WikiLeaked: France politely points out that Iran makes no sense

If you know anything about the first batch of WikiLeaks, it’s that Arab officials have a lot to say about the Iranian nuclear program. (Shorter: They don’t like it.) But they’re not the only ones in a Persian state of mind: the U.S. Embassy in Paris has also been a hotspot for Iran strategy sessions. ...

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Atta Genare / AFP
Atta Genare / AFP
Atta Genare / AFP

If you know anything about the first batch of WikiLeaks, it's that Arab officials have a lot to say about the Iranian nuclear program. (Shorter: They don't like it.) But they're not the only ones in a Persian state of mind: the U.S. Embassy in Paris has also been a hotspot for Iran strategy sessions. The cables from Paris aren't as explosive as those from the Middle East: when describing the Islamic Republic, French officials refrained from reptile metaphors and Nazi analogies. Instead, Tehran's political class is soberly, but devastatingly, portrayed as out-of-touch, unorganized and unreliable.

In 2007, for example France's Deputy Assistant Foreign Minister briefed U.S. embassy officials on his meeting in Tehran earlier that year, shortly after the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, with Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader. Among Iran watchers in the West, Velayati is sometimes thought of as a Kissinger-style behind-the-scenes operative, with the access and influence of a political heavyweight and the tact of a master diplomat. In that reading, the radical public polemics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are actually a front for the nuanced political analysis of the real Iranian foreign policy establishment headed by Velayati.

If you know anything about the first batch of WikiLeaks, it’s that Arab officials have a lot to say about the Iranian nuclear program. (Shorter: They don’t like it.) But they’re not the only ones in a Persian state of mind: the U.S. Embassy in Paris has also been a hotspot for Iran strategy sessions. The cables from Paris aren’t as explosive as those from the Middle East: when describing the Islamic Republic, French officials refrained from reptile metaphors and Nazi analogies. Instead, Tehran’s political class is soberly, but devastatingly, portrayed as out-of-touch, unorganized and unreliable.

In 2007, for example France’s Deputy Assistant Foreign Minister briefed U.S. embassy officials on his meeting in Tehran earlier that year, shortly after the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, with Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader. Among Iran watchers in the West, Velayati is sometimes thought of as a Kissinger-style behind-the-scenes operative, with the access and influence of a political heavyweight and the tact of a master diplomat. In that reading, the radical public polemics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are actually a front for the nuanced political analysis of the real Iranian foreign policy establishment headed by Velayati.

But Velayati comes across more as a bumbler than a mastermind: His sinewy attempt to establish a back-channel with French officials betrayed not sophistication but ignorance: “Velayati’s (apparently convoluted) thinking,” reads the cable to Washington, “had been expressed in an article he had written that took the view that the election of Nicolas Sarkozy gave France a chance to break free of its ‘dependence’ on the U.S. in terms of its foreign policy.” Of course, this reading of Sarkozy’s politics was precisely backwards: the French president took office explicitly emphasizing his intent on establishing closer ties with the United States.

Other cables should put to rest the old cliché that relations between the United States and Iran are primarily hampered by Washington’s estrangement from and lack of familiarity with the Iranian political system. France’s attempt to advise the U.S. government as it seeks the release of three American hikers arrested and imprisoned by Iran in 2010 are a case in point. Washington may have been hoping to leverage France’s experience with the Iranian political system. But all Paris can offer is a shrug. One of the paragraph headings reads simply: “GOOD LUCK FIGURING OUT WHO IS IN CHARGE IN TEHRAN”. Another: “BRACE FOR UNCERTAINTY.” The Iranian political system is described as “opaque” and “arbitrary.”  “We know next to nothing,” one French official admitted: Even good faith efforts to understand Iranian decision-making end in guessing games. The only proven tactic, French officials say, is to try to manipulate their leadership by publicly castigating the regime. It’s clearly not for lack of a Tehran embassy that the U.S. usually resorts to such pressure tactics.

(Though France did offer one tip for future reference: a French citizen recently arrested in Iran was apparently released after he told the Iranian police that he was “following the paths of the dinosaurs.” Something for future American hikers to keep in mind.)

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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