FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT
Iran‘s agreement to deposit much of its stock of low-enriched uranium in Turkey for up to a year in return for the supply of fuel rods for a medical research reactor takes the wind out of the sails of the Obama administration’s efforts to impose tougher international sanctions. The US is likely to baulk at some of the details of the deal, brokered by Brazil and Turkey. However, it will find it hard not to acknowledge thatIran has made some potentially significant concessions.
When the uranium swap proposal was first presented to Iran in October last year, the USand its fellow members of the Vienna group (France, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency; IAEA) made clear that there would be no scope for prolonged negotiation about the details. Iran initially agreed in principle to the idea, but the deal fell apart within weeks after Iran set a number of conditions that the Vienna group rejected. Nevertheless, the slow pace of international diplomacy has meant that there has been no agreement on a new round of UN sanctions, which has in effect given Iran the opportunity to negotiate.
Iran’s cause has been helped by the willingness of Turkey and Brazil—which are both currently on the UN Security Council as non-permanent members—to lend their good offices. Both countries are seeking to bolster their international diplomatic credentials, as well as having a strong interest in developing trade and investment ties to Iran. The agreement on the uranium swap was announced during a visit to Tehran by Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, on the occasion of the summit of the Group of 15, a forum of developing countries.
The details were agreed during a meeting attended by the Brazilian president, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and three top Iranian officials: the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the head of the supreme national security council, Saeed Jalili, and the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki. Mr Mottaki said that, subject to the approval of the Vienna group, Iran would deposit 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium inTurkey within weeks. The stock would be placed under IAEA supervision, but would remain the property of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In return France would undertake to supply 120 kg of fuel rods containing uranium enriched to just below 20% to the Tehran Research Reactor, for medical use. If the rods are not supplied within one year, or if the agreement breaks down during that period, Iran will reserve the right to reclaim the entire stock of low-enriched uranium. (This suggests that the rods will not actually incorporate any Iranian uranium). Ramin Mehmanparast, the official spokesman of Iran’s foreign ministry, said that Iran would continue to enrich uranium in the meantime, including its recently announced programme of producing 20%-enriched uranium for theTehran research reactor.
Prior to the Brazilian-Turkish initiative, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had stated that Iran must comply with the original October 2009 proposal in all its elements. The agreement that has just been announced differs from the original proposal in a number of respects, but Iran has made some significant changes to its position, notably through agreeing to transfer the uranium in one batch, rather than in stages, and through dropping its insistence that the swap be conducted within Iran. It has also made these concessions in the context of heeding the advice of two friendly countries, rather than being seen to cave in to Western pressure.
It seems unlikely that the Vienna group will simply accept the new Iranian proposal as it stands. However, an abrupt rejection would open the group (and in particular the US) up to the accusation that it has no interest in a political settlement to the Iran nuclear dispute and that it is arrogantly insisting on dictating a resolution on its own terms.
At the very least, the Vienna group will have to explain in what respects it finds the latest Iranian offer to be deficient. The main problem area seems to be the terms whereby Iranwill be entitled to reclaim the stocks of low-enriched uranium. The Vienna group may also object to Iran continuing its own efforts to enrich uranium to 20%. There seems to be a risk that Iran could decide at any time to revoke the agreement and reclaim its uranium, while hoping that its own efforts to master the technology to make fuel rods for the research reactor would bear fruit. There is also a question over how large Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium is now: in October it was estimated that 1,200 kg would account for about 75% of total stocks; that amount is likely to be a much smaller proportion of the total seven months on.
If the Vienna group does decide against an immediate rejection, it will in effect be agreeing to enter into a period of negotiation with Iran. This, in itself, would serve Iran’s interests as it would interrupt the process of securing an international consensus on a new round of sanctions. The US and its Western allies have argued that the uranium swap proposal would not solve the dispute, but would rather be a step towards building mutual confidence. A final settlement would require Iran to provide sufficient information about its current and past activities to enable the IAEA to state unequivocally that it was sure that there is no military dimension to the Iranian nuclear programme. However, as long as the swap deal is still alive in some form, it will be hard to forge a consensus at the UN Security Council for a new set of sanctions, as China will continue to demur, and Turkeyand Brazil will no doubt lobby hard for the council to stay its hand.
The difficulty facing the US could be simplified if cracks start to appear in the Iranian front. Last October, Mr Ahmadinejad embraced the swap proposal as a positive deal forIran, on the grounds that it implied international recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium. However, he was immediately attacked by both the conservative forces that dominate parliament and by the reformist opposition for consenting to compromise Iran’s sovereign right to develop its peaceful nuclear industry on its own terms. Mr Ahmadinejad responded to these criticisms by announcing plans for a massive expansion of Iran’s enrichment programme, entailing the construction of ten plants across the country. This had the desired effect of silencing his critics, but did little to help Iran’s cause of placating the UN Security Council, which has called for a suspension of uranium enrichment until an agreement is reached on ways to guarantee against nuclear weapons proliferation.
Mr Ahmadinejad could once more find himself in an awkward position. If the Vienna group were to accept the swap, but with the US continuing to press for sanctions, he could be criticised for making a poor deal. If the swap is rejected his critics could accuse him of bungling. However, this time round Mr Ahmadinejad appears to have secured better political cover, notably through bringing on board Turkey and Brazil, and thereby associating Iran with two high-achieving developing countries whose leaders command international respect. The domestic legitimacy of the deal was also bolstered by the fact that President Lula was warmly received by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—with Mr Ahmadinejad in attendance.