The Cable

Republicans ready to tie Iran sanctions to French-Russian arms deal

As the Senate negotiates with the Obama administration over Iran sanctions, conflict over a French arms sale to Russia could get caught up in the mix. The friction between top GOP leaders in Congress and the French government is over the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, which the French are considering selling to the Russian Federation. ...

As the Senate negotiates with the Obama administration over Iran sanctions, conflict over a French arms sale to Russia could get caught up in the mix.

The friction between top GOP leaders in Congress and the French government is over the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, which the French are considering selling to the Russian Federation. As the biggest potential arms sale from a NATO country to Russia, U.S. lawmakers are worried this could set off a chain reaction of NATO arms sales to Russia. Plus, they share the concerns of Georgia and the Baltic states that the ship could allow Russia to increase its aggressiveness in its near abroad.

So what does this have to do with Iran sanctions? Well, The Cable brought you exclusively the story of how the State Department wants changes in the Chris Dodd Iran sanctions bill that’s currently pending in the Senate. Basically, the Obama administration wants exemptions for countries that cooperate with American sanctions against Iran. France presumably would be at the top of the list.

But a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable that Republicans negotiating over the Iran sanctions language would not allow an exemption for France or French companies if the Mistral deal goes through.

"Whether or not France gets an exemption could very well depend on whether France decides to sell this ship to Russia," the aide said, explaining that "it’s possible to draw that exemption narrow enough so that the president could not possibly exempt France."

One obvious target is the French oil and gas giant Total, which could be caught up in the Dodd bill’s restrictions on exporting refined petroleum products to Iran. Total is reportedly in negotiations right now with the Chinese regarding a joint project in Iran’s South Pars region.

The petroleum restrictions are also at the core of a companion bill which passed overwhelmingly in the House last week.

Recently, American lawmakers have increased their interest and activity in the Mistral story.

Six GOP senators wrote to French Ambassador Pierre Vimont Monday to express their concerns about the potential sale. House Foreign Affairs ranking Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, introduced a bill last week calling on the French to stand down from the deal.

In a letter dated Monday, obtained by The Cable, Vimont responded to the Senators, telling them basically that France would make its own decisions about selling the ship to the Russians, and thanking them for their interest.

"France has no reason to refuse considering a Russian request, which is being examined, and will be concluded, with all the necessary precautions as part of the French military equipment export control regulatory procedures," Vimont wrote.

In other words, France won’t go by the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls  or the European Union Code of Conduct for Arms Exports, as the Senators had wanted.

Vimont also repeated various French defenses of the sale, as told to The Cable by French embassy spokesmen, which include that the ship has been used for humanitarian missions, has no really advanced technological elements, and would not present a credible threat to the NATO alliance.

But multiple Senate aides reached by The Cable felt unsatisfied with that response and pledged to fight on.

"If France decides to go ahead and do this, which the letter all but says they will, our options are limited but it will have consequences for the NATO alliance," one senate aide warned.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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