Skip to content

Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

Israeli Security, Regional Diplomacy, and International Law

Menu

French Enthusiasm for Iran: the Background and the Profit

 
Filed under: Europe, Iran
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

French Enthusiasm for Iran: the Background and the Profit
French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani before a meeting in New York on September 18, 2017. (Iran Press)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 19, No. 16

  • French President Emmanuel Macron aims to regain France’s reputation as a political, economic, and cultural force that is not dependent upon the superpowers. He seeks to restore France to the position of a global, crucial decision-maker on the UN Security Council, and to return to the de Gaulle doctrine which entails following an independent foreign policy that will conform to that of the United States and the West only when it is in the interests of France.
  • Macron is seeking a “new and original” diplomatic process. He searches for an initiative that will restore France to the front of the international stage and political activity in the Middle East.
  • With the withdrawal of President Donald Trump from the JCPOA nuclear deal on May 8, 2018, and the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran, President Macron saw a golden opportunity to undertake a new diplomatic offensive and gesture to preserve the deal, which was signed on July 14, 2015, in Vienna.
  • The G7 Summit in France at the end of August 2019 gave President Macron another opportunity to raise the future of Iran’s nuclear project and the removal of the sanctions.
  • France is concerned that Iran’s isolation in the international arena would harden its position, which could further complicate the geopolitical situation in Syria and Iraq. He is also apprehensive that the closer relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel could lead to a future military confrontation with Iran.
  • There is no doubt that President Macron’s primary motivation is economic and the preservation of France’s interests. Since the imposition of new sanctions following the U.S. withdrawal from the Vienna agreement, the export of French products to Iran has fallen by 42 percent.

From the day President Emmanuel Macron entered the Presidential Palace in May 2017, he has tried to improve France’s image in the international arena and play a central role in resolving conflicts.

France has always been worried about armed conflicts and strategic inequality. For this reason, its policy is based on classic diplomacy and honoring UN Security Council resolutions and international agreements.

Macron exploits Europe’s political and economic weakness and the internal struggles of other countries, such as in Germany, where Chancellor Merkel’s retirement looms, in Italy, with the rise of the extreme Right and the coalition crisis, and in the United Kingdom with the implications of its withdrawal from the European Union.

Macron’s objective is to prove that the presidential administration in France is very stable, in spite of the domestic “Yellow Vest” demonstrations. He is essentially the only leader on the Continent who is capable of “restoring the former glory” of the European community, maintaining proper and friendly relations with all camps and sides, and negotiating directly and equally with the leaders of the great powers as a fair and ultimate mediator.

Macron has held this ambition ever since he moved into politics and was appointed as finance minister in the previous socialist government. He aims in particular to regain France’s reputation as a political, economic, and cultural force that is not dependent upon the superpowers. He seeks to restore France to the position of a global, crucial decision-maker on the UN Security Council, and to return to the doctrine of the founder of the Fifth Republic Gen. Charles de Gaulle, which entails following an independent foreign policy that will conform to that of the United States and the West only when it is in the interests of France.

Following the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process and the resounding failure of his predecessor Francois Hollande, who was harnessed with the “blessing” of President Barak Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to restart the process at the international conference that met in Paris on January 15, 2017, Macron is seeking a “new and original” diplomatic process. He searches for an initiative that will restore France to the front of the international stage and political activity in the Middle East.

It should be noted that despite their closeness to Iran, the French have always preferred the Sunni camp to the Shiites. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, France wholeheartedly supported Saddam Hussein. It supplied him with weapons and even a nuclear reactor (that was destroyed by Israel in 1981).

With the withdrawal of President Donald Trump from the JCPOA nuclear deal on May 8, 2018, and the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran, President Macron saw a golden opportunity to undertake a new diplomatic offensive and gesture to preserve the deal, which was signed on July 14, 2015, in Vienna.

Diplomatic Processes

The previous French administration played an essential role in the contacts that led to the signing of the nuclear agreement in Vienna. The position of the then-Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was firmer than that of the United States when he demanded to reach a final agreement that was “robust from all points of view,” including an agreement that prohibited the development of ballistic missiles. In the end, France fell in line with President Obama and signed the terrible nuclear agreement.

