France: Middle Power Payback?

I mentioned the other day how Turkey might come out on the losing end of the Obama administration’s willingness to engage Syria and Iran. I also mentioned that France fit into the category of Middle Powers that had benefited from the late-Bush 43 period. France is a bit more complicated, because it filled not only the communication vacuum created by the Bush administration’s isolation policies, but also the more generalized leadership vacuum created by the extended lame duck period.

One area where the two vacuums overlapped, though, was with regards to Iran’s nuclear program. To begin with, France as part of the EU3 conducted the negotiations with Iran while the U.S. was still unwilling to even attend the meetings. And I’d argue that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s willingness to significantly raise the volume on Iran’s nuclear ambitions allowed the EU3 and the U.S. to weather the disastrous Iran NIE from December 2007.

By the logic of Middle Power Mojo (TM), therefore, France stands to be a two-time loser once the U.S. gets back in the game. Not surprisingly, France has expressed some concerns with direct U.S.-Iran talks, specifically that they might undermine the years of delicate negotiations that have already taken place, and also a preference that U.S. enagegement with Iran instead take place in the contextof those talks.

So I read these two items with interest. The first, via Spencer Ackerman, reports that the Obama administration might “roll the dice” by authorizing official diplomatic contacts with Iran in an attempt to establish direct communication channels with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The second is an Arms Control Wonk post by Jeffrey Lewis suggesting that the IAEA, at the request of France, might issue a delicate and non-binding legal finding essentially upgrading the non-compliance issues of Iran’s heavy water reactors still under construction. Needless to say, the move would raise tensions at a time when that isn’t quite what the Obama administration is hoping to do.

An alternative interpretation would be that this is the opening salvo of the “strong carrots, strong sticks” approach advocated by Dennis Ross that Hampton flagged a few months back. I, for one, hope it’s the latter. I’ve spent the last five years pushing back against the idea that France’s top foreign policy objective is to tripwire the U.S. If this isn’t a coordinated response, it would make that task even more difficult than it’s been.

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