This is a guest note by Barbara Slavin, freqent TWN contributor and author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. Slavin has visited Iran seven times.
It is easy to dismiss Iran’s nuclear agreement with Brazil and Turkey as a ploy to stave off a new round of economic sanctions.
The agreement, reached last weekend through the personal mediation of the presidents of Brazil and Turkey, came a day before the U.S. circulated a draft resolution against Iran in the U.N. Security Council. A vote is likely to take weeks, however, meaning that there is time for direct U.S.-Iran talks on new safeguards against Iran building a nuclear weapons capability.
The deal Iran has approved is contingent on the blessing of the United States, Russia, France and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran has promised to send a letter confirming the agreement to the IAEA within seven days.
“If it appears to be something that is a good jumping off point, it would be difficult for the Obama administration to completely stonewall it,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution who advises the State Department on long-term policy toward Iran.
The agreement, as reported in the Iranian press, is similar to one the U.S. put forward last fall with several important caveats. Iran has pledged to send out for storage in Turkey 2,640 pounds of slightly enriched uranium. In return, a year from now Iran would receive from the IAEA fuel for a reactor that makes medical isotopes.
The problem, from the U.S. point of view, is that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) has grown in the past six months. So it could send out 2,640 pounds and still have enough in the near future to make a nuclear weapon, according to David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security. Also, Iran has not promised to stop enriching uranium to levels that are dangerously close to weapons grade. And Tehran reserves the right to ask Turkey to return its LEU “in case provisions of this declaration are not respected.” What that means is not defined. U.S.-Iran talks could help clarify this.
It is possible that the deal will collapse because of domestic Iranian opposition, which doomed a tentative agreement last fall. While the U.S. response to the latest offer has understandably been skeptical, Iranians are not uniformly enthusiastic.
The newspaper Jomhuri-ye Eslami (Islamic Republic), a hard-line publication, noted Tuesday that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had insisted last year that any swap of LEU for reactor fuel should be simultaneous, take place on Iranian soil and involve only an amount of LEU “equal to [Iran’s] its needs” for fuel. “Unfortunately, these three conditions were not met,” the newspaper said. “Contrary to what has been claimed… this agreement is not a victory for Iran but an obvious retreat before the bullying demands of the West. The Islamic Republic of Iran should not accept it.”
Domestic opponents of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on both the left and right fear that he is prepared to sell out Iranian interests to try to shore up his tattered legitimacy.
Ahmadinejad, who enjoys grandstanding abroad, has lost popularity in Iran because of economic mismanagement and government repression in the aftermath of disputed 2009 presidential elections.
The U.S. domestic environment is also tricky just months before mid-term elections. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of “appeasing” Iran by seeking to engage it. The administration’s hard line in response to the Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal seems in part motivated by a desire to show that it is not na