French President Jacques Chirac is a pivotal figure on the international scene, whose views on Iraq are of vital concern. Those views are not driven simply by geopolitics, however. The factors that shape his thinking include a long, complex and sometimes mysterious relationship with Saddam Hussein. The relationship is not secret, but it is no longer as well known as it once was — nor is it well known outside of France. It is not insignificant in understanding Chirac’s view of Iraq.
In attempting to understand France?s behavior over the issue of war with Iraq, there is little question but that strategic, economic and geopolitical considerations are dominant drivers. However, in order to understand the details of French behavior, it is also important to understand a not really unknown but oddly neglected aspect of French policy: the personal relationship between French President Jacques Chirac and Saddam Hussein.
The relationship dates back to late 1974, when then-French Premier Chirac traveled to Baghdad and met the No. 2 man in the Iraqi government, Vice President Saddam Hussein. During that visit, Chirac and Hussein conducted negotiations on a range of issues, the most important of these being Iraq?s purchase of nuclear reactors.
In September 1975, Hussein traveled to Paris, where Chirac personally gave him a tour of a French nuclear plant. During that visit, Chirac said, ?Iraq is in the process of beginning a coherent nuclear program and France wants to associate herself with that effort in the field of reactors.? France sold two reactors to Iraq, with the agreement signed during Hussein?s visit. The Iraqis purchased a 70-megawatt reactor, along with six charges of 26 points of uranium enriched to 93 percent — in other words, enough weapons-grade uranium to produce three to four nuclear devices. Baghdad also purchased a one-megawatt research reactor, and France agreed to train 600 Iraqi nuclear technicians and scientists — the core of Iraq?s nuclear capability today.
Other dimensions of the relationship were decided on during this visit and implemented in the months afterward. France agreed to sell Iraq $1.5 billion worth of weapons — including the integrated air defense system that was destroyed by the United States in 1991, about 60 Mirage F1 fighter planes, surface-to-air missiles and advanced electronics. The Iraqis, for their part, agreed to sell France $70 million worth of oil.
During this period, Chirac and Hussein formed what Chirac called a close personal relationship. As the New York Times put it in a 1986 report about Chirac?s attempt to return to the premiership, the French official ?has said many times that he is a personal friend of Saddam Hussein of Iraq.? In 1987, the Manchester Guardian Weekly quoted Chirac as saying that he was ?truly fascinated by Saddam Hussein since 1974.? Whatever personal chemistry there might have been between the two leaders obviously remained in place a decade later, and clearly was not simply linked to the deals of 1974-75. Politicians and businessmen move on; they don?t linger the way Chirac did.
Partly because of the breadth of the relationship Chirac and Hussein had created in a relatively short period of time and the obvious warmth of their personal ties, there was intense speculation about the less visible aspects of the relationship. For example, one unsubstantiated rumor that still can be heard in places like Beirut was that Hussein helped to finance Chirac?s run for mayor of Paris in 1977, after he lost the French premiership. Another, equally unsubstantiated rumor was that Hussein had skimmed funds from the huge amounts of money that were being moved around, and that he did so with Chirac?s full knowledge. There are endless rumors, all unproven and perhaps all scurrilous, about the relationship. Some of these might have been moved by malice, but they also are powered by the unfathomability of the relationship and by Chirac?s willingness to publicly affirm it. It reached the point that Iranians referred to Chirac as ?Shah-Iraq? and Israelis spoke of the Osirak reactor as ?O-Chirac.?
Indeed, as recently as last week, a Stratfor source in Lebanon reasserted these claims as if they were incontestable. Innuendo has become reality.
Former French President Valery Giscard d?Estaing, who held office at the time of the negotiations with Iraq, said in 1984 that the deal ?came out of an agreement that was not negotiated in Paris and therefore did not originate with the president of the republic.? Under the odd French constitution, it is conceivable that the president of the republic wouldn?t know what the premier of France had negotiated — but on a deal of this scale, this would be unlikely, unless the deal in fact had been negotiated between Chirac and Hussein in the dark and presented as a fait accompli.
