France, Iran and the Lubricated Geneva Talks

by Ali Reza Eshraghi

Negotiation, as the French writer Marquis de Sade once said, “like certain portions of the anatomy, always runs more smoothly when lubricated.” In the most recent session with Iran in Geneva, the lubricant was strikingly effective. The jovialness and the diplomatic experience of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry showed the extent it could help pave the road to agreement. But it seems that de Sade’s home country, France, preferred a tough negotiation with no lubricant.

According to initial media reports, the tougher stance of French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius impeded an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program on Nov 10. Kerry later tried to shift the blame to Iran, but Zarif indirectly implied in a tweet that it was France that “gutted over half of US draft” and “publicly commented against it.” Ultimately it appears that a deal was reached before France’s arrival and then scuppered due to French objections, which Iran could not accept at that point.

In Iran, this recent experience in Geneva should leave President Hassan Rouhani and his administration with two important realizations:

First, for more than a decade, Rouhani and his diplomatic team have been arguing that without the US presence, negotiations won’t be successful. For example, Iran believes that the 2003 agreement with France, Britain and Germany was spoiled because the former administration of President George W. Bush did not attend the talk. The Geneva talks last week showed that the presence of the US in negotiations is necessary, but it isn’t sufficient for making a deal.

Second, it is argued that Iran should implement a Plan B to take advantage of the gap between two sides of the Atlantic Ocean and get closer to the Europeans (just as it did during the nuclear negotiations of the 2000s) in case America continues to keep an inflexible stance against a win-win agreement with Iran. However, now that France, as a member of the European troika, has become an obstacle to a potential agreement between Iran and the US, this plan would be more difficult to execute.

Iranian elites want to use the threat of economic retaliation in response to the French stonewalling. Two days ago, the renowned Iranian economist Mousa Ghaninejad said, “France will not benefit from the obstacles it created [at Geneva talks] after [economic] relations between Iran and the West become normalized.” This soft tone sounded very much like the argument that Ahmadinejad’s government used; in 2010, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, the former First Vice President said that if only Iran “frowns” at France once, the French economy will suffer a meltdown.

Such remarks are based on a presupposition that economic ties can lead to lasting political alliances. Coincidentally, France has proved this is not the case. Nine years ago French Foreign Trade Minister Francois Loos, speaking at a seminar on “Foreign Investment Prospect in Iran,” proudly declared that Iran ranks first among France’s trade partners in the Middle East. Based on that economic alliance reasoning, we should not have seen France abandon Iran in the nuclear dispute in the first place — but it did. (This could also raise a red flag for the Arab states in the Persian Gulf, which have — since the presidency of the former president Nicolas Sarkozy — established warm economic relations with the French.)

At the same time, it is not surprising that some Iranian and foreign analysts are inclined towards conspiracy theories in assuming that France is taking the position of bad cop that the United States once held. Others reduce France’s intentions in the talks to a personal level. Sadegh Kharazi, Iran’s former ambassador to France, said that Fabius is not the representative of all of France but is “speaking on behalf of a French radical minority.” Such analysis might be plausible in a way, but neglects the big picture.

A look back at France’s history vis-à-vis the nuclear issue reminds us of its Prometheus-like role in the region. In the late 1950s, it was France that helped Israel go nuclear. Two decades later, the French sold nuclear reactors to Iraq. During the term of the former French President, France signed a deal to build a nuclear reactor for the UAE, and the French have also offered Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco civil nuclear cooperation agreements. And this October, while referring to the “huge program the Saudi government wants to implement in the nuclear field”, the French ambassador to Saudi Arabia said, “France has a lot to bring.”

In 2009, France insisted on being part of the “Fuel Swap” agreement that Saeed Jalili, the top Iranian negotiator at the time, was about to close. But Iran did not want France to be the provider of fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor. Iran’s excuse was that France cannot be trusted since it has refused to grant Iran rights to the Eurodif enrichment facility in which Iran is a shareholder.

These historical examples show a certain continuity in French policy. France has been playing the Joker card — sometimes helpful and sometimes hostile — in Iran’s nuclear deck. But the present tells us even more.

Iran’s nuclear conundrum is only part of a more complicated and bigger puzzle that goes back to defining Iran’s role and influence in the Middle East. Yet, the assumption is that by putting the nuclear issue in brackets, one can postpone negotiating over other Middle East issues. But these issues cast a shadow over the nuclear negotiations more than any other time and haunt the prospect of a nuclear deal.

The current state of the Middle East, in the words of Hamlet, is “out of joint.” The power balance in the region has been upset after the US attack on Iraq and the subsequent Arab Spring. The Middle East has become embroiled in an unknown process of reconfiguring alliances. This condition is also strangely reminiscent of a post-modern situation: alliances have become unstable and floating. Turkey, for example, informs Iran about an Israeli spying ring while competing alongside Israel with Iran over Syria as well as its fighting against Saudi Arabia over influence in Egypt.

That is not all. The pseudo-hegemony that the US had in the Persian Gulf throughout the 1990s and early 2000s has faded. Take the Saudis for example, who sent troops to help with a crackdown in Bahrain without US permission. Put simply, these countries may still cooperate with one another but with fewer strings attached.

Saudi Arabia and Israel are also concerned that the Obama administration won’t take their interests completely into consideration and recognize that a nuclear deal with Iran will have a strong impact on the new hegemonic formation of the region. A few months ago, there was chatter from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf littoral states about wanting to participate in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the big world powers. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reportedly rejected this request. It is only natural for players like France — which have lost its traditional influence in The Levant — to use the existing vacuum to take on bigger roles.

Rephrasing the words of the American author Bo Bennett, “more than saying or doing the right things at the right time,” under the current circumstances, the art of diplomacy over the Iranian nuclear issue must be “to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing at any time.”

Ali Reza Eshraghi

Ali Reza Eshraghi is the Iran Projects Director at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies. During his more than 15-year career in journalism, he has published hundreds of articles and op-ed pieces in various Persian, Arabic and English media including the New York Times, CNN and Al Jazeera. Eshraghi is an alumnus of the Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution. Formerly, he was a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and The Institute of International Studies (IIS). He was also a research fellow at the Religion, Politics and Globalization Program at UC Berkeley. Eshraghi studied Political Science and Islamic Studies at Imam Sadiq University in Tehran.



  1. I wonder, just what would have happened if France had succeed in building Nuclear reactors in all those M.E. countries way back when? Would Israel have bombed them too?

  2. Fine piece. My own view is that Iran will not be able to make a deal with EU3+3 unless it allows modification of Arak, to lessen the potential danger it poses.

  3. it this respet you are very knowledgable. what kind of lubrican should we use in these activities? there are water based lubricants, and silicon based lubricants.

  4. @Parviz – – A few glasses of claret can be a good lubricant too. But this is against the rules at Geneva, I would assume.

  5. @James– Yes, the French in Geneva would be partial to and celebrate Bordeaux

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