Analysis: New nuclear deal is an Iranian triumph

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, May 21, 2010
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Brazil's President Ignazio Lula da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have emerged as big global players after delivering a compromise over Iran's nuclear fuel following intensive diplomatic talks in Tehran.

Though not all its details are known yet, it is safe to conclude that this deal is even worse than the one it aimed to "improve" - namely, the uranium transfer deal that Iran first agreed to and then rejected last autumn.

Originally, Iran was meant to transfer 1,200 kg of its low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France for reprocessing. The resulting product (20 per cent enriched fuel rods) would then return to Iran to fuel a research reactor producing medical isotopes.

Under the new agreement, Iran has added an extra step. Iran transfers 1,200 kg of LEU to Turkey and receives, through Turkey, 120 kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium fuel rods in exchange. Iran's fuel goes on to be reprocessed - and presumably it will be given to Iran later. The offer is valid for a month - if, by month's end, the fuel is not delivered to Iran, Iran can take back its LEU.

One unanswered question is who provides the 120 kg of fuel rods to Iran in exchange for the 1,200 kg provided to Turkey. Presumably it is Russia and France. If so, instead of just producing fuel for Iran by using Iranian LEU, France and Russia have agreed to supply their own fuel in exchange for Iranian LEU. And in return for its 1,200 kg of LEU, Iran may be receiving 240 kg of fuel rods - not 120 kg as in the previous deal.

Then there are safety issues. Turkey is not known to have the necessary facilities to guarantee nuclear safety. What arrangements have been made, given that the IAEA - the international body in charge of nuclear safeguards - was not a party to the deal and was not informed of its details at the negotiating stage?

Meanwhile, Iran continues to enrich uranium - and having delayed the delivery of its fuel by seven months by balking at the original deal, there is little gain for the international community at this point. The idea was to deprive Iran of enough fuel to make a bomb, build confidence and start negotiations in earnest.

But Iran has replenished its stockpile of fuel in seven months, announced that it would continue enrichment anyway and has replaced an agreement designed to build confidence with one that does the opposite.

What happens next? After some weeks of frantic diplomatic efforts, the deal will fall through. Meanwhile, the effort in New York to pass sanctions loses steam. Turkey and Brazil, the sponsors of this deal, resist any sanctions resolution, and Moscow is urging France and the United States to consider the swap deal as a good bridging proposal to "build upon".

Thus, the deal puts the West into a corner. It allows Iran to break its isolation: with Turkey and Brazil now having negotiated a deal independently of the US, the Security Council, the IAEA, or the P5+1, it is the US and the EU that look isolated.

Presidents Obama, Sarkozy and Medvedev, the original promoters of the transfer deal from last October, will have to say whether they are prepared to do what Iran demands in exchange for transferring its uranium to Turkey - something they were not prepared to do in October. Russia will probably go one way, France and the US the opposite way.

So here is the master stroke: in one fell swoop, Iran managed to create a rift inside the UN Security Council and delay sanctions through a deal that in all likelihood is just smoke and mirrors. Give Iran credit then - it has just gained another few months.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

    Last updated: 12:48pm, October 20 2010