Francois Hollande may be one of the least popular presidents of all time at home in France, but in Israel, where he was greeted yesterday with the red carpet treatment, he is certainly one of the most popular French presidents ever to visit the country. The obvious reason is France’s hard-line stance in Geneva at the latest round of talks on the Iranian nuclear issue. But contrary to how it has been portrayed, Paris’ firmness on Iran’s nuclear program is not driven by a desire to curry favor in Israel—or in the Persian Gulf—and French-Israeli relations should not be reduced to the recent tactical convergence of their attitudes toward Tehran.
To understand France’s toughness on the Iranian nuclear program, which sometimes baffles observers, it helps to rule out some of the wrong explanations that have been offered in the past week. It was not mainly about seeking political and economic benefits from allies and friends. Paris did not need to block the interim deal in Geneva to ensure that Hollande would be well-received in Jerusalem. Nor does France need to be tough on Tehran to be well-regarded in the Gulf region. Yes, the French stance on Iran may help Paris gain even better access to Gulf markets and money, but that would be an added benefit more than a primary motivation, contrary to what many in Tehran and abroad have said. In fact, France’s closest economic partner in the Gulf today is Qatar, which does not have the strongest position of the region on the Iranian issue. And as some have pointed out, there would also be economic benefits for France if sanctions against Iran were lifted.
So what are the real reasons for France’s Iran policy? The obvious ones are also the most important. Paris believes that a nuclear Iran would be a threat to Europe as well as to the Middle East, and that the very existence of the nonproliferation regime is at stake in the negotiations. It also believes that adopting the toughest possible attitude on Iran is the best way to avoid an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. There is also a sense of ownership of the Iranian nuclear issue, in which Paris has been invested since June 2003, when it initiated European diplomacy with Tehran. Since then, a tough stance on the Iranian nuclear issue has been shared by all French negotiators and many experts; some of them have been dealing with Iran for a decade and hold important advisory positions today.