France and Israel Torpedoed Geneva Deal with Iran: Deal is Still Possible

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France and Israel Torpedoed Geneva Deal with Iran: Deal is Still Possible

Vojin Joksimovich, PhD

The Modern Tokyo Times

The negotiations between the P5+1 (five permanent members of the UN Security Council +Germany) and Iran surprisingly fell apart at the last minute when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius publicly objected to what he called a “suckers deal.” Presumably, this meant that the US and the EU were prepared to lift some sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran’s promises to slow down its nuclear program. Fabius broke an agreement among the parties not to publicly discuss the details of negotiations. Israel also escalated its campaign against the Obama administration turning it to a US domestic audience.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged US Jews to “stand up and be counted thus blatantly interfering in the US internal affairs. According to him it’s a bad and dangerous deal with a thing that affects our survival. “He warned that a bad deal can lead to a war and stated that Israel wasn’t bound by any deal reached between Iran and US/EU signaling that a military option was still on the table.”  There was jubilation amongst the hardliners in the US, in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Senator McCain noted: “Vive la France.” There was also an editorial in the Wall Street Journal with the same identical title. The key message was: “The French save the West from a very bad nuclear deal with Iran.”  The BBC then reported that Saudi Arabia had nuclear weapons “on order” from Pakistan.

According to the US and EU participants, the negotiations broke down because of concerns about the status of the Arak reactor and the numbers and capacity of Iranian centrifuges. It remains questionable whether what was on the table in Geneva could be characterized as a “sucker’s deal” in particular from the standpoint of the US. Secretary of State John Kerry said: “We are not blind, and I don’t think we are stupid…. I think we have a pretty strong case of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe.” Kerry is not only fighting Israel but Israel’s allies in the Congress, which has voiced support for a passage of new sanctions against Iran.

This writer can think of a number of reasons why the French decided to do what they did. In addition, he is offering his own views on the two key issues: Arak and numbers and the capacity of the centrifuges.

Possible French Reasons

  • After WWI the French together with the British were dominant western powers in the Middle East. After WWII the US took over as the dominant western power. The US $17 trillion national debt necessitates the phase-out of Pax Americana or strategic retreat from foreign non-vital commitments, those that do not affect real national security of the country. It is a necessary ingredient of repairing the nation’s economy in the long run. The Obama administration has pulled out US military from Iraq and is in the process of doing so from Afghanistan. It could be argued that withdrawal from the Middle East is the next logical step given that the energy independence seems to be on the horizon. The US withdrawals from Vietnam in the 1970s, from Lebanon in the 1980s and Somalia in the 1990s were prudent moves which saved many lives and benefited the economy. The French might see an opportunity to return to the Middle East and thus are showing support for the Israeli and Saudi concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. Remember that in the 1950s French President De Gaulle supplied Israel with the Dimona reactor, which was used exclusively to generate plutonium for the Israeli nuclear weapons program. French President Hollande was given a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Tel Aviv for a three-day visit last weekend.
  • The French might have simply retaliated against the Obama administration for getting stiffed on their Mali intervention and subsequently on the last minute abandonment of intervention in Syria, which left President Hollande dumbfounded. Last December Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice called the French proposal to intervene in Mali “crap.”
  • France was a part of the EU-3 team with Great Britain and Germany which negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran in the 2003-2005 time-frames. The negotiations failed and France was burned blaming Iran for negotiating only to buy time for the centrifuges to start spinning. Iranian president Hasan Rouhani was the Iranian negotiator at the time.
  • Saudi Arabia has recently announced intent to build 16 nuclear power plants. The French nuclear reactor vendor Areva expects to win a substantial number of these orders. Areva has recently experienced several setbacks with multi-year delays and associated cost overruns in construction of its EPR reactors Olkiluoto-3 in Finland and Flamanville in France. Also, Areva has lost bids in the UAE to Korean companies and in Jordan and Belarus to the Russian Atomstroyexport.  Areva has also been eliminated from the bid in the Czech Republic.

Was it a “sucker’s deal?”

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Iran has virtually frozen the expansion of its uranium enrichment program since President Rouhani took office in August. After installing thousands of centrifuges earlier in the year, Iran added only four at its Natanz and Fordow plants. In addition, Iran has not put any new components into the Arak heavy water reactor. Moreover, Iran has kept its stockpile of mid-enriched uranium(MEU) of ~20% enrichment) to below 250 kg, the amount necessary to produce one nuclear weapon if processed further to ~90% enrichment. Netanyahu has threatened to attack Iran if Iran crosses his red line.

