Fluent in French.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Top French Official Contradicts Kerry on Iran Deal

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Secretary of State John Kerry has been painting an apocalyptic picture of what would happen if Congress killed the Iran nuclear deal. Among other things, he has warned that “our friends in this effort will desert us." But the top national security official from one of those nations involved in the negotiations, France, has a totally different view: He told two senior U.S. lawmakers that he thinks a Congressional no vote might actually be helpful.

His analysis is already having an effect on how members of Congress, especially House Democrats, are thinking about the deal.

The French official, Jacques Audibert, is now the senior diplomatic adviser to President Francois Hollande. Before that, as the director general for political affairs in the Foreign Ministry from 2009 to 2014, he led the French diplomatic team in the discussions with Iran and the P5+1 group. Earlier this month, he met with Democrat Loretta Sanchez and Republican Mike Turner, both top members of the House Armed Services Committee, to discuss the Iran deal. The U.S. ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, was also in the room.

According to both lawmakers, Audibert expressed support for the deal overall, but also directly disputed Kerry’s claim that a Congressional rejection of the Iran deal would result in the worst of all worlds, the collapse of sanctions and Iran racing to the bomb without restrictions.

“He basically said, if Congress votes this down, there will be some saber-rattling and some chaos for a year or two, but in the end nothing will change and Iran will come back to the table to negotiate again and that would be to our advantage,” Sanchez told me in an interview. “He thought if the Congress voted it down, that we could get a better deal.”

(Before the publication of this article on Thursday, Jacques Audibert, the Elysee Palace office and the French Embassy in Washington were asked for comment, and did not respond. After its publication, the embassy released a statement saying it "formally denies the content of the remarks" attributed to Audibert by the two members of Congress, and U.S. Ambassador Hartley described them as "inaccurate." Audibert tweeted that he "never said or suggested that a no vote from Congress … might be helpful or lead to a better deal," and has not responded to requests for an interview. On Friday, two more members of Congress who met with Audibert, Republicans Paul Cook of California and Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, issued a statement that they "can confirm that Congresswoman Sanchez’s account of the meeting is accurate. We disagree with recent claims that seek to refute her account.” Representative Turner said that he stands by his description of the meeting.)

Audibert's comments as recounted by the lawmakers are a direct rebuttal to Kerry, who in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations on July 24 said that if Congress voted down the deal, there would no chance to restart negotiations in search of a tougher pact. Kerry also said that Congressional rejection of the Iran deal would erode the U.S. credibility to strike any type of international agreement in the future. “Do you think the Ayatollah is going to come back to the table if Congress refuses this and negotiate again? Do you think that they're going to sit there and other people in the world are going to say, hey, let's go negotiate with the United States, they have 535 secretaries of State?” Kerry said. “I mean, please.”

This argument is being echoed by a throng of U.S. commentators and former Obama administration officials who support the deal. They all say that if the Congress doesn’t lift U.S. sanctions, the rest of the international regime will collapse and allied countries will rush to do business in Iran. That would make the U.S. sanctions moot and put U.S. businesses at a disadvantage, the argument goes. (Kerry pointed out in his council speech that the French foreign minister, the French commerce minister and German officials were all visiting Iran with delegations this month.)

Audibert disagrees with that analysis, too, according to the two lawmakers. He told them that if U.S. sanctions were kept in place, it would effectively prevent the West from doing extensive business in Iran. “I asked him specifically what the Europeans would do, and his comment was that the way the U.S. sanctions are set in, he didn’t see an entity or a country going against them, that the risk was too high,” Sanchez said.

Audibert also wasn’t happy with some of the terms of the deal itself, according to Sanchez and Turner. He said he thought it should have been negotiated to last forever, not start to expire in as few as 10 years. He also said he didn’t understand why Iran needed more than 5,000 centrifuges for a peaceful nuclear program. He also expressed concerns about the robustness of the inspections and verification regime under the deal, according to the lawmakers.

To be sure, Audibert wasn’t speaking on behalf of the entire French government, and there may be a variety of views about the deal in Paris. The French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, has been on Capitol Hill pushing for the deal along with his British and German counterparts. “It’s just one person’s opinion, but he has good credentials to be talking about it,” Sanchez said of Audibert. “We have Kerry saying the French are just going to bust in there and do this and this, and here we have somebody who seems to disagree with that.”

When the lawmakers returned to Washington, news of their conversation with Audibert spread among their colleagues. Turner confronted Kerry with Audibert’s statements during a July 22 closed-door briefing with Kerry and more than 300 House lawmakers. The briefing was classified, but Turner’s questions to Kerry were not.

“Are you surprised Jacques Audibert believes we could have gotten a better deal?” Turner asked Kerry, according to Turner.

“The secretary appeared surprised and had no good answer as to why the national security adviser of France had a completely different position than what the secretary told us the same day,” Turner told me.

Sanchez was not at that briefing, but since then, many lawmakers have asked her about the information, especially Democrats, she told me. “It’s one piece of information that people will use to decide where they are,” she explained.

While the chances of Congress voting down the deal and then overriding a presidential veto are slim, they are not negligible: Many Democrats, including Sanchez, remain on the fence. They are scrutinizing it and examining the administration’s claims one by one. Now, one top French official has sent them a strong message that there could be better alternatives.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net