The Iranian Rubik’s Cube

Nuclear Talks in Geneva

So we have two somewhat conflicting narratives coming out of Geneva. The first we aired last night, via Laura Rozen and Marcy Wheeler. There was a general consensus that the French were the ones who derailed the imminent short-term agreement. Their motives? Cozying up to the pissed-off Saudis and also the usual Gaullist need to throw around what’s left of France’s weight. Hollande is set to visit Israel next month as well, inserting France into the occasional glimpses of daylight between the American and Israeli positions on Iran. Christopher Dickey has a must-read on the hardline faction still ensconced in the Quai D’Orsey. Money quote:

Under Sarkozy and his longtime Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the Quai’s policies came to be increasingly dominated by the French version of American neo-cons, many of them former leftists who preached the spread of democracy and dreamed of remaking the Middle East, if necessary, through war.

Sarkozy liked to say if he’d been president in 2003 he’d have backed the American-led invasion of Iraq; Kouchner let it be known he thought an armed confrontation with Iran was more or less inevitable. The key player at the Quai is Jacques Audibert, the director general of political and security affairs, who has pushed a very hard line, insisting that the ideal goal of sanctions and the pressure on Tehran must be the de facto elimination of its nuclear program.

The other must-read is another masterful column from Roger Cohen. On France, he has a more nuanced take:

Its position reflects strong views on nonproliferation, its defense agreement with the United Arab Emirates, and a mistrust of the Islamic Republic that runs deep. There are good reasons for this mistrust. Laurent Fabius, now the foreign minister, was prime minister in the mid-1980s during a wave of Paris bombings that were linked to pro-Palestinian groups but are also believed by French authorities to have had Iranian backing in several instances. Fabius is not about to forget this or cut Rouhani any slack. This is not a bad thing. A deal has to be watertight in blocking Iran’s path to nuclear weapons while acknowledging its right to nuclear energy.

Yesterday, Kerry insisted that the failure of the short-term deal was not a function of French intransigence but of the Iranians being unable to sign off on some of the demands of the P5+1 group, without more consultation at home. In fact, most of the reports coming out today reflect that new consensus. The FT’s take is here. Money quote from Fabius:

“We [France] are not closed . . . we want a deal for regional and international security … France is neither isolated nor a country that follows the herd. It is independent and works for peace.”

Dickey notes:

France insisted that operations of a nuclear reactor at Arak—which is not online yet—be halted, and that current stockpiles of enriched uranium be reduced.These were the sorts of measures that the other negotiators expected to ensue at future stages of the normalization process. The urgent need right now is to stop the enrichment program that exists — freeze it and inspect it — since if it continues Iran soon will be only months, if not weeks, from procuring sufficient material for a bomb. As a result of the French posturing, that enrichment probably will continue, at least for the moment.

So it may be a subtle difference between the ambition of the temporary freeze and the ambition of the later, bigger negotiation. That can still be worked out, it seems to me, because it’s a small nuance. It’s also why this stalling tactic is arguably unlikely to end the process. Because, far from arresting Iran’s nuclear development for six months, it allows it to continue (which no one in the West wants). But you can see how the P5+1 regarded their own unity as more important than an immediate deal and sent the French-fortified proposal to be taken back to Khamenei. The French can say they tried to stop it, and yet not stop it, bolstering their alliance with the Saudis and Israelis while allowing the process to move forward. Win-win. So this became a slightly more aggressive stance designed to test Tehran and vent some of the nervousness about any deal. It could be, in other words, just a bump in the road – and perhaps a somewhat contrived one.

But I should add a caveat here. The crux of these negotiations is unknowable to those outside them. That’s how diplomacy works. We will find out the full story some day, and until then, these parsings of events and statements on an hourly basis need to be seen as entirely provisional.  But as a case study in Great Power diplomacy, it’s crack for poli sci graduates like yours truly.

(Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a press conference after the third day of closed-door nuclear talks at the International Conference Center in Geneva (CICG) on November 10, 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland. By Murat Unlu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)