Blogs > HNN > FRENCH RECOGNIZE ISLAMIST THREAT IN MIDDLE EAST

Jun 20, 2006 8:16 pm


FRENCH RECOGNIZE ISLAMIST THREAT IN MIDDLE EAST



This month's issue of Le Monde Diplomatic includes an article by Alain Gresh entitled Middle East: France rejoins the pack . It whines about what he calls a u-turn in French foreign policy. Amongst the more surprising (to me) points is the recent French government report that recognizes the emergent Islamist-Leftist coalition:

A recent government white paper on how France should respond to terrorism (14) . . . defines “global, Islamist-inspired terrorism” as “a strategic threat” that has become more serious and endangers French interests around the world.

ording to one of its authors: “It could undermine the country’s ability to function. Unlike traditional terrorist groups, there is no limit to the violence it could unleash. The use of radiological, chemical or even nuclear weapons could paralyse the country.” The report claims that this danger cannot be met without a campaign against “radical Islamism”, and it warns: “We cannot rule out the possibility that [Islamist terrorism] will one day attempt an alliance with the more radical elements of the anti-globalisation movement.”

Even more encouraging is the reported attitudal change amongst French diplomats:

On top of this, the younger generation of civil servants, many of them énarques (15), tend to support the Atlantic alliance, particularly those working in departments responsible for security issues. They have nothing but contempt for diplomats at the North Africa/Middle East desk, whom they refer to as ‘the Arab street’. It would be a mistake to underestimate the influence on security issues of EU institutions and committees, almost all of whose participants share the US point of view."

It is a small wonder French leftists worry. But read the whole thing. I posted it bellow.

Middle East: France rejoins the pack
The US proposal to engage in direct talks with Iran is a clever response to pressure from its European allies, although it comes with a damaging condition: Iran must supend all uranium enrichment, a qualification that Tehran has already ruled out.

By Alain Gresh

An astronaut who left Earth in spring 2003 and returned now would find Middle Eastern diplomacy totally confusing. As coalition forces launched their assault on Baghdad in 2003, French influence was at its peak, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, and France seemed to be leading an anti-United States revolt, bringing together most of global public opinion and states as different as Germany, the Vatican, Belgium, Mexico and Indonesia. President Jacques Chirac could be proud of the fact that his stance had prevented the attack on Iraq turning into a war of civilisations.

But three years on, an apparently reunited western world is leaning on Iran and Syria, fighting terrorism, restoring normality in Iraq and enforcing sanctions against the Palestinian government (see “Palestine: Hamas besieged”). France, the US and the European Union agree on every issue. As a western diplomat in Washington said: “The democratic, civilised nations of the world have rediscovered their common interest in a region overshadowed by a series of threats.”

The new romance between the Elysée palace and the White House feels more like infidelity when seen from the other side, especially from the Arab world. This unease is limited so far: Chirac’s status in the Middle East has allowed him to sustain a popularity there that he no longer enjoys at home. But France is not immune to criticism, or even to previously unthinkable acts of violence such as the kidnapping of four French nationals in Gaza in March. There is a new and nagging question: has France exhausted all its credit built up within the Middle East since De Gaulle?

The Iranian confrontation has confirmed such fears. The ingredients of the crisis are similar to those that led to the war in Iraq: allegations of a clandestine programme to build weapons of mass destruction, identification with the “axis of evil” and major oil interests. But this time France has returned to lead the action beside the US. According to a French diplomat involved: “On his first visit to the US as foreign minister, in July 2002, Dominique de Villepin tried to warn them about the danger from Iran. But the Bush administration was too busy in Iraq to listen. In April 2003 we managed to persuade the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, that intelligence on Iran’s secret nuclear programme, mainly supplied by the US, was reliable. It was the Americans who followed us, not the other way round.”

France’s anxieties about the future of the entire disarmament project, and in particular the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), are genuine: the Middle East is right next door to Europe. But this is not the only reason why France has made the issue a priority. Chirac was already hostile to Iran. He had opened relations with Saddam Hussein during the 1970s: like President François Mitterrand, he supported the secular regime in Baghdad against the Islamic revolution.

