French resistance to a deal with Iran: un petit problème?

Fingers are pointing to the French for stalling a joint statement between the E3+3 and Iran over its nuclear programme. But there's still room to remain positive about the pace at which diplomacy can come to fruition in these talks.

After three days of intense talks amongst high-level officials hoping to make a major breakthrough over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme, the French delegation somewhat spoilt the fresh air of optimism surrounding Mont Blanc. While the second round of Geneva negotiations failed to yield an interim deal, all eyes are now on the French for stalling a joint statement between the E3+3 (comprised of the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the US) and Iran.

This constitutes a break with its negotiating partners over the long-term profile of Iran’s nuclear programme, and questions now arise over whether the French were justified in their “résistance” and what impact this will have on future negotiations. Regardless, it is crucial to maintain the unprecedented momentum created by President Hassan Rouhani’s negotiating team if the E3+3 is looking for a diplomatic remedy to heal concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme.  

The expected

This month’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the E3+3 followed constructive talks that took place in mid-October. From 7-8 November negotiators planned to build on detailed discussions that had taken place amongst their technical experts following the first round of talks in Geneva.

Although the meetings were kept confidential, certain expectations had surfaced based on the “red lines” that had been stipulated by Iran and the E3+3 since the October negotiations. By the end of the second day, stakeholders were expected to issue a joint statement as part of the first-phase in a three-phase deal that would take approximately six months.

As part of the interim deal it was hoped that Iran would agree to stop the clock on its nuclear programme for six months while comprehensive negotiations were taking place. It was anticipated that Iran would concede to: (1) freezing its 20 percent enriched uranium at its August level for at least six months; (2) getting rid of materials which could be converted quickly into 20 percent enriched uranium; (3) reducing the total number of centrifuges in operation; (4) suspending use of second-generation centrifuges which are believed to enrich 3-5 times faster than the older plants.

In return, it was anticipated that the E3+3 would offer: (1) to suspend the introduction of new sanctions; (2) to ease sanctions banning trade in gold, precious metals and petrochemicals; (3) to release some Iranian assets frozen in international bank accounts.

Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, and Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, appeared fresh-faced and hopeful as the first day of negotiations began. In several press interviews, both sides implied that a deal was potentially in reach, and expectations reached a climax when US Secretary of State John Kerry shortened his trip to the Middle East to personally attend the talks. The foreign ministers of the UK, Germany, France, Russia, and vice-foreign minister of China later joined Kerry, which most took as a sign that a deal was firmly on the table. But then, the French played an unexpected card.

The unexpected

Making a breakthrough in negotiating Iran’s nuclear programme was never going to be easy. That the talks spilt over into an unplanned third day of back-to-back meetings reaffirms this point. However, the strong challenge posed by the French, against issuing a draft joint statement between the E3+3 and Iran was unexpected.

The French were unhappy with the text of the draft agreement for not addressing Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor, which, once fully operational, will produce plutonium as a by-product. Israel has voiced criticism over allowing Iran access to plutonium as this provides Iran an alternative route to a bomb, independent of uranium. Given the radioactive consequences of a military attack on a site containing plutonium, Israel and France have insisted that Iran shuts the Arak facility before it becomes immune to military strike.

Although Zarif and Ashton both refused to comment on the French position, the sense of disappointment was evident from all sides. Negotiators were rumoured to be furious at French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, for announcing that no deal had been reached in advance of official statements from Zarif and Ashton. This unilateral step by Fabius, which broke protocol, has tarnished the image of unity amongst the E3+3.

During both the Sarkozy and Hollande administrations the French have taken a consistently tough stance towards Iran’s nuclear programme. In its bid to push for sanctions against Iran, the French have been willing to take significant economic hits in the energy and car industry sectors. In the meantime, the French have established strong economic ties with the Gulf states. On this basis, the strategic stance taken by Fabius may secure France’s national interests, but it also undermines the unity amongst EU member states and presents a hurdle for the nuclear negotiations.

The French opposition, against this short-term deal has been criticised for being too much – too soon. Experts have assessed that the site in Arak, due to be completed at the end of 2014, would reach the stage of producing plutonium by-product in the next 3-4 years. Additionally, for Iran to develop a bomb through the use of plutonium it would have to have the means for reprocessing the spent fuel. This is a capability that Iran does not currently have and can be prevented from obtaining through long-term International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring of this site. Therefore, challenges to the Arak facility should have been presented further down the line of negotiations once more immediate concerns had been addressed by both sides.

One of the potential motives behind the French opposition may be the protection of its newly invigorated bond with the Gulf states. The recent tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia in regards to an appropriate response to Syria have persuaded the Saudis to seek leverage with the French. Over the last few weeks, Paris welcomed both the Iranians and the Saudis for bilateral talks to address the regional instability that is reshaping the Middle East and in particular, the Syrian crisis. It is likely that the Saudis are now offering the French economic incentives (previously directed at the US) in return for a voice within the E3+3 negotiations on Iran.

What to expect

Most of the negotiators at Geneva have described the latest round of talks as tough, meaningful, and concrete. Iran’s reaction to the French opposition has publically been calm and calculated, acknowledging that it was normal for the six nations negotiating with Iran to have differences at this stage. However, the last minute objections to the Arak reactor by the French delegation at such an early stage in negotiations could raise concern that the momentum of these talks has been prematurely stalled.

The momentum in resolving the nuclear issue is particularly key to Iran and the US, both of whom reiterated at the closing of the Geneva talks that the window for diplomacy was a narrow one. This is so because, ironically, the hardliners within Iran’s complex political structure, Israel, and the US Congress all agree on one thing: that any deal in Geneva is a concession that is against the national interest of their respective countries. Many are anxious that hardliners on all sides will attempt to sabotage the diplomatic route at the first chance.

It is unclear what the precise motives for the French interjection were, and indeed, there may be a range of reasons. If it was due to its improved economic ties to the Gulf states, perhaps this is something that can be addressed by both the Iranians and other negotiators by realigning French interests. However, if the heart of the opposition is a desire for French dominance in the international arena, then the remaining E3+3 nations must stress to France that the negotiations with Iran are at an extremely critical point and that their hindrance could be detrimental to the interests of all stakeholders.

Overall, there is room to remain positive about the pace at which diplomacy can come to fruition in these talks. As Zarif noted, Iran and the E3+3 are “on the same wavelength” which is a reminder of just how significant, and different, these latest talks over Iran’s nuclear programme have been in comparison to those taken place in the last decade. The IAEA’s chief, Yukiya Amano, arrived in Tehran on Sunday for further nuclear talks. This trip in itself, which is the first IAEA chief visit since talks failed in May 2012, has been interpreted as a sign that the IAEA is confident that meaningful results can be achieved with Rouhani’s government. Iran and the IAEA released a joint statement today, 11 November, paving the way for inspections of the Arak heavy water site and Gachin uranium mine.

The developments between the IAEA and Iran are good news and directly address the concerns aired by the French in Geneva. The next round of talks amongst the six-nation group and Iran will take place on 20 November in Geneva at the lower level of political directors. It is hoped that before then the gaps between the E3+3 can be significantly reduced so as to present a clear and realistic agreement framework. Baroness Ashton’s leadership of the E3+3, and in particular the EU member states, is more vital than ever before in refocusing the nuclear talks with Iran on the fundamental elements needed to strike a deal. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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