Do We Have a Deal?

As Brazil and Turkey reached a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran on Sunday night, the most important lesson to the West may well be that the traditional nuclear powers are no longer alone at their game.

According to a joint declaration released on Monday, Iran pledges to deposit 1,200 kilograms of 3.5 percent enriched uranium in Turkey in exchange for 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium to be provided by France, Russia and the United States. Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) may appoint observers to monitor the safekeeping of the materials.

The five nuclear powers and Germany reached a similar nuclear fuel swap agreement last October. Iranian leaders subsequently balked at the terms of the deal however amid political infighting following the country’s disputed presidential elections of 2009.

Turkey announced its willingness to act as intermediary in negotiations with Iran last month. The country’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, stressed at the time that the solution for Iran’s nuclear program was “through negotiations and the diplomatic process” — a tactic that has evidently yielded results after both Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited Tehran over the weekend to speak with their Iranian counterparts, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both Turkey and Brazil are currently members of the UN Security Council where the United States has been working to pass new sanctions against Iran.

Washington remains skeptical. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly called Davutoğlu last week to express her uncertainty about Iran’s commitment. A State Department spokesman said that in their view, “Iran’s recent diplomacy was an attempt to stop Security Council action without actually taking steps to address international concerns about its nuclear program.” Iran may be trying to split the Council in order to avert a resolution.

Clinton hasn’t been able to persuade many of the world’s rising powers to join the American effort however. In March she returned empty handed from Brasília where President Lula declined to support a push for tougher sanctions while China nor Russia seem to worry much about the prospect of a nuclear Iran. In Thomas Barnett’s words, the non-Western power brokers are effectively saying: “We ourselves can and will decide, under what circumstances we’ll collectively self-engineer ourselves — and other rising regional powers like us — into nuclear status.”

Brazil, for one, may have no nuclear ambitions of its own but along with China, is believes very much that countries ought to determine their own destiny, without American interference. To reiterate Barnett once more, “the old-boy nuclear powers club no longer decides.”

Laura Rozen at Politico quotes two particular concerns with the agreement as it rests now. First, compared to October of last year, Iran’s uranium stockpile has grown considerably. Removing 1,200 kilograms of low enriched uranium leaves the country with just enough for a breakout capacity.

Potentially more problematic is that since February, Iran has been higher enriching small quantities of uranium to 20 percent, allegedly for medical needs. It may currently be producing about a single kilogram of the higher enriched uranium a month. In the agreement brokered by Turkey and Brazil, there is no mention of Iran halting its 20 percent higher enrichment however, “even though the deal would make way for the international community to provide Iran with the higher enriched fuel it supposedly requires for nuclear medical purposes.”

Whether the deal holds remains to be seen. The United States and Western allies may object while Iran may turn out to be less than satisfied with a status similar to Japan’s: being capable of producing nuclear weapons but not taking the final step.

Reuters reports on some of the international reactions. Foreign Secretary William Hague of the United Kingdom, newly appointed, stressed that work on a new Security Council resolution must continue. Iran’s move “may just be a delaying tactic,” he said.

France believes the deal does not address core concerns. “Let us not deceive ourselves, a solution to the (fuel) question, if it happens, would do nothing to settle the problem posed by the Iranian nuclear program,” according to a French Foreign Ministry spokesman. The office of European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels agreed that the deal “does not answer all of the concerns” raised by Tehran’s nuclear program.

Russian president Dmitri Medvedev expressed a similar concern. “One question is: will Iran itself enrich uranium?” If so, “those concerns that the international community had before could remain,” he worried. But Medvedev promised to discuss the issue with his Brazilian counterpart who was part of the agreement.