Why France's Hard Line On Iran Is Smart Diplomacy
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was smart to reject a pact that offered no long-term guarantees for Iran to dismantle its nuclear program. A Le Monde editorial.
PARIS – All signs pointed to an impending agreement in Geneva between the six world powers (US, France, UK, Russia, China and Germany) and Iran on the issue of Tehran's nuclear program. More than 10 years after the beginning of this crisis, it seemed a solution was within reach. Two elements in particular had nurtured this perception. One was the intense media campaign of Iran's optimistic Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The other was John Kerry's impromptu trip to Geneva to join the negotiators, interrupting his Middle-East tour.
But one major obstacle came to disturb this diplomatic choreography: France opposed an interim deal, judging it insufficient. For his own last-minute arrival in Geneva, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius slammed "the initial text which we don't accept." On Sunday, the summit ended without a deal, putting negotiations on hold until November 20.
So what happened? Let's rewind a bit. Barack Obama, who was reelected just one year ago, is hoping to make a historical breakthrough with Iran, a pivotal actor across a range of issues in the Middle East. He wants to seize the opportunity given by the election in June of Hassan Rouhani, a "moderate" President.
Rouhani himself is eager to obtain a lifting of the sanctions that have strangled the Iranian economy. According to Fabius, the "initial text" he mentioned was the result of negotiations between the United States and Iran prior to the Geneva meeting. The French delegation reckoned that what was asked of Iran did not go far enough, especially with regards to the production of plutonium.
It's not the first time that France has shown particular firmness on this issue. Since the mid-2000s, its line hasn't budged, despite having changed Presidents twice in the meantime. This time, it is François Hollande's diplomacy that got the better of Barack Obama's. Coming just two months after the falling out between the two powers on Syria, this is far from being insignificant. France's stance has been described as being aligned with Israel's, which was fiercely opposed to Geneva producing a "bad" agreement on Iran's nuclear program.
It would be too simplistic to say that France is an obstacle standing in the way of negotiations. Instead, it stands firm in its role as the guardian of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it seems to be cautioning Obama's team for being hasty. France is convinced that before loosening the economic noose that led Iran to the negotiating table, there must be lasting guarantees that this country won't produce atomic weapons.
France is wary of a "fool's game," according to Fabius's own formulation. It holds a trump card: the impossibility of lifting any major sanctions without unanimous European approval. Paris strongly believes that inflexibility is key if world powers are to prevent a military scenario against Iran. It is a stance based on firm conviction, though one which could present a risk of isolation. Next step, November 20.