The Iranian nuclear issue


2021-2022 – Intensive diplomatic efforts to reach a return to the agreement

When it withdrew on 8 May 2018, the United States re-established all US sanctions that had been lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The country then gradually strengthened its sanctions under the “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran.

The unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the agreement did not however lead to the re-establishment of UN sanctions which had been lifted in accordance with Resolution 2231 (despite the American “snapback” attempt in August 2020, which failed as the United States was no a participant in the agreement.)

Similarly, the E3/EU (France, United Kingdom and Germany) have continued to fulfil all their commitments made under the JCPOA, despite the American withdrawal. They maintained the suspension of all European sanctions that had been lifted in January 2016 under the agreement. Furthermore, they have initiated additional efforts to preserve the JCPOA, with the creation of INSTEX in January 2019, a special purpose vehicle designed to facilitate commercial transactions between European economic stakeholders and Iran, in the most essential industries for the Iranian population.

Since 2019, Iran has taken nuclear measures in violation of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which have seriously undermined the benefits of this agreement in terms of non-proliferation.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that since 1 July 2019, Iran has successively exceeded both the authorized limit for its low-enriched uranium reserves and the enrichment level authorized by the agreement, violated restrictions in the field of R&D, resumed enrichment activities on the Fordow site, and violated the final operational component on limitations in January 2020.

Iran is now building up uranium enriched up to 60% and has launched the production of uranium metal, two activities that are key steps in the development of a nuclear weapon and are not justified by any credible civilian need.
Iran has simultaneously substantially reduced the IAEA’s access since 23 February 2021, by ceasing to apply both the verification and monitoring measures provided for by the JCPOA and the Protocol Additional to the safeguards agreement concluded with the Agency.

The arrival in January 2021 of a new US administration favourable to the United States’ return to the JCPOA marked an important turning point for our efforts to preserve the agreement. US President Joe Biden spoke very clearly from the beginning of his term in favour of negotiations aimed at the United States becoming a participant in the agreement once more, once Iran resumes full implementation of its nuclear commitments under the agreement.

In this new context, negotiations ahead for the United States’ swift return to the JCPOA and Iran’s swift return to full implementation of its nuclear commitments made under this agreement commenced on 2 April 2021. They are underway between the participants of the JCPOA and, indirectly, with the United States, coordinated by the European External Action Service (EEAS). They were temporarily suspended between 20 June and 29 November, pending the appointment of a new administration following the election of President Raisi in Iran. Since that date, the negotiations have been almost continually ongoing in Vienna.

France is fully engaged in these negotiations, in particular with its E3 partners (Germany, United Kingdom). Our objective is clear: end the grave nuclear violations by Iran, some of which have irreversible consequences in terms of proliferation, and restore the agreement’s benefits of non-proliferation; fully re-establish the IAEA’s monitoring and verification means in Iran, provided for by the JCPOA; and lift US sanctions contrary to the JCPOA in key sectors for Iran, with the prospect of significant economic benefits for the Iranian population.

2019 – The need for Iran to comply with the JCPoA

France is deeply concerned by Iran’s continuation of activities incompatible with the commitments it made under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA).

In two reports published on 1 July 2019 and 8 July 2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had exceeded the authorized limit for its stock of low-enriched uranium and begun enriching uranium beyond the authorized threshold.

Iran has declared that it wishes to remain in the JCPoA framework. It needs to act accordingly by stopping these activities and immediately resuming full compliance with the JCPoA.

Iran has no justification to stop fulfilling its obligations under the JCPoA. Neither paragraph 26 nor paragraph 36 allow that. The first does not authorize Iran to cease fulfilling its commitments, and the second, which sets out very precise and strict procedures, has never been formally triggered or followed by Iran.

France is continuing its efforts under the JCPoA to bring Iran back into full compliance with its commitments, as it recalled during the last JCPoA Joint Commission meeting, held in Vienna on 28 July 2019. France calls upon all parties to act responsibly in order to help soothe the current tensions relating to Iran’s nuclear activities.

Illust: Joint Commision (...), 112.9 kb, 799x419
Joint Commision of the JCPOA (29 July 2019)

2018-2019 – The JCPoA remains in place despite US withdrawal

The withdrawal of the United States from the JCPoA on 8 May 2018 resulted in the restoration of US sanctions against Iran, which have since been stepped up.

Despite the US withdrawal from the agreement, which France has respected deep regrets about, the JCPoA remains in place, with Iran and the “E3/EU+2” States, meaning France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and China, continuing to participate.

The JCPoA works and ensures that Iran’s nuclear programme remains regulated and is for solely peaceful purposes. The IAEA verifies the implementation of the agreement and publishes regular reports.

France and its partners are determined to work to preserve Iran’s economic benefits under the JCPoA, including by maintaining effective financial circuits with Iran and by seeking to ensure the country’s exports of oil and gas can continue, in accordance with European and international law.

