Why France Is to Blame for Blocking the Iran Nuclear Agreement

After years of discussions, the world’s major powers had finally devised a promising deal to stop Iran’s worrisome nuclear program—until France’s petty bureaucrats thwarted the plan.

11.10.13 4:54 PM ET

France blocked the first stage of a nuclear deal with Iran that had support from the United States, Britain, Germany, most of the rest of Europe, Russia, and China. The simple—too simple—explanation for the French obstruction? They just want to call attention to themselves. They are contrary. They are perverse. They want to reestablish their weight in international affairs—their grandeur, if you will—precisely because there’s not much of it left.

More than a decade ago, that’s what American pundits said when the government of French President Jacques Chirac tried to thwart the Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq. Now the government of President François Hollande is throwing a wrench into the American rush toward peace with Iran.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he was preventing his allies from falling for an Iranian “con game.” And now, as in 2003, there may be good reasons for the French to sound a note of caution, but there are also some petty and pretty ugly ones.

Diplomats in Geneva criticized the French privately not only for objecting to some aspects of the interim deal with Iran, but also for leaking the substance of some of the discussions. One of the hallmarks of the diplomacy that led to the near-breakthrough had been the extent to which its details were kept under wraps, even as the atmospherics raised great expectations.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s high-profile visit to New York during the United Nations General Assembly, a phone call between him and President Barack Obama, and repeated positive signals from Tehran—even from the supposedly hard-line Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—had raised expectations had raised hopes of a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations after more than three decades of hostility. And when foreign ministers convened suddenly at the end of the week in Geneva, anticipating a major breakthrough, many thought the first phase of a deal was done.

Its basic outlines would have given some token relief to Iran from crippling sanctions in exchange for a freeze of its nuclear enrichment operations. In fact the framework for the sanctions, which have made it hard for Iran to sell the oil it depends on for income, forced a massive devaluation of the currency, and exacerbated rampant unemployment, would remain in place. Such details as have leaked suggested the initial relaxation of sanctions would mainly be concerned with some foreign banking transaction. Meanwhile, a pervasive inspection process would assure that Iran could not weaponize the enriched uranium it has on hand without detection. But France insisted that operations of a nuclear reactor at Arak—which is not online yet—be halted, and that current stockpiles of enriched uranium be reduced.

These were the sorts of measures that the other negotiators expected to ensue at future stages of the normalization process. The urgent need right now is to stop the enrichment program that exists—freeze it and inspect it—since if it continues Iran soon will be only months, if not weeks, from procuring sufficient material for a bomb.

As a result of the French posturing, that enrichment probably will continue, at least for the moment. And it’s unlikely the next round of talks later this month, at a technical level, will have the momentum or the authority to stop it. The American Congress is expected to undermine Obama’s ability to cut a deal; while hardliners in Iran are looking for any excuse to quit the negotiations and blame others.

Those who follow closely the machinations of the Quai d’Orsay (as the French foreign ministry is called) see French perversity as just one part of the picture, along with some fundamental shifts in the government’s attitudes toward the Middle East.

“Of course if you are a French politician, there is always some benefit when you pee on the shoes of the Americans,” says journalist Gilles Delafon, author of Reign of Contempt, an up-close look at French diplomacy under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007-2012. “There is also the fact that President Hollande is going to visit Israel this month.”

Indeed. The reasons French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius gave for dashing the high hopes for a deal with Iran in Geneva echoed in substance the bitter attacks on the negotiating process leveled earlier in the week by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Hollande certainly will get a warmer reception by the Likud and its allies as a result.

Syria has been a complicating factor. It’s now well known that the Israelis and Saudis were appalled when President Obama first threatened to bomb the military installations of the Assad regime to punish it for using chemical weapons, then reversed course, pleaded for the approval of Congress and accepted a Russian-brokered diplomatic deal to eliminate Assad’s poison-gas arsenal.

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But it was French President Hollande who really got left out on a limb. When no other country agreed to back Obama’s attack plan, Hollande committed himself not only to give political support, but also to participate in the operation. According to the French press, some French warplanes were already on their way to the skies over Syria when Hollande got word the attack had been called off.

Hollande has the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern French history, and that little humiliation at Obama’s hands did him no good at all.

But there is also a deeper current of hostility to Obama’s penchant for peacemaking.

According to Delafon the hawkish French policy toward Iran is essentially a reflection of developments in the core bureaucracy at the foreign ministry over the last six years. Under Sarkozy and his longtime Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the Quai’s policies came to be increasingly dominated by the French version of American neo-cons, many of them former leftists who preached the spread of democracy and dreamed of remaking the Middle East, if necessary, through war.

Sarkozy liked to say if he’d been president in 2003 he’d have backed the American-led invasion of Iraq; Kouchner let it be known he thought an armed confrontation with Iran was more or less inevitable.

The key player at the Quai is Jacques Audibert, the director general of political and security affairs, who has pushed a very hard line, insisting that the ideal goal of sanctions and the pressure on Tehran must be the de facto elimination of its nuclear program.

Laura Rozen cites a former Western diplomat on Al-Monitor’s blog The Back Channel, saying that Audibert repeatedly assured the United States in recent months “if there is a deal in the offing, the French will not stand in the way, their hard-line posturing in past months notwithstanding."

But, then, the French did.