Why does France export uranium to Iran


Azadeh Zamirirad

To person

holds a doctorate in political science and is deputy research group leader of the Near / Middle East and Africa research group at the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin. [email protected] Twitter: @zadehmiri

The nuclear deal with Iran was considered a historic achievement in European foreign policy. The compromise reached in July 2015 was the result of early diplomatic efforts by the so-called E3 (Germany, France and Great Britain), which played an essential pioneering role in the nuclear negotiations. The approach of trying to resolve the nuclear conflict with Iran within a small, informal and multilateral framework offered several advantages. Due to the small number of participants, minilateral formats not only create greater confidentiality, but also facilitate the process of building consensus. At the same time, they often lack political weight. This was also evident in the negotiations with the Islamic Republic, in which the USA proved to be by far the most important influencing factor. [1] Washington's prominent role became clear once again when the US administration decided in May 2018 to no longer meet its obligations under the nuclear agreement. The US withdrawal put the deal into a crisis mode that continues to this day.


The nuclear deal is the result of more than twelve years of international negotiations. In 2003, the Iranian nuclear program was for the first time the subject of a diplomatic initiative aimed at peacefully resolving the nuclear conflict. It had previously become known that the Islamic Republic had started the construction of a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy water plant in Arak without declaring them to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The news heightened fears that Iran was pursuing a covert military program. In order to be able to clarify open questions in connection with Iran's nuclear program, the European Union relied on a political dialogue. After the US intervention in Iraq, the EU not only endeavored to prevent a renewed military escalation in its enlarged neighborhood, but also to forestall an additional proliferation crisis after North Korea had already withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at the beginning of 2003. The settlement of the nuclear conflict with Iran was seen as a major European interest. In its European Security Strategy of 2003, the EU defined the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as the greatest potential threat to European security. [2]

The diplomatic approach of the Europeans was fundamentally different from the position of the US administration. While Washington set out to isolate Iran politically and economically, the EU took a two-pronged approach (dual track), which included both political incentives and leverage. An offer made by Tehran by the then Swiss ambassador to Iran to start direct talks with the USA about the nuclear program and other critical questions (grand bargain), including Iran's regional policy, met with skepticism in the Bush administration and went unanswered. Against resistance from Washington, the E3 started negotiations with the Islamic Republic in autumn 2003, which the EU also joined as an independent party from 2004 onwards. Tehran agreed to temporarily suspend the enrichment of uranium and to ratify the so-called additional protocol, which gives the IAEA more extensive control options. The question of uranium enrichment remained a major point of contention. The Europeans saw permanent renunciation as the only "objective guarantee" that Iran's nuclear program would serve civilian purposes only. In contrast, Tehran already considered the commitment to the Additional Protocol to be sufficient. [3] The demand of the Europeans for a permanent enrichment stop (zero enrichment) contradicted the nuclear policy preferences of Iranian decision-makers across all camps and could not be enforced domestically. [4] Inner Iranian power shifts in favor of conservative hardliners made a negotiated solution even more difficult. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Republic gradually expanded its nuclear capacities. During his tenure, Tehran succeeded in enriching uranium to up to 20 percent, thus reaching an important stage on the way to nuclear weapons capacity.

In 2006 the negotiating group was expanded: In addition to the E3 and the EU, China, Russia and the USA (group of E3 / EU + 3) now also took part in the nuclear negotiations. In the same year, the United Nations Security Council first imposed nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. At the same time, a cautious rapprochement between European and US policy on Iran emerged. The EU joined US energy sanctions in 2011/12. These were primarily aimed at oil exports, which were an essential source of foreign currency for the Iranian state. The oil embargo hit the Iranian energy sector hard. Domestic political factors also contributed to Tehran's reorientation of its nuclear diplomacy. Mass protests after the controversial presidential election of 2009 and power-political disputes had weakened Ahmadinejad's domestic policy considerably. For the Iranian leadership it became increasingly clear that Iran's nuclear policy interests could not be enforced with a pure policy of confrontation. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 provided a window of opportunity for rapprochement on nuclear policy. Under Obama, Washington increasingly supported that dual-track- EU approach. Tehran and Washington agreed in 2011 Back-channel- Talks in Oman ready. These allowed a cautious, direct agreement on fundamental issues and laid the foundation for the subsequent success of the negotiations.