In January 2019, France and its E3 partners created the company INSTEX SAS (Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges), a special purpose vehicle aimed at facilitating legitimate commercial transactions between European economic stakeholders and Iran. It is now operational. INSTEX complies with the strictest international standards on combating money laundering and financing of terrorism (AML/CFT), in accordance with the restrictive measures of the European Union and the United Nations.

2015 – The long-term agreement reached in Vienna: the JCPoA

The E3/EU+3 group and Iran concluded a long-term agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue, the JCPoA, in Vienna on 14 July 2015, following a year and a half of negotiations. The JCPoA was endorsed in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which was adopted on 20 July 2015.

What role did France play?

True to its position of supporting the development of a civilian nuclear programme in Iran and refusing Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, France engaged in the negotiations with determination. Its position of constructive firmness helped ensure the Vienna agreement was robust, sustainable and verifiable, and that it guaranteed:

  • The limitation of Iran’s most sensitive capabilities, particularly the uranium enrichment programme;
  • The transformation of 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 IAEA. In return, France and its E3/EU+3 partners proposed regulated lifting of sanctions, 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.

What is the nature of the agreement?

It is a political agreement that is neither signed nor ratified, but endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231. It has been described as historic by the main representatives of the international community and aims to:

  • Resolve one of the most serious and longest nuclear proliferation crises in the Middle East;
  • Guarantee the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear programme;
  • Contribute to regional peace and stability.

What does the agreement involve?

Limitation of Iranian nuclear capacities

The JCPoA addresses access to nuclear material, its militarization and the development of vehicles for nuclear weapons. It establishes restrictions of various durations. For example, the limitation of the number of IR-1 centrifuges to 5,060 will last 10 years. The increase in Iran’s enrichment capacities will then be regulated. Restrictions on the level and location of enrichment activities, stocks of enriched uranium and processing, and the prohibition of certain activities related to the militarization of nuclear weapons, will last 15 years. The Security Council will remain seized for 10 years. The sanctions snap-back mechanism will remain in place for 15 years.

The JCPoA has helped considerably reduce the risks of proliferation relating to Iran:

  • Iran now has only one enrichment site and not two;
  • Iran now has only 5,060 centrifuges, as against 21,000 before;
  • The level to which Iran enriches uranium is now limited to 3.67%, compared to 20% previously;
  • Iran’s stockpile of uranium is now limited to 300kg of uranium enriched to 3.67%, whereas before the agreement, the country held several tonnes of uranium enriched to 5% and hundreds of kilos enriched to up to 20%;
  • Research and development on new centrifuges are strictly regulated;
  • Iran’s transparency and verification obligations have been enhanced considerably;
  • The time Iran would need to acquire the fissile material required for a weapon has been increased significantly. With the restrictions imposed under the JCPoA, it would take Iran at least a year to acquire the material needed to create a bomb using uranium, if it decided to join the arms race.
  • Plutonium has become even longer and more difficult to acquire (conversion of the Arak site, and no more reprocessing facilities).

Transparency and verification

“An agreement which isn’t verifiable is an agreement which isn’t implemented.” (Laurent Fabius, 14 July 2015)

Iran has committed to applying the highest verification standards of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). The JCPoA provides for the implementation of enhanced transparency. An additional protocol also allows the IAEA to obtain access outside of declared nuclear facilities if it suspects that activities linked to the nuclear fuel cycle are being carried out there. In this framework, the IAEA can request access to military sites. This verification regime is designed to enable very swift detection of any failings in Iran’s fulfilment of its obligations.

The access procedure set down in the JCPoA will also allow five of the eight participants in the agreement, within the Joint Commission, to order Iran to grant access if it refuses to accept IAEA inspections. This procedure could apply to military sites insofar as the request for access concerns the verification of Iran’s commitments.

Lastly, the agreement brings progress on issues relating to control of militarization and what is known as the procurement channel, meaning the specific procedure Iran must comply with to acquire items with a degree of sensitivity. Some restrictions related to non-proliferation will be enforced at UN Security Council level and through EU sanctions regimes.

Controls on the lifting of sanctions

Iran’s commitments are compulsory and their violation would trigger the re-establishment of sanctions. This “snap-back” mechanism applies for both UN Security Council and European Union sanctions.

If one of the E3+2 States (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany – when the latter is a UN Security Council member) considers Iran is not fulfilling its obligations or providing credible explanations, that State may trigger a Security Council vote on a draft resolution reaffirming the lifting of UN sanctions; by opposing the continued lifting of sanctions against Iran, it can thus restore them.

At EU level, the 28 Member States have committed to re-introducing all measures lifted if Iran fails to respect its obligations and if the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and the three European participants in the agreement (France, Germany and the United Kingdom), recommend doing so.

Updated: August 2019