For more than a decade, Iran and the West have tried, with no luck, to bridge their differences over the Islamic Republic’s determination to have its own nuclear energy program and the West’s suspicion that Iran wants to build nuclear weapons. Now Brazil and Turkey, two countries ambitious to play bigger roles on the world stage, claim to have found a formula to break through. On Monday, May 17, Turkey, Brazil and Iran announced a deal whereby Iran would ship a significant amount of its uranium fuel stockpiles to Turkey for reprocessing. But there are many questions about the details of the deal, which will be scrutinized closely once Iran submits it to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. In fact, some observers say it could increase tensions in the standoff between Iran and those who wish to curtail the country’s nuclear program.
The Turkish-Brazilian deal was designed to satisfy the U.N. Security Council’s concerns about the transparency of Iran’s nuclear agenda. The Council is currently considering another round of sanctions to persuade Iran to halt its uranium-enrichment program, which Iran says has peaceful purposes (mainly, in a reactor in Tehran for use in medical research). By shipping its uranium abroad for conversion into fuel for its medical reactor, Iran will have a smaller uranium stockpile at home — an amount sufficiently reduced to convince critics that Iran does not have enough to enrich to the very high levels necessary for weapon-building. Once uranium is turned into the type of nuclear fuel necessary for the medical reactor, it cannot be weaponized.
The problem is that by and large, the U.S. and the E.U. have been running out of patience with Iran, while Russia and China (which can cast vetoes in the Security Council) have been making diplomatic nods to encourage movement in the negotiations. The U.S. and the U.N. have been asking Iran for the past six months to accept a deal similar to the Turkish-Brazilian one, whereby Iran would ship uranium to France for reprocessing. Though President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad initially backed the deal, it fell apart in October amid a chorus of criticism from across Iran’s political spectrum, as both hard-liners and moderates accused the government of trading away the country’s nuclear patrimony.
Brazil and Turkey may have succeeded in breaking through to Iran, where the U.S. failed, merely by being developing, rather than established, powers — and therefore more trusted by Iran. But because the U.S. offer to Iran fell through, the Obama Administration has largely given up hope that Iran will cooperate voluntarily. It has begun to push for a new round of U.N. sanctions, and Europe and, at least for now, Russia and China have not raised objections. The Obama Administration is likely to see the new deal as a delaying tactic thrown up by Iran once it became clear that sanctions were imminent.
Indeed, there are many unanswered questions in the agreement. For one thing, it doesn’t specify which nation is going to do the enriching, since Turkey doesn’t have the ability to do so on its own. More important, Iran has continued building stockpiles of enriched uranium. So even though Iran is offering to send the same amount of uranium to Turkey as the U.S. wanted Iran to send to France, it most likely has a larger stockpile. Therefore, Iran may still have enough enriched uranium to remain above the threshold necessary for building a weapon. And the U.S. has expressed suspicion that Iran has more enrichment facilities than are currently known to the IAEA.
Even if the proposed deal meets IAEA approval and is implemented, it isn’t likely to appease Israel, which believes that Iran’s nuclear program poses an existential threat to the Jewish state. The Israeli government disapproved even of the original IAEA-brokered deal and is unlikely to see the Turkish-mediated deal as a solution. Until now, the U.S. has persuaded Israel to back down from its threats to end Iran’s nuclear program the old-fashioned way — with military bombardment — but Israel says it reserves the right to act unilaterally if the U.S. is unable to get Iran to end its enrichment program entirely. Indeed, even the original IAEA-brokered proposal for Iran to ship uranium to France was meant merely as a stopgap measure to buy time and build confidence between the opposing sides for a more comprehensive deal in the future. And Israel is well aware that while the world’s diplomats keep talking, Iran’s centrifuges keep spinning. If the Turkish-Brazilian deal ends up being just more hot air, this foray into high-stakes global diplomacy may end up coming back to haunt the Middle East.