Chirac also sees the Iranian issue as a chance to re-establish relations with the White House after the rupture of spring 2003, when France, along with Britain and Germany, was most actively involved. In October 2003 the “EU3”, with Javier Solana, then secretary-general of the Western European Union and high representative for the common foreign and security policy, had managed to persuade Iran to agree to a provisional suspension of its legal uranium-enrichment activities. But Iranian officials insisted upon their “unalienable right” to pursue a nuclear programme. In December 2003, Iran tried to demonstrate its goodwill by signing an additional protocol to its NPT safeguards agreement, allowing the IAEA to conduct comprehensive surprise inspections of its nuclear facilities.

‘Let me talk to your American master’
At first the US expressed doubts about these developments. But early in 2005, with Condoleezza Rice’s appointment as secretary of state and the deterioration of the situation in Iraq, the US administration decided to play the European card. President Bush signalled the change of policy during a visit to Brussels in February 2005, when he gave his support to EU discussions with Iran. In return, the US secured a say in the European proposals: Iran would be forbidden to engage in any uranium enrichment, even experimental.

In the summer of 2005, following a delay because of US demands, the EU3 presented its proposals to Iran. In exchange for Boeing aircraft spares (1), the chance to join the World Trade Organisation and the promise of assistance with its civil nuclear programme, Iran would be required to renounce any form of uranium enrichment. Unsurprisingly the Iranian government, angered by the EU’s rejection of its own detailed proposals (2), turned down an offer that a European diplomat described as “a lot of gift-wrapping around a pretty empty box” (3). Meeting EU3 representatives at the United Nations in September 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s language was less than diplomatic: “You are just go-betweens. Let me talk to your American master”.

Despite Ahmadinejad’s irresponsible declarations against Israel, Iran’s ambitions and fears are not unreasonable. This centre of a former empire is proud of its history and wants to be a power in the region. It has not forgotten a series of foreign interventions, from the CIA-engineered coup that overthrew prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 to the Iraqi invasion of 1980. No western government made any serious protest when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons of mass destruction during that invasion. On the contrary: France and the US gave significant support, including military assistance, to Saddam Hussein. Attempts to destabilise Iran continued, and are still continuing with the vote from the US Congress in 2006 of $75m in aid to the Iranian opposition. It is hardly surprising that Iran is looking beyond the immediate nuclear issue and seeking security guarantees (4).

It is hard not to be sceptical about French government claims that it is taking account of Iran’s aspirations. As a Arabist diplomat put it: “The issue is in the hands of disarmament experts who have only a vague understanding of the history of the region, of Iran’s position and of the fears of its leaders. They see Iranian nationalism as the epitome of evil. They are not immune to Orientalist cultural prejudices. It doesn’t seem to worry them that sanctions against Iran could damage companies solidly established there, such as Total or Renault.”

Support at any price?
But is there not a danger that France’s desire to secure US support at any price has given Bush a right of veto over all negotiations? The current US administration is deeply divided over Iran. While some of its members want to see military intervention, others seem more cautious, for the time being at least (see “United States: spies and generals protest”). The result of the debate will depend upon developments at home and in Iraq, as well as upon ideological prejudices.

In the spring of 2003 Iran, with the support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, offered to negotiate with the US. On the table were the nuclear issue and the possible ending of support for Hamas and Hizbullah (5). According to Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the time, Lawrence Wilkerson, “the secret cabal [of neoconservatives] got what it wanted: no negotiations with Tehran”. Is it right for French policy to be dictated by Washington cabals?

Europe and the US are getting nowhere. Although Iran has resumed uranium enrichment and has limited the number of detailed checks carried out by the IAEA, Russia and China have rejected sanctions. Despite repeatedly insisting that Iran must take or leave the summer 2005 offer, the EU3 has now been persuaded by the US to make new proposals which Iran is unlikely to find acceptable. The only resolution to the crisis would be direct talks between the US and Iran, as called for by Kofi Annan, Germany and Britain. Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, Chirac’s diplomatic adviser, recently announced that it was time for Washington to start a dialogue (6). Unfortunately, despite repeated offers from the Iranians (7), the US remains unconvinced.

