PARIS – When Iran appeared close to a preliminary deal with world powers over its nuclear program, France stepped up to say: Not so fast – a surprise move that exposed divisions among the United States and other Western negotiators who had long been in lockstep on the issue.
France, analysts say, was motivated by factors including its tough stand against the spread of nuclear weapons, skepticism about Tehran’s trustworthiness, and the longstanding French tradition of speaking out on the world stage. Critics faulted France for alleged grandstanding and seeking closer ties with Iran’s foes.
After the Geneva talks ended Sunday with no deal, diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said progress was still made and negotiations will continue Nov. 20. He said the U.S. was “grateful” to the French and shared some of their concerns.
After the failure of European-led talks with Iran over the nuclear program in the mid-2000s – when America gave Iran the silent treatment – Paris has staked out a hard-line stance. While President Barack Obama has recently sought a breakthrough, France has little to gain politically from an accord, and that gives Paris a freer hand to stick to strategic and security concerns.
In Geneva, the U.S., Britain, Germany, Russia, China and top EU diplomat Catherine Ashton were looking for initial caps on Iran’s ability to make an atomic bomb, while Tehran sought some easing of sanctions stifling its economy. But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius broke the near-uniform silence of the diplomats during the talks by using French radio to express reservations about Iran’s enrichment of uranium and prospects of producing plutonium.
“You know, the French are very irritating. When the Americans absolutely want to do something, the French have this terrible habit of somewhat disagreeing,” said analyst Francois Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research think tank in Paris. “We actually have experience in dealing with the Iranians directly. There used to be negotiations between the Europeans [and the Iranians] between 2003 and 2005.”
“The Americans haven’t spoken to the Iranians since 1979. And the Americans are telling us how it should be done,” Heisbourg said. As for the Americans, “maybe they just want a deal – it happens all the time in history: People badly want a deal and end up by negotiating against themselves.”
Kerry said the United States has “serious and capable” experts who have dealt with Iran for years.
“We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid,” he told NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday. “I think we have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests in our country, and of the globe, and particularly of our allies, like Israel, and Gulf states, and others in the region.”
France has had deep ties to Iran over the years, notably striking business deals and hosting reformist former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in the late 1990s – when the biggest sticking point was whether to serve wine at dinner. (It was not.)
France was a major partner of the shah, and also harbored Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei in exile before he returned home to lead the Islamic Revolution. Today, the outspoken opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has its base in the Paris suburbs.
The bite of sanctions against Iran in recent years has left dangling billions of dollars worth of French investment there, including from companies like oil giant Total and car maker PSA Peugeot Citroen. Meanwhile, France has been cozying up to rich Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional archrival.
This month, French President Francois Hollande travels to Israel. In his radio appearance, Fabius said that French officials have been in contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the Geneva talks.
Criticism of France emerged on a Twitter account widely believed to have the approval of the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “#French officials have been openly hostile towards the #Iranian nation over the past few years; this is an imprudent and inept move,” wrote @khamenei_ir.
Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, pointed to a French role reversal from a decade ago when Hassan Rouhani – now Iran’s president – was its nuclear negotiator. France led a drive for a deal to sharply limit Iran’s nuclear program, but it was scuttled by allies who felt it did not go far enough.
“For France to have the contrary view now, it shows just how far Iran’s nuclear program has advanced,” he said.
U.S. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, who has taken a tough stand against Iran’s nuclear program, applauded France’s position, telling CNN: “Thank God for France and thank God for pushback. ... The French are becoming very good leaders in the Mideast.”
Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.