The French — that’s right, the French – have become the leading force in the Western world advancing concerns over President Barack Obama’s reorientation of alliances in the Middle East.
Fearing correctly that they had lost the faith of the American president, Israeli officials turned to France in mid-March in the effort to ensure that at least one Western nation had Jerusalem’s interests in mind while negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran.
“In an interview with the Associated Press in Paris, the Israeli intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, said on Monday that dialogue with France over Iran’s nuclear program ‘has proven in the past that it was productive’ and makes this week’s last-minute diplomatic mission to Paris worthwhile,” The Guardian reported.
Steinitz and Israel’s national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, were meeting with the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, and other top diplomats involved in the Iran talks. He told the AP only a deal that “dismantles, not simply freezes” Iran’s nuclear program would be acceptable.
France has been more hawkish than the US at the negotiating table, reportedly demanding more stringent restrictions than other western delegations.
While France was reportedly amenable to Israeli appeals on the issue of Iranian nuclearization, Paris has not entirely surrendered its historical favorability toward the Palestinian cause. According to reports, France will soon propose a United Nations Security Council draft resolution that could present a framework to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution.
It is not merely Israel’s interests but the interests of other traditionally pro-Western Arab governments that Paris appears keenly interested in protecting. As Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and a variety of other predominantly Sunni Arab states engage in a proxy conflict against an Iran-backed militia group in Yemen, France is concerned that the United States has determined that Tehran and not Riyadh should serve as a force for regional stability.
“French officials no longer hide their dismay at many of Washington’s policies in the Middle East,” wrote Joseph Bahout and Benjamin Haddad in Foreign Policy.
Numerous French diplomats suspect that the United States, now that it is less dependent on Gulf oil, “pivoting” to Asia, and focused on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is on the verge of profoundly reshaping its traditional alliance system in the Middle East, moving from a system where Iran replaces Saudi Arabia as the central pillar of regional stability. This especially concerns the French because they have built strong political and defense relationships with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates in recent years.
The nuclear talks, French diplomats suspect, are just one part of a strategic rapprochement with Iran. Washington has practically subcontracted the war against the Islamic State’s forces in Iraq to Iranian special forces and Tehran’s Iraqi militia proxies. The French view this as a potentially counterproductive move, one more part of Washington’s turn away from its Sunni allies and toward Tehran.
Those fears may not be entirely well-founded. The United States has provided the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen with logistical as well as rhetorical support. The deference Washington provided Tehran while the Mullahs extended their influence over Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, and Sanaa has, however, given both Paris and the region’s Sunni actors genuine cause for alarm.
The French under Socialist Party leader and President Francois Hollande have also assumed the role of regional peacekeepers. The French military took the lead role in neutralizing Islamist militants in Mali in 2013 – 2014 following the collapse of the Libyan government and the transit of a variety of heavy arms into that former French colonial possession.
While the United States is permitting a radical shift in the balance of power in the Middle East, France has apparently become a force in favor of the status quo.