India Trying to Work Around Iran Sanctions

While the West is seeing progress as a result of its sanctions against Iran, with the regime signaling a renewed willingness to negotiate about its secretive nuclear program, nearby India is determined to work “creativity” with the country. The reasons? China, oil and gas.

At The Diplomat, N.V. Subramanian writes about India’s attempts to work around both UN and unilateral American and European sanctions, advising Indian companies operating in Iran to join international consortiums, for instance, which makes it harder for them to be hit by sanctions. “They could also be advised to create new corporate identities with no exposure in the United States or European Union.”

Driving New Delhi’s Iran policy is, in part, the country’s ever growing demand for oil and natural gas. Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Indian government has begun pursuing a “Look West” approach in the Middle East, strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia in order to ensure a stable supply of necessary resources. It can hardly afford to miss out on Iran’s vast oil and gas supplies.

There is, however, another, at least equally important reason for India to remain engaged with Iran. As Subramanian points out, India’s Ministry of External Affairs is worried about China stepping into a vacuum left by the exit of international corporations from Iran. That would inevitably enhance the Middle Kingdom’s leverage with Tehran and that’s all the motivation New Delhi needs to maintain an active presence there.

While certainly no fan of Iran’s nuclear program, the Indians are in something of a tough spot. India, after all, is itself one of the few countries in the world never to have signed the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and it built a nuclear weapon illegitimately. With fellow rising powers Brazil and China, it continually defends nations’ right to self-determination, even when it leads them to irritate the West. But it has to wonder whether the price — a nuclear Iran — is worth that fight.

Obama: Progress on Iran Sanctions

President Barack Obama believes that international sanctions against Iran are cause for “disquiet” in the Islamic Republic. As the country finds itself under pressure and threatened with regional isolation, the United States will prepare steps for Tehran that it could take in order reassure the world about its nuclear ambitions, he said.

Speaking with a small group of journalists on Wednesday, the president told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour that his administration had picked up “rumblings that there is disquiet about the impact” of the latest round of sanctions in Iran.

Possibly in response to the latest UN sanctions which were followed by unilateral action on the part of both the European Union and the United States, Iran has signaled a renewed willingness to negotiate about a nuclear fuel exchange agreement. It reached such a deal with Brazil and Turkey last May but that was regarded by Western allies as little more than a stalling tactic. The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, now welcomes the Iranians’ willingness to talk, as does President Obama.

According to the president, the costs of the sanctions has been higher than Iran anticipated. Changing their “calculus” is difficult however. “It may be that their ideological commitment to nuclear weapons is such that they’re not making a simple cost-benefit analysis on this issue,” he feared, after twice mentioning Iranian nationalism as a potential motivator — one that the president acknowledged he could not change

Negotiations about an exchange of nuclear fuel will take place with the Vienna Group, comprised of France and Russia besides the United States. In St Petersburg last month, French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced that his country was prepared to start talking with Iran over its nuclear program “without delay.” Sarkozy stressed at the time that the sanctions “were not to punish Iran but to convince its leaders to resume the path of negotiations.”

A second set of talks takes place with the P5+1 group which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council along with Germany. Baroness Ashton spearheads this negotiation effort. “Both tracks have promise in bringing about a diplomatic and political solution,” said Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, on Tuesday.

Turkey, which has repeatedly offered to mediate between Iran and the West, has reportedly been in intense contact with Washington about its diplomatic efforts in recent weeks. The Turks are trying to persuade the Iranians to get back to the table.

Different sources expect international talks with Iran to be held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York come September.

Republican Resolution on Iran May Just Be Political

My colleague Nick Ottens already touched upon this story yesterday, but because of the issue’s tremendous importance to the United States and the Middle East at large, I thought it would be appropriate to toss a few things into the debate.

