With the deadline for a historic deal on Iran’s nuclear program fast approaching, analysts have begun to speculate whether the wild card after months of delicate diplomacy may not, in fact, be the usual suspects: hard-liners in Tehran, hawks on Capitol Hill or Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been on an eleventh-hour push to thwart the deal. Instead, they say, all eyes are on Europe's "bad cop" on Iran: France.
Over several rounds of negotiations aimed at limiting Iran's nuclear work to strengthen safeguards against its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, France has taken the hardest line of any of the world powers seated across the table from Iran's diplomats. On Friday, less than two weeks before the March 31 deadline for a framework agreement, France's ambassador to Washington stirred anxieties by suggesting that the terms under consideration for the deal were not sufficiently stringent.
“We have been negotiating with Iran for 12 [years]. We shouldn’t be rushed into an agreement which will have to be comprehensive,” Ambassador Gerard Araud said in a tweet. “Making the end of March an absolute deadline is counterproductive and dangerous.”
To be sure, analysts doubt that France would risk an international crisis by pulling the plug on a long-awaited deal. But it has certainly positioned itself as the Western country pushing hardest to satisfy the concerns of Iran's regional antagonists, Israel and the Gulf Arab nations, which oppose a deal that leaves Tehran in possession of the nuclear infrastructure that could, in theory, allow it to build a bomb. (To do so, it would have to break out of an international agreement and circumvent the stringent monitoring regime currently in place.)
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius took a similar line in November 2013, matching hard-line rhetoric on nuclear compromise with diplomatic muscle to successfully push for stricter limits on Iran’s midlevel enrichment of uranium as part of the interim agreement that has guided the ongoing talks.
More recently, French officials have told reporters that they fear that U.S. President Barack Obama, who would consider an agreement with Iran his capstone foreign policy achievement, may be too anxious to hammer out a deal by the end of the month. Specifically, they have expressed concerns that the current parameters would allow Iran to continue producing low-enrichment uranium during the 10-year restricted period and potentially use its infrastructure to produce weapons-grade materiel later. They also want the U.N. Security Council to oversee Iran's nuclear program rather than the International Atomic Energy Agency, as is currently the case, and argue that sanctions should be repealed only gradually once Western powers are satisfied by Iran's compliance.
One explanation for France's hard-line stance is that it wants to foster closer economic ties with the wealthy nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), such as Saudi Arabia. François Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Iran, said Paris may be trying to cast itself in a similar light as it did in November 2013. “It would like to be able to say the agreement is a little better because it has put pressure on the other negotiators, especially the Americans,” he said. “It wants to be able to tell its friends — the Saudis and the Gulf, Israel — ‘We’ve done our best.’”
“Any diplomatic position is a mixture of principles and interests,” he added. “But in the end, I do not believe France is in a position to kill the agreement.”
For its part, Israel has made it clear that it considers France its final hope to alter the deal once again. “The French helped us a great deal” in 2013, said Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, who spoke to Israel Radio during a trip to meet with French diplomats this week. “This is an effort to prevent a deal that is bad and full of loopholes or at least … to succeed in closing or amending some of these loopholes.”
Valerie Lincy, the executive director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, argued that France is motivated in part by these "legitimate nonproliferation motives." There are plenty of outstanding issues at this point, she said from Paris, "and they’re not small."
But few believe Israeli pressure will factor into France's calculations. An unnamed French official recently told Reuters that Netanyahu's address to the U.S. Congress on March 3 — which came, controversially, at the invitation of Republican lawmakers rather than the president — pushed the anti-Iran and anti-diplomacy rhetoric too far. “In November 2013 we were working with them, and they played the game,” the diplomat said. “But here they have gone too far. We told them to play their part so they could influence a final accord, but they have taken unrealistic positions.”
Adnan Tabatabai, an Iran analyst in Berlin who recently met with French officials close to the talks, said France's apparent "bad cop" routine was more than just political theater. "This is a short-term consideration about gaining the trust of GCC countries, which the U.S. may have lost," he said.
But he said there seemed little chance at this point that France — or anyone else, for that matter — was likely to derail the talks. "The voices I hear from all sides are cautiously optimistic" about a breakthrough, he said.