French barrier

Print edition : December 17, 2013

French President Francois Hollande and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in Jerusalem on November 18. In the Geneva talks, France cited the "security concerns of Israel" to scupper a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme. Photo: RONEN ZVULUN/AP

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a news conference after nuclear talks at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva on November 10. Photo: DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS

The heavy-water plant in Arak, Iran. A 2006 picture. Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP

The Geneva talks on Iran’s nuclear programme get derailed because of last-minute changes made in the U.S.-proposed draft at the instance of France.

ALL parties involved in the Geneva talks held in the first week of November say they were very close to a deal to resolve the impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme. On a visit to Cairo later in the month, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said that Iran had, in fact, informally agreed to sign on to an American draft proposal that would have led to an agreement. According to Lavrov, the draft was circulated among the P5+1 countries—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany—attending the conference. He said Russia had “vigorously supported” the draft. “If this document had been supported by all [members of the P5+1], it would already have been adopted. We would already probably be in the initial stages of implementing the agreements that were being offered by it,” Lavrov said in Cairo. However, the deal was aborted at the eleventh hour when the United States suddenly presented an amended draft at the instance of France. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that an agreement could not be reached as the U.S. had changed the character of the final draft.

The six world powers want Iran to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for a limited lifting of the draconian sanctions the West has imposed on the country. An initial accord would have paved the way for a permanent solution to the nuclear dispute, which has harmed relations between Iran and the West. Israel, on its part, routinely threatens to take military action against Iran to thwart its nuclear programme, which, according to disarmament experts, is a peaceful one.

Lavrov said Russia was not consulted about the last-minute changes in the draft proposal. He emphasised that the six powers negotiating with Iran were united when the first draft was presented to Iran and denied claims by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that there were no differences of opinion among the six powers even when the French-influenced second draft was presented to Iran at the last minute. During a trip to Abu Dhabi in the second week of November, Kerry had claimed that “everybody had agreed” that the final draft presented to Iran “was a fair proposal”. It is clear from Lavrov’s observations that most of the other members were not privy to the last-minute changes in the draft.

In fact, Kerry had earlier admitted that a deal was very much in sight in Geneva. He told the BBC that “we were extremely close to a deal” and that the U.S. and Iran talked more in “30 hours than in the last 30 years” in Geneva. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the failure “was not the fault of the Iranians” and that it was not right on the part of the Obama administration to blame Tehran for it. “Such an interpretation simplifies to the extreme and even distorts what happened in Geneva,” a senior Russian official was quoted as saying.

Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, obviously working in close coordination with Israel and Iran’s rival in the region, Saudi Arabia, queered the pitch by insisting that Iran would additionally require to “suspend” all work on its heavy-water reactor being built at Arak. The new demand was introduced on the grounds that the reactor, in which plutonium would be a by-product, could be a potential source for Iranian nuclear weapons.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a non-partisan U.S. group, was of the view that the latest demand created “an unnecessary obstacle” in the talks with Iran. Kimball told The Guardian that it would take another year for the nuclear plant in Arak to be completed and two years for plutonium that could be used in a weapon to be produced. He also pointed out that the Arak plant would be under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. “France and the other powers would be making a mistake if they hold up an interim deal that addresses more urgent proliferation risks over the question of Arak,” Kimball said.

Even when the talks in Geneva were delicately poised, Fabius shot his mouth off by saying that France would not accept a “fool’s game”, echoing the views emanating from Israel. The draft, which Iran had earlier agreed on, talked only about not “activating” the Arak reactor. The other major issue for the U.S. and Iran was regarding the stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium. The Obama administration had claimed that Iran could theoretically enrich this stockpile to weapons grade. After negotiations in Geneva, Washington and Tehran agreed that most of the stockpile “would be rendered unusable”. This agreement, according to details leaked by American officials to CNN, would have given Iran the option to convert the enriched uranium into “fuel assemblies” for the Tehran Research Reactor and similar other reactors.

The latest IAEA report says that Iran had enriched 420 kg of uranium to the 20 per cent level, more than half of which has been converted into fuel assemblies. Had an agreement been reached in Geneva, Iran would have converted the bulk of the remaining 197 kg also into fuel assemblies. Such a development would have fulfilled the long-standing demands of Washington and Tel Aviv that the Iranian-enriched uranium stockpile be reduced to less than 100 kg. Uranium gas refined to a fissile concentration of 20 per cent, according to experts, could easily facilitate the development of the core of a nuclear weapon.

