The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

November 10, 2013

French out-tough U.S. over Iran nuclear program

PARIS — When Iran appeared close to a preliminary deal with world powers over its nuclear program, France stepped up to say: Not so fast — a surprise move that exposed divisions among the United States and other Western negotiators who had long been in lockstep on the issue.

France, analysts say, was motivated by factors including its tough stand against the spread of nuclear weapons, skepticism about Tehran's trustworthiness, and the longstanding French tradition of speaking out on the world stage. Critics faulted France for alleged grandstanding and seeking closer ties with Iran's foes.

After the Geneva talks ended early Sunday with no deal, diplomats including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that progress was nonetheless made and negotiations will continue Nov. 20. He said the U.S. was "grateful" to the French and shared some of their concerns.

After the failure of European-led talks with Iran over the nuclear program in the mid-2000s — when America gave Iran the silent treatment — Paris has staked out a hard-line stance. While President Barack Obama has recently sought a breakthrough, France has little to gain politically from an accord, and that gives Paris a freer hand to stick to strategic and security concerns.

In Geneva, the U.S., Britain, Germany, Russia, China and top EU diplomat Catherine Ashton were looking for initial caps on Iran's ability to make an atomic bomb, while Tehran sought some easing of sanctions stifling its economy. But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius broke the near-uniform silence of the diplomats during the talks by using French radio to express reservations about Iran's enrichment of uranium and prospects of producing plutonium.

"You know, the French are very irritating. When the Americans absolutely want to do something, the French have this terrible habit of somewhat disagreeing," said analyst Francois Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research think tank in Paris. "We actually have experience in dealing with the Iranians directly. There used to be negotiations between the Europeans (and the Iranians) between 2003 and 2005."

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