The conclusion of the Vienna agreement between the E3/EU+3 group and Iran, coordinated by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is a first essential step in building trust on the issue of the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear programme.
By proposing a negotiated solution to a major proliferation crisis, it also addresses the concerns of the international community and could pave the way for Iran’s return to the international arena.
By implementing all its commitments, Iran should contribute to the peace and stability of the Middle East. This agreement must also lead Iran to adopt a responsible and constructive attitude in order to ease tensions in the region.
Why is the Iranian nuclear programme a problem for the international community?
The Iranian nuclear programme became a cause for concern for the international community as of 2002 when the existence was uncovered of clandestine uranium enrichment sites at Natanz, and the heavy water facility at Arak (which houses a production plant and research reactor).
From then on, Iran continued to develop a nuclear programme which raised concerns, with two means of obtaining nuclear weapons:
- uranium (a nuclear weapon requires highly enriched uranium): in addition to the Natanz site, Iran has also built a second clandestine site, dug into mountains at Fordow. The existence of that site was revealed in 2009. Iran is also developing various models of centrifuge, which are used for enriching uranium. Tehran currently limits the degree of enrichment to levels compatible with civilian usage, but its capabilities could enable it to produce highly enriched uranium. Moreover, those capabilities have no credible civilian justification as the only functioning nuclear power reactor in Iran is supplied with fuel by Russia;
- plutonium (a nuclear weapon requires several kilos of plutonium): at Arak, Iran is building a heavy water research reactor which could produce sufficient uranium to manufacture a bomb over the course of a year. Those activities and the many dissimulations on the part of Iran have thrown doubt upon the true nature of the Iranian nuclear programme.
Yet Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 and ratified it in 1970. As such, it has committed to refrain from developing nuclear weapons.
How has the international community responded?
Pressure on Iran from the international community has gradually increased:
- in 2006, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), unable to guarantee its peaceful purpose, referred the Iranian nuclear programme to the United Nations Security Council. Since then, the Security Council has adopted numerous resolutions ordering Iran to interrupt its sensitive activities and imposing sanctions upon the country;
- the European Union has imposed very tough sanctions, which have been stepped up considerably since 2012. They particularly target the oil and financial sectors;
- the United States has imposed sanctions on Iran since the creation of the Islamic Republic. Those have been increased because of Iran’s nuclear activities. Almost all trade between the United States and Iran is forbidden. The United States has also taken steps with an extraterritorial reach, in particular to limit Iran’s exports of oil to consumer States;
- many other countries have put in place similar sanctions to those adopted by the EU and the US: Norway, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Switzerland.
After a first phase of negotiations conducted by France, Germany and the United Kingdom from 2003 to 2005, the establishment and enhancement of sanctions from 2006 was accompanied by an outreach policy, in accordance with the two-track approach. China, Russia and the United States joined the efforts of the three European countries to negotiate a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, with the support of the European Union High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy. This is what is known as the E3/EU+3, or the “Six”. Despite many offers of cooperation, the negotiations did not yield any results until November 2013.
What was the aim of the negotiations for France and its partners?
Negotiations between the E3/EU+3 and Iran, which exclusively dealt with the Iranian nuclear issue, aimed to conclude a long-term agreement ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear programme.
France was resolute in its negotiations in order to reach an agreement of this type which would make a major contribution to the nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime as well as the peace and stability of the Middle East.
Throughout the discussions, France supported the development of a civilian nuclear programme in Iran but firmly refused to accept that Iran should obtain nuclear weapons. Under this principle, the long-term agreement had to guarantee the exclusively peaceful purposes of the Iranian nuclear programme by three means:
- limitation of Iran’s most sensitive capabilities, and particularly the uranium enrichment programme;
- transformation of the most concerning sites, such as the Arak reactor and the underground Fordow site;
- total transparency from Iran on its nuclear programme with regard to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.In return, France, like its E3/EU+3 partners, proposed that sanctions be lifted under supervision provided that Iran fully met its commitments. France was also prepared to contribute to the development of Iran’s civilian nuclear programme through international cooperation.
These talks took place in the framework set out by the Geneva interim agreement of 24 November 2013. That Geneva agreement froze the most concerning activities of the Iranian programme, and particularly the enrichment of uranium to 20%, in exchange for the suspension of certain sanctions.
The E3/EU+3 and Iran met on many occasions in 2014 and 2015, postponing the date for negotiations several times. On 2 April 2015 in Lausanne, they reached a political understanding setting out the framework for the long-term agreement. All that remained was to draw up this political agreement and define the practical terms for its implementation, which was definitively done on 14 July 2015.