In case you happened to miss Nick’s report, a substantial portion of the Republican Party (mostly Tea Party members) in the House decided to introduce a resolution supporting a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Close to one third of House Republicans have already signed onto the resolution (PDF), which is a substantial number considering that the United States Congress has never in its history adopted a stamp of approval for preemptive force (and no, authorization for the invasion of Iraq doesn’t count).

All of this comes at a time when the Iranian leadership continues to thwart its international obligations under both the UN and the IAEA. It comes only a few weeks after the United States, the UN Security Council, and the European Union passed through the strongest economic sanctions on Iran to date. And coincidently, this comes at a time when President Barack Obama is trying to get his “nuclear zero” policy off the ground.

Yet despite the “impending doom” of an Iranian weapon, the resolution says more about the American political season than it does about a genuine support of Israel, or a real worry about Iran’s nuclear capability. In short, by creating this resolution (code named HR 1553), Republicans and the White House’s other political opponents are attempting to capitalize on the president’s stalemated Iran policy.

The November congressional elections are fast approaching. Opponents of the president are trying to find any foreign issue — any at all — that could draw the support of American voters who are either ambivalent about foreign policy or who are weary of where America is going. And Iran could be the big ticket issue.

Granted, there are other foreign policy priorities that Republicans can try to exploit. They could boast about Obama’s July 2011 timeline for Afghanistan, but those concerns already resonate with some in the president’s own party. Republicans could talk about Obama’s failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but this would most likely spark a harsh retaliation from Democrats who would be quick to point out Bush’s own failure to solve the conflict. Bringing China into the mix is also a possibility, but a far-fetched one at that; most Americans really aren’t concerned about China surpassing the United States anytime soon.

For Republican challengers — and Tea Party members running for Congress — Iran is the one issue that they can hammer the White House on. They can argue that the United States has alienated many of their allies (Turkey, Brazil, Israel, Russia) for a sanctions resolution whose effectiveness is in doubt. Some will probably argue that Tehran is actually in a stronger position than a year ago, thanks to Brazil’s and Turkey’s willingness to pick a fight with Washington over the pressure track. And as all politicians have done, Republicans can highlight Obama’s indecisiveness over his approval and then rejection of a nuclear fuel swap deal.

Some of this is justified. Some of this isn’t. But you can be sure that all of it will be brought up during the campaign. The House maneuver is the official start of the midterm elections.

Republicans Preparing for War Against Iran?

Are Republicans laying the groundworks for a war against Iran? At Foreign Policy, Jamal Abdi seems to think so. “A game plan to draw the United States into a third war in the Middle East may be quietly unfolding before our eyes.”

House Republicans last week introduced a resolution that would provide explicit and unilateral support for a possible Israeli airstrike against Iran. The Islamic republic is suspected of developing a nuclear weapon in secret. Since recently, it certainly has the missiles to carry them.

The measure, introduced by gongressman Louie Gohmert of Texas and 46 other Republicans, endorses Israel’s use of “all means necessary” against Iran — “including the use of military force.” According to Gohmert, the United States “have got to act.”

We need to show our support for Israel. We need to quit playing games with this critical ally in such a difficult area.

Abdi points out that “Congress has never endorsed preemptive military strikes by a foreign country,” rendering this, in all likelihood, a political move that allows the opposition to portray itself as tough and uncompromising compared to a foreign policy on the part of the Obama Administration that is perceived to be weak and failing.

Further warmongering came from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on Thursday who suggested at the American Enterprise Institute that the United States have yet to tackle two-thirds of the “axis of evil.” With Iraq supposedly taken care of, “why is it,” Gingrich wondered, “that the other two parts of the axis of evil are still visibly, cheerfully making nuclear weapons?” It’s because America “stood at brink,” he said, “looked over and thought, ‘too big a problem’.”

Such rhetoric may appeal to the more simple minded who dread over the end of American ascendancy but Abdi stresses that by encouraging an attack, “supporters of war are effectively working to circumvent the president and his military leadership, who have warned in dire terms against military action in Iran, and instead goading a third country into launching the first strike.” They are probably correct in their assumption that once Israel launches an attack, the United States would have little choice but to support it.

