It should come as no surprise that Iran wants to shunt France out of a deal to enrich its nuclear fuel abroad. Dividing its enemies and isolating the more hawkish among them has been a hallmark of Tehran's diplomacy, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy routinely plays the tough cop with Iran, threatening and goading its leaders and urging U.S. President Barack Obama to take a tougher line. On Tuesday, Iran struck back with a humiliating slap-down, insisting that France butt out of the deal because Tehran could not trust the nation to honor its commitments. Iranian diplomats even delayed the start of the day's talks in Vienna on the agreement, insisting that it was unnecessary for the French to be in the room. Eventually the talks went ahead with French delegates present, but Iranian officials insisted that they would not accept France as a supplier. The New York Times reported that a face-saving compromise was being developed that would see Iran make a deal with Russia, which could separately subcontract work out to France.
"We do not need a lot of fuel, and we do not need the presence of many countries," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, stressing Tehran's desire to work on the deal with the U.S. and Russia. "There is no need for France to be present," he said, adding that Iran believes that France "is not a trustworthy party to provide fuel for Iran."
Snubbing France while offering an agreement with the U.S. and Russia is vintage Iranian divide-and-conquer diplomacy although this time there may be incentives for all sides to play the game. The Vienna talks are on the details of an agreement, announced at the Geneva talks on Oct. 1, under which Iran would ship much of its enriched-uranium stockpile abroad for reprocessing to fuel a medical research reactor in Tehran. Together with Iran's agreement to submit its hitherto secret enrichment site at Qum to inspection, the deal offered an important opportunity to strengthen safeguards against Iran's turning its growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium into bomb material. Iran also liked the deal, seeing it as tacit recognition of uranium-enrichment in Iran as an intractable fact Tehran reiterated on Tuesday that it has no intention of halting uranium enrichment, as Western powers continue to demand, in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The Vienna move may be read as Iran flexing its muscle with respect to a deal that the Obama Administration badly needs international support for harsher sanctions remains limited as long as Iran is ready to offer some form of cooperation. But in doing so while isolating the most hard-line among the Western powers, Tehran may be offering concessions that it's willing to give, while enjoying a personal poke at Sarkozy.
Since his election in May 2007, the French President has taken positions on Iran worthy of the most hawkish members of the Bush Administration. In July 2007, he warned that the world would have to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program, or face a "catastrophic alternative: the Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran." And that was just his warm-up.
Last month, while attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, Sarkozy appeared to mock Obama's more temperate and generalized remarks on nuclear proliferation. Nostrils flaring, Sarkozy responded to the U.S. President's remarks by calling Iran's nuclear program the leading threat to international security, which three years of U.N. efforts had not diminished. "What are we going to do about it?" Sarkozy petulantly asked his American counterpart.
And in contrast to Obama's cautious comments on Iran's disputed election last June, Sarkozy took a lead in denouncing the regime, declaring that "the people of Iran deserve better than their current leaders." Little wonder, then, that when the opportunity arose, Iranian officials moved to throw France off the diplomatic bus.
"Dramatically effective though it may seem at times, Sarkozy's aggressive behavior indeed, his very personality ensures certain things will inevitably come back to bite him," notes John Kent, professor in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. "He's a bit like [former British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher in the way he'll stake out strong, antagonistic positions that over time undermine his credibility to calmly seek consensus solutions because the atmospheres he creates are more favorable to histrionics."
Sarkozy's trash-talking of Iran has in fact allowed Tehran to use him as a useful whipping boy, projecting toughness and defiance for a domestic audience, while at the same time keep lines of dialogue open with the U.S. And Tuesday's diplomatic slap was more symbolic than substantial. After all, France remains a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which gives it a seat at the main nuclear talks with Iran. (Those talks began in Geneva on Oct. 1; the Vienna session was a technical meeting on the terms of a processing deal.) Iran isn't refusing to negotiate with France in the room but simply declining to accept it as a supplier of processed uranium.
"Despite the [Iranian] demands, our experts continue to participate in talks as they always have," a French diplomat told TIME on Tuesday. "Tomorrow may be another story or it might not. Who can tell with Iran?"
The Vienna talks ended inconclusively, and a further session is reportedly scheduled. But they served as a reminder that the search for a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear standoff will be protracted and perilous, and their outcome will probably be less than what the Western powers had hoped for. Even then, it may be the only game in town.