European Splits Emerge over Saudi Attack as UN Diplomacy Begins

By John Irish and Kylie MacLellan

UNITED NATIONS, Sept 23 (Reuters) – France and Britain were at odds on Monday over who to blame for an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, potentially complicating efforts to defuse tensions between the United States and Iran at the U.N. General Assembly.

France has led a European push to try to defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran and sees the annual gathering of global leaders that began on Monday as an opportunity to revive diplomacy.

But those efforts have stalled, with Iran reducing its commitments to a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, from which Washington withdrew last year, and the United States refusing to ease sanctions that have strangled its oil exports, a mainstay of the Iranian economy.

An attack on Saudi oil facilities, which the United States has blamed on Iran, has also complicated matters. Hopes at the end of August that U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could meet at the United Nations now seem slim.

“We haven’t received any requests this time, yet, for a meeting and we have made it clear a request alone will not do the job,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters in New York. “A negotiation has to be for a reason, for an outcome, not just for a handshake.”

He said there are prerequisites for a meeting – Iran has demanded the United States lift all sanctions – and then there could be a meeting between Iran, the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China – the original parties to the nuclear deal – but there would be no bilateral meeting.

Trump, arriving at the United Nations on Monday, was asked about the possibility of meeting: “We’ll see what happens.”

Speaking on his way to New York, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to break ranks with his European counterparts on Monday, apportioning blame directly on Iran for the attack on Saudi Arabia.

“The UK is attributing responsibility with a very high degree of probability to Iran for the Aramco attacks. We think it very likely indeed that Iran was indeed responsible,” Johnson told reporters.

“We will be working with our American friends and our European friends to construct a response that tries to deescalate tensions in the Persian Gulf region,” he said.

Those words were in stark contrast to French officials, who have been extremely cautious not to point the finger directly at Tehran, fearing that it could increase tensions.

“One must be very careful in attributing responsibility,” French President Emmanuel Macron told Le Monde newspaper en route for New York.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have already blamed Iran for the Sept. 14 strikes that initially halved Saudi oil output. Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement has claimed responsibility.

Macron’s foreign minister said on Sunday that while the Houthi claims lacked credibility, there had to be a detailed a documented and investigation before formulating a response.


European powers party to the deal – France, Britain and Germany, known as the E3 – have remained united despite pressure from Washington, focusing their approach on seeking to bring Iran back into full compliance with the nuclear deal in return for economic relief and new negotiations.

Macron, Johnson and Angela Merkel were due to meet on Monday to coordinate their Iran strategy ahead of likely meetings with Trump and Rouhani.

A senior Persian Gulf official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Persian Gulf countries, the United States, the Europeans and others needed to engage in “collective diplomacy” to defuse tensions.

“The conversation should no longer be about the JCPOA (nuclear deal) but Iran‘s missile program and its regional misbehavior, which are as important if not more important – they have the potential to hold the region to ransom,” the official said.

Macron had pinned his efforts on offering Iran a $15 billion credit line that would enable it to eventually sell its oil, in return for which Iran would return to full compliance with the deal and open a broader negotiation on its future nuclear activities, its ballistic missile program and regional influence.

That plan depended on the United States easing some sanctions, which it hasn’t, and the attacks on Saudi Arabia have prompted Washington to impose more curbs, making Macron’s diplomatic efforts even more complicated.

(Additional Reporting by Michelle Nichols, Editing by William Maclean and Grant McCool)