A negotiated solution emerged in 2013 when the E3 / EU + 3 officially withdrew from their demand for a permanent enrichment stop for the first time. In view of the significant technical advances made by the Iranian nuclear program since the outbreak of the nuclear crisis in 2002, an enrichment stop no longer seemed realistic. The aim now was to prevent Iran from further increasing the degree of uranium enrichment. [5] In addition to the changed domestic political conditions in the USA and Iran, the renunciation of the enrichment freeze, the direct participation of Washington in the negotiations and, last but not least, the dual-track- Approach as key factors for breakthrough in negotiations. On July 14, 2015, the negotiating parties announced the successful conclusion of a nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).


The JCPOA is not a legally binding contract between the Islamic Republic and the E3 / EU + 3. It was not until the UN Security Council resolution (Resolution 2231) passed in July 2015 that the measures became binding under international law. The agreement provides the institutional framework for both technical and effective control of the Iranian nuclear program. [6] Iran is formally granted the right to carry out enrichment activities, but under clearly defined conditions. The agreement not only sets upper limits for the degree of enrichment (maximum 3.67 percent), but also, among other things, for the stock of already enriched uranium (maximum 300 kilograms) and the number of permitted centrifuges (maximum 5060). The Islamic Republic had previously enriched uranium to up to 20 percent, stored 9,000 kilograms of slightly enriched uranium and more than twice as many centrifuges in operation. Due to the technical restrictions, the so-called outbreak time (break out time) - i.e. the time a state needs to be able to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for the construction of a single atomic bomb. The measures in the JCPOA increased Iran's potential outbreak time from an estimated three to twelve months now.

In addition to the technical limitation of the nuclear program, the agreement also allowed extensive control and verification options. The Islamic Republic undertook to implement the additional protocol and to initiate a ratification process. In addition, Tehran agreed to grant IAEA inspectors not only access to nuclear facilities, but also, in justified cases, to military facilities, under conditions to be negotiated in advance. In return for the technical limitation of the nuclear program and the new control system, the E3 / EU + 3 pledged Iran to suspend nuclear-related sanctions. After the IAEA confirmed in January 2016 that Tehran had implemented the provisions of the agreement, a total of seven Security Council resolutions passed between 2006 and 2015 in connection with Iran's nuclear program were repealed. This removed all nuclear-related UN sanctions against Iran. The EU also lifted nuclear-related sanctions.

While the JCPOA met with great international approval, it met with rejection in some countries. Critics in the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia not only criticized the fact that Iran's regional policy and ballistic missile program were not part of the agreement. They also considered the nuclear measures in place to be inadequate, especially since some requirements are only valid for a limited period of time. The time-limited requirements are, on the one hand, special provisions that go beyond the usual measures in the NPT, including in the area of ​​enrichment activities and transparency measures. On the other hand, a basic inspection regime remains in place even after the JCPOA and other special commissions have expired. This is guaranteed by ratifying the Additional Protocol. As a member of the NPT, Iran would have the exclusive right to a civilian nuclear program at all times.

In order to be able to resolve possible disputes in the implementation of the agreement, a dispute settlement mechanism has been established in the JCPOA (Article 36). Each party can turn to a specially established Joint Commission on contentious issues. The commission consists of a total of eight parties that are equally represented - in addition to Iran, the E3 + 3 and the EU. As soon as one of the parties initiates the dispute settlement mechanism, the Joint Commission has 15 days to discuss the matter. If no agreement can be reached within this period, it can refer the matter to the respective foreign ministers of the member states for a further 15 days. Alternatively or in parallel, it can also convene a three-person advisory committee. The Joint Commission then has another five days to deliberate if necessary. If no agreement is reached after a total of 35 days, the plaintiff can bring the case to the Security Council.

It is possible to extend the period for the clarifying discussions indefinitely if there is unanimity among the eight parties. However, once the matter has reached the Security Council, there are only a maximum of 30 days available for clarification of the dispute. An extension is not possible. The forwarding to the Security Council represents a critical threshold. If, after these 30 days, the Security Council does not actively decide that the JCPOA is still valid, all previously lifted sanctions will come into force again immediately. This snap back sanctions were intended to deter Iran from violating the agreement. The dispute settlement mechanism was primarily developed on the basis of the scenario that Tehran could violate the agreement, not Washington or other members of the E3 / EU + 3. The US violation and Tehran's lack of opportunities to take effective countermeasures within the JCPOA led the Islamic Republic to change its approach to nuclear policy in May 2019.

