(Bloomberg) -- The adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron stood on a terrace overlooking the Atlantic in Biarritz last month, puffing on one cigarette after another as the G-7 leaders huddled inside.
Emmanuel Bonne had kicked his university habit years before, but started up again when he was handed his first assignment for the Macron administration: get Iran and the U.S. back to the negotiating table.
To force the issue, he’d helped organize a surprise visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to coincide with the talks. But U.S. officials were bristling at France’s handling of the summit and the fate of the initiative hung in the balance.
Macron tapped Bonne, an Arabic and Farsi speaker known for his Middle East expertise, to drive his foreign policy agenda in May, replacing Philippe Etienne, a European affairs specialist who’s now ambassador to the U.S. The appointment symbolizes a change in foreign policy priorities for the French president after spending the first two years of his term trying to revamp the European Union.
“It’s an admission that Macron will now be more active in the Middle East, where there’s a lot to do,” said Martin Quencez, the deputy director of the Paris office for the German Marshall Fund think tank. “It’s a definite shift in focus.”
Renewing the activist foreign policy Macron pledged in his 2017 election has been helped by a steady improvement in domestic approval ratings. And with German Chancellor Angela Merkel bogged down in coalition politics and Britain distracted by Brexit, Macron’s aides confirm his efforts in the coming months will be targeted more outside Europe.
In a speech to French ambassadors on Aug. 27, Macron described his government’s foreign policy as “influencing the world order with the cards it holds and not submitting to any sort of fatalism,” and over the course of nearly two hours he used the word “audacity” 18 times.
Inviting Zarif to Biarritz was certainly audacious but appears to have paid off. The conference opened Aug. 24 with European allies and the U.S. divided over how to handle Iran’s nuclear ambitions and closed three days later with signs differences could be narrowed.
According to Macron’s office, hawkish U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton was nowhere to be seen during the G-7, which they took as a good sign. His firing on Sept. 10 now opens new opportunities for advances at the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month.
Under a French plan, the Tehran government would be allowed to resume some oil exports if it joins formal talks and returns to compliance with the nuclear accord, which unraveled from mid-2018 when the U.S. pulled out. President Donald Trump is open to easing sanctions, something Bolton opposed, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Read more: Trump discussed easing Iran sanctions, prompting Bolton pushback
The first signs of ground being prepared came in June, when Bonne visited Tehran. The following month, after Iran said it breached its uranium enrichment cap, Macron sent the scholar-turned-diplomat again to the Iranian capital to speak directly with President Hassan Rouhani.
“Macron’s trying to figure out what’s the minimum Iran expects and the maximum the U.S. would give,” said Henry Rome, a research analyst at the Eurasia Group. “The French are being brokers.”
Tehran was a familiar place for Bonne to be sent just a few weeks into his new job. It’s where he began his diplomatic career as an adviser to the French embassy in the early 2000s, before moving on to Saudi Arabia in the same role. He was later ambassador to Lebanon.
Apart from trying to salvage the nuclear deal, Macron’s aides say he’ll try to reset relations with Russia -- something Bonne isn’t too keen on -- with any eventual success there being leveraged to attempt advances in Syria and Libya. Macron has decried Russia’s cyber-meddling in other countries and its crackdowns on domestic opponents, but insists the world’s flashpoints can’t be resolved without Moscow.
“We are in Europe, and so is Russia,” he told the French ambassadors. “If we can’t learn to do useful things with Russia, then we will be stuck in sterile tensions and frozen conflicts.”
Rising Stress Levels
So far, Macron can’t point to a major foreign policy success. He failed to keep Trump in the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement. His attempts to seize control of talks between Libyan factions didn’t lead to any notable progress.
His next test comes on Sept. 24 when he and Trump address the General Assembly, with Rouhani speaking the following day.
France can open the door, but it can’t make Trump or Rouhani enter. Political considerations in both countries probably rule out a formal meeting between the two. But Macron, who talks regularly to both men, could try to engineer a seemingly serendipitous encounter.
“The UN building is a logistical puzzle or a nightmare, depending on how you look at it,” said Rome. “He might try to arrange some sort of bump-in.” While the chance of success may be low, so is the cost of failure since no one will blame Macron for trying.
Any sign of Bonne chain smoking outside the UN building may be a good indication the French president is up to something again.
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