In the run-up to the French presidential election, the Iranian newspaper Tehran Emrooz wrote that “emphasis must be given to the advantages of a victory by François Hollande.”
Widely reported in the French press and blog world, the comment came from a publication described as run by the mayor of Tehran, who is reportedly close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Some French bloggers treated it as Loony Tunes stuff from Mullahland. But the editorial had a matter-of-fact, non-hysterical tone.
“A victory will lead to a softening of Paris’ policies toward Iran,” it said. “France under Sarkozy was the strong voice in the European Union against Iran. Hollande’s victory will bring nuances to this approach.”
That’s bang-on correct about Sarkozy.
He was the hand holding the prod that pushed Europe toward enacting sanctions on Iranian oil scheduled to take effect July 1. And he took pride in policies repeatedly jabbing at what France maintained were the Obama administration’s illusions and foot-dragging concerning Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.
While Sarkozy was president, a bipartisan French National Assembly report took a shot at President Obama for frittering away a whole year in the nuclear countdown with his failed “outstretched hand” initiative. The French proposed an Iran oil embargo at the United Nations only to have it shelved for a softer, embargo-less American proposal.
No country had a tougher stance. France believed that the best way to head off an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites was by intensifying sanctions, wary diplomacy, and an unyielding interpretation of the constraints placed by the U.N. Security Council on the mullahs’ atomic ambitions.
But what about Hollande?
Will there be nuances in his approach — exactly what the Iranian commentary expected to see — that dilute the hard French line on nonproliferation and sanctions?
France had considered the Iranian history of trickery and noncompliance as so profound that it was willing to stand alone in saying there could be no concessions in bargaining with Tehran. In view of talks with the Iranians, it rejected any possible deviation from the Security Council’s demands of suspension of allIranian uranium enrichment, and access “without delay” for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to every site it designates as suspect.
Now, the broad issue comes quickly to hand with a new French government. On May 23, the Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany meet with Iran in Baghdad.
The question of whether France will continue to stand up as driver of sanctions and a bulwark of disbelief concerning Iran’s intentions to renounce its nuclear program challenges in significance Hollande’s woofing about renegotiating the E.U.’s debt and deficit consolidation program.
You can take it to the bank that the Europeans will come together (belatedly and insufficiently) on producing some growth-related measures without tearing up their austerity compact.
But France agreeing to offer Iran the right to keep uranium enriched to 3.5 or 5 percent — the Obama administration reportedly wants to propose this as bait in seeking a deal with Iran — could be portrayed as a French surrender of its traditional antiproliferation culture.
Not many here would believe that the West could get as a quid pro quo a concession of total freedom for I.A.E.A. inspection teams in Iran. Besides, under Sarkozy, the French also have been saying that Iran’s five stockpiled tons of 3.5 percent enriched uranium (theoretically convertible with additional processing into several nukes) would be next to impossible to control.
The contradictions in the situation and its implications for French reliability and independent action are great.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, who is apparently Hollande’s choice as defense minister, told small groups in Washington more than a month ago that a Socialist presidency would mean no basic change in French Iran policy.
But this week, I spoke to a man who had just talked to Hollande about Iran. My friend’s unequivocal impression was that the Socialist president will be closer to Obama’s line than Sarkozy’s.
Obama’s future may hang on the Iran issue through election day in November, but Hollande’s does not, and he might easily prefer a recognizant friend in the White House to a Republican.
This was not at all confirmed in a first interview with Hollande on Iran by Jean-Marie Colombani, a former editor of Le Monde, for the political Web site Slate.fr.
In it, Hollande said he had no criticism of Sarkozy’s “firm position” on Iranian proliferation. Indeed, he said he would “confirm it with the same force and willpower,” and that sanctions “must be reinforced for as long as necessary.”
He added: “I believe it is still possible to achieve the desired goal through negotiations.”
Considering the circumstances, that’s a circumlocution from a man practiced in imprecision worthy of the mullahs’ negotiators.
Whatever Hollande’s final position becomes, it will be impossible for the French, so clear for so long on Iran, to fog over a change of policy with a spray of ambiguity that would fundamentally alter — or soften, as the Tehran Emrooz editorial called it — the way the world approaches Iran’s nuclear threat.