Nov 11, 2013 | 19:44 GMT

5 mins read

France's Role in the Iran Negotiations

France's Role in the Iran Negotiations

France's apparently hard-line stance in the nuclear negotiations with Iran is not indicative of a break from the U.S. position. France stands to gain domestically and with its partners by highlighting its important foreign policy role while bringing itself closer to Israel and other Middle Eastern countries that are concerned about the talks. In addition, a firmer French position in the negotiations contrasts with a somewhat more amicable U.S. position, benefiting the United States' negotiating position. Paris and Washington are likely coordinating, and any differences would probably be aired in confidence.

In recent years, France appears to have adopted a more hawkish stance on world issues, from intervening in Mali to demanding that the Syrian regime be "punished" for its use of chemical weapons against its civilian population. France's hard stance in the negotiations with Iran in recent days seems to be part of the same trend. Paris' latest moves are in line with its strategic interests and, to some extent, its short-term goal of increasing the government's domestic support.

France is both a Mediterranean power and a former colonial power. As a result, Paris has political, economic and military interests in several parts of Africa and the Middle East. This explains France's military involvement in Mali, a former French colony in West Africa, and its permanent interest in countries such as Libya, Syria and Lebanon. In 2011, France participated in the air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and in 2013 it was on the frontline of political pressure on the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria. France has troops deployed in Chad, the Central African Republic, Gabon and Lebanon, among other countries.

However, Paris intervenes militarily only in cases where its strategic interests are at stake, and usually under the umbrella of some sort of international alliance to provide its acts with some degree of legitimacy. Capability is also an issue: Mali required very few troops but France still needed some assistance in key areas such as refueling as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. For larger operations (such as those in Libya or Syria), France does not have the sheer volume and capability to do the operation cleanly without a coalition.

The failure by Western powers to bomb Syria is a clear example of this trend. In early 2013, Paris and London pushed Washington to intervene in the Syrian conflict, but in the wake of the British Parliament's rejection of military action and facing U.S. indecisiveness on the issue, Paris quickly abandoned the push for military action. Regarding Iran's nuclear program, Paris does not want Tehran to start a nuclear race in the Middle East that could affect French interests in the region, so it is genuinely interested in curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

In addition to its strategic interests, Paris is also looking for short-term tactical gains to boost its position at home. The country's stagnating economy and rising unemployment have made the government of President Francois Hollande very unpopular at home, with opinion polls suggesting that two-thirds of the population is willing to take to the streets to protest Paris' policies. Foreign policy is one of the few areas where the government can show strength, resolution and the kind of leadership that the French believe Hollande lacks. This is one of the reasons Paris is taking a strong stance in international affairs, with Syria (and now Iran) as clear examples. However, this tactic has limits. Most French voters are far more concerned about the domestic economy than foreign affairs.

France could gain financially from the Gulf Cooperation Council's frustrations over recent U.S. policy in the Middle East. Significant defense contracts worth tens of billions of dollars are up for grabs in the Gulf region, ranging from aircraft to warships to missile systems. France is predominantly competing with Britain and the United States for the contracts and is seeking to position itself as a key ally of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as it seeks to strengthen its defense and industrial ties with the region. For example, on Nov. 10 Saudi and French troops began a series of military exercises in Saudi Arabia. (Both countries held joint exercises in Corsica last year.)

By highlighting to the Gulf states that it shares their concerns on Syria and Iran, France can lend some political support to its arms tenders, but Paris realizes that although this may bolster their goals it would hardly be the decisive criteria in the arms selections. U.S. defense ties with the Gulf countries are strong, and though countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar may be inclined to sign further arms deals with France, Paris will hardly be able to dominate the large Gulf arms market. Still, with so much money at stake, even a slight political advantage helps.

This strategy is not without risks. For example, Tehran is exploring ways to make its energy sector more inviting to foreign investment, and France's tough stance against Iran could undermine attempts by French energy companies to benefit from any preferential treatment Iran offers. Additionally, French companies in the nuclear energy and manufacturing sector could see their potential involvement in Iran hurt if relations worsen.

In any case, the talks with Iran ended but did not fail. As Stratfor forecast, the United States will move toward some degree of alignment with Iran in the coming years, independent of what France does. Moreover, France and the United States have a general consensus on Iran, so a serious disagreement between Washington and Paris over the Iranian issue seems unlikely.

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