The Washington Diplomat / September 2015
By Larry Luxner
When it comes to the Middle East, Gérard Araud doesn’t mince words. In fact, Araud, France’s envoy to the United States, has always been known for speaking his mind. The 62-year-old diplomat began his career in 1982 as first secretary at the French Embassy in Tel Aviv, returning to Israel as ambassador 21 years later and quickly immersing himself in controversy.
“I had a very big problem in Israel,” Araud recalled, smirking at the memory of the story he was about to share. “After [Yasser] Arafat died in a French hospital in 2004, France gave him military honors. [Israeli politician] Yair Lapid went on TV and said in Hebrew that the French were shits. I responded that in Israel, there was an anti-French neurosis. I don’t know why, but they translated that to craziness or madness. Immediately, there was an outcry.”
This past January, Araud led close to 3,000 people on a silent march from Washington’s Newseum to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial after Muslim terrorists killed 17 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and a nearby kosher supermarket. He held aloft a sign bearing the words “Je Suis Juif” (I Am Jewish). Yet five months later, after French telecom giant Orange threatened to cut all ties with its Israeli mobile phone partner, Araud appeared to back the move — tweeting that under the Fourth Geneva Convention, “settlement policy in occupied territory is illegal” and that “it is illegal to contribute to it in any way.”
Whether it’s verbally sparring on his heavily followed Twitter feed or standing amid thousands of supporters, Araud is uncharacteristically blunt and nuanced about the issues he’s spent a career studying. Yet despite his passion for policy and undiplomatic candor, his wit and charm have always poked through.
For instance, Araud has also enjoyed some lighter moments with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“One day Bibi told me he wanted to improve his French,” he quipped. “I told him to do it the French way and take a mistress.”
But when asked his opinion of Netanyahu’s leadership qualities, Araud smiled slyly and said, “He was an excellent minister of finance.”
Araud, counselor at the French Embassy here from 1987 to 1991, made headlines when he returned a year ago as France’s first openly gay envoy to the United States — and one of the few openly gay foreign ambassadors ever posted to Washington. Yet most of our 45-minute interview with Araud at his elegant, recently renovated Kalorama residence focused on the Middle East, Araud’s area of expertise.
At the top of the agenda: the Iran nuclear accord, hammered out by U.S., French, German, British, Russian, Chinese (the P5+1) and Iranian negotiators after over two weeks of nonstop negotiations in Vienna. The deal ends 12 years of deadlock that had threatened to spark the next Middle East war — and potentially opens a prosperous new era of political and economic relations between Iran and the West.
Araud, who spent the five years preceding his current posting as French envoy to the United Nations, was France’s top negotiator on the Iran nuclear issue from 2003 to 2006. He said the final agreement runs 159 pages long and is extremely complicated.
“On balance, it’s a good deal, though not a perfect deal,” he told The Washington Diplomat, as longtime embassy spokesman Arnaud Guillois took occasional notes. “Obviously, it’s a compromise, but it allows us to control Iran’s uranium [enrichment] program for the next 10 to 15 years, which is unprecedented.”
Under the highly technical accord, Iran must remove two-thirds of its 19,000 centrifuges, leaving intact 6,100 of its first-generation models. It must slash its enriched uranium stockpile by 98 percent; keep its level of uranium enrichment at 3.67 percent for 15 years; refrain from uranium enrichment research and development for 15 years; disable its plutonium facility; and allow international U.N. inspectors broad access to monitor operations anywhere in the country, including the investigation of any sites deemed suspicious.
In return, Iran keeps its nuclear infrastructure largely in place and sanctions will be gradually lifted in the coming months as the country meets key conditions of the deal. The sanctions relief — which could ultimately give Iran access to $100 billion in frozen assets — will be phased in and a “snapback” mechanism is in place to quickly reinstate sanctions if Iran fails to adhere to its commitments.
Araud and his German and British counterparts in Washington — Ambassadors Peter Wittig and Sir Peter Westmacott — have pushed for such an accord for years. And while much of the focus has been on the compromises made between Washington and Tehran, the European role has been essential in the overall process. France, Germany and Britain had far more trade with Iran than the United States did, and without their participation, the sanctions regime that forced Tehran to the bargaining table would have surely collapsed.
“I spent dozens of hours with the Iranians between 2005 and 2013, and nothing happened,” said Araud. “We made several proposals but they wouldn’t negotiate. The fact they did now means their economic situation is abysmal. It’s really terrible.”
