Jean-Christophe Bott/AP/Pool
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius walks to another meeting on the third day of closed-door nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva Switzerland, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013.

French exceptionalism? Why France scuttled Iran nuclear agreement.

Foreign Minister Fabius said France won't accept a 'sucker's deal' on Iran's nuclear program, raising questions about its relationship with Iran.

"Tonight I'm eating FRENCH fries," read a tweet this weekend from Rick Grenell, the US's spokesperson at the UN when France opposed an invasion of Iraq in 2003, and who gave rise to the American term “Freedom fries.”

His comments over the weekend were in response to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who went on air saying a deal with Iran flopped because France will not accept a “sucker's deal.”

It's unclear what actually went on in Geneva, as the "P5+1" group that includes France, Russia, China, the US, Britain, and Germany seemed close to an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program but then failed. In fact US Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that it was actually Iran that didn't accept the terms.

But Mr. Fabius's words have echoed around the globe, raising many questions about France's relationship with Iran and its motivations in moving as far right as the most hawkish Americans – some of whom continue to applaud their unlikely ally, France - on the question of Iran. Here are some of the theories, some cynical, some not, that are circulating:

  • France is securing its position in the region. France has put much energy into its relationship with Israel and Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. All would celebrate getting the toughest deal with Iran as possible. “It is an opportunity for France to win influence in Gulf capitals and in Jerusalem as well,” says Middle East specialist Shashank Joshi at the Royal United Services Institute in London."
  • The relationship with Israel is key, especially as the French president plans a trip there soon. As Foreign Policy puts it: 

    The socialist government of French President François Hollande has adopted a muscular foreign policy that has put it to the right of the Obama administration on Libya, Mali, Syria, and now Iran. Along the way, it has also become Israel's primary European ally and - after the US - arguably its closest friend in the world.

  • Beyond the geopolitical, follow the money. Writing about the motives of French "intransigence" on Iran in the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro, Middle East expert Georges Malbrunot underlines especially “the Saudi factor,” describing the billions in contracts that have been signed to the benefit of French companies. Reuters reports that in October, France sealed a contract to modernize six naval ships and tankers from Saudi Arabia.
  • Fabius is “grandstanding.” By going on air to declare the deal's failure, Fabius broke a gentleman's pact of silence, perhaps as an attempt to highlight French differences on the matter. The French position overall may be an attempt to assert France's power on the world stage. And in doing so France makes up for some of the humiliation of Syria, after President Hollande essentially prepared the nation for invasion and then had to retreat after President Obama said the US was stepping back.
  • France knows something is not right. The same story from Foreign Policy quotes experts who say that France's knowledge of Iran's program is next to none.

Paris has extensive knowledge of Iran's nuclear program, which they helped establish decades ago by supplying Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with the technology and equipment that helped him build a uranium enrichment facility near the city of Isfahan. Mark Dubowitz - the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think-tank in Washington - said France was uniquely positioned to spot potential flaws in the agreement because it has an array of officials who have [been] working almost exclusively on nuclear issues for more than a decade and understand both the technical aspects of Iran's nuclear program and the economic impact of the hard-hitting economic sanctions that have been imposed in response.

  • France is being consistent. Despite the characterization that this came out of left field, Fabius's position is consistent with France's stance on Iran's nuclear program for the past decade. Franco-Iranian relations have had ups and downs, but since France sided with Saddam Hussein in the war between Iraq and Iran, a low-point, relations had slowly improved, says Thierry Coville, an Iran expert at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. That changed when Hollande's predecessor, right-leaning Nicolas Sarkozy, came into office and moved to the right alongside George W. Bush on Iran. “The surprise is that the Socialist party has continued along the same line,” Dr. Coville says.

Despite all of the speculation surrounding France's moves over the weekend, Mr. Joshi, the analyst in the UK, says it's important to point out that it's not clear what happened in Geneva and what exactly was rejected or why. Blaming France works in Iran's favor, and as such, leaders there have vociferously condemned Fabius. “But too much is unknown,” Joshi says.

(See The Christian Science Monitor's reports from Geneva to follow the details of what is on the record from the talks, including France's position.)

Mr.Kerry said today that it was Iran who didn't accept the terms of an agreement, though the details were not released. And Fabius pointed out Monday that a deal is the end goal. "We are not far from an agreement with the Iranians, but we are not there yet," Fabius said on local radio Monday. "We are firm, but not rigid. We want peace, and we want to reach the end.” The group is meeting again Nov. 20.

In the meantime, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, reached a deal today with Iran where it will grant inspectors access to more nuclear facilities there.

In surveys, the French do not deviate widely from their allies in opinions on Iran's nuclear program. A Pew poll from 2012, for example, showed that, among those opposed to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, majorities in many countries favor tougher economic sanctions on Iran, including 80 percent in the US and Germany, 79 percent in Britain, and 74 percent in France.

But some in the US would like to highlight French exceptionalism on the matter.

The Wall Street Journal, in a Review and Outlook piece, said:

“We never thought we'd say this, but thank heaven for French foreign-policy exceptionalism. At least for the time being, François Hollande's Socialist government has saved the West from a deal that would all but guarantee that Iran becomes a nuclear power.”

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