Turkey and Brazil Raise the (Nuclear) Dead

Did Turkey and Brazil just perform the unthinkable and raise the dead? Depending on whether the ‘Vienna Group’ (US, France, Russia, and IAEA) accept the new ‘zombie deal‘ reached by Brazil, Turkey, and Iran this past week, they very well may have.

Back in October the US and other members of the P-5 thought they had reached a breakthrough agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. Iran would ship 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU; 3.5-5% enriched) out of the country, which with Russia and France’s help, would be exchanged for  20%-enriched fuel rods. Iran could then replenish the slowly depleting supply in its Tehran’s Research Reactor and use these fuel rods for medical purposes, a peaceful use for nuclear energy if ever there was one.

Unfortunately soon after the deal was made Ahmadinejad came under heavy attack from virtually all political factions for ‘selling out’ Iran’s inalienable nuclear rights–ironically, a sentiment he had taken pains to cultivate during his first term in office–and Iran backed out. It no longer felt comfortable sending its LEU to France or Russia, wanted a fuel exchange on its own turf, went back and forth on whether the exchange would need to be simultaneous or not, etc. Whether or not the October deal was made in good faith in the first place, the deal was now dead. At least until Brazil and Turkey stepped in.

Iran will report the details of the new deal to the IAEA within the next 7 days, but from the joint statement and remarks from those involved some specifics have emerged, they boil down to these main points:

  • Iran will ship 1,200 kg of LEU out of the country to be kept in Turkey
  • In return it will get 120kg of 20% enriched nuclear fuel within one year
  • While the LEU is in Turkey, it will remain property of Iran, and Iran can ask for it to be returned ‘swiftly and unconditionally’
  • Iran and IAEA can send personnel to monitor the LEU while it is being held in Turkey
  • During this exchange period (maximum one year), Iran will not need to stop its own domestic enrichment (not a stated point but implied)

As far as the US and Vienna Group is concerned, is this a good deal? At first glance it is remarkably similar to the October deal, at least insofar as the amounts of uranium exchanged are concerned. Although even the October deal was a confidence-building measure and was never intended to totally prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, given Iran’s scientific progress since October this new deal is even less detrimental to their nuclear program.

Back in October 1,200kg was about 2/3rds of Iran’s stockpile. Now it is just about one-half. Since there is nothing in the joint statement requiring Iran to suspend enrichment activities, Iran’s stockpile minus the 1,200kg it would ship out would still leave Iran with enough remaining LEU to continue enrichment and potentially reach breakout capacity (technical difficulties notwithstanding).

There’s also the odd bit about why Iran would even want the 20% enriched fuel back now anyway. Back in October Iran was only able to enrich to low levels, but since then they have been enriching uranium to higher levels, allegedly close to 20%. So why exchange for something it can produce on its own?

Regardless, without seeing the official report to the IAEA due in a week’s time, I’d tentatively say the Vienna Group should say yes to this.

First off, admittedly this won’t solve the standoff between Iran and the West, and would not even address the main concerns of the proposed 4th round of sanctions against Iran. Yet it would be a huge step towards confidence-building. The nuclear issue has been built up by both parties to such a degree that any sort of ‘grand bargain’ is not going to be reached all at once. It’s going to take smaller steps like these and a deal of time before relations between ‘the Great Satan’ and ‘the Ayatollahs’ are repaired.

Secondly, as much as it may harm our pride, this is likely the best deal we’re going to get out of Iran. As much as suspension of further enrichment activities is a ‘deal breaker’ for us, it is even more so for them. It’s not just politically costly–‘selling out’ Iran’s  nuclear rights–but also economically and technologically costly. You can’t just turn off and then turn back on centrifuges. It take a great deal of money and energy to re-start the spinning, and also sets the work of nuclear scientists back months if not years. The latter is something we may well wish to do, but it’s simply not something Iran will agree to.

On top of this, Brazil and Turkey–both among the rotating members of the Security Council–are extremely unlikely to approve any further rounds of sanctions with this deal on the table. The same goes for Russia and China, who always fight hammer-and-sickle against any meaningful sanctions. Perhaps the US shouldn’t have tried for this fuel exchange in the first place, but backing out now would give the authorities inside Iran further ammunition for their claims that the US is an unwilling partner that is hell-bent on seeing the Islamic Republic fail. Not to mention blowback from our reticent allies in the ongoing nuclear dance.

Third, and related to this, unlike previous deals, this one seems to be endorsed at the highest levels of the Iranian regime, so there is less risk of the deal falling through on the Iranian side (note: less not no risk of this falling through; it is still Iran). The Brazilian president met with the Supreme Leader himself during his trip to Tehran, so the deal is sanctioned at the highest possible level. Knowing this, agreeing to the deal can present the US and others concerned with a huge opportunity to test whether Iran itself is a willing partner. If a deal that Iran, with the approval of the Supreme Leader and hammered out with two non-Western allies, falls by the wayside, then the US can use this to press for further sanctions. If Iran burns these bridges then it may not have many friends left on the Security Council.

Finally, the reality of the situation is that there is very little we can do to stop Iran from getting a bomb, should it decide to pursue that path (and yes I include that aside because I’m still not convinced that’s where Iran is heading). Given the structure of the NPT Iran could just continue to enrich up to a certain level within IAEA guidelines and then opt out, a la North Korea. Military strikes are not going to take out their facilities (to say nothing of the huge boost the regime would get from this), and the hardest part–getting the scientific know-how–is already a done deal thanks to A. Q. Khan and others. All we can do is slow them down and try to provide incentives for them not to pursue nuclear weapons. For years our policy of isolation and containment has failed. Despite more sanctions and agonizingly bringing reticent allies onto our side, Iran is closer to producing a bomb than it was when we began this strategy. Engagement, even if we think Iran has absolutely no intention of fulfilling its end of the bargain, is certainly worth a try.

As a last note, I cannot stress enough how important the timing of this nuclear deal is. Most articles have rightfully noted that Iran has agreed to this as a fourth round of sanctions are looming overhead. While some have noted this, not enough attention has been paid to the other approaching date: the one-year anniversary of Iran’s (s)election. With the green movement gearing up for further street protests and the regime already beginning to intimidate the opposition through executions and detentions, offering this deal is clearly a way of showing a lighter, more accommodationist side to the international community. When and if–most likely when–Iran begins indiscriminately beating protesters in the streets and sentencing people to death for throwing rocks, let’s hope the world doesn’t turn a blind eye in the name of progress on the ‘more important’ nuclear issue.


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