At a meeting in Tehran on Monday, Turkey and Brazil reached an agreement with Iran to ship 1.2 tons of Iranian low-enriched uranium to Turkey, in exchange for 120 kg of highly-enriched nuclear fuel bars for the Islamic Republic’s scientific programs. The swap would be monitored by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and, likewise, Tehran would be entitled to send inspectors to oversee the exchange.
Since Turkey does not possess the technology to enrich uranium, it would function as a conduit for the Vienna Group (US, Russia France and the IAEA) to deliver highly-enriched fuel to Iran. According to the deal, Tehran would then proceed to utilize the fuel rods in its medical research reactor. Consequently, a further agreement between Iran and the Vienna Group is necessary to validate the agreement signed on Monday by the three countries.
Despite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s initial reserve regarding the agreement, Turkey is tempted by the prestige of playing such a central role in the negotiations, and the potential to avoid being called to vote for sanctions against Iran.
Erdogan and the Brazilian president, Lula Inácio da Silva, are in fact convinced that the agreement will prevent the imposition of further sanctions on Iran. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called once again on Germany and the five veto-powers in the UN to re-engage in diplomatic talks.
The US have welcomed the deal as a ‘positive step’ but the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, complained that Tehran has expressed its intention to continue enrichment to 20 percent, in opposition to UN Security Council resolutions.
According to US analysts, the new agreement would not prevent Tehran from transforming the remaining low-enriched uranium into weapons-grade fuel, provided that the Islamic Republic acquires the technological capability to do this. David Albright, a former UN nuclear weapon inspector, described Turkey, Brazil and Iran as ‘a subgroup of nations weighing in and saying the enrichment program is not subject to further negotiations’.
Europe echoed American concerns: Maja Kocijancic, the EU spokeswoman, underlined the persistent doubts of the peaceful character of the Iranian program, while Britain’s parliamentary undersecretary of state, Alistair Burt, insisted on the need to elaborate a package of new sanctions. From a technical point of view, John Large, an independent nuclear consultant, noted that Turkey, lacking in enrichment and storage facilities, cannot provide sufficient guarantees for the safety of the exchange.
Meanwhile, at a campus north of Tel Aviv on Sunday, a wargame hypothesizing responses to a nuclear-armed Iran saw the involvement of numerous generals and diplomats. This was only the latest episode in a series of strategic simulations in Israel and the US during the last month regarding the Iranian military threat.
The majority of the participants concluded that an Iranian nuke would reduce Israeli military autonomy but some imagined the successful containment of Tehran in these feared circumstances. Iran’s shipment of radioactive material to Hezbollah in order to build a crude device formed one scenario.
The head of the centrist Kadima, Tzipi Livni, pointed out that ‘as leader of the free world, the United State has the responsibility of leading more effective sanctions that can turn around, absolutely, this shift from a process of stopping (Iran nuclear aims) to a process of acceptance’.
The OpenSecurity verdict: The recent agreement signed by Turkey, Brazil and Iran is crucial for two main reasons. For the first time, Tehran decided to meet IAEA requirements and exchange low-enriched uranium for highly enriched nuclear fuel outside of Iranian borders.
Secondly, this kind of nuclear deal is potentially destabilizing for the world order preserved by the UN Security Council. Both Turkey and Brazil have chosen to disregard the UN resolutions calling on Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program until it has proven its peaceful purposes.
On the contrary, these two states have affirmed the right to enrichment for civil purposes, guaranteed under the article 4 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a signatory. Such a position is in line with the reservations expressed by other regional powers, including Egypt, Indonesia and South Africa, whose concerns for the example set by the constraints imposed on fuel development are greater than the security threat allegedly embodied by Iran.
Last month, the head of the 118-nation Non-Aligned Movement and Egypt’s UN ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz, stressed the importance of the need to ‘preserve the right of non-nuclear powers to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and not to allow a fuel bank or any kind of supply arrangement that is going to decide on behalf of the countries concerned what are their developmental needs’. Two of the veto-powers, Russia and China, have expressed their preference for negotiated solutions in the solution of the Iranian issue.
Although it would be myopic to talk about a staunch non-aligned movement at this stage, this widespread disapproval of sanctions has influenced the cautious reply of the US officials, who refrained from criticizing Brazil and Turkey. This is a clear signpost of change from the Bush administration which, for instance, initially sought to punish those EU allies opposing the war in Iraq.
There seemed to be a clear divide between the US secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, who telephoned the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to discourage the nuclear deal, while president Obama was reported by Turkish sources to moderately support Erdogan’s initiative. Therefore, the Turkish-Brazilian non-aligned front appeared able at least to exploit the US cabinet internal fractions to address the Iranian issue on a peaceful track.
Moreover, the signatories of the agreement are not simply a ‘subgroup of nations’; contrary to the words of David Albright, they are two large countries, sharing a militarist past and experiencing the present growth of democracy. Both Turkey and Brazil are regional powers, aiming at a larger share of influence in international politics, likely to be gained only through joint efforts.
In addition to this, Turkey and Brazil have been regional allies of the US in the Cold War and they are now sitting among the ten non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. All these factors permit Lula and Erdogan to enjoy a greater leverage on US interests than a mere ‘subgroup of nations’.
This article appeared originally in OpenDemocracy.