France Takes Hard Line with Iran, Deepens Ties with Arabs

It’s hard not to see a connection between France’s new alliances in the Middle East and its hard line against Iran.

French Mirage fighter aircraft taxi at Al Udeid Air Base near Doha, Qatar during a training mission, March 26, 2013
French Mirage fighter aircraft taxi at Al Udeid Air Base near Doha, Qatar during a training mission, March 26, 2013 (DICoD/J.J. Chatard)

France is taking a hard line in nuclear talks with Iran at the same time that it is deepening ties with Arab states that are apprehensive about a deal, making it hard not to see a connection between the two.

Reuters reports that despite a long history of commercial and political ties with Iran that even saw Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei exiled near Paris in 1979, France has arguably been the most demanding among the six powers negotiating with the country.

The talks the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany are conducting with Iran were extended beyond a self-imposed Tuesday deadline this week in hopes of reaching an accord that could end decades of hostility between the world’s largest Shia state and the West.

The Middle East’s Sunni powers, which align with the European Union and the United States, are anxious that American president Barack Obama is too willing to do a deal.

Like Israel, another fretful American ally in the region, they worry that Obama will lift sanctions that pushed Iran’s oil-based economy into recession and overlook recent Iranian strategic gains in Iraq and Yemen in return for an agreement that contains insufficient safeguards to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons after all.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful. But it has previously hidden sites from the rest of the world and still denies inspectors access to underground atomic facilities.

Throughout the negotiations, France has reportedly demanded that such underground sites be either opened to inspections or shut altogether.

It has also consistency raised doubts about Iran’s sincerity — which may be unsurprising given the country’s history of subterfuge.

In 2013, other diplomats blamed France for torpedoing a deal that would have seen Iran suspend its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. One accused France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, of trying to “insert himself into relevance late in the negotiations.”

Fabius’ American counterpart, John Kerry, had to go on television to deny there was a split in the Western camp.

Beyond sincere reservations about lifting sanctions — which would be difficult to reimpose if Iran was caught cheating; they need not only the support of all 28 countries in the European Union but China and Russia as well — France may be reluctant to upset its newfound alliances in the Middle East.

According to Reuters, a perception of American disengagement has helped France nurture commercial links where once Britain and the United States were dominant.

In the last year, it sold fighter jets, helicopters, satellites and warships to Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates worth $15 billion.

Since being invited by Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, to attend a regional leaders’ summit in May — a rare privilege for a head of state — [French president Fran├žois] Hollande has signed contracts worth $12 billion including the sale of Airbus planes.

French support for a nuclear deal that is seen as weak by Arab states could lead them to reexamine these new military relations that are a boon to the French arms industry.

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