Tehran's escape to the front

Although the IAEA repeatedly confirmed in its quarterly reports that Iran is implementing the provisions of the JCPOA, the US announced in May 2018 that it would withdraw from its commitments. Since then, Washington has in fact violated Security Council Resolution 2231. The Trump administration rejected the time limit for special commissions and also demanded that Iran's regional policy and ballistic missile program should be part of a new agreement. At the same time, Washington insisted on a complete and permanent enrichment freeze. In line with a "maximum pressure" policy, unilateral US sanctions have been gradually reinstated and new sanctions have been imposed on Iran. The sanctions affected all major industries in the country, including the oil and gas sector, the automotive industry, and banking and finance. But the US not only reinstated unilateral sanctions. Due to the extraterritorial scope of secondary sanctions, they also prevented other states from maintaining trade relations with the Islamic Republic. Fearing US fines, numerous international companies refrained from investing in Iranian infrastructure projects or otherwise economically cooperating with Iran. The sanctions hit the Iranian energy sector in particular. Even in its largest sales market in Asia, Tehran was only able to export limited quantities of crude oil. Oil exports to Europe came to a complete standstill. When the USA stopped issuing exemptions from May 2019 to major Iranian trading partners such as China, India and Turkey, Iran’s oil exports fell from several million barrels a day to a few 100,000.

While the US put maximum pressure on, the EU continued to stick to the nuclear deal and promised the Islamic Republic economic policy support. Among other things, the EU announced that it wanted to set up a financing channel for trade with Iran that was independent of the US dollar and that should also enable Iranian oil to be exported to Europe. But the establishment of a new financial institution, now known as INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges), was delayed several times and, contrary to the original plan, initially only provided for the trade in "humanitarian goods". Although these are exempt from US sanctions, the humanitarian movement of goods is noticeably restricted in practice. Companies that want to export medical or pharmaceutical goods to Iran have problems, among other things, in finding banks that would process payment transactions due to the sanctions regime. INSTEX should remedy this. But the mere safeguarding of sanction-free goods fell far short of the expectations of the Iranian leadership.

In May 2019, exactly one year after the US withdrew from the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic made a tactical change in its nuclear policy. Previously, Tehran had pursued an approach of "strategic patience" and insisted that the EU would create effective instruments to maintain the Iranian-European oil trade and thus fulfill its obligations in the JCPOA to ease sanctions for Iran. But the steadily growing pressure from Washington and the insight that European actors had no adequate antidotes, changed the calculation in Tehran. The approach of strategic patience has been abandoned in favor of a gradual escalation. In a statement by the Supreme National Security Council, Iran announced that it would only partially implement the nuclear agreement until the remaining parties in the JCPOA could take practical measures to overcome sanctions in the area of ​​oil exports and banking. [7] The Iranian leadership set a deadline of 60 days for this. After this time has elapsed, further measures should follow every 60 days. Since then, Iran has violated the technical provisions in the agreement in a total of five steps. Among other things, Tehran exceeded the permitted maximum value for the stock of enriched uranium and increased the degree of enrichment to up to 4.5 percent. In January 2020, the Islamic Republic took the final step when it announced that it would no longer recognize operational restrictions in the JCPOA.

Tehran promised itself primarily three things from the tactical realignment of its nuclear policy: to increase the pressure on the remaining parties in the JCPOA, to deter the Trump administration from taking more drastic measures, and to gradually accumulate political capital in order to strengthen its own negotiating position in the event of renewed talks . Iran countered the policy of maximum pressure not only with nuclear countermeasures, but also with a risky escalation approach in the Persian Gulf and Iraq. [8] In order to defuse the regional political crisis and to save the nuclear agreement, the Europeans tried to de-escalate the situation with new offers of talks. But an attempt to mediate between Tehran and Washington by French President Emmanuel Macron was unsuccessful.It is true that the Islamic Republic declared itself ready to put not only the current nuclear program but also its own regional policy up for discussion. However, Iran expected that sanctions would first have to be lifted. Such advance payments were rejected by Washington. Since the US killed Quasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Brigades, in a targeted attack in Iraq in January 2020, the prospects of a diplomatic mediation success under the current US administration have decreased further.

