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France's position on the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran

By Freddy Eytan
web posted April 27, 2015

After the Yom Kippur War and the outbreak of the global energy crisis, France signed an initial contract with the Shah of Iran to provide five nuclear reactors for electricity generation and to establish a joint company for uranium enrichment. The contract was canceled in 1979 with the Shah's ouster.

French-Iranian relations went downhill from that point, notwithstanding the fact that the Ayatollah Khomeini had been given political asylum in Paris. The secular Socialist government of President Mitterrand, which was in office for 14 years, abhorred the religious dictatorship of the Shiite clerics and the dark ethos of the Islamic Revolution. Thousands of Iranians, including enlightened Muslims, Mujahedeen, monarchists, and opposition activists, emigrated to France and acted against the ruling faction from afar. Among the Iranians who fled to Paris was Shapour Bakhtiar, a former prime minister, who was murdered by Iranian assassins after France refused to hand him over to Tehran.

After the Israeli Air Force bombed the French-made nuclear reactor in Iraq in June 1981, and in light of the war that had erupted between Iraq and Iran, France decided to back Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and supply him with F-1 Mirage planes and missiles. Iran responded with the kidnapping of Frenchmen in Lebanon and a series of high-profile terrorist attacks in Paris and against a French paratrooper base in Beirut. France then evacuated all of its citizens from Iran and in July 1987 cut off all diplomatic ties. The French culture and language that had flowered in Iran, especially among the Shah's circles and the bourgeoisie, faded from the scene and all the schools and institutes for the study of French language and culture were closed.

Ten years later, in 1997, when Mohammad Khatami became Iran's president, France renewed the diplomatic dialogue with Tehran. In August 1988, Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine visited, and Khatami was invited for an official visit to Paris. France boosted the two countries' trade relations and became Iran's third largest importer in the fields of oil, automobiles, and medicines.

In 2002, Iran's secret nuclear reactor for enriching uranium at Natanz was exposed.  France, which feared that Iran's program was actually military in nature, launched a dialogue with Iran along with Germany and Britain, aimed at halting Iran's production of enriched uranium. The negotiations sparked intense anger in the United States and a first confrontation with President George W. Bush, who favored ramping up the sanctions. It should be noted that French President Jacques Chirac strongly opposed the U.S. conquest of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein. France believed at the time that the nonconventional-weapons threat could be dealt with diplomatically rather than militarily. At that stage, it should be pointed out, Iran had only 160 centrifuges.

In February 2005, Chirac met with Hassan Rouhani, then secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. Chirac tried to reach a settlement with him on mediation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Mohamed ElBaradei, then director of the agency, wrote in his memoirs that "Rouhani was eager to reach a settlement; indeed, Chirac tried earnestly to mediate and establish supervision, but the French experts on atomic energy and senior diplomats refused to cooperate out of fear that the Iranians would continue, despite the agency's supervision, to develop nuclear weapons."

Alarmed by Iran's Duplicity

On February 16, 2006, the French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy declared, "No civilian project matches the Iranian nuclear project. This is without doubt a clandestine project for military purposes."

In September 2007, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned of a possible war against Iran. In response, ElBaradei objected that diplomatic options existed that had not yet been tried. In 2009, Kouchner accused ElBaradei of obscuring an important addendum in the agency's report that said explicitly that Iran was pursuing a military nuclear program. ElBaradei accused secret services of the leak and denied the content. Journalist Catherine Philp of the London Times said the addendum did indeed include such information; the IAEA inspectors, however, did not view it as sufficient to make the case.

When President Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2007, all talks with the Iranian leaders stopped and the French position drew closer to that of the Americans, who favored continuing the sanctions. In 2011, with the revelation of the underground site at Fordow, France initiated stiffer sanctions, including the freezing of Iranian assets in international banks.

In June 2013, after Rouhani's victory in the presidential elections, President Hollande was invited to the official ceremony. Like most Western leaders he turned down the invitation. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also refused to allow two former French prime ministers, Rocard and de Villepin, to go to Tehran.

In September 2013, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Hollande met with Rouhani. They discussed the Iranian program as well as ways to resolve the crisis in Syria and the situation in Lebanon.

