Reuters: French President Jacques Chirac has been pushing the EU to drop its refusal to consider letting Iran enrich uranium, despite U.S. and European fears Iran could use enrichment technology for weapons, EU diplomats say. Sharing U.S. suspicions that Iran may have atom bomb ambitions, the European Union’s three biggest powers — France, Britain and Germany — have demanded Iran give up its nuclear fuel programme in exchange for economic and political benefits. Reuters
By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA – French President Jacques Chirac has been pushing the EU to drop its refusal to consider letting Iran enrich uranium, despite U.S. and European fears Iran could use enrichment technology for weapons, EU diplomats say.
Sharing U.S. suspicions that Iran may have atom bomb ambitions, the European Union’s three biggest powers — France, Britain and Germany — have demanded Iran give up its nuclear fuel programme in exchange for economic and political benefits.
Iran says it has no interest in the bomb and wants nuclear power plants to meet booming demand for electricity. Tehran has frozen its enrichment programme, but refuses to permanently give up what it sees as a sovereign right to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for its nuclear power programme.
The Iran-EU talks had been deadlocked over the issue of “objective guarantees” that Iran’s atomic programme will not be used to make weapons, with the Europeans insisting that the only acceptable guarantee was a permanent cessation of enrichment.
But the talks took a new turn last month when negotiators from the EU’s “big three” (EU3) and the office of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana agreed in Paris to consider an Iranian proposal that it keep a small-scale enrichment programme that would be closely monitored by the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Several diplomats said this shift — which came just after Washington bolstered the EU position by offering its own incentives if Tehran scrapped enrichment — was mainly the result of pressure by Chirac, who pushed the French Foreign Ministry to drop its refusal to consider Iran’s plan.
“Jacques Chirac … is the one who’s taking the Iranian proposal under consideration,” said an EU3 diplomat, adding the French president had the final say on foreign policy matters.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei denied there was any split between Chirac and the Foreign Ministry on the Iranian nuclear programme. “On the Iran dossier, there’s one, and only one French position,” Mattei said.
Other EU3 diplomats confirmed Chirac had urged his negotiators to consider Iran’s proposal it be allowed to have an enrichment plant with 3,000 centrifuges — which could produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb per year.
“Chirac seems to have taken things a bit further forward than everyone else, but his comments do not really represent the official French position on objective guarantees,” one said.
“I think it says more about the internal machinations in Paris than anything else,” the EU3 diplomat added.
One diplomat close to the EU-Iran talks said the decision to consider Iran’s proposal was partly “diplomatic politeness”.
But diplomats said it was also a way of avoiding positions that could undermine moderate presidential candidates favouring increased engagement with the West in Iran’s June 17 election.
“We don’t want to do anything before June,” a diplomat said.
When the EU-Iran talks began in January, the EU3 unanimously opposed the idea of Iran keeping its enrichment programme, which Tehran had concealed from the United Nations for nearly two decades.
EU diplomats close to the talks said this was still the Europeans’ official position, though they said Chirac was among those who thought Iran’s proposal might be acceptable.
Asked if France’s view on Iranian enrichment had changed, Mattei said: “Our wish is to obtain objective guarantees from Iran for the peaceful use of its nuclear programme.”
Iran has recently made a point of publicly praising the French position. Ahead of last month’s Paris talks, a senior Iranian security official lauded Chirac for his “positive view”.
(Additional reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich and Jon Boyle in Paris, Paul Taylor in Brussels, Madeline Chambers in London and Paul Hughes in Tehran)