France's position on the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran
By Freddy Eytan
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:
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:
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.
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.