So yes, China has started to set milestones. What is interesting to watch every year is the Damascus Fair which takes place in the summer period. It is a moment that is generally very little commented on by the Western media, but what is interesting is to see the presence of certain countries. For example, Brazil was present, India, obviously we find the BRICS, China, Russia of course. So there is a possibility of opening markets and these countries are well aware that there, there is a possibility of investments. Now the question is to make this aid a reality. I know that China has taken a number of steps to try to recreate the industrial areas of Aleppo. You know that Aleppo is the largest city in Syria and certainly beyond the industrial capital of Syria, Aleppo represents an economic lung for the Middle East. At the time, it had enormous links with Turkey, which is a few kilometers to the north. There has been a lot of trade and commerce, etc. The war completely damaged that, but today Aleppo is trying to rebuild itself and there, there is an interesting point, in terms of investments. In particular to remake the five industrial zones of Aleppo which are all around the city, and which are a breeding ground for prosperity or, in any case for jobs. China has shown interest in this, and doing joint ventures with Arab companies in particular, to try to invest money and get it going again. We know that the Gulf countries, you were talking about external actors but we must not forget them. It is absolutely not innocent that the Emiratis reopened their embassy in Damascus. And beyond the reopening of the embassy, a number of emissaries went to meet President Assad. A number of banks, notably in the Emirates, still have access to Syria and continue to operate there despite the sanctions that have been used.
So as far as the Europeans are concerned, since that was a bit your question, which actors and what is preventing Europe, here I will rather come back to the Iranian question. You know that Europe had set up a tool which could allow certain companies to trade with Iran, which was called INSTEX and which was set up by the European Commission, and which allowed, to a certain way, to circumvent the possible sanctions, of which European societies would be victims. It was an attempt but since 2020 and in particular on February 21, new sanctions have intervened, in particular in the case of the supposed “support for terrorism” of Iran therefore the group of financial actions, which is based in Paris, has re-applied these sanctions and it is very difficult today for the banks to trade with Iran, even with this financial tool, to maintain trade with this country. The situation today is, it seems to me, completely blocked. Now, will this blockage in the West lead to an opening in the East …
Precisely, because we can imagine that part of the future of this region may be played out next November with the American election, where we will see Donald Trump face the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, from what you have been able to study since you know American politics too, even if we know that foreign policy matters less than internal politics in the United States and that the Americans will rather judge Trump’s economic results, rather than on his foreign policy, have you looked at Biden’s proposals to find out if Biden’s foreign policy will be different from that applied by Donald Trump?
The foreign policy proposed by the Democrats, it is almost consistent with that proposed by the Republicans. With Biden, we are heading towards what there would have been with Hillary Clinton, roughly. That is to say with this power called “moral” or erected in moral power which is that of the United States, the Iran and a certain number of actors in the region, even at the global level … We are in the dialectic of the “axis of evil” in this context. There will be no major change if Biden is elected, there will be no major change.
Is a return of the United States to the agreement possible, with an election of Biden?
It’s very difficult to say! The problem that the United States has with this withdrawal from the Vienna agreement is that today it cannot impose a certain number of things on Iran. When Mike Pompeo overbids Iran, a number of international players turn to the United States and say, “If you had stayed under the deal, you could legitimately”. So there is a problem with the legitimacy of the matter and the way Pompeo may have to admonish Iran. “You are talking to Iran today when you are no longer in this agreement” while Europe continues to try to stand, year after year, in this agreement and to try to see to it, at least, a process of dialogue which took place, which was turned by the signing of a treaty or, in any case, of principles and which we can move forward. The United States having excluded itself from this agreement, we can clearly see this with the renegotiation of the arms embargo which will take place in a few months, whether or not to continue this embargo, the United States says that “Yes, we must continue this embargo”, “yes but you are no longer in this agreement”. It is a bit, by withdrawing from this agreement, Donald Trump and his government have kind of shot themselves in the foot. So unless you choose the hardest way, which is the one that Pompeo tried to print, the one that John Bolton, we had little forgotten since he was no longer there, tried to print. Besides, we realize when we read his book, that if Trump had not intervened, then we can think that Trump has all the faults of the earth, that he is a monster, etc. But in any case, if the United States and Iran are not at war, currently, it is because Donald Trump did not want it.
John Bolton added fuel to the fire, as did Pompeo. However, we realize that the assassination of Soleimani was not dictated by security imperatives.
