French Role in Iran Nuclear Talks
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
Coinciding with the two-day bilateral nuclear talks between Iran and US in Geneva, the French authorities have shown their feather by publicly voicing skepticism about a final nuclear agreement, perhaps as their way of infusing themselves more organically in the on-going talks and to continue with their familiar pattern of playing borderline spoiler role, just as they did prior to the signing of the interim agreement last November.
Thus, according to the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, the talks, which are scheduled to resume in mid-June, have "hit a wall" and, obviously, the question is this is an insurmountable and unmovable wall or, instead, one that can be tackled brick by brick?
Another question is, of course, if France, which has stood up to US over the severe punishment of one its leading banks (BNP Paribas) by the US authorities accusing it of violating the Iran sanctions, can wield any significant influence on the outcome of the multilateral talks or is it destined to a marginal role compared to the "big players," that is, US, Russia and China?
Clearly, Paris has its own vested interests in mind, given the ferocity of President Hollande's reaction to the US penalty mentioned above, threatening to link it to the US-France free trade talks on the eve of President Barack Obama's Paris visit last week. Although the details of the two presidents' conversation on this particular topic remains confidential and according to the US media Obama simply "deflected" the French criticisms, nonetheless one cannot rule out the possibility of a quid pro quo, whereby France's support for US's negotiation stance toward Iran would be mortgaged to a less punishing Washington response to news of French violations of the sanctions regime.
Regarding the latter, the momentum against the sanctions is building up rapidly and the gaps between the commercial and nuclear Western approaches toward Iran are widening by the hour. In turn, this operates as a strong motivating factor to close the other "significant gaps" in the nuclear talks, which hampered the drafting of a final agreement at the mid-May round in Geneva. With or without a nuclear agreement, the troubles with the Iran sanctions regime are and will continue to multiply, threatening US's own trade relations with other nations, including France.
The problem with the French role in the Iran nuclear talks consists of a profound paradox of preferences, due to the multiplicity of French concerns and interests, economic, geopolitical, that reflect clashing or even incompatible priorities. Thus, the French desire to appease Israel by playing a spoiler role has met as its counterpart the growing French corporate demand to open up to Iran and allow the re-commencement of profitable business presently clogged up due to the sanctions. Balancing these diverse interests is not easy and has implicated the French policy-makers in a perpetual game of half-steps, as a result of which the whole edifice of French foreign policy regarding Iran reeks of incoherence.
Needless to say, this is not a healthy situation and France needs to 'let the chips' drop one way or another, focusing on the main nuclear issue as the central axis of its policy instead of subordinating it to a variety of extraneous considerations, otherwise the criticisms of French 'malfeasance' sting.
It is of course not a secret that the French approach toward Iran has come under new scrutiny as a result of the recent French right's success in the European Parliamentary elections and the National Front's condemnation of US penalties on the French banks. There is not even a pretense of political consensus in France over Iran and the fragmented French politics has been gripped with a lively debate on this subject, which in turn raises the subsidiary issues of France's independence, international prestige, and the welter of its interests and connections with the various governments in the 'broader Middle East'.
Nor is it a secret that since Hollande's meeting with President Rouhani on the sideline of UN summit last September, there are visible signs of a thaw in France-Iran relations that, among other things, has resulted in a better understanding between the two countries with respect to the regional crises such as Syria. With the Iranian strategy of steadfast support for the embattled government in Damascus harvesting net results, the French 'realpolitik' has tilted it toward a more coherent rapport with Tehran that will hopefully continue in the future. The big unknown, however, is whether or not Paris is fully capable of successful resolution of the other incoherence in its Iran policy mentioned above? How France will conduct itself in the next rounds of multilateral talks with Iran will shed much light on this important question.
*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.
Key Words: French Role, Iran Nuclear Talks, Bilateral Nuclear Talks, US, Sanctions, BNP, Laurent Fabius, Paradox of Preferences, Afrasiabi