Iran has signed an agreement with the IAEA to resolving outstanding issues in the two main areas: One is design and ongoing construction of the Arak reactor. Previously the agency was denied access to associated facilities to produce heavy water and fuel and to the Gachin uranium mine. The returning head of the Iranian Atomic Energy organization Ali Akhbar Salehi stated that concessions were “a voluntary measure adopted by the permission of the Supreme National Security Council to show Iran’s goodwill.”

In exchange to these concessions Iran expected to get immediate sanctions relief and unfreezing of $50 billion in oil revenues, while allowing to keep its nuclear infrastructure essentially intact.

Resumption of Talks: Two Key Issues

The talks will resume on November 20 at a level of senior officials and not the foreign ministers. France will be under pressure to go along with the deal. Fabius indicated that France is looking for a deal but not a “sucker’s deal.

The Arak heavy water reactor has no other apparent purpose other than the plutonium production. The plant is still under construction with operation not expected before 2014. If everything goes smoothly it would take a year or so to produce enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon. Having reached that point the spent fuel would have to be reprocessed to extract the plutonium like other nuclear weapons countries, including Israel, have accomplished in the past. However, to the best knowledge of this writer Iran doesn’t have reprocessing capability. It would be costly and time consuming to develop one. Iran wouldn’t be able to outsource with any country in possession of reprocessing technology, like France or Great Britain, other than perhaps North Korea. Hence, in order to obtain substantial relief from sanctions Iran might be willing to terminate or dismantle this heavy water program.

Dismantling of the centrifuge program, however, cannot be reasonably expected after Iran has spent billions and billions of dollars. It is not only a matter of national pride, the nuclear program definitely constitutes, but there is a need for Iran to possess a stock of ~20% enriched uranium for the purposes of running the Tehran Research Reactor, which generates isotopes for medical uses like cancer treatment. In addition Iran doesn’t want to depend on Russia for ever for supplying low enriched uranium fuel (LEU) for the Bushehr power plant reloads as well as for the future nuclear power plant currently under discussion. The Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allows Iran to possess the uranium enrichment capability. Why would Iran give up its legal rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) to enrich uranium? Rather than dismantling the centrifuge program, Iran might settle for a limit on the ~20% enriched uranium stock with no limit on LEU.

Is Reasonable Deal possible?

This writer argues that a reasonable deal is possible reflecting the arguments made above. It is in the interest of peace and thus in the US and the EU interest. 79 US ambassadors have signed a letter of support to the president for the Geneva talks to stiffen his back against the resistance in the congress and from Israel. Of course, this type of a deal will not be acceptable to Israel and their supporters in the US as well as in Saudi Arabia. Hence, Israel and Saudi Arabia will have to learn how to operate in a post-US Middle East.

Long-standing arguments of comparing Iran with Nazi Germany should be left to the field of rhetoric. Alan Dershowitz, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, has recently argued that deal with Iran is a very bad deal for America, its allies and peace. He compared it again with the “Chamberlain moment, a replication of three-quarters of a century ago, when the idealistic but naïve British prime minister made a bad deal with the Nazis in a desperate but futile effort to avoid deploying the military option against Hitler’s growing power.”Well, Iran is not Nazi Germany. Iran hasn’t attacked a neighboring country in some 450 years and the Jews are not defenseless as they were in the 1930s. Israel has the top military capability in the Middle East including 100-200 nuclear warheads. With this nuclear weapons inventory, Israel could wipe out Iran in a matter of days should Iran be stupid enough to attack Israel.

Netanyahu’s redline with regards to Iranian mid-enrichment’s inventory is unrealistic. Recently, the final consignment of highly enriched uranium (HEU) has been shipped from Hungary to Russia. Altogether, Hungary was in possession of 239 kgs of HEU, enough for nine nuclear weapons. Nobody lost any sleep over this. Iran has no HEU but only less than 250 kg of MEU. If Iran makes a decision to convert its MEU stock into HEU they would have to throw out the IAEA inspectors like the North Koreans did. Assuming that Iran has developed a capability to manufacture nuclear weapons, they could have one untested weapon. This writer believes that testing would be a must as exemplified with the North Korean experience. In order to become a nuclear weapons country, like North Korea, Iran would need an inventory of, say, dozen nuclear warheads. A realistic redline could be established such as throwing out the IAEA inspectors.

In the interest of peace, Israel and Saudi Arabia should accept at least some arguments made herein. This writer is losing sleep over the fact that Pakistan is in possession of over 100 nuclear warheads, while Iran has none. Pakistan is one of the least stable countries in the world with the continuing presence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban leaderships. Israel might start thinking that their existential threat comes more likely from Pakistan rather than Iran.

Vojin Joksimovich is the author of three books and over 110 articles on various world affairs subjects

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