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Winegate: Fueling Tensions Instead of Bridging Differences

November 12, 2015
Guest Blogger
3 min read
Winegate: Fueling Tensions Instead of Bridging Differences

For decades, Iran and France have enjoyed a special relationship. So just how damaging will this week’s turf war be, asks Setareh Sabety

The diplomatic incident between Iran and France over wine is all over the news in France (and elsewhere). Just as President Khatami did in 1999, President Hassan Rouhani’s administration asked the French to forgo serving wine at a luncheon at the Elysee Palace planned in his honor. The French then refused, and invited them to breakfast instead. The Iranians were offended, and thinking of breakfast as an inferior form of invitation, refused. So this particular shopping visit will occur without the traditional dining between the two heads of state. Not much will change in Franco-Iranian relations — but the damage has been done to the fragile relationship between Europeans and Islam.

The whole diplomatic incident was caused mostly by the so-called “extremist” faction of the regime throwing a hissy fit over the triumph of Rouhani and Mohammed Javad Zarif, his nuclear negotiator, in reaching a nuclear ‪deal. There is nothing ideological about it; these are turf wars. It is not so much that one faction is “extremist,” but rather that it uses religious/ideological posturing to intimidate the reformists. We can’t blame the current reformist administration. Had Rouhani refused the invitation, he would have been lynched back home.

The Iranian visit, the first official one just after the signing of the nuclear deal, is an important one. The Iranians were in France to shop, Rouhani himself declaring that he would buy some badly needed planes from Airbus. For France, which is limping through an economic crisis, restoring trade with Iran could be a great boost. Plus, France, more than any other European country, has filled the vacuum left by Iran breaking ties with the Americans after the 1979 Revolution. Having hosted Ayatollah Khomeini in Neuchatel during the last stretch of his exile, the French enjoyed a special relationship with the Islamic Republic from the start. From Total, the oil company, to Peugeot, the carmaker, the French benefited commercially from this relationship. But with the nuclear crisis and the imposition of sanctions by the P5+1 nations, France almost lost her carefully planted foothold in Iran. And now, since the nuclear deal was reached on July 14, France has been trying to regain that foothold. Neither country benefits from a row over dining protocols and both want to get on with business.

Those who hold that this incident is a trivial issue that doesn’t merit attention don’t understand the fragility of European sensibilities these days. This is not about drinking alcohol or the lifestyle choices of heads of state. This incident touches at the heart of a very palpable European fear of losing a hard-won secular identity. There is an identity crisis in France — indeed Europe — that fuels division. The Muslims are perpetually offended, and non-Muslim “natives” are perpetually afraid, afraid of losing their lifestyles, their jobs, their government subsidies. A Muslim head of state who doesn't want to encourage more Jihadism in the inner cities of Europe or racism among the rightwing Le Pen voters, should not want to make this an issue. And after all, every Muslim knows that there is no stricture against being in the presence of wine, only one against drinking it.

Regardless of the irrationality of such fears, the non-Muslim population here is veritably afraid of the place being run over by Islamists one day. Asking to take the wine away from the table at the Elysee fuels Islamophobia. You couldn't come up with a worse gesture at a worse time. Let the French have their wine in their own country for heaven's sake. As its biggest producers, the French are proud of their wine and often use it to promote their country. The wine cellar in the Elysee is kept, under lock, near the nuclear command center. It is a veritable national treasure. Asking a Frenchman to skip his wine at lunch is like asking a Muslim to break his fast in the middle of the day. It is just not done.

 

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Wine Diplomacy, Wardrobe Policy

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