“Without the participation of the so-called E-3, nuclear diplomacy with Iran would probably never have gotten to this point, and might not have happened at all,” wrote Barbara Slavin, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center who has traveled to Iran nine times. The governments of France, Germany and Great Britain began talking with Iran in 2003, she noted, after it emerged that the country’s leaders were secretly building a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz.
In 2006, Russia and China joined the talks, but real progress eluded all parties until 2013, when Hassan Rouhani — Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005 — replaced hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. An interim agreement was reached in November 2013 and Secretary of State John Kerry announced a final deal on July 14.
Now the administration has been busy trying to sell that deal to skeptical lawmakers by Sept. 17, when a deeply divided Congress votes to either accept or reject the proposal.
Obama has framed the debate as a choice between keeping a nuke out of Iran’s hands and another Mideast war. He says the landmark agreement pushes the “breakout time” for Iran to make a bomb from the current two to three months to one year. He also warns that if the United States doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain, it will lose the backing of its European allies and the carefully constructed sanctions regime will unravel. Iran can then resume its nuclear program and enjoy sanctions relief without any of the limits imposed by the agreement.
Critics say the president is setting up a false choice between war and a bad deal. Some, like Prime Minister Netanyahu, say Iran can’t be trusted with any kind of nuclear-enrichment capabilities whatsoever. Others say there are too many loopholes in the deal for Iran to exploit.
Among other things, they argue that the monitoring and enforcement measures are too weak and the sunset clauses are too short, with the one-year breakout period disappearing once the deal runs its course and Iran is treated like any other nuclear-enriching nation.
Some have also suggested that Obama is exaggerating the threat of European partners walking away and say the administration could rework the deal to fix the gaps or even strengthen penalties without renegotiating the basic parameters of the deal.
Secretary of State Kerry called such thinking a fantasy. “You have to look at the history, and when I hear a senator or a congressman stand up and say, ‘Well, we should get a better deal; let’s stop and we’ll negotiate and go get a better deal’ — that is not going to happen,” he said in a recent Reuters interview. “There isn’t a, quote, ‘better deal’ to be gotten, because George Bush to his credit in 2003 tried to get the better deal. And to his credit in 2008 tried to get the better deal. And what happened was in both occasions Iran went from 103 or 104 centrifuges to 19,000.
“When people say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m worried about what happens in year 15 or 20, they may become a nuclear threshold nation’ — folks, they are a nuclear threshold nation today,” Kerry added. “They became that. And they became that while we had a policy of no enrichment.”
Like his fellow European ambassadors, Araud will be anxiously watching the war of words that’s set to heat up over the next several weeks once Congress returns from recess.
“I’m not supposed to talk about U.S. domestic politics, but there’s a very good debate going on here,” said Araud, who presented his credentials to Obama on Sept. 18, 2014. “I’ve been on the phone with several members of the House who wanted to know my opinion. Frankly, I hope Congress won’t derail the deal. I hope the administration will succeed.”
The president will need every vote he can muster. Republicans are near united in their opposition, and a resolution disapproving the deal is widely expected to pass, setting up a veto showdown. Detractors of the deal from both parties are counting on enough votes — a two-thirds majority — to override Obama’s promised veto, though it’s far from clear they’ll succeed.
All 17 candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination are on record as opposing the accord, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a staunch Netanyahu ally, going so far as to warn that Obama was marching Israelis “to the door of the oven” by forcing the nuclear deal on the Jewish state. But that Holocaust reference was too much even for Israel, whose hawkish ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, called Huckabee’s comments inappropriate.
“I really do understand Israel’s concerns,” Araud explained sympathetically, recalling Ahmadinejad’s oft-quoted threat to wipe Israel off the map with dread. “Having said that, some former heads of Israel’s Mossad, including Meir Dagan and Ephraim Halevy, think the agreement is not that bad.”
As do dozens of retired American generals and admirals, who recently penned an open letter urging Congress to support the accord, which they said was the “most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”
On Capitol Hill, though, animosity toward the agreement is hardly limited to Republicans. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Jew and the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, says he’s against it not only because Iran is a sworn enemy of Israel, but also because he doesn’t trust Europe’s three signatories to the accord to punish Iran should it cheat.