But bombing Iran now would do more harm than good. An airstrike is unlikely to take out all of Iran’s nuclear facilities at once, dragging the attacker into a prolonged conflict, possibly a ground war that will only strengthen Iran’s resolve to develop its nuclear potential while undermining internal forces of reform.

Sanctions and isolation are putting Iran under pressure and may manage to contain it. Airstrikes on the other hand, “would propel 56 year-old Iranian demons into overdrive,” as Roger Cohen put it, “and lock in an America-hating Islamic Republic for the next half-century.”

Republicans who believe that bombing Iran will take care of the problem should have a hard look at the full consequences which their invasion of Iraq had on the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and subsequent pervasiveness of extremist organizations which position themselves as anti-American. An attack upon Iran should be a last resort to be undertaken only when the United States or its allies are directly threatened. Until that moment arrives, military action of such magnitude would be a colossal mistake.

Iran Under Pressure

Although hardly “crippling” its regime, the sanctions imposed upon Iran by the United Nations, Europe and the United States for its illegitimate nuclear program appear to have some effect at isolating the country.

Brazil and Turkey approached Iran earlier this year to negotiate and reached a nuclear fuel exchange agreement in May under which Iran pledged 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 the Nuclear Suppliers Group; in effect, France, Russia and the United States. The West was skeptical though and feared that Iran might just be stalling. It went ahead with sanctions in spite of Brazil’s and Turkey’s diplomacy.

On Monday, Iran announced that it was prepared to resume negotiations about a nuclear fuel exchange deal “without conditions” mere days after European officials agreed to a fresh round of unilateral sanctions. The European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, welcomed the Iranian initiative.

While Iran is trying to convince Brussels that this time will be different, it’s losing the shreds of sympathy it still had with Moscow. After Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alleged this weekend that the Kremlin was taking its cue from Western powers in an effort to isolate Iran, the Russian Foreign Ministry formally condemned his remarks, describing them as “unacceptable” and “irresponsible.” Russia long opposed UN sanctions against Iran but gave way in May under American pressure.

Iran itself meanwhile is deteriorating into a military dictatorship. Having successfully suppressed the widespread opposition that ensued from last year’s disputed presidential election, Ahmadinejad and his allies in the Revolutionary Guard are now set to oust the conservative elements from the regime which have accused him of pursuing an “extremist” agenda.

Clerics and parliamentarians from the older generation, who were part of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, fear that Ahmadinejad is squandering religious principles in favor of a messianic cult that rejects the intermediary role of the clergy. Ahmadinejad has referred to the divide among conservatives, warning that “the regime has only one party” while his supporters refer to the opposition in parliament as a “conspiracy” — the same rhetoric that was deployed during last year’s protests.

Now It’s France’s Turn

France is prepared to start negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program within the International Atomic Energy Agency “without delay,” said President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday while meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev.

A spokesman for Sarkozy’s office said the talks would be held “on the basis of Brazilian and Turkish efforts and the response sent out by Russia, France and the United States,” referring to the nuclear fuel exchange agreement brokered by Brazil and Turkey in May. Iran at the time agreed 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.

The latter wouldn’t play ball though. A French Foreign Ministry spokesman noted in May that “a solution to the (fuel) question, if it happens, would do nothing to settle the problem posed by the Iranian nuclear program.” President Dmitri Medvedev expressed a similar concern. “One question is: will Iran itself enrich uranium?” he wondered. If so, “those concerns that the international community had before could remain.”

American secretary of state Hillary Clinton was quick to announce tough sanctions for Iran, sharing British concerns that its agreement to the Brazilian-Turkish deal was little more than a delaying tactic. After the United Nations Security Council agreed to impose new sanctions against Iran on June 9, both the European Union and the United States have enacted unilateral embargos that target Iranian shipping, trade, insurance, finance and energy. China and Russia, along with Brazil and Turkey, currently nonpermanent members of the Security Council, have opposed far-reaching punitive measures. President Medvedev openly criticized the additional Western sanctions last Thursday.

