Iran Talks Showed New French Assertiveness In Mideast

 Influence Is Increasing at a Time When Washington Is Treading Softly

NOVEMBER 12, 2013 

French troops operate in Mali as the country increasingly intervenes in the Middle-east and other regions. Image: ECPAD/Zuma Press.

PARIS—At the nuclear talks last weekend in Geneva, France's foreign minister warned publicly that world powers risked being sucked into a "fool's game" by Iran. That resistance helped upend a landmark deal that would have offered Iran some relief from punishing international sanctions in return for suspending elements of its nuclear program. 

France's hard line in the talks showcased the country's growing influence and assertiveness in Middle East affairs. Its increasingly interventionist stance on the world stage—and in the Middle East in particular—is a stark departure from the country's stalwart opposition to the Iraq war a decade ago. 

With Washington playing the role of peace broker in the closely held nuclear discussions, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius's warning positioned France as a pivotal arbiter on whether the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany grant Iran sanctions relief.

"The role of France is to be the bad cop," said Alexandre Vautravers, a military analyst at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

France wanted Iran to hand over its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, approaching the level where it could be used to fuel a nuclear bomb. 

Paris also sought to stop Iranian plans to build a heavy-water reactor near the city of Arak. 

Iran insists the reactor, and its entire nuclear program, is for peaceful purposes, though the West suspects the program is geared toward building a bomb.

Mr. Fabius warned Monday that the Arak reactor, if completed, could generate greater amounts of fuel necessary for producing a bomb than conventional reactors.

France's stance won kudos from some of the more hawkish members of Congress, who are pushing to toughen sanctions against Iran further.

"Vive la France!" Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) tweeted after Mr. Fabius raised the alarm on the agreement with Iran.

France's burgeoning role has positioned it to act as a diplomatic megaphone for traditional U.S. allies—such as Israel and Saudi Arabia—who have grown frustrated with Washington's overtures to Iran and reversal on plans to strike Syria.

France is "trying to get close to other Gulf nations after the Americans made it clear they're not as interested in the Mideast as before," said Sara Bazzobandi, a Middle East analyst with London-based Chatham House.

French diplomats have brushed aside Iranian accusations that Paris scuttled a potential deal. "The whole world wants a deal, including us," a senior French diplomat said on Tuesday. 

France has backed up its assertive diplomacy with a stronger war footing. The country has intervened in former African colonies such as Mali and the Ivory Coast in the past four years.

But France has also showed a willingness to tread outside its traditional sphere of influence. With the U.K., it led an air campaign to oust Libya's Moammar Gadhafi while the U.S. opted to play a supporting role.
Such meddling seemed unthinkable in 2003 when France led international efforts to dissuade the U.S. from invading Iraq, arguing that there was no justification for launching a war against Saddam Hussein's regime.
In the years that followed, France found common cause with the U.S. in efforts to get Iran to suspend its nuclear activities. 

Between 2003 and 2005, Iran negotiated a deal to suspend its nuclear program and allow U.N. inspectors to closely monitor its facilities. The agreement was brokered by Tehran's lead negotiator at the time and future president, Hasan Rouhani.

The election of then-President Mahmoud Ahamedinejad in 2005, however, foiled the arrangement and left Western diplomats feeling whiplashed as successive talks took a radically different tone.

Jacques Chirac, who was French president at the time, pushed a successful international campaign to adopt economic sanctions against Iran. When a set of U.N. sanctions were adopted in December 2006, Iran made no secret of its enmity for France.

"France deserves better leaders than its current ones," Mr. Ahmadinejad said on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

President Barack Obama's election in 2008, however, changed the diplomatic chessboard. 

In Mr. Obama, Paris was suddenly confronted with a war-wary American leader who shared its criticisms of the Iraq intervention. And Mr. Obama showed a willingness to make overtures to Iran.

That left France and its then-president Nicolas Sarkozy defending a tougher line.

"We were caught wrong-footed because Paris sounded menacing when Washington appeared ready to compromise" said a French diplomat, who advised Mr. Sarkozy at the time.