Are we heading for war? An analyst in Washington said, seriously: “The chances are slim: 40% to 50%.” Germany and Britain (8) have excluded this option, but France has still to make up its mind. Villepin may have rejected any military action (9), but other officials insist in private that “all the options are still on the table”. In a speech on French nuclear policy, Chirac explained that “the leaders of any states that might use terrorist methods against us, or that might consider using weapons of mass destruction in one way or another, must understand that we would respond firmly and appropriately. This response might be conventional, but might also be of another kind.” Despite subsequent clarifications, these remarks not surprisingly caused serious disquiet in Tehran.

French policy on the Middle East seems to have changed since Villepin, as foreign minister, was warmly applauded in the UN for his stance against the attack on Iraq. It all seems a long time ago, but the dispute over Iraq continues to haunt French policy-makers still shaken by their own audacity. Despite the support of most public opinion, official opposition to the war has withered under the influence of a tradition of friendship and cooperation with the US that even the Gaullists had maintained. Other interests have intruded. “There are many issues where we need the US,” one French diplomat pointed out. “Ensuring that the international thermonuclear experimental reactor (10) was built at Cadarache rather than in Japan is as important as getting UN cover for our policy in Ivory Coast.”

French bashing
French bashing has certainly damaged bilateral relations, particularly in the economic and military spheres. There were no US aircraft at the International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget in June 2003, and the Department of Defence excluded France from the Red Flag air combat exercises in 2004. Politicians, business representatives and some diplomats have written directly to Chirac, warning him of possible retaliation. The pro-US lobby has wheeled out all its supporters in the higher echelons of politics and economics.

The French government wants to repair relations. In April 2003 Villepin answered a question in the national assembly: “Obviously Europe and the US each have their own responsibilities. This partnership can prove its practical usefulness in the Middle East, where it can secure stability and peace in Iraq and revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. We must fight side by side against the two great plagues of our time: terrorism and nuclear proliferation.”

Iraq needs sorting out first. For many months France has fought a difficult battle at the UN. It has secured a detailed political calendar and advocated a significant role for the UN. The US agreed to hold elections before the drawing up of a constitution and accelerated the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis. In exchange, France accepted the US presence - the coalition forces have become a multinational force approved by the Security Council - and appointed an ambassador to Baghdad. France will not expect anyone to account for the billions of dollars received by the US under the Oil for Food programme which vanished into thin air.

“What were we supposed to do?” a French diplomat asked. “After the assassination of Sergio Vieira de Mello (11), there was a major revolt among UN personnel, who blamed Kofi Annan for his death. It became impossible for the organisation to do anything in Iraq. The EU split, no one was listening to us and we noticed a change in our German friends’ position. In the end we had no interest in seeing Iraq collapse into chaos, which could only encourage terrorism and al-Qaida.”

With senior politicians distracted by personal disputes, de facto French policy in the Middle East seems to be to handle issues on a case-by-case basis, driven by individual agendas. Astonishingly, no one in politics seems to have noticed - “our policy is no different,” everyone keeps insisting, “it’s the situation in the region that has changed”. No one seems concerned how this strategy will affect France’s standing in the Middle East.

Lebanese affairs are the sole responsibility of the president and are directly managed by Chirac, whose policy owes less to political analysis than to his long-standing personal relationship with former prime minister Rafik Hariri, which explains the French U-turn. Chirac had effectively set Bashar al-Assad up as Syrian president while he was still heir, attended his father’s funeral and insisted that the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon could only take place as part of a wider Middle Eastern settlement. Then in 2004 he took up a new position alongside the US as the godfather of Lebanese democracy.