Israel has been publicly warning against allowing Iran to possess enriched uranium necessary to make even one atomic weapon. Iranian officials, starting from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been insisting that the Islamic Republic will never aspire to acquire a nuclear weapon. Iran has maintained that it is refining uranium to generate energy. But France, echoing the Israeli demand, wanted the enriched uranium to be “rendered unusable” by forcing the Iranians to ship it abroad.

The Iranian leadership, cutting across political divide, is unanimous in its stand that the country, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) unlike Israel, has a right to enrich uranium. President Hassan Rouhani, in a recent speech to the Iranian Parliament, stressed that the right to enrich uranium was among the “red lines” that could not be crossed. “For us, red lines are not to be crossed. The rights of the Iranian nation and our [national] interests are our red lines,” he told the Iranian parliament.

In fact, Iran’s negotiating position has been consistent through the years. Tehran has always been willing to stop the enrichment of 20 per cent uranium, convert the existing uranium into fuel plates for medical isotopes and ratify the additional protocols of the NPT that would open its nuclear programme to intrusive IAEA inspection. In exchange, Iran wants to be given its legal right as a signatory of the NPT to enrich uranium so as to generate electricity and use for medical purposes.

Article IV of the NPT states: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” Washington now has its own interpretation of the crucial Article in the NPT, saying that no country has an inherent right to enrich uranium. Kerry on his recent trip to Abu Dhabi said that “no nation has an inherent right to enrich”.

Another major priority for Tehran is the lifting of sanctions that have caused widespread distortions in its economy and greatly inconvenienced poor Iranians. Sanctions, under international law, are considered a form of “economic warfare”. This war was further intensified in the last decade. President Rouhani has said that his main objective during his term in office is to see the lifting of the punitive sanctions on his country.

An axe to grind

The spoiler role played by France has come in for considerable comment. This is not the first time that France has gone out of its way to scupper a possible deal with Iran. Mohammed ElBaradei, the former IAEA chief, has written in his memoirs about the dubious role the French played in a 2009 meeting with Iran in Vienna to discuss a “fuel swap” proposal. According to ElBaradei, France had come prepared to ensure that no progress was made on the nuclear issue. In the recent Geneva meet too, France cited the “security concerns of Israel”.

France had played a key role in setting up Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant clandestinely in the 1960s and in helping Israel produce nuclear weapons. Israel is reputed to have a bigger stockpile of nuclear weapons than India and Pakistan together have. “The disgraceful behaviour of the French Foreign Minister in the Geneva talks and his remarks on behalf of the Zionist regime once again show that the national interests of the French people have been taken hostage [by Israel],” Iran’s Keyhan newspaper noted. The daily reflects the views of Iran’s influential clerical establishment led by its Supreme Leader. Paul Quiles, a former French Defence Minister and a senior member of the ruling Socialist Party, observed that as the basic dispute was between the U.S. and Iran and if the U.S. was seeking a compromise, “then it would be terrible if France prevents it”.

This time, France had additional incentives in torpedoing a possible nuclear deal with Iran. The Gulf monarchies seem to be as keen as Israel to see that Iran remains under sanctions and military pressure. France now seems to be in line to be the recipient of huge military and business contracts from the rich Gulf states. In the last couple of months, it has signed contracts worth billions of dollars with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. There is talk about the French company Areva clinching multibillion-dollar contracts for building nuclear reactors in the region. Areva has already bagged a big contract to build one reactor in the UAE. In October, France signed a big military contract with Saudi Arabia.

Before the Geneva meet, France was hit by its second sovereign debt downgrade by the rating agency Standard & Poor’s on the state of its economy. French officials have been saying that exports to West Asia will be the key to the revival of their country's economy.

The U.S. Congress, under the influence of the powerful pro-Israeli lobby, meanwhile wants to impose further sanctions and outline new conditions for a deal with Iran before talks resume in Geneva on November 20. The Obama administration is keenly aware that a failure to resolve the dispute could lead to dangerous scenarios. If Iran fears that it is facing an imminent threat of war from either nuclear-armed U.S. or Israel, it could easily accelerate its nuclear programme and go in for nuclear arms.

The U.S. has missed many opportunities to end the dispute with Iran on an amicable note. In 2005, Iran offered to cap its enrichment programme at 3,000 centrifuges. The Bush administration rejected the offer, and by 2008, Iran had built 7,221 centrifuges. In 2009, Iran made another offer to swap its low-enriched uranium for nuclear isotopes needed for medical research. The West vetoed the offer and Iran reacted by raising its enrichment levels from 4 per cent to 20 per cent. When Barack Obama took office in 2008, Iran had a stockpile of 1,000 kg of low-enriched uranium. Today, it has around 10,000 kg. This takes Iran much closer to the refinement levels needed to make nuclear weapons.

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