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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.


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.

Jean-Christophe Bott/AP/Pool

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"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:

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.

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.

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(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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