'Spoiler' role over, France joins the party celebrating an Iran nuclear deal

France says its hard-line stance on Iran led to a tougher deal it could accept, but there was also likely too much momentum toward a deal for France to object.

Two weeks ago, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stood out among negotiators as the lone skeptic of an emerging agreement on Iran's nuclear program when he said on French radio his country would not accept a “sucker's deal.” 

But now that they have struck a historic agreement with Iran in Geneva, the French foreign minister has placed himself squarely in the collective, as part of the "P5+1" group of France, Russia, China, the US, Britain, and Germany that negotiated the deal being hailed as a victory for peace and security.

Officially, France can say its hawkish posture, the harshest among the P5+1, allowed the forging of a tougher deal today, one that more confidently guarantees that Iran seeks only peaceful nuclear prowess. And while that may be true, France also likely joined the P5+1 position, after pushing back against the accord earlier this month, because the US and Iran clearly wanted to see a deal inked.

“France's position was not sustainable,” says Thierry Coville, an Iran expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

There are many reasons France has taken such a hard line on Iran. In recent years, it has deepened its relationship with Israel and Iran's regional rivals in the Gulf countries, with whom it has signed multi-billion dollar business and arms deals, and there are historic grudges between France and the Islamic Republic that date back to the Iraq-Iran war.

The French stance grew tougher under right-leaning former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who aligned himself with former US President George W. Bush on Iran policy. Socialist President François Hollande, who took office 18 months ago, has maintained a similar line. 

“For the past 10 years, France has been the most hawkish Western country on the Iranian dossier,” says Karim Bitar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

That set the backdrop for Mr. Fabius's public "sucker's deal" comments – earning him unlikely allies in hawkish corners of Washington, as well as praise from Israel, which President Hollande recently visited and where he reiterated France's stance.

“So long as we are not certain that Iran has renounced nuclear arms, we will keep in place all our demands and sanctions,” Hollande said.

Mr. Bitar says French public opinion will largely support a deal between the West and Iran, but influential neoconservatives in France will not be happy.

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned the deal as a “historic mistake” for not demanding a tougher deal with Iran. The participants in the talks, however, have hailed the deal – a six-month, first-step towards a larger agreement, detailed in a White House fact sheet – as a success. The bottom line, President Obama said, is that it will “cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb." In return, Iran will receive some sanctions relief.

France's qualms during a previous round of talks earlier in November appeared to revolve around the Arak heavy water reactor. In today's deal, Iran agreed to no further advances of its activities at Arak and to “halt progress on its plutonium track,” according to the White House. In that sense, France can say its demands were met. 

“After years of blockages, the agreement in Geneva on Iran's nuclear program is an important step to preserving security and peace,” Fabius said in a statement. “The mechanism foresees the strict control of the engagements taken and vigilance will be needed to ensure they are implemented.”

But it appears that France also had little choice but to back down from its hard-line position, since the momentum was on the side of securing a deal.

“Considering both the Obama and Rouhani administrations wanted and needed a deal," says Bitar, "France could not block it further."

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