The nuclear deal announced on Monday among Iran, Brazil and Turkey has certainly gotten many analysts and reporters excited, not least at the Los Angeles Times, which described the agreement as, possibly, a “stunning” breakthrough.
And it could be.
According to Ramin Mehmanparast, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, the deal will entail the transfer of 1,200 kg. of Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU), which has been enriched up to 3.5 percent, to Turkey. Once there, it will be exchanged for nuclear fuel.
But we shouldn’t get carried away.
The 1,200 kg. that Iran will be sending abroad was part of a previous draft deal that the Obama administration offered to Teheran last October, a proposal that was later rejected by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
To make a bomb, somewhere between 1,000 kg. and 1,200 kg. of LEU is needed, which could then be turned into 25 kg. of high-enriched uranium (HEU) – sufficient for one bomb.
The reason why President Barack Obama wanted Iran to ship over 1,200 kg. of LEU is that back in October the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had 1,763 kg. of LEU. By transferring 1,200 (68%) of its LEU, Teheran would only be left with 563 kg. Based on its current capacity to produce 3 kg. of LEU per day, it would have taken Teheran almost five months to have sufficient LEU again to make a bomb. Those five months would have allowed Obama sufficient time to negotiate with Iran (the last thing the US president wanted was to negotiate with Teheran while it was working on a bomb).
That was then. Iran has since increased its stockpile of LEU. According to the IAEA’s last report, published on May 18, Iran had 2,065 kg. of LEU. It’s believed that this figure has now reached 2,300 kg., meaning that by handing over 1,200 kg. of its LEU (taking into consideration the LEU produced since February), Iran will be left with 1,100 kg. — enough to make a bomb — while talks continue.
The fact that Iran agreed to hand over 1,200 kg. of its LEU is, of course, positive and certainly makes the deal worth looking at. However, what could have sealed the deal and made it impossible to reject is if the Turkish and Brazilian presidents had accompanied it with another important document.
Such a document would contain answers to questions from the IAEA that Iran has not yet produced.
These are crucial questions. So crucial, in fact, that until such time that Teheran does answer them, the IAEA will refuse to declare that Iran’s nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.
So, instead of rejecting the deal, Western governments should congratulate the Brazilian and Turkish governments for their achievement, but attach a condition for its acceptance: namely, that Iran answer the IAEA’s queries.
Although Brazil and Turkey are major powers, it’s unlikely that they’d go against the United States and the EU. As a consequence, rather than risk their relations with such important trade partners, they could well be motivated to go the extra mile and pressure Teheran to clarify questions regarding its nuclear program.
That would be a win-win situation for everyone. Iran would come out of isolation. Obama and the EU could calm fears and nerves about Iran’s program, and the Brazilians and the Turks would be able to enjoy the economic fruits of their friendship with Iran without looking like they’ve just been bought out. But until such a time, the fact that President Lula was accompanied by 300 businesspeople (and is planning to increase his dealings with Iran from the current $1.2 billion per year to $10b.) will mean that’s exactly how his country looks. And so will Turkey, which is buying gas at below market prices from Iran, and whose exports to Iran have increased by more than 800% since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took office in 2003.
France also has an important role to play. The nuclear fuel for the Teheran Research Reactor can only be produced by the French or the Argentineans. Buenos Aires has rejected taking part, since it wants Iran to hand over suspects for the Israeli Embassy bombing of 1992 and the AMIA bombing of 1994. France, however, has just greatly improved its position vis-a-vis Teheran by releasing Ali Vakili Rad, who murdered the former Iranian prime minister and dissident Shahpour Bakhtiar in the French capital in 1991. This gives Paris leverage, and President Nicolas Sarkozy should use this to pressure Iran to become more transparent over its nuclear program.
Negotiations between the US and Iran, after 32 years on hold, won’t be easy. Nor will they be short. They will take time and patience.
While Iran has every right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes, it
must realize that the world doesn’t trust it. Obama’s initial offer in
October aimed to create an atmosphere of trust for negotiations by
approaching Teheran. It was also meant to take more than half of its LEU
away, so that it couldn’t make a bomb while negotiating. This hardly
seems too much to ask of the regime when it’s still allowed to enrich
uranium, despite three Security Council resolutions that urge it to
But Iran appears to want to have the capacity to make a bomb while
talking, making this latest deal a difficult sell to the West. The
international community needs reassurances. Obama, for example, faced
with difficult mid-term elections in November, needs to show his
Republican rivals that he’s taking the issue of Iran very seriously. The
same goes for the newly elected Conservative-led British government –
both want a negotiated settlement to this problem, but need some kind of
firm indication that Iran’s goals are purely civilian.
The key to finding a peaceful settlement to the current problem is in
Teheran’s own hands. The Iranian government could make life much easier
for itself and everyone else by proving that its nuclear program is for
civilian purposes only. Until this happens, it will increase the cost of
its nuclear program, as well as that of becoming friends with its
government. Ultimately, few countries are willing to go against the
wishes of the five permanent members of the Security Council – Brazil
and Turkey included.
This article first appeared at
www.the-diplomat.com and is republished with permission.