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French foreign minister visits Iran amid missile tensions

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian. [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 March, 2018

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Jean-Yves Le Drian's one-day trip highlights the balancing act Paris finds itself in after Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
France's foreign minister arrived in Tehran on Monday for meetings with the country's president and his Iranian counterpart.

Talks will likely to focus on Syria's war and Iran's ballistic missile programme, which has source of strain between Tehran and the West.

It is the first visit by one of the European signatories to the 2015 nuclear agreement since US President Donald Trump set an ultimatum that he would abandon it in May if it was not "improved". 

Jean-Yves Le Drian's one-day trip highlights the balancing act Paris finds itself in after Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

While French leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron, have criticised Iran's missile programme, French companies like oil giant Total SA have bullishly entered the Iranian market after the atomic accord, complicating any possible sanctions.

Ahead of Le Drian's trip, the French foreign ministry issued a statement saying he would pursue "a frank and demanding dialogue with Iran".

Iran's ballistic missile capacity and position "worries us enormously," Le Drian said last week at a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

"Having such tools is not uniquely defensive, given the distance they can reach."

Le Drian faced immediate pushback over French concerns about Iran's ballistic missiles, starting with Iranian students waving signs at Iran's Mehrabad International Airport protesting his comments.

That continued with Iran's armed forces spokesman Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, who this weekend said Tehran only would give up its missiles when the West abandons nuclear weapons.

"The country's defence capabilities will continue non-stop and foreigners do not have the right to enter this field," Jazayeri said Monday, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

France, the US and the UN say Iran supplies ballistic missile technology to Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have fired the weapons into Saudi Arabia.

Iran denies supplying the rebels with that and describes its ballistic missile programme as only a defensive weapon.

Le Drian also early on Monday met Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and a close ally of Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei. 

After his talks, he was due to inaugurate a new exhibition with works from the Louvre Museum in Tehran.

Le Drian will also be pushing in his talks to have Tehran put pressure on the Syrian regime, a key ally, to end its devastating assault on the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

Despite their differences, Iran has welcomed French efforts to re-engage economically and politically. 

Last year, Iran signed a $5 billion gas exploration deal with French energy giant Total, Tehran's biggest since the nuclear accord.

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