- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2019

Top Iranian officials made an unexpected visit Sunday to the Group of Seven summit at the apparent invitation of France, a brazen end run around Washington that underscores the deep divide between the U.S. and its key European allies over how to deal with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, its destabilization of the Middle East and its recent attempted attacks on Israel.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived at the gathering in Biarritz, France, just hours after the State Department condemned a new “threat” from Tehran against a U.S. think tank and a day after Israel said it foiled a “killer drone” attack that Tehran planned to launch from an air base in Syria.

Mr. Zarif’s arrival seemed to have caught the White House by surprise, and French officials suggested they did not clear the invitation with President Trump or any other G-7 stakeholders.

“We operate on our own terms,” an unidentified French official told The Associated Press.

Mr. Zarif confirmed Sunday that he had met with French President Emmanuel Macron and other top officials.

“Iran’s active diplomacy in pursuit of constructive engagement continues,” he said.

Mr. Trump said he supports international talks with Iran but gave no indication that the U.S. was involved with France’s decision.

“We’ll do our own outreach. But you can’t stop people from talking. If they want to talk, they can talk,” the U.S. president said.

U.S. lawmakers condemned the invitation. They said it undercuts Mr. Trump and signals weakness at a time when the international community must remain united.

“If the French did in fact invite Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif to the G7 without consulting the US, it would be a signal of great weakness to Iran and terribly disrespectful to President Trump,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “Hope President Trump maintains steady resolve against Iranian aggression.”

The U.S. and Europe remain at odds over how to deal with an increasingly hostile Iran. European nations, including France, want to salvage an Obama-era deal that limits Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from some economic sanctions. Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from that pact last year and ratcheted up financial pressure on Iran to an unprecedented level.

Washington has cracked down in recent months after a series of provocative actions by Iran, including the apparent targeting of U.S. forces based in Iraq, the seizure of several commercial oil tankers traveling off Iran’s coast, the downing of an American drone this summer and Tehran’s vow to begin enriching uranium far above the limits laid out in the 2015 nuclear agreement.

At the G-7, reports emerged that world leaders had reached an agreement allowing Mr. Macron to act as the primary intermediary in talks between Iran and the West. But Mr. Trump immediately shot down those reports — another indication of the disconnect between the U.S. and its partners in Europe.

“I haven’t discussed that,” the president said.

Shortly before Mr. Zarif traveled to the G-7, officials in Tehran said they would slap economic sanctions on the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has been highly critical of Iran. The sanctions target the organization and its CEO, Mark Dubowitz, for backing the U.S. campaign of “economic terrorism” against Iran and spreading lies about the country, according to the country’s Mehr News Agency.

“The outlaw regime in Iran issued a threat today against @FDD, an American think tank, and its CEO,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. “The U.S. takes the regime’s threats seriously. We intend to hold Iran responsible for directly or indirectly compromising the safety of any American.”

Mr. Dubowitz also blasted Iran’s actions and called on Mr. Trump, Mr. Macron and other leaders to retaliate by barring Mr. Zarif from attending the upcoming United Nations General Assembly session in New York.

“This is a direct threat against @FDD, me and our Iranian and non-Iranian friends,” Mr. Dubowitz tweeted. “These threats will only strengthen our resolve to research and reveal the truth about the regime in Iran, and to support the burning desire of the vast majority of Iranians for freedom.”

Meanwhile, the weekend brought another reminder of Iran’s aggression. Israeli officials said they foiled an attempted “killer drone” attack by Iran’s Quds Force.

The assault, Israel said, was to be launched from a base outside Damascus, Syria, in another sign of the deepening partnership between Iran and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

“In a major operational effort, we have thwarted an attack against Israel by the Iranian Quds Force & Shiite militias. I reiterate: Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted. “I have directed that our forces be prepared for any scenario. We will continue to take determined and responsible action against Iran and its proxies for the security of Israel.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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