So to come back to the question of “with Biden, will things change?” “, I do not believe. I have not seen any demonstration or comments saying that the United States wishes to return to the Vienna agreement. Now, maybe there will be a will to impose another line. But for the moment, we remain in the idea that the United States will continue this showdown and by all means to try to bring Iran to its knees as well as other countries of the region. Here it is, a path in which they have been engaged for a little while.
In the short term, this perhaps satisfies more internal than external objectives, notably linked to the re-election of Trump, who wishes to put on his side a certain very ideologized electoral base and in particular compared to Iran, but when we see in the news, the 25-year strategic agreement envisaged by Iran and China, does Trump somewhere accelerate the advent of a “new world” which is taking shape, with a “West” if this notion still exists, which would be withdrawn under the impetus of the United States, and with other actors who are emerging and who, in the end, no longer wait for signatures with the Westerners, as we have the habit since decolonization with now countries that sign agreements between them, regardless of what the United States thinks?
It is the return of the cold war, with also an emergence of other poles with the emergence of Turkey, in a world where a certain number of actors want to have a say, who have their interests, the countries from the Gulf, Iran of course, China, Russia …
To come back to the question of Russia, it is effectively military and strategic, it is as economic as you said, but I am not sure that the Russians have the financial means, in the case of Syria, to pay for reconstruction .
For that I was thinking more of China …?
Yes, by China of course, hence the emergence of other actors as you say, willing or willing to challenge the sanctions, or in any case which escape it, because part of the Iranian hydrocarbons are nevertheless sold in China. So the question is, is this going to give the pretext for the United States to strengthen its confrontation with China, there too, it is the question, “what do the United States want to do?” ” Where is American politics at, this ties in with what you said about Biden, there is an obvious strategic issue. There is an American president who has behaviors that can be completely contradictory and sometimes crazy. But since the start of his mandate, he has had the idea that “America first”. This means that, since the start of Trump’s term, in concrete terms, there has been no war waged by the United States. This was far from the case in the Bush era, and even in the Obama era, the Libyan conflict was largely supported by the United States, even if it was France and England that led the assault, so there were wars under Obama but there weren’t under Trump. There have been strikes and a number of targeted assassinations, a number of threats, there have been sanctions … But between Trump and the Democrats, no will to wage war. It is an isolationist policy, even if the United States remains a considerable power. I’ll give you that figure again, $ 716 billion, it’s the Pentagon budget, it’s the equivalent of the budget of the 12 nations that follow! So the United States has a considerable military advantage, that of Russia is around 40 billion dollars. The question was put to Vladimir Putin and he had answered exactly these two figures by saying, “you really think with this budget of 40 against 716 billion we have the means to start a war with the United States or in any case a war cold? ” The answer is obviously no. We are in a permanent contradiction with a country which has a considerable industrial-military budget and complex, where Democrats, like Republicans, have links with economic powers, with these actors. Obviously, when a senator comes from a state where we manufacture these weapons, these rockets, these missiles and that that represents thousands of jobs, we are not going to say “we are going to cut budgets”. So how the United States will find a less threatening power than it is. Because today, the main cause of imbalance on the planet is the United States. Because of characters like Pompeo, like Bolton, obsessed with an ideological logic, and indeed a power like Russia in the Middle East appears as stabilizing. It is nevertheless interesting to see that Russia has a stabilizing role, even if this role can be questionable since it involves the use of brute force and the destruction of part of the cities, do not deny the things Russia has actually bombed a lot in Syria. But even if it acts this way, it has a strategy. The problem of the United States in the region as on Iran, we see it with the presence of the Americans in Syria. What are they doing in northern Syria? Apart from telling us “we are going to support the Kurds” but at the same time, they are allied with the Turks and they know very well that the Turks will never accept independence or even autonomy from the region of Kurdistan on which they lean. So the strategy of the Americans is vague, it is not clear. That of the Russians is much more. This is what happened in 10 years, we went from an America which proposed democracy in the Middle East, remember the domino theory dear to neoconservatives: “we will destroy Saddam in Baghdad, then we will do the same thing with Assad, etc, etc, “until imposing democracy. Today, we are no longer there and besides, you will notice that it is with Donald Trump, at least, things are clear. There is no varnish of democracy, it is “how much does it cost, what do we do there” and all that leads him to have moments of lucidity and clairvoyance. When he said, “We have nothing to do in Syria, let others do it, they do it better than us,” that’s basically what Trump said. Obviously, immediately, raising of shields of all the apparatus, of what one can call “the deep state” and obviously, of the democrats. That’s why I’m a bit skeptical when we talk about Biden saying that the Democrats will change this policy because I don’t believe it at all. We will go back to the days of Hillary Clinton and the war in Libya with this interventionism, this way of looking at things, this moral posture, that the United States would represent a kind of paragon of freedom, and democracy in the world, knowing that the actions carried out by the United States the last 20 years prove the opposite nonetheless. With Trump, there is the interest of the Americans first. In any case, since Trump was elected, there has been no new war. ”
No, but there was the assassination of General Soleimani which caused great tension. Besides, one can wonder if this act was not intended to hide a certain impotence as well compared to Iran as Syria?
