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reflections

Sep 23, 2009 | 01:55 GMT

5 mins read

A French Twist in Washington's Sanctions Plan

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTER BERNARD KOUCHNER, in an interview published Tuesday in The New York Times, announced a shift in his country's stance concerning sanctions against Iran. Kouchner, who was attending the U.N. General Assembly session in New York, said he had deep misgivings about blocking gasoline shipments to Iran — part of the U.S. administration's plan. Calling the plan "dangerous," Kouchner — who, along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is known for having relatively pro-American views — is breaking away from France's previous, and very vocal, support for the sanctions. In recent months, France has been one of the staunchest supporters of Washington’s plan to increase pressure on Iran. Paris has been growing much closer to Washington since Sarkozy took the helm in 2007, ending his country's Gaullist period. During the Gaullist era, France often perceived the United States — and particularly the U.S. dominance of European foreign and defense policies through NATO — as a threat that could make Paris irrelevant. At the time, the French saw their country as a key world power that did not need hefty alliances, and that needed to stand apart from the United States. It might appear that French pride has Paris dialing back its support for the United States. In reality, it is French pragmatism. But as Sarkozy took office, French leaders realized that a re-emerging Germany was threatening France’s ability to be a European power — let alone a world power. Paris changed its strategy: Its new aim was to become the United States' key ally on the Continent, thereby assuring that Germany and other possible competitors would not be able to challenge France’s relevance or security. Consequently, France has returned to the NATO command structure — which it left in 1966 under Charles de Gaulle — and the strategy shift has prompted Sarkozy to design a European defense command to fully integrate into NATO (in sharp contrast to the plans of his Gaullist predecessor, Jacques Chirac, for a fully independent defense command). France also has been part of U.S.-led negotiations involving Israel and the Palestinians and has been one of the strongest supporters of the United States' Iran policy. Iran has been one issue that France, like the rest of Europe, has tried to stay out of until recently. But unlike most other European countries, France can afford to have a robust policy against Iran. The other European heavyweight, Germany, has deep economic and social ties with Iran, preventing Berlin from coming out decisively against Tehran. In contrast, France traditionally has had ties to the Arab states of the Middle East. Theoretically, this gives Paris a little more room for joining in with the U.S. plans for crippling sanctions against Iran. Over the past few months, French leaders decided to take part in the possible sanctions regime. France’s involvement in such a critical situation would boost Paris' profile internationally. The French eagerly joined in on the negotiations and call for sanctions, even though their largest energy firm, Total, would be one of the companies targeted by the sanctions. But Kouchner's statement reflects an abrupt shift in everything France had been working for on the Iran issue. STRATFOR has learned from sources in Moscow that Russia is at the root of this sudden change. The United States and Russia are locked in a standoff, and Moscow is using Iran in attempts to gain concessions from Washington concerning Russia's sphere of influence. As part of this power struggle, Russia has devised a plan to undermine the effectiveness of the potential sanctions. Within the past week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with his French counterpart, Francois Fillon, at the presidential residence outside of Moscow — a location Putin tends to use for critical private meetings. At these talks, the Russians explained their view of the U.S. plans for Iran and said that they intend to thwart the sanctions. Also during the past week, STRATFOR sources have indicated that Russian representatives met with leaders of Total — who typically pull a lot of weight with the French government — to give the same explanation. In all likelihood, Moscow offered some heavy incentives and put pressure on Paris and the energy company. But the French realize now that any U.S. sanctions against Iran would not be effective — hence Kouchner's sudden shift. It might appear that French pride has Paris dialing back its support for the United States. In reality, it is French pragmatism: Paris was willing to make some real sacrifices in order to support the sanctions against Iran, but if success is impossible without Russian cooperation, then France will to explore what it can get from the Russians for changing its stance. From Moscow’s point of view, Russia is neutralizing part of the U.S. strategy against Iran by convincing the French to reconsider support for the sanctions. The move comes at an important time, from Moscow's perspective: The Russians will enter into some tough negotiations with the United States on Wednesday.

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