Like Jonathan, I breathed a sigh of gratitude to France this weekend for thwarting–at least for now–a horrendous deal that would have granted Iran significant and probably irreversible sanctions relief while letting it continue making rapid progress toward a nuclear bomb. But contrary to the snide Western diplomat who accused Laurent Fabius of making trouble just to achieve “relevance,” I can think of two substantive reasons for the French foreign minister’s strong stance. One is that France has consistently taken a tougher line against Iran’s nuclear program than the Obama administration has. But another may stem from historical memory–and the clue is Fabius’s statement that “The security concerns of Israel and all the countries of the region have to be taken into account.”
At first glance, this is astounding. If any party to the talks were going to spare a thought for Israel’s concerns, one would expect it to be the U.S., or even Germany: Both are closer Israeli allies than France, which usually leads the anti-Israel camp. But France attaches great importance to averting Israeli military action against Iran; that’s precisely why it pushed for a European oil embargo on Iran (“We must do everything possible to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran, even if it means a rise in the price of oil and gasoline”). And France has a very specific historical reason for doubting the widespread view that Israel wouldn’t dare attack Iran in defiance of its major patron: It’s called the Six-Day War.
Though few people remember nowadays, in 1967, Paris occupied much the same position that Washington occupies now with respect to Israel: Not only was France Israel’s chief arms supplier and Security Council patron, but it was the only country willing to supply Israel with essential equipment such as fighter jets. Israel’s air force fought the Six-Day War with French Mirages; only the following year, in 1968, did America for the first time agree to sell it Phantom jets.
Consequently, Charles de Gaulle had every reason to think that when he spoke, Israel would listen. And the French president’s message in 1967 was unequivocal: Under no circumstances must Israel launch a preemptive strike; if it did, it could kiss French patronage goodbye. Israel heard the message loud and clear–and preempted anyway. Facing what it deemed an existential threat, it decided that even the loss of its sole military supplier was the lesser evil.
France knows that today, Israel deems Iran’s nuclear program an existential threat. France also knows that Israel would probably risk less by defying the Obama administration than it did by defying France in 1967: De Gaulle severed the military relationship completely, refusing even to deliver planes and gunboats Israel had already paid for, at a time when Israel had no assurance that Washington would fill the gap; today, given Israel’s strong support in Congress, a similarly total American arms embargo seems unlikely. As a result, France may understand what Washington seems not to: that utterly disregarding Israel’s concerns about Iran could push it to preempt despite its patron’s objections, just as it did in 1967.
This also explains why France was particularly opposed to a provision allowing Iran to continue building its heavy-water reactor in Arak. Once the reactor is finished and ready to go online, Iran could turn the switch before an attack could be mounted, so Israel is unlikely to wait until it gets to that point. Thus if the goal is to prevent an Israeli attack, halting progress at Arak is critical.
So by all means, heartfelt thanks are due the French. But a nod may also be due to the deterrent Israel has created by its proven willingness to defend itself by itself.