Source: DTN News / NYTimes.com By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
(NSI News Source Info) CAIRO, Egypt - May 18, 2010: Iran announced an agreement on Monday to ship some of its nuclear fuel to Turkey in a deal that could offer a short-term solution to its nuclear standoff with the West, or prove to be a tactic aimed at derailing efforts to bring new sanctions against Tehran.
The deal, negotiated by Turkey and Brazil, calls for Iran to ship some 2,640 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, where it would be stored. In exchange, after one year, Iran would have the right to receive about 265 pounds of uranium enriched to 20 percent from Russia and France. The terms mirror a deal with the West last October that fell apart when Iran backtracked. But it is far from clear that the Obama administration will agree to it now. In October, the 2,640 pounds that Iran was supposed to ship out of the country represented about two-thirds of its stockpile of nuclear fuel — enough to ensure that it would not retain sufficient nuclear material to make a weapon. But because Iran has continued its enrichment efforts, that amount of fuel accounts for a smaller proportion of its declared stockpile. According to a Western diplomat who spoke in return for anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, the amount of low-enriched uranium that Iran was prepared to ship to Turkey may represent little more than half its current stockpile. “The situation has changed,” the diplomat said. The United States reