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Thursday 01 February 2007
Kenneth R. Timmerman
WASHINGTON -- French President Jacques Chirac is attempting to sabotage U.S.-led efforts to apply economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, according to a report by the center-left French daily, Le Monde.
In a throwback to much-criticized behavior during the buildup to the Iraq war, Chirac planned to send his foreign minister on a secret trip to Tehran in late January, armed with a personal letter of assurances for Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the daily reported.
Chirac wanted "to send a message to the Iranian authorities that a channel of communication can be kept open despite the vote by the United Nations Security Council" to impose sanctions on Iran, the paper wrote.
The United Nations Security Council imposed a basket of economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran under Security Council resolution 1737 on Dec. 23.
While some, including former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, have criticized the resolution as too weak, the Iranians were sufficiently concerned that they actively sought French help to get around the sanctions, Le Monde reported.
The U.N. sanctions ban the sale of any goods that "could contribute" to Iran's uranium enrichment, plutonium reprocessing, and heavy water programs, or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems.
The sanctions also include much-broader measures that require U.N. member states "to prevent the provision to Iran of any technical assistance or training, financial assistance, investment, brokering or other services . . . related to the supply, sale, transfer, manufacture or use of the prohibited items."
United Nations members have until Feb. 23, 2007 to report back on how they have complied with the Security Council resolution.
When Chirac put off the trip by his emissary, Iran's ambassador to France, Ali Ahani, sent a "letter of protest" to Chirac's diplomatic advisor, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne.
According to Le Monde, Saudi Arabia and Egypt objected to the French initiative. So did the United States, via National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley.
The dispute with the U.S. "shows that Jacques Chirac has distanced himself from the Bush administration line," Le Monde added.
Chirac's move also puts France at odds with its European partners. European Union foreign ministers agreed on Jan. 22 in Brussels to apply the U.N. sanctions "in full and without delay."
In order to plan the trip by his foreign minister to Tehran, Chirac and his diplomatic advisor received a personal emissary from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Elysee palace in September.
Chirac sent Gourdault-Montagne to Geneva for a second meeting with the Iranian emissary, Hashemi Samareh, in October. They agreed that French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy would visit Tehran on Janu. 25, during the international conference on Lebanon, which was held in Paris, and hosted by the French government.
A major issue during that conference, attended by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was Iran's rearming of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, despite a separate U.N. Security Council resolution from this past summer banning arms shipments to the Lebanese terrorist group.
French diplomatic sources told NewsMax that the planned trip by Douste-Blazy to Tehran was "only in the exploratory phase."
"If we had decided to go forward, it would have been after consultation with our partners in the region and internationally, including the United States," they said.
"It was never our intention to raise the nuclear question" during the trip, but "to remind Iran of what we expect of them as a responsible regional power," including acceptance of Israel's right to exist and Lebanon's independence and sovereignty.
However, the diplomats said, "if Iran did agree to suspend its sensitive nuclear activities in a verifiable fashion, we were prepared to negotiate a suspension of the United Nations sanctions."
"Call it a ‘big bang': you suspend, we suspend," they added. Despite the temporary setback, the president of the Iranian chamber of commerce and industry, Seyed Ali Naghi Khamouchi, visited France on Jan. 30, in a bid to expand trade ties between the two countries in the wake of the U.N. Security Council resolution.
According to a French-based Iranian opposition Web site, iran-resist.org, Khamouchi "promised investments [to French companies] that would be exempt from U.S. sanctions" by offering new contracts with state-owned companies that have recently been privatized.
At the same time Chirac was attempting to buy the Iranian regime some economic breathing room, the French bank Société Générale appeared to have pulled back its financing from a major Iranian natural gas development contract.
On Dec. 30, one week after the U.N. Security Council sanctions were announced, the head of Pars Oil and Gas Company, Akbar Torkan, said he was "disappointed" that the French bank had frozen credit for phases 17 and 18 of the multi-billion dollar South Pars gas field, which lies offshore between Iran and Qatar in the Persian Gulf.
Other Western banks, including Credit Suisse, Credit Lyonnais, and HSBC, had also decided to review new loan agreements for Iranian gas projects, he said.
Reuters reported that French company Alcatel Telecom was scaling back its commercial involvement in Iran. Separately, the French news agency, AFP, reported that a French judge was investigating a major French oil company for allegedly having paid bribes to the family of former Iranian President hashemi-Rafsanjani to gain oil and gas field development contracts.
Rafsanjani is currently being touted as a "moderate" alternative to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even though Iran launched its clandestine nuclear weapons program while Rafsanjani was in power.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry (Hank) Paulson met with counterparts in Asia and international bank directors in Hanoi in September to urge them to scale back their exposure in Iran. He returned to China this week for broad-ranging talks that are scheduled to include China's support for the U.N. sanctions on Iran.
Among Paulson's efforts has been an initiative to bar Iranian state-owned banks from international financial markets.