Now It’s France’s Turn

France is prepared to start negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program within the International Atomic Energy Agency “without delay,” said President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday while meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev.

A spokesman for Sarkozy’s office said the talks would be held “on the basis of Brazilian and Turkish efforts and the response sent out by Russia, France and the United States,” referring to the nuclear fuel exchange agreement brokered by Brazil and Turkey in May. Iran at the time agreed to deposit 1,200 kilograms of 3.5 percent enriched uranium in Turkey in exchange for 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium to be provided by France, Russia and the United States.

The latter wouldn’t play ball though. A French Foreign Ministry spokesman noted in May that “a solution to the (fuel) question, if it happens, would do nothing to settle the problem posed by the Iranian nuclear program.” President Dmitri Medvedev expressed a similar concern. “One question is: will Iran itself enrich uranium?” he wondered. If so, “those concerns that the international community had before could remain.”

American secretary of state Hillary Clinton was quick to announce tough sanctions for Iran, sharing British concerns that its agreement to the Brazilian-Turkish deal was little more than a delaying tactic. After the United Nations Security Council agreed to impose new sanctions against Iran on June 9, both the European Union and the United States have enacted unilateral embargos that target Iranian shipping, trade, insurance, finance and energy. China and Russia, along with Brazil and Turkey, currently nonpermanent members of the Security Council, have opposed far-reaching punitive measures. President Medvedev openly criticized the additional Western sanctions last Thursday.

In St Petersburg this weekend, President Sarkozy stressed that the sanctions “were not to punish Iran but to convince its leaders to resume the path of negotiations,” reported an official. Washington has similarly noted that sanctions should be targeted against the Revolutionary Guard and the evermore authoritarian regime of the ayatollahs.

France and Iran have a history when it comes to nuclear energy. Under the shah, France provided Iran with enriched uranium to support his nuclear ambitions. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 however, this supply was immediately frozen while France and Iran squabbled for many years over the return of a $1 billion Iranian investment in the construction of a French nuclear power plant. The new regime quickly began to finance the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah which abducted French citizens several times during the 1980s in order to put more pressure on Paris.

In more recent years France has expressed a newfound interest in the Middle East. President Sarkozy almost singlehandedly launched a Mediterranean Union and pushed for a Gaza ceasefire plan in conjunction with his Egyptian colleague Hosni Mubarak in January 2009. What’s more, France has been sharing nuclear technology with several Arab states, including Algeria, Libya, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

At the same time, France staunchly opposes any further spread of nuclear weapons. The reaons here are entirely self serving. As John Vinocur wrote in October of last year, “France’s great levers of international influence — its special status as a nuclear power and as a member of the UN Security Council — are best defended by visibly aggressive adherence to the global nuclear nonproliferation treaties that Iran is violating.” In short, France will welcome the chance to assert itself as a great power once again.