In St Petersburg this weekend, President Sarkozy stressed that the sanctions “were not to punish Iran but to convince its leaders to resume the path of negotiations,” reported an official. Washington has similarly noted that sanctions should be targeted against the Revolutionary Guard and the evermore authoritarian regime of the ayatollahs.

France and Iran have a history when it comes to nuclear energy. Under the shah, France provided Iran with enriched uranium to support his nuclear ambitions. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 however, this supply was immediately frozen while France and Iran squabbled for many years over the return of a $1 billion Iranian investment in the construction of a French nuclear power plant. The new regime quickly began to finance the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah which abducted French citizens several times during the 1980s in order to put more pressure on Paris.

In more recent years France has expressed a newfound interest in the Middle East. President Sarkozy almost singlehandedly launched a Mediterranean Union and pushed for a Gaza ceasefire plan in conjunction with his Egyptian colleague Hosni Mubarak in January 2009. What’s more, France has been sharing nuclear technology with several Arab states, including Algeria, Libya, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

At the same time, France staunchly opposes any further spread of nuclear weapons. The reaons here are entirely self serving. As John Vinocur wrote in October of last year, “France’s great levers of international influence — its special status as a nuclear power and as a member of the UN Security Council — are best defended by visibly aggressive adherence to the global nuclear nonproliferation treaties that Iran is violating.” In short, France will welcome the chance to assert itself as a great power once again.

Turkey Awakes as a Regional Power

Turkey has worked hard in recent years to establish itself as something of a Middle Eastern power broker. With Brazil, it managed to negotiate a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran last month while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a strategic partnership with Russia in February. On Thursday, the architect of Turkey’s newfound regional engagement, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, could announce the creation of Middle East free-trade zone.

Besides Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria have agreed to allow a free exchange of goods and people to take place between their borders. Neighboring states are explicitly invited to participate in the near future.

At the Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum in Istanbul on Thursday, Davutoğlu stressed that the initiative should not be considered an alternative to the European Union which also maintains a common market. “We want a vehicle to leave from Turkey and reach Morocco without stopping at any border gates,” he professed.

Although Turkey still favors EU membership, its ambitions have been disheartened in recent years because of Europe’s apparent unwillingness to admit it into the union. In many Western European member states, mounting concerns over immigration and supposed Islamification coupled with widespread Euroskepticism is preventing national leaders from arguing in favor of expansion. Turkey, which has hoped to be accepted as part of the EU for many decades, is now taking a different path. Increasingly, it is turning eastward, having decided, apparently, that its future, at least for the time being, lies in Asia, not Europe.

Last December, The Economist described the move as “natural, considering proximity, the strength of the Turkish economy, the revival of Islamic feeling in Turkey after decades of enforced secularism, and frustration with the sluggishness of talks to join the European Union. Indeed,” notes the British newspaper, “Turkey’s Middle East offensive has taken on something of the scale and momentum of an invasion, albeit a peaceful one.”

Turkey has already signed free-trade agreements with Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. It hopes to achieve similar arrangements with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. Most of these countries are only too happy to connect with Turkey’s burgeoning economy which has grown impressively in recent years, in spite of the global downturn. Turkish exports to the Middle East and North Africa have swollen nearly sevenfold to $31 billion in 2008. The country is investing considerably in many neighboring states, including Iraq, and its significance as a conduit for energy to Europe is set to increase as the future Nabucco pipeline will carry natural gas from Azerbaijan to the West.

