Iran: The French soufflé fails to rise

Amir Taheri

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According to those in the know in Paris, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is a smart soft-soaper capable of persuading a mule out of its hind legs.

A provincial politician, Le Drian emerged from relative obscurity towards the end of President Francois Hollande’s much maligned presidency. As Defense Minister in Hollande’s government, Le Drian was quickly established as the star of a moribund administration.

While other ministers turned round vacuous illusions, Le Drian won a reputation as a “doer” (in French faiseur) by winning huge contracts for the sale of the latest French combat aircraft, le Raffale, to a number of countries including Brazil, Egypt and India, thus providing some good news for Hollande’s bad-news tenure.

Le Drian was Socialist enough to survive several Cabinet reshuffles but not too Socialist to remain on board as the party’s sinking ship.

Knowing when to abandon ship, Le Drian was the first senior politician to jump on Emanuel Macron’s presidential bandwagon at a time few rated the young aspirant’s chances above that of a snowflake in June.

When Macron won against all odds, Le Drian was upgraded to Foreign Minister with the understanding that, as the new regime’s elder statesman, he would have a say in other aspects of domestic and foreign policies.

So, this week as Le Drian headed for Tehran for what some described as “crucial talks”, the consensus in Paris was that if anyone can persuade the mullahs to temper their ardor it would be the Breton miracle-worker.

According to sources in Paris and Tehran, in talks with Iranian officials, Le Drian used his hitherto successful method of “give-and-take”.

The method is simple.

The Frenchman asks his interlocutors what is it exactly that they want.

Once that has become clear he would raise the question of how much of what they want is achievable, how and when? The trick is to keep the interlocutors focused on real, tangible things rather than chimeras and abstractions. The next step is to link what the interlocutors want to what the French want and show a high measure of compatibility, leading to a deal that gives both sides most, if not all, of what they want.

By all accounts Le Drian’s recipe failed in Tehran.

The soufflé that had risen in so many countries across the globe failed to rise.

Le Drian’s failure is the latest in a string of such forlorn bids by big, medium and small powers trying, in the words of former US President Barack Obama, to “bring Iran into the dance.”

There are many reasons for such failures.

The first is the fact that we have two Irans: one is Iran as a nation-state with the normal interests, fears and aspirations of any typical nation-state, and the other is Iran as a revolution with the irrational dreams and ambitions of all revolutions.

This duality means that Iran cannot develop a coherent policy on any issue, domestic or foreign as the interests and aspiration of the two Irans, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, do not always coincide.

Because Iran has a problem with itself it is bound to have problems with everyone else.

When Le Drian asks Tehran officials: What is it that they want, they are unable to provide a clear answer. And because they cannot answer, they behave as if they want everything, rather any identifiable desiderata.

Messianic pretensions

The classical demands of a nation-state behaving as such are not legion.

A nation state wants, respect, security, demarcated borders, trade, access to natural resources, share of markets, economic cooperation, cultural exchanges etc. All those demands can be and in the case of almost all 198 members of the United Nations are routinely fulfilled. The Islamic Republic is one of the few exceptions along with North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe until the fall of Robert Mugabe.

A revolution, however, feeds on its messianic pretensions.

It cannot seek to become part of a grey status quo which would extinguish whatever is left of its embers. It has to remain defiant, clenched fist and all, claiming a purity it never had but always boasted about.

The second mistake Le Drian made, as countless others did before him, was to believe that he was negotiating with authentic decision-makers. However, the fact is that in the Islamic Republic the President and his ministers are essentially actors playing such roles in an ever-revised script.

It is clear that in the Khomeinist system Iran is ruled by a “deep state” headed by the “Supreme Guide” and a handful of military and civilian advisers forming a parallel government in “The House of the Leader” (Beit-e-Rahbar).

If you hope for results you ought to talk directly, and exclusively, to Ali Khamenei. This is what Russian President Vladimir Putin did when he flew to Tehran, drove directly from the airport to Khamenei’s house, and spent several hours with him before driving back to the airport for a return flight to Moscow. Putin wasted no time with his nominal counterpart President Hassan Rouhani let alone the actors playing ministers.

If our information is correct Le Drian wanted two things.

The first was a pledge by Iran not to develop long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads- a demand advanced by US President Donald Trump and backed by Macron. The fact is that neither Rouhani nor his Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif know much about the missile project, let alone being in a position to agree to a “freezing phase.”

The puppeteer has ordered them to respond to such demands with a firm “no”. End of discussions.

Le Drian’s second demand was for Iran to reduce its footprint in Syria and Yemen.

Again, this is something above the pay-grade of either Rouhani or Zarif, who don’t even know how much money Iran is spending on maintaining the Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad in his Damascene hideout. There are no figures for that in the official budget presented by Rouhani. The reason is that funds for “exporting revolution” come from the Special Account of the “House of the Leader”. Money poured into that account comes from a variety of sources including a one percent ring-fenced tariff on all imported cars.

The ”House of the Leader” also owns some of the 32 companies that trade in Iranian oil and petroleum products at home and abroad and, being classed as private sector, avoid public scrutiny.

Le Drian wanted things from those who don’t have them, ignoring those who could deliver the goods but won’t because of a traditional carpet bazaar scenario in which you start by asking a small discount on a carpet you like but end up buying at twice the price a carpet you don’t want.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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