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France’s agreement to the deal reached between Iran and P5+1 represents a change in position. The endless talks temporarily collapsed, in November 2013, when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius denounced Iran’s position as “a fool’s deal.” They were widely applauded by those opposed to the deal as clear-sighted and brave; they were impugned by those in favor of a deal as short-sighted and corrupt. This was typical of the latter kind of analysis:
… And what happened to some degree over the summer was that Prince Bandar and other Saudi officials began trolling through Europe, trying to figure out if they could pull away some of the countries of Europe in favor of the Saudi position, and essentially the Israeli position, on issues like Syria and Iran. They seem to have had great success with the French, who, of course, have a serious economic problem. They have been struggling trying to get out of this recession. They’ve had a recent credit downgrade. They’ve had high unemployment. And so when the Saudis began to flash some of their petrodollars around, it was certainly something of interest to the French. And the Saudis have recently been signing up contracts with the French for military assistance. There’s a one-and-a-half billion dollar plan for the French to help refurbish some of the Saudi Navy. And you’ve had other Gulf states making other deals with France in terms of buying their equipment, especially their military equipment. So what you’ve got here is the French having a very clear economic incentive to help the Saudis and the Israelis as much as possible.
I expect the commentary will quickly reverse itself: Those who support the deal will now applaud France for taking a brave risk for peace; those against the deal will explain French behavior in terms of the same logic. French firms have been making that kind of analysis easy by openly salivating at the the thought of the business prospects should sanctions be lifted:
If the Vienna negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal are concluded satisfactorily, the ensuing détente will sharpen the appetites of foreign companies anticipating the lifting of sanctions. French firms are in a strong position to benefit, even though they run the risk of being hampered by Paris’ rigid stance towards the negotiations. France is better placed than most to meet Iran’s investment needs. …
French companies have suffered heavily from the sanctions on Iran. Long-standing commercial relationships in the oil and automotive industries were broken in tandem with political and cultural ties when France pre-emptively withdrew from the Iranian market. Until 2011, Peugeot/Citroën and Renault shared 40 percent of Iran’s automobile market; Iran was Peugeot’s second-biggest market. The two companies’ departure is understood to have cost them the sale of some 600,000 vehicles. Renault accrued a loss of €512m. With French manufacturers excluded, Asian companies enhanced their presence. Sales of Chinese vehicles had reportedly almost tripled by the first quarter of 2014, albeit with the overall volume of sales relatively low.
Before I offer my sense of it, this is how Fabius himself explained the shift in sentiment to Le Monde:
LE MONDE: How can you guarantee to Israel and Gulf countries that this agreement is “robust” enough, as you described, to prevent Iran from eventually acquiring nuclear weapon?
LAURENT FABIUS: The Iranian nuclear issue doesn’t just affect Israel and the Gulf countries. Ensuring that Iran cannot acquire the nuclear weapon is a concern for the entire international community. Nuclear proliferation is at stake, so security and peace are too.
To reach this goal — yes to civilian nuclear for Iran, but no to the nuclear weapon — which the President [François Hollande] and I have always said defined France’s position, we have been particularly watchful about three points in these long negotiations: accurately limit Iran’s uranium enrichment capacities and how it could be used in research and development; be able to verify, in concrete terms, the implementation of these commitments; plan an automatic mechanism for the reinstatement of sanctions in case of infringement. This constructive firmness has allowed us to reach a sufficiently robust agreement, for a more than 10-year period at least.
Does this agreement open the way to cooperation with Iran on major regional crises, especially on Syria, Iraq and Yemen?
The agreement aims to put an end to one of the most serious and longest nuclear proliferation crises. It aims for more peace and stability in the Middle East. The region is already unstable enough for nuclear conflicts to be added. Beyond this, if Iran, an important country, a great civilization, a major player in the region, clearly chooses to cooperate, we will clearly hail this evolution, but we will judge on results. Its contribution would be useful to help resolve many crises.
Don’t you fear Iran could use the substantial funds it will obtain with the lifting of the sanctions to reinforce the Shia militias in the Middle East?
It will be one of the tests. And we will be particularly watchful.
Under the terms of this agreement, Iran retains the right to a supervised nuclear program and will be able to keep carrying out research and develop advanced centrifuges. Does this not amount to postponing the same issue 10 years?
Let’s focus on indisputable elements: Before this agreement, the “breakout” period — in other words, the time Iran needs to gather enough enriched uranium to make a bomb — was two months. This period of time is pushed to 12 months after the agreement, and it will be maintained at this level for 10 years. Limitations will remain beyond the 10 years. This strictly civilian nuclear program will additionally be the object of the necessary inspections. It’s already a significant result.
The agreement encourages the lifting of sanctions against Iran. How can you guarantee that they will be reintroduced in the case of a violation from Iran?
It’s what we call the “snap back.” France has worked hard to offer and put through an automatic mechanism for the reinstatement of sanctions in case of infringement of its obligations by Iran. If one of the P5+1 countries (the U.S., Russia, China, France, the UK, Germany) believes Iran isn’t meeting its obligations, and the latter cannot provide any credible explanation, this state will be able to bring about a vote of the Security Council on a draft resolution reaffirming the lifting of the UN sanctions. By opposing its own veto, it will without fail obtain the reinstatement of the sanctions. I admit that it’s subtle, but that’s the price we must pay to make efficient compromises on such complex issues.
