When Iran’s 1979 revolution took place, many Iranians predicted that relations between Iran and France would improve in an unprecedented way. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, spent the last four months of his 14-year in exile in France. The revolutionaries in Tehran lauded French leaders for being hospitable toward their spiritual leader. They had no hatred of France, which lacked colonialist aspirations regarding Iran.
However, several factors hindered the improvement of relations between the two countries and in some cases even led to the suspension of their relations: conflicting worldviews; France’s Arab policy; EU constraints; clashing interests in the region; and the US “factor.”
The First Period: 1979 to 1989
Especially after the fall of the transitional government of Mehdi Bazargan, France saw revolutionary Iran as a destabilizing force — seeking to subvert conservative Arab governments; spreading its influence in the Islamic world through fostering radical groups, especially Shi‘a in Lebanon and hardline Palestinian factions; and supporting violent actions against Western interests everywhere in the world. France believed that these efforts could threaten the secure and free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, as well as the stability and security of the Middle East and the West.
Such views made France suspicious of Iran’s intentions. These suspicions culminated in the “War of Embassies” in September 1986 following the bombings in Paris that killed or injured 100 people. French officials accused Iranian diplomats of being involved in these attacks. At the same time, other events, such as France’s decision to give political asylum to Iranian dissidents and opposition leaders, provoked Tehran’s suspicion of France.
Similarly, the US hostage crisis led France to join other Western countries in imposing a series of sanctions on Iran. Here, the US factor played a major role in orienting French policy with respect to Iran.
During the Iran-Iraq War, France provided significant military aid to Iraq. In fact, France’s Arab policy (Politique Arabe de France, or PAF) — that of seeking Mediterranean profondeur (depth) as a means of counterbalancing Germany in Europe and the Anglo-American relationship across the Atlantic by developing close ties with Arab states — was the main factor responsible for tilting Paris toward Baghdad. Not surprisingly, this fuelled Iran’s mistrust of France.
Finally, on February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued his famous fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie for his book Satanic Verses, which was considered a horrendous insult to Muslims. Following this fatwa, Britain severed its diplomatic relations with Iran, and other European Community (EC) members recalled their ambassadors. In this case, constraints imposed on France resulting from its commitments to the EC were partly responsible for the downturn in its relations with Iran. During this period, almost all of the abovementioned factors influenced bilateral relations in some way.
The Second Period: 1989 to 1997
The end of the Iran-Iraq War and the beginning of reconstruction efforts by the Iranian government led to some changes in Iran’s foreign and economic policies. At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet empire created major change in international politics. Iran tried to adopt a kind of détente policy towards its Arab neighbors and Western countries.
Iran sought foreign loans, credits, and investments with which to pursue reconstruction. Europe, especially France, was regarded as an important potential source of these funds, since US sanctions were still in force. For the Europeans, including France, Iran was an attractive large market and a source of energy supplies.
During this period, when both Iran and France explored an expansion of their ties, two major events shaped the Iranian-French bilateral relationship: the freeing of French hostages in Lebanon through Iran’s mediation efforts; and the contract made between the French oil company Total and the Iranian government, which took place despite US sanctions against foreign companies investing in the Iranian oil industry.
Iran’s rapprochement with Arab countries removed one of the obstacles to the improvement of Iranian-French relations. At the same time, European countries, including France, tried to resolve their differences with Iran, which were mostly related to their conflicting worldviews by beginning a “critical dialogue” with Iran. In their opinion, interaction with Iran could be more effective in moderating Iran’s behavior than imposing sanctions.
This period witnessed an overall improvement in political and economic relations between Iran and France. But in the latter part of the period, the killing of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant, known as the “Mykonos affair,” produced another setback, as European ambassadors were once again recalled and critical dialogue was suspended. Constraints related to France’s membership in the EU along with conflicting worldviews were involved in these developments.
The Third Period: 1997 to 2005
With the coming to power of a reformist government in Iran in 1997, there was much hope in Paris and other European capitals that the new government in Iran would display a moderate version of Islam, making possible a kind of compromise between their conflicting worldviews.
The level of contacts between Iran and France heightened, with President Muhammad Khatami visiting Paris. The volume of trade soared to an unprecedented level. And “comprehensive dialogue” with the EU began. However, political circles in Iran came to believe that France did not take adequate steps to take advantage of the opportunity provided by a moderate government in Iran. In this case, some considerations, including residual suspicions resulting from different worldviews, hindered closer relations.
In 2003, Iran’s nuclear dossier became a controversial subject in the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. EU-3 foreign ministers (including the French Foreign Minister), seeking a solution to the problem, reached an agreement with Tehran on October 21, 2003 to suspend its enrichment program. France, as a state possessing nuclear weapons, did not agree with the enlargement of the nuclear club, but at the same time did not want to impose sanctions on Iran. For this reason, France supported negotiations with Iran.
The Fourth Period: 2005 to the Present
In 2005, Iran, which was dissatisfied with the results of negotiations with the EU-3, resumed uranium enrichment activities. Soon thereafter, a new government headed by Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power. Meanwhile, the balance of power in the Middle East drastically changed, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, increasing Iran’s influence. As a result, the conflict of interests between Iran and France emerged once again at the regional level.
In May 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected as the new French President. He intended to pursue a foreign policy more convergent with the US in order to increase France’s freedom of action and influence throughout the world. He also tried to establish closer links with Israel.
The policies adopted by Sarkozy in the new environment of the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear program and the radical positions taken by the Iranian president against Israel, led to confrontation between the two countries. Here again, factors such as the United States, a conflict of interest at the regional level, and conflicting worldviews were responsible for aggravating the situation.
Conflicting worldviews have been influential in all periods. It even may be assumed that the two other factors, EU constraints (which were influential during the second and third periods) and the US (which was very influential in the first and fourth periods) are indirectly affected by conflicting worldviews. On the other hand, the factor of France’s Arab policy, although it only gained prominence during the first period, continued to be an irritant during the subsequent periods. One can expect that conflicting worldviews will continue to play an essential role in the relations between the two countries.