French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s fresh Middle East momentum invites pressing questions.
Should Washington’s silence be interpreted as a blessing, passive or cautious, from President George W. Bush? Has Washington decided to change its European horses in the Middle East stream by dropping Britain in favor of France?
Was this change marked by Tony Blair‘s departure from 10 Downing Street?
Is the new occupant of the Elysee Palace more amenable to military cooperation with the United States, especially by air and sea, for promoting their joint interests in the Middle East and Persian Gulf than his thumbs-down predecessor Jacques Chirac?
For starters, US and French aircraft carriers joined in a naval maneuver in the Mediterranean last week. (See HOT POINTS below)
And if so, have America and its new European partner agreed on a division of labor on Middle East issues? Is the United States dealing with Iraq, the Gulf and the Israel-Palestinian dispute itself and leaving Syria and Lebanon, the old Levant, in the hands of its erstwhile patron, France? This would represent a partial reversion to the Sykes-Picot accord of 1916, which divided the Middle East into spheres of influence between Britain and France.
Is it possible that Washington will keep up its military pressure on Iran and let Paris carry on an undercover dialogue with Tehran?
Perhaps we are witnessing the US president’s penchant for reposing his trust in a favored partner – Vladimir Putin in 2001-2002, and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.
French diplomacy, sluggish and hesitant in the Chirac years, has switched over to high gear in the Middle East. It is too early to draw the exact line connecting – or in some cases dividing – the dynamic live wire just one month in office in Paris and the White House in Washington, where the president is deep in repairs to US positions and military strategic in Iraq, the Middle East and Gulf, as he nears the twilight of his presidency.
A thunderous silence comes from Washington and Paris as certain highly significant events quietly unfold which may provide pointers.
French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner pays a formal visit to Beirut Saturday, July 28 and two top US administration officials, Secretaries of State and Defense, Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, arrive in the Middle East together Monday, July 30.
Regional capitals are agog with questions.
Will the pair offer France support or disapproval?
Will US accept France as favorite Middle East partner?
Support would mean that Washington has come around to Paris’s acceptance of the proposition voiced by former Iranian president Hashem Rafsanjani Tuesday, July 24:
“The United States is the most important country in the world. Iran is the most important country in the region.” And Paris’ implied paraphrase: France qualifies as the second most important country in the world and the second most important in the Middle East and the Gulf.
US acceptance would also raise France as a shooting star, outranking Saudi Arabia and Britain as leading partner in the shaping of US Middle East policies.
Sarkozy has lost no time in hitching up with Iran for a joint move on Lebanon, an intercession which could determine Lebanon’s immediate prospects of stability and the future of Bashar Assad‘s regime in Damascus.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East experts note that Sarkozy has stepped into the shadow of the failure of a similar intercession by Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan. In January 2007, the prince, national security adviser to the king, convinced President Bush and Condoleezza Rice that Riyadh and Tehran could together sort out the Lebanese impasse between them. The move was presented as the open sesame for resolving a row of disputes in the Gulf and Middle East, with the promise at the end of the road of an accommodation of the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.
Prince Bandar’s initiative survived a scant three months before it was ditched in February-March by Saudi King Abdullah, who had a change of heart.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources disclose that the French president is exceedingly confident of success because the Iranians turned to him. Their proposition consisted of advice not to bother with the Saudis, who have nothing to offer, but to engage Tehran directly and see how quickly the roadblocks melt away in Lebanon and Syria.
Sarkozy picked up the gauntlet.
He appointed two people to navigate his experimental course: Foreign Minister Kouchner and Jean-Claude Cousseran, who had developed useful connections in Tehran while serving as ambassador in Damascus.
In short order, the two diplomats brought home an agreed proposal for a joint-French-Iranian formula that promised to cut through the Lebanese Gordian Knot.
The shape of this formula is outlined in detail in the next article.