On Iran, Chirac steps in as Bush fears to tread

por John Vinocur
1 de febrero de 2006
(Published in The International Herald Tribune, January 30, 2006)

France, once more the contrarian, is offering up some carefully ambiguous hard talk these days on managing the emergence of Iran as a nuclear threat – at a time when Hillary Clinton has accused the Bush administration of downplaying the problem.

In today’s context, that downplay would aim at keeping Iran out of the political debate in America as much as possible as its troops struggle in Iraq. All the more since the White House wants to avoid public controversy about a possible military confrontation with the mullahs in the run-up to congressional elections in November.

Contrarian France comes in here because Clinton also charged the administration with losing critical time by outsourcing negotiations with Tehran aimed at stopping its drive for nuclear weapons capability to Britain, France and Germany.

Whatever positioning in the international pecking order or domestic politics is involved (both significant French concerns), the language of realism about the parameters of response to the Iranian threat comes easier, and more officially for the moment, in Paris than in Washington, London or Berlin.

Without referring to Iran, Jacques Chirac picked a blindingly obvious juncture a week after Iran resumed uranium enrichment this month to say that dealing with threats to France’s vital interests posed by rogue states or state-sponsored terrorism fit the doctrine of French use of its nuclear arsenal. Those vital interests, determined by the president, he said, can be ‘French, European, or of another nature.’

Chirac is certainly not menacing Iran with nuclear attack, but rather emphasizing France’s prerogatives and independence at a time when he believes that his political interests at home and French status as a power-player are not best served by wordless caution.

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Contrast the tone of remarks over the weekend by the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, that current negotiations must allow Iran to ‘preserve a sense of national dignity’ – letting it produce ‘symbolic’ amounts of the enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons manufacture, perhaps? – with what General Henri Bentegeat, the French chief of staff, was authorized to say as a follow-up to Chirac’s nuclear pronouncement:

Bentegeat, while dismissing the prospect of raids on Tehran’s nuclear facilities, described Iran as ‘demonstrating extremely warlike intentions.’

You can read into the general’s controlled ambiguity the idea that if there is no military frame of reference at the end of the current diplomatic road undertaken by the United States and Europe, then ‘an extremely warlike’ Iran will see no incentive to abandon its weapons development.

In writing about how to approach Iran last year, Thérèse Delpech, director of strategic affairs at the French Atomic Energy Commission, and the country’s best-known commentator on nuclear proliferation, said, ‘you’ve got to have credible means of dissuasion.’

‘It’s not in exclaiming that military action never resolves anything that you get results,’ she said, ‘especially if you eliminate the use of oil sanctions at the same time.’

Unlike in the United States, where new political grief would await whatever Bush might say, or shies away from saying, about dealing with Iran beyond its eventual referral to the United Nations Security Council, in France there is no serious domestic downside built-in to challenge Chirac’s approach.

When the French were last specifically asked in a German Marshall Fund poll in 2003 if they would support a Security Council-authorized attack on Iran (participant countries and means unspecified) to force it to give up weapons of mass destruction, a majority said yes. By contrast, the Germans canvassed replied no.

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From within France’s mainstream left, former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, a would-be Socialist candidate in the 2007 presidential election, not only avoided criticism of Chirac’s pointed reiteration of French nuclear doctrine, but has gone further, calling for an international ban on travel by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in response to his assertion that Israel should be erased from the map.

On the right, even a backer of Nicolas Sarkozy like Pierre Lellouche – president of NATO’s parliamentary assembly, a former security adviser to Chirac, and now author of a new book harshly critical of the president – described Chirac’s stance as ‘important and necessary.’

It’s no mystery, of course, that in talking about rogue states, threats of terrorism, and French nuclear weapons capabilities, Chirac created an I’m-in-charge-here event to project his role as French commander-in-chief both at home and on the world stage. It is unmistakably a response to a growing characterization that he is a lame duck less than a year and a half before presidential elections here, and his reminder that he remains in control at a time of a hard decisions for the Western allies.

But people familiar with his thinking emphasize that Chirac has been deeply and consistently mistrustful of Iran. In agreement on Iran’s destabilizing role in Lebanon and Syria, France and the United States have worked increasingly closely in the Middle East over the past year.

At the same time, of all the nuclear players, France and the United States have been the firmest advocates of nonproliferation as opposed to disarmament. Beyond its concerns over proliferation’s raising the risks of nuclear war, France knows its special levers on the international level would diminish in a world of nuclear promiscuity.

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Another element in taking a tougher-sounding stance in relation to Iran may well come from a changing French assessment of its relationship with the Germany of Angela Merkel.

As it becomes clearer that France will no longer operate as senior partner in an international strategic duo of the kind that existed during Gerhard Schröder’s second term as chancellor, France can prop up its international status by emphasizing its autonomy within the Security Council and as a nuclear power – a compensatory alternative to its loss of leverage in Germany.

In all this, the reverberations from Iran’s nuclear drive have an element or two of the nuclear equation of the early 1980s when François Mitterrand moved strategically alongside the Americans. Back then, both countries campaigned in favor of the publicly divisive stance that failure to prepare a military response to the Soviet targeting of SS-20 nuclear missiles on Western Europe might turn an ominous situation into a fatal one.

Now, before the potential challenge of a fanaticized and unpredictable regime that can actually put nuclear warheads on missiles, the Americans need all the help they can get from their friends. In a period of diplomatic effort, when sounding tough on Iran is awkward in Washington, it’s not totally excessive to think that during the months he’s got left, Chirac might extend a French hand.

Published at http://gees.org/articulos/on-iran-chirac-steps-in-as-bush-fears-to-tread