Biarritz, France — Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a surprise visit to the city hosting the Group of Seven summit Sunday, a move that caught President Trump off-guard and added another element of tension to the meeting of world economic leaders.
Zarif’s arrival in Biarritz appeared to be a covert initiative by French President Emmanuel Macron, a senior European official said, and other leaders were not informed ahead of time. There was no immediate plan for the Iranian foreign minister to meet anyone other than French officials, officials said.
President Trump, whose antics have often left other world leaders searching for words, had little to say when asked about the unexpected guest.
“No comment,” Trump told reporters.
Zarif came to Biarritz on the invitation of his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi wrote on Twitter. The aim of the visit was to “continue discussions about recent initiatives between the presidents of Iran and France,” Mousavi said. He said there would be no meetings or negotiations with the U.S. delegation during the trip.
Zarif’s only confirmed meeting in Biarritz was with Le Drian, a French diplomat said, speaking under ground rules of anonymity.
White House officials have complained for weeks that Macron was trying to forcefully broker talks between the Trump administration and Iran, which the U.S. president has branded a “number one terrorist nation.”
Trump pulled the United States from a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in May 2018. The deal, negotiated by the Obama administration, restricted Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for the easing of sanctions.
French officials have said Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach against Iran is doomed to fail. They have sought to persuade the White House to change course and accept a new deal with the Iranians.
Trump’s pressure campaign has involved a mix of sanctions and public threats aimed at crippling Iran’s economy — and, recently, new sanctions and travel restrictions on Zarif.
The foreign minister’s presence in Biarritz — at the invitation of the French president during a summit of world leaders who know Zarif well — was a reminder of how isolated the Trump administration has become in its approach to Iran.
Even as Iranian forces have stepped up their aggression by seizing several tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, European leaders have sought to maintain the 2015 nuclear deal without the United States. Zarif’s visit to the G-7 site appeared to be an unconventional gambit aimed at breaking the logjam.
Previous discussions on Iran during the summit have shown little progress, as leaders could not agree publicly about even the terms of their talks.
Trump claimed Sunday to have not discussed a joint approach to Iran. French officials insisted an agreement had been reached among leaders Saturday night.
“I haven’t discussed that,” Trump said. “We will do our own outreach, but I can’t stop people from talking. If they want to talk, they can talk.”
Administration officials have criticized the French for talking to Iran.
When leaders discussed Iran over dinner on Saturday, they agreed broadly that Iran should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and that they should work to de-escalate the ongoing crisis, according to officials who were briefed on the closed-door talks.
Macron pushed Trump to allow Iran to export a limited amount of oil — a nonstarter with the White House.
Zarif’s sudden arrival in Biarritz took at least some of the other delegations by surprise, even those aligned with France in its commitment to preserve the nuclear deal, according to a senior European official.
The official said it was not immediately clear why Zarif had been invited. The official called it “a flashy move.”
Because the Iranian diplomat was parachuting into an already packed weekend, it was unclear what his presence would accomplish, unless it was a French effort to jump-start U.S.-Iran talks by putting Trump and Zarif in the same small city.
But even if a meeting with Trump were to take place, the official was skeptical that anything would come of it. Trump would need to offer some carrots to encourage Iran to come back into compliance with the deal. He has shown little inclination to do so, the official said.
Also, since Europe’s strength on the Iran deal has been its unity, the official said, the unilateral move to call in Zarif may prove counterproductive.
Zarif was in Paris on Friday for discussions with Macron and other French officials. He had been scheduled to travel in Asia this weekend, according to his Twitter account. It was unclear how long he planned to stay in the French resort town.
His arrival in Biarritz appeared to take the State Department by surprise, as well. A spokeswoman, noting the agency’s absence from the summit, referred questions to the White House.
Trump is traveling in Biarritz with national security adviser John Bolton, one of the administration’s fiercest critics of Iran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has complained that Zarif has used media appearances to spread Iranian “propaganda” against the United States.
Zarif criticized the Trump administration after it pulled out of the nuclear deal, and again after the administration announced sanctions against him last month.
“The US’ reason for designating me is that I am Iran’s ‘primary spokesperson around the world’,” he tweeted. “Is the truth really that painful? It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”
Zarif has been meeting with other world leaders, including Macron, about the nuclear issue. He has tweeted pictures of himself shaking hands with top officials and sought to contrast his embrace of diplomacy with the Trump administration’s unilateral pressure campaign.
“Despite US efforts to destroy diplomacy, met with French President @EmmanuelMacron and @JY_LeDriane in Paris today,” the Iranian foreign minister tweeted Friday. “Interviewed with Euronews, AFP, & France24. Multilateralism must be preserved. Next stops Beijing, Tokyo & KL after a day in Tehran.”
He did not mention that he would be stopping in Biarritz.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin indicated that Trump might be willing to meet with Zarif.
“The president has said before that to the extent that Iran wants to sit down and negotiate we would not set preconditions to those negotiations,” he told reporters in France on Sunday.
He declined to comment further.
Josh Dawsey and Damian Paletta in Biarritz and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.