Should Iran be wary of doing business with the French?

Hafsa Kara-Mustapha
Hafsa Kara-Mustapha is a journalist, political analyst and commentator with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa. She has worked for the FT group and Reuters and her work has been published in the Middle East magazine, Jane's Foreign report, El Watan and a host of international publications. A regular pundit on TV and radio, Hafsa can regularly be seen on RT and Press TV.
French President Francois Hollande (L) welcomes Iran's President Hassan Rouhani as he arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, January 28, 2016. © Charles Platiau
There was something admittedly disconcerting about Iran's wish to have Italian nude statues covered during Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's Roman visit last week.

These statues are part of Italy's cultural and architectural heritage and are in no way offensive to the leader of an equally ancient civilization that boasts its very own notable statues.

As it happens, Iran never made such a request, and covering the statues out of respect for the leader of the Islamic republic of Iran was in fact volunteered by Matteo Renzi's government.

The gesture, fully appreciated by the Iranian delegation, paid off. Rouhani left Italy, but not before signing over Eur 17bn worth of contracts with his new European partner, looking to benefit from oil-rich and newly sanction-free Iran.

There was no such gesture on the French side. In fact, French President Francois Hollande was just plain rude to his Iranian counterpart.

For example, when discussing lunch arrangements between the two heads of state, the Iranian protocol requested the meal be kept halal. Hollande refused, arguing it was against the "values of the republic" to serve a "faith-based meal." Yet it is customary in such circumstances to consult with the guest's party and ensure the best possible treatment is meted out.

Just as in every day circumstances, vegetarians wouldn't be treated to a barbeque, guests have their special needs catered to. At such high levels of diplomacy, the most minute details are usually considered. After all, would the leader of Hindu majority India be served roast beef? And wasn't Benyamin Netanyahu treated to a kosher meal when he last visited the French presidential palace?

So why such an undiplomatic response to a perfectly reasonable request, in particular over an important lunch meeting during which sobriety for all those present would have been paramount. As for the meal itself, simply serving fish would have been a perfectly suitable alternative for the Iranian delegation.

The reason such a simple solution was not suggested, of course, is because France has veered to the right of late with political forces increasingly pursuing a strong anti-Islam agenda.

As a result, Hollande is increasingly keen to pander to this sizable piece of the French electorate, who saw in his refusal to serve a halal meal a show of strength against the leader of an Islamic nation.

Furthermore it's important to note that Iran, like Russia, constitutes one of the two most demonized nations in France.

Both countries are constantly portrayed as 'tyrannical' regimes with which more 'enlightened' France should not engage with.

Take a cursory look at French media and not a day goes by without a debate on 'Putin's dictatorship', 'Russia's dangerous grip on the world' and other such scaremongering headlines.

Iran for its part is constantly compared to Saudi Arabia, suggesting its conservatism is equal to that of its Gulf neighbour.

'Women's rights' are constantly pushed as a major downfall of the Islamic republic, yet rarely is it mentioned that Iran's vice president is a woman and that women hold high positions in some of the most sensitive sectors in the economy.

In this climate, it's easy to imagine the hostility the French public would have with any rapprochement with Iran. While there is a need to recognize the importance of doing business with the Middle Eastern giant, the distrust remains tangible and commentators from across the political spectrum have been quick to condemn Paris' decision.

And yet, despite France's blatant hostility towards Iran, Hassan Rouhani has agreed to inflate French coffers by a very generous Eur 25bn.

Salivating at the idea of such lucrative deals, one after the other, French bosses courted the Iranian leader in a bid to profit from the 77 million consumers in the Iranian market.

While it's understandable for Iran to want to extract itself from the effects of almost a decade of crippling sanctions, the speed with which it has engaged with France is surprising.

After all, during the nuclear deal negotiations, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, notoriously close to American political circles was one of Iran's staunchest critics. The last round of talks collapsed as a result of France's intransigence over Tehran's reassurances that its nuclear ambitions were purely for civilian purposes.

At the same time, France's stance on Syria, and its insistence that Assad should in no way be part of a peace agreement, also contributed to the mistrust between the two countries.

Considering these factors, it is surprising that Iran could be so prompt to agree to such large-scale deals with such a fickle and untrustworthy partner as France.

After all, less than a year ago, Hollande refused to deliver two 'Mistral' helicopter carriers to Russia, despite Moscow putting down an eye-watering Eur 891m down-payment for the vessels.

Having taken a blatantly anti-Russian position over the Kiev-Moscow stand-off, France decided that in light of Russia's politics in Crimea, France would no longer honor the arrangements. And this despite Russian money having been used to build the carriers in the first place and generating considerable amounts in interests once deposited in French banks.

France resorted to unheard of commercial blackmail, hoping to bend Russia's politics to suit Paris' whim.

Russia has since re-kindled relations with France. In a gesture of good will, Russia went as far as sending trained dogs to Paris as gifts in the aftermath of the terror attacks which rocked the French capital last November.

No such gesture was ever made by Paris when Moscow suffered its own devastating terror attacks.

Nevertheless, while relations between Paris and Moscow have since thawed, those between Paris and Tehran remain tense.

The French leader made it clear that Rouhani's visit was strictly business and that it was Iranian money he was after, not friendship.

Astonishingly, on the eve of Rouhani's visit to Paris, it was reported that France was requesting fresh rounds of sanctions over Teheran's missile program.

Mirroring America's barely believable announcement, when Washington requested renewed sanctions 24 hours after announcing it was lifting them, Paris is now indicating the Franco-Iranian partnership will be limited and under Paris' terms.

In light of this, Iran would do well to remember the infamous Mistral debacle, in which Russia was clearly left at a loss when France refused to honor its part of a signed and paid deal.

Given the anti-Iran sentiment, such a bold and dishonorable decision, would never the less be perceived as perfectly reasonable by a French electorate looking to see a known 'wobbly' leader (Hollande is nicknamed Flamby in France in reference to a jelly-like French desert) act tough against a perceived evil republic.

So what next for Iran?

Iran has gone on a whirlwind shopping spree, trying to capitalize on the short break it was given, to acquire some much-needed new equipment for various sectors of its economy.

There remains the risk, however, that while deals such as the sale of 12 Airbuses is seen as a boon for France, the spare parts that will be necessary to purchase later down the line could fall under a renewed regime of sanctions, forcing the Iranians to not only operate unsafe planes, but with considerable amounts of cash frozen in Western banks (all monies frozen under the sanctions regime are released without interest and therefore at a major loss to the Iranian treasury).

In light of all of this, it remains surprising that Teheran, usually a cautious and astute political player, would put such faith and sums of money in such opaque partnerships.

Furthermore Iran has achieved a lot in the past decade indicating that unlike other major oil producers in the Middle East, the country is able to navigate its economy outside of the hydrocarbon sector and thrive.

It appears therefore that the Middle East remains highly dependent on Western markets and this despite the historical tensions that affected and continue to blight the region to this day.

Options to seek alternative markets and develop an entirely independent economy from the grip of Western capitals has failed. At the first call Tehran has returned to the West.

The sanctions as well as the humiliating rebuffs did nothing to dampen Teheran's attraction to the French market.

For all its political back-stabbing it appears France can still boast of having an inexplicable 'French touch!'

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.