Marianne: Why is Ali Khamenei attacking France when other countries have also supported anti-regime protests?
Thierry Coville: Ali Khamenei attacks France as he would have attacked Germany under identical circumstances. He is Iran’s supreme leader, local law says he cannot be criticized. When Iranians chant “death to the dictator” in the streets, the “hardliners” are in power in the logic of a conspiracy theory. They therefore cannot imagine that a French newspaper could take this type of decision alone. It is unacceptable to them. There must be someone behind it. So we cannot be surprised by their reaction. Tensions between Tehran and Western countries had actually already started before the anti-regime protests began in September. They are not new and did not just happen, they started in 2018. Diplomatic relations between Iran and Western countries are largely linked to the Iranian nuclear file. In 2015, when the agreement was signed, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was welcomed in Paris. Two years later, MEDEF International organized a delegation of business leaders to Tehran, infuriating the United States. At that time, there was French hope to develop the economic market with Iran, so bilateral relations were good.
From when will the diplomatic relations between Paris and Tehran deteriorate?
The tipping point occurred in 2018. In May of the same year, Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 [par l’Iran, les cinq membres permanents du Conseil de sécurité de l’ONU, l’Allemagne et l’Union européenne N.D.L.R.]. The text stipulates that Iran commits that its nuclear arsenal will remain civilian in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions affecting the country. Except that the US President restores US sanctions and even goes so far as to say that no company has the right to do business with Iran at the risk of having to leave the US market. However, France does not step up to the plate, and the Europeans are criticized for not having fulfilled their obligations – namely to do everything possible for the economic sanctions against the country to be lifted.
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The resumption of sanctions thus plunges Iran into a deep economic crisis. The moderates disappear from the Iranian political scene, leaving the field open for the “hardliners” who manage to regain all the powers: the presidency, the government, the parliament… From 2018, the mullahs’ regime puts Europeans and Americans in the same bag. Tensions are accelerating between Westerners and Tehran, with the idea on the Iranian side that only the balance of power works. This unfortunately reinforces the idea that international law and diplomacy are useless. There is also this episode, in 2021, when Macron tries to mediate between Iran and the US to reach a new nuclear deal with Washington. A project doomed to failure, the Iranians just want the US to rejoin the original deal.
One last episode is noteworthy, namely the resumption of nuclear negotiations with Joe Biden in April 2021. But Westerners believe that Iran, led by the radicals, is not flexible enough in the negotiations. Discussions are on hold, the agreement has not been signed. A few months ago, the first demonstrations broke out in Iran, Western countries decided to condemn this repression from the start and admitted that negotiations on nuclear power were no longer their priority. The United Kingdom has even admitted to considering putting the Pasdaran (the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, mind you) on the list of terrorist organizations.
Are the Charlie Hebdo cartoons not a pretext for the Iranian regime to be even more offensive towards France and at the same time divert attention from what is happening in the country and perhaps also try to rally behind him the most radical fringes?
In any case, it was not possible for them not to react. Radicals in Iran are used to saying that Westerners are against the Islamic Republic and want regime change. This view was reinforced by what happened with Donald Trump, which we talked about earlier. Since the revolution, they believe that there is a conspiracy that Westerners wish them harm. Iranian leaders are raising their voices to Europe and the United States so that their social base in Iran responds. Because it will not change anything for those who are on the street, on the contrary. But there is still a strong fringe of the population that adheres to the regime’s values, even if it is a minority.
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Some observers believe that these caricatures were unwelcome because of the presence of 7 Frenchmen imprisoned in Iran? What is your take on these reviews?
As a researcher, I do not need to comment on this political issue. It is important to explain the political context in Iran. The current difficulty – and which is not new – is that these hostage-takings are the result of the balance of power created by “hardliners”, who have officially taken power since 2020 – but in fact since 2018. The latter believe that diplomacy does not work. But in order to find solutions, it will be necessary to open channels of discussion. That is the whole difficulty.