By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 1, 2009
PARIS, Sept. 30 -- Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France has adopted an increasingly hard-edged approach to Iran, often out ahead of the Obama administration with uncompromising language criticizing Iranian leaders and warning that their nuclear program threatens world peace.
The French attitude reflects Sarkozy's assessment that acquiescing to unsupervised nuclear development by Tehran would be perilous, risking an Israeli attack on Iranian installations and increasing instability in the Middle East. In addition, French analysts said, Sarkozy feels that Europe got nowhere with Iran in several years of what was called "constructive dialogue" and that it is time to move on to stronger measures in tandem with Washington.
As a result, French diplomats at a crucial meeting Thursday in Geneva are likely to push for swift, punitive sanctions unless Iran pledges unequivocally to open its entire nuclear program to international inspection to ensure Tehran is not developing atomic weapons. Jean-Pierre Maulny, a specialist in European defense at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations, said Germany and Britain are likely to agree because they also feel the constructive dialogue bore no fruit and, to some extent, have been aligned with Paris.
The tough new French approach marks a clear change from the days of Presidents Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush, when France was often a reluctant U.S. ally compared with Britain and Germany. In contrast, Sarkozy in recent weeks has used a sharper tone than have British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- and President Obama -- in denouncing Iran's nuclear program and advocating sanctions to force Tehran to allow inspectors in.
Part of the shift comes from Sarkozy's general tendency to use strong, combative language, in domestic political battles as well as in international conflicts. "I think it's in his nature to talk like that," said Fran?ois Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
Sarkozy's fundamental position -- seek dialogue but impose stronger sanctions unless Iran opens its nuclear program to international inspection -- dovetails neatly with the stances of Obama and other major U.S. allies, Heisbourg and French officials said. But his recent public comments have suggested impatience with Obama's extended-hand policy and a conviction that the time has come to deal firmly with Tehran's nuclear program.
"We supported President Obama's extended hand to Iran's leaders, but this hand cannot remain extended indefinitely with leaders who do not respond," Sarkozy said last month at a meeting with Merkel in Berlin. At last week's U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, he ratcheted up his language, saying the extended hand had been ignored and, in what seemed to be a challenge to Obama, questioning whether it was worthwhile to keep waiting for a return gesture.
"Meanwhile, the centrifuges keep on turning," he added.
In the same vein, when Obama, Brown and Sarkozy announced at the Group of 20 gathering in Pittsburgh that Iran was building a second uranium-enrichment facility in secret, only Sarkozy declared that sanctions must be imposed by the end of the year if the issue is not resolved. The timetable coincided with what U.S. and other European officials were discussing, but Obama had been careful to round off the edges in public in an apparent effort to avoid closing off options for diplomacy later on.
Similarly, Sarkozy said after Iran's June 12 presidential election that he suspected substantial fraud had occurred, adding that the fraud was "proportional to the violence of the reaction." In contrast, Obama avoided the word "fraud" and was careful to say he was not sure of exactly what had happened but was troubled by the repression of demonstrations.
Sarkozy's aides emphasized that the difference in tone does not mean a difference in policy. On the contrary, a French official said, the Pittsburgh announcements were the fruit of unusually close cooperation between European and U.S. intelligence agencies and extensive last-minute negotiations among U.S., French and other European officials.
Going by that perspective, any question marks about how to handle Thursday's Geneva meeting and its aftermath would probably come not from Western Europe but from Russia and China, who with the United States, Britain, France and Germany make up the group of six major powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.
Michael Williams, a lecturer in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, noted that the difference in tone between Europe and the United States can be attributed in part to the wearing down of Europeans' patience during the constructive dialogue conducted before Obama took office. Although there is no substantial difference, he said, European leaders seem to be playing bad cop to Obama's good cop in this stage of the nuclear standoff.
This is specially true of Sarkozy, he noted, who has "a lot of bravado and can be quite brash," while Brown is "not as charismatic on the world stage."
Moreover, Britain and France had embassy employees in Tehran who were blamed for the anti-government demonstrations after the Iranian election and were arrested, while the United States, with no embassy, did not have to face such irritations.
In addition, French academic Clotilde Reiss has been confined to her country's embassy in Tehran for six weeks pending a judge's ruling on charges that she was spying for French intelligence. Sarkozy told television interviewers last week that Reiss would not come out of the embassy except to return to France, no matter what the Iranian courts might say.
Germany, Iran's largest European trading partner, has been more cautious. When Sarkozy, Brown and Obama made their joint statement in Pittsburgh, Merkel declined to participate, breakfasting instead with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
In general, however, Merkel has hardened her tone since the Iranian election dispute, calling on Tehran in June to allow the Iranian people "to exercise their right of free expression." She said in August that Germany might go along with stricter sanctions if Iran did not stop its uranium enrichment but has since been silent on the issue.
Correspondent Anthony Faiola and special correspondent Karla Adam in London and correspondent Craig Whitlock in Berlin contributed to this report.