U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry attends Iran nuclear talks

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, second from left, walks to a meeting Saturday during nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva. After the talks were halted, Kerry said the Obama administration shares many of France's concerns about Iran's heavy-water reactor and medium-enriched uranium. (Jason Reed / Pool Photo / November 9, 2013)

WASHINGTON — France's role in the unraveling of an international deal to curb Iran's nuclear program brought angry reactions Sunday from Tehran, glowing praise from Iran's detractors and a whirl of speculation about what the French motive might be.

A marathon round of international talks in Geneva fell short of a widely anticipated deal early Sunday after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius objected, saying the terms of a preliminary accord were too easy on Tehran. Many nations fear Iran has been secretly seeking a nuclear weapons capability, despite its claims to want nuclear power only for energy and medical purposes.

Fabius broke an informal rule of the six-nation diplomatic group that has been negotiating with the Iranians by going public with his criticism of the preliminary deal, which was aimed at opening the way for comprehensive negotiations over the nuclear program.

"One wants a deal … but not a sucker's deal," Fabius said.

When the negotiations ground to a temporary halt, Iran was quick to point a finger.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the National Assembly that Tehran would not be intimidated by any country's "sanctions, threats, contempt and discrimination," according to Iran's student news service. "For us there are red lines that cannot be crossed."

The semiofficial Fars news agency criticized the "destructive roles of France and Israel" for the failure of negotiators to reach an interim deal and ran a caricature of France as a frog firing a gun. "By shooting he feels he is important," the commentary said.

In contrast, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tweeted that France "had the courage to prevent a bad nuclear agreement with Iran. Vive la France!"

The halt in talks set off a debate on whether France's intervention was motivated by commercial or geopolitical interests in the Middle East.

Alireza Nader, a Middle East specialist at Rand Corp., said he believes multiple motives may be involved, including France's desire to halt nuclear proliferation but also interests in selling arms to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations in the Persian Gulf that fear Iran's regional power and would appreciate the French stand.

France may also believe that it has an interest in strengthening its position in the region, at a time when many there believe U.S. power is on the wane, Nader said.

"This could be a way to strengthen their ties generally," he said.

Nader said one downside is that France's initiative could weaken the efforts of the six-nation group, which has been trying to work out a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. The six are Britain, China, Germany and Russia, as well as the U.S. and France.

The French stance weakens the unity of the group, which has helped bring Iran to the bargaining table, and it strengthens the Iranian narrative that Tehran has been willing to deal but that Israel, hawks in the U.S. Congress and now France may really prefer a military confrontation over diplomacy.

Francois Heisbourg, a former French official in Paris who is chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, saw different motives.

He noted that France has long taken a hard line on Iran's program, going back to the government of former President Jacques Chirac. He said the French position may also reflect the fact that France "hates signing on the dotted line anything that appears to have been produced by Americans."

Heisbourg said that in domestic politics, "standing up to the Americans will be a winner for [Prime Minister Francois] Hollande's government," even though the Iranian nuclear issue isn't especially important to the French public.

Yet Heisbourg and other observers noted that it is unclear to what extent the French objections actually upset Washington.

Although the Obama administration clearly wants a deal with Iran, Secretary of State John F. Kerry went easy on France after the halt in talks and made it clear that the administration shares many of France's concerns about Iran's heavy-water reactor and medium-enriched uranium.

Some analysts speculated that it would please some in Washington if France's push leads to a tougher deal at the next round of negotiations, which are to start Nov. 20 in Geneva.

A Western official who declined to be identified, citing diplomatic sensitivities, said that France was "only playing its traditional role within the group" and that the six nations were largely in agreement by the end of the negotiations Saturday night.

In comments on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Kerry again downplayed the idea that France had undermined the deal, saying that the United States too wanted more "clarity" about the terms of the deal and that the six powers remain united.

He also defended the U.S. position in the talks: "We are not blind, and I don't think we're stupid," he said. "I think we have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe."

paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writers Brian Bennett in Washington and Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.