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Jan 26, 2012 | 12:08 GMT

French Political Calculations and Iranian Sanctions

BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images

Summary

France took the lead in the EU approval of the latest round of Iranian sanctions. The move is a low-cost strategy for France, which, in light of the European financial crisis, needs to reassert itself alongside Germany as Europe's co-leader.

Analysis

The European Union agreed Jan. 23 to implement a new round of sanctions against Iran, including an unprecedented embargo on Iranian crude oil.

In the past, Europe generally has acted in concert with U.S. punitive measures against Iran — with varying degrees of enthusiasm. While most EU member states have publicly supported the latest round of sanctions since talk of such measures resumed in November, France has been the most vocal proponent — a move in keeping with Paris' perceived foreign policy leadership role in the European Union. Indeed, Paris has several political and geopolitical reasons for supporting the sanctions.

Ever since Germany emerged from reunification as a major political and economic player, France has tried to manage Europe based on a perception of Franco-German parity. France understands it cannot surpass Germany as an economic leader, so Paris often has assumed the role of Europe's unofficial diplomatic leader. Indeed, Paris in many instances has served as Europe's diplomatic hub, serving as the Continent's primary point of contact for other states that interact with Europe collectively. Berlin acquiesces to this perception so that it can take a less prominent role in international affairs. This suits the rest of Europe, which is still wary of a Germany with unchecked power. Thus, France and Germany benefit from the arrangement.

For France, this arrangement is especially important in light of the ongoing European financial crisis. While Germany assumes greater command of creating new financial mechanisms for eurozone members and enacting stricter enforcement of the eurozone's fiscal agreements, France has been struggling to maintain its perception as a German equal — evidenced by France's downgrade from Standard & Poor's prized AAA credit rating. (Germany has retained its AAA status.) Thus, France is looking for a way to restore its credibility as Europe's co-leader.

Moreover, with dwindling popular support and a contentious presidential election less than 12 weeks away, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has a stake in reasserting France's primacy on the international and European scenes. A push for harsher Iranian sanctions is a well-suited and highly visible opportunity to showcase French diplomatic leadership on the international scene and at the European level. For Sarkozy, diplomatic acumen is one area where he can undoubtedly outshine his main presidential contenders, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande and National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, neither of whom have the personality or experience of Sarkozy.

Foreign policy, especially with regard to Iran, is not a major issue for French voters. However, taking a strong role on international affairs has served Sarkozy well in the past; having France at the forefront of an important international issue can arouse pride in the French public. With the elections less than three months away, Sarkozy does not have the luxury of waiting to see if a better opportunity than Iran will come along.

Imposing harsher sanctions against Iran is a low-cost measure for France. It carries fewer risks than the intervention in Libya (which had little impact on Sarkozy's domestic popularity), and taxpayers do not have to finance a military conflict. Moreover, France's overwhelming reliance on nuclear power makes the country relatively less vulnerable than most countries to crisis in the global oil supply.

The benefit to France is manifold. With a unanimous agreement on tougher sanctions, France shows that it can unite Europe on at least one foreign policy issue. It can also show that Paris can get Germany onboard with policies that prioritize things other than Germany's bottom line.

Germany, Europe's supposed co-leader, is more than happy to have France take the lead on the Iran issue. Even though Iran is a valuable trading partner for Germany — Iran imports $5 billion-worth of machinery parts, equipment and manufactured goods, and the embargo likely will adversely affect trade — Germany does not import much Iranian crude oil, so an embargo against Iranian crude oil is not a strategically important issue for Berlin. But more important, Berlin does not want to give the impression it is abandoning the notion of collective management.

At France's behest, there is a six-month window before the embargo goes into effect, and there are possible exceptions for southern European states that, as the largest consumes of Iranian oil, would be the hardest hit by an embargo. This shows the rest of Europe that France will not let Germany dictate policies unilaterally, especially policies that seem to disregard the needs and interests of Europe's less influential players. (Germany was pushing for a three-month window.) The embargo reminds Europe — and the world — that France can lead Europe alongside Germany.

It should be noted that a true embargo of Iranian oil is not without its risks for Europe. The financial situation will worsen across the Continent. Escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf and prolonged uncertainty in the global oil market will make Europe's economic recovery more difficult. This is especially true for the southern European states. Increased oil prices will hurt these states financially, and they could further already strained tensions between northern and southern European states. 

European support of the embargo signals to Iran the extent to which the United States can galvanize other players against Tehran. The Europeans understand that the United States is simultaneously putting out diplomatic feelers to Iran and that both parties are trying to revive nuclear negotiations. The Europeans may be hoping that their backing will provoke negotiations rather than hostilities. In the short term, the Europeans can afford to apply pressure that moves everyone toward negotiations and curries favor with the United States. But as the situation draws out, the Europeans have more to lose than the United States.

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