Brazil, Turkey and Iran
Not just any deal will do
May 20th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Have Brazil and Turkey helped solve a brewing nuclear crisis, or made it worse?
TO IRAN’S irrepressible president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the deal was a triumph for the powers of the future over “the tyrant powers [who] belong to the past”. Others, tyrannically minded or not, have yet to see whether Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (flanking Mr Ahmadinejad above), really have succeeded in enticing Iran a step in from the cold in its row with the UN Security Council over its nuclear ambitions. Several years of on-off talks (mostly off, at Iran’s insistence) between Mr Ahmadinejad’s government and six other countries, America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, have failed to budge Iran from its insistence that its suspect nuclear work will continue, no matter what.
Under the May 17th deal, Mr Ahmadinejad is to send abroad some of his low-enriched uranium stocks, in return for higher-enriched fuel rods Iran needs to replenish an ageing medical-research reactor. On the face of it, that resembles a bargain Iran had first struck last October with America, Russia, France and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear guardian, before it backed off. But the fear is that, well-meaning as the leaders of Turkey and Brazil may be, Iran is abusing their efforts to get out of a fix.
To those with past experience of Iran’s tactics, both timing and terms of the new deal look deeply suspect. Iran is facing a fourth set of UN sanctions. Two days after the Tehran “breakthrough”, a draft resolution agreed by the six countries Iran has been refusing to talk to, including previously reluctant Russia and China, was circulated to the rest of the Security Council. That was despite the claim by Turkey’s foreign minister that the Tehran deal meant further sanctions were now unwarranted.
If voted through, the new resolution would add more names to a list of individuals, firms and banks sanctioned for their links to Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes and slap an arms embargo on heavy weapons. Suspect shipments to and from Iran could be searched. Iran would find it much harder to get foreign uranium for its enrichment machines, which Mr Ahmadinejad claims he set spinning merely to produce under 5% low-enriched uranium for nuclear-power reactors (though Iran has none that can use it), while others suspect it may eventually be used to make the 90%-enriched stuff needed for a bomb.
Iran pooh-poohs sanctions, claiming even new ones won’t make it give up its “right” to enrich uranium. But its leaders have been courting other Security Council members, especially Brazil and Turkey. For, whatever their economic impact, widely supported UN sanctions do give the lie to Iran’s claims that it is the victim of a Western-inspired plot to deprive it of its right to nuclear energy, rather than being in the dock for what IAEA inspectors report have been serious violations of its nuclear safeguards. Iran also refuses point blank to answer more questions about activities that have little rational explanation except as part of a weapons effort.
Iran thus wants to block or delay a sanctions vote. But even if the October deal had gone through, harsher moves would have remained in play, both because their aim is to get Iran into wider talks than just those over fuel for its research reactor; and because, without pressure, Iran would be free to drag out talks uselessly. The October fuel deal was a gamble: Iran called it an acceptance of its “right” to uranium enrichment. But the rewards, had it chosen to negotiate seriously, were deemed worth the risk.
By shipping two-thirds of its then low-enriched uranium abroad, Iran would have been left, for perhaps six months while it rebuilt stocks, with less uranium in the country than would be needed, with further enrichment, for a breakout to a nuclear bomb. This, it was hoped, might create time for wider talks. More to the point, Russia’s offer to enrich the uranium from under 5% to the almost 20% needed for the medical reactor, along with France’s readiness to turn it into the needed fuel rods, mean Iran had no excuse to do the higher enrichment work itself. For it is a quirk of uranium enrichment that to get from 20% to 90% takes less effort than making the lesser-enriched stuff in the first place.
If a deal was worth trying then, surely it is worth trying now? But much has changed. Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium is bigger: only about half of it would be needed to produce the equivalent fuel load for the medical reactor. Iran could have a full bomb’s-worth on hand again in no time. Earlier this year, Iran started its own 20% enrichment and insists that this will continue. That wipes out the hoped for non-proliferation gain, and may be a deal-breaker.
Meanwhile the terms of the new accord are vague. Mr Ahmadinejad is to set out his ideas to the IAEA within days. But then he can take all the time he likes to haggle over details with America, France, Russia and the IAEA. Under the old deal, the uranium would have gone directly to Russia, then France for reworking. Under the new one, Turkey will take custody of it. But Turkey has no way to enrich it or make it into fuel. Does Iran expect to get the 20% enriched fuel rods from another source, while its own uranium is under Turkish guard? Also, under the deal with Turkey and Brazil, Mr Ahmadinejad can decide whether the deal is going as he likes. If it isn’t, Turkey must hand back his uranium forthwith.
For those trying to talk Iran out of potentially weapons-usable work, this seems to get them nowhere. But it could leave the Security Council split and make an end to the stand-off with Iran harder. Mr Ahmadinejad would be the winner.