If you visit one of the few remaining large bookstores in a big city, you will find prominent among the two dozen or so displayed new non-fiction titles at least three works about World War I. A large anniversary looms for the summer of 1914, of course, but the subject is almost always of great interest: what combination of bad diplomacy, uncompromising small-nation nationalism, worst-case strategic fears and man-made systems too complicated for statesmen to alter or perhaps even understand (Russia’s army mobilization schedules) combusted to plunge Europe into a civilization-altering war that no major power desired or even thought possible. One hopes the failure of the p5+1 powers and Iran to reach agreement will not be plumbed by historians a hundred years hence in the same spirit, looking for off ramps before a tragedy that were there to be used but never taken.
Some of what happened in Geneva was positive: American and European diplomats interacted cordially with Iran’s new emissaries for many hours and now have a far better understanding of how to speak to one another directly and seek common ground without rhetoric or rancor. Already, diplomatic interaction with Iran has become somewhat regularized, akin to what it became between the West and the Soviets within a decade of Stalin’s death. This goes far towards making stumbling into war by accident or inadvertance less likely. Moreover, by all accounts a deal—a preliminary agreement that would have set the stage for more detailed negotiations over the ensuing months—had already been achieved. Israel’s Netanayahu objected to it vociferously, but not all Israeli strategists did. The neocons objected too, and their allies in Congress. But unlike 2002, they aren’t in power and Obama, Great Britain, Germany, and the large majority of the American strategic and foreign-affairs community which favors a settlement that actually puts the brakes on Iran’s nuclear nuclear quest would almost certainly have produced a political majority to finish a deal and ratify it.
Then at the last moment, France threw a spanner in the works. As a permanent and veto-wielding UN Security Council member, France is one of the “P5.” Its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, announced his intention to go to Geneva, which he then did while raising as dealbreakers issues that had already been agreed upon or (as in the case of the non-completed and therefore non-functioning Arak reactor) been agreed to be dealt with in the subsequent detailed negotiation. One has the sense that the actual issues France raised didn’t matter as much as the fact that France was exercising, in a forum closely watched throughout the world, its veto power. In the eyes of some American neocons, and perhaps Saudi Arabia, France’s socialist goverment achieved a kind of glory.
It is not clear what the failure (or delay—the negotiations will recommence at a lower level in ten days’ time) will mean. Certainly it will mean that Israel will have time to mobilize its forces in Congress to try block Obama’s ability to negotiate, and the hardliner enemy of the two-state solution Naftali Bennet is already winging his way to Washington this week to organize opposition. This would have happened anyway, but it would have been far easier for Obama to defend an existing agreement than a more amorphous plan to extend negotiations towards an aim that “even” France won’t go along with. So, perhaps, France’s diplomats will have altered history by spiking a deal at the last moment. We can hope not.
France’s motivation here has not been stated—published French reports imply that Fabius’s disapproval was really about the total package that the West was offering: in effect acknowledging Iran’s right to enrich uranium in return for limitations and inspections. Fabius’s view would then seem to mimic Israel’s—that Iran has no right to enrich uranium at all. But if this is the case, how could diplomats from Britain, Germany, and the U.S. been unaware of it until last Friday? Were France’s lower-level diplomats hiding the real French position from their allies, to allow Fabius to grandstand at Geneva? And to what end?
I can think of several reasons for the French position. Some commentators have pointed to commercial motivations: Saudi Arabia is displeased at American rapprochement with Iran, and France might want to displace the United States as Saudi’s major arms supplier. Observers have noted that France’s Syria position tracks closely with Riyadh’s. High-level Saudi diplomats have been a more regular presence in France in the past several months. Certainly France would not be the first country seek to align their diplomacy with an eye towards commercial gain—but if the eventual result is a war with Iran, it might seem shortsighted.
Secondly there is an Israel factor. France’s relations with Israel have been at least slightly chilly since de Gaulle denounced what he (correctly) perceived as Israel’s desire to hold onto the territory it captured in the 1967 war. Before that, however, France was Israel’s largest arms supplier and helped get Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program off the ground in the 1950s. With Israel and Great Britain, France invaded Egypt in the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, hoping to topple Nasser and cut off aid to the Algerian rebels. The Clash of Civilizations—the fear-inspiring “Islamofascism” narrative—did not originate with Sam Huntington, or American or Israeli neoconservatives, but with French intellectuals trying to bolster international support for their colonial war in Algeria. So it would not surprise me if French strategists imagined a kind of Paris-Tel Aviv-Riyadh triple alliance, unlikely as it sounds, but not much more unlikely than the alliance of Republican France and Tsarist Russia which set the table for World War I.
Less concrete but not to be dismissed are psychological motivations. France’s record during World War II was largely despicable—the officials of no occupied country collaborated more effectively with Hitler’s genocide project. It is hard not to see France’s exceptional cooperation with Israel in the 1950s at least partially in this light, as an attempt at making amends, as a compensation for Israel’s benefit but also for the French psyche. Recently both the Jewish and neoconservative press have reported that French Jews feel increasingly besieged by a new French anti-Semitism. Perhaps these fears are overwrought, it is hard to say. But there have been some horrific hate crimes committed against French Jews in the past few years. Might these not create some inclination, perhaps not acknowledged even to themselves, for French officials to tilt in Israel’s direction?