There is some evidence for this notion. Earlier, when Giscard d?Estaing found out about the deal — and particularly about the sale of 93 percent uranium — he had ordered the French nuclear research facility at Saclay to develop an alternative that would take care of Iraq?s legitimate needs, but without supplying weapons-grade uranium. The product, called ?caramel,? was only 3 percent enriched but entirely suitable to non-weapons needs. The French made the offer, which Iraq declined.
By 1986, Chirac clearly had decided to change his image. In preparation for the 1988 presidential elections, Chirac let it be known that he never had anything to do with the sale of the Osirak reactor. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, he said, ?It wasn?t me who negotiated the construction of Osirak with Baghdad. The negotiation was led by my minister of industry in very close collaboration with Giscard d?Estaing.? He went on to say, ?I never took part in these negotiations. I never discussed the subject with Saddam Hussein. The fact is that I did not find out about the affair until very late.?
Obviously, Chirac was contradicting what he had said publicly in 1975. More to the point, he also was not making a great deal of sense in claiming that his minister of industry ? who at that time was Michel d?Ornano — had negotiated a deal as large as this one. That is true even if one assumes the absurd, which was that the nuclear deal was a stand-alone and not linked to the arms and oil deals or to a broader strategic relationship. In fact, d?Ornano claimed that he didn?t even make the trip to Iraq with Chirac in 1974, let alone act as the prime negotiator. Everything he did was in conjunction with Chirac.
In 1981, the Israelis destroyed the Iraqi reactor in an air attack. There were rumors ? which were denied — that the French government was offering to rebuild the reactor. In August 1987, French satirical and muckraking magazine, ?Le Canard Enchaine? published excerpts of a letter from Chirac to Hussein — dated June 24, 1987, and hand-delivered by Trade Minister Michel Noir — which the magazine claimed indicated that he was negotiating to rebuild the Iraqi reactor. The letter says nothing about nuclear reactors, but it does say that Chirac hopes for an agreement ?on the negotiation which you know about,? and it speaks of the ?cooperation launched more than 12 years ago under our personal joint initiative, in this capital district for the sovereignty, independence and security of your country.? In the letter, Chirac also, once again, referred to Hussein as ?my dear friend.?
Chirac and the government confirmed that the letter was genuine. They denied that it referred to rebuilding a nuclear reactor. The letter speaks merely of the agreements relating to ?an essential chapter in Franco-Iraqi relations, both in the present circumstances and in the future.? Chirac claimed that any attempt to link the letter to the reconstruction of the nuclear facility was a ?ridiculous invention.? Assuming Chirac?s sincerity, this leaves open the question of what the ?essential chapter? refers to and why, instead of specifying the subject, Chirac resorted to a circumlocution like ?negotiation which you know about.?
Only two possible conclusions can be drawn from this letter: Chirac either was trying, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war and after his denial of involvement in the first place, to rebuild Iraq?s nuclear capability, or he wasn?t. And if he wasn?t, what was he doing that required such complex language, clearly intended for deniability if revealed? No ordinary state-to-state relationship would require a combination of affection, recollection of long history and promise for the future without mentioning the subject. If we concede to Chirac that it had nothing to do with nuclear reactors, then the mystery actually deepens.
It is unfair to tag Chirac with the rumors that have trailed him in his relations with Hussein. It is fair to say, however, that Chirac has created a circumstance for breeding rumors. The issues raised here were all well known at one time and place. When they are laid end-to-end, a mystery arises. What affair was being discussed in the letter delivered by Michel Noir? If not nuclear reactors, then what was referenced but never mentioned specifically in Chirac?s letter to his ?dear friend? Hussein?
Whatever the answer, it is clear that the relationship between Chirac and Hussein is long and complex, and not altogether easy to understand. That relationship does not, by itself, explain all of France’s policies toward Iraq or its stance toward a war between the United States and Iraq. But at the same time, it is inconceivable that this relationship has no effect on Chirac’s personal decision-making process. There is an intensity to Chirac’s Iraq policy that simply may signify the remnants of an old, warm friendship gone bad, or that may have a different origin. In any case, it is a reality that cannot be ignored and that must be taken into account in understanding the French leader?s behavior.