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February 5, 2008

Accept Iran's Regional Role, Says French Envoy

by Gareth Porter

In a sharp departure from U.S. policy, a leading French diplomat has called on the international coalition sponsoring UN sanctions against Iran to support a larger Iranian role in the Middle East.

Ambassador to the United States Pierre Vimont told a conference on Iran at the Middle East Institute in Washington Friday that one reason Iran has refused to give up its nuclear program is its perception of potential threats in the Middle East.

"Sometimes they can feel there are threats," Vimont said, "and thus a need for bold initiatives. This is why you have a very strong will to increase their influence in the area."

Vimont then called for a shift in the Western diplomatic posture. "If we all agree that what Iran is looking for is to play a larger role in the region," he said, "we have to make it clearer that we are willing to support that."

Vimont did not indicate how such support might be integrated into the international coalition position on Iran.

Under French President Nicolas Sarkozy, French policy toward Iran has been marked by support for further economic sanctions against Iran through the UN Security Council and tough rhetoric about Iran by President Sarkozy. On Sunday, Iran's Foreign Ministry accused France of open hostility toward Iran.

But the tone of Vimont's speech was notable for the absence of any accusation about Iran as a threat to peace. The ambassador's call for support for Iran's regional role, which was not reported in media coverage of the speech, suggests that France is now seeking a significant adjustment in the negotiating position of the coalition of states that have backed sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council.

The proposal to support a more prominent Iranian regional role appears to revive an issue that sharply divided France and other members of the "P5 + 1" (permanent Security Council members United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany) from the George W. Bush administration during negotiations on a diplomatic proposal to Iran in spring 2006.

In those negotiations, the French, British, and Germans had wanted a formula that would give Iran a new formal status in regional security arrangements, as well as a security guarantee to Iran. But the Bush administration had refused to accept either concession as part of the package.

France is not the only European ally of the United States to believe that the P5 + 1 should adopt a more flexible diplomatic stance toward Iran in seeking an agreement on the nuclear issue. Last year, the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bush administration privately that the United States must give up the precondition of immediate suspension of uranium enrichment for the beginning of negotiations and offer to talk about the full of range issues dividing the two countries, according to a source close to the German foreign ministry.

That German position was not made public, according to the source, because German officials wish to maintain a private channel of communications with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who they believe has been listening to them.

Vimont's views on Iran policy can be taken as an authoritative reflection of the French government's foreign policy. He served as chief of staff to the foreign minister from 2002 to 2007.

His speech shed new light on the French view of the prospects of success in using sanctions to pressure Iran to drop its nuclear program. Vimont said that the sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program – particularly "informal" sanctions – are "starting to have an effect on the ground." But the French envoy warned that the sanctions would "not have a quick effect" on Iranian policy.

Vimont then cited the cases of sanctions against Rhodesia and South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s – two cases that illustrate how long it could take for international sanctions to have the desired effect on the target state. It was five years from the time multilateral sanctions were applied against the white regime in Rhodesia in 1974 to the 1979 agreement with Britain which began the political process that ended the white regime there, and nearly a decade from the imposition of multilateral sanctions on South Africa in the mid-1980s to the end of the apartheid regime.

Waiting that long for sanctions to change Iranian policy would ensure that Iran would have mastered the fuel cycle sufficiently to have a nuclear weapons option, whether or not Tehran chose to exercise it.

Vimont devoted much of his speech to an explanation of why it is "so difficult to get a result with the process we have set up." In doing so, he made a number of points that the Bush administration presumably would not have wanted to hear from a close ally.

One of the difficulties cited by Vimont is the fact that the Iranian regime has exhibited "lots of political stability," despite political contradictions within the country, especially when compared with its neighbors Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

The French envoy also cited the fact that the Iranian regime's assertion that it has a right to uranium enrichment has broad popular domestic support. "The nuclear program has become a national cause in Iran," he said.

Political support for the Iranian position on the right to a complete fuel cycle "in the Arab and Islamic world," Vimont suggested, is another factor strengthening Iranian determination to maintain the enrichment program.

The strategy of the international coalition has depended heavily on the assumption that "moderates" in the Iranian political elite, such as former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, will prevail in their political conflict with radicals, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and will agree to the demand for a suspension of enrichment.

Vimont did not argue, however, that the moderates could be counted on to make that concession if they were to gain power in the coming years. He suggested instead that the moderates "may have some doubts" about such a course.

Some analysts of Iranian national security policy believe that Iran's enrichment program is aimed in part at accumulating bargaining chips to be used to achieve formal recognition as a regional power.

(Inter Press Service)

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Gareth Porter's Bio

Gareth Porter is an investigative journalist and historian specializing in U.S. foreign and military policy. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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