France’s Approach to a Nuclear deal with Iran (4/28)     Print

By Laura Kayali, European Affairs Editorial Assistant
In contrast to guardedly optimistic comments of the U.S. president and Secretary of State on the “framework agreement” with Iran, the reaction of French political figures has been decidedly more tentative, insisting on the fact that the agreement is not yet final. “The real deadline is in June. (…) There is still work to do” said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius while President Francois Hollande stated that “France will be watchful (…) to ensure that a credible, verifiable agreement is established.” This tempered enthusiasm echoes Paris’ posture throughout the negotiation process: a posture which has been, surprisingly, tougher than that of the U.S.
France’s role in the negotiations: from leader to self-proclaimed watchdog
All too often cast as one-on-one negotiation between the United States and Iran, the P5 +1 nuclear talks were in fact initiated by France in 2003.  Under the Chirac presidency, in the wake of the Iraq war, then Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin – with his British and German counterparts – went to Tehran in an attempt to avoid further escalation toward war over the Iran nuclear program.  France was then willing to cooperate with Iran on its civilian nuclear power program if Tehran would suspend its uranium enrichment activities. After Nicolas Sarkozy’s election in 2007, France adopted a harsher position. In 2011, the French president advocated for “new sanctions on an unprecedented scale”. Interestingly, while the left and the right do not seem to agree on anything in France, the Socialist Party under Hollande maintained the strict stance of Sarkozy when it came to power in 2012. In the meantime, the United States had taken the lead in the negotiations, and Paris had no choice but to play second fiddle. 
As other negotiating countries seemed eager to reach an agreement, France became increasingly firm, insisting particularly on the maintenance of UN sanctions and limiting the Iranian R&D nuclear program. 
In the November 2013 round of talks in Geneva, Laurent Fabius refused to endorse the roadmap presented by the US and Iran as he deemed it not demanding enough. In Lausanne, in March 2015, the French Foreign Minister stated that France’s mission was to ensure the achievement of a robust deal. Paris’ position caused tensions with Washington and diplomatic sources told the press that discussions in Switzerland were heated between French and American officials. France further distanced itself from its transatlantic ally when the French ambassador to the U.S.,  Gerard Araud, tweeted that “making the end of March an absolute deadline is counterproductive and dangerous,” implying that the Obama administration was in too much of a hurry to close this deal at any cost. Paris’ singularity throughout the negotiations can be seen as a way for the fading French diplomacy to “preserve its rank and independence”. [1] It also might be interpreted as a means to try and impact a process it no longer conducts or controls.  But there is more.
Paris as Sunni Ally
The Iranian-French relations have been sour for the last three decades – with the exception, to a certain point, of the Chirac era – and Tehran’s nuclear program was already a bone of contention between the two countries thirty years ago. Eurodif, Areva’s subsidiary, of which Iran owned 10%, became a major source of disagreement. Under the Shah of Iran, Tehran invested one billion dollars into Eurodif’s uranium enrichment plant. But after the 1979 Islamic revolution, France decided to stop providing Iran with enriched uranium. Paris also refused to reimburse Tehran for its investment, leading to an irrevocable deterioration of their bilateral relations. The regular kidnappings of French citizens in Lebanon and the numerous Paris bombings in the mid-80s, which were widely attributed to the Iranian secret services as an attempt to pressure France to settle the Eurodif dispute, worsened the already fraught relations between the two countries. Adding fuel to the fire, the government of then French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius supported Iraq’s Sunni President Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. “The Iranians left a disastrous impression on Fabius,”[2] confided a diplomatic source to the press last March, “he absolutely does not trust them.”  
Indeed, as the Sunni-Shia rivalry roils the Middle East, Paris has historically been close to the Sunni monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. France’s alliance with Saudi Arabia has been even more important in the last two years since the monarchy has been seen to be drifting away from its traditional ally, the United States. Besides, Saudi Arabia’s regional rivalry with Shiite Iran is intensifying. Beyond the implications of a final agreement in the P5 +1 negotiations, France has a sizeable economic stake in maintaining good relations with the Gulf monarchies. Not only is an existing $3 billion arms deal with Lebanon paid for by Saudi Arabia, but  also France is hoping to sell Dassault Rafales to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in a near future, with negotiations on the latter for the sale of 36 Rafales in their final stages. France recently sold 24 to Egypt for a total of 5.2 billion euros. 
Despite Paris’ tougher stance on the interim agreement with Iran, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius readily concedes that it “includes some incontestably positive developments”. Ultimately, the French understand how beneficial such a deal would be for the international community and for bringing stability to the region. France is willing to compromise with Iran, just not as quickly, perhaps, as the U.S.