Who Can You Trust? Competing Media Versions of France’s Role in the Iran Nuclear Talks

At the conclusion of the nuclear talks in Geneva this weekend, a consensus emerged in the media: as a result of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s objections, the talks ended without an agreement. However, in subtle ways, media outlets diverged in how they covered Fabius’s behavior. If you’d read only one of these media reports, you might have been left with a very different impression of the rationale and legitimacy of France’s actions.

Some reports suggested that Fabius acted illegitimately in helping to undo the agreement. They noted that he had apparently broken diplomatic protocol by revealing details of the ongoing negotiations and in publicly announcing the final results before the EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. One of the Guardian’s two stories, for example, stated that unnamed diplomats criticized Fabius for “breaking ranks by revealing details of the negotiations as soon as he arrived in Geneva on Saturday morning, and then breaking protocol again by declaring the results to the press before Ashton and Zarif had arrived at the final press conference.” Some reports emphasized statements by unnamed western officials saying that diplomats were upset with Fabius. One of the Guardian’s stories, for example, ran the subtitle: “Diplomats said to be furious after France objected to a stopgap deal.” And some reports included statements by an unnamed diplomat suggesting Fabius was acting out of personal ego—“nothing more than an attempt by Fabius to insert himself into relevance.” (see also here). Reports also suggested that France had interfered with a path to a historic settlement. For instance, an account in The Atlantic began: “There might be a historic nuclear deal on the table between the five major world powers and Iran if it wasn’t for that meddling France.” And a separate story in the Guardian included as part of its headline: “French torpedo Geneva nuclear entente.” Finally, some suggested Fabius was acting to enhance France’s lucrative relations with Israel and states like Saudi Arabia .The Guardian wrote: “On the sidelines of the talks … some western officials accused France of sabotaging the hopes of a deal to curry favour with Israel and the Gulf Arab states.”

Other media reports suggested that Fabius acted legitimately in helping undo the agreement. Some outlets excluded that Fabius might have broken diplomatic protocols (e.g., Fox News; Chicago Tribune; New York Times; Financial Times). Instead, they included (Fox News) or emphasized (Chicago Tribune and New York Times) that Kerry, Ashton, and Zarif made public statements to the press either not criticizing the French or downplaying any discord. The New York Times, for example, stated “Neither Ms. Ashton nor Mr. Zarif criticized France, saying that it had played a constructive role.” And Fox News quoted Kerry as saying, “We’re grateful to the French for the work we did together.” Some reports included information that indicated, rather than personal ego or ulterior motives, deep and historical reasons for the French position.  The Financial Times, for example, stated that Fabius’s position was “a feature of all recent French presidencies and reflects the country’s deep-seated political commitment to the principle of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.” And the Chicago Tribune, rather than suggesting the French actions “torpedoed” or “sabotaged” the meeting, stated simply that France “declined to endorse the proposal under discussion, believing it did not adequately neutralize the risk of an Iranian atom bomb.” Finally, some suggested that France might have been trying to avoid an Israeli military attack on Iranian sites by addressing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s concerns.

Notably, the version that Fabius was acting legitimately could also be seen as an indirect criticism of the Obama administration. It might suggest the Obama administration was comparatively weak on Iran and failing to take Israeli interests sufficiently into account.  Along those lines, an initial version of a Washington Post story stated:

Fabius’s worry about Israel’s security concerns, which he said must be taken ‘fully into account,’ appeared even stronger than that expressed by Obama, who tried to reassure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Friday telephone call after Netanyahu called the draft ‘a very bad deal.’”

That text was understood by others to be provocatively worded, because it compared Fabius’s concern for Israel’s security to Obama’s. That text, however, was soon removed, and the Post’s later version stated:

“Fabius was particularly concerned about Israel’s security, which he said must be taken ‘fully into account.’ In a telephone call on Friday, President Obama tried to reassure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he had called the draft ‘a very bad deal.’”

Watch this space, because this morning’s New York Times suggests an almost completely different account. Apparently based on statements made by US officials who “briefed Israeli reporters and experts in Jerusalem on Sunday,” the paper reports that the principal source of the Geneva talks’ failure was Iranian intransigence not France’s: “while France took a harder line than its partners on some issues, a senior American official said it was the Iranian delegation that balked at completing an interim agreement, saying that it had to engage in additional consultations in Tehran before proceeding further.” 

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About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.