Had Secretary of State John Kerry not been absolutely certain that a deal with Iran was about to be signed there’s no way he would have showed up in Geneva to take credit for what he thought would be a foreign-policy coup. Indeed, as reports tell us, he was not alone in that opinion as the Iranians, European Union foreign-policy chief, and just about everyone else there were just as sure the latest meeting of the P5+1 negotiating club would end in a celebration. But to their surprise—and to the relief of those in the United States, Israel, and moderate Arab states that were looking on in horror at an agreement that eased international sanctions on Iran in exchange for little if nothing from Tehran—the party was spoiled by an unlikely voice of reason: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. As Britain’s Guardian notes today, Fabius’s “torpedoing” of the talks by his insistence on more concessions on both the Islamist state’s enrichment of uranium and their construction of a plutonium plant enraged the Iranians and frustrated Kerry and some of the other negotiators. While there is a lively debate about the French motive for their tough stance, those who care about stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon can only say thank heaven for the French.
Fabius’s unexpected decision to take a strong stand on details that Kerry had assumed would be swept under the rug the West was being sold by Iran exposed the flimsy nature of the consensus in favor of the proposed deal. Critics of the deal were worried that the Iranian agreement to freeze enrichment would be easily evaded and that the West’s move to start to ease sanctions would start a process that would lead inevitably to the collapse of sanctions regardless of what Iran did. In response, supporters of the accord seemed less interested in the actual terms of the accord than they were in the idea of finally getting the Iranians to sign on to anything. For them the act of diplomacy was the thing they cared most about since any deal would make the use of force—by the U.S. or Israel—unthinkable and lock the international community into a process where Iran would become their partner rather than an outlaw to be curbed.
While Kerry is trying to act as if there was no failure but merely a delay, the failure of the talks leaves open the question as to whether the next meeting will enable Kerry to get his photo-op. Yet by standing up to the Obama administration, Fabius may have created a dynamic that will not allow the U.S. to look weaker than the French.
Why did the French disrupt Kerry’s plans? It’s hard to say. The Iranians claimed Fabius was “acting as a servant of the Zionist regime.” Some might put it down to the French impulse to oppose anything the U.S. wants, even if it forced them to take a tougher stand while they normally prefer softer approaches to confronting Iran and other Islamist forces. But whatever Fabius’s motives might have been, what he has done is to draw attention to the fact that Kerry and Co. were rushing to make a deal without nailing down the details about what the Iranians are expected to do.
Kerry has defended this process and pretended that what he was about to sign was a good deal. He believes that by taking halfway measures he is advancing the cause of stopping the Iranians. He thinks talking to the Iranians has a value in itself and worth the price of chipping away at sanctions. Those who support this process claim that those who call for a complete shutdown of the Iranian nuclear program are unrealistic. But the real lack of realism stems from those who ignore the Iranian history of cheating on the nuclear issue and who think this time will finally be different.
The point here is that contrary to Kerry’s rhetoric, this is not a labor negotiation in which both sides must be allowed to walk away with something and a solution always lies in splitting the difference between the two sides. Any Iranian deal that doesn’t definitively end their chance of building a weapon, whether via uranium or plutonium, is a scam, not a diplomatic triumph. Insistence on this point doesn’t make the deal’s critics warmongers. It makes them realists.
It can only be hoped that the pause between this weekend and the next P5+1 meeting will stiffen the spines of the Western negotiators rather than making them more eager to give away the store. For that opportunity, we should be grateful to Fabius. Indeed, with most of the focus in recent weeks on whether to strengthen rather than weaken sanctions, the rush to a deal in the days leading up to the Geneva meeting happened without a full debate about its terms. It’s not just that the administration can’t justify being weaker on Iran than France. Kerry’s deal cannot stand up to scrutiny.