In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to François Nicoullaud, the former French ambassador to Iran.
It has been more than 300 years since Iran and France launched official diplomatic ties. The initial contact between the two nations dates back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when the kingdom of Persia tried to secure support from European nations against a powerful neighbor: the Ottoman Empire.
France was a popular destination for Iranian kings wishing to spend their time abroad, and Iran was a strategically important country at the crossroads of the Silk Road with unlimited access to the Persian Gulf. This made Iran-France relations particularly close. The two countries maintained cordial ties until the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which changed the political landscape of the Middle East and caused a shift in Iranian foreign policy.
Iran-France relations suffered enormously as a result of the anti-Western tone of the revolution, and ties were cut for 11 months following the Gordji Affair. This refers to the case of Wahid Gordji, a translator at the Iranian Embassy in Paris, who was suspected by French intelligence of being behind the 1985-86 bomb attacks in the French capital.
There were other reasons for the decline in Iran-France relations. The most controversial surrounded the Iranian nuclear program, which started in the early 2000s and lasted until the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed in 2015. The JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal, was signed by the Iranians and leading world powers, including the US, Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany and the European Union. During the talks, France was accused by the Iranian government of taking a hardline approach.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to François Nicoullaud, the former French ambassador to Iran, about the ups and downs of Iran-France relations and the new US sanctions.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: You were the ambassador of France in Tehran for four years. How does France see its relationship with Iran? Is Iran a partner for France in the fight against terrorism, an ally, a potential threat as the Trump administration and Arab nations say, or a country with which France maintains normal diplomatic relations?
François Nicoullaud: Relations between France and the Islamic Republic have seldom been “normal.” From the zenith of the return of Khomeini to the nadir of French support for Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran War and its consequences in terms of bomb attacks and hostage situations, they have gone through a kind of seesaw movement that is still ongoing. Today, President Macron is trying hard to keep the balance equal between Iran on one side and the United States and Saudi Arabia on the other side, but this looks like an almost impossible task, with the very real risk of displeasing everyone.
Ziabari: How do you evaluate your tenure as the French ambassador to Iran? How have bilateral relations developed?
Nicoullaud: I had the luck to be posted in Iran between 2001 and 2005, exactly during the second mandate of President Khatami. This was a time of internal political opening, even if the situation was far from perfect, and also a time of mutual engagement between Iran and Europe, in which France played a crucial role. It was the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, who convinced his English and German partners to go together to Tehran in order to open negotiations on the looming nuclear crisis. This common visit of three major European ministers, which took place in October 2003, was a unique event in the long history of Iran.
This first endeavor failed for several reasons after two years of efforts, but the dialogue that was then established never fully stopped. It morphed into different formats and finally led to the conclusion in 2015 of the Vienna nuclear agreement, also known as the JCPOA.
Ziabari: Why did US President Donald Trump withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, which was the outcome of months of intense negotiations and committed diplomacy on all sides? How will Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA affect US relations with Europe?
Nicoullaud: Personally, I see no rationality behind such a decision. I believe the first motive of President Trump was to destroy President Obama’s most emblematic achievement in the international field. In doing so, he has, among other consequences, offered to the Iranians a gift that they had been dreaming of for a long time without ever coming close to it: a rift between Europe and the United States on a major political issue.
Ziabari: How do the new US sanctions against the Iranians affect Iran-France trade? Since the sanctions don’t have the backing of the UN Security Council, should France feel obliged to follow them and cap its business deals with Iran?
Nicoullaud: Without any doubt, the new American sanctions seriously affect French and European trade, which had started booming right after the beginning of implementation of the nuclear agreement in January 2016. See the withdrawal of Total, Airbus, Siemens, Peugeot and Renault.
European governments and the European Union do not feel bound by such unilateral American decisions, but this is of little avail. All significant European companies have, one way or another, business interests in the US economy. The American market is obviously more attractive to them than the Iranian market. Therefore, they can be easily convinced by the US administration to abide by American laws, and eventually punished if they do not comply. And European governments, being immersed in a free-market economy, have no way to dictate their behavior to major European companies.
Ziabari: Do you think Europe is determined to preserve the JCPOA and convince Iran to remain in the deal? Or is pressure from the United States so unbearable that the JCPOA will eventually fail?
