French-Iranian Relations Under the Presidency of Ebrahim Raisi: A More Confrontational Course

ByClément Therme

The window of opportunity is closing fast on reviving the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), according to French diplomatic sources. The French diplomatic line conveys a sense of urgency for the Islamic Republic to observe once again its nuclear commitments. Indeed, the view from Paris underlines the risk of Tehran losing an opportunity and rising prospects of the nuclear diplomatic path (Vienna talks) ending. Paris estimates that the JCPOA is becoming less relevant for its non-Iranian members given that Tehran refuses to curb its nuclear ambitions since the US withdrawal from the deal in May 2018. On the contrary, Tehran is attempting to gain more time and is building a comprehensive nuclear program to strengthen its bargaining position. During the last 15 years, Paris has focused mainly on the nuclear dimension in its bilateral, regional, and international approaches towards the Iranian file. Nevertheless, since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, there appears to be a diplomatic willingness to reach a broader deal. As a result, Paris supports the “nuclear plus” formula to solve the Iranian nuclear question. The “nuclear plus” idea seeks to address the failure of the nuclear centric JCPOA via tackling other outstanding issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program, its human rights violations and regional belligerency. This French formula is theoretically relevant because the JCPOA failed to deliver a lasting diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear question. At the same time, according to Paris, there is a risk that the new inclusive talks with Tehran will fail because Iranian diplomats could possibly use the “regional” aspects to divert diplomatically the trajectory of the talks. Paris is playing the role of a diplomatic mediator as seen during the regional conference titled “the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership” in Baghdad on August 28, 2021.

Iran’s regional behavior has also influenced France’s foreign policy approach towards Iran since the 1979 revolution particularly in Lebanon. The French ambition to play a leading role in shaping Lebanon’s political evolution is also a key factor defining French bilateral relations with Tehran. This Lebanese equation in French diplomacy fluctuates in significance depending on the French president. While the personal ties which united French President Jacques Chirac and Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, heavily influenced the French position towards the Islamic Republic; in the case of President Nicolas Sarkozy, it was rather Paris’ alliance with Tel Aviv, which constituted one of the main factors determining French foreign policy towards Iran. Eventually, the diplomatic links between Paris and Tehran will support the French diplomatic line in relation to the Lebanese political scene independent of US preferences.

Lack of trust between France and Iran remains the main hurdle in furthering bilateral relations. Europe’s unwillingness to give preference to the Iranian market over its transatlantic alliance with Washington during the Trump administration (2017-2021), explains why it is challenging today for European capitals to play an independent role vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear question. Moreover, the autonomy of the European private sector, not only at the level of individual European countries but also at the collective level with regard to the European Union, explains why the majority of European private companies followed the Trump administration’s advice not to deal with Iran.

The Iranian leadership’s understanding of European limits in the economic sphere has led to political ramifications: some internal opponents and critics of the Raisi government, urge the Iranian political-religious elite to negotiate directly with the US administration to resolve the critical economic problems facing the country. However, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, refuses to do so and has proposed a policy looking towards the East (China and India) and the North (Central Asia, and Russia). This deadlock means it is impossible for the supreme leader to agree to public talks with Washington while economically benefiting from rapprochement with the Russian, Chinese and Indian economies. This deadlock in Iranian foreign policy does not mean, however, that Iran will not implement its threats of nuclear escalation.

This risk of escalation is even higher under the Raisi government. The European diplomatic bet on reaching a broader nuclear deal was an attempt to convince the Iranian “moderate” faction that a comprehensive deal was necessary to launch a process of economic normalization between the two sides. This bet is no longer on Europe’s diplomatic agenda since the Iranian “hardliners” took over the Iranian presidency. From the Iranian perspective, the “moderate-conservative” divide used externally to divide the enemy camp, by playing Brussels against Washington. This was at the heart of Tehran’s strategy in the 1990s until 2005 and then dividing the Western chancelleries between supporters of dialogue with the Islamic Republic as an indispensable regional power, and Western supporters of a more coercive approach towards Tehran.

On the French economic front, a future nuclear compromise will probably not allow French companies to return as investors to the Iranian market in the short term. For this to happen, diplomatic normalization between Tehran and Washington seems to be a precondition.

After the election of a “conservative” president, French diplomacy must overcome the challenge of Iran’s security apparatuses dominating the political landscape in the country.  The anti-French tendency of the Islamic Republic inherited from the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) will increase under Raisi and it will be much more difficult for French diplomats to advocate dialogue with an Iranian president accused of human rights violations. Despite the reputational risk, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to develop a direct and personal relationship with Raisi to use the Iranian dossier to put France at the center of the nuclear and regional negotiations. This French realpolitik pursued despite the fundamental ideological differences between France and the Islamic Republic. The election of an “ultraconservative” Iranian president will not advance France’s strategy to ensure a balance of power between the two shores of the Gulf. The victory of the Iranian “hardliners” will probably lead to a rapprochement between Brussels and Washington as the prospects for relaunching economic relations between the European countries and the Islamic Republic are still distant.

There will probably not be a return to the pre-2018 status quo ante. Indeed, the Iranian system is not likely to bet again on an economic rapprochement with the Europeans because of their strategic dependence on Washington and because of the autonomy of the European private sector in general and the French one in particular. Iran’s international and regional policy will likely focus on its “looking-East” policy at the international level and developing economic relations with its neighboring countries at the regional level. These new economic options and possibilities for the Islamic Republic make the possibility of a return to European, and more particularly French economic diplomacy, unlikely for the next four or eight years of Raisi’s presidency.

In light of the pro-Russian and pro-Chinese dimensions promoted by the IRGC and the new president, developing relations with Europe and France will be an insignificant element in Iran’s future economic strategy. Consequently, the economic dimension of French diplomacy towards Iran will remain marginal in the short term. The French-Iranian bilateral relationship, will probably be driven by irritants, such as Tehran’s nuclear file, its ballistic missile program and regional policy.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Clément Therme
Clément Therme
a non-resident fellow at Rasanah-IIIS and a Research Associate at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris.