French President Francois Hollande threw his weight Tuesday behind demands by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab monarchies that a prospective deal with Iran over its nuclear program come with guarantees of their security.
After talks in Riyadh, Hollande and Saudi King Salman issued a joint statement, saying any nuclear deal with Iran must be “robust, lasting, verifiable, undisputed and binding.”
“The agreement must not destabilize the security and stability of the region nor threaten the security and stability of Iran’s neighbors,” the statement said.
France is one of the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council and a moving force within the European Union – the so-called P5+1 nations that are negotiating the deal.
The statement also echoed concerns that lifting economic sanctions against Iran, and the prospective release to it of $150 billion in frozen overseas assets, would allow Iran to increase funding to its allies and proxies in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia also said Tuesday that it would soon host a meeting of Syrian opposition groups that are fighting the government of President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Iran whose troops have been reinforced with fighters from the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, as well as Iranian advisers.
A statement issued by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, after a summit in Riyadh, said the kingdom would work with the opposition groups to “map out” a post-Assad political landscape for Syria; it gave no further details.
In addition to Saudi Arabia, the council comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Hollande, a Socialist, has surprised observers at home and abroad by endorsing the Saudi-led military campaign against rebels in Yemen, instead of adopting a neutral stance as previous left-wing administrations have in conflicts that haven’t threatened Paris’ interests.
For that, he was bestowed the honor Tuesday of becoming the first Western dignitary to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council summit.
The payback for France’s pivot to Saudi Arabia has been quick. France expects to soon finalize contracts with the kingdom for 20 projects worth “tens of billions of euros” – roughly the same in dollars – in the civil aviation, defense, energy and transport sectors, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Riyadh on Tuesday.
He said French companies would supply the kingdom with naval ships and passenger jets, build a railway linking the western port city of Jeddah with Islam’s holiest shrines in nearby Mecca and Medina, erect a solar energy park and carry out a feasibility study for generating nuclear power.
Some of the deals could be finalized by June, Hollande said.
“We want to act quickly. We are here to set up a long-lasting strategic partnership,” he said.
On Monday, Hollande signed a $7 billion deal with Qatar to supply 24 Dassault Rafale warplanes and missiles. France is also in talks with the United Arab Emirates to replace its aging fleet of Mirage 2000-9 fighter jets with 60 Rafales.
The new French position on a final nuclear deal with Iran was likely timed to increase Saudi pressure on the United States for a renewed commitment to Gulf security. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Thursday in Riyadh with Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers to finalize the agenda for meetings May 13-14, in Washington and at Camp David, between President Barack Obama and the six Arab monarchs or their heirs apparent.
Gulf Arabs have been perturbed by Obama’s statements in interviews published in early April, after a framework deal was reached with Iran, that have been largely interpreted in the region as signaling a reduced U.S. security commitment to the Gulf countries, a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East since Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990.
In the interviews, Obama said the U.S. would continue to protect Gulf Arab states from external aggression but would have a “difficult conversation” with its partners about the need to accommodate domestic political dissent, particularly from disenfranchised Shiite Muslim communities. Gulf monarchies often charge that Iran, which is a Shiite theocracy, has fomented unrest over Shiite populations.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @tomthehack