France’s Le Drian Plans March Trip to Iran after Trump Ultimatum

France’s foreign minister said on Sunday he would visit Iran on March 5 to discuss its ballistic missile program and the nuclear deal agreed with world powers in 2015, as tensions between the two countries rise, Radio Farda reports.

“We have embarked upon a dialogue with Iran on the issue of ballistics and regional questions,” Le Drian told the Le Figaro daily in an interview to be published on January 22.

In an interview with daily Le Figaro, Jean-Yves Le Drian said he would discuss the landmark nuclear deal after U.S. President Donald Trump’s January 12 ultimatum to Britain, France and Germany to “fix” the deal or he would withdraw.

“A country that goes back on its word devalues its word,” Le Drian said.

Tensions between Iran and France have risen in recent months with both sides repeatedly trading barbs in public, including Le Drian accusing Iran of “hegemonic temptations” in the region. Iranian officials have been particularly aggrieved by France’s criticism of its ballistic missile tests and suggestions of possible new sanctions over the program.

Iran has repeatedly said its missile program is purely defensive and dismisses Western assertions that its regional activities are destabilizing.

“If Iran wants to return to the concert of nations, it must cooperate on these questions. Otherwise, it will with reason always be suspected of wanting to develop nuclear weapons,” said Le Drian, who postponed a trip to Tehran earlier this month because of demonstrations in the country.

Under the U.N. resolution enshrining the nuclear deal with the United States, Iran is “called upon” to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for up to 8 years. Some states argue that this language does not make it obligatory.

Iran has denied that it has missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads. Senior Iranian officials have repeatedly said that the country’s missile program is purely defensive, noting that it is not up to France or any other country to make decisions about its ballistic missile program. On December 4, 2017, Iran advised France to be careful in its views about the Islamic Republic after President Emmanuel Macron called for talks on Tehran’s ballistic missiles.

“French statesmen and other statesmen who speak about Iran’s affairs need to pay attention to the deep developments that have come to pass in the region in past decades and the big changes between the current situation and the past. They should analyze the issues more carefully in their words and statements because the Islamic Republic of Iran will definitely not negotiate on defensive and missile matters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said.

Le Drian said he would also raise what he called Iran’s “destabilizing military influence in the Middle East“, notably its support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi militias.

“That is why…I shall go to Iran on March 5,” said Le Drian, who will hold talks with his counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Le Drian has previously accused Iran of having “hegemonic” intentions in the region, provoking a countercharge from Tehran that France is taking a “biased and partisan approach to the crises in the region.”

In a December 12 television interview, the foreign minister accused Iran of trying to create an “axis” of military and political influence stretching from Tehran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. He called on Tehran to stop interfering in Syria and to stop meddling in the affairs of Lebanon.  In the January 22 interview, Le Drian says a key topic of discussion with Zarif will be the 2015 nuclear deal, which provided Tehran with relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

Le Drian announced the rescheduled talks after French President Emmanuel Macron voiced concern on January 2 over countrywide demonstrations in Iran and postponed a visit originally scheduled for January 5 and 6.  Violent unrest fueled by economic grievances erupted in dozens of Iranian cities between December 28 and January 1, leaving 25 people dead according to an official tally and thousands more arrested.

Adding urgency to Le Drian’s visit is a four-month U.S. ultimatum to remedy a 2015 nuclear deal which curbed Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for the relaxing of punishing sanctions. With Trump warning of a last chance for “the worst deal ever negotiated”, Britain, France and Germany have begun talks on a plan to satisfy him by addressing Iran’s ballistic missile tests and its regional influence while preserving the 2015 accord.

The European Union has defended the accord, warning that abandoning it would be a mistake after it was thrashed out over 12 years between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, China, Germany and Russia. But the EU retains deep concerns over Iran’s continuing ballistic missile program and its meddling in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria.