November 11, 2013 6:46 pm

France has played its cards right on Iran

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While the French are the toast of US neocons, Tehran denounces them as ‘gun-slinging frogs’
Ingram Pinn illustration©Ingram Pinn

By blocking a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, France has achieved the unusual feat of annoying the American and Iranian governments simultaneously. If the French had genuinely scuppered the chance of an agreement – making war much more likely – they would deserve all the anger directed at them. But by playing “bad cop” to the Obama administration’s good cop, the French have actually made it more likely that an eventual deal will achieve its goal of preventing an Iranian bomb.

French toughness has also increased the chances that a highly sceptical US Congress will buy any accord that emerges, when talks resume in a few days time. That is crucial because there is no point in President Barack Obama striking a deal with Iran if he cannot deliver on his side of the bargain – which is to ease western sanctions.

The foreign powers negotiating with Iran are now scrambling to restore their image of unity. Both the French and the Americans are stressing that they have a common position. It is also true that any deal agreed in Geneva would have been an “interim accord” only, with further details to be agreed later. Nonetheless, the weekend’s discussions revealed an important division. Those who were keenest to get a deal argue that it is crucial that Iranian reformers be given some rewards now, to bolster their position. The hardliners, led by the French, caution against easing sanctions too soon.

The history of the west’s failed efforts to block a North Korean bomb, along with its various unsuccessful rapprochements with Iran over the years, suggest the sceptics may have a point.

In 2005, the powers negotiating with North Korea reached a deal that promised a package of economic and diplomatic incentives in return for the North Koreans abandoning their nuclear weapons programme. But the deal was a dud; in 2006 North Korea staged its first successful nuclear test. The weapon first tested by the North Koreans was a plutonium-based nuclear bomb, rather than one based on enriched uranium. France’s insistence that an early Iran accord should deal not just with uranium enrichment but also with the plutonium plant being developed at Arak is therefore particularly important. There are already signs that this tougher approach is bearing fruit, with Iran suggesting that it might ease its position on international inspections of Arak.

It can be argued that Iran would be more likely to stick to a nuclear deal than the endlessly duplicitous North Koreans, whose totalitarian system is probably better adapted to accept the extreme poverty and isolation that flows from being a nuclear pariah. But no outside power can pronounce with confidence on the balance of power between hardliners and moderates in Iran. And even conservative western leaders have been seduced by the illusory hope of a breakthrough with Iran before. Remember Ronald Reagan’s emissaries showing up in Tehran, carrying a key-shaped cake, that was meant to open the door to better relations with the sweet-toothed mullahs?

The transformation of France’s diplomatic profile in the Middle East over the past years is striking. Just a decade ago, France’s opposition to the Iraq war led to its denunciation by American rightwingers, who famously labelled the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. Now France is, temporarily, the toast of neoconservative Washington, while it is the Iranians who come out with the colourful insults. The Fars news agency denounced the French as “gun-slinging frogs”. (Perhaps there is room for compromise, in which the French assume a settled identity as cheese-eating frogs?)

The Americans who have laboured long and hard to get this deal done might also wonder why France, a less important player in the bloc negotiating with Iran, should take it upon itself to slow the momentum towards an agreement when, if it comes to war, it will be the US that does the bulk of the fighting.

For anyone following the “Iran dossier” (to use diplo-speak), it has been noticeable for some years that France is the most hardline of the western powers. Quite why this should be the case puzzles even French diplomats. Some point to France’s anger at Iran’s role in the killing of French troops in Lebanon in the 1980s, others mention the links to Iran created by the large expatriate Iranian community in France (which once included, Ayatollah Khomeini himself). It is also true that France has a group of experienced diplomats who have been following Iran for many years and have strong feelings about it.

The French also have more short-term motivations, having recently concluded a large arms sale to Saudi Arabia, whose government detests Iran. And the administration of François Hollande felt badly let down by the Americans over Syria. The diplomatic chatter is that French planes were actually on the Tarmac – ready to launch strikes against the Assad regime – when Mr Obama decided to call the whole thing off while he consulted Congress. It is said that the French did not get so much as a warning phone call to alert them to this change of course before it was publicly announced.

The French – like the other players in the Iranian drama – are doubtless acting from a mixture of motives, some good, some bad. But, even after this weekend’s “so near and yet so far” talks, the chances of a war-averting deal over Iran’s nuclear programme are better than for many years. That deal is much more likely to achieve its aims if the outside powers, prodded by France, temper their eagerness to get the deal done with some healthy caution.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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