Marielle Coleman, Research Associate
Iran is one of the world’s oldest nations. Yet when people think about the country, they tend only to think of the Islamic Republic, which represents just a fraction of the country’s history. Put simply, if the complete history of Iran was represented as a calendar year, its time as the Islamic Republic would be a little more than two and a half days. The truth is that Persia, Iran’s pre-1932’s name in the West, has a vast and rich culture, one that extends far beyond the image of Iran familiar to the Westerners today. Its history was shaped not just by forces within, but also from its interactions with other countries, including France, the focus of this paper.
Relations between Persia and France were established in the 13th century after France became an important power in the region. Since then, the two countries have maintained and fostered connections nearly as often as they have disagreed and disrupted their bonds. This paper will provide a summary and analysis of the variable nature of their relations since the Crusades.
A relationship based on economic, cultural, and religious exchanges
As with other countries, relations between France and Persia were formed during the Crusades in the early Middle Ages. Most of Europe was fascinated with Persia due to the many biblical texts and Greco-Latin legends that mentioned the country.
However, these early years failed to create any significant cooperation between the two nations for a few reasons. First, missionaries from France, who went to Muslim Persia with the goal of converting people to the Christian faith, were, understandably, not warmly welcomed. Cooperation was also hindered by the fact that leaders succeeded each other relatively often, causing a lack of diplomatic continuity from which to form lasting relations.
Any relations that did exist at this time ended when France allied with the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Turkey is the only major country that is left of that vast empire since its dismantling after the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was a powerful force in the region and a strong rival to Persia. In a bid for power, France helped the Ottoman Empire invade the western regions of Persia, and as a result, relations were ruptured.
Despite political and military hostility, however, merchants continued to conduct business and trade. Furthermore, the French missionaries that previously had been sent to Persia were now acclimated, having learned the local language and customs. As a result, they set up communities that ultimately helped promote French culture in Iran.
This cultural impact of France on Iran is exemplified by Iranian intellectuals’ adoption of the principles of the French Revolution. The values and principles famously defended by the French revolutionaries inspired Persians to compare the French Revolution to their Constitutional Revolution of 1906. The notion of “adālat” was put forward as a symbol of social justice and equality. Edalat, the Persian (Farsi) equivalent of the French égalité, and many other concepts that were borrowed from the French, were included in the 1906 Constitution.
Twentieth century tensions and the Iranian revolution
The geopolitical situation changed after the First World War (1914-1918). As Soviet influence expanded, France sought closer relations with Iran in order to counter Soviet expansionism. Closer relations at the time were made possible because of Reza Shah, the Shah of Iran from 1926 to 1941, who had a favorable opinion of France. Because of this closer relationship, many French projects were initiated in the post-war period, such as the creation of a French bank and high school, as well as the founding of an international wire service financed by France, which provided Iranians access to the news. The French model for education at lycées (French high schools) was also largely adopted in Iranian secondary education and universities.
When during the WW2, Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad-Reza Shah, became monarch, relations continued to thrive, fueled by a mutual distrust of England and shared political ideals. Iran was culturally close to France at the time, and it was not uncommon for prime ministers like Mohammad Mosaddeq to be fluent in French.
In this ever-changing relationship, however, relations took a turn for the worse again in 1969 when Georges Pompidou became president of France. He was not particularly fond of the Shah, and in 1971, when Iran hosted a massive celebration of the old Persian Empire, the French president sent his prime-minister instead of going himself, which infuriated the Shah.
After Iran became an Islamic republic, tensions between France and Iran increased drastically for several reasons. First, France, prior to the revolution, had made a deal with the Shah concerning Eurodif, a European company that was supposed to manage the construction of a new nuclear power plant for Iran. Iran had purchased a share in the company. However, the new Iranian government decided to end nuclear cooperation with France. This led to a decade of degraded relations and caused France to owe Iran roughly one billion dollars, which the Shah had given to the French government for the expected cooperation.