Nicoullaud: I do not question the determination of Europe to preserve the JCPOA, but the necessary tools have still to be built and put to use. No magic solution will bring back Total or Siemens to Iran. However, it should be possible to protect at least a steady flow of current trade between Europe and Iran. There are some people working hard on such a mechanism. All of this addresses complex, sensitive issues, and time is needed to produce results. In between, of course, sanctions are producing their effects, so we see a kind of race against time to establish this mechanism.
On the other hand, I strongly believe that the Iranians have no interest whatsoever in leaving the JCPOA. What would they gain by restarting producing stockpiles of enriched uranium for which they have no immediate need? By remaining faithful to their commitments, they keep the high moral ground in this quarrel, and this will present visible benefits in the long run. My guess is that most Iranians in charge are quite conscious of this point.
Ziabari: Iran’s nuclear program was just one of several sticking points between Tehran and the West, and the JCPOA was apparently the best solution. Do you think the other differences over which Iran and the international community continue to spar — including Iran’s support for militant groups in Lebanon and Palestine or its role in Syria and Yemen — can be similarly settled through diplomatic engagement?
Nicoullaud: They could eventually, but certainly not through a bilateral negotiation between Iran on one side and Western countries on the other. Such complex, multifaceted issues can only be solved through a collective engagement involving the other major regional actors. Do you remember the Madrid Conference in 1991, following the Gulf War? It failed miserably because — among other reasons — Iran was not invited, but this is the kind of format one should be thinking of at the end of the ongoing Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. The idea has already been floated for several years, but apparently the time is not ripe.
Ziabari: An issue on which Iran faces pressure is its ballistic missiles program. Shouldn’t Iran be able to develop and advance its own means of defense in the presence of several adversaries who have different visions for the future of the country, including regime change?
Nicoullaud: The JCPOA negotiators have been criticized for not having included at least the Iranian ballistic issue in their agreement. But one has to understand that such an issue could not be part of the negotiating mandate of the Iranian diplomats. The nuclear issue is a civilian matter. The challenge was to find strong enough limitations to an existing civilian program in order to stop any kind of diversion to military goals. It was therefore normal to have professional diplomats in charge of the negotiation.
But the ballistic program is a matter of defense, in the hands of the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]. There could be no question of letting civilian diplomats meddle with it. To address the issue, it would have been necessary to modify in-depth the format of the negotiation. So, all in all, it was a wise decision from Iran’s partners to agree to limit the deal to the nuclear issue.
Aside from this somewhat technical point, one has to understand that a sovereign state cannot accept unilateral limitations to its defense capacity without undermining the very core of its sovereignty. This kind of surrender happens only under duress, usually after being defeated in war. Voluntary restrictions of defense capacities can only take place on a reciprocal basis — be it bilateral or, even better, multilateral. Iran is not the only country to possess ballistic missiles in the region. Any solution to the alleged threat of the Iranian missile program can only be sought at regional level in a framework of mutual concessions. It could start, for example, by a simultaneous accession of Iran and its main neighbors to The Hague Code of Conduct, which provides for a mutual effort of transparency on ballistic arsenals.
Ziabari: In 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo published a set of demands that Iran should grant in order for future negotiations between Tehran and Washington to take place. He said Iran should act as a normal country to be accepted in the international community. Do you think Iran’s policies and actions are not representative of a normal country?
Nicoullaud: Iran, especially since the foundation of the Islamic Republic, is clearly not a “normal” country. But, after all, is the United States a “normal” country? Is France? Is Saudi Arabia? Is Russia? Is China? It would be interesting to hear from Mr. Pompeo his definition of a “normal country” and see what remains on the map.
Ziabari: President Trump has been heavily criticized at home and abroad for eulogizing US adversaries and alienating US allies, which is said to be the outcome of his political inexperience. How do US-France relations look like today?
Nicoullaud: The French-US relationship is going through a rather rocky path. In spite of the efforts made by President Trump and President Macron to develop strong personal relations, in spite of their reciprocal visits to Paris and to Washington, the positions of the two countries have proven to be too far apart on too many important subjects: climate, international trade, European defense and, last but not least, Iran.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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