Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif turned up unannounced at a meeting of world leaders on Sunday in a dramatic intervention aimed at easing Tehran’s nuclear crisis but threatened to antagonise Donald Trump who was kept in the dark about the mission.
Mr Zarif arrived at the invitation of G7 summit host France which has taken the lead in trying to reduce tensions between Tehran and the US, which has ramped up sanctions against the regime and tried to seize one of its oil tankers.
The foreign minister’s arrival took the US delegation by surprise and appears not to have been discussed during an unscheduled two-hour meeting between presidents Emmanuel Macron, of France, and Donald Trump on Saturday.
A White House official said that Mr Trump was not forewarned by France. Asked about the arrival of Mr Zarif, who is on a US sanctions list, the normally loquacious Mr Trump said: “No comment.”
French and Iranian officials played down the prospects of a face-to-face meeting with Mr Trump, who last year pulled the US out of the nuclear deal and tightened sanctions against the clerical regime.
Iranian UN mission spokesman Alireza Miryousefi posted on Twitter: “No meeting with Americans in Biarritz.”
Mr Zarif’s first appointment was with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, at the summit in the French coastal resort of Biarritz.Mr Trump’s policy of exerting maximum pressure on Iran has alienated European leaders.
They have sought to continue trading with Tehran but banks and businesses have proved wary because of fears that they will be locked out of the US financial system if they struck deals.
The meeting followed confusion at the summit – riven with disputes over trade, climate change and the question about whether Russia should be admitted to the G7 – after leaders of the world’s leading democracies gave mixed messages about their plans for dealing with Iran.
A French official claimed that the G7 had agreed on Saturday night to allow President Emmanuel Macron to talk to Tehran and pass on messages to try to tackle the growing crisis in the Gulf.
But the US president — who has taken the hardest diplomatic line against Iran — immediately distanced himself from any suggestion that the leaders of the US, Britain, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan, France and the EU has reached agreement on a joint message.
“No, I haven’t discussed that,” Mr Trump told reporters on Sunday, shortly after Mr Macron claimed that a message had been agreed with the other leaders.
Mr Macron had met Mr Zarif on Friday to discuss plans to ease the crisis, which included cutting some US sanctions or setting up a mechanism to compensate Iran for economic losses. In return Iran would have to comply fully with the nuclear deal.
The G7 leaders discussed Iran at the opening summit dinner when the French side insisted that a deal had been agreed.
“As president of the G7, the president [Macron] did indeed get the power to discuss and send a message to Iranian authorities on the basis of the exchanges we had last night,” an unidentified French official said.
Discussions with Mr Zarif have been complicated as he was last month put on a US sanctions list. The US secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the decision to designate Iran’s chief diplomat was because he was “just as complicit in the regime’s outlaw behaviour as the rest of [supreme leader Al Khamenei’s] mafia.”
The US and the EU have taken starkly different approaches towards Iran. The seizure — and later release — of the Iranian tanker Grace 1 off the Gibraltar coast highlighted continued differences of approach between the EU and the US.
Washington has continued to seek to detain the ship, forcing it to divert from its planned course to Greece, where it was due to arrive on Sunday.
Mr Macron’s attempt to secure an eye-catching breakthrough in the Iran impasse highlighted the intractability of many of the other issues on the agenda for the three-day meeting.
Mr Trump arrived on Saturday in glitzy southern French resort of Biarritz with Iran just one of a raft of policy differences with his G7 counterparts including over trade, tariffs and the environment.
Officials said that the most contentious discussion over the opening leaders’ dinner was not Iran, but the debate about whether to allow Russia to rejoin the club of liberal democracies after it was thrown out over the invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
Mr Trump had threatened to impose sanction on French wine in retaliation for French plans for a digital services tax, which will hit tech giants such as Apple and Google.
Despite the obvious differences, Mr Trump levelled his guns at the “Fake and Disgusting News” media for suggesting that relations between the leaders were tense and claimed the leaders had “very good meetings”.
But the cracks appeared after the first meeting of the day with new British premier Boris Johnson, his closest ally at the talks, when the two disagreed over the US trade war with China. Mr Johnson said he was in favour of “trade peace”.
The discord was spelt out by Donald Tusk, the European Council president, who said told reporters before the meeting that it was “increasingly hard” to find common ground.
“This is another G7 summit which will be a difficult test of unity and solidarity of the free world and its leaders,” he said. “This may be the last moment to restore our political community.”
Mr Johnson — whose amicable meeting with Mr Trump was set to be followed by more turbulent session with Mr Tusk over Brexit — also appeared to allude to the difficulties during comments to Mr Macron.
During a long handshake on Sunday, Mr Johnson told his French counterpart: “You did very well last night. My God, that was a difficult one.”
He also faced protests on Sunday from demonstrators who claim that his challenges to global leaders to tackle climate change have not been matched by his own actions.