Beyond the World news headlines
Did I hear ‘freedom fries’? – France says Iran is no Iraq
February 2003. Anti-French sentiment sweeps across the United States. President George W. Bush and his top aides can barely contain their irritation at the French government for undermining U.S.-led efforts to get the U.N. Security Council to authorize the impending invasion of Iraq. With the aid of Germany and Russia, France torpedoes the drive for a new resolution authorizing war. Frustration erupts into anger. Bottles of French wine and champagne are emptied into toilets and some restaurants rename French fries “freedom fries.”
The rest is history. The United States tells U.N. weapons inspectors to clear out of Iraq and launches an invasion in March 2003 to put an end to Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction programs. They topple Saddam’s government and execute the deposed Iraqi leader three years later. But U.S. and British intelligence claims that Saddam Hussein had revived his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs turn out to be false.
Seven years later. France and the U.S. are friends again and working on the same side to prevent Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, from developing nuclear weapons. (Interestingly, both France and the United States had supported Iraq during its bloody 1980-88 war with Iran.)
Some people shudder with deja vu at the mention of Iran’s nuclear program. For years, officials at the Vienna-based IAEA warned that the campaign against Iran was Iraq all over again. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, often spoke of the need to avoid the mistakes of Iraq by not jumping to conclusions about Iran’s atomic program, which Tehran insists is a peaceful one that will produce only electricity, not bombs.
Speaking at New York’s Columbia University this week, France’s U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, made clear that Iran’s nuclear program couldn’t be more different from Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction. The concerns about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, he said, are shared across the globe. He pointed out that five Security Council resolutions — three of them imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic — had passed “without dissent” and that countries like Libya, South Africa, Russia and China had cast their votes in favor of them.
“To be blunt, it’s not Iraq revisited,” he said. “It’s not the West, the North, against Iran. It’s the international community at large which is expressing its concerns.” Araud noted that four of the six countries leading efforts to persuade Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program had actively opposed the war in Iraq — France, Germany, Russia and China. Now they’re all in it together, offering Iran the prospect of economic and political incentives if it stops enriching and new sanctions if it continues to refuse.
French-U.S. cooperation on Iran is nothing new. Even while former French President Jacques Chirac and his chief diplomats were working hard to block the U.S.-British push for war in Iraq, French intelligence agents were quietly amassing evidence of covert Iranian nuclear activities and sharing it with their American counterparts. In May 2003, France presented its intelligence assessment of Iran to a closed-door meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an informal club of 46 countries that produce raw materials or technology useful in nuclear programs. “For several years intelligence sources have been collecting evidence of a covert military program (in Iran),” the French presentation said. “France’s assessment is now that this country may obtain a sufficient quantity of fissionable materials to manufacture a nuclear weapon within a few years.” The French presentation, it said, “was coordinated with the American one.”
These days France is considered the most hawkish of the four Western powers discussing a possible fourth round of U.N. sanctions on Iran. U.S. and French negotiators have circulated informal papers outlining possible new steps to their colleagues in Britain and Germany. The French paper, diplomats told Reuters, calls for harsh U.N. Security Council measures against Iran’s energy sector, which the French say is being used to finance Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs. The United States, afraid of angering Russia and China or undermining the robust opposition movement in Iran, is not actively pushing for limits on gasoline imports or similar measures. (Diplomats say that the French proposals will eventually be scrapped in order to secure yes votes from reluctant Russia and China, both of which have vetoes on the 15-nation Security Council, like the United States, Britain and France.)
Araud made clear that the French hawkishness is not an attempt to bully Iran or topple its government. “We are not in the regime change game,” he said, adding that their goal was not to spark a new war but to avert one. Failure to persuade Tehran to alter its nuclear policy, he suggested, might be disastrous. It could invite an Israeli military attack and further destabilize the already unstable Middle East.