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    Middle East
     May 5, 2012

Iran hopes for socialist victory
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Tehran is abuzz with optimism that it may no longer have to deal with the hawkish and Islamophobic Nicolas Sarkozy, widely considered the staunchest pro-Israel French president ever, if he is voted out of office in run-off elections on Sunday and replaced by the comparatively more moderate socialist candidate, Francois Hollande.

We will know shortly whether or not this optimism is warranted; what is beyond doubt is that a Hollande victory would be a good omen for French-Iran relations that are presently at a low ebb and could conceivably grow worse if Sarkozy somehow manages a surprise victory despite trailing Hollande by several points in opinion polls on the eve of the election.

With crucial Iran nuclear talks in Baghdad on May 23, Hollande - if president - could demonstrate a foreign policy shift by adopting a more independent posture than the US-subservient approach of his predecessor, who closely followed the US's footsteps in the


Middle East, and especially in punishing Iran over its nuclear program.

In turn, this could spur the White House to be more serious about finding a diplomatic solution, instead of constantly playing with the fire of military confrontation with Iran, which some suspect is pursing a nuclear weapons program, something Tehran denies.

In the event this materializes in tandem with other similar gestures by a new French president who has explicitly called for a more "balanced" world order, we are likely to witness a dramatic increase in France's diplomatic influence in the nuclear standoff, as well as Paris's ability to petition for the release of opposition "Green" movement leaders who are under house arrest in Iran.

At present, because of Sarkozy's lack of credibility with Tehran, France has less than zero power of persuasion with Iran's leaders, who have time and again expressed their strong disapproval of Sarkozy's policy choices toward the Middle East, not to mention his and his party's behavior towards Muslims in France.

This may change overnight if Hollande is elected and then makes a personal appeal to Tehran for the freedom of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, two left-leaning presidential candidates who are accused of sedition for inciting post-election disturbances in Iran. Karoubi was a candidate in the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections that saw Mahmud Ahmadinejad come into and then retain the position. Mousavi contested the 2009 election.

According to a Tehran University political science professor who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity, Hollande's victory could have a "disproportionate impact in the Middle East. It would mean the onset of more independent European politics that could be replicated in Germany and Italy next year since they also have elections coming up, and that spells trouble for Israel as well as the US and its trans-Atlantic alliance."

As if sensing the importance of a more balanced French foreign policy, Sarkozy has now come up with the pledge to travel to Israel and push for the dormant Middle East peace process, a forgotten agenda during his first term in office.

Yet, by all indications, such last-minute policy adjustments are too late, with a left turn in French politics expected, spurred by a sluggish economy, Sarkozy's divisive and elitist politics and the political enthusiasm generated by the populist appeal of Hollande for middle- and working-class voters.

Although some Western media have branded him as "a danger to France and Europe", Hollande could turn out to be the opposite - a messenger of peace, representing what Europe desperately needs, an uplift in its image as a kinder and gentler continent.

Thus, compared with Sarkozy, who was completely sold to the American-Israeli pattern of coercive policy vis-a-vis Iran, Hollande is apt to pursue a markedly different track that emphasizes dialogue and cooperation as an incentive for eradicating escalating tensions.

If this rubs off on the rest of Europe and Iran begins to sense healthy new politics dominating the European scene, then it will be more amenable to show flexibility on the nuclear front.

Improved Iran-French relations could have serious economic implications in terms of boosting their bilateral relations and even raising the prospect of nuclear cooperation, given France's advanced nuclear reactor technology.

Although Tehran does not expect any significant immediate foreign policy change by a Hollande government, assuming that he wins on Sunday, nonetheless it is fairly convinced that Hollande's foreign policy statements, such as his intention to accelerate the French exit from Afghanistan, reflect a new type of leader who could be considered as a serious counterpart in dialogue.

A key issue that is bound to come up at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit meeting in the US this month concerns the US's missile defense system in Europe that both Hollande and his leftist supporters have openly questioned.

An issue of security concern for both Tehran and Moscow, this is an area where Hollande can exert influence and push for NATO reconsideration, particularly if the Baghdad nuclear talks go well and finally culminate in a resolution that puts to rest Europe's worry over possible Iranian nuclear-armed missiles. Inevitably, this will introduce some new US-French rifts that will weaken Washington's Russia policy as well as its Iran policy.

At the same time, a Hollande victory may prove to be a boon for US President Barack Obama, who is challenged by a vintage capitalist Republican hopeful, Mitt Romney. Hollande's stated plans for taxing the rich and increasing the government's job-creation efforts resonate with many American voters who may be influenced against the right-wing Romney by the French example.
A re-elected Obama, unhinged from campaign pressures, could well prioritize Middle East peace in tandem with Hollande, as well as any other leftist European leader in the coming years.

None of the above is welcome news for Israel, which has a vested interest in the right-wing status quo in mainland Europe that is now in the throes of a subtle though significant political shift.

Losing the close allay Sarkozy would hit Israel hard, adding to the still fresh concern of losing reliable partners in corrupt and dictatorial Arab leaders such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

Faced with the prospect of weakening Western support, Israel will likely encounter tough choices, and it is far from given that it will accommodate itself to the shifting political winds.

"Israel stands to be a net loser in the French elections and that is worrisome for its leaders," says the Tehran professor. The question is: can Tehran and Paris prove winners in what should be a "win-win" scenario?

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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