Did Hassan Rouhani Dupe Europe in 2003?

by Peter Jenkins

In defence of his 2003-05 record, Iran’s president-elect Hassan Rouhani writes, “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan. In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”

Some claim this as evidence that Rouhani duped and tricked his European counterparts in the negotiations that took place in Tehran in October 2003.

That interpretation is wrong. I will explain why.

The agreement that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his French and German counterparts (the E3) reached with Rouhani on 21 October 2003 specified that Iran would suspend “all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]”.

The E3 hoped that Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the IAEA, would produce a definition of enrichment that would stop work at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) at Isfahan, which was due to start converting uranium ore (yellowcake) into uranium hexafluoride, the feed material for centrifuge enrichment, in the course of 2004.

Instead, ElBaradei defined enrichment as the operation and/or testing of centrifuges; the installation of centrifuges; the introduction or use of material in any facility capable of isotopic separation; and the construction, testing or operation of any isotopic separation facility.

In doing so, ElBaradei opened the way for Iran to complete, hot test and start up production at the UCF without breaching the Tehran agreement with the E3. Iran also continued to manufacture, assemble and test centrifuge machines — while honouring its commitment to suspend the activities specified by ElBaradei…

As soon as the E3 could, they set about trying to renegotiate the Tehran agreement to close these loop-holes; but it was only in November 2004, in Paris, that they finally got Iranian agreement to extend the suspension to “all enrichment related activities, and specifically the manufacture and import of gas centrifuges and their components; the assembly, installation, testing or operation of gas centrifuges; and all tests or production of any uranium conversion installation”.

It follows that Rouhani is entitled to claim that the agreement he negotiated in October 2003 allowed Iran to complete and start up the UCF. This achievement, however, stemmed from ElBaradei’s judgement that a narrow definition of enrichment would be more accurate than a broad definition. The achievement was not the result of trickery or deceit.

Let me also deal with the breakdown of the Tehran and Paris agreements in the course of 2005.

Trickery and deceit played no part in that breakdown. The essential cause of the breakdown was the E3’s rejection of an Iranian proposal, in March 2005, that Iran resume enrichment to a limited extent and under rigorous IAEA monitoring. The rejection led Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to think that the E3 sought an indefinite suspension of enrichment, which he had never intended to concede (as the E3 knew full well). The proximate cause was a resumption of activity at the UCF in August 2005, on the Supreme Leader’s orders.

The E3 took the view that Iran had gone back on its side of the Tehran and Paris bargains, but did not consider that reversal treacherous or dishonest, because Rouhani had never undertaken to maintain suspension indefinitely.

Instead, seeing the reversal as releasing them from their side of the Tehran bargain, the E3 set about arranging for the IAEA to forward to the UN the Director General’s 2003 report of Iranian safeguards non-compliance. They hoped that the UN Security Council would turn suspension from a voluntary measure into a binding requirement, and that Iran would feel obliged to comply. The Security Council delivered; Iran’s lack of compunction in ignoring the Council’s diktat was plain for all to see.

As I have written before, the big misfortune in October 2003 was that no one insisted on linking Iranian suspension to the completion of IAEA investigations under the Additional Protocol. The justification for suspension was a (palpable and widespread) loss of confidence in Iran’s nuclear intentions. An IAEA assurance — under the Additional Protocol — that all nuclear material and plants in Iran had been declared, would have re-built confidence and led all but a handful of IAEA members to conclude that Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium for civil purposes under IAEA safeguards. The hold-outs would have been unable to persuade the Security Council to make suspension mandatory and impose sanctions.

Anyway, the lesson to be drawn from Europe’s experience nearly a decade ago is that Iran’s president-elect is not some wily Oriental who cannot be trusted; he is rather a defender of Iranian interests who drives a hard but honest bargain and is true to his word.

Photo Credit: Abdolvahed Mirzazadeh

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.


One Comment

  1. Mr Jenkins presents an interesting narration of events that led to the end of the EU3 negotiations which he states involved “no duplicity”: the Iranian side simply decided to restart enrichment and the EU-3 then simply decided to go with sanctions since they viewed Iran’s restart of enrichment as the end of the negotiations.
    However this overlooks the fact that the suspension of enrichment was always meant to be temporary (6months) and contingent on the EU3 presenting a proposal to Iran that recognized Iran’s right to enrich. Not only did the EU3 fail to make this offer in the following 2.5 years during which time Iran continued to suspend enrichment, but the EU leaders had agreed with the US that they would not countenance any enrichment in Iran, contrary to the assurances they had provided to Iran.

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