After a couple of days of intensive discussions at the foreign minister level this past weekend, negotiations between Iran and the group known as the P-5 +1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China – plus Germany) hit a snag. Even the interim agreement Secretary of State John Kerry had been pushing for as a first good faith, confidence-building step – an exchange of some limited sanctions relief, such as unfreezing certain Iranian assets held in U.S. banks and some easing of trading restrictions, for a partial enrichment freeze – was beyond the negotiators’ reach. Talks are set to resume, albeit at a lower level, in about ten days.
Kerry is now pointing to Iran as the reason for the impasse because the text of the interim arrangement offered to Iran failed to formally recognize Iran’s claim to an inherent right to enrich uranium on its own soil. Nevertheless, Kerry tried to put a happy face on the fact that the parties were at least talking substance rather than posturing. “There’s no question in my mind that we are closer now, as we leave Geneva, than we were when we came, and that with good work and good faith over the course of the next weeks, we can in fact secure our goal,” Kerry said following the resultless talks.
Kerry’s Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, also sounded an optimistic note. “We are all on the same wavelength, and that gives us the impetus to go forward when we meet again,” Zarif said. And perhaps to demonstrate its desire to allay concerns over its nuclear program, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization reached an agreement in Tehran on Monday with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to permit expanded inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites.
Rather than be a cause for celebration, however, this IAEA inspection deal itself should raise concerns. It notably fails to include within the scope of the expanded inspections Iran’s Parchin military facility where explosive tests are suspected to have been carried out related to possible nuclear triggers. What is Iran hiding? Its nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the pact with IAEA is intended as “a roadmap that clarifies the mutual steps required for resolving the outstanding issues.” At this point, we don’t need doubletalk about drawing up a roadmap. The destination for the IAEA should be clear enough – unfettered international inspection of all Iranian nuclear related facilities.
Israel’s skepticism over Iran’s intentions is well known. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned against any interim or partial deal. “Distrust, dismantle and verify,” he said in his address to the UN General Assembly last September in describing what must be done with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. In more succinct terms, he said on Monday that if there is a final agreement, it must “deny Iran a military nuclear capability.”
The French too have their doubts about Iran’s intentions, based on Iran’s past record of using deception and delay as negotiating tactics. The French are skeptical of the kind of symbolic gestures that Iran has dangled in front of the Europeans in the past, while buying precious time to ramp up its uranium enrichment program. Evidently, the French remember being burned a decade ago by nice-sounding but meaningless promises coming from Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator at the time who just happens to be Iran’s president today – Hassan Rouhani. This time France wants a verifiable commitment from Iran to reduce the purity of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium before France would be comfortable agreeing to any softening of the sanctions. France has also been the most insistent on demanding a complete halt immediately of operations at Iran’s Arak research reactor facility, which could be used to produce bomb-grade plutonium.
Although the French are participating in the current negotiations, they reportedly balked at the prospect of any deal they thought would give Iran too much room to cheat. Talking tough over the weekend while talks with Iran were still underway, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on France Inter radio that France could not accept a “sucker’s deal.” He added that “The security concerns of Israel and all the countries of the region have to be taken into account.”
The French appear to be the only adults in the negotiating room. The Obama administration in particular is so anxious to begin dismantling all of the painful work of implementing the sanctions regime in return for the appearance of bringing Iran around on a diplomatic resolution of its nuclear program that President Obama has already been negotiating with himself and making unilateral concessions to Iran. Going back as far as last summer, he reportedly froze Treasury Department blacklisting of some Iranian individuals and entities associated with Iran’s nuclear program, according to a report last Friday in the Daily Beast. Such unilateral easing of the kind of restrictions that Obama was pressured by Congress to impose in the first place belies John Kerry’s blather on Meet The Press last Sunday that “We are not blind and I don’t think we are stupid.”
Why do the French enter the negotiations with Iran with their eyes wide open? As mentioned above, they have already been burned at least once in past negotiations.
Moreover, a Commentary Magazine article theorizes that French leaders may recall when France had warned Israel back in 1967 not to launch a preemptive attack or face a cut-off of military aid, a warning which Israel disregarded despite the fact that France was then Israel’s single major supplier of advanced fighter jets. “Facing what it deemed an existential threat, it decided that even the loss of its sole military supplier was the lesser evil,” the author of the Commentary Magazine article, Evelyn Gordon, wrote. “France knows that today, Israel deems Iran’s nuclear program an existential threat. France also knows that Israel would probably risk less by defying the Obama administration than it did by defying France in 1967.” This could trigger a chain reaction leading to a full scale war. Taking Israel’s concerns more seriously this time might forestall such an outcome.
Finally, France’s stance on Iran is part of its larger foreign policy of muscular diplomacy. The French intervened unilaterally in Mali, for example, to repel the jihadist advance that threatened to engulf that entire African country. It also has been the leading advocate among the Western allies for collective military action to protect civilians against gross human rights violations. It led from the front in Libya, for example. It tried unsuccessfully to galvanize more concerted action against the Assad regime in Syria.
France was not about to let itself be rolled over by the Iranian experts of deceit once again, given the fact that the theocrat Ayatollah Khamenei remains in charge.
Whatever France’s motive may have been for insisting on tougher conditions for any softening of the sanctions, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) got it right when he said “Thank God for France!”
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