President Obama’s flagship foreign policy of ‘leading from behind’ has had some surprising consequences. Not least among them is that France now appears to be leading the free world.
During the current set of negotiations in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 countries, America, Russia, Britain, China and Germany seem eager to declare a breakthrough. Iran is seeking an alleviation of the tough international sanctions against it and the right to continue what it calls its ‘peaceful’ nuclear programme. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has warned of Iran benefiting from ‘the deal of the century’. Last weekend it took the government of François Hollande to call time on this. Laurent Fabius — the French foreign minister — described the talks as ‘a fool’s game’. He is right. The only disarmament on the table in Geneva appears to be the moral disarmament of the West. The western powers no longer seem to regard themselves as able to afford the principles they once extolled.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, was reduced to assuring his countrymen, ‘We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid.’ It would be interesting to know what the Iranian government thinks about that. The country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, used the opportunity to blame the stall in talks on divisions among western powers, simultaneously insisting that any attempt to blame Iran for the failure could only undermine Iranian confidence in the process.
One problem of the West’s approach to Iran since 1979, and even more so since the mullahs stepped up their search for an independent nuclear capability, is that the West not only finds itself repeatedly outwitted, but appears to collude in this. No sooner was Hassan Rouhani approved by the Supreme Leader to run for the office of President than he was acclaimed in the West as a ‘moderate’. Once he was elected, in a process that could not properly be described as an ‘election’, western leaders and media fell over themselves to celebrate the ‘window of opportunity’ this supposedly provided.
Even if Iran’s new president had not previously been its chief nuclear negotiator, and even if he did not have a long track record of pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community while boasting of the same to his countrymen, this situation should have given us pause. Not least because we have seen several rounds of ‘moderate’ Iranian presidents before. Has everybody really forgotten the earlier ‘moderate’ dawns of Rafsanjani? Or Khatami? The regime of the ayatollahs is very good indeed at gaming the West. Behind American and British officialdom’s desire for an optimistic outcome — now also pushed by ex-ministers like Jack Straw — lies a naivety which is startling.
The truth is that the Iranian regime’s attempt to alleviate its own domestic political suffering is what has driven it back to the table. The latest talks — which resume this weekend — pose the serious likelihood of lifting sanctions at the exact moment that those sanctions are having their desired effect. The revolutionary regime in power has not returned to the negotiating table because the Supreme Leader and principal source of power, Ayatollah Khameini, has altered his mind after 34 years of dictatorial and repressive government. Nor — after being in contravention of numerous unanimous Security Council resolutions on uranium enrichment — has it come because it has finally realised that it ought not to be developing secret nuclear facilities. Iran currently finds itself in an exclusive club, alongside North Korea, of countries whose nuclear programmes are of such concern to the International Atomic Energy Agency that they are the subject of quarterly reports. And although the regime continues to insist that its programme is for peaceful energy purposes, it does not yet seem able to explain why it is enriching to weapons-grade level. Nor why it keeps being found to be concealing further nuclear facilities. Nor why, after all these years and billions of dollars of expense, it has still not produced one watt of electricity.
At home, the Iranian people are certainly suffering shortages as the result of sanctions, and the regime obviously continues to be fearful of any resurgence of the uprising it repressed in 2009. Regionally the regime’s reputation has not been improved by lending its proxy militia of Hezbollah to put down the revolution in Syria. In other words, this is a good time either to pressure the regime meaningfully to change or to encourage the Iranian people to rise up again against their leaders. Whatever the scenario for the best possible outcome, the scenario for the worst remains very clear. In recent days, Saudi Arabia has revealed plans to equip itself with nuclear weapons as soon as Iran manages to join the nuclear club. The Saudis will not be alone in the region in doing this. The nightmare is an atomic arms race across the Middle East. In such a case, mutually assured destruction might not prove a deterrent to everyone.
The only thing that has been stopping the rush into such an abyss in recent years has been the resolve of the international community. Now that is softening, and the softening is being led by America and Europe. It is extraordinary that the weakest French government in recent memory is the only force left trying to hold everyone back. But so be it. Vive la France!