Even Turkey’s indignation in the wake of Israel’s violent interception of an aid flotilla bound for Gaza earlier this month should be understood as a conscious attempt to promote its regional influence. Turkey, like most of the Middle East, is very much concerned about Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons and relies very much on the import of Iranian gas. That is why, in April, Davutoğlu offered to mediate. Turkey fears that Western pressure will only isolate Iran further and invigorate its desire for the Bomb, which would suddenly make Iran, not Turkey, the great power in the region.

If Turkey intends to normalize its relations with Iran — which it does — it can hardly be seen as making steps to prepare for a nuclear Iran — which it dreads. So, Erdoğan reacted with outrage when Israel prevented ships carrying aid and activists from reaching the Gaza Strip and killed nine on board in the process. Israel is already a nuclear power and it appears that Turkey is willing to jeopardize its relations with the Jewish state in order to justify, once Tehran announces the weaponization of its nuclear program, its own rapid reach for the same.

This puts the West in tough spot. Turkey, after all, is part of NATO and supposedly still a candidate for EU membership. Europe has simply missed the boat and must accept Turkey as a regional power on its fringe — something that could actually help its foreign policy both in the Middle East and with Russia, if handled carefully.

The Americans have greater difficulty coping with Turkey’s rise. They will not like to play favorites between Turkey and Israel, especially with Iran hanging in the balance. No wonder American defense secretary Robert Gates was annoyed on Wednesday when Turkey voted against a UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. “If there’s anything to the notion that Turkey is moving eastward, it is in no small part because it was pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought,” he told reporters in London. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones though. America is less popular in Turkey than Europe is. A BBC poll conducted in April revealed that 70 percent of Turks hold a negative view of the United States for which the Iraq War is largely to blame.

At the same time, the West hasn’t lost Turkey yet. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s ruling party may be more Islamist than befits the country’s fifty years of secular politics but at the same time, it is pushing back the remaining power of the military. Reform along Western lines is still moving foward, if slowly. In Iraq, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has played a key role in forging alliances between the country’s competing Shia and Sunni factions. Moreover, he has courted the Kurds in southeastern Turkey and north Iraq which is a step toward pacifying the border region.

Turkey isn’t suddenly obstructionist. It remains committed to NATO and ultimately seeks membership of the European Union. But for the time being, it will conduct a more independent foreign policy — something the West should try to exploit instead of complain about.

Syria Won’t Turn Easily

In late May, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts traveled to Syria for the third time since becoming Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2009. A spokesman for the senator declared at the time that, although Kerry recognizes the “serious, longstanding disagreements with Syria,” including its support of international terrorism, “Syria can play a critical role in bringing peace and stability if it makes the strategic decision to do so.” It probably won’t however.

Syria does play a critical role in the Middle Eastern peace process. It has been at war with Israel repeatedly in recent decades and up to this very day, Israel occupies the Golan Heights which the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unwilling to surrender. Syria funds Hezbollah and is indirectly response for stirring violence and uproar in neighboring Lebanon. Consequently, Syria has very little friends left in the region.

Syria sided with Egypt and Jordan during the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War to fight Israel during the 1960s and 70s. Since, both Egypt and Jordan have normalized their relations with the Jewish state but not Syria. In fact, Syria’s ties with Egypt and Jordan worsened during the presidency Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000) already, the father of the current leader, Bashar al-Assad. It was during his regime that Syria began to support terrorist organizations, including Hamas, Hezbollah and the Turkish PKK which nearly dragged the country into a confrontation with Turkey in 1998.

After the death of father al-Assad in 2000, there were high hopes that his son, highly educated and supposedly a moderate, would bring about a new era in Syrian foreign politics. Those hopes were quickly shattered when he further estranged Egypt and met personally with Hezbollah’s leadership in July 2007 — something even his father would never do.

During that same meeting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran was present: the only Middle Eastern leader al-Assad does get along with. Iran and Syria have consistently strengthened their ties in recent years, in spite of Western skepticism.

