French cheese-eating surrender monkeys no more

In contrast with America, France has detailed knowledge of Iranian nuclear programmes, and far better familiarity with Iranian negotiating psychology. That's why they've been so tough. No more monkeys; no more cheese

History has a sense of humour
Charles Crawford
On 14 November 2013 12:02

As if by magic the French in conservative US eyes have been transformed from craven cheese-eating surrender monkeys to doughty steak a l’Americaine-chewin’ freedom fighters. All because they stood firm against Obama/Kerry over Iran and sanctions.

Back in mid-2000, heavy economic sanctions had helped demolish much of the economy of Milosevic’s Serbia. He had called elections. I sat in the Foreign Office in London as part of the team arguing furiously down a conference-call line with Washington, Paris and Berlin about how the West might best respond.

The democratic Serbian opposition had called for some easing of sanctions before the elections as a bold sign of international support to themselves: if we did this the opposition could appeal to voters to be the only credible way to get all sanctions lifted. The French and Germans pressed this case heatedly on their behalf.

The Americans and we Brits pushed back hard. The only time to lift sanctions was after the elections had been won by the opposition, and Milosevic was 100 percent out. Any fiddly moves now would be exploited by Milosevic for his own PR purposes.

If (as was possible if not highly likely) Milosevic manipulated the election results to stay in power, we would have lost one of our weapons but got nothing in return. He would be stronger, we would be weaker.

Eventually the bad-tempered French and Germans had no choice but to accept our position – sanctions could be tweaked or lifted only if we all agreed to do so. The Russians listening in to all this and relaying the gist of it to Milosevic must have been laughing heartily at our puny disagreements.

That time the Americans and Brits got it right. The Serbian people swept Milosevic from power in the Bulldozer Revolution. Sanctions were then lifted as a powerful gesture of support to the new Serbian leadership. The classy French Political Director told us that we had been completely right to stand firm.

In this Iran case the dynamics are very different. There has been an election in Iran, and the new supposedly more ‘moderate’ leadership seems ready to do a deal to get sanctions lifted. Western governments are negotiating directly with the Iranians, not loftily staying back to watch what happens.

Broadly speaking Western governments do see the change of leadership in Tehran as a change for the better, and are ready to respond. They offer a step-by-step normalization of their relations with Iran, in return for Iran delivering a step-by-step retreat from its nuclear weapons programmes with accompanying transparency.

This problem comes down directly to trust. Trust is partly about instinct, and partly about precise assessment of the other side’s true intentions and motivations and actual deeds. Trust is unusually hard to establish here. Iran has long been slippery if not dishonest about its nuclear programmes, and Washington has had no serious sustained diplomatic engagement with Tehran for over 30 years.

France by contrast has detailed knowledge of Iranian nuclear programmes, and far better familiarity with Iranian negotiating psychology.

Is it possible to identify a stable and verifiable outcome under which Iran has a legitimate peaceful nuclear energy programme only? And if so, how can Western governments be sure that Iran is working to this end, and not creating crafty new routes to weaponization?  

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz suggests that the answer is “nuclear electricity, yes - uranium enrichment, no”. Iran could operate a civilian nuclear reactor for the production of electricity and medical purposes, but it should agree to buy its nuclear fuel rods elsewhere (as many other countries do). This would create a win-win situation.

The fact that Iran bluntly rejects this compromise that would enable sanctions to be lifted suggests that Iran wants to keep its enrichment technology for non-peaceful purposes?

The new Iranian negotiators likewise have to trust Western governments. If Iran does make good faith moves to retreat from weaponization, what if the West fails to come through on its promises to ease sanctions? Their own position vis-à-vis domestic extremists will be impossible – they may well believe that they have a lot more to lose than their jobs. And they may be right.

This time it was Washington pushing for erring on the side of generosity and trust to ‘support the reformers’, whereas France was insisting that it would be a grave mistake to give Iran anything significant without nailing down precisely what Iran would have to do in response.

If the Iranians found themselves empowered to complete the Arak nuclear reactor and not reduce its stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, the West and Israel might face a much worse situation but with their practical options reduced.

Intense discussions continue. This diplomatic manoeuvring with Iran is fraught with difficulty, but it looks like a major improvement on what we have seen in recent years.

Have sanctions against Iran worked as intended, by causing intense economic and other pain to the point of persuading Iran’s population and leaders alike to change course and cooperate normally with international opinion? Perhaps yes.

Or perhaps the Iranians are merely ducking and weaving to buy themselves the space to give themselves a nuclear weapons option, this time by throwing out all sorts of superficially attractive ‘compromises’ that leave their key goals unhindered.

Or perhaps they are torn between choices – they are ready to back down on weaponization if (but only if) they are persuaded that the West is sincere in normalising relations. Or perhaps the negotiators are sincere in offering to back down, but they simply don’t know that hard-line elements back in Iran are pressing on with their weapons programmes.

This is where intelligence is vital – a lot is at stake in this one (not least Israel’s very survival) so we need to strive to find out everything we can about what is actually happening in Iran’s inner policy circles and deep within the key installations concerned.

Wait …

But that means using MI6 and GCHQ and all that howwid undemocratic eavesdropping, including on German citizens with known connections to the former KGB doing their stolid best to sell honest civilian nuclear technology to Iran? Can’t have that!

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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