In case the agreement is violated, the text makes sure Iran will benefit from a maximum of 65 days before the reintroduction of the sanctions. Does this not give Iran the necessary time to conceal proliferating activities?
If one of the P5+1 states judges Iran is violating its obligations, it can refer to the Joint Committee, which includes the Six as well as the Iranians. A maximum 35-day discussion will then open. If not convinced, any member of the Six can refer to the Security Council with then 30 days maximum to reestablish the sanctions. It’s indeed quite long, but with modern surveillance and verification technologies, you can’t conceal all traces of proliferating activity in a few days.
Does the agreement maintain a total embargo on heavy and ballistic weapons, and for how long?
This was discussed right until the end. France’s stance was clear and firm on this matter, too: It would be contradictory for the immediate consequence of this agreement to be the lifting of the constraints weighing on Iran in the field of weapons and missiles. The embargo on weapons is maintained for five years and transfer prohibitions in the ballistic field for eight years.
Does the agreement allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit all the sites, including military, without restrictions?
An unverifiable agreement is an inapplicable agreement. This is why we made sure Iran applied the IAEA’s highest verification standards. The access to all sites will be possible, including the Parchin site, not to attempt to penetrate military secrets, but to verify if there has been prohibited nuclear activity. I’ve discussed this several times with the director general of the IAEA to be certain that he deemed the plan sufficient and credible.
What are the steps of the implementation of the agreement? And do you fear the U.S. Congress blocking it?
After endorsement by the Security Council, a 90-day period will open, during which Iran must take measures to prepare for the implementation of the agreement. The next phase will last six to nine months, during which it will implement all its commitments in the nuclear field. Each of these steps will go along with progressive reduction of the sanctions. Concerning the U.S. Congress, I don’t have any particular comment except what is common sense: When you assess an agreement, you don’t do it only in absolute terms, but you must compare the situation if the agreement is implemented with what would happen if there is no agreement.
Don’t you fear that the rapprochement observed between France and Saudi Arabia penalizes French companies on the Iranian market?
No, for two reasons. On one hand, when the issue is removing the threat of nuclear military power, you cannot determine the position of your own country according to commercial considerations: It’s about security and peace. On the other hand, the economic competition in Iran will undoubtedly be tough, because everybody is being considered. But don’t forget our companies have long worked with and in this country, that they excel in several fields and that they will have assets to put forward. This is why I’m confident about them. As for our traditional friendships, renouncing them is out of the question.
You can do a lot of reading-between-the-lines with that, but I don’t know that it gets you very far. The key is that he’s basically fallen in line with the US official position, but is trying to stress that owing to France’s role, the deal now has a somewhat better mechanism for reversing course if things deteriorate.
I was asked by Ricochet how the French press and other policy makers view the deal. The most striking thing is that it’s not leading the news. The top headlines today and yesterday have overwhelmingly been about Greece, the attack in Chattanooga, ISIS, Ukraine, the flight MH17 inquest, and Burundi. It’s not surprising that this is where attention is focused, either: Yascha Mounk, author of Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany, wrote this comment on Facebook:
It’s strange to think that, back when I was a teenager, the European project still seemed like the kind of thing to which one might nobly devote one’s life. But the European dream is dead — not just because of Greece, but because of the depth of nationalism the euro crisis has revealed, and the ugly hatred it has incited.
The best we can now hope for is an orderly slimming of the EU to its key achievements: free movement of people, coordination on the most important regulations, etc. (I deliberately exclude political values: as the case of Hungary shows, the EU is incapable of safeguarding those in any case.) But the centrifugal forces, and the strength of the populists, will be such in the next years that we may wind up losing even that.
I’m indebted to Arun Kapil for that link, and his blog will also give you a sense of what’s preoccupying many people in France.
I would be exaggerating beyond all reasonable limits if I claimed to understand precisely why France changed its position on the Iran deal. So would anyone else. No one with full access to the details of the French negotiating position would be sharing them with the media.
My intuition, and it’s no more than this, is that the calculation was probably along the following lines: France is objectively the weakest of the P5+1. France isn’t a superpower and can’t go it alone. The EU has effectively collapsed; the French economy is stalled. Putin’s news organs are openly celebrating the Franco-German divorce. France will soon be entering campaign season (regional polls in December, presidential election in 2017). Both the far-left and far-right are, for their own reasons, in favor of the deal. I assume there may have been domestic political calculation involved along the lines that being seen to reject it would bolster both the National Front and the far-left. Both would be a disaster, not least because their growth makes it near-impossible to implement economic reforms, and when you’re looking at Greece these days, that kind of disaster seems far from an abstract possibility.
The logic, I would guess, was probably that they had held out as long as they could and extracted the maximum concessions of which they were capable, given their power and influence. My instinct would be that in their view, given the US negotiating position and a great many other competing strategic imperatives, this genuinely seemed to them the best deal they could get, for now — and that since it was clearly going to happen whether or not they liked it, they would be better off trying to buy time while remaining on the right side of the United States.
If anyone has any further insight, I’m open to it.
Photo, via RFI and the Department of Pictures that Speak a Thousand Words, shows French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.