When it comes to nuclear negotiations with Iran, which are nearing a June 30 deadline, those who want a solid deal should be saying Vive la France!
The French are taking the toughest stand of any of the six countries (known as the P5+1) that are negotiating with Tehran. Paris insists that any accord must permit continuing inspections of all Iranian nuclear installations, including military sites.
This demand has been put forward by the entire P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany), but it has been rejected by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many observers suspect U.S. officials will be willing to water down inspections in order to close a deal before the deadline.
France, on the other hand, insists the June 30 date is not sacred. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says his country won't sign unless Tehran gives international inspectors full access.
Clearly, the French are more familiar than the White House with the basic tenet of bargaining in the Mideast bazaar:
If you want a good deal, you must be ready to walk away from a merchant who sets his price too high.
The French believe that the United States has been too eager to make concessions to Tehran. They argued that setting a March 30 deadline for a framework accord put more pressure on the P5+1 to make compromises than it did on the Iranians - and they feel the same about the June 30 deadline.
The French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, a longtime expert on the Iran nuclear issue, tweeted on March 3: "We want a deal. They need a deal. The tactics and the results of the negotiation should reflect this asymmetry."
In other words, Iran wants and needs this deal so badly - in order to rebuild its economy and extend its influence in the region - that the West has the leverage to hold out for provisions that prevent cheating. The June 30 date is not carved in stone. The P5+1 can walk away if Iran demands an unacceptable price.
While I support a deal in principle, I believe the French position on negotiating strategy is spot on. Now is the moment to hold firm.
The United States has already made substantial concessions in permitting Tehran to retain a limited capacity to enrich nuclear fuel. It has also accepted a sunset provision that will lift most of those limitations in 10 to 15 years.
The argument for some concessions has merit:
If there is no deal, the Iranians could soon ramp up nuclear-fuel production to a point where they could "break out" in a few weeks - that is, produce enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
A nuclear accord, in theory, would guarantee that, at least for the next 10 to 15 years, the time required for "break out" would be one year. Yet such an accord would be meaningless unless inspections are so intrusive that Iran cannot cheat on its commitments, as it has done repeatedly in the past.
Yukiya Amano, the head of the U.N.'s atomic watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said last week that this would require Iran to accept snap inspections at any location, including military sites. It would also require Tehran to finally respond to the U.N. agency's long-standing questions about suspected work on the development of nuclear weapons in previous decades.
The State Department still insists that the administration wants an accord by June 30. No doubt the White House is concerned that Congress might vote to undercut a deal if the deadline is extended. But this is no excuse to waffle over nailing down verification mechanisms, or the timing of the phase-out of sanctions. This is no time to water down provisions to "snap back" sanctions if inspectors find violations.
Rather it's the time to stand firm. It's time to listen to Fabius, who said France would reject a deal "if it is not clear that inspections can be done at all Iranian installations, including military sites."
Of course, President Obama is openly eager for this deal, which he hopes will prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. His hopes may be exaggerated.
Sunni Arab states in the region fear that sanctions relief for Tehran will finance even greater Iranian interference in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the Gulf, and Yemen. A deal with Iran may even prod Saudi Arabia to start building the infrastructure for a nuclear program.
If Obama really wants to prevent a nuclear race in the region, he needs to convince Arab leaders he won't be rolled by the merchants in Tehran. And he needs to convince Tehran that he isn't a patsy - at a time when Iran is showering funds and arms on its Syrian and Iraqi proxies, and inflaming the civil wars in both countries. A tougher U.S. stand on talks might make the ayatollahs rethink their overreach in the region.
It's time to imitate the French, or at least let them play bad cop at the bargaining table. If Tehran demands more concessions to meet the June 30 deadline, U.S. negotiators should stand with their Parisian counterparts and just say "Non!"