Did France scupper Iran nuclear deal in Geneva?
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Did France torpedo nuclear negotiations with Iran? Iranian media and politicians think so and, even if Paris denies the charge, pro-Israel neo-conservatives in the US agree ... and, for once, they're delighted with France's comportment.
French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius raised eyebrows on Saturday evening when he shot out of the talks on Iran's nuclear programme and announced that they were a failure.
It wasn't just that Fabius dashed high hopes, aroused by his and US Secretary of State John Kerry's unexpected presence at the meeting. It was also that protocol - or, at least, politeness - would normally have required that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton make the announcement.
Maybe Fabius was just in a hurry to catch the plane waiting to take him back to Paris - Geneva airport was kept open after midnight specially for him, which proved another cause for acerbic comment.
But privately diplomats accused the French of grandstanding.
Among the critics was former EU negotiator Javier Solana who tweeted, "Surprising France. Every moment may be useful to raise your head for a short time."
Bit frustration,but not failure.Surprising France.Every moment may be useful to raise your head for a short time. Next round soon.Important— Javier Solana (@javiersolana) November 9, 2013
Of course, Solana wasn't just referring to a minor breach of diplomatic norms.
Like many other observers, he was surprised that, after Saturday's reports that the negotiations were close to agreement, no deal was reached and concerned that the French delegation had intervened repeatedly to insist on conditions that Iran refused to accept.
Fabius himself outlined these stumbling blocks - an end to the development of a nuclear power plant at Arak, the future of Iranian enriched unranium stocks and the speed with which sanctions on Iran will be lifted - on Saturday and declared that there was "no certainty" of agreement.
In a startling reversal of the roles each country played in the run-up to the Iraq war, France is now taking a much tougher stance than the US and Britain.
Fabius's surprise decision to go to Geneva followed Kerry's anouncement that he would attend the talks.
But it also came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed anger at the possibility of a breakthrough and said Israel would not be bound by it.
On Saturday the French stressed that Israel's "concerns" must be taken into account and dug their heels in on the conditions.
While Iran's chief negotiator and Foreign Affairs Minister, Mohammad Javed Zarif, was diplomatic, judging disagreements "natural", reactions in Tehran were less measured.
Official media accused Paris of sabotaging a possible deal and the paliamentary foreign affairs committee's spokesperson, Hossein Taghavi, accused the French delegation of "blackmail" and "defending the position of Israel".
From a completely different perspective, some on the American right seemed to agree.
"Tonight I'm eating FRENCH fries," tweeted Rick Grenell, the US's spokesperson at the UN at the time when France opposed George W Bush's preparations to invade Iraq, prompting neoconservatives to rename chipped potatoes "freedom fries".
"No deal is better than a bad deal! Thanks, you guys (France)," enthused the political correspondent of Yeshiva World News, Jacob Kornbluh.
No deal is better than a bad deal! Thanks, you guys (France). #IranNuclearTalks— Jacob Kornbluh (@jacobkornbluh) November 9, 2013
Of course, Israel is not the only country alarmed at the possibility of détente with Iran.
The Sunni-Muslim rulers of Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are worried at the prospect of a Shia bloc of Iran, Iraq and other potential allies, which is why they have armed Sunni militias in Syria's current conflict.
According to the BBC, the Saudis are so concerned by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran that they have invested in Pakistan's nuclear programme in order to have warheads ready for delivery.
Israel and the Gulf rulers are increasingly antsy because the Barack Obama's administration's declared strategy is to run down its west Asia operations - aiming to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014 and pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal - and beef up its presence in the east to counter China's rise as its only serious global competitor.
So a deal with Iran would be welcome in Washington, although it would be greeted with strident opposition by pro-Israel groups, which leaves France as the hawk on Iranian nukes, pointing out that talks in 2003-04 were a failure and warning against a "fool's bargain".
The French delegation, of course, denies having been the awkward squad and Kerry declared after the meeting that the P5+1 group of big powers is united, although there were "certain issues that we needed to work through".
Despite his diplomatic tact on Saturday, Zarif, who earlier in the week told Le Monde newspaper that Paris-Tehran relations are not at a high point at the moment, declared on Saturday that his country would not accept that the text of the agreement would be "dictated".
On Sunday Iranian President Hassan Rowhani struck a defiant note.
“There are red lines that must not be crossed,” Rohani told the conservative-dominated parliament, according to the ISNA news agency. “The rights of the Iranian nation and our national interests are a red line. So are nuclear rights under the framework of international regulations, which include enrichment on Iranian soil.”
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