The assassination of Soleimani can, in fact, represent an act of war and push to test Iran. What was interesting was the Iranian response and the “coordination” that took place with the United States in a way that was not just strikes to show that you can hit empty hangars, there were injuries to American soldiers, American bases were badly hit, but there was no escalation.
Like during the episode of the US drone shot down by Iran?
Yes there it is but you have to be careful, how everything to a strike that does not hit the objective, a slip, a plane or a boat and then the climbing can be very very fast. In the Gulf, it is the permanent tension which can exist between the various ships which cross in this place, the route of the tankers, therefore there we are in places where things are really explosive.
The most significant strikes were the halving of Aramco’s capacity with a strike, said to be “Iranian-Houthies” on Saudi facilities. In any case, these strikes there really made the Saudis understand that the United States may be their ally, they were very very vulnerable and I think that helped calm things down. But you never know, the next tension can lead to an open war. But we feel that the actors want to lay their groundwork, to test themselves constantly. There are among the Americans a certain number of people who clearly want a war with Iran and then you also have, not only Donald Trump but also at the Pentagon a certain number of people who do not want a war with Iran Iran. And then you have the Israeli question with the position of Netanyahu who is sometimes even in opposition to certain members of the IDF staff who ask them for more moderation
So we are in this state of observation on which is posed a planetary virus. It tends to ward off the stakes but the war, even when it is hidden, continues during COVID, which poses an additional problem, of care, of degradation of certain countries, which will pay even more economically and which are already under the object. sanctions or shortages. The worst example but today it is impossible to go there is Yemen. Yemen which knows besides the famine an almost out of control pandemic and daily clashes.
And a certain media disinterest… ?
While we are in the same order of population level. But indeed this conflict goes under the radar, and our ally Saudi Arabia is involved in it. I’m talking mainly about the population people are today in hell and we journalists, it’s almost impossible to get there even if Paris-Match was able to break into this country in the Houthie area but we hardly know not what’s going on there but we know from NGOs that the situation is extremely critical and with COVID, misfortune has been added to misfortune.
Last question in the form of hope, can France dissociate its voice from that of the United States in these matters, or will we continue to provide more or less active support for US policy ?
France has already had positions in the past that diverged from those of the Americans. It is all the stranger to defend this subservience today in the United States since they are now fairly cash, if you do not submit, we will punish you ”. We will take the example of Iran, following the tensions linked to the assassination of Soleimani, the United States decided to further tighten the sanctions, asked the Europeans to do so, France, Germany and the GB temporarily opposed and Trump said “all right I will stick a 40% tax on aluminum and a few other things to worry you about” and finally we said “ok ” Because we have no means to resist or maybe not the will. America has with its allies a policy of interventionism and submission, it was not always the case and these same allies, like France with Villepin and no in the United States, perhaps the last great French diplomatic act , it was this speech at the UN in preamble to the war of 2003, it appears that France could find this role of median power, arrive as element of moderation with this will of appeasement and not ideological. The Russians are the last to talk to everyone. It is not necessary to be naive, it is in order to regain their power, and to weigh on the destiny of the world but there is no more with them ideology. France could very well find a middle voice. Look at Libya, things degenerated with the arrival of the Turks, and we know that France and Turkey are very opposed to each other, but France would do well to take a little distance from each other what europe cannot do, the diplomatic and proposal weapon and in a desire for peace. In Macron’s speech we find this wish for a position between the United States and Russia, some would say a Gaullian position.