By Rajan Philips
On May 17 in Tehran, the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey, and Brazil announced that they had reached a deal on exchanging uranium fuel for use in the Tehran Research Reactor.
The next day, the Obama Administration made what appeared to be a counter announcement that the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council had agreed to impose a fourth set of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the agreement on sanction “as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide.”
The two announcements are not totally contradictory and opinions differ as to whether they could be complementary. Both are significant insofar as the Tehran declaration involves middle power diplomatic efforts by Brazil and Turkey to resolve a longstanding standoff between Iran and the West, and the American sanction announcement involves the strongest wording yet to be agreed to by Russia and China for a Security Council resolution on Iran.
Iran was expected to notify the IAEA in writing within seven days of the May 17 declaration, and request an agreement with the Vienna Group to implement the nuclear transactions proposed in the tripartite declaration. Within one month of reaching an agreement with the Vienna Group, Iran will deposit its lightly enriched uranium (LEU) with Turkey, and the Vienna Group will then have to deliver the nuclear fuel to Iran within one year following. As of June 7—one month after the May declaration—Iran has not formally written to the IAEA and the declaration itself has been overtaken by other events in the world of nuclear politics and in the Middle East.
Iran’s Nuclear History
Iran’s nuclear program dates back to the 1950s, while allegations of Iran’s violations of NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) requirements and safeguards are associated with Iran’s nuclear activities after the Islamic revolution of 1979. The concern in the West has been over the possibility of Iran secretly developing a nuclear weapons program while insisting that its nuclear activities are only tied to peaceful purposes. In 2003, President Mohammad Khatami admitted to Iran’s carrying on a clandestine nuclear program and promised to end it.
With the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President in 2005, the nuclear issue became a controversial matter between Iran and the West. He restarted the nuclear research program, insisting that it was for peaceful purposes, and without opening the country’s nuclear activities to inspection by the IAEA. A 2005 National Intelligence Estimate by American intelligence agencies expressed concern over the growing potential for Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, and the Bush Administration succeeded in obtaining three Security Council sanctions against Iran’s continuing uranium enrichment and refusal to allow IAEA inspection. All of this led more to the ratcheting up of diplomatic rhetoric than to any positive outcome.
The Obama administration proposed a different tack based on negotiations rather than accusations. The Iranian government was forced into negotiations in October 2009, after a new underground enrichment plant near Qom came to light. In the October talks, with the United States participating fully for the first time, Iran agreed to open the Qom plant to international inspection and to a fuel swap idea suggested by the West. The West’s idea was to take much of Iran’s known holdings of LEU out of the country (to disable Iran from making a bomb) and in turn send back to Iran a much smaller amount of nuclear fuel for use in the production of medical isotopes at the Tehran Research Reactor.
The same amounts of LEU (1200 kg) and nuclear fuel (120 kg) figured in the 2010 May 17 declaration and the October 2009 agreement. According to US estimates, whereas 1200 kg of LEU represented two-thirds of Iran’s total uranium stock in 2009, it would now be half of Iran’s LEU stock. The increase in Iran’s residual LEU holding is attributed to Iran’s continuing enrichment of uranium in violation of Security Council resolutions; it is also the reason for West’s concern that Iran will now be left with sufficient quantities for making at least a crude nuclear weapon.
In any event, Iran repudiated the October 2009 deal, and on February 11, 2010, the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ahmadinejad declared Iran “a nuclear state” and ordered his atomic scientists to begin enriching their stockpile of uranium in order to power a medical reactor. Also in February, the IAEA issued one of its strongest reports, raising “concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” This was the background in which Iran and the US took to two parallel but opposing approaches to seize the initiative in the nuclear tug-of-war between them.
Deal overtaken by events
The political situation in Iran following Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election in June 2009 provides additional background to Iran’s repudiation of the October 2009 deal with the West and its espousal of the alternative arrangement six months later with Turkey and Brazil. The democratic opposition in Iran that became bold and vocal after the June 2009 election saw the October deal as an attempt by the government to rehabilitate itself in the face of continuing protests. The conservative and the more intransigent supporters of the government among the religious and military elite were hostile to Iran entering into an agreement involving the US. On the other hand, there appears to be greater support for the alternative deal proposed on May 17. The influential Speaker of the National Assembly, Ali Larijani, and a good majority of parliamentarians who had abstained from President Ahmadinejad’s re-election celebrations last year are known supporters of the new fuel swap deal.
The Americans, it has been opined, mis-read the mood inside Iran in vigorously pursuing the October deal with an unpopular regime and are now alienating a cross-section of Iranians by resorting to the “theatrics” of UN sanctions against a popular nuclear fuel swap deal. In fairness, the Obama Administration appears to have been viewing both avenues as complementary, supporting the Brazil-Turkey initiative with Iran, while being sceptical about its success, and pursuing the fourth Security Council sanction (the first under Obama) against Iran’s nuclear programs.
The perception that the two approaches are not at odds with each other is also the reason for the Russian and the Chinese support for the new round of sanctions targeting Iran’s financial institutions that support the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps overseeing the military aspects of the nuclear program, and requiring countries to inspect ships and planes going to or arriving from Iran. But the perception on the other side is quite the opposite. Brazil’s President Lula da Silva who has invested much in the tripartite initiative as a diplomatic alternative to Western dominance is also the most optimistic of the success of the May 17 declaration, and equally the most vocal in criticising the big power sanction initiative. Turkey has been more conciliatory and called the nuclear swap deal and the sanction as complementary initiatives. But that was before the Israeli raid on Turkish flotilla into Gaza in early June.
On June 9 the Security Council voted 12 to 2 in favor of new sanctions against Iran. Brazil and Turkey voted against the resolution, making it the first of the four sanctions resolutions failing to reach unanimity. It also opens a new divide in international diplomacy over Iran. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the sanctions as “used handkerchief” to be thrown into the dustbin. He reiterated on state television, during a meeting with visiting Turkish parliament speaker Mehmet Ali Shahin, that “the Tehran declaration is still alive and can play a role in international relations even if the arrogant [Western] powers are upset and angry.”
Israel is the key absentee player in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear programs. Israel’s existential reliance on nuclear capability and Ahmadinejad’s occasional bluster to wipe Israel off the map feed on one another and account for much of the West’s suspicion of Iran’s nuclear plans. Iran’s failure to allow full inspection by the IAEA has led to conflicting speculations about Iran’s nuclear missile intentions and capabilities.
While the IAEA appears to have moved from earlier scepticism about Iran’s nuclear capabilities to real concern in the most recent report, the US government’s National Intelligence Estimate has moved in the opposite direction, much to Israel’s chagrin.
Israel was also isolated in the five-yearly nuclear review conference held in New York less than two weeks after the May 17 declaration. The 189 members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) unanimously agreed to work towards a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East and called on Israel to sign the NPT. Iran, a signatory to the NPT, participated at the conference. President Obama supported the call for a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East but was “strongly opposed” to Israel being singled out.
Rajan Philips is based in Guelph, Ontario.