THE G7 SUMMIT drew to a close on August 26th in the French seaside town of Biarritz amid improbable displays of goodwill and bonhomie. President Donald Trump declared the meeting a “true success”, and claimed that “nobody wanted to leave”. President Emmanuel Macron, the French summit host, thanked the American president profusely for enabling a “real partnership” between the two countries. The conflict and theatrics that the French had feared might split the G7 and wreck the meeting failed to materialise.
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Perhaps the most startling, and spectacular, outcome was Mr Macron’s announcement that a face-to-face meeting between Mr Trump and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani could take place in the “coming weeks”. On August 25th, the French president had pulled off what looked suspiciously like a stunt when he invited Muhammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, to Biarritz for meetings outside the G7 format. Yet a day later, there was Mr Trump, standing beside the French president, acknowledging that “if the circumstances were right” he would “certainly agree” to such a meeting. “I have a good feeling,” Mr Trump declared, saying the Iranians wanted to meet because they were “hurting badly” as a result of American sanctions.
Mr Macron’s diplomatic team has been working for weeks on ways to try to ease tensions with Iran, and to find some way to preserve the principles embodied in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if not the accord itself. Signed in 2015, the JCPOA limited Iran’s nuclear programme, pushing back its ability to “break out” as a nuclear-weapons power in exchange for the partial lifting of sanctions. Mr Trump withdrew from it last year, and embarked on a policy of “maximum pressure” to cripple Iran’s economy.
Hours before Mr Trump spoke at the G7, Mr Rouhani signalled that his administration was also willing to talk. “If I know that by meeting someone, the problem of my country will be solved, I will not hesitate,” he said in a speech. At the time, his words seemed a defence of Mr Zarif, whose trip to Biarritz was poorly received by conservatives at home. Kayhan, a choleric newspaper close to the supreme leader said it projected “weakness and desperation”. But his comments also suggest he would be open to a personal meeting with Mr Trump.
If a Trump-Rouhani summit came off, it would be the first between American and Iranian leaders since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Mr Rouhani did not even meet Barack Obama, who spent much of his second term pursuing better relations with Iran, culminating with the JCPOA. (They did manage a brief phone call in 2013.)
But Mr Rouhani would have to overcome objections from the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who oppose engagement with America. When Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, brought a message from Mr Trump on a visit to Tehran this summer, Mr Khamenei deemed it unworthy of a reply. Over the past few months those hawkish factions have pushed a more aggressive response to Mr Trump’s anti-Iran campaign. Oil tankers have been seized and sabotaged in the Persian Gulf. America and Iran have shot down each other’s drones, and America nearly carried out airstrikes in June.
Beyond the symbolism of a summit, though, it is unclear what a meeting would achieve beyond the bargain struck under the JCPOA. The Trump administration wants Iran to halt all uranium enrichment (which Iran insists is needed to make fuel for nuclear-power reactors), withdraw its troops from Syria and end support for regional proxies like Hizbullah, a Lebanese militia-cum-political party. Iran will agree to none of that.
Mr Rouhani’s allies counter by citing the example of Kim Jong-un: in a series of meetings, the North Korean leader wooed Mr Trump, who now gushes about “falling in love” with the North Korean dictator. His charm offensive lowered tensions with America—and he made no real concessions in return.
Apart from raising the hope of averting a shooting war between America and Iran, the G7 summit also offered some prospect of easing the trade wars that Mr Trump so enjoys waging.
There was an agreement, at least in principle, to ease trans-Atlantic tensions over a new French tax on tech giants, which disproportionately affects American firms. Last month Mr Trump had criticised Mr Macron’s “foolishness”, and promised to retaliate with restrictions on imports of French wine. In Biarritz, however, the French president announced a deal with Mr Trump: France would abolish the tax as soon as an international equivalent was in place; money paid by firms to France would be deducted from their obligations under the future tax regime and any excess reimbursed. Mr Trump did not protest.
On the bigger dispute over trade with China, Mr Trump also ended the G7 summit on a constructive note. After days of tit-for-tat announcements of trade tariffs, which sent markets reeling, Mr Trump said the Chinese had contacted the Americans and they “really do want to do a deal”. This was a “very positive step”, Mr Trump said, so helping to lift markets in Asia and Europe. Whether the American president sticks to this line remains to be seen. Just three days previously, the same Mr Trump increased tariffs on over $500bn of Chinese goods.
America and Japan also announced a deal on their own trade spat, but gave few details other than that it would cover agriculture, industrial tariffs and digital trade. Mr Trump seemed pleased, mainly because Japan will provide “support” for its farmers to buy more American corn, which is piling up as a result of the dispute with China.
There were also small steps to help stop fire spreading in the Amazon, including a pledge by G7 members to contribute $20m to that end. A tiny sum, in view of Mr Macron’s belief that the fires amounted to an international crisis. But given the many political sparks and fires he may have dampened, the French president nevertheless had good reason to be pleased with his work.
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