29/05/2009

High-risk French strategy in the Arabo Persian Gulf

A « determining region for the world ». This is how the French president has described the Gulf region, now considered as the “priority for the year 2009″ by French diplomats, who are gradually withdrawing from the « African backyard. » The opening of a French military base in the United Arab Emirates including maritime, air and land agreements as well as the signing of defense agreements with the Gulf State is a continuation of the Franco-emirate cooperation which started in the 1970s. There is therefore nothing surprising in this new step. However, the new French permanent settlement in the Gulf is innovative. First, because France had never installed any permanent base outside its territory or its colonies. Second, because the Gulf is an area under Anglo-Saxon influence and the Emirates are a former British colony.

N. Sarkozy’s message is clear: now that it is back in the integrated army command of NATO, France will be present alongside the United States and Great Britain in crisis areas. This embodies a desire to maintain the status of France but also to participate in the international effort to defense. Another message would be the refocusing of French diplomacy and the recognition of an « arc of crisis » between the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, which has not been a priority for France until now.
This new commitment may have serious consequences for France and diplomats are aware of it: « If Iran attacks the UAE, it would attack the French as well” has been said in Paris. Indeed, Iran is only 225 km far from Abu Dhabi and diplomats are currently quite pessimistic on the issue of the Iranian matter. Recalling its commitment and firmness towards Iran, N. Sarkozy arises in support of Obama and appears as a core actor on the international scene, refusing to let the United States alone have an influence in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the Emirates very positively welcomed the strengthening of links with a nuclear power, free of any colonization records in the Gulf and holding a permanent seat in the Security Council of the United Nations.

« Perfect strategic partner », “core area »; satisfied reactions of both countries did not lack at the opening of the French base in Abu Dhabi. For most analysts, this French effort is a phase of the Iranian case’s treatment by Western powers, a new pressure on Tehran and its nuclear projects. However, if this new military base is putting more pressure on Tehran it is also creating more tension between France and Iran at a time when the American strategy is closer to appeasement. One can argue that there is nothing better than mixing threat and call for dialogue. However, if its firmness towards Tehran makes France credible in the eyes of the Gulf, it also leads the country to the head of the club of “intransigent” and even aggressive countries towards the « Iranian threat », along with Israel and the American former administration. This operation improved the image of France in the Gulf but harmed it nearby.

One can wonder if the risk of worsening euro-Iranian relations and increasing tensions in the Strait of Hormuz was so relevant while the future of this “arc of crisis » seems to be at stake in Pakistan. Indeed, the recent clashes in Pakistan constitute a more urgent threat than the Iranian nuclear program. Furthermore, as B. Obama had pointed out to B. Netanyahu in Washington: the Palestinian question needs to be addressed before focusing on Iran. Let us hope that this new base will be known as N. Sarkozy called it, the « base of peace. »

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