But on September 9, 2015 Fabius refused to sign a text formulated by the United States and Iran because, he said, it was "clearly insufficient." Two weeks later, after hasty discussions in light of the French reservations, a first interim agreement was agreed on November 24, 2015. It opened the way to partially removing the international sanctions imposed on Iran since 2006.

On March 18, 2015, France stuck to its tough stance and demanded additional significant concessions from Tehran during the talks in Switzerland. Fabius' uncompromising position again aroused Washington's wrath.

What France Finds Objectionable

The following are the factors behind France's stringent position:

  • On November 6, 2013, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was asked during a lengthy interview with Le Monde whether he really thought the French stance on the nuclear issue was tougher than that of the Americans. Zarif responded with an unequivocal "yes!" He said Iran and France had "seen better days. I call on France to be realistic and more flexible so as to arrive at a settlement." He revealed that he himself had proposed a package to France and the other European states. He had come to Paris for that purpose on March 23, 2005 – when, as noted, Iran still had only 160 centrifuges. "Today we have 19,000," he remarked and added: "Look at what the sanctions do. What a failure! You certainly regret that you did not discuss the agreement with me then…we lost at least 8 years." Zarif claimed throughout the interview that Iran could manage without any Western assistance. "The world is changing and the West is losing its power and its greatness."
  • From a historical perspective, France is indeed concerned about the nuclear threat to Israel and believes the Jewish state's security must be ensured. (It was the Socialists then in office in France who provided Israel its nuclear reactor in Dimona in the late 1950s.)
  • France's current Socialist government, headed by Hollande and Fabius, is continuing the policy of François Mitterrand, who saw Iran's radical Shiite regime as dark, sinister, and a brutal human rights violator. This is an important issue for the French, who, since their revolution, have carried the flag of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." Since the dawn of the republic they have kept religion and state separate, and they oppose theocratic regimes like Iran's.
  • France has suffered numerous Iranian-sponsored terror attacks both on its own soil and in Lebanon, and it does not look lightly upon the aims of Iranian policy in that and other regards. Moreover, when conducting talks with Iran on the freeing of hostages, France often encountered deception and subterfuge. Thus France has learned its lesson and continues to harbor resentment toward Iran.
  • The French diplomats who deal with the Iranian nuclear program have not been replaced, and have kept dealing with it to the present day. France has also invested much in intelligence and advanced technology for staying abreast of this issue. From 1999 to 2005, the deputy director-general and head of the Department of Safeguards at the IAEA was France's Pierre Goldschmidt, who studies the issue today at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In an interview with Le Figaro on April 5, 2015, Goldschmidt said the Lausanne Agreement has "obscure passages" that urgently need to be clarified.
  • France believes unequivocally in the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and views nonconventional and unsupervised weapons as one of the gravest threats to global security and peace. France is active on this issue in every forum and promotes stringent resolutions and conventions on biological and chemical weapons, as well as the nonproliferation of ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. It is convinced that if Iran attains nuclear weapons, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia will try in every way to follow suit. France also fears that the North African countries, with which it has close ties, will request its assistance. France's bitter experience with the nuclear reactor in Iraq destroyed by Israel has also affected its stance on nuclear reactors and uranium enrichment. Indeed, France exerted heavy pressure for the dismantlement of Libya's nuclear weapons during the Gaddafi period, and also for the dismantlement of chemical weapons in Syria.
  • Since the days of President de Gaulle, French Middle East policy has preferred to strengthen ties with the moderate Sunni Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf states, and at one time also with Syria and Iraq. Indeed, on April 11, 2015 Fabius made an official visit to Riyadh with the aim of tightening cooperation with the Saudis. He again promised to work for a "tough settlement," as he put it, with Iran. France signed trade agreements with Riyadh valued at ten billion euros.

When it comes to the emerging agreement with Iran, France demands stronger terms and certain clarifications. In principle it does not oppose Iran having nuclear reactors under strict supervision, provided these are for peaceful purposes like electricity generation. France also does not oppose holding talks with Iran; it sees the understandings reached so far in Lausanne as confidence-building measures. In France's view, however, the path to an agreement is still long, and – in light of its own bitter experience with Iran in the past – numerous and substantial risks remain. Reaching a worthy, irreversible agreement still requires seriously discussing many points.

