Sunday, 23 November 2014

How France still assists Iran’s uranium enrichment programme

Today, Nov.24, is D-Day 2014. That’s (nuclear) Disarmament for Iran, after years of painstaking negotiations.

 As Monday’s deadline loomed, it concentrated diplomatic minds. Secretary of State Kerry and Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif postponed planned departures from Vienna on Friday evening to extend face-to-face negotiations, not wanting to leave the details to high-level diplomats. (

Iran wants a deal to  lift the severe economic sanctions that are curtailing its hard pressed economy, while the US–led  5+1 negotiating team want to shackle Iran’s  nuclear programme to  halt any chance of a break out from civilian nuclear activities into a nuclear weapons program. Iran has persistently denied it has any military nuclear intentions, but the 5+1 negotiating team point to the magnitude and scope of Iran’s various nuclear activities, arguing such a significant program is unneeded for a purely civilian program. Iran has only one commercial scale reactor, at Bushehr, designed by German engineering company, Siemens, and finished-off by Russian nuclear expertise from state-supported company, Rosatom.

Earlier this month Russia announced Rosatom  has agreed to build two new  nuclear plants for Iran, for which Russia will provide the enriched uranium fuel under International atomic energy Agency control, thus reducing future indigenous demand for Iranian uranium enrichment capacity (

Foreign secretary Philip  Hammond has said he was not optimistic that a comprehensive agreement could be finalized by Monday but expressed the hope that there might yet be “some significant movement” that might warrant yet another deadline extension.

Hammond added: “There is clearly an interest on the Iranian side to get a deal done. The prize for Iran is huge. Access to very large amounts of frozen assets, the ability to trade freely with the world again, and the ability to reset relationships with the international community, so there is a huge prize on the table for Iran.”

The United States  provided Iran - then called Persia - with its first small research reactor, in 1957 under President  Eisenhower's much lauded Atoms-for-Peace support  program - at a time when Iran was a strong American ally.  US President Gerald Ford took atomic co-operation further when he signed a directive in 1976 offering Iran the chance to buy and operate a US-built reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel. The deal was for a complete nuclear fuel cycle. ( The Ford strategy paper said the "introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals."

Britain also provided Iran with research reactor nuclear capability at the end of the 1950s, under the Tehran atomic pact. (

France’s Foreign minister Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister, reportedly remained the most sceptical of the 5+1 ministers intensively involved in the nuclear negotiation.


[Advertisement from the 1970s by American nuclear-energy companies, using Iran's nuclear program as a marketing ploy]

The New York Times remains cautious about prospects of success, its specialist writers observing “the forces arrayed against a deal are formidable — not just Mr. Khamenei and the country’s hard-liners, but newly empowered Republicans, some of his fellow Democrats, and many of the United States’ closest allies.”

The NY Times authors further argue that the US’ allies are on board, but “the notable exception are the French, who have publicly argued for tougher terms in the negotiations and say they see their role as to serve, in the words of one Western diplomat, as ‘a significant counterweight on the impulse of Obama to make concessions’.”

If so, this is a very curious state of diplomatic affairs.

Among the several reasons the Vienna talks on Iran's nuclear programme have had to be reconvened this month was that France objected to the deal being closed-off with Iran earlier because of Tehran's contested plutonium production plant at Arak.

Whatever doubts the French have over Arak, they seem to be sanguine about Iran’s involvement in uranium enrichment, so much so that they are in industrial partnership with the Iranians in this technology, and have been for four decades since the agreement was initiated by the Shah of Iran in 1975.

Oddly, this deal never gets reported in the context of the Iran nuclear negotiations. Is there any good reason why not? It ought to be center-stage in any public diplomacy, but isn’t.


The origins of the deal are illustrative of the dangers of international nuclear collaboration.  A joint-stock uranium enrichment Eurodif (European Gaseous Diffusion Uranium Enrichment) Consortium was formed in 1973, with France, Belgium, Spain and Sweden the original shareholders.

In 1975 Sweden’s 10% share in Eurodif was sold to Iran. The French government subsidiary company Cogema (now Areva) and the then Iranian government established the spin-out Sofidif  (Société Franco-Iranienne pour l'enrichissement de l'uranium par diffusion  gazeuse ) with 60% and 40%  shares, respectively. In turn, Sofidif acquired a 25% share in Eurodif, which gave Iran its 10% share of Eurodif.

The former Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, lent $1 billion (and another $180 million  in 1977) for the construction of the Eurodif factory to have the right of buying 10% of the site’s production.

Although  Iran's active involvement in Eurodif was halted following the 1979 Iranian  Revolution, Iran has retained its active involvement in Sofidif -  headquartered  in Rue La Fayette in Paris -  to the present day. Its current annual report is audited by KPMG. Dr Ali Daee of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was appointed Iran’s new Permanent Representative to Sofidif as recently as September 2012.
Iran's stake in Eurodif was exposed in a report written by Paris–based German nuclear expert Mycle Schneider for the Greens and the European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, issued in March 2007.(The Permanent Nth Country Experiment, Paris March 2007;

Fast forward to November 2014
Crossbench ( non-party) Peer, British lawyer Baroness Deech raised the issue of Sofidif in the Lords - the Second chamber of the British Parliament - on  Oct. 30, during questions on Iran. She received no answer from the minister, Baroness Anelay of St Johns;  ( so she submitted a further written question which received the following reply on Nov.11:

“The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and Areva, a French company, jointly own Sofidif  [which]  in turn has an interest in a uranium enrichment facility in France. The collaboration between AEOI and Areva pre-dates the 1979 Revolution in Iran. We do not believe it has a bearing on P5+1 talks with Iran.” (emphasis added)

Really? How convenient!  The hypocrisy of France, as a nuclear technology supplier to Iran, ganging up on its customer client with the other self-appointed permanent-5 members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany, would be funny if it wasn't so serious.

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