Iran-France relations have been the victim of the situation
Zahra Khodaee: A new round of talks between Iran and the G5+1 is due to be held in the framework of a Joint Action Plan agreement in Vienna today (18 February).
From an interim nuclear deal on November 24, 2013 till now, some agreements have been concluded between the Iranian Atomic Organization and the IAEA in order to facilitate IAEA inspection of key nuclear sites, create confidence and give a realistic and practical function to the Geneva Agreement; the deal that changed the balance of power in the Middle East, considered a news step in Iranian diplomacy with the International community but which also disappointed some Iranian regional neighbours.
Khabaronline press agency has talked to François Nicoullaud, France’s ambassador to Tehran from 2001 to 2005. He was in charge of cultural development as well as non-proliferation issues. He has also served in the Ministry of Interior as a diplomatic advisor and in the Ministry of Defense as First Assistant to the Minister.
I would like to start the interview with a question about your mandate when you were ambassador in Iran. Do have any memorable experiences that would be interesting for our readers?
I remember the arrival together, in October 2003, of the three European Foreign Ministers, Dominique de Villepin, Joshka Fischer and Jack Straw, coming to Tehran to find a solution to the budding nuclear crisis. Such a collective visit had never happened before, it was really a historic event. Unfortunately, no solution was found at the time, but this initiative certainly diverted for a while the risk of a violent showdown. I remember also the impressive reaction of national and international solidarity after the Bam earthquake, and I remember especially the street-sweepers of Tehran who, realizing that they were unable to send much money, decided to send up there an emergency team to help cleaning the city. The French embassy sent also immediately a team to Bam, which was on the spot in due time, ready to support the first rescue teams arriving from France.
For years, France has been in some respects, more suspicious of the Iranians than the Americans have been. This vision has made the Iranian people more pessimist than ever about French politicians. How do you analyze this attitude?
I cannot deny that the French government has been perceived by many as a hardliner in the management of the nuclear file. On the long run, have the French been on a harder line than the Americans or the British? This is something that I leave to your judgment. Anyway, an opportunity to repair all of this is offered by the upcoming negotiation. The November 24 Joint Plan of Action is an excellent agreement. It is a kind of confidence-building machine if properly put to use, that is if each party faithfully complies with its respective commitments during the six months to come. It sets out also the broad lines of the comprehensive agreement to be reached at the end of the transitory period. So the road is already mapped out, if both parties stick carefully to the road-map, the negotiation has a very good chance to end up with a success.
Iran and France had a very frustrating time during last years. However, two weeks ago numerous French businessmen have arrived on a business visit in Iran? What in your opinion would be the future of relations between Iran and France?
It is very true that recent times have been frustrating, mainly because of the lingering nuclear crisis and the proliferation of corresponding sanctions. The very special relationship between the two countries has been one of the victims of the situation. On the other hand, there has been recently this extraordinary visit in Iran of a delegation of the French business community. The sheer number and the quality of the participants sent the very loud signal that the French are not ready to accept the slow dissolution of their strong and enduring ties with the Iranian world. This message went much beyond business interests. It was directed towards Iran, and also towards the French government. I believe the message has been heard on both sides.
With Mr. Francois Hollande's visit to Saudi Arabia amidst Saudi frustration over U.S. policies in the Middle East, some people believe that the French should return to the Middle East and fill the role of the US. What do think about it? And how do you perceive Socialist Middle East policy?
Frankly, France is not in a position to take the place of the Americans in the Middle East. First, because the Americans, in spite of all what is said and written, are still very much present in the region. Look at their military presence in the Persian Gulf, look at the way they are extending their Naval base in Bahrain, look at the efforts they deploy to restore their relationship with Saudi Arabia. And by all means, France does not have such an ambition. France, which is already busy in several places around the world, is certainly willing to help in the region, but only up to the limit of its capacities. As for the characterization of a possible Socialist Middle East policy, I would say that French foreign policy tends to transcend party lines. We have not seen fundamental changes between the Sarkozy and the Hollande presidencies, even if the personality and the style of the two men are deeply different.
During Mr. Sarkozy's mandate, France followed a transatlantic policy of closer ties with the US, but it seems that Mr. Hollande is different. What do you think of Socialist Transatlantic policy?
Again, I do not see any substantial difference between the Sarkozy and the Hollande periods. President Hollande has just completed a very successful State visit to the United States, during which France has been described by Barack Obama as one of its most faithful allies. Of course, François Hollande himself underlined that France could be a difficult friend, and did not always agree with the United States. But basically, the relationship between the two countries is presently as strong as ever.