Nukes and National Independence: The French Example

The election of Barack Obama has not changed the state of uncertainty insofar as the Iranian crisis is concerned. Many analysts expressed optimism after the negotiation offer of March 21.  But a pessimist might take the view that the failure of this initial proposal for dialogue with Tehran could have a backlash effect: being disappointed that the Iranians made no real concessions, Barack Obama and his team would choose at the end the war option — or at least authorize and support logistically Israeli air strikes.  

Western Europe’s lack of strategy in the Iranian affair can be seen in the fact that the EU will play only a second-rank role in the coming months. Germany never really wanted to exert an influence equivalent to its economic weight  in the region, although the Iranians originally felt hopeful about Germany’s moderating influence on the United States. But today I would like to have a look at what a new French approach to the conflict could be.  Just at the end of his second presidential term, Jacques Chirac committed an entirely voluntary blunder in front of American journalists. It would not be a drama, he said, if Iran became a nuclear power. It was typically Chirac: he had never dared — with the exception of 2002-2003 — continue the politics of General de Gaulle; but just before leaving power he was ready to tell the world what he really thought: that the nuclear bomb is a rationalizing factor in international relations.  

France is a nuclear power; this is an essential asset in today’s multipolar world. And France became a nuclear power for precisely the same reasons why the Iranian government wants their country to possess the nuclear bomb: in a hostile environment as was the case for Europe in the 1960s, France wanted to be independent and  to avoid  being a hostage in the hands of one of the superpowers; the Iranians are today trying to protect themselves  against the United States surrounding them with troops but also against Israel.  And they want to assert their influence among Muslims (against the Arab world). Like France in the 1960s Iran wants to play a role corresponding to its real weight. Both countries possess an old diplomatic tradition and they share a mixture of fascination and repulsion towards the United States. Iran, like France, always had difficult relations to Russia but sees Moscow as a key to ending the conflicts in the region.  

The most important aspect that should be stressed would be Iran’s nuclear strategy — if the country managed to go nuclear: it would consist in possessing only a small number of nuclear bombs, what would be necessary to deter possible aggressors who would see that the destruction that would be inflicted to them would be equivalent to the destruction they would try to inflict to Iran. This is what French military planners call "dissuasion du faible au fort" (the weaker is deterring the stronger). This view has always been shared by the Chinese too. China never ruined itself, as the Soviets did — and the United States as we see today — by piling up stocks of nuclear arms to assure their country’s defense. Iran will not need 200 bombs, as the Israelis have. A few bombs are enough to deter Israel from destroying Iran — and to rationalize the relations between the two countries.  

There we have come to the most essential point, when trying to identify which role France could play in the Middle East. France has the authority — if its government is courageous enough — to tell the Israelis that they have developed a totally absurd strategy by staying an unavowed nuclear power. France should bring Israel to speaking openly of its own nuclear deterrence.

Real nuclear deterrence means that everybody knows that a country has gone nuclear but remains uncertain as far as the possible use of this nuclear power is concerned. Of course every informed person knows in 2009 that Israel is unofficially a nuclear power. And this is one of the reasons why the Iranians would like to go nuclear, too. But it would make a big difference if the Israelis told the Iranians and the world: "OK we have the bomb; and we can understand that you want to go nuclear. Let us negotiate: we will reduce our nuclear capacity if you recognize our state and give up the military side of your nuclear project. We may cut the whole of our nuclear stock if you help reach a general peace agreement in the region — which means convincing all our neighbors to recognize our existence as legitimate and to renounce going nuclear themselves." Iranians may not get convinced at first — this is the most probable scenario; but by telling the world community publicly that they have gone nuclear, the Israelis would be led to rationalizing their foreign policy, to overcoming their fears. Iran would be obliged to play an open game: it would become much more difficult for Tehran to remain silent about the country’s real intentions. If Israel told the Iranians: "Do not think you can destroy us; you would be destroyed, too. And since you cannot attack us, we see no reason to attack you," it would mean that the only remaining reason to go nuclear would be Tehran’s fears about Pakistan and the United States’ presence in the region.  

Israel would reach a lot by first acknowledging publicly it has gone nuclear  — which would mean telling the world "we are indestructible. Don’t try" — and secondly negotiating with its neighbors a reduction of its nuclear arms stock to a minimum. When De Gaulle’s France went nuclear, the former French president told his advisers that as a nuclear power France would be entitled  to pleading for disarmament. Because it possessed nuclear deterrence France would be taken seriously while proposing to denuclearize itself if the others did the same.  

The outlook we are defending  here may sound totally utopic. But it is a rational utopia, possibly leading to peace in the Middle East. Speaking openly about one’s own deterrence capacity would be much more efficient from the Israeli point of view than launching air strikes against Iran. It is vital to understand that trying to prevent Iran to develop nuclear arms is doomed to fail. As long as the United States have soldiers in the region and with Pakistan as an instable nuclear power in the vicinity, Iran can legitimately argue that its security is guaranteed by going nuclear. An Israeli air strike would not prevent Iran from developing nuclear capacities in the long term. It would above all radicalize the conflicts in the Middle East. It would only convince the Iranians further that they need to go nuclear.

France could really play an important role in the region if it wanted to. Speaking as a nuclear power, Paris could elaborate a diplomatic language that can be understood and supported not only by China but also by Russia. After the collapse of communism, Russia had to renounce its absurd stockpiling of weapons. Russian security rests much more on its being a nuclear power today than was the case in the 1980s when the USSR had a huge conventional army. Russia is now able, with France and China, to contribute to the necessary rationalization of international affairs after the end of  American supremacy. We have to get rid of the logic of "preemptive war."  A courageous France, remaining truthful to its own strategic tradition, would have much more influence than its current leaders think.

Author: Edouard Husson

Edouard Husson is a specialist in 20th-century German and European history at the Sorbonne.