How France Became an Iran Hawk
The French don't trust Iran's nuclear promises, but they don't trust Washington much, either.
As a March 31 deadline looms in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and France, two strong allies, have found themselves increasingly at odds, at times quite publicly.
While the White House has been pushing hard for consensus on the framework for a deal ahead of the deadline, Paris has been pushing back. “Repeating that an agreement has to be reached by the end of March is a bad tactic. Pressure on ourselves to conclude at any price,” Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador in Washington, tweeted on March 20. On Tuesday, François Delattre, France’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that Iran’s progress was “insufficient.”
The word from Paris has been equally unsupportive of the U.S. push for a deal. “France wants an agreement, but a robust one that really guarantees that Iran can have access to civilian nuclear power, but not the atomic bomb,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared on March 21.
What gives? Is France’s Socialist President François Hollande actually a neoconservative? Has Paris suddenly turned into a hawk among nations?
Not quite. France’s policy is dictated by a set of principles with regard to nonproliferation that have guided administrations on both sides of the political spectrum in the talks with Tehran since 2002. And the tension with Washington is just one expression of a larger disagreement between the two countries over U.S. strategy in the Middle East.
Differences between Washington and Paris have been quietly brewing for months. The French feel that they are being kept out of the loop in critical discussions. The multilateral framework of Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) has turned into a bilateral discussion between Iran and the United States.
This exclusion has been coupled with increasing pressure from Washington. French diplomats complain (albeit only privately) that their American counterparts are trying to force them to make concessions on issues like the number of centrifuges allowed or sanctions in order to reach an agreement by March 31, a deadline that the French, like many of the White House’s critics back home, see as artificial and counterproductive.
The French do not share the sense of hurry that Washington seems to feel. As France’s ambassador to the United States tweeted on March 3: “We want a deal. They need a deal. The tactics and the result of the negotiation should reflect this asymmetry.”
But the differences between the French and American positions go beyond process and into matters of substance. The lifting of sanctions, the scope of inspections, research and development capacities, the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to maintain, and how long the agreement will last are all areas in which Paris and Washington differ. In Lausanne last week, France rejected Iran’s demand to immediately lift United Nations Security Council sanctions linked to proliferation after an agreement, arguing that this can only come progressively, with verifications.
A central concern is “breakout time” (the minimum time needed to make weapons-grade uranium). According to current reports, a deal would ensure that Iranian breakout time would be moved back to one year. French negotiators want to ensure that Iran’s agreed-upon breakout time will last the entire duration of the deal — and after. They also want a deal that lasts as long as possible. “Ten years is short when you talk about nuclear issues,” one diplomat said.
Another diplomat summed it up: “We spent more than 10 years talking, slowly setting an architecture of sanctions, of pressure, defining principles of negotiations. Once we dismantle this, it won’t come back up. So we better get the best possible deal.”
French diplomats insist a political agreement, if reached by March 31, will only be a first step. Tough negotiations will continue. Bruno Tertrais, an expert in nuclear issues who is influential in the French diplomatic community, even suggested recently that a series of temporary deals could be a better alternative to a bad definitive deal.
None of this goes against long-standing French policy, though. France has consistently been the toughest member of the European Union when it comes to Iran, going back to the administration of President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. Paris has consistently advocated for firmer sanctions and EU sanctions, beyond the scope of United Nations resolutions. In 2012, France was notably responsible for convincing Europeans to ban the import on oil products, despite the objections of many countries.
Nuclear deterrence has been central to France’s foreign policy ever since Charles de Gaulle’s presidency, a pillar that has been largely bipartisan. And just as nuclear doctrine has stayed remarkably stable through the years, so have the officials in charge of conducting French nuclear strategy and proliferation policy, regardless of who is in the Élysée.
In fact, some of the most preeminent positions in the French diplomatic and defense establishments are occupied by career civil servants trained as nuclear strategists who have worked on Iran for over a decade. This close-knit group of diplomats includes, among others, Araud, as well as Jacques Audibert, Hollande’s diplomatic advisor, both of whom previously served as France’s chief nuclear negotiator with Iran.
These diplomats generally share the conviction that Tehran’s enrichment program is aimed at obtaining a nuclear weapon and that a bad deal that allows the Iranians to keep enriching uranium at dangerous levels will lead to a disastrous game of regional proliferation. Araud, Audibert, and their colleagues know the situation well: They have been engaged in 12 years of talks on these issues and at this point they feel they have little reason to trust the Iranians, or to believe that regional arrangements with Iran would decrease Tehran’s desire to acquire nuclear capabilities.
But policymakers in Paris might not trust the Americans much, either — and not just when it comes to the nuclear negotiations. French officials no longer hide their dismay at many of Washington’s policies in the Middle East.
Numerous French diplomats suspect that the United States, now that it is less dependent on Gulf oil, “pivoting” to Asia, and focused on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is on the verge of profoundly reshaping its traditional alliance system in the Middle East, moving from a system where Iran replaces Saudi Arabia as the central pillar of regional stability. This especially concerns the French because they have built strong political and defense relationships with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates in recent years.
The nuclear talks, French diplomats suspect, are just one part of a strategic rapprochement with Iran. Washington has practically subcontracted the war against the Islamic State’s forces in Iraq to Iranian special forces and Tehran’s Iraqi militia proxies. The French view this as a potentially counterproductive move, one more part of Washington’s turn away from its Sunni allies and toward Tehran.
French officials are also critical of the American strategy of fighting the Islamic State first in Iraq, then in Syria, disregarding the fact that both theaters are interlinked. Paris would rather see more and better inclusion of Sunnis in both countries, including more concrete support for the moderate Syrian rebel factions.
Meanwhile, the U.S. approach to Syria’s civil war is seen in Paris as hesitant and ambiguous, lacking means and resolve, and indirectly leaving aside the core question of the Assad regime’s fate — thus comforting the dictator in Damascus. This issue has come up publicly recently, such as after Secretary of State John Kerry said on March 15 that negotiating with Assad would be necessary to end the war in Syria. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said a day later that “There will not be a political solution, there will not be a solution for Syria as long as Bashar al-Assad stays, and John Kerry knows it.” Among the concerns for French policymakers is that the temporary survival of Assad endangers Lebanon, a country that remains dear to France.
Relations between Paris and Washington have been tainted with suspicion ever since Syria used chemical weapons in August 2013 and Obama failed to enforce his “red line.” The sudden American about-face was perceived by Hollande as a sign that Obama was dumping his allies. European countries, and France in particular, were ready to attack Syria in September 2013, after two weeks of stepping up pressure and building up their military presence in the Mediterranean.
Paris is in good company, alongside many of Washington’s traditional allies in the region, including the Gulf states, Israel, and Turkey, which have all felt shunted aside in the interest of reconciliation with Iran. Within the nuclear talks, France, which has strong ties with Gulf countries, has voiced these concerns.
Behind the Iran nuclear talks hovers the question of the future and shape of American power and leadership. For a decade, European countries have worked on trying to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. France, like the other countries, has taken an economic hit in this effort, thanks to the sanctions regime. Now the view from Paris is of a Washington that seems to lack empathy and trust for its longtime friends and partners — more interested in making nice with Iran than looking out for its old allies.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
Joseph Bahout is a visiting scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.