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Iran Nuclear Deal, On Close Inspection With Laurent Fabius

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had held one of the toughest lines against Tehran. He describes the quest for "efficient compromises for complex issues."

Laurent Fabius in Vienna on July 14
Laurent Fabius in Vienna on July 14
Yves-Michel Riols

PARIS More than $100 billion in overseas frozen assets will be made available to Iran and oil embargoes and financial restrictions will be lifted after six world powers reached a historic deal with the country this week to limit its nuclear program. The agreement comes after two years of intense negotiations, the latest being 18 days of marathon talks in Vienna. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who had broken off earier talks because of doubts about Iran's reliablity, spoke with Le Monde about the intricacies and complexities of the landmark deal.

LE MONDE: How can you guarantee to Israel and Gulf countries that this agreement is "robust" enough, as you described, to prevent Iran from eventually acquiring nuclear weapon?

LAURENT FABIUS: The Iranian nuclear issue doesn't just affect Israel and the Gulf countries. Ensuring that Iran cannot acquire the nuclear weapon is a concern for the entire international community. Nuclear proliferation is at stake, so security and peace are too.

To reach this goal — yes to civilian nuclear for Iran, but no to the nuclear weapon — which the President François Hollande and I have always said defined France's position, we have been particularly watchful about three points in these long negotiations: accurately limit Iran's uranium enrichment capacities and how it could be used in research and development; be able to verify, in concrete terms, the implementation of these commitments; plan an automatic mechanism for the reinstatement of sanctions in case of infringement. This constructive firmness has allowed us to reach a sufficiently robust agreement, for a more than 10-year period at least.

Does this agreement open the way to cooperation with Iran on major regional crises, especially on Syria, Iraq and Yemen?

The agreement aims to put an end to one of the most serious and longest nuclear proliferation crises. It aims for more peace and stability in the Middle East. The region is already unstable enough for nuclear conflicts to be added. Beyond this, if Iran, an important country, a great civilization, a major player in the region, clearly chooses to cooperate, we will clearly hail this evolution, but we will judge on results. Its contribution would be useful to help resolve many crises.

Don't you fear Iran could use the substantial funds it will obtain with the lifting of the sanctions to reinforce the Shia militias in the Middle East?

It will be one of the tests. And we will be particularly watchful.

Under the terms of this agreement, Iran retains the right to a supervised nuclear program and will be able to keep carrying out research and develop advanced centrifuges. Does this not amount to postponing the same issue 10 years?

Let's focus on indisputable elements: Before this agreement, the "breakout" period — in other words, the time Iran needs to gather enough enriched uranium to make a bomb — was two months. This period of time is pushed to 12 months after the agreement, and it will be maintained at this level for 10 years. Limitations will remain beyond the 10 years. This strictly civilian nuclear program will additionally be the object of the necessary inspections. It's already a significant result.

The agreement encourages the lifting of sanctions against Iran. How can you guarantee that they will be reintroduced in the case of a violation from Iran?

It's what we call the "snap back." France has worked hard to offer and put through an automatic mechanism for the reinstatement of sanctions in case of infringement of its obligations by Iran. If one of the P5+1 countries (the U.S., Russia, China, France, the UK, Germany) believes Iran isn't meeting its obligations, and the latter cannot provide any credible explanation, this state will be able to bring about a vote of the Security Council on a draft resolution reaffirming the lifting of the UN sanctions. By opposing its own veto, it will without fail obtain the reinstatement of the sanctions. I admit that it's subtle, but that's the price we must pay to make efficient compromises on such complex issues.

In case the agreement is violated, the text makes sure Iran will benefit from a maximum of 65 days before the reintroduction of the sanctions. Does this not give Iran the necessary time to conceal proliferating activities?

If one of the P5+1 states judges Iran is violating its obligations, it can refer to the Joint Committee, which includes the Six as well as the Iranians. A maximum 35-day discussion will then open. If not convinced, any member of the Six can refer to the Security Council with then 30 days maximum to reestablish the sanctions. It's indeed quite long, but with modern surveillance and verification technologies, you can't conceal all traces of proliferating activity in a few days.

Does the agreement maintain a total embargo on heavy and ballistic weapons, and for how long?

This was discussed right until the end. France's stance was clear and firm on this matter, too: It would be contradictory for the immediate consequence of this agreement to be the lifting of the constraints weighing on Iran in the field of weapons and missiles. The embargo on weapons is maintained for five years and transfer prohibitions in the ballistic field for eight years.

Does the agreement allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit all the sites, including military, without restrictions?

An unverifiable agreement is an inapplicable agreement. This is why we made sure Iran applied the IAEA's highest verification standards. The access to all sites will be possible, including the Parchin site, not to attempt to penetrate military secrets, but to verify if there has been prohibited nuclear activity. I've discussed this several times with the director general of the IAEA to be certain that he deemed the plan sufficient and credible.

What are the steps of the implementation of the agreement? And do you fear the U.S. Congress blocking it?

After endorsement by the Security Council, a 90-day period will open, during which Iran must take measures to prepare for the implementation of the agreement. The next phase will last six to nine months, during which it will implement all its commitments in the nuclear field. Each of these steps will go along with progressive reduction of the sanctions. Concerning the U.S. Congress, I don't have any particular comment except what is common sense: When you assess an agreement, you don't do it only in absolute terms, but you must compare the situation if the agreement is implemented with what would happen if there is no agreement.

Don't you fear that the rapprochement observed between France and Saudi Arabia penalizes French companies on the Iranian market?

No, for two reasons. On one hand, when the issue is removing the threat of nuclear military power, you cannot determine the position of your own country according to commercial considerations: It's about security and peace. On the other hand, the economic competition in Iran will undoubtedly be tough, because everybody is being considered. But don't forget our companies have long worked with and in this country, that they excel in several fields and that they will have assets to put forward. This is why I'm confident about them. As for our traditional friendships, renouncing them is out of the question.

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Photo of Tarragona’s “Correfocs” (fire runners) setting off their fireworks amid a cheering crowd gathered for the Santa Tecla Festival in Catalonia, Spain.

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