French derailing of Iran deal: Scoring points with Israel, selling guns to Saudis

French derailing of Iran deal: Scoring points with Israel, selling guns to Saudis
The motivation behind French toughness at the P5+1 talks with Iran last week are President Hollande’s wish to score points ahead of his visit to Israel and France’s sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, says Barbara Slavin, an expert on US foreign policy.

The French intervention stalled negotiations with Iran last weekend and postponed the adoption of a much-anticipated deal, which would be the next step in defusing tension over Iran’s nuclear program.

RT:France is widely accused of blocking a major breakthrough at the talks last weekend. What was behind the French position?

Barbara Slavin: I think there are a number of things. First of all, France has been consistently hard-line on this issue and this goes back a number of years. So I think they are consistent particularly on this facility that might produce plutonium. The French have made it clear that they don’t want to see that facility completed. The Iranians want to complete it and then send out the spent fuel, but the French don’t want it to be completed at all; they think there is too much proliferation risk. There are other factors as well. As we know, the French like to go their own way - sometimes they tack to the right, sometimes they tack to the left. They were opposed to the US invading Iraq but they appeared to be a little bit to the right of the United States and the other members of the P5+1 on this issue. Then there is a fact that Francois Holland, the French president, is going to Israel this week; he’ll score some points there, he is a new hero of the neo-conservatives in this country now. And then France has a very important relationship with the Gulf Arabs, especially with the Saudis, and wants to sell more weapons. Of course, there is a mixture of motives. It’s not necessarily bad for a deal, it could produce a better deal. But I do think that it was not very diplomatic of Laurent Fabius, the Foreign Minister, to say some of the things he said to journalists in Geneva. I really don’t think that was helpful.

RT:France has recently signed a billion-dollar defense deal with Saudi Arabia - how much could that have influenced the French stance in the talks?

BS: It’s possible. I mean the United States has signed a 60 billion dollar defense deal with Saudi Arabia recently and with other Gulf states. I mean it’s always there. But in this I would credit the French for being consistently hard-line. I was told before the Geneva meeting that the French were going to take a very hard line on Iran’s heavy water reactor, so that shouldn’t have come out as surprise. I think the question is about the sequencing, you know, do you allow work to continue, do you freeze work on it, do you say that this is an end of the game - this cannot be a functioning facility - or it has to be changed into a light water reactor, or do you try to establish all of this? I think this is what we will see in a wiggle room of negotiations.

RT:Kerry's rhetoric seems to have taken a different turn today. He's now saying it's Iran that refused to sign the agreement. Why the sudden change?

BS: Well, John Kerry is generally quite diplomatic and he wants a deal. And if it is France that is in the way, he is not going out to publically criticize the French; he is going to work behind the scenes to try to convince them to sign on. I’ve also been told by European officials that at the end of these marathon negotiations, there was agreement among the P5+1 on a proposal, and that at the end it was a little bit too much for the Iranians to sign on to without going home and consulting with supreme leader, Khomeini, and other senior officials. It is possible that the French were obstreperous and the Iranians didn’t agree - both things could be true.

RT:In general, though, the US appeared to be more eager than before to strike a deal. What was different about this latest round of talks?

BS: I think the deal is in everyone’s interest. This is just a question of the United States and Iran. We have maximum leverage now because of the impact of sanctions that have been imposed the last couple of years. We have maximum international unity on the issue, and Iran very much needs a deal. President Rouhani was elected to get a deal and improve relations with the West and the United States in particular. So there is a lot of motivation on both sides. If we wait, Iran will continue its program, which is dangerous for us, for the Israelis, for the Gulf Arabs. And the leverage that we achieved is decimated because it is not at all clear that even if the US Congress passes more sanctions, the other countries will follow the US lead. Sanctions have a way of unraveling as we learned all too well in Iraq. So I think we have to be very careful, we have to use the maximum leverage that we have now to strike a good and reasonable deal.

RT:Israel has called the possible agreement 'very bad' and 'dangerous'. What kind of deal would they welcome?

BS: The Israelis don’t really have a choice. They can moan and groan and try to get a tougher deal certainly, but they don’t have a choice, they are not the ones who will be signing the agreement, which is a cause of their great frustration. I think their relations with the US at the end of the day is of bigger importance, they are not going to blow up that relationship because of an agreement that will indeed make it more difficult for Iran to break out and build nuclear weapons, which is what the Israelis say that they want.

RT:If a deal were to be concluded soon, how would that play out with the West's allies like Israel and the Gulf states?

BS: I think we have tremendous bonuses for the situation in Syria, which is so intractable, for the situation in Afghanistan, where the United States hopes to withdraw most of its troops and its NATO allies as well. The Atlantic council just put out a report last week about Iran, Afghanistan and South Asia and what the implications of nuclear agreement might be for better relations in this area among all of these countries, how it could benefit their economies, benefit their energy flows and water security. So there is a lot riding on this nuclear negotiation.

RT:Iran's adopted a positive attitude towards working out an agreement. Can we expect a breakthrough anytime soon?

BS: It’s Iran that has changed its attitude towards talks most radically. This is Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who came with a new proposal at the last round of talks and who is very serious about wanting to get an agreement. For him and Rouhani this is a second chance. They did manage to improve Iran’s relations with the US and get a nuclear deal the last time they were in power, and I think they are determined to do it now. It’s an important agreement. It doesn’t, unfortunately, specify that the IAEA can go to the Parchin military site and it doesn’t say they can inspect the heavy water reactor at Arak, but it pledges increased cooperation and will provide more access to some facilities. It’s a good beginning.

RT:U.S. lawmakers have been talking about new sanctions against Iran. What effect would that have?

BS: Well, they can talk. I’m hopeful that the congressional calendar now is so short… they really only have a couple of weeks before they recess for Thanksgiving and all the other various holidays that they won’t have time to attach mass-pass legislation. But there are people who will try and will argue that we give a smaller leverage. I think it would hurt the process, but, you know, Congress has a mind of its own.


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