A little pushback

Gareth Porter has a good article about the French Ambassador to the US, Pierre Vimont, and his comments regarding Iran. Vimont was in the news just the other day saying that some countries on the UN Security Council needed more persuading before they would agree to sanctions against Iran.

According to Porter’s article, Vimont appears to be pushing back against the US (Bush) position and exercising what one might call, what’s the word…diplomacy. His position has some nuance. This is good. What’s behind this is anyone’s guess.

Ambassador to the United States Pierre Vimont told a conference on Iran at the Middle East Institute in Washington Friday that one reason Iran has refused to give up its nuclear programme is its perception of potential threats in the Middle East.

“Sometimes they can feel there are threats,” Vimont said, “and thus a need for bold initiatives. This is why you have a very strong will to increase their influence in the area.”

Vimont then called for a shift in the Western diplomatic posture. “If we all agree that what Iran is looking for is to play a larger role in the region,” he said, “we have to make it clearer that we are willing to support that.”

Vimont did not indicate how such support might be integrated into the international coalition position on Iran.

Under French President Nicolas Sarkozy, French policy toward Iran has been marked by support for further economic sanctions against Iran through the U.N. Security Council and tough rhetoric about Iran by President Sarkozy. On Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry accused France of open hostility toward Iran.

But the tone of Vimont’s speech was notable for the absence of any accusation about Iran as a threat to peace. The ambassador’s call for support for Iran’s regional role, which was not reported in media coverage of the speech, suggests that France is now seeking a significant adjustment in the negotiating position of the coalition of states which have backed sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council.

Perhaps France, via Vimont, is taking a leadership position in organizing some effective pushback against Bush. Other countries have expressed reservations, though the media fails to report this angle.

The proposal to support a more prominent Iranian regional role appears to revive an issue that sharply divided France and other members of the “P5 + 1″ (permanent Security Council members United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany) from the George W. Bush administration during negotiations on a diplomatic proposal to Iran in spring 2006.

In those negotiations, the French, British and Germans had wanted a formula that would give Iran a new formal status in regional security arrangements, as well as a security guarantee to Iran. But the Bush administration had refused to accept either concession as part of the package.

France is not the only European ally of the United States to believe that the P5 + 1 should adopt a more flexible diplomatic stance toward Iran in seeking an agreement on the nuclear issue. Last year, the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bush administration privately that the United States must give up the precondition of immediate suspension of uranium enrichment for the beginning of negotiations and offer to talk about the full of range issues dividing the two countries, according to a source close to the German foreign ministry.

That German position was not made public, according to the source, because German officials wish to maintain a private channel of communications with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who they believe has been listening to them.

Vimont’s views on Iran policy can be taken as an authoritative reflection of the French government’s foreign policy. He served as chief of staff to the foreign minister from 2002 to 2007.

In his speech, Vimont went on to explain that sanctions take a long time to work, and therefore a danger exists that Iran could develop nuclear weapons during that time. And then he went on the record with some actual criticisms of the Bush position on Iran.

Vimont devoted much of his speech to an explanation of why it is “so difficult to get a result with the process we have set up”. In doing so, he made a number of points that the Bush administration presumably would not have wanted to hear from a close ally.

One of the difficulties cited by Vimont is the fact that the Iranian regime has exhibited “lots of political stability”, despite political contradictions within the country, especially when compared with its neighbours Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

The French envoy also cited the fact that the Iranian regime’s assertion that it has a right to uranium enrichment has broad popular domestic support. “The nuclear programme has become a national cause in Iran,” he said.

Political support for the Iranian position on the right to a complete fuel cycle “in the Arab and Islamic world”, Vimont suggested, is another factor strengthening Iranian determination to maintain the enrichment programme.

One has to wonder what kind of other negotiations take place to precipitate such a political move. Granted, this is like reading the tea leaves, but it’s not for nothing that any Western power opposes the Bush administration’s wishes. We know that all these countries have a lot invested in the current situation, so what has changed?

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