Friday, December 7, 2007

France, Lebanon & The NIE

Last week it seemed like all sides in Beirut had found a way out of the Lebanese presidential impasse: change the constitution to allow the head of the Lebanese army, Michel Suleiman, to hold the office. This week, things don't look that certain anymore. Everyone still agrees that Suleiman is the man for the job. But the Lebanese minority, which includes pro-Syrian factions and Hezbollah, is insisting on altering government power-sharing formulas as a pre-condition to clearing the way for Suleiman's election. As Le Monde put it:

The silence and drawn features of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, said it all...about the impasse in his mediation of the negotiations...

If the crisis remains unresolved, it will have been a pretty tough week for French foreign policy. Lebanon is supposed to be one of the cards that France delivers in the Middle East. So a failure to do so weakens its offer in any sort of regional bargaining going on with the Bush administration.

At the same time, this week's Iran NIE report poses some problems for Nicolas Sarkozy. Rightly or wrongly, his recent stance on the Iran nuclear standoff was interpreted by many to signal that he'd been tipped off to an eventual American military intervention and was positioning himself to be on the right side of the Bush administration when it went down. According to this view, the report itself leaves him out in the cold with his good friend George, throwing a war to which no one shows up.

I'm not sure I agree with that interpretation. For me, Sarkozy's and Kouchner's recent declarations were, a) more a corrective to Jacques Chirac's slip of the tongue downplaying the significance of an Iranian bomb this past spring than a change in policy, and b) wildly distorted to sound more bellicose than they actually were. (Admittedly, using the word "war" in the same sentence as Iran, even without actually advocating for it, was clearly provocative.)

As for the underlying strategy, I felt it was a way to make the hardliners in the Bush administration more comfortable with the EU negotiation track by convincing them that he, too, understood how high the stakes were. But he was determined to bring the hawks back to the negotiation track because the very stakes involved demand that any resolution to the crisis be legitimized by a multi-lateral approach. The NIE itself, as Jeffrey Laurenti of the Century Foundation points out, validates the EU approach and firmly places the initiative in the engagement camp. The danger now being that the wildly exagerrated rhetoric out of Washington has de-legitimized any sense of alarm about the underlying crisis and reduced Russia and China's willingness to go along with sanctions.

That would be unfortunate, because it seemed like the latest round of diplomatic wrangling was clearly moving towards sanctions designed to raise the pressure on Iran to fully comply with its NPT obligations. Which makes the timing of the NIE's release all the more curious. Counterintuitively, if the NIE ends up derailing what looked like promising diplomatic initiatives to a negotiated resolution of the conflict, it might end up making the military option that much more likely.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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