French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on May 13 that a nuclear agreement with Iran could only be reached if it deals seriously with the scale of Iran’s centrifuge program and answers questions about the alleged past military dimensions of its nuclear work. Speaking to a small group of senior American journalists in Washington as talks resumed in Vienna on a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran, Fabius said he could not forecast whether the negotiations would succeed by the July 20 expiration of the current interim accord.
“If it is possible to reach agreement, okay. If not possible, also okay,” Fabius said. “We have to be firm, very serious and clear cut.” If Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) do manage to reach agreement, he added, “It will be at the last moment.”
Fabius, who held up an interim deal for several weeks last fall to the apparent annoyance of Secretary of State John Kerry, laid down three conditions for a longer-term arrangement: It must be “comprehensive, … clear about the past” and resolve the issue of “breakout time." On this last point, he explained, “We have to take such steps to be able to react if they decide not to fulfill their commitment.”
Fabius also suggested that Iran must agree to reduce the number of centrifuges it currently has installed (about 19,000) and is operating (around 9,000), but he did not specify by how much.
“On the centrifuges, it’s a basic element,” he said. “What is the idea to have a lot of centrifuges if it is not to have an atomic bomb? We have to [present] elements that are honest.” Iran says it needs thousands of centrifuges to produce fuel for civilian reactors after its current agreement with Russia to supply the Bushehr reactor with fuel expires in nine years. Tehran is planning to purchase several more reactors and wants to be able to make its own fuel.
When asked by Al-Monitor whether Iran might satisfy France and the other P5+1 nations by substituting a smaller number of more sophisticated machines for the decades-old centrifuges it currently uses, Fabius said he would leave such “technical matters” to specialists.
The foreign minister took a hard-line on Syria while acknowledging that “it’s not my task to give advice” to the Barack Obama administration on how to change the current balance on the ground, which favors the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. France advocated military strikes on Syria last year for its use of chemical weapons, but the United States backed down at the last minute, after Britain refused to participate. Washington signed on instead to a disarmament agreement brokered by the Russians.
“There was a time when the US was intervening everywhere and people were reproaching the US,” Fabius said. “Now, the US is not intervening everywhere, and people are reproaching the US.”
The French official accused Assad of violating his pledges on chemical weapons by using chlorine gas against civilians in at least 11 recent instances, but he waffled over whether France would support military strikes to destroy chemical weapons production facilities. Under the Russian-brokered agreement, Syria promised to destroy these facilities but has not yet done so. “For the time being, there is no proposal of strikes,” acknowledged Fabius.
Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba is also in Washington and has asked the Obama administration for anti-aircraft weapons to counter the barrel bombs and rockets used by Assad’s forces, but to no apparent avail. Asked whether France would supply such weapons, known as man-pads, Fabius said that providing such lethal arms “is not authorized” by the European Union but suggested that “regional countries” might be more forthcoming.
While decrying Assad as a “murderer,” Fabius acknowledged that neither side in the Syrian war is capable of military victory. “At the end of the day, there will have to be a political solution between the opposition and some elements of the regime,” he said.
However prospects for such negotiations dimmed further as UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi announced his resignation today.
France is the chief sponsor of a resolution at the UN Security Council that would refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. France is also supporting a resolution calling the Assad regime to account for failing to implement a resolution passed in February demanding better access for humanitarian aid and an end to bombarding and besieging civilian populations.
Fabius said France wants a vote on the ICC resolution first, even though it is likely to be vetoed by Russia, implying that it might make it easier to achieve consensus on the humanitarian measure. It is unlikely, however, that the Security Council will agree to a Chapter 7 resolution, authorizing the use of force against the Syrian government. The previous resolution demanding humanitarian access threatened only vague additional steps if it failed to be implemented and was thus dubbed “Chapter 6.5” by the press.
On Ukraine, Fabius took a measured tone, saying that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to control the former Soviet republic indirectly. “We have to use dialogue and firmness,” Fabius said. “Who is wanting to go to war with Russia? Nobody.”
Editor's Note: This piece has been updated since its first publication to include the news of UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's resignation.