His successor, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, is known for his good relations with the Arab world. These became stronger when he served as defense minister, and he signed many treaties with Arab countries on cooperation and the sale of arms and advanced technology. At the same time, he strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as with Egypt, Qatar, and the Gulf states. He also improved links with Lebanon. France distinguishes between “political Hizbullah” and its “military wing.” He does not believe it would be possible to disarm Hizbullah so he would allow the Shiite militia to be part of the Lebanese leadership. France is worried about the instability of the Lebanese government, Lebanon’s economic crisis, and the collapse of its banking system. It should be recalled that for the past 20 years, Lebanon has not had a national budget, and its services are run by various ethnic interests that are unsupervised and tainted with corruption. At the same time, France is trying as hard as it can to prevent a new civil war there. This concern is not only for the future of Lebanon but also that a civil war would lead to another massive influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants into French territory.

During the most recent Hizbullah-Israel clash, Macron called for maximum restraint and stressed that he maintains many contacts with the Lebanese president, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

France is also concerned that Iran’s isolation in the international arena would harden its position, which could further complicate the geopolitical situation in Syria and Iraq. He is also apprehensive that the closer relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel could lead to a future military confrontation with Iran.

France Seeks Ways to Mollify Iran

In light of the above, as well as President Trump’s refusal to return to the original agreement with Iran, the French approach has been to find any way to circumvent the U.S. sanctions. After many conversations between Macron and European heads of state, a decision was made in January 2019 to create the INTEX system that would make it easier to conduct transactions with Tehran that were not based on U.S. currency. The desire of France, Germany, and Italy is to preserve the economic welfare of Iran, which grew with the signing of the nuclear agreement, and primarily to look after financial investments. It should be noted that this new INTEX mechanism was first and foremost intended for the supply of food, medicines, and humanitarian aid.

At the same time, to satisfy the demands of the United States and even to “pacify” Israel, the French foreign minister transmitted to his Iranian counterpart the European Union’s demand to negotiate on the issue of missiles. However, since then Iran has accelerated its efforts to upgrade its missile arsenal. In talks with Zarif and in a meeting between Macron and Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2018, the French president made it clear that he was against Iran’s expansionist ambitions in the Middle East. He was concerned about the continued Iranian military presence in Syria, Iran’s military and financial support for Hizbullah, and Iranian subversion in Yemen, where it gives military aid to the Houthis. Macron also expressed his opposition to the Iranian regime’s violation of the human rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities. Iranian authorities are currently holding a French researcher of Iranian descent in jail, and Macron has requested her immediate release. However, he has not yet received any response. Fariba Adelkhah was arrested in July 2019 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on charges of spying. There is no doubt that her arrest is being used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with France as part of Iran’s struggle to terminate the sanctions.

Fariba Adelkhah
Anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah, arrested in Iran in June 2019.

The G7 Summit in France at the end of August 2019 gave President Macron another opportunity to raise the future of Iran’s nuclear project and the removal of the sanctions. The summit at the Biarritz resort town was planned and organized with extra care to maintain a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere in spite of differences of opinion with the United States and Trump’s “disdain” for Europe.

To succeed in his mission, Macron first prepared French public opinion by giving many briefings and interviews on all media channels. With well-timed and well-oiled precision, he managed to gain unusual support from all of the commentators and experts and became the only European leader able to detail in diplomatic language, without any embellishment, the dangers awaiting the Middle East and the world if the sanctions on Iran continue and if Iran eventually succeeds in building a nuclear weapon.

Prior to the G7 Summit, Macron invited Vladimir Putin to the Fort Bregancon Palace near Biarritz, where he received agreement on a course of action with Iran. Since the crisis with Ukraine and the war in the Crimea, Russia has not been a member of the summit. Macron wanted to normalize and strengthen ties with Putin, which have deteriorated since then, primarily due to accusations of his involvement in presidential elections and his support for extreme Right leader Marine Le Pen.

