Western and Iranian negotiators were putting the finishing touches on a far-reaching nuclear deal. Then, at virtually the last minute, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius joined in the talks. It didn't take long for the negotiations to unravel -- and for Fabius to publicly declare this round of the talks to be over.
It wasn't the answer U.S., European or Iranian teams had been expecting. One Western official said Paris hadn't been particularly involved in the painstaking negotiations that had taken place in the run-up to this weekend's talks in Geneva. "The French were barely involved in this," one Western diplomat said. "They didn't get looped in until a few days ago."
Yet the French response shouldn't have been a total surprise. The socialist government of French President François Hollande has adopted a muscular foreign policy that has put it to the right of the Obama administration on Libya, Mali, Syria and now Iran. Along the way, it has also become Israel's primary European ally and -- after the U.S. -- arguably its closest friend in the world.
Mark Dubowitz -- the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think-tank in Washinton -- said France was uniquely positioned to spot potential flaws in the agreement because it has an array of officials who have working almost exclusively on nuclear issues for more than a decade and understand both the technical aspects of Iran's nuclear program and the economic impact of the hard-hitting economic sanctions that have been imposed in response.
"On the Iranian side, you've got men who have written books on these issues and forgotten nuclear tricks that many folks on our side haven't even learned," he said. "The only comparably level of expertise on our side is the French. The same people work the technical side and the economic side. On the U.S. side, those issues are handled by different people from different departments."
The French Foreign Ministry, officials say, has a particularly knowledgeable expert on Iran's nuclear program in Martin Briens, who used to run the department that handled nuclear negotiations with Iran and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the evolution of those talks from their beginning to the present.
Dubowitz said Paris deserved credit for helping to block what he sees as a deeply flawed deal. Under the terms of the agreement leaked to the press, Tehran would have agreed to keep a half-built reactor at Arak inactive for six months but not halt construction. That, he said, would leave Iran six months closer to having the facility be fully operational. He also faults the agreement for failing to force Tehran to stop all of its uranium enrichment activity or from adding to its large stockpiles of centrifuges, a key part of that program.