On Iran Nukes, France and the U.S. Play Bad Cop, Good Cop

  • Share
  • Read Later
From left: WITT / SIPA; Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

If France's opposition to the invasion of Iraq prompted Capitol Hill hawks to rename the fries in the congressional canteen, its stance on Iran could just as soon get them singing "La Marseillaise." President Nicolas Sarkozy's frequent rhetorical pummeling of Tehran offers a stark contrast with the calm calls for dialogue from President Barack Obama. As the U.S. and its partners prepare for an Oct. 1 meeting with Iranian negotiators to discuss Iran's nuclear program, Sarkozy has played attack dog in chief, snarling impatiently that Tehran must be given deadlines to cooperate with international demands or else face tough consequences. Speaking at the U.N. on Thursday, Sarkozy noted there's been no change in Tehran's behavior despite dialogue with Iran and sanctions imposed since 2005. "Since then, there's only uranium enrichment, more centrifuges and — last but not least — a call by the leader of Iran to wipe a U.N. member nation [Israel] off the map," he said. "What are we going to do about it?"

On Wednesday, Sarkozy warned in a French TV interview that time was running out for finding a negotiated solution with Tehran over concerns that its nuclear program has a military intent. "I have to admit, dialogue is not going well. There will be a deadline, and in my mind, it is the month of December," he said.

Setting ultimatums with deadlines is exactly the approach avoided by Obama during his nine months in office — whether regarding his stimulus package, health-care reform or tricky diplomatic challenges with Russia and the Middle East. Sarkozy, by contrast, has been a ferocious critic of Iran. Just three months after his May 2007 election, for example, Sarkozy said the specter of a "nuclear-armed Iran is for me unacceptable" and such an eventuality would present a "catastrophic alternative: the Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran." In his Wednesday-night TV interview, Sarkozy warned that while "Iran has the right to nuclear energy, imagining nuclear arms in the hands of the current leadership is unacceptable."

So whereas Obama has largely refrained from attacking the Iranian leadership as he tries to create an atmosphere conducive to resolving the nuclear standoff, Sarkozy pulls no punches. In his Wednesday interview, the French President referred to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "monstrosity" when he asked whether "we can accept a President from a great country — which Iran is — who says Israel should be wiped from the map?"

As refreshing as they may be, such barbs are a rarity in diplomacy because they're potentially counterproductive. While France had at times previously sought to place itself in a mediating role between the U.S. and Middle East adversaries, Sarkozy's hard line has earned it a whipping-boy role as Tehran retaliates to international criticism.

Castigating Iranian leaders on the nuclear issue has previously stirred broad popular nationalist sentiment in Iran, which benefited the regime. "The risk is the stronger the language you use against Ahmadinejad abroad, the stronger [he becomes] at home," says Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. "But Nicolas Sarkozy has always been very vocal and visible — which can make him vulnerable for targeting. Still, that's how Sarkozy is, so that's what we'll see."

But the risk of bolstering Ahmadinejad through strong criticism may have diminished considerably since the debacle of the June 12 election, which sparked widespread and continuing challenges to the legitimacy of the regime. "Stoking nationalism by demonizing foreign pressure worked [for Ahmadinejad] before," says a French Foreign Ministry official who asks not to be named, "but this time Ahmadinejad is getting nothing — either on the nuclear issue or by blaming foreign powers for the antiregime protests." For that reason, the official shares Moisi's view that domestic unrest in Iran is more likely to weaken Tehran's defiance of international calls to end its uranium-enrichment program than it is to rally support. And at the end of the day, he notes, any contrast between Obama and Sarkozy is strictly a matter of style.

"We've always called for dialogue, followed by sanctions if necessary, and unlike his predecessor, Obama is now also calling for dialogue with Iran," the diplomat says. "Contents of sanction action and timetables to apply them are under discussion, but we're in perfect agreement on objectives, and methods to attain them."

Indeed, should Iran's defiance persist at the Oct. 1 meeting scheduled to hear Iran's response to Western proposals for a diplomatic compromise, the unity of purpose between the "good cop" Obama and "bad cop" Sarkozy is expected to become more apparent.