France pips US, Britain to Iran goal line

M.K. Bhadrakumar July 29, 2015 2:38 PM (UTC+8)
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When two countries of similar DNA get together, it becomes quite a tango. Both Iran and France are known for their pragmatism that at times gets close to opportunism. Unsurprisingly, the visit by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to Tehran on Wednesday drew much attention.

Fabius no doubt extracted the invitation out of the Iranians. Only the other day he had vaguely spoken about an early visit to Iran and by Wednesday he was already in Tehran. And he came armed with an irresistible invitation letter from President Francois Hollande to his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani to pay a state visit to Paris.

Rouhani and Hollande at UN
Rouhani and Hollande at UN

Fabius, of course, put on his best face by even penning a column in the Iranian press with the impressive title “Joint Measure for a Safer World.” Fabius wrote:

“The French have always been attracted by Iran, especially the heritage of this ancient culture and the share of this country in the history of science and thought… Today conditions are ripe for the improvement and promotion of exchanges between the two countries… The French technology and products are creditable and we know they are responsive to the demands of the consumers and Iranian entrepreneurs. From now on, new prospects will be opened for the two countries and we can proceed even farther in economic cooperation.

“France, which is a power of security and peace always, and even at the time when approaches were different, has had relations with Iran based on respect and precision. It is upon such a mentality that I travel to Iran … We will especially talk about issues related to peace and security in the Middle East … Iran as an influential country can play a positive role in confronting with these crises and disasters”.

Fabius was known till the other day as the “Iron Man Against Iran” who constantly threatened to derail the Iran nuclear talks with his hawkish demands. France held Saudi Arabia’s brief and in the process could wrap up highly lucrative business deals with Riyadh in the past year or two, running into tens of billions dollars.

Indeed, at other times it seemed the US and France played the ‘good cop’ and the ‘bad cop.’ But somewhere along the line, President Barack Obama cut loose to offer the famous “sunset” arrangement to the Iranians, whereby in a little over a decade Tehran will be a free bird to fly high in the firmament.

Fabius grasped instantaneously that Washington was bent on getting an Iran deal somehow. Overnight France’s priority changed from nuclear non-proliferation to engagement with Iran. France sized up that its interests lay in making the best out of a bad situation after all those years of self-portrayal as the most ferocious watchdog of the western world on the duplicitous Iranians.

Fabius made it to Tehran only ten days after Germany’s vice-chancellor and minister of economy Sigmar Gabriel did in a mission to advance German commercial interests. He is vastly outstripping his other western colleagues by a mile. His Italian or British counterpart is yet to buy the air ticket to Tehran.

Of course, the Iranians know that Fabius was coming wearing sackcloth and ashes. But they pretended not to notice. Even as a clutch of Iranian protestors held placards at the Tehran Mehrabad Airport – ‘AIDS, A French Gift to Iran’, ‘We Neither Forgive nor Forget’, ‘No Welcome to AIDS Lord’ – the establishment extended a cordial welcome to Fabius.

Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif noted that Iran and France, after all, have “age-old relations,” which will now “broaden”, paving the way for cooperation in energy, transportation and auto manufacturing sectors. Fabius disclosed that a high level French business delegation led by two senior cabinet ministers will be visiting Iran in September.

Oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh assured Fabius, “French petrochemical companies are among our old colleagues” and a new chapter of cooperation with Total will begin to develop Iran’s oilfields.

President Rouhani offered to Fabius that Iran is ready to help restore stability in the Middle East. But then, taking note of the ups and downs in the relations between the two countries, he added a word of advice: “We [Iran] are looking for proper relations in the future, but it is quite natural that all should take lessons from past events.”

France didn’t have a smooth relationship with Iran all through modern history. It is actually an accident-prone relationship that has been vulnerable to interference by Russia, Britain, Israel and the US. Most certainly, France will have to do a balancing act in the contemporary setting insofar as it has extensive business interests in the Arab countries, especially the GCC states.

The point is, the relations with Iran have not been a priority for France and it is improbable that Fabius’s visit signifies a reset of the calculus as such by recognizing Iran as the most important regional power in the Middle East.

France is positioning itself for a transformative period that lies ahead in the Middle East – and, engaging an important player like Iran would be the right thing to do in the emergent scenario. Iran, on the other hand, may not settle for a role in the same category as France’s close Arab partners, which would be less than symbolizing its power and security in the region.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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