Analysis: The ball is now in the Iranian court

France has led a hard line on the negotiations for a while. Lately, it seems that Paris has succeeded in aligning the other two European partners to its position.

March 23, 2015 07:31
3 minute read.

British Foreign Secretary Hammond makes a statement about a meeting regarding recent negotiations with Iran over Iran's nuclear program in London. (photo credit: REUTERS)

PARIS – French diplomacy refuses for the moment to back down from objections to a rushed agreement with Iran. Over the past few weeks, Paris has been leading a tougher stance on negotiations with Iran, compared with the official US positions.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius even called back his negotiating team this Thursday from Lausanne in Switzerland, to review the European positions.

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Secretary of State John Kerry affirmed Saturday in a meeting at London’s Heathrow Airport with his European peers that the world powers are “united” in their negotiating positions. The foreign ministers issued a joint statement, declaring that “substantial progress has been made in key areas although there are still important issues on which no agreement has yet been possible.”

But the statement makes no explicit reference to sanctions, which apparently constitutes the main point of divergence between the US and Europe. France has been insisting that the situation is much more complex than the Americans are portraying it to be, with fundamental disagreements between Paris and Washington over the guidelines for a political framework agreement due to be signed March 31; especially on lifting the sanctions, but not only.

France has led a hard line on the negotiations for a while. Lately, it seems that Paris has succeeded in aligning the other two European partners to its position. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said after the meeting with Kerry Saturday that the negotiating powers will not accept “a bad deal.” Publicly, the Germans appear more reserved, but have apparently accepted the French lead on the issue.

Paris is concerned that Washington is resolved to signing an agreement with Tehran at all costs, and is ready to lift the major part of sanctions by the end of March. “We have been negotiating with Iran for 12 [years]. We shouldn’t be rushed into an agreement which will have to be comprehensive,’’ Gérard Araud, French ambassador to the US, tweeted on Friday. In another tweet Araud wrote that “Making the end of March an absolute deadline is counterproductive and dangerous.”

Where does the French position stem from? Some analysts claim that France’s strong ties with Gulf countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and to a lesser degree also with Saudi Arabia, encouraged French diplomacy to take up a firm stance when negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, thus expressing concerns by Iran’s neighbors over its nuclear program.

According to these opinions, strong commercial and financial interests in that region are part of the French motivation against a rushed agreement with Iran.

Indeed, in a speech in March 2014 at the Paris’s Arab World Institute, Foreign Minister Fabius outlined the close commercial relations between France, the UAE and Qatar, noting that “over the past 10 years, the extent of commercial exchange between France and the Arab World has increased by 51 percent, particularly with the Gulf states and three Maghreb countries.” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited the UAE in November.

But French officials speaking to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity argued that the French position against a rushed agreement with Iran has been consistent and coherent for several years, reflecting France’s own strong stance on the issue, not at the service of Gulf countries. They claim that the ball is now in the Iranian court, and that it is Tehran that needs to take tough decisions before any sanctions are lifted. They fear that the Obama administration appears too keen to lift those sanctions, thus damaging the negation margin of the powers.

As for accusations of ulterior motives behind this policy, the French point out that their record against terrorism, extreme Islamism and escalation in the Middle East speaks for itself; be it their lead in Libya or Mali, the joint European decision to close embassies in Damascus, their active participation in attacking Islamic State in Iraq and more.

Israeli diplomats refused to comment on the French position, preferring to keep low profile on the issue. With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech on Iran at US congress on March 3, Jerusalem apparently does not wish to appear as if it is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and its European allies on the Iranian issue.

Whether the “good cop, bad cop” approach of the six powers constitutes a negotiating strategy or simply reflects genuine trans-Atlantic divergence, Israel has chosen for the moment to sit and wait.

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