As US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for nuclear talks on Sunday, some analysts say that France has adopted a tougher stance on Iran even as the US seems eager to clinch a deal.
As the March 31 deadline for striking a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme approaches, France appears to have taken over the role of chief hawk in the negotiations from previous US administrations.
“France has taken the opposite path to that of the United States, which changed strategies with the arrival of [US President] Barack Obama,” said Bernard Hourcade, an Iran specialist at the National Centre of Scientific Research.
Hourcade says France’s current Socialist government has adopted the same intransigent stance toward Iran of former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The French have taken a harder line on Tehran as Paris recognises Washington’s increasing pragmatism in seeking to conclude a deal swiftly.
“Paris has clearly made the choice of going with the Gulf oil monarchies and seeking a conservative stability” in the region, Hourcade said.
France also seems more willing to oppose the Iranian influence that Paris blames for the violence and turmoil in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
It was this scepticism towards Teheran that led France to block a November 2013 accord between Iranian and US diplomats – one that French officials rejected at the 11th hour for granting Iran too many concessions in the zeal to come away with an interim agreement sooner.
Though a revised deal was signed just 15 days later, US officials are now closely watching their French partners for signs that Paris might again veto an agreement hammered out as the March 31 deadline for a framework treaty looms.
‘Absolutely no trust’
But most analysts say that while France is looking to take a tough stance, they won’t risk scuttling a deal.
“The French won’t take the risk of ruining negotiations. The global powers are all in agreement on the main issues,” said François Nicoullaud, a former diplomat in Tehran and a specialist on non-proliferation issues.
“Beyond that, it’s a matter of degrees, which Paris will be seeking to push as far as possible,” he added.
The French diplomats taking part in the current round of nuclear talks hail from a neo-conservative school of thought that tends to recommend taking an inflexible stance in dealing with Teheran.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius served as prime minister from 1984 to 1986, a period when Iranian actions created particularly tense relations between Paris and Tehran.
In the mid-1980s Iran was viewed as ultimately responsible for attacks committed in France and hostages taken by Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Tehran was angered by French support for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war.
“Fabius still has a terrible impression of the Iranians and has absolutely no trust in them,” a French diplomat told AFP.
France also wants its expertise in nuclear issues, as the country that is most reliant on nuclear energy, to be taken into account in shaping a deal.
Kerry has sought to allay French concerns, saying the aim of the talks is “not just to get any deal, it is to get the right deal”.
The goal is for Iran and the P5+1 powers – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France plus Germany – to agree on the outlines of a deal by March 31 and to fine tune the details by July 1.
Among the main sticking points in the talks are the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate and the levels to which it should be allowed to enrich uranium under its nuclear programme, which Tehran says is for energy purposes only.
Ultimately, French efforts to secure a more restrictive nuclear agreement will not be able to eclipse the two main players – Washington and Tehran.
“In the end, it will all revolve around two big negotiators, the United States and Iran,” a European diplomat noted. “Everything will depend on their ability to take a leap of faith, which is a fantastic and fascinating gamble.”
And the nuclear talks are facing much bigger hurdles than French intransigence.
Hourcade says many key players – including the Iranian hard-liners, conservative US legislators, the Gulf nations and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – are looking to “sabotage” any chance of a breakthrough.
“The problem in this negotiation is that it is really on a razor’s edge, and there are a lot of people who will do anything to sabotage a deal,” said Hourcade.
“Just a few symbolic details, three centrifuges more or less, could mean failure,” he said.
By France 24