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Behind the French Power Play in Iran Talks

As this issue of MEB goes to press, all six foreign ministers of the P5+1 have arrived in Geneva overnight to participate in talks with Iran on Saturday, November 23.  Secretary of State John Kerry flew in after a telephone call from Catherine Ashton, indicating that a meeting she had just had with Iranian negotiators suggested that final language was close to being agreed upon.  On Tuesday, November 19, Iranian President Rouhani had spoken by phone with China’s President Xi Jinping and asked that China mediate a final deal if there was a serious prospect of signing an interim agreement.

When French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrived in Geneva on November 8 to join in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran for a six month interim agreement, he came armed with a French intelligence assessment that Iran’s heavy-water reactor, under construction at Arak, was a vital component of the Islamic Republic’s quest for a nuclear weapon.  According to French intelligence assessments, the degree of covert collaboration between Iran and North Korea was a crucial feature of Iran’s nuclear program.  During prolonged Six Party negotiations a decade ago, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) had secretly completed plutonium enrichment and surprised most of the world’s intelligence services by demonstrating that they had successfully built a nuclear bomb.

Fabius was convinced by his intelligence services that the prospect of a similar Iranian breakout was so serious that he had to adopt a hardline on the issue of the Arak facility.

It was not a new role for the French in the P5+1 process. During the earlier talks in February and March of 2013 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the chief French negotiator, Jacques Audibert, the Director General of Political and Security Affairs of the Foreign Ministry, had disrupted the talks with harsh accusations against Iran that had angered both the American and British delegations.  On March 21, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in a public address that “officials of the French government have been openly hostile towards the Iranian nation over the past few years and this is not a clever move by the French government officials.”  He noted that the problems had been persistent “since the time of Sarkozy.”

In fact, Audibert had conducted secret negotiations with Iran for President Sarkozy.  Those negotiations, mediated by former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, had broken down, much to the anger of both Sarkozy and Audibert.

Prior to Fabius’ arrival in Geneva on November 8, 2013, the U.S. and Iranian negotiators had produced a joint power-point draft of an interim agreement, which was considered a breakthrough.  Catherine Ashton, the chief P5+1 negotiator, had summoned US Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva in the belief that a final document was near to being signed.

Fabius objected to the language, demanding that a precise formulation be added—freezing all construction at the Arak site for the six month interim period of negotiation.  His case was compelling, according to delegates, even though it meant that the Iranians would be unable to approve the changes at the last moment.  Instead of reaching a final deal, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif had to return to Tehran to confer with the Supreme Leader on the changes that had been approved, begrudgingly, by all of the P5+1 negotiators.  Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani met with the Supreme Leader within days of Zarif’s return home.   The Supreme Leader spelled out precise “red lines” for the resumed talks.

It remains to be seen whether the French intervention will kill the interim deal altogether.   French President Francoise Hollande visited Israel days after the early November Geneva session, where he vowed to maintain a hard-line in the Iran talks, echoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument that a bad deal is worse than no deal at all.

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