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Brazil and Turkey Give the Obama Administration a Golden Opportunity with Iran

May 18, 2010

The success of Brazil and Turkey in persuading Iran to agree to essentially the same nuclear fuel swap deal it walked away from eight months ago gives the Obama administration a golden opportunity to change course from the dead end path of sanctions and threatened military action that it has been traveling down for the last few months. The Brazilian-Turkish diplomacy also holds out the tantalizing promise of an international order in which middle powers step in and play an important role in resolving conflicts when larger powers are at a disadvantage.

Despite pressure to stand down from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Obama administration officials, Brazil’s President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan persisted.  Over the weekend they persuaded Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to give his blessing to a deal that had sparked sharp controversy in Iran’s fractious domestic politics.

The outcome was in doubt almost until the end. Prime Minister Erdogan had publicly announced that he was canceling his planned visit to Tehran because President Lula da Silva, who was already in Iran, was reporting lack of progress toward an agreement. Soon afterwards, Iran accepted the terms that Brazil and Turkey were proposing and Prime Minister Erdogan flew to Tehran to close the deal. (Stephen Kinzer’s account of the diplomatic drama in the Guardian, UK, is a great read.)

What’s on offer? If the United States and allied governments accept the terms of the joint declaration signed by the Turkish and Brazilian leaders and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—and if Iran doesn’t backtrack—within thirty days Iran will ship 1,200 kg of its 5 percent low-enriched uranium, more than half of the amount it has produced so far, to Turkey. Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will safeguard the uranium, along with Turkish officials and Iranian observers. Within a year, Russia and France will produce 120 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium in the form of fuel packets virtually impossible to reprocess for any other purpose, including weapons use. The packets will be used to refuel a research reactor in Tehran that makes radioactive isotopes to treat cancer patients.

The deal is nearly identical to the one Iran initially agreed to last October but then declined and countered with a proposal to keep its low-enriched uranium inside Iran until it took delivery of the reactor fuel. Turkey offered months ago to hold Iran’s uranium in Turkey until the fuel packets were delivered, but Turkey and Brazil have only now persuaded Iran to agree to the Turkish proposal.

Will the deal be implemented? Iran’s past behavior has led many observers to question whether Iran will in the end walk away from this deal, too, by posing impossible procedures and conditions in the technical talks with the IAEA that will be needed to implement the deal. Maybe. But it’s unlikely for two reasons: First, Iran’s Supreme Leader has lent his prestige to the agreement this time. Last October, President Ahmadinejad supported the deal, but many other Iranian politicians, including reform leaders, opposed it and the Supreme Leader did not take a public position. Second, Iranian back pedaling now would fray relations with Turkey and Brazil, two countries that Iran has courted and which are examples of the kind of respected regional powers with global influence that Iran aspires to become. Walking away from its tripartite agreement with Turkey and Brazil now would leave Iran weaker politically and much more isolated in the international arena.

At this point the greater danger to the nuclear fuel deal comes from the United States, either in the form of outright rejection or, more likely, in the form of more belligerent rhetoric and continued insistence on immediate new multilateral or unilateral sanctions. A hostile response from the United States could tip the balance within Iranian politics back toward the hardliners who reject any move toward reconciliation with the West.

The initial White House reaction to the fuel deal was cautious but not entirely negative. A statement “acknowledged” Turkish and Brazilian efforts, but said the United States still had many concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley noted the White House statement, but he also said that the administration would continue to pursue new sanctions against Iran. The prospects that the United States can persuade the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions on Iran now, before this new fuel swap deal has been given a chance to succeed, are slim to none, but the administration could scuttle the deal by moving ahead aggressively with unilateral sanctions, either on its own or under pressure from Congress.

Dissing the deal. Many, including members of Congress, are already arguing that the deal is a “victory” for Iran that needs to be countered by pressing ahead with sanctions. Opponents of the deal argue that Iran’s willingness to give up 1,200 kg. of itsr low-enriched uranium is no longer as significant a concession as it was eights months ago, because in the meantime Iran has continued to produce more low-enriched uranium. Iran has indeed continued enrichment (for unknown reasons at a slower pace than expected) but the original deal did not require it to halt enrichment. If Iran had surrendered 1,200 kg. eight months ago or if it surrenders 1,200 kg. in the next 30 days, it will be left the next day with the same amount of low-enriched uranium, less than half of what it will have if the deal falls through.

What Congress should do. Instead of minimizing the significance of the fuel swap deal, Congress should declare a moratorium on further sanctions action and encourage the administration to engage Iran to address continuing concerns about its nuclear program and to open talks with Iran about wider issues of regional security, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Israel-Palestine conflict, where Iran can play either a helpful or a spoiler’s role.