“It is reasonable to fear that once the Europeans become entangled in lucrative economic relationships, they may well be inclined not to rock the boat by voting to allow inspections” that would bring about renewed sanctions, Schumer said Aug. 6. In fact, economic stagnation in France and Germany might induce firms to sign contracts with Iran while they can. But such arguments are unfair, Araud retorted in typical undiplomatic fashion.
“Americans who love to have the moral high ground say the Europeans are cynical, but those sanctions cost us a lot of money. France was providing 30 percent of the cars in Iran, and Total [a French oil and gas conglomerate] made Iran one of its strategic investments, and for the last 10 years we’ve really lost this market,” the ambassador said. In contrast, “the sanctions didn’t cost you anything because you had no business in Iran anyway.”
Statistics bear him out. Trade between Iran and the 28-member European Union fell from €25 billion (then worth $42 billion) in 2007 — when EU sanctions were first imposed — to around €6.3 billion (about $7 billion) last year. U.S. trade with Iran, by contrast, dwindled from an already minuscule $318 million in 2007 to a microscopic $1 million in 2014.
Yet American companies have lost an untold amount of money by not being able to do business with a country of nearly 80 million that sits on huge oil and gas reserves and boasts a large, educated youth population.
“It’s normal that everyone wants to make money in Iran,” said Araud, suggesting that U.S. companies from Boeing to Bristol-Myers Squibb will clearly use their foreign subsidiaries to benefit from the new opportunities in Iran once sanctions are lifted.
So what about the expected $100 billion in Iranian oil revenues locked up in frozen accounts? A recent secret CIA assessment concluded that Iran would likely pump most of its newfound oil money into reviving its tanking economy — not exporting terrorism throughout the Middle East.
But skeptics point to Iran’s long history of funding extremist groups throughout the region. Wouldn’t giving the mullahs in Tehran access to that money sometime in early 2016 allow them to dramatically step up their support of radical elements ranging from Houthi rebels in Yemen to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, not to mention Gaza’s Hamas and the Assad regime in Syria?
Maybe, concedes Araud, but that’s not really the point.
“I think it’s impossible to exclude it [the threat of increased support of terrorism by Iran]. But you have to consider that these talks were not supposed to solve the Iranian question. It’s about the nuclear issue,” he explained. “We were very keen on handling the nuclear issue as such — and nothing more — because if we had started to speak about terrorism, they could have demanded a deal with more centrifuges. Considering how serious the nuclear issue is, it was treated in isolation. So now, the question is how to implement the agreement.”
Despite his words of support, Araud is no cheerleader for the deal. Instead, he views the region’s complex, interlocking dynamics with a dose of realism. Before the nuclear agreement was announced, he made waves by saying the Iranians needed it more badly than the West did. At the same time, he’s criticized the caricature that paints Iran as a “terrorist monster,” saying it oversimplifies the country’s logical geostrategic ambitions. Yet he’s also called out the United States for launching the war in Iraq, which opened the floodgates to Iranian influence in the region.
“Of course, my preference would have been not one centrifuge. But when you look at what could have been the result, that’s more or less the norm,” Araud said of the nuclear deal. “It also has other ideas that are very creative — for instance, the snapback of sanctions. Normally sanctions are decided by the Security Council, which has a way of giving veto rights to Russia or China. But we reversed the system, meaning that sanctions will automatically be reimposed [unless] the Security Council decides otherwise.”
That’s because the decision whether to reinstate sanctions if Iran violates terms of the deal rests with an eight-member panel that includes the P5+1 as well as the European Union and Iran. A majority is needed to impose sanctions, meaning that Russia, China and Iran do not have the numbers to block collective action. Only the U.N. Security Council can then reverse the panel’s ruling — something Washington and its allies would oppose. This, Araud said, effectively transfers the veto right back to the three other permanent members of the Security Council: France, Britain and the United States.
The somewhat convoluted snapback mechanism has been a particular source of controversy. Critics such as Schumer say it would give Iran a 24-day advance warning of inspections at suspected nuclear sites, a delay that could allow it to hide the military dimensions of its program.
But other experts say the 24-day window is being misconstrued. “There is a strict time limit on stalling,” wrote Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “Iran must provide access within two weeks. If Iran refuses, the Joint Commission set up under the deal must decide within seven days whether to force access. Following a majority vote in the Joint Commission — where the United States and its allies constitute a majority bloc — Iran has three days to comply. If it doesn’t, it’s openly violating the deal, which would be grounds for the swift return of the international sanctions regime, known colloquially as the ‘snapback.’”