The final agreement that is supposed to be signed at the end of June must, in France's view, be firm on the following matters:

  • The supervisory and monitoring mechanism for Iran's program must be transparent, effective, and have "sharp teeth."
  • Because, in France's view, Iran remains determined to produce nuclear weapons and this will not change in the near future, the sanctions must be lifted gradually and only after Iran fulfills all the articles of the agreement. Serious measures must be taken in the event of any Iranian breach of the agreement, and this entails creating an alternative mechanism to restore the sanctions.
  • IAEA inspectors must be given powers beyond the existing practices. They must be able to visit sites at any time, without restrictions of time or place and without advance warning. The inspectors must have a free hand to ask anyone involved in the endeavor, including the experts and scientists who work either at a reactor or outside of it, all questions relevant to certifying that the research is not intended for military purposes.
  • France is concerned that at present Iran is capable of producing a nuclear bomb in just two months. The agreement must require a time span of at least a year, with tight and total supervision.
  • Iran's stock of enriched uranium must not be allowed to increase beyond 300 kilograms, and supervision must ensure that foreign countries cannot provide Iran with uranium.
  • Iran must be prevented from building new sites for enrichment or from producing heavy water, and the reactor in Arak must not be allowed to produce military-grade plutonium. Whatever remains of the fissionable material must be removed from the country.
  • All workshops for constructing new centrifuges must be inoperative for more than 20 years.
  • It must be certified in advance that Iran will not be able to build advanced centrifuges, and the Natanz reactor's uranium-enrichment capacity after 10 years must be certified with great precision.
  • It cannot be allowed that, once the agreement has been signed, it can be interpreted at will. The agreement must be formulated in very clear, simple language without ambiguities.
  • The operative premise must be that Iran does not need an atomic bomb to prove that it is a regional power in the Middle East.

France: Tough but Following Obama's Lead

In sum, France favors taking a tough stance toward the Iranians. The stick of sanctions must be waved during the negotiations, while acting from a position of strength and demanding additional concessions on Tehran's part. At the same time, France understands that President Obama has made a strategic decision and is very determined to sign an agreement. Although France is neither interested in confronting the United States nor able to, it will maintain its firm policy while realizing that, in international relations, compromise is necessary. France will wait for a final decision by the U.S. Congress and try to gauge the mood in Tehran, being well aware of Iran's domestic struggles and of the illness of Supreme Leader Khamenei. (According to French intelligence he has terminal prostate cancer and, according to medical assessments, no more than two years to live.) In light of all these considerations, France will toe the line with the United States and sign the agreement along with it, whether at the end of June or later depending on these various factors.

This posture also affords France a certain advantage, especially with regard to the Arab states. If and when new problems should arise in the future over implementing the agreement, France will put the full onus on President Obama. Indeed, regarding the conflict in Syria, France has accused the United States of irresolution, and the relations between Hollande and Obama have been tense ever since.

Even though France's position is closer to Israel's, France does not explicitly demand that all Israeli concerns be reflected in the agreement – whether recognition of Israel's right to exist, the ballistic-missiles issue, or Iran's terror activity. France, like the United States, has been focusing on Iran's nuclear program, not on its overall strategy and hegemonic aspirations in the Middle East.

Taking all this into account, France should be encouraged to continue its struggle against Iran's nuclear program and to cooperate with its efforts to widen the imminent agreement, demanding that it encompass the Jewish state's justified and legitimate concerns. ESR

Ambassador Freddy Eytan, a former Foreign Ministry senior advisor who served in Israel's embassies in Paris and Brussels, was Israel's first Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. He was also the spokesman of the Israeli delegation in the peace process with the Palestinians. Since 2007, he heads the Israel-Europe Project at the Jerusalem Center, which focuses on presenting Israel's case in the countries of Europe and seeks to develop ties and avenues of bilateral cooperation. He is also the director of Le Cape, the Jerusalem Center website in French. Amb. Eytan has written 20 books about the Israeli-Arab conflict and the policy of France in the Middle East, including La Poudriere (The Powder Keg) and Le double jeu (the double game). He has also published biographies of Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and a book about The 18 Who Built Israel.






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