France, Israel, and the Future of Iranian Nuclear Talks

While Israel did not have a representative at the negotiating table for November’s round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany, and France), it derailed what could have been a key deal in the resolution of Iran’s nuclear threat. On November 10, the final day in one round of Geneva talks, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (pictured above speaking with US Secretary of State John Kerry) raised objections to a draft resolution to which France had previously agreed, citing concerns over the reactor at Arak as well as Iran’s stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium.

The heavy-water reactor at Arak, currently under construction and due for completion in about a year, has been largely ignored by policymakers; until now, it has been considered a manageable issue. However, Fabius pointed it out as a threat because, should it become operational between an interim negotiation and a final nuclear deal, it could pose a severe threat that air strikes could not destroy. The stockpiled uranium has been the greatest concern for diplomats since the breakout time to 90% weapons grade fuel from 20% uranium is relatively short.

Yet on November 23, the leaders at Geneva announced a diplomatic solution that froze key parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for loosening the economic sanctions. Although many believed the agreement to be a temporary measure, its announcement was a major development for a complicated, and often frustratingly sluggish, process. The deal will be implemented this November, over French wariness.

The issues raised by both the Arak reactor and France’s reaction in spite of diplomatic progress in Geneva demonstrate concern with containing Iran’s breakout timeline. In the most recent round of talks Fabius reaffirmed his stance that “this agreement can only be possible based on firmness.” While the French have maintained that they do not oppose a diplomatic solution, and indeed conceded to one at the end of the conference, they have taken on a particularly unyielding stance compared to the other P5+1 countries. Many have attributed at least part of this surprising approach to influence from Israel. So why has France bolstered its alliance with Israel, and why now?

France and Israel have held mutual security interests since 1956, when France assisted Israel in the development of its nuclear program in exchange for aid in the Suez War. The two powers teamed up against Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser because of their shared interest in containing nationalist movements throughout Northern Africa. Relations were more distant until 2008, when then-President of France Nicolas Sarkozy declared that he would refuse to greet any world leader who refused to recognize the state of Israel. This mutual support has carried over to Geneva as France hawkishly displays its pro-Israel stance with regards to non-proliferation in Iran.

Current French President François Hollande echoed Sarkozy’s words in a speech to Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, on November 18. He stated, “We cannot, and will not accept [Iran] having the possibility of getting nuclear weapons,” since doing so would pose a threat to Israel, to the Middle East, and to the world. Similarly, Sarkozy insisted: “France will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons.” France’s unyielding support for Israel and its deep distrust of Iran’s nuclear capabilities appear to be immutably intertwined. With little official information available on the subject, it is difficult to speculate as to why France has gone to such great lengths to reaffirm its endorsement for Israel, especially when doing so seems to run counter to the process of disarmament. However, we can, and indeed should, discuss the implications of this alliance for the future of Iranian negotiations.

The French-Israeli alliance has effectively allowed Israel a voice in the negotiation process, for better or for worse. According to Israel’s Channel 2 News, Meyer Habib, a member of France’s Parliament, telephoned Fabius to caution him that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would likely launch a direct attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities if France did not toughen its position on a nuclear deal. This left the French with two options: either sign an interim deal to leave room for more extensive negotiations over Iranian nuclear activity and risk Israeli military intervention, or oppose a resolution and risk failing to reach an agreement at all.

France has been criticized for obstructing the negotiation process by bowing indiscriminately to the will of Israel, especially since France has little apparent interest in forestalling a nuclear deal. However, Fabius’ objections brought an essential point to the forefront of discussion: in order to maintain international security through disarmament, the West needs to ensure that Iran stays as far from nuclear capabilities as possible. Furthermore, since there is no guarantee that an interim arrangement would lead promptly to a broader deal, the P5+1 cannot be sloppy with the terms of its temporary bargain.

On November 24, the P5+1 was able to achieve an interim deal with Iran. This arrangement is stricter than debated agreements that preceded it, largely because it demands a halt to the development of the Arak heavy-water reactor. This new provision only came up because of France’s hardline stance; previously, Arak was seen as a relatively low risk that could be dealt with in a permanent resolution. However, since Netanyahu publicly condemned the interim deal, France appears to be more loyal to the cause of negotiations than to that of Israel.

As an intermediary between Israel and the P5+1, France now holds a precarious position. It needs to carefully evaluate all sides’ wishes and will play a large role in reconciling them. Israel’s concerns, though valid, may alienate Iran if they begin to figure too centrally in talks. As the Iranian nuclear deal moves into long-term discussions, what France says and does could make or break the entire disarmament process.

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