The agreement signed last week between Iran, Turkey and Brazil to exchange Tehran's enriched uranium for nuclear fuel does not alter the reality or dull the threat posed by Iran. It does, however, represent a fascinating lesson in managing foreign affairs.
In October 2009, when it was proposed that Iran replace its enriched uranium stockpile with nuclear fuel rods, no one publicly demanded that the exchange be conditioned on Iran ceasing to enrich uranium independently. The plan was described as a confidence-building measure and called for Iran to transfer 75 percent of its uranium enriched at 3.5 percent to Russia and France. In exchange they would deliver to Iran, within a year, 120 kilograms of nuclear fuel for Iran's research reactors.
The quantities were based on estimates that Iran had 1,200 kilograms of uranium, and that removing 700 to 800 kilograms of it from its territory would prevent Tehran from building a nuclear warhead (which requires much higher levels of enrichment ). The Western proposal aimed to test just how serious Iran had been in declaring that it had no intention to develop nuclear arms. It also sought to buy time to conduct negotiations regarding Iran's complete cessation of nuclear enrichment.
Iran rejected the proposal and continued enriching uranium. The current assessment is that it holds close to 2,300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, meaning that even if 1,200 kilograms of uranium is removed from its territory, it still has enough to enrich to weapons-grade levels that can be used to build a nuclear warhead. This explains Iran's willingness to transfer to Turkey the amount of uranium that has been demanded by Western powers. However, the West now says the deal with Turkey will not put an end to Iran's uranium enrichment - which had been the flaw in its proposal in the first place. What made these countries, led by the United States, oppose this deal and present a draft of new sanctions, as if it were punishment for the flawed deal with Turkey?
We can assume that had Iran accepted the Western proposal, thereby signing on to the same things agreed on in the deal with Turkey, the world would have been thrilled, praising Barack Obama's diplomatic skills and describing Iran's surrender to Western pressure as a miracle.
Except the Iranian regime decided to grant the "diplomatic gift" to Turkey and Brazil, not the United States - that's why there has been an outrage. The Islamic Republic avoided "surrendering" to Washington, determined the terms of the agreement itself and bolstered the standing of its friends. The Iranian regime also placed a dilemma before the United States and its partners, who rushed to fall straight into the trap.
Instead of accepting the deal between Iran and Turkey - whereby a quantity of uranium that Washington had sought but failed to remove from Iran's stockpile would be pulled out - and continuing to threaten sanctions unless Iran ceased to enrich uranium, a new proposal is being formulated whose goals will not likely be achieved and which may torpedo the agreement with Turkey. This new proposal will not prevent the huge Chinese and Russian investments in Iran, or include the Central Bank of Iran on the list of boycotted financial institutions. In the best-case scenario, the U.S. initiative grants Europe the leverage to impose its own sanctions that are tougher than those enacted by the United Nations.
These sanctions are too weak to make Iran reverse its decision to develop nuclear technology, but they do constitute, from Tehran's perspective, yet another protective layer against a military strike against it, as the new measures must be given time to work. How long until Iran has a nuclear weapon? Until it has sufficient uranium to build a nuclear weapon? This is the problem with sanctions - defining their goals can be confusing.
The more problematic result of these events is that after the blow Obama struck at the exchange deal, it is doubtful whether there is room for any sort of dialogue between him and the Iranian regime. Israel is of course pleased with the turn of events, but this is the first time Iran withdrew from the red lines it had set a few months ago. It is willing to transfer its uranium to another state, it is not insisting that the transfer be done in stages, and it wants full dialogue - on all issues - with the international community. Lacking any other worthy alternative, there is no reason not to try out the Turkish option.
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