The French links with Iran’s nuclear project
Friday 29th November 2013
DAVID LOWRY asks why there has been almost total silence over France’s decades-long involvement in Iranian uranium enrichment
Among the reasons the Geneva talks on Iran’s nuclear programme had to be reconvened last week was that France objected to the deal being closed off earlier.
The French objections were over Tehran’s contested plutonium production plant at Arak, but whatever doubts they might have over Arak, they seem to be sanguine about Iran‘s involvement in uranium enrichment.
Indeed, 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 in 1975.
Oddly, this deal never gets reported in the context of the Iran nuclear negotiations. Is there any good reason why not?
The origins of the deal illustrate 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 per cent 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 per cent and 40 per cent shares, respectively.
In turn, Sofidif acquired a 25 per cent share in Eurodif, which gave Iran its 10 per cent share of Eurodif.
The former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, lent $1 billion (and another $180 million in 1977) for the construction of the Eurodif factory to have the right to buy 10 per cent 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 Organisation of Iran was appointed Iran’s new permanent representative to Sofidef as recently as September 25 last year.
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.
Four years ago, on October 1 2009, an earlier preliminary atomic agreement with Iran was reached involving the UN nuclear watchdog body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), under which it was agreed to transfer three quarters of Iran’s low-enriched uranium abroad.
In return, the West agreed to supply Iran with fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which came online in 1967 and which produces medical isotopes for tests for around one million patients in Iran.
When Argentina, which had previously supplied the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, indicated it was unwilling to do so again, it prompted Iran to ask the IAEA for help.
It turned out that France was to play a critical role in resolving the impasse over enriched uranium fuel for the reactor.
Although in principle Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant – officially declared to the IAEA in February 2003 – could have enriched the low-enriched uranium to the level needed for the reactor to operate, the main “uranium yellowcake” feedstock for enrichment, the uranium conversion facility in Esfahan, had been contaminated.
France had both the know-how and willingness to help clean up the contaminated fuel.
Fast forward to November 2013. France, as a nuclear technology supplier to Iran, ganging up on its customer client with the other self-appointed five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany, is guilty of breathtaking hypocrisy. It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.
Dr David Lowry is a former director of the European Proliferation Information Centre (EPIC).