How France’s Presidential Runoff Could Shape Iran Diplomacy

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Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

France's President and UMP party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy, delivers a speech during campaign rally in Saint Cyr Sur Loire, April 23, 2012, the day after the first round of presidential elections where Sarkozy ended in second place behind the Socialist candidate.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have once been caught in an unguarded moment telling President Barack Obama he couldn’t stand Benjamin Netanyahu and branding the Israeli leader “a liar,” but Netanyahu would nonetheless lose an important ally if Sarkozy is unable to reverse Sunday’s setback in his reelection bid. That’s because regardless of the personal chemistry between them, Netanyahu will be initimately aware that Sarkozy is widely regarded as the most Israel-friendly French president ever and is also Israel’s best bet among Western leaders for maintaining a hard line on Iran. Even if presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande is unlikely, if elected, to change France’s formal position on Iran, the Socialist Party candidate is also highly unlikely to reprise Sarkozy’s hyperactive and reliably hawkish hectoring of Washington and his European neighbors to escalate pressure on Iran—and to resist compromises with Tehran on the issue of uranium enrichment.

“Sarkozy has played a critical, instrumental role in hardening the European position on Iran, although the Iranians themselves have certainly helped,” says Iran scholar Trita Parsi, author of  A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran. “He has consistently taken positions more hawkish than those of the Obama Administration. By contrast, Hollande’s orientation will be on fixing France’s many domestic problems, and even if he leaves the formal position on Iran unchanged, he’s very unlikely to adopt Sarkozy’s approach of pressing other Western powers and agitating for a harder line.”

(MORE: The Menu of Options in the Iranian Nuclear Talks)

The prospect of regime change in Paris comes at a particularly sensitive diplomatic moment, with Western powers embarking on a process negotiation with Iran to settle the nuclear standoff—or, more immediately, to change the dynamic towards confrontation. There’s no sign that Iran is about to capitulate to the full menu of Western demands, but should Tehran prove amenable to taking concrete and verifiable steps to ease international concerns over the nature of its program, Western powers will face the challenge of defining acceptable compromises. The framework of the diplomatic process, as agreed in talks on April 14 in Istanbul is based on two key principles: That the terms of the negotiations will be based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and that a principle of reciprocity will apply in terms of concrete steps taken by each side. That negotiating framework makes Israel uncomfortable, because its best-case outcomes are likely to fall short of the country’s own bottom-line demand that Iran be denied the right to enrich uranium, and that its existing enrichment capability be dismantled and removed.

Although the NPT obliges Iran to account for all its nuclear work to the satisfaction of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—which Iran has yet to do—it also guarantees Tehran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. A diplomatic solution based on the NPT, therefore, would be one that strengthens the safeguards against Iran using its nuclear capability to build weapons, but would not dismantle and remove Iran’s enrichment capability as Israel and its backers in Washington have demanded. And France has taken the same position as Israel, with Sarkozy pressing the Obama Administration from the moment the U.S. president took office in 2009 to harden his stance and be wary of diplomacy, agitating for more painful sanctions to be imposed on Iran and questioning attempts at compromise deals involving fuel swaps that would have left Iran able to continue enriching uranium.

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The Obama Administration’s position on the enrichment issue has been more ambiguous, having initially inherited the Bush Administration’s zero-enrichment stance, but Washington has recently spoken of Iran having the right to a peaceful nuclear program in line with the NPT. Hopes for progress in nuclear talks right now are focused on the prospect of getting Iran to halt enrichment to 20% purity—closer to weapons grade than the 3.5%-pure material Iran had previously been enriching for reactor fuel—and removing its stockpile of such material. Iran has sent signals that it might agree to such a step, but has also made clear it would expect reciprocation in the form of a significant easing of sanctions—not only a tough sell in an election year, but a prospect to which the Israelis can be expected to strenuously object. They’re demanding even tougher sanctions, hoping that economic strangulation would press Iran to accept Western demands that go beyond the NPT.

(MORE: After Historic First-Round Defeat, Sarkozy’s Re-election Hopes Shrink Further)

Sarkozy has been the leading voice of skepticism over negotiations among Western leaders, and he has taken the lead in pressing both the Obama Administration and European governments to adopt the sanctions targeting Iran’s energy exports and banking sector that have had a painful impact on the Iranian economy. Britain supports France’s zero-enrichment demand, but hasn’t been quite as activist in promoting it. London is also more likely, analysts say, to go along with the consensus if Western powers can fashion an interim deal that offers concrete progress in reinforcing barriers to Iran using its nuclear program to create weapons, even if that leaves the issue of Iran’s ongoing enrichment to 3.5% unresolved for now. A nuclear compromise involving steps to diminish the danger of weaponization in the near term, but which leaves Iran with the capacity to enrich uranium and at the same time eases international pressure on Tehran, is precisely what the Israelis fear right now. And Sarkozy, while rejecting Israel’s threat to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, could be more willing to push back against a compromise on the enrichment issue than Hollande would be.

The Socialist candidate, if he wins the presidency, is expected to be more of a low-key team player than Sarkozy, who demands the limelight and has been willing to publicly challenge the Obama Administration to take a tougher line. Hollande’s plate will be full in managing domestic challenges, and his key foreign policy priority as president would be renegotiating the treaty to save the eurozone. Foreign policy dossiers such as Iran and Syria are likely to be returned to the French Foreign Ministry, in contrast to Sarkozy’s habit of taking personal charge. So even if the formal policy remains the same, Sarkozy’s ouster would silence the most important cheerleader for a hard line on Iran in the Western camp. That’s why all stakeholders in the Iran nuclear standoff will be watching closely when French voters return to the polls on May 6 to settle the matter of whether Sarkozy will have a second term.

(PHOTOS: Sarkozy’s Visit to the U.S.)