Second, France found itself at odds with Iran regarding its support of Israel, and its support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. During that time, France supplied weapons to Iraq and sided with Saddam Hussein. Third, several terrorist attacks committed on French soil (terrors of the Islamic Republic’s opposition leaders) were attributed to Iran. Finally, a 10-year hostage crisis in Lebanon, in which 16 people of French origin were held captive, further contributed to the fracturing of relations between the two countries.
French hostility to Iran in the 21st century
In 2006, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that imposed sanctions on parts of the Iranian economy, including an arms embargo and trade restrictions. Soon after, the European Union went further, imposing its own restrictions that affected the entire country. France not only supported this decision, but, in 2012, it effectively persuaded other member states to deepen sanctions by banning the importation of oil products from Iran. Despite the negative impact on its own economy, France was determined to exclude Iran from world trade and was considered one of the most uncompromising states toward Iran in the European Union.
In 2015 the P5 +1 countries and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), allowing Iran to regain access to international markets in exchange for reducing its nuclear production. The negotiation occurred during François Hollande’s administration; and, even though France joined the talks at a late stage, it played a key role in the negotiating process. First, France was able to provide information on Iran’s nuclear program because of its involvement with Eurodif, described above. Second, France played a part in pushing for a tougher stance on Iran during the negotiations, proposing terms that went beyond what the U.S. was initially ready to settle for.
The rationale for French opposition to Iran during this period mostly stems from the geopolitical differences described above. However, there have also been some recent awkward personal situations that caught the media’s attention and exacerbated tensions. For example, a state-owned Iranian newspaper once called Carla Bruni, France’s first lady at the time, a prostitute. Another visible slight was when Hollande canceled lunch with President Hassan Rouhani on his official visit because the latter demanded that no wine be served during the meal.
In part due to the diminished connection between the two countries, Iranian intellectuals have changed their opinion of the French Revolution. While previously praised, the movement is now critiqued as a capitalist uprising representing the opposite of socialist values. France’s colonial history--specifically its repressive actions against Algeria’s quest for independence--is also routinely criticized. Today, France is accused of exercising neo-colonialism by controlling Iran through its economy. In the Post JCPOA era, France has tried to expand its economic relations with Iran. French car makers and oil company, Total, are now operating in Iran.
A new economic alliance
So far, 2017 has been an eventful year in politics for both France and Iran. Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election in May. Rouhani, in the same month, was re-elected as president of Iran. The election of a young reformer in France has led to much speculation about whether Franco-Iranian diplomacy will continue as before or take a new direction.
There is reason to be optimistic. Rouhani was quick to congratulate Macron and said he believed the latter would be more inclined to boost cooperation between Paris and Tehran. Several Iranian analysts predict relations will improve, pointing to Macron’s role as Minister of Economy during the JCPOA negotiations.
Since the agreement, French investments have increased. Total, a French oil company and one of seven largest in the world, resumed its activities in Iran after suspending operations in 2010. Its return was symbolic, as it was the first Western company to invest there after the lifting of sanctions. It also signed a new deal involving gas extraction from the world’s largest field in Iran’s South pars Field in the Persian Gulf.
Investment has also been directed elsewhere, including the auto industry. Two joint ventures have recently been signed: one with the parent of Peugeot last year, and another with Renault in August 2017. Similarly, two Iranian airlines are planning to buy 73 jets from Airbus, the European aircraft manufacturer based in France, in deals potentially worth up to 2.5 billion dollars.
As the latest joint venture with Renault shows, European firms, specifically French companies, are willing to continue reestablishing trade and diplomacy with Iran, even as new U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to dismantle the JPCOA. The Iran nuclear deal is seen as a stabilizer in a region not known for stability. Europe may not want to follow Trump’s lead, allowing France to pursue fresh initiatives in a storied relationship with Iran.
As history shows, relations between France and Iran have a tendency to shift drastically between strong alliance and geopolitical estrangement or hostility. It seems now, in 2017, that we are witnessing another shift towards rapprochement and cooperation between these two countries. There are headwinds in the relationship, to be sure, but, for now, the future for improved ties and business relations appears promising, except that President Donald Trump may become a cause for another rupture in that changing relationship.
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