French declarations on Iranian N-issue

September 27, 2007

The international platform has shaken with the latest French declarations on the Iranian nuclear case this month.

The obvious signs of a hardening French attitude toward Iran were seen after the successive statements of the French president and foreign minister. While President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that the Iranian nuclear crisis presented the world with ‘a catastrophic alternative: an Iranian bomb and a bombardment of Iran’, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that the world should prepare for war over Iran’s disputed nuclear program. “We must negotiate right to the end” with Iran, Kouchner added, but underlined that if Tehran possessed an atomic weapon, it would represent “a real danger for the whole world.” But those statements give the impression that as a member of the EU/3 that is a party in the nuclear crisis negotiations, France plans to adopt a hard line in dealing with Iran.
Immediately afterwards, France sent another strong message to Iran, saying that they would work to set up European sanctions modeled on those of the U.S. if the required consensus could not be provided at the UN Security Council for tougher measures against Iran. The toughening of the stance on Iran has widely been interpreted as a closer alignment of the French position with Washington’s.
These statements have increased the tension with Iran and caused reactions in the Western world. As we know, the latest timetable agreement between Iran and the IAEA had softened the tougher sanctions idea in the EU and also for 5+1 group members Russia and China. While the U.S., the UK, and France seek a tougher economic sanctions decision at the UN Security Council, other members of the EU and the 5+1 group, especially Germany, Russia, and China, favor the idea of pursuing the diplomatic process under the current circumstances. In their point of view, the recent initiative taken by Iran to cooperate with the IAEA and to clear up the ambiguous and problematic aspects of its nuclear program for the agency is a major step. Thus, they prefer to apply the wait-and-see rule at this juncture in which there are signs of hope for a diplomatic breakthrough. That’s why most EU countries reacted to Sarkozy and Kouchner’s harsh remarks, which could endanger the current Iran-IAEA cooperation process. Those remarks also highlight the divisions in the West on the Iranian nuclear issue.
The talk of war with Iran and France’s new position met a sharp reaction from IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, who is trying to solve the nuclear dispute. He said, “There are rules on how to use force, and I would hope that everybody would have gotten the lesson after the Iraq situation, where 700,000 innocent civilians have lost their lives on the suspicion that a country has nuclear weapons.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned against the use of force in Iran and against unilateral sanctions to pressure Iran over its peaceful nuclear program. “We are convinced that no modern problem has a military solution, and that applies to the Iranian nuclear program as well,” Lavrov said after talks with Kouchner.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao strongly criticized the anti-Iran statements made by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and he underlined that in international affairs, “We should avoid threatening others with military actions.”
While German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jäger said, “It’s not right to talk of threats of war”, he also added that he did not regard Kouchner’s statements as a “threat of war”. On the other hand, government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said in Berlin that the French government was correct in its assessment that “there are all the elements of a very serious obligation on the international community and that we must do everything possible to ensure that Iran does not become nuclear armed.”
Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said that the Netherlands would support EU sanctions if the UNSC failed to agree on new measures but would not be drawn on any talk of military intervention. “The first effort should be to convince the Security Council to apply more sanctions,” Verhagen said. “But when the Security Council doesn’t agree, I am willing to apply EU sanctions in combination with the U.S. sanctions.”
While Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said that she can’t comprehend why Kouchner is resorting to such martial rhetoric at this time, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon also tried to soften the aggressive language by insisting that there was still room for diplomacy.
On the Iranian side, the state-run IRNA news agency wrote in an editorial that since Mr. Sarkozy became the president of France and moved into the Élysée Palace, France had changed course and was adopting the same policies as the U.S. It asserted that Mr. Sarkozy’s government was creating obstacles as Iran and the IAEA moved toward resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear dossier.
Vice President Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh, who is also the director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency that Western countries “have always chosen the path of confrontation instead of the path of understanding and cordial relations.” He added, “While Iran and the IAEA are cooperating to clear up ambiguities concerning the country’s nuclear program, some countries are launching unreasonable and obstructionist attacks on Tehran.”