Araud also points out that during this time, any efforts by Iranians to cover up their nuclear activities could be detected.
“That’s the typical procedure for these sort of inspections. One day or one year doesn’t make any difference because the radioactivity will be there,” he explained. “If they had made research without radioactivity, in 24 days they can destroy it. But if there was any radioactivity, it would still be detected.”
Even assuming lawmakers in both Washington and Tehran approve the deal later this fall, Araud warned that Israel could still unilaterally attack Iran — with or without Washington’s backing. “If at some moment they think their security is at stake, they will do it. The problem is that when they do it, you’ll be surprised. Even I will learn about it through the media.”
In addition to assuaging Israel’s concerns, Araud says the West also has to quell fears among its Sunni Gulf allies that the nuclear deal doesn’t portend the rise of Shiite hegemony in the region. The ambassador said he remains concerned about a regional nuclear arms race potentially involving Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and maybe Turkey.
“If we don’t address the security concerns of neighboring countries, there could be the temptation of an arms race. We now have to take into account the Gulf states,” he said.
And an arms race is the last thing an already volatile Middle East needs at the moment. The schism between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and its Shiite rival Iran has already exacerbated tensions throughout the region, as both sides jockey for power in war-wracked Syria.
Araud, who worked closely on Syria while at the U.N., pulls no punches when talking about the nightmare in that country, where civil war between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels trying to overthrow him has killed at least 300,000 people, by some estimates, and sent millions of refugees into neighboring countries — all as the West largely stands on the sidelines.
“We do believe it was a mistake in 2013 not to intervene. We said so publicly,” Araud told us, referring to Obama’s threat to use military force if Assad used chemical weapons; ultimately, the U.S. and Britain backed down from those threats.
“We were disappointed. Now, in a sense, what can we do? You get rid of Assad and you have Jabhat al-Nusra. We are in a total trap,” Araud said, referring to the proliferation of extremist groups throughout Syria. “Now I think it’s extremely difficult to make a proposal that makes sense; 2013 was the last moment when we could have. For the Europeans, the problem is much more acute than for the Americans, because of the foreign fighters. You have only a few dozen, but we have thousands of Europeans there. In essence, Daesh [a derogatory Arabic word for the Islamic State] has filled the vacuum and is defending the Sunnis. As long as we don’t solve the problem, Daesh will be there.”
A related and much immediate threat is the alarming rise in Islamic extremism in France, coupled with a jump in anti-immigrant sentiment now unfolding across Europe. The crisis hit close to home in January with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which Islamic fanatics attacked the Paris headquarters of the famous satire magazine after it brazenly published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
“We have something like 400 or 500 French citizens fighting in Syria. These people will come back trained and radicalized. Our estimate is that we already have a few thousand radicalized youth in France,” said Araud, noting that his country is home to 4.7 million Muslims, about 7.5 percent of the total population. By 2030, that ratio is expected to exceed 10 percent — higher than anywhere else in Western Europe.
“All over Europe, we have seen the rise of the far right,” he said. “They’re in the government in Finland and have been supporting the governments of Denmark and Norway. They’re looking for scapegoats, and unlike the 1930s, it’s not the Jews this time but immigrants. They’re now playing on anti-Muslim feelings, and the recent attacks have given them a lot of ammunition. Society is balanced between liberty and law enforcement, and after such an attack, there’s a shift toward law enforcement. For us, the Paris attacks were a sort of 9/11. We are living in a difficult moment now.”
With that, our interview with Araud — at least the official part — was over. But before departing his baroque residence, we gingerly inquired about the ambassador’s “lifestyle” and if it has had any bearing whatsoever on his job.
“Everybody knows, but no French journalist is impolite to the point of asking me about it,” Araud replied, somewhat amused. “The way French society works is, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Our private life is private.”
That privacy, he said, ended when a “very sexy” reporter from Vogue (Stephanie Green) interviewed Araud, and her first question was about the ambassador’s sexual orientation.
“I didn’t want to lie, so I told her. It made a big splash in Paris,” he recalled. But in Washington, being gay isn’t that big of a deal any more — even for an ambassador.
“We are living in 2015. The Americans are extremely liberal, and they invite both of us together to receptions, but my partner would never go,” he said of photographer Pascal Blondeau, who’s been with Araud for 20 years. “He’s an artist. It’s not his thing.”