French FM faces criticism on Iran visit

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, shake hands for journalists at the start of their meeting in Tehran, Iran, Monday, March 5, 2018. Le Drian arrived in Tehran amid French criticism of Tehran's ballistic missile program. His one-day trip highlights the balancing act Paris finds itself in after Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

France's foreign minister faces cold response in Tehran while criticizing Iranian ballistic missile program

TEHRAN, Iran — France's foreign minister traveled to Tehran on Monday promising tough talk on Iran's ballistic missile program but was met with stiff resistance from his Iranian counterpart, who said Western arms deals had turned the Middle East into a "gunpowder depot."

From his first meeting with a military uniform-clad official, Jean-Yves Le Drian's one-day trip highlighted the challenge Paris faces in challenging Iran while at the same time trying to keep the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers intact.

While French leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron, have criticized Iran's missile program, French companies like oil giant Total SA, carmaker Renault and airplane manufacturer Airbus have bullishly entered the Iranian market after the atomic accord, complicating any possible sanctions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also made a point to mention France armed dictator Saddam Hussein during the bloody 1980s Iran-Iraq war.

"The United States and other countries that have turned our region into a gunpowder depot by selling arms must stop such actions," Zarif said, according to a report by the semi-official ISNA news agency.

Iran insists its ballistic missile program is for purely defensive purposes, and has denied accusations by the U.S., France and the United Nations of supplying missile technology to Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have fired ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia.

"Iran has learned to rely on its deterrent power," Zarif said.

Le Drian also met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who expressed hope that the 2015 nuclear deal could be preserved.

"It would be a point of regret for everyone" if the deal is not honored, Rouhani said, adding that his country is "ready to deal with any situation that is not agreeable to Iran."

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 over the weekend that Tehran would only give up its missiles when the West abandons nuclear arms.

"The country's defense 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.

Le Drian first met Monday with Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. Shamkhani, a former chief of Iran's navy, made a point to wear his military uniform to the meeting.

Le Drian had been scheduled to visit Tehran earlier but postponed his trip after protests across Iran in late December and early January that saw at least 21 people killed.

Macron praised the demonstrations as "the free expression of the Iranian people," but did not match President Donald Trump's full-throated encouragement of them.

Macron also has said he wants to see the emergence of an accord limiting Iran's regional presence. The Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.

It's unclear how much of an effect Le Drian's talks will have in Iran, especially as newspapers greeted him Monday with headlines calling him an "impudent guest" and "Trump's Parisian servant."

Le Drian did not meet with anyone from Iran's Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary force that answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and runs the ballistic missile program.

During his visit, Le Drian also inaugurated an exhibition called "The Louvre in Tehran" at the Iranian National Museum.

___

Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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