The White House sees French proposals as a means to increase pressure on a Syrian government which it accuses of failing to help combat the Iraqi insurgency. In September 2004 Lebanese president Emile Lahoud’s term of office was extended for three years, providing a pretext for the adoption of Security Council resolution 1559, whose broad lines were drawn up by Hariri. It calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the disarming of the militias, especially Hizbullah. In April 2005, just over two months after Hariri’s murder, Syrian troops were forced to leave Lebanon.

A year later the euphoria that greeted the “cedar revolution” has evaporated. The Lebanese political classes are bogged down in old sectarian disputes that have little to do with democracy. Far from giving up, on 17 May France secured a new Security Council resolution calling upon Syria to delineate a clear border and establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon. A diplomat described the position as being “in midstream”, but France might be in danger of drowning. By vetoing an important agreement between the oil company Total and Syria, Chirac has put French economic interests at risk.

‘A strategic threat’
One issue unaffected by the disagreement between France and the US was terrorism. Even during the spring of 2003, when the governments stopped talking to each other and the French embassy’s usual contacts weren’t answering calls, close cooperation continued in the war on terror. Roger Cohen noted: “Terrorism in Europe and the emergence of Europe as a central theatre of the fight between the West and fanatical Islam have prodded France, and Europe with it, toward a closer identification with American policies in fighting terrorism” (12). France, however, claims that it spent the mid-1990s trying to wake the US up to the new terrorist threat, but only 9/11 really made the danger explicit.

The extent of this transatlantic collaboration has been revealed by the US journalist Dana Priest (13). In 2002 a top secret centre codenamed Alliance Base (al-Qaida is Arabic for base) was set up in Paris. Mainly funded by the CIA and headed by a French general, it closely monitors terrorist networks and attempts to render them harmless. According to Priest: “France brings its harsh [antiterrorist] laws, surveillance of radical Muslim groups and their networks in Arab states, and its intelligence links to its former colonies.” Although the French media are always ready to denounce the CIA and its illegal practices, they have shown no apparent interest in the activities of their own secret services.

Technical cooperation against dangerous terrorist networks might be acceptable but the convergence of views on the post-9/11 world is more alarming. A recent government white paper on how France should respond to terrorism (14) went largely unnoticed because of the furore over the first employment contract. The report defines “global, Islamist-inspired terrorism” as “a strategic threat” that has become more serious and endangers French interests around the world.

According to one of its authors: “It could undermine the country’s ability to function. Unlike traditional terrorist groups, there is no limit to the violence it could unleash. The use of radiological, chemical or even nuclear weapons could paralyse the country.” The report claims that this danger cannot be met without a campaign against “radical Islamism”, and it warns: “We cannot rule out the possibility that [Islamist terrorism] will one day attempt an alliance with the more radical elements of the anti-globalisation movement.”

This analysis of the threat can only provoke negative reactions in the Muslim world. Turkey has protested about the report’s choice of words. And even if the US term “war” was rejected, the phrase “strategic threat” falls not far short of it. The active involvement in Afghanistan of French special forces, particularly directed by frequent visits from the defence minister, serves to confirm that the French government shares Washington’s obsession with security.

The final chapter, in contrast to the rest of the contents, argues against identifying Islam with terrorism, but that makes little difference. According to another French diplomat: “More and more people go along with the US and view the Middle East as a problem area, a source of terrorism. On top of this, the younger generation of civil servants, many of them énarques (15), tend to support the Atlantic alliance, particularly those working in departments responsible for security issues. They have nothing but contempt for diplomats at the North Africa/Middle East desk, whom they refer to as ‘the Arab street’. It would be a mistake to underestimate the influence on security issues of EU institutions and committees, almost all of whose participants share the US point of view.”

We will have to wait for the French presidential elections in 2007 to see how far these shifts in Middle Eastern policy are structural, and how far they are a knee-jerk response to the current situation. The stakes are huge. Unless some powerful, independent third voice makes itself heard, there is a real danger that the Iranian crisis will help plunge the world into a confrontation between Islam and the West.




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