In 1979, France promised Iraq it would build it a light-water nuclear reactor to be fueled with uranium enriched to 93 percent. Israel perceived the reactor, at Osirak, as an existential threat and tried to dissuade Paris from going ahead with the project. After several attempts at diplomacy were ignored, then-prime minister Menachem Begin ordered an airstrike that destroyed the facility, on June 7, 1981.
This weekend, the very nation that three decades ago chose not to heed Israel’s warnings emerged as the only major power echoing Israel’s concerns in the negotiations over Iran’s rogue nuclear program. While five of the six world powers — the United States, Britain, Russia, China and Germany — were apparently ready to sign an interim agreement that would offer sanctions relief in return for a promised freeze in the Iranian program, an arrangement Israel considers “bad and dangerous,” France blocked what it called “a sucker’s deal.”
At first glance, the fact that France played odd man out appears peculiar. It is not known as Israel’s closest friend — certainly not closer than the US or Germany. Indeed, the European Union’s steadfast refusal until July to label the Shiite Lebanese group Hezbollah a terrorist organization was blamed squarely on the French. Why, then, are they the ones spoiling the party, for a few days at least, for Tehran’s Shiite ayatollahs, Hezbollah’s main supporters?
“Let’s remember France has initiated strong sanctions against Iran. They define the Iranian nuclear program as the number one threat to world peace, so they themselves have an interest in this,” said Tsilla Hershco, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, who specializes in France’s involvement in the Middle East conflict.
Paris aspires to play a larger role in world affairs; after the US, France has the highest number of diplomatic offices across the globe, she noted, adding that the Middle East is seen as a “high-priority” area. Since America’s clout in the region appears to be waning — following the Obama administration’s perceived serial weakness in dealing with Egypt, Syria and Iran — France is more than happy to step in and extend its sphere of influence, she said.
Furthermore, France has high stakes in Sunni countries in the region that are fiercely opposed to Iran becoming a nuclear power. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is the region’s foremost buyer of French arms. “In light of the current economic situation in France, which really does not look so bright, these weapons deals are very important to the country,” Hershco said.
In late August, Paris reportedly signed a €1 billion ($1.34 billion) defense contract with Saudi Arabia, which included overhaul work on four frigates and two refueling ships.
“The Saudis are investing heavily in French agricultural, defense and food sectors,” the Qatar-based Al Jazeera reported. “The farmers of Brittany have laid off thousands of workers of late and a Saudi firm is stepping in take control of 52% of Doux, a poultry firm based there. [This is just] one example of the massive spending spree the Saudis are on.”
France also has flourishing defense cooperation with Israel, as well as major trade relations. President Francois Hollande is expected in Israel next Sunday, and while that visit alone would not be a significant factor in Paris’s stance in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, it may have been one more reason for the French decision to play hardball.
On Saturday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei slammed Paris for blocking the agreement in Geneva. “French officials have been openly hostile towards the Iranian nation over the past few years; this is an imprudent and inept move,” he tweeted in Persian and English, reiterating a speech he delivered earlier this year. “A wise man, particularly a wise politician, should never have the motivation to turn a neutral entity into an enemy.”
In March, Khamenei told religious pilgrims that in the past, Iran “never” had problems with France. “However, since the time of [former president Nicolas] Sarkozy, the French government has adopted a policy of opposing the Iranian nation and unfortunately the current French government is pursuing the same policy. In our opinion, this is a wrong move. It is ill-advised and unwise.”
In Geneva on Saturday, France’s Foreign Minister Fabius gave very specific reasons for his objections to the emerging deal. He said Tehran was resisting demands that it suspend work on its plutonium-producing reactor at Arak and downgrade its stockpile of higher-enriched uranium.
Which rather leads to a different question: Not “Why did France choose to stand alone against the deal?” But, rather, “why did the other major powers consider the terms acceptable?”