American neoconservatives are delighted that France, acting as something of a paid lobbyist for the Saudi-Israeli alliance, sabotaged a possible breakthrough between the West and Iran over its nuclear program, thus preserving the military option against Iran that the neocons have long cherished.
Of course, the neocons say they want a peaceful settlement to the dispute – essentially Iran’s total and humiliating capitulation – but no one should be fooled over how the French maneuver is keeping the neocons’ hopes alive for an eventual crisis that will let the bombs fly and regimes change.
The neocons were bitterly disappointed last summer when President Barack Obama failed to follow through on military threats against the Syrian government. They were then alarmed at the prospect of an international settlement that would impose tighter constraints on Iran’s nuclear program but not force its complete shutdown.
So, with an interim deal within sight, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on his American backers to get to work undermining President Obama’s diplomatic strategy. Meanwhile, the Saudi monarchy, which has joined Netanyahu in pushing for a more belligerent U.S. approach toward Syria and Iran, was busy granting lucrative financial contracts to France and its struggling economy.
Between Israel’s lobbying skills and Saudi Arabia’s petro-dollars, Obama found himself facing stiff resistance to his negotiations. He also had in Secretary of State John Kerry a befuddled point man who appears to have carried into his new job the fuzzy rhetoric and padded elbows that made him a popular member of the Senate club. But those characteristics have left many international observers shaking their heads at his failure to talk straight or act decisively.
In rounding off the sharp edges as he explained how the Iran deal collapsed, Kerry left out how French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius insisted on extensive last-minute revisions that were unacceptable to the Iranians. Instead, Kerry shifted blame onto the Iranians, apparently to soothe tensions among the “P5-plus-one,” the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, the six countries negotiating with Iran.
“The French signed off on it [the final proposal], we signed off on it,” Kerry said. “There was unity, but Iran couldn’t take it.”
That prompted a Tweet from Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, saying “No amount of spinning can change what happened within 5+1 in Geneva from 6PM Thursday to 545 PM Saturday. But it can further erode confidence.” Zarif blamed the French for substantially rewriting the proposal, forcing the changes on the P5-plus-1 side, and thus scuttling the impending deal.
Of the P5-plus-one countries, France was the most susceptible to inducements from the Saudi-Israeli alliance, especially financial payoffs from Saudi Arabia. The global power and/or wealth of the United States, China, Russia and Germany mean that they have many other interests beyond making commercial deals with Saudi Arabia. And the United Kingdom is a close ally of the United States.
But France is both more independent of the big powers and more vulnerable because of its faltering economy. Relatively modest commitments of money by Saudi Arabia to France could have more impact. France, in effect, was the weak link in the P5-plus-one.
So, in October, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian concluded a $1.5 billion deal with Saudi Arabia to overhaul six of its navy ships. In July, Saudi Arabia’s ally, United Arab Emirates, signed a $913 million deal with France to buy two high-resolution Helios military satellites.
Other lucrative arms deals are reportedly in the works between France and Saudi Arabia (and its Sunni allies). Saudi Arabia also has invested in France’s sagging agricultural and food sectors, including a Saudi firm buying a major stake in Groupe Doux, Europe’s largest poultry firm based in Brittany.
Beyond pleasing the Saudis and the Israelis, France also won praise from neocon U.S. lawmakers who have criticized France in the past, like when it opposed President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Then, France was derided as a “surrender monkey” and Republicans renamed French fries as “freedom fries” in the Capitol’s restaurants.
But the tone was entirely different after France sank the Iranian nuclear deal last weekend. “Vive la France!” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, exclaimed on Twitter. “France had the courage to prevent a bad nuclear agreement with Iran.”
“Thank God for France and thank God for push back,” said the hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “The French are becoming very good leaders in the Mideast.”
Despite Kerry’s acquiescence to the French sabotage and his dissembling that shifted the blame to Iran, the Secretary of State still got pummeled in the neocon press. For instance, Washington Post deputy editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl ridiculed Kerry’s supposedly outlandish optimism over negotiations with Syria and Iran.
