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Cole writes: "French foreign minister Laurent Fabius showed up and threw cold water on the whole process."

Juan Cole. (photo: Informed Comment)
Juan Cole. (photo: Informed Comment)

France Crashes the Geneva Party, Scuttles Iran Deal

By Juan Cole, Informed Comment

11 November 13


he Iranian newspaper Tabnak printed a minute-by-minute account of Saturday's dramatic on-again off-again push toward a diplomatic agreement on Iran's nuclear enrichment program. It contains little editorializing but by the key placement of news items, it tells a story about French and Israeli bad faith.

Catherine Ashton of the European Union and Secretary of State John Kerry had worked for months with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on a text, which put forward a set confidence-building steps. They were careful to have no details leak, but apparently Iran would freeze its nuclear enrichment program for six months in return for very slight, and "reversible" reductions of international sanctions. Further steps would then be pursued.

Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu denounced this step as a fool's bargain, maintaining that Iran was getting something for nothing. Tabnak says that the Israeli Finance Minister warned that even a slight reduction in Iran sanctions would lead to a gold rush on the part of Western corporations seeking business in Tehran (Iran is an oil and gas state with a population of 77 million, so there are trillions to be made there if it is opened up). Apparently the Israelis feel that any chink in the sanctions armor would lead inexorably to their collapse, impelled in part by world capitalism hungry for a major new market and for Iran's enormous resources. They fear that once the international momentum moves in that direction, Iran would dig in its heels and keep its most significant enrichment capabilities and its breakout capacity whereby it could construct a bomb at will if it wanted to.

There was no sign that any of the diplomats in Geneva were willing to pay the slightest attention to the squawking from Tel Aviv. Indeed, the momentum was toward an inking of the confidence-building measure on Saturday itself. Russian and Chinese representatives were abruptly summoned to Geneva.

Tabnak doesn't instance the Saudis, but their refusal to take up their seat on the UN Security Council is in part a protest against American diplomacy with Iran, which they fear will leave the kingdom in a weak position vis-a-vis their Persian Shiite rival for power in the Gulf (which they call the Arabian Gulf and Iran calls the Persian Gulf). Some 22% of proven world oil reserves are in that region.

Then French foreign minister Laurent Fabius showed up and threw cold water on the whole process. He clearly was attempting to torpedo the agreement, rejecting the whole notion of a six-month confidence-building period without substantial Iranian concessions. In the French system, the foreign minister doesn't typically have a lot of autonomy, so Fabius was almost certainly acting at the orders of Socialist President Francois Hollande, who is way down in the polls and may feel the need to seem strong internationally, asserting himself against the US and Iran. The arrogance of the US and the perfidy of the far right religious government in Tehran are two things that both center-right and center-left French can agree upon. Hollande, having intervened in Mali, seems to want to throw his weight around in the Middle East. He may see an opportunity for France to come up in the world now that much of the Arab world and Israel is angry at Washington for its opening toward Iran. The US for decades has pulled off a balancing act of allying both with Israel and Saudi Arabia, in part by pointing to the danger of Iran to both. Since Obama seems to be abandoning that ploy, Paris may think there is a vacuum that it can fill.

Because Iranian president Hasan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif were deeply concerned that their opening toward negotiations with the West would be sabotaged by hard liners in the Revolutionary Guards and around theocrat-in-chief Ali Khamenei, they had stipulated that no details of any agreement be leaked during the negotiations.

Fabius blatantly disregarded this rule. Le Monde reports that he said openly that he had three concerns: Iran would have to mothball its heavy-water, plutonium-producing reactor at Arak, due to go hot in summer 2014 (with a reprocessing plant, which Iran does not have, it would be fairly easy to construct a nuclear weapon from the plutonium). Then, Iran would have to export from the country its stock of uranium enriched to 19.75%, which, Fabius maintained, could much more easily be made into a bomb than the uranium enriched to 3.5% for reactor fuel. A third concern was that Iran is bringing on line a new generation of gas centrifuges, which can enrich five times as fast.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) greeted Fabius's stunt with "Thank God for France!" on CNN. Unlike Israel and South Carolina, however, Fabius doesn't seem to have been demanding an end to enrichment altogether, which in the aftermath President Rouhani underlined was a red line for Tehran.

By revealing what was not in the initial confidence-building agreement and by making clear the minimum France would accept, Fabius completely threw away the whole negotiating strategy crafted by Zarif, Kerry and Ashton. The other diplomatic delegations were furious.

Agence France Presse reported the reaction to Fabius's turn as the bull in the China shop:

One anonymous diplomat told journalists, "The Americans, the European Union and the Iranians have worked intensively for months on this proposal, and this is nothing more than an attempt by Fabius to give himself belated importance."

Someone in the French delegation retorted, "We want to avoid the euphoria of the glass half full." He recalled that in 2003-2004 Rouhani had engineered a similar suspension of uranium enrichment, which had led to nothing.

Another anonymous diplomat told AFP, "Different points posed a problem for different countries, not just France."

It is possible that Fabius actually did the negotiations a favor in insisting that they be more serious. An enrichment freeze doesn't amount to much, and slightly reduced sanctions don't, either. Maybe that deal would have just given hard liners on both sides time to undermine further progress.

The Arak reactor really is the most sinister thing the Iranians are doing. Critics of Fabius are saying that it is an issue that could be dealt with down the road. Perhaps, but by putting it on the table he is signalling that if the Iranians are serious this time, for France it is not negotiable that Iran have a heavy water reactor. If Rouhani and Zarif can't get that objection past the Revolutionary Guards now, maybe they never can.

Back in the 1970s when France built the Osirak reactor for Iraq, they were absolutely insistent that it be a light water reactor. While it isn't absolutely impossible to use a light water reactor to make a bomb, it is very, very difficult, and this form of reactor is the only responsible one with regard to proliferation concerns. (That is why Israel's bombing of Osirak in 1981 was so outrageous and unwise- it wasn't a proliferation threat. Bombing it pushed the Baath regime in Iraq to ramp up a nuclear weapons program and in some indirect ways led to the Iraq War).

Anyway, diplomacy doesn't have to have a tight window. If there was no breakthrough this weekend, there could be one when the diplomats reassemble in a couple of weeks. France can't possibly want no agreement (unlike Israel), and presumably there must be a way to satisfy Hollande in a confidence-building initial proposal. It may also be that Paris will feel so much heat from everyone else in Europe that they will moderate their hard line.

One thing France must keep in mind is that hawks in Washington actively want a war with Iran, and that if there is no agreement now, that war will be on the front burner if a Republican comes to power in 2017. Since the French opposed the Iraq War and have been traumatized by their participation in Afghanistan, presumably they don't want to give the American Right such a luscious opportunity, which won't in the end benefit French interests in the Middle East. Hollande may think he is standing up for France, but he might actually just be making himself subordinate to South Carolina and American arms dealers. your social media marketing partner
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