Congress can even claim something of a victory if it wants to, arguing that its efforts to pass unilateral sanctions created pressure for multilateral sanctions at the UN, which ultimately helped persuade Iran to agree to the nuclear fuel deal. That would do no harm. It would, however, do great harm for Congress to move ahead now with unilateral sanctions and to pressure the administration to dismiss Iran’s new agreement as a diversion. Far from a diversion, the nuclear fuel deal reached with Turkish and Brazilian assistance could be the first step toward resolving international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and in enlisting its help to reduce conflict and promote security throughout the greater Middle East.

  1. doris rausch permalink
    May 18, 2010 4:19 pm

    Iran is certainly as entitled to have a nuclear capability as is the U.S. or Israel, especially Israel, which is the only country that has ever recently threatened to use their nuclear power (on Egypt in 1973). Iran has called for a nuclear-free Middle East and a nuclear-free world. The U.S. should do the same.

  2. Greg Thielmann permalink
    May 18, 2010 4:52 pm

    The biggest problem with the deal is that Iran accompanied it with a statement that uranium enrichment to a 20 per cent level will continue. The reason Iran announced in February that it was beginning this activity was because it could not obtain under acceptable conditions a fuel source for the Tehran Research Reactor. To obtain a fuel source (and one lasting many years) through the proposed swap and then still to continue enriching uranium at a level much closer to weapons grade will only deepen suspicions of Tehran’s ultimate intentions. How could Turkey and Brazil have accepted an arrangement that did not at least freeze Iran’s 20 per cent enrichment efforts?

  3. Jim Fine permalink
    May 18, 2010 6:15 pm

    Greg is right that the question of Iran’s continued enrichment to 20 percent is an important one. It could determine how the agreement plays out. Iran began 20 percent enrichment on a small scale after it balked at the original terms of the deal in October and the U.S. and others rejected its counter proposal for a simultaneous exchange of low-enriched uranium and reactor fuel. Now that the deal is on again, Iran no longer has a convincing reason to continue or to increase its 20 percent enrichment. Despite Iranian statements following the agreement, Iran could still halt its 20 percent enrichment. That would be a very convincing measure of good faith. If it even refrained from expanding its current small-scale 20 percent production it would be a good sign. If, however, Iran expands its 20 percent enrichment, whether the fuel swap deal goes ahead or not, it will be hard to make further progress.

  4. Karie Firoozmand permalink
    May 20, 2010 4:02 pm

    Jim, I thank you for this analysis. I learned alot from it and agree in particular with the last section, “What Congress Should Do.” You make a good case for how it can be viewed as a win-win if Congress will just allow itself to see the issue that way.

    I should say, however, that I would not be surprised if Iran backed out for two reasons. First, I’ve not been able to get much clarity about what is going on inside the Iranian government, who is jockeying for position and who is at risk of losing power, freedom, or his life. It is a dangerous game to play and an inscrutable one to watch.

    Second, I just would not put it past Ahmadinejad. I don’t know if it could benefit him in domestic politics to do so or what other reasons might exist, but I just have the feeling it could happen.

    It would even fit an existing pattern for Iran to do what you say above (get fussy on technical stuff and ruin the deal) so that later they can claim they tried and the US/UN was impossible to work with.

  5. Mary K. Lund permalink
    May 20, 2010 5:28 pm

    To Karie’s last point: if Congress balks, it WOULD give Iran an excuse to back down. That’s one more reason to accept these terms.

    Isn’t this all about saving face? Iran has argued that under its status as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty it keeps the right to develop nuclear power for peaceful use. While President Obama has acknowledged this, rarely is it mentioned by Sec. Clinton or others, who hold Iran to a higher standard than Israel, Pakistan or India. None are signatories and all are at least as unstable . Clinton actually accuses Iran of igniting a nuclear arms race when it has denied even having a weapons program while Israel is known to have a large nuclear weapon stockpile!

    By displacing the US and making Turkey and Brazil the “heroes” Iran saves face and embarrasses the US. I’m rather surprised that Russia and China condone the latest round of sanctions.

  6. Karie Firoozmand permalink
    May 26, 2010 4:02 pm

    @ Mary – Although I agree Iran has “displaced” the US, it’s also true that the US did not offer the same terms as Turkey and Brazil. So yes, it is probably seen as a snub, but Iran is entitled to engage in talks and negotiate terms with whatever government it can…right?

    I’m not knowledgeable about the variation in standards vis-a-vis nuclear material. Everyone should have to play by the same rules, of course, if that is what you are saying, and I get your point about Israel’s arms stockpile. But don’t put stock in mere denials about having a weapons program.

    Did you see Iran’s president talking to George Stephanopoulos? Talking faster and longer than anyone else is definitely part of his strategy. He blusters every time I see him on TV, diverts the conversation, and tries to make his interviewer look stupid. I would really like to see Pres. Obama talk to him, because I believe Obama would hold his ground and keep the conversation on track. Now that’s really dreaming, isn’t it?

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