It should be noted that when he was finance minister, Macron asked the Russians to support the removal of the sanctions. Already then, and as a former banker, he understood the importance to France of continued trade with Iran. The meeting with Putin immediately bore fruit, and a high-level delegation led by the French foreign and defense ministers held talks in Moscow about strengthening ties between both countries, as well as the future of the START agreements on limiting nuclear weapons. Macron also thought it was a good idea to mediate between Putin and Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky. Regarding the issue of Iran and any solution between Israel and the Palestinians, France believes that no agreement will be signed without Putin’s full approval.

After the meeting with Putin and receiving his green light, Macron was drawn into a dramatic media process with the Iranians. At the end of talks in Tehran, which were held with his representative and adviser Emmanuel Bonne, a former French ambassador to Iran and Lebanon, Macron invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif to a dialogue in the Elysée Palace in Paris. Macron then took the next secret step, which was to invite Zarif to the G7 Summit in Biarritz. Indeed, when the talks began and included President Trump and when all of the airspace in the region was hermetically sealed, an Iranian aircraft carrying Zarif landed with his entourage. All of the newspapers and commentators went out of their way to praise the diplomatic initiative. Now Macron had become a superstar dictating the world agenda.

Mohammed Zarif meets with  Emmanuel Macron
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif (left) meets with President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the G7 (Twitter)

During a private meeting, Macron tried to persuade Trump that the Iranians honors the agreements they had signed, as opposed to North Korea. He claimed that meetings with the Iranian leader encouraged him to go for a “package deal” that included:

  • A meeting between Trump and Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
  • A return to talks, accompanied by gradual removal of sanctions.
  • Intensive and ongoing visits by supervisors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that Iran is not breaching the terms of the Vienna agreement.
  • Inclusion of ballistic missiles in the new agreement.
  • An extension of the expiry date on the agreement and the strengthening of guarantees to prevent a violation of the agreement.
  • An outline for the restoration of stability to Syria and the withdrawal of all foreign forces.
  • The protection of human rights in Iran and the release of opposition activists and followers from prison.
  • The cessation of subversion and terror activities in Europe.
  • Freedom of movement for all oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
  • A credit line of $15 billion for Iran. At the initial stage, Iran would be interested in exporting 700,000 barrels of oil per day to ease its severe economic crisis.

To speed up diplomatic processes and prepare for the meeting with Rouhani, a high-level Iranian delegation arrived in Paris that included Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Abbas Aragchi, bankers, financiers, and businesspeople.

 France’s Economic interests

There is no doubt that President Macron’s primary motivation is economic and the preservation of France’s interests. It should be noted that since the imposition of new sanctions following the U.S. withdrawal from the Vienna agreement, the export of French products to Iran has fallen by 42 percent. France is the third-largest exporter to Iran in Europe after Germany and Italy. At the end of 2018, the value of commerce between the two countries stood at 2.4 billion euros. Apart from investments in the country to establish transportation and electricity infrastructures, France exports raw materials and electronics, agricultural machinery, and medicines. TOTAL Energy and Renault built factories in Iran, employing thousands of locals. However, today both factories are almost idle.

Renault factory in Iran
Renault factory in Iran in 2016. Today, because of sanctions, the factory is searching for a joint venture with Russian automotive firms. (Iran press)

Conclusion

The French president’s diplomatic moves are indeed transparent, but also dangerous because Iran would receive the removal of the sanctions on a silver platter and financial credit even before talks began. France, along with most of the European countries, is gambling on President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, whom they believe to be “moderate,” without considering the tough and uncompromising stand of the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard. This process serves the efforts of the European Union to maintain the nuclear deal with Iran.

Macron understood that all of the previous efforts to bypass the sanctions did not work and that in fact, at every stage it is necessary to consider the standpoint of the United States and to receive President Trump’s approval.

At the same time, Israel needs to launch a broad diplomatic offensive to torpedo this dangerous French plan. A current International Atomic Energy Agency report asserts that Iran continues to violate the nuclear deal and has increased its stocks of enriched uranium beyond the permitted level. According to the report, Iran has amassed 241.6 kg of enriched uranium and it has been enriched by 4.5 percent.

Israel’s recent discoveries of clandestine nuclear sites and Iran’s continued subversive operations in Syria, Iraq, and especially in Lebanon with the construction of accurate missiles for Hizbullah obligate the international community to consider first any existing danger that could threaten the Jewish State rather than merely looking at commercial processes for economic transactions and greed.