Can Iran Trust Russia and France With Its Uranium?

Iran’s formal response to a preliminary nuclear agreement whereby 1,200 kg of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) would be shipped to Russia and then France for enrichment from 3.8 to 19.75 percent and conversion to fuel rods has angered the European Union (EU). The compromise had been agreed upon between Iran’s delegation to the International Atomic Energy Organization (IAEA) and the technical teams from the P5+1 group comprising the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

Iran suggested that it would ship its LEU in several batches, rather than all at once, in order to guarantee that once the LEU is converted to fuel rods, it will be returned to Iran. But EU diplomats rejected this suggestion quickly and angrily. "This is completely unacceptable," one diplomat declared, saying the EU was preparing its common response.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds told the EU’s rotating presidency, told the Associated Press at an EU Summit in Brussels, "It is the same old tricks, a back-and-forth for further talks."

One diplomat close to the talks between Iran and the P5+1 group told the Daily Telegraph of London, "It’s like playing chess with a monkey. You get them to checkmate, and then they swallow the king."

But is Iran’s counterproposal just a "trick," or is there more to it? The main sticking point is France. In addition to the fact that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken the hardest line of all EU leaders on Iran, using threatening language ever since he was elected, history gives Iranians little reason to trust France. This distrust has nothing to do with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, its loss of legitimacy in the eyes of a large majority of the Iranian people, or the internal problems it faces.

Eurodif is a consortium that operates a uranium enrichment plant in France. The consortium was founded in 1973 by France, Belgium, Spain, and Sweden. In June 1974, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Dr. Akbar Etemad, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, visited Paris. France and Iran then ratified an earlier agreement, according to which France was to supply five 1,000-MW nuclear reactors with enriched uranium and help set up a nuclear research center in Iran.

To ensure that Iran would receive the LEU, the shah agreed to buy Sweden’s 10 percent share in Eurodif. Cogéma, a French-government subsidiary, and Iran established the Sofidif (Société Franco-Iranienne pour l’enrichissement de l’uranium par diffusion gazeuse), with 60 percent owned by France and the rest by Iran. Sofidif then purchased 25 percent of Eurodif, thereby giving Iran its 10 percent share of the latter.

Iran paid $1 billion in 1975 and $180 million in 1977 in return for the right to 10 percent of the LEU production of the company. But the 1979 Revolution overthrew the shah in February 1979. Since then, France has refused to deliver Iran’s share of the LEU or to refund Iran with interest. Thus, there are solid historical reasons for Iran to be suspicious of France.

Iran also has historical grounds for distrusting Russia. Russia took large parts of Iran’s territory in the Caucasus region in 1813 and 1827 and never relinquished them. Russia also helped the counterrevolutionaries during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 and was opposed, through its Iranian proxies, to Iran’s industrialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Soviet Union refused to leave Iran at the end of World War II until it was pressured by the West in 1946. It took advantage of Iran’s weak government and looted Iran’s caviar and fisheries in the Caspian Sea from 1927 until the mid-1950s, when the CIA coup returned the shah’s Western-backed regime to power. It was only then that a bilateral agreement was signed between the two nations.

The Soviet Union and Iran signed two treaties in 1921 and 1940 that forbade the two nations from taking unilateral actions regarding the natural resources of the Caspian Sea, yet Russia has done exactly that, signing bilateral agreements, over Iran’s strong objections, with the other littoral states, namely, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

And it has become an annual ritual for Russia to announce at the beginning of every year that the 1,000-MW light-water nuclear reactor that it is building in Bushehr will come online by middle of the year. When the middle of the year arrives, it is announced that the reactor will come online by "early next year." Iran has gone along with this, simply because the hardliners need Russia as a strategic partner. Otherwise, Russia is even less trustworthy than France.

Note that there is strong opposition to the agreement both within Iran and in the diaspora among Iranian nationalists. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main opposition leader, has called the agreement "astonishing." Last week he said, "If the Geneva agreement is implemented by Iran, it will destroy the work and achievements of thousands of Iranian scientists, and if it is not, it will create consensus for imposing very broad sanctions on Iran. They [the hardliners] constantly accuse the revolutionary nation-serving children of Iran of having links with the West or East, but they themselves bow to the U.S. overtly and repeatedly [in order to reach an agreement with it]."

In a statement released on Saturday, Mousavi once again criticized the Geneva agreement. Some believe that Mousavi is opposed to the deal partly because of his opposition to Ahmadinejad, but it was during his premiership in the 1980s that Iran’s nuclear program was restarted, and he was a leading proponent of it.

Dr. Etemad, who is in his eighties and lives in exile in France, said in an interview, "This is a bad deal. They [the P56+1 group] want to get Iran’s uranium. There is no trust in Russia or France that if they received Iran’s uranium, they will return it. They have broken their promises in the past."

Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi, Iran’s foreign minister in the first year after the 1979 Revolution, who now leads the Freedom Movement (a reformist party in Iran), also said, "This is a meaningless agreement. Iran has invested billions of dollars for uranium enrichment, but now does this [shipping the LEU to Russia and France]?"

Dr. Yazdi continued, "It is not in Iran’s interests for the nuclear crisis to continue. An agreement must be reached. As Iran suggested, an international consortium should be set up in Iran to enrich uranium, but not Iran shipping its uranium to Russia or another place. If this is just a temporary solution to lessen the crisis, break the deadlock, and build trust it is acceptable. Then, in the next phase of the negotiation Iran should say, ‘there is no reason to ship the uranium to another country. I have invested in this. Let’s set up a consortium to enrich uranium in Iran.’"

There is even heated debate among Iranian hardliners and conservatives, although some of it may be purely tactical and for public consumption. Many of them, including Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament, have accused the West of wanting to steal Iran’s LEU.

Larijani’s brother, Sadegh, who is Iran’s judiciary chief, also criticized the agreement, saying, "This is not in our country’s interest. According to the NPT, advanced countries [that enrich uranium] must provide us the enriched uranium that we need [for the research reactor]."

In a letter to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has also expressed concerns about the agreement. He has reminded Khamenei of the heavy cost of the uranium enrichment program for Iran and has said that the agreement is not in Iran’s interest.

As usual, experts in the United States also spin the issue to their own liking. Asked whether it matters if Iran sends all of its LEU in one shipment, David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said, "Well, that’s right. If it shipped 100 milligrams a month every month they could replenish that amount. So it needs to be shipped out in one batch in order for this to be meaningful."

But Iran has not suggested sending milligrams of its LEU every month. Albright also did not explain how, if Iran’s 1500 kg of LEU is enough for making one nuclear bomb, sending a significant fraction of it, even in a smaller batch than the EU wants, does not eliminate the possibility of Iran making a bomb – never mind that there is no evidence Iran even wants to.

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.