Negotiators, please try harder! (Le Monde, March, 2013)

The round of negotiations which took place on February 26 in Almaty has brought up some pleasant surprises. The offer presented by the Six Countries has evolved for the better. Among other things, we have stopped asking for the closure of the underground enrichment facility of Fordow. No regret about this: had the Iranians accepted to dismantle the site, they would have been entitled to cross it off the list of nuclear installations submitted to IAEA safeguards. And then, God knows what they could have done in such a secret place! We have also offered some modest sanction relief. The Iranians have been kind enough to see in our proposal some kind of progress. And the parties have even agreed on the places and dates of their next encounters. The acceptance of meetings at expert level was also a positive signal, as it should facilitate quiet progress.

But of course, at the heart of the matter, all has to be done. Everyone, without officially admitting it, knows exactly what is the only possible compromise : in short, acceptance of Iranian enrichment activity, but tightly regulated and capped at 5%, acceptance by Iran of controls enhanced and extended to its whole territory ; along with the implementation of this program, levying of sanctions and closing of the file by the Security Council. But heavy obstacles still stand on the way. In particular, the difficulty for the Western diplomats to understand the inner motivations of the Iranian negotiating behavior, mixing dodging and stonewalling maneuvers , which irritates them so much.

With no doubt, the Iranians feel the sanctions fatigue. The first American sanctions are more than thirty year old. The last ones, joined by the Europeans, affect practically all sectors of the economy through the embargo applied on oil and financial movements. And now, they really hurt. Everyone in Tehran is convinced that having the Bomb would raise more problems than it would solve. And the internal political game has been simplified. The incontrollable Ahmadinejad having been marginalized, Khamenei appears to all as the sole master of the nuclear game. But he is now positioned on the front line, and thus compelled to put at stake his political stature as well as his aura of infallibility, already eroded by the 2009 upheaval. In such an exposed position, he will not unleash his negotiators as long as success in not clearly in sight.

This is why we should start exposing what we want as a point of arrival, even with all needed conditions. But the West is still hesitating. The French, in particular, repeat that Iran must, before anything else, bow to the Security Council's demands, and suspend all its enrichment activities. But, in the Council's own words, its requests are meant to facilitate "a negotiated diplomatic solution". As long as we will pound our requirements without telling how this solution would look, Khamenei will refuse to pay attention.

Not at all, reply the advocates of "firmness", he will have to, as the present embargo is going to put the Iranian economy into shambles and bring the society to upheaval. Another illusion. True, the Iranian economy is in terrible shape, and will keep on deteriorating. But the misfortune of the many makes the fortune of the happy few who are able, through their positions and acquaintances, to join the Eldorado of the sanctions-evading business. There is in Iran a growing parallel economy, in which money flows freely, and the phenomenon exacerbates factions' infighting as the Presidential election gets closer. In the meantime, the middle-class, debilitated, fragmented, withdraws into strategies of individual and family survival. If some unrest were to develop, the regime would crush it without the slightest hesitation, as it would be, once more, "a foreign-driven plot".

Should we continue to agitate the threat of the use of force, as the Americans do? Such rhetoric can be useful at internal level, in order to please the Congress, but upsets in no way the Iranian regime. Tehran knows that the West is not ready to throw itself into a third Gulf War and bear the burden of occupation of a land of seventy-five million inhabitants. And it is not bothered either by the prospect of strikes against its nuclear facilities. Age-old Iran is not in a hurry. It would rebuild them elsewhere, and deeper underground. Such an aggression against internationally safeguarded facilities would entitle Iran to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the IAEA inspectors would be forbidden to enter the new facilities. Such an option leads us nowhere.

If all of this could be understood by our negotiators, many things would become possible. Ronald Reagan, who was not leaning on the naïve side, coined the formula “Trust, but Verify” when negotiating disarmament with the USSR. "Trust" meant in fact displaying trust, while asking for robust verifications. And it worked. With Iran also, this very formula is the key to success. Barack Obama has it in mind since 2009, when he referred to it during a press conference in the city of Caen with the French president. And more recently, when receiving a delegation of Jewish community leaders a few days before flying to Israel, he answered a question on the Iranian nuclear crisis by a quote from Sun Tzu's Treaty on war: "build a golden bridge for your adversary to retreat".

The French, in the last few years, have acted as spearheads on each confrontation with Iran, be it in New York or in Brussels. And, as it should be, we have borne without complaining the consequences of this exposed position. Our partial withdrawal from the Iranian automotive market, which we used to furnish in pieces, parts and technical support for the production of more than 500.000 vehicles per year, has destroyed thousands of jobs in a sector of the French economy already in deep difficulty. Total, Airbus, Alstom, Thales, Eurocopter, the French banks... have also deserted Iran. Any form of cooperation in the fields of excellence which are for us the nuclear and the space industries is obviously out of question. Our intellectual exchanges at University and advanced research levels, even in non-sensitive fields, have been reduced to a trickle. On our own initiative, we have closed our French Institute in Tehran, where French was taught to thousands of young Iranians. All in all, we have certainly been paying a fair share to international solidarity in confronting Iran. But, one day or another, all of this will come to an end. Nothing should prevent us from contributing to it. By the same token, we could also bear in mind the ever-present risk, when playing in a forward position, to be caught offside.

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