There are analysts who imagine that this alliance will never hold. Syria is an Arab state, they argue, secular and Sunni while Iran likes to stress its Persian identity, is a theocracy and overwhelmingly Shia. Both states would be united solely by the enemies they share: originally, Saddam Hussein; today, Israel and the United States. So when the coalition forces pull out of Iraq, Syria and Iran would inevitably clash with both supporting different Muslim groups.

This narrative ignores the fact that Syria only approached Iran after the ayatollahs took over. Despite the differences in religious persuasion, what’s always united the two countries is their fierce hatred of the West in general, Israel and the United States in particular. They both support terrorist organizations and both resisted the Israeli presence in Lebanon throughout the 1980s. The current president has only intensified the Iranian alliance with investments, trade accords and nuclear exchange agreements. All in all, this little axis of evil is likely to hold even as the supposed American threat becomes less apparent.

Kerry’s attempts to loosen the bond between Syria and Iran are admirable but likely doomed. As former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk testified before Congress in April 2008, “Just about every leader that has attempted to deal with President Bashar al-Assad has come away frustrated.”

The list includes Colin Powell, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The cause of their frustration is the disconnect between Assad’s reasonableness in personal meetings and his regime’s inability or unwillingness to follow through on understandings reached there. It is unclear whether this is because of a lack of will or a lack of ability to control the levers of power. Either way, it raises questions about the utility of a policy of engagement.

Indyk, nonetheless, though it was worth the effort to try to negotiate anew and that is exactly what the Obama Administration appears to be doing. But what’s the point? Syria has consistently refused even to recognize Israel’s right to exist. It has repeatedly violated Lebanon’s sovereignty. And under President al-Assad’s leadership, the country’s ties with terrorism have only grown stronger.

There has been some goods news. Syria’s economy has grown impressively in recent years and its middle class is growing. Turkish diplomacy may be able to move Syria into the moderate camp while invigorating its secular, cosmopolitan society. Its trade relations with Iraq are improving, so hopefully there will be no political intervention once the United States withdraw. This appears to be mostly the work of Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, not al-Assad, though Dardari is said to be one of the president’s closest advisors.

Nevertheless, the time for American engagement hasn’t come yet. By treating Syria as a credible partner now, both Israel and the United States run the risk of appearing and wear and accommodating. Were just one of the two to start talking, as appears to be the case, that risks undermining an historic alliance that is already under pressure.

Clinton Announces “Tough” Iran Sanctions

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday about the new START treaty signed with Russia last April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that a draft resolution for sanctions against Iran has been agreed upon by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

According to Clinton, Britain, France and the United States “have reached agreement on a strong draft with the cooperation of both Russia and China.” She described the news “as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide,” referring to the nuclear fuel exchange deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil over the weekend.

With Turkey and Brazil, Iran has agreed to deposit 1,200 kilograms of low enriched uranium in Turkey in exchange for 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium to be provided by France, Russia and the United States.

The Western powers responded with skepticism to that accord on Monday. Both Britain and the United States expressed concern about Tehran supposedly trying to delay negotiations and split the Security Council. The French added that it “would do nothing to settle the problem posed by the Iranian nuclear program.”

Although the Chinese welcomed the nuclear fuel swap as proposed by Turkey and Brazil, Beijing last month expressly instructed its diplomats in New York to work with the Americans on drafting a resolution for tougher sanctions. Nonetheless, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated on Tuesday that, “China has always believed that dialogue and negotiations are the best channel for resolving the Iran nuclear issue.” It seems likely that China and Russia will insist that some of the tougher language be scrapped from the resolution eventually.

European and American officials have indicated that the new resolution might be just the weakest of three steps aimed at “crippling” the Iranian regime — which Clinton described as moving toward one of military dictatorship in February — and possibly isolating the country. The Europeans would follow with unified as well as unilateral sanctions, backed by the legitimizing force of UN action.

Brazil, Lebanon and Turkey, which all hold rotating seats on the Security Council at present, have expressed opposition to the new resolution.

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.