The sudden convergence of foreign ministers in Geneva over the weekend – John Kerry the US secretary of state, his colleagues from Iran, the UK, France, Germany and Russia, plus the EU’s foreign policy chief and a Chinese vice-minister – suggested that an interim agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme might have been at hand.
But while the US, Iran and others appeared to be nearing an agreement, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared mais non.
The French insisted that the agreement being contemplated didn’t go far enough in forcing the Iranians to mothball a heavy-water plutonium reactor near the city of Arak. And they took a tougher line in demanding that Iran not only suspend its production of 20-per-cent-enriched uranium, but convert existing stocks into oxidised forms more difficult to use in nuclear weapons.
With this last-minute intervention, France showed again that under different governments in recent years it has become the most hawkish western nation on matters involving the Middle East and neighbouring areas. France pushed the Libyan intervention, invaded and rescued Mali, was most enthusiastic about strikes against Syrian chemical weapons targets and, on Iran, refused to accept what it bluntly called a “sucker’s deal”.
Notably, it was the French, not the Americans, who publicly insisted that the concerns of the West’s Middle East allies, including the Arabian Peninsula states and Israel, be part of the equation.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, in a brief press conference with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said tersely that talks would resume in Geneva on November 20.
Ever since the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, launched his “charm offensive” of sustained overtures towards the West, with the overt blessing and support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the prospect of an agreement has become plausible, after many years of stalemate.
French objections aside, it is really the convergence of US and Iranian desires to avoid an even deeper confrontation over the nuclear file that makes an agreement possible at this stage. Both sides have an incentive to buy time, postpone a potential confrontation and leave the most difficult decisions for another day.
US President Barack Obama’s formula – that “Iran will not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon” – looks straightforward at first glance, but the precise meaning of “possess”, and exactly what constitutes “a nuclear weapon”, would have to be defined in order to glean the precise trigger for an American military intervention.
Still, this policy does commit the US to intervene at some point if Iran persists in attempting to become a nuclear power. But it’s clear that the Obama administration has a strong preference for diplomacy over force.
The palpable urgency on the Iranian side reflects the crippling effect of the latest and toughest sanctions regime on the Iranian economy. Many observers see Mr Rouhani’s strong electoral mandate as a reflection of overwhelming public demand for a serious effort to get these sanctions, especially on banking and oil, lifted or at least eased. Mr Khamenei’s strong backing for Mr Rouhani suggests that even he realises there is a pressing need to achieve this.
This urgency is also the product of the fact that while Mr Rouhani has a mandate and real domestic political momentum to make an overture to the international community and the West, he also faces stiff opposition from Iranian hardliners.
Mr Khamenei’s recent admonition to the Revolutionary Guard that it “does not have a political role”, and the hardliners’ strong backlash against Mr Rouhani’s courting of the West underscore the size of the domestic political challenges he faces.
The Iranians seek an easing of the most pressing sanctions in exchange for easily reversed suspensions of enrichment and other aspects of its programme. France is not the only potential obstacle. Some of what Iran is looking for would require the approval of the US Senate which is, if anything, moving to tighten rather than loosen sanctions.
Even if a “first step” deal is achieved, and buys time for both sides, a broader agreement that essentially ensures Iran will not become a nuclear power would be much more challenging. It would hinge on the number and kind of centrifuges Iran may retain, and other measures that reverse Iranian progress to date.
But this is what American allies – including the United Arab Emirates, which Mr Kerry is scheduled to visit today, and Saudi Arabia – will require if they are to believe the United States has fulfilled its regional responsibilities.
Israel, meanwhile, has said it will not feel bound by any western agreement with Iran.
If the US is seen as simply buying time for itself while leaving its allies vulnerable, they may look for other options. Israel may launch a military strike of its own. And GCC states may look beyond Washington for protection.
Some of America’s traditional friends seem to be concluding, with alarm, that the US is morphing from the guarantor of regional stability to a broker of unsatisfactory and tenuous agreements with regimes that should be confronted or contained. The impression that only last-minute French intervention prevented a rushed and unwise agreement with Iran – even if that impression is unfounded and unjust – exacerbates rather than assuages such fears.
This trend is profoundly unhealthy. It is strongly in the interests of America and its Middle East allies that confidence in US leadership, and mutual respect and loyalty, be revived and strengthened.