A new proliferation crisis on the horizon

While the Islamic Republic gradually suspended technical restrictions on its nuclear program, it continued its cooperation with the IAEA. The area of ​​verification, which is indispensable for the agreement, remained unaffected by the previous nuclear countermeasures. This means that Iran's nuclear program remains under international control. In April 2020, the IAEA announced that it was continuing its global activities, including in the area of ​​verification, despite the corona pandemic. [9] It can also fall back on pre-installed verification systems in nuclear facilities. Despite ongoing controls, Iran's partial withdrawal from the JCPOA is cause for concern. Since the Islamic Republic no longer recognized operational restrictions on its nuclear program, it has expanded its nuclear capacities. In its March report, the IAEA found that Iran's stock of enriched uranium was 1,020.9 kilograms, 700 kilograms more than the JCPOA allows. [10] This also reduces the nuclear outbreak time.

The EU initially reacted hesitantly to Iran's violations. It was not until January 2020 that the E3 triggered the conflict regulation mechanism under Article 36. Since then, the Joint Commission has been advising on possible solutions and has made use of the option laid down in the JCPOA to extend the discussion period at its own discretion. Both Europeans and China and Russia are keen to deter Iran from additional nuclear activity that could further reduce the outbreak time. For its part, the Islamic Republic has repeatedly issued warnings that it will withdraw from the NPT if the dispute in the Security Council ends. In Tehran there are increasing voices calling for an exit from the NPT. Critics in the country complain that the JCPOA has not been accompanied by any economic or security gains for the Islamic Republic.

Due to the US sanctions policy, the Snap-back-Mechanism in the Security Council lost its deterrent character. The current sanctions regime is so far-reaching that the additional economic damage caused by UN sanctions is only minor. The security situation for the Islamic Republic has also deteriorated. Since Soleimani's targeted killing, the danger of a military escalation between Iran and the US has increased, and so has regime change is again increasingly up for debate in Washington. Not only among Iranian hardliners, but also in the political center, the perception is growing that Tehran has nothing more to gain from the cooperation with the IAEA and hardly anything to lose by breaking off cooperation. The popularity of the agreement has also decreased noticeably within the population. While the acceptance rate was still 75 percent according to a representative survey in August 2015, it fell to 42 percent in October 2019. [11] Against this background, the tactical change in Iran's nuclear policy could be replaced by a strategic change. Three developments are currently conceivable:

Iran is trying to get the JCPOA. Tehran could count on a new window of opportunity for political understanding to open up in the course of the US presidential elections. The ongoing conflict settlement process in the Joint Commission could give all parties much-needed time. In return for easing sanctions, Iran could continue to offer to fully implement the nuclear deal again. But maintaining the JCPOA is likely to prove difficult. Washington is already looking for ways to get one snap back in the Security Council to prevent an arms embargo against Iran from expiring in October 2020. Tehran could nevertheless decide to threaten an exit from the NPT only in order to force talks.

Iran is leaving the NPT and entering into new negotiations. This step could be a possible one snap back and is associated with political costs. Tehran would be largely isolated and could not easily hope for European, Russian or Chinese support. UN sanctions would immediately come back into force and the international community could take coercive measures in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Targeted military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would be likely and could result in war. However, leaving the NPT would also offer Tehran opportunities: On the one hand, it would increase the urgency for a solution to the nuclear conflict. On the other hand, Iran would have strong political leverage in any renegotiations.

Iran is leaving the NPT and looking for nuclear weapons. After leaving, Tehran could also try covertly to advance a military program. The risk of a military escalation would be higher than in the second scenario. However, Tehran could conclude that the conditions for the exit are currently favorable. Targeted military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would throw back the nuclear program, but may not be able to stop it. In addition, the Iranian leadership could speculate that actors like the USA not only want to avoid the risk of a major military escalation, especially in the election campaign phase, but also have to devote themselves more to domestic crisis management in the wake of the Corona crisis.

In view of the developments of the past two years, the scenario of an Iranian exit from the NPT is becoming more and more likely. [12] This is all the more the case now that the US has withdrawn from its failed approach of the early negotiating years, in which Washington called for a complete halt to enrichment and relied solely on coercive measures. At the same time, there is growing domestic political pressure on the Iranian leadership to end all cooperation with the IAEA. As long as the policy of maximum pressure only holds out the prospect of political surrender to Tehran in order to end the crisis, the likelihood increases that the Iranian leadership will see nuclear weapons as the only effective means of maintaining the system.