French intransigence and home-spun neo-conservatism may be undermining earnest attempts between the U.S. and Iran at achieving a deal on nuclear power.
The news this week from the world of international diplomacy has brought word that negotiations on a deal between the West and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has hit a snag. Early reports indicate that even though the United States and Iran seemed close to signing a deal, France – a latecomer to the talks in Geneva – came in and torpedoed the deal.
How Paris achieved this feat isn’t exactly clear, as details on the substance of the topics under discussion haven’t been made public, but the scuttlebutt among the diplomatic press is that in exchange for a token reduction of economic sanctions, Iran would stop enriching uranium and open up to a fairly comprehensive program of inspections. Paris, it seems, was able to throw sand in the works by leaking details to interested parties outside the talks, while also demanding a total cessation of Iranian enrichment, work on a heavy-water reactor complex at Arak, a city in west-central Iran, and a massive reduction of Tehran’s stockpile of fissile material before any reduction of sanctions could be contemplated.
While it is possible that such a demand could have been agreed to by Iran’s rulers if they were kept secret – thus allowing the regime to save face – acceding to these demands publically – which are essentially the maximalist position staked out by Tehran’s enemies in Jerusalem and Riyadh – would be humiliating. Publically, no sovereign state would accept giving up what is its guaranteed right under international law – the peaceful use of nuclear power – for so little, especially when the threat of force has been hinted at by that state’s adversaries on more than one occasion.
To do so opens one up to being bullied in the future, so of course to accept the open dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program – on which it has staked an immense amount of economic and political capital – Tehran would have to receive something significant in return. That Paris is not willing to give Iran a face-saving out by which it can accomplish this end is depressing, while the fact that French intransigence is apparently enough to potentially derail the talks altogether speaks volumes about the West’s perceived need for unity going forward.
Or, rather, Washington’s, since the Obama administration has been taking unprecedented heat from America’s traditional Mideast allies on its recent decisions to not intervene in Syria and to hold talks with Iran. Both countries view Iran’s nuclear program with extreme alarm, and have been highly critical of any effort by President Obama to ratchet down confrontation in the region. Given this, some suspect that France’s eleventh-hour effort to scuttle talks was undertaken in part to gain influence in a region and among countries that have long been in Washington’s orbit.
Indeed, a recent arms deal between Paris and Riyadh at least hints that some sort of quid-pro-quo deal may have been in the works. Others, in turn, have speculated that instead of venal concerns aimed at increasing profits on Mirage jets, the French are instead trying to recapture the spirit of their former glory days by engaging in acts of grandeur that remind people that Paris still matters in global affairs – that it was the spirit of de Gaul, not gold, which was motivating France to deep-six peace talks in Geneva.
Regardless of whether France’s motives are valiant or venal, it is nonetheless in keeping with recent French actions in the Middle East and North Africa, where Paris is seen as being motivated by a sort of French version of American neo-conservatism. Paris, it should be remembered, was at the forefront in eliminating Qaddaffi from Libya and led the UN-backed intervention into Mali that rolled back advances by Islamist fighters there earlier this year. Recall also that the French government was also quite keen on military action against Syria this past September when the regime of Bashar al-Assad was accused of using chemical weapons against civilians in that country’s on-going civil war.
That France should once again be throwing its weight around should not be a surprise. Confidence in the French economy, for instance, continues to sink among both its international creditors and its own citizens. After all, busying minds at home with troubles abroad has long been a tactic for those wanting to maintain their grip on power, not least when large cuts in domestic spending – likely to be exceedingly unpopular – have recently been announced. Still, what is interesting here is not that those in control of France’s government have looked for foreign projects to spend their time on, but the form in which it has manifested itself – anti-Islamist militarism.
This is partly due to factors both domestic and foreign. First, the project of an integrated Europe led by France – the dream of French diplomacy since the end of World War II – has ground to a halt as a result of the European economic crisis. Here it has been Germany, not France, that has been calling the shots, and as the Germans grow more assertive in a union that was originally aimed at containing them, France as a result has grown uncomfortable in its new role as sidekick to whoever happens to hold the German chancellorship. Since military and security affairs remains outside the ambit of what is dictated by Brussels and Berlin, intervention in the Muslim world is something of a relief valve for the frustration of ambitions within Europe itself.
Second, and arguably as important, is the degree to which Muslim immigration into France has unnerved the French establishment. While ostensibly adhering to the ideal that all citizens of France are equal under the law, the failure of French society to incorporate and integrate vast masses of young, poor Muslims into the country’s idea of itself has created unprecedented tensions in a country where an estimated one in 10 residents are of North African descent and Muslim ancestry, if not actively practicing Muslims.
This tension has manifested itself most notably in urban disturbances in 2005 and 2007, which pitted disaffected Muslim youths against French riot police, and via the emergence of a reinvigorated far-right, led by the National Front, that trucks in thinly-veiled racism aimed at France’s undesirables – especially Muslims. For long marginalized by the French mainstream, the National Front and the set of ideas it espouses have become increasingly popular – forcing both the traditional center-right and center-left to deal with the voters attracted by the Front’s unrepentant anti-Islamism and unapologetically low-brow French nationalism.
Ironically, while the center-right can crack down on Muslim youth, headscarves, and multiculturalism at home with near impunity and be popular because of it, the center-left, which is currently in power, has to be much more circumspect in its anti-Muslim attitudes. After all, French Muslims vote Socialist for obvious reasons, so if the French left isn’t to be seen as overly ‘soft’ on Islam by average French voters, it has to attack Islamism abroad as often and as forcefully as it can. Thus, in France, much as how Cold War Democrats here in the U.S. were often more supportive of military action overseas in part to shake-off the accusation of being closet pinks, the French left has to vigorously pursue its own War on Terror for what are essentially domestic political reasons.
As it turns out, this need to show their anti-Islamist bona fides at home through vigorous action abroad is a boon for those interested in seeing the civilizational cold war emerging between the West and the Islamic World proceed apace. Israel, in particular, benefits from this right-ward turn in continental politics, for just as its major Western patron begins to tire of endless conflict in the Middle East, an old friend – France – finds that it once again has interests in common with Israel after many years of dalliance with Jerusalem’s Arab enemies. For Paris and Jerusalem, everything old is now new again.
After all, it was France, not the United States, which served as Israel’s principal arms supplier and political supporter in the immediate decade after Israeli independence. Indeed, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower – cognizant of the military potential of Arab oil and the huge population of the Islamic world – was skeptical of Israel’s ultimate value as an American ally, and it was he who condemned Israel, along with France and Britain, for invading the Sinai, seizing the Suez Canal, and plotting to depose Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power in 1954. Finally, it was France, not the United States, which provided the material and technical expertise necessary for Israel to build its Dimona reactor and the Israeli nuclear weapons that ultimately came from it.
So, all things considered, the reestablishment of the ‘Auld Alliance’ between a diminished, economically stagnant France that is increasingly fearful of Muslims at home with an Israel grown disenchanted with Washington should not go unexpected. What is new, though, is the degree to which anti-Muslim cultural nationalism – as opposed to cold-blooded realpolitik – is now fueling France’s latest foray into les politiques de grandeur. The irony is that having helped give Israel its bomb, France now finds itself so militantly – and hypocritically – fighting against the emergence of an Iranian one.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.