A central concern is “breakout time” (the minimum time needed to make weapons-grade uranium). According to current reports, a deal would ensure Iranian breakout time would be moved back to one year. French negotiators want to ensure that Iran’s agreed upon breakout time will last the entire duration of the deal — and after. They also want a deal that lasts as long as possible. “Ten years is short when you talk about nuclear issues,” one diplomat said.“Ten years is short when you talk about nuclear issues,” one diplomat said.
Another diplomat summed it up: “We spent more than 10 years talking, slowly setting an architecture of sanctions, of pressure, defining principles of negotiations. Once we dismantle this, it won’t come back up. So we better get the best possible deal.”
French diplomats insist a political agreement, if reached by March 31, will only be a first step. Tough negotiations will continue. Bruno Tertrais, an expert in nuclear issues who is influential in the French diplomatic community, even suggested recently a series of temporary deals could be a better alternative to a bad definitive deal.
None of this goes against longstanding French policy, though. France has consistently been the toughest member of the European Union when it comes to Iran, going back to the administration of President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. Paris has consistently advocated for firmer sanctions and E.U. sanctions, beyond the scope of United Nations resolutions. In 2012, France was notably responsible for convincing Europeans to ban the import on oil products, despite the objections of many countries.
Nuclear deterrence has been central to France’s foreign policy ever since Charles de Gaulle’s presidency, a pillar that has been largely bipartisan. And just as nuclear doctrine has stayed remarkably stable through the years, so have the officials in charge of conducting French nuclear strategy and proliferation policy, regardless of who is in the Élysée.
In fact, some of the most preeminent positions in the French diplomatic and defense establishments are occupied by career civil servants trained as nuclear strategists who have worked on Iran for over a decade. This close-knit group of diplomats includes, among others, Araud, as well as Jacques Audibert, Hollande’s diplomatic advisor, who both previously served as France’s chief nuclear negotiator with Iran.
These diplomats generally share the conviction Tehran’s enrichment program is aimed at obtaining a nuclear weapon and that a bad deal that allows the Iranians to keep enriching uranium at dangerous levels will lead to a disastrous game of regional proliferation. Araud, Audibert, and their colleagues know the situation well: They have been engaged in 12 years of talks on these issues and at this point they feel they have little reason to trust the Iranians, or believe regional arrangements with Iran would decrease its desire to acquire nuclear capabilities. But policymakers in Paris might not trust the Americans much, either — and not just when it comes to the nuclear negotiations. French officials no longer hide their dismay at many of Washington’s policies in the Middle East.