Over the past week, Diehl said, Kerry was floating through “a fantastical realm created by his billowing vision of what he can accomplish as secretary of state.” Diehl added that Kerry’s “Magical Mystery Tour” ended in his ”failed attempt to close a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Kerry’s conclusion: ‘I can tell you, without any reservations, we made significant progress.’”
In effect, the American neocons – along with the Saudi-Israeli regional alliance – are playing for time, hoping that some change in the political alignment might bring the U.S. military off the sidelines and make the end game for Iran and/or Syria another “regime change.” That appears to have been the Saudi/Israeli/neocon plan since 2009 when Iran began expressing a readiness to curtail its nuclear program.
The irony of the obstruction strategy, however, has been that each time the neocons succeed in thwarting a deal with Iran to limit its enrichment of uranium, the country makes further progress toward having the capability to fashion a nuclear bomb, if the leaders in Tehran ever decided to do so.
In 2009, Iran was refining uranium only to the level of about 3-4 percent, as needed for energy production. Its negotiators offered to swap much of that low-enriched uranium for nuclear isotopes for medical research.
But the Obama administration and the West rebuffed the Iranian gesture because it would have left Iran with enough enriched uranium to theoretically refine much higher – up to 90 percent – for potential use in a single bomb, though Iran insisted it had no such intention and U.S. intelligence agencies agreed.
Then, in spring 2010, Iran agreed to another version of the uranium swap proposed by the leaders of Brazil and Turkey, with the apparent backing of President Obama. But that arrangement came under fierce attack by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, considered a hawk on Iran, and the plan was derided by leading U.S. news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.
On May 17, 2010, the Washington Post’s editors mocked the leaders of Brazil and Turkey who had spearheaded the initiative. The Post called the plan “yet another effort to ‘engage’ the extremist clique of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and [then-President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
On May 26, 2010, the influential New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman weighed in, excoriating the leaders of Brazil and Turkey for negotiating an agreement with Iran to ship about half its low-enriched uranium out of the country. To Friedman, this deal was “as ugly as it gets,” the title of his column.
The ridicule of Brazil and Turkey – as bumbling understudies on the world stage – continued even after Brazil released Obama’s private letter to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva encouraging Brazil and Turkey to work out the deal. Despite the letter’s release, Obama didn’t publicly defend the swap and instead joined in scuttling the deal.
In June 2010, a New York Times editorial praised a new round of anti-Iran sanctions from the UN, but complained they “do not go far enough.” The Times also took a swipe at Brazil and Turkey, which voted against the sanctions from their temporary seats on the Security Council.
“The day’s most disturbing development was the two no votes in the Security Council from Turkey and Brazil,” the Times wrote. “Both are disappointed that their efforts to broker a nuclear deal with Iran didn’t go far. Like pretty much everyone else, they were played by Tehran.”
Though this Times point of view fit with neocon orthodoxy – that any reasonable move toward peace and away from confrontation is a sign of naivete and weakness – the fact is that the Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal was torpedoed by the United States, after Obama had encouraged it. This wasn’t a case of the two countries being “played by Tehran.”
But the curious bottom line is that each time the West rebuffs an offer from Iran to limit its nuclear program, the Iranians then advance their capabilities. After the proposal to swap low-enriched uranium for the medical isotopes fell through, Iran increased its level of enrichment to 20 percent to fill its own research needs. The 20 percent meant that Iran was much closer to reaching the refinement level needed for a bomb.
Yet, this pattern continues, with American neocons and Israeli hardliners disparaging every proposal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program as insufficient. Then, after each plan collapses, Iran gets closer to a nuclear-bomb capability. That, in turn, prompts even more hysterical cries from Netanyahu and the neocon media – and spurs greater public suspicions about Iranian ultimate intent.
Iran has repeatedly declared that it has no interest in building a nuclear bomb, a claim supported by U.S. intelligence agencies since a National Intelligence Estimate in 2007. It should be noted, too, that Israel possesses a highly sophisticated and undeclared nuclear arsenal of its own.
But where this strategy of obstructing negotiations between Iran and the West ends is the big question. Some American neocons, who never faced accountability for tricking the American people into the Iraq War, apparently still hope for one or two more violent “regime changes.”