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that the comments by French government officials suggesting the possibility of war over Iran’s nuclear program were a propaganda move and should not be taken seriously.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said France’s credibility had been damaged by Kouchner’s warning over the increasing risk of an armed confrontation over the controversial Iranian nuclear program. After stating that the use of such language creates tension and runs contrary to the cultural history and civilization of France, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini added that Iran expects France to adopt a more realistic stance.
Those statements show that France has been trying to increase the tension before the UNSC meeting and encourage other members of the 5+1 group to impose tougher economic sanctions on Iran. It may also try to convince the EU to back new sanctions against Iran, outside of the UN Security Council, to pressure Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions. It seems that the current French government supports tough sanctions accompanied by a policy of isolating Iran, which runs totally contrary to the European Union’s engagement policy and closely resembles the United States’ containment policy. But if we consider the fact that since 2006, the EU began to follow the path of coercive diplomacy in the Iranian nuclear dispute rather than the engagement policy, it appears that a tougher economic sanctions decision could be taken at the UNSC. Or if the tougher sanctions will not work, again it appears that some EU countries may join the U.S. bloc to take stricter additional measures against Iran. But at the moment, all efforts to accelerate this process are untimely and inappropriate because there is currently an ongoing agreement between Iran and the IAEA. So it seems logical to wait for the result of this new initiative, and if it does not work, we should expect tougher measures.
Bernard Kouchner emphasized “credible” sanctions as the best tool that the West has to resolve the nuclear standoff diplomatically. While he had caused some tension by discussing the prospect of war with Iran, after the harsh backlash from both various circles within his country and the international community, he later softened his tone.
Some experts believe that the shift in France’s foreign policy may be regarded as part of the French government’s efforts to realize its new goal to assume a leadership role in the EU. But there is no doubt that this new policy will also give rise to new disagreements within the EU. On the other hand, by adopting such harsh rhetoric, Sarkozy seems to have taken a wrong turn in his efforts to attain his main goal, i.e., to ensure France is taken seriously again.
In contrast to the U.S., which has no shared economic interests with Iran due to longstanding sanctions, France has strong ties with Iran. There are several large French companies investing in Iran, such as Renault, which has production facilities in Iran and expects to manufacture 300,000 cars a year, and Total, Europe’s third-largest oil producer, which owns a 30% stake in a liquefied natural gas venture in Iran. It is clear that the recent rhetoric and the tough stance can endanger these French companies’ economic ties with Iran. So this shall also be a problem within France. Many circles in France are acutely aware of the fact that Iran has huge natural gas resources like Russia and that without gas from Iran and Russia, the future of European energy supplies will be at risk. That’s why members of his own government criticized Kouchner for his warmongering statements directed at Iran.
Consequently, it can be said that France’s new stance, which is closer to the U.S. position, will have many different repercussions. It is common knowledge that there is disharmony and reluctance to adopt common positions and common actions within the EU due to the national interest priorities of the member states. That’s one of the main obstacles in the way of efforts to formulate a common foreign and security policy (CFSP) of the EU. But it has been observed that EU member states have managed to adopt similar positions in regard to the Iranian nuclear crisis so far. There are many reasons driving these countries to adopt a common position. First, the decision to moderate the United States’ unilateralist and aggressive policies in the region and to avoid another Iraq scenario; second, to avoid repeating the failure in the CFSP in the run-up to the Iraq crisis, which led to the EU being divided into two separate blocs; and third, the decision to take responsibility for solving the crisis, both to gain a reputation for the CFSP and to avert war with a country with which EU members have vital economic interests. All those reasons were the driving factors behind the decision to adopt a common position on the Iranian nuclear crisis. On the other hand, the Iranian nuclear crisis is a prestige matter for the EU. They have taken responsibility for solving the issue to prove that the EU is a global actor and has the ability to handle the international crisis. Taking all these facts into consideration, the uncharacteristic new stance of France may endanger this process and cause many disagreements to arise within the EU and eventually recreate the atmosphere that led to the Iraq crisis. So we have to wait and see whether history will repeat itself or not.
Arzu Celalifer Ekinci is a member of the Middle East Studies Centre of the International Strategic Research Organization based in Ankara