The Debate

France’s Born-Again Proliferation Beliefs Ring Hollow

How to explain French obstructionism on Iran? Look to its lucrative regional trade agreements with Gulf Arab monarchies.

France’s Born-Again Proliferation Beliefs Ring Hollow
Credit: United States Mission Geneva via

Having failed to reach an agreement last month, Tehran and the P5+1 world powers – the five UN Security Council members plus Germany – decided to kick the can down the road, setting a new “final final” deadline of July 1, 2015. They all met again last week in Geneva for yet more jaw-jaw but there is little prospect of an immediate breakthrough. While the hardliners in Congress and in Iran are painted as the main impediments to a deal, there is another issue simmering below the surface: the French are reported to be out-hawking Washington on proliferation concerns by throwing up impulsive Gallic objections to an agreement. This is a decidedly odd stance for Paris to take. The real reason probably has less to do with France’s born-again proliferation beliefs than good old greed for lucrative Gulf-Arab defense and nuclear contracts.

For starters, France is itself a latecomer to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), not acceding until 1992 – a full 24 years after the NPT was opened for signature. (Iran, in contrast, was one of the original founding signatories.) Before 1992 – and even since then – France has had a poor proliferation record so its high-and-mighty attitude at the Iran talks has raised more than a few eyebrows.

During the 1960s and 70s, France supplied nuclear reactors, manpower and technology to Israel and Iraq: the now-infamous Dimona and Osirak reactors were sold by the French. France also supplied Iraq with the highly enriched uranium fuel used to power the Osirak reactor and resisted calls to modify the fuel to lower-enrichment. And both Pakistan and India got invaluable French help in developing their nuclear programs – even in the face of well-founded suspicions that these countries may be weaponizing. In the late 1970s, Paris finally had to be strong-armed by the Carter administration not to export a large reprocessing plant to Pakistan. France continued to assist India’s nuclear efforts though, even after New Delhi exploded its first nuclear device in 1974.

Even during the 2000s, Paris negotiated several nuclear cooperation agreements with fledgling nuclear states such as Libya, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and the UAE. And Paris penned revised nuclear contracts with India, China, Brazil and South Africa. Though there is nothing illegal per se about such nuclear assistance – indeed, the NPT mandates that the nuclear-armed states help the non-weapons states with their civil nuclear programs – it does show that over the decades France has been happy to spread nuclear technology worldwide. (Incidentally, a revamped “NPT 2.0” I’ve proposed may help to tamp down the proliferation that the NPT actually promotes.)

The main reason behind French proliferation of nuclear technology has been – and still is – money. The French multinational Areva is the world’s largest nuclear company and the French state holds a whopping 87 percent stake in the enterprise. Areva made about a $1.3 billion profit last year on roughly $13 billion revenue. Similarly, Electricite de France (EDF) is the world’s largest producer of electricity and the state retains an 85 percent share in that company also. More than 80 percent of EDF’s electricity is generated from nuclear power. EDF’s profit and revenue numbers are comparable to Areva’s. Safe to say, France is heavily vested in its nuclear power sector and stands to gain huge profits by promoting it worldwide.

Enter Saudi Arabia, a noted adversary of Iran. Last year, both government-controlled nuclear conglomerates Areva and EDF got together to host about 200 Saudi business and industry representatives at a “Suppliers Day” event held in Jeddah. The French Ambassador to the Kingdom said “the aim of this meeting is very clear, France has been the first country to sign [a] government to government agreement on nuclear and energy…and France has a lot to bring in terms of the best nuclear technology in the world.”  Such long-term infrastructure contracts with the Saudis could be worth about 40 billion euros ($48.7 billion) to the French. Similar deals have already been inked with the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, also an adversary of Iran.

So France’s obstructionism on the Iran nuclear agreement is easier to understand through the prism of its lucrative regional trade agreements with Sunni Arab monarchies opposed to Iran.

Apart from the nuclear power deals, France has also finalized lucrative military hardware and service agreements with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. For example, for the first time since 2007 France penned a military contract with the UAE last year. The billion dollar contract for two spy satellites couldn’t have been better timed: French military contracts lost a quarter of their value the year before. The Gulf military contracts are a life-saver to the French defense sector. Similarly, just a month after the deal with the UAE, France also signed a billion Euro contract with Saudi Arabia to overhaul four frigates and two refueling ships.

Given these – and future – lucrative military and infrastructure contracts it is unsurprising that France would want to curry favor with the Gulf Arab monarchies by holding up a deal with Iran. The irony of it is that for all its holier-than-thou proliferation protestations during the P5+1 talks with Iran, France is super-keen to earn some cash by spreading nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While objecting to the Iranian nuclear program, the French are helping the Saudi program.

Unless something gives, France will continue to do Saudi Arabia’s bidding at the P5+1 talks. So the next time the French act as  – in the words of one diplomat –  “a significant counterweight on the impulse of Obama to make concessions,” to Iran you can be sure it’s not because the French are worried about nuclear proliferation but because they are seeing dollar signs in their Pierre Cardin shades.

Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is senior scientific advisor to the British American Security Information Council in London. The views expressed here are his own.