by James A. Russell
Since the high-level talks that occurred in Geneva, conflicting messages have surfaced on what really stopped a groundbreaking deal over Iran’s nuclear program from being signed this weekend. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was Iran and not France who could not accept the final draft of an agreement. That same day, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif indirectly replied through his official Twitter account that a deal only began to fall apart after French objections. Whatever the case, there is little reason to doubt that France’s objections in some way impeded the deal that so many were expecting; Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was, after all, the most vocal in opposing one save for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With that in mind, it’s interesting to consider France and Israel’s previous stances on nuclear issues.
The partnership between the two states on nuclear matters dates back to the late 1940s and 1950s, when France provided vital assistance in helping Israel set up its own clandestine reactor and enrichment facility at Dimona in southern Israel.
The site is today protected by a network of US radars stationed in Israel tied into the global US missile defense system and, one supposes, to Israel’s own missile defense system paid for by the United States. Israel is today an undeclared nuclear state with an arsenal estimated at between 200 and 400 warheads that can be delivered on its Jericho missiles.
Sixty years ago, France gave Israeli scientists free reign to wander around its nuclear research centers at Saclay and Marcoule as part of the then burgeoning nuclear partnership. In exchange, Israeli scientists are believed to have helped speed up France’s own nuclear program.
At the time, both states saw nuclear weapons as central to their prestige and national survival. It’s worth noting that the cooperation in nuclear matters happened in a wider context, with France also supplying Israel with arms that proved critical in Israel’s ongoing wars of independence.
Few remember that a French-supplied Mirage aircraft delivered the pre-emptive strikes on Egypt’s airfields at the outset of the 1967 Six –Day War. French President Charles DeGaulle subsequently ended the security relationship after the war when it became clear that Israel intended to illegally occupy the land seized in the conflict. He correctly foresaw that the occupation would only lead to continuation of the war through the scourge of terrorism. The Johnson administration then decided that the United States would assume the role taken by France, selling Israel advanced F-4 Phantom aircraft in 1968. Today, 45 years later, there are few weapons in America’s arsenal not now in service with the Israeli Defense Forces — by far the most powerful military in the Middle East.
This history provides an interesting backdrop to moves made by the French and the Israelis in undermining a first stage accommodation with Iran in Geneva. If the reports of the heavily guarded details of the deal are true, it seems sensible from the perspective of those seeking to reign in Iran’s program to do so in a phased approach in which Iran would gradually return to good standing with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations in exchange for sanctions relief. The net result would be a welcome reinforcement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the only meaningful global mechanism to control the spread of nuclear weapons. Perhaps more importantly, such a deal would reduce the prospect of another regional war in the Persian Gulf and see Iran potentially readmitted to the international community in a positive way. A deal also opens the door to possible US-Iranian rapprochement, which would also reduce the prospects of war in the region.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal is no mystery. He has made a career out of derailing peaceful accommodation with Israel’s adversaries, profiting politically from the resulting siege-like and perpetual war atmosphere that grips Israel in an unhealthy way. Israeli politics have swung inexorably in his direction over the last 15 years, as the Likud and its politics of confrontation and war dominate the political landscape. As long as Netanyahu is in charge, it is hard to imagine Israel agreeing to any meaningful political settlement with its enemies. Most recently, Israel’s disinterest in seeking a deal with the Palestinians was signaled by further Israeli illegal settlements as negotiations with the Palestinian Authority are underway.
More mysterious is France’s role in highlighting the shortcomings of the first stage of what would have to be a long-term deal to ensure Iran’s program returns to comprehensive IAEA oversight. As one of the five declared nuclear states, France clearly has a vested interest in ensuring that the NPT continues as the main vehicle to ensure that nuclear technology around the world is used solely for peaceful purposes. Surely a deal with Iran that gradually brings its program back under comprehensive IAEA safeguards and monitoring is in the interests of all the declared nuclear powers.
For the United States, the erosion of its relations with its two “twin pillars” in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and Israel) is perversely affected by the lack of progress with Iran. Both the Saudis and Israelis appear terrified at the prospect of a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, which, in turn might create circumstances for a better US-Iran political relationship. Ironically, neither states sees the strategic benefits to these developments, which would enhance the security of both states over the long run. Instead, both Saud Arabia and Israel continue to embrace the politics of confrontation that will only lead to more war, death, and destruction — potentially dragging the United States along behind them to clean up the resulting mess.
The Obama administration is right to pursue accommodation with Iran and correctly sees the strategic benefits of deal to restrain the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The next time around, however, maybe the phone calls from the White House need to be placed to Paris instead of Jerusalem.