Sarkozy's Mideast Chess Game
January 17, 2008
President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed al-Thani receives French President Nicolas
world focused on U.S. President George W. Bush's much publicized tour of the Middle East last week, French President Nicolas
Sarkozy scored a major tactical victory against Iran as the political tug-o-war between the Islamic republic and the West
takes on a new dimension.
As Bush tried -- some would say unsuccessfully -- to garner
support from the Gulf states in the U.S.'s face-off with Iran, Sarkozy managed to sign an agreement with the oil-rich
emirate of Abu Dhabi giving France a military base in the United Arab Emirates, a mere 150 miles from the coast of Iran.
The new French forward operating
base will hold approximately 400 to 500 French troops composed of all branches of the French armed forces -- ground, naval
and air. This new base will give Paris an all-important foothold in one of the world's most strategic areas.
France's other major military outpost is in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, also strategically
located between Eritrea and Somalia and across the Bab al-Mandeb strait from Yemen, commanding the all-important access to
the Red Sea and eventually the Suez Canal.
The new French military outpost in the UAE
will position French forces near the equally important Strait of Hormuz, which commands access to the Gulf from where one-fifth
of the world's oil flows.
Having French forces on its territory strengthens Abu Dhabi's
position over a longstanding contention concerning three islands occupied by Iran -- the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu
Musa. The islands are situated about halfway between Iran and the UAE in the Strait of Hormuz, from where all of Iran's
oil tanker traffic must pass. Roughly 15 million barrels per day transits through the narrow mouth of the Gulf in supertankers.
The strait is 35 miles wide at its narrowest point.
While Abu Musa is only a few square miles
in size, much like the Tunbs, it is claimed by both Iran and the UAE. The islands are valued for economic, security and environmental
reasons. Abu Musa has large oil reserves.
On Nov. 30, 1971 Iran dispatched military
forces to Abu Musa in accordance with a previously reached agreement with Sharjah (now part of the UAE). At the same time
Iran seized the two nearby Tunb islands. In September 1992, Iran declared full sovereignty over the three islands, and in
1995 increased its troops on Abu Musa from 700 to 4,000, and deployed SA-6 surface-to-air missiles, 155-millimeter artillery,
and "Seersucker" anti-ship missiles.
According to the Elyseé Palace, the
official residence of the French president, the first units of French forces are expected to arrive in the United Arab Emirates
within weeks. The new French base in the UAE will position French forces within striking range of Iran's shoreline.
So why does Paris need to deploy troops in the Gulf region?
is worth remembering the French president's statements regarding the Islamic republic's pursuit of nuclear technology
made during a press conference soon after his inauguration. Sarkozy said that either, "Iran gives up the bomb, or Iran
In short, France is playing an interesting -- and somewhat risky
-- game of chess with Iran. In addition to the nuclear issue, Paris is extremely concerned for the safety of its troops in
Lebanon. French troops serving in south Lebanon as part of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon -- UNIFIL -- are in an area controlled
by the pro-Iranian militia, Hezbollah.
The French contingent, the second-largest
after Italy's, feels vulnerable to attack from pro-Iranian groups, particularly in view of France's support of the
anti-Syrian (and by default anti-Iranian) March 14 Alliance government in Beirut. Relations between Paris and Damascus are
at an all time low over diverging views over the election of the Lebanese president.
By strategically positioning its troops on Iran's
doorstep, France is offering the UNIFIL contingent a rear guard, and at the same time Paris is offering Washington an advanced
post from which Iran could easily be targeted, if it ever came to that.
and not to be underestimated, having troops situated so close to the Iranian mainland gives Paris and the West an advantage
in addressing eventual terrorist attacks targeting Europe and originating from this part of the world.
disadvantage and the danger, of course, is that having troops in the Arabian Peninsula opens up France -- and the Emirates
-- to the same grievances U.S. forces and the Saudi royal family faced from al-Qaida when American troops were stationed in
neighboring Saudi Arabia in the buildup to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's forces. Time will tell if this was a