Iran foreign minister Zarif's visit to G-7 summit catches Trump off guard

A handout photo obtained from Twitter shows French President Emmanuel Macron (second from right), French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (third from right) and French Presidential chief-of-staff Admiral Bernard Rogel (right), receiving Ir
A handout photo obtained from Twitter shows French President Emmanuel Macron (second from right), French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (third from right) and French Presidential chief-of-staff Admiral Bernard Rogel (right), receiving Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (second from left) during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-7 summit.PHOTO: JAVAD ZARIF/ TWITTER

BIARRITZ, FRANCE (REUTERS) - Iran's foreign minister paid a visit to the Group of Seven summit in France on Sunday (Aug 25), an unexpected twist to a meeting already troubled by differences between United States President Donald Trump and Western allies over a raft of issues, including Iran.

A White House official said France's invitation to Mr Mohammad Javad Zarif for talks on the sidelines of the gathering in the south-western beachside town of Biarritz was "a surprise".

Mr Zarif met his French counterpart to assess what conditions could lead to a de-escalation of tensions between Teheran and Washington, a French official said.

Mr Zarif also saw French President Emmanuel Macron during his brief stay, but the White House official said the Iranian minister did not meet any US officials before he flew out of Biarritz airport.

European leaders have struggled to calm a deepening confrontation between Iran and the US since Mr Trump pulled his country out of Iran's internationally brokered 2015 nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions on the its economy.

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

Mr Macron has taken the lead in trying to defuse tensions, fearing that a collapse of the nuclear deal could set the Middle East ablaze. He met Mr Zarif last Friday ahead of the G-7 summit to discuss ways of easing the crisis, including reducing some US sanctions or providing Iran with a compensation mechanism.

Iran wants to export a minimum of 700,000 barrels per day (bpd) of its oil and ideally up to 1.5 million bpd if the West wants to negotiate with Teheran to save the 2015 deal, two Iranian officials and one diplomat told Reuters on Sunday.

However, Mr Trump's fellow G-7 leaders failed last Saturday to persuade the US president to reissue oil sanction waivers that were granted last year to some buyers, but which came to end in May, a European diplomat familiar with the discussion said.

'DIFFICULT' DINNER

Mr Trump, a turbulent presence at last year's G-7 gathering, insisted on Sunday that he was getting along well with other leaders of the group that also includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

But rifts emerged on issues from his intensifying trade war with China to the nuclear ambitions of both Iran and North Korea, and the question of whether Russian President Vladimir Putin should be readmitted to the group.

 
 
 

Russia was excluded from what used to be the G-8 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 thorniest issue discussed over dinner last Saturday.

"(The conversation) became a bit tense over this idea of the G-7 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 talks, given that Russia is a key player there.

New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday congratulated Mr Macron for hosting a difficult encounter.

"You're doing well," Mr Johnson said on the sidelines of the summit. "You did very well last night, my God, that was a difficult one, you did really, you did really well."

The G-7 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.

Mr Johnson voiced concern last 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 carry 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 spokesman Stephanie Grisham, explaining what Mr Trump meant when he said earlier on Sunday that he had second thoughts after announcing more tariff raises on Chinese goods last week, said that he simply regretted not hiking them higher.

'NICHE ISSUES'

Looking to broaden the gathering, Mr Macron invited several African leaders to discuss problems facing their continent, while leaders from India, Australia, Chile and Spain joined the group for dinner on Sunday, where the focus was on the environment and other issues.

However, senior US officials accused Mr Macron of looking "to fracture the G-7" 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 up-ended last year's G-7 meeting in Canada, walking out early and disassociating himself from the final communique.

 
 
 
 

Amid the wrangling this time around, some potential positives emerged, with Mr Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreeing in principle to core elements of a trade deal.

"It's billions and billions of dollars. Tremendous for the farmers," Mr Trump said.

However, the two men appeared at odds over North Korea's series of short-range missile launches.

Mr Trump, who prizes his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said 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.

At the start of the day, Mr Trump said Britain would have a major trade deal with Washington after it leaves the European Union. 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 G-7 debut at a time when he is struggling to persuade EU capitals to renegotiate Britain's exit from the bloc, which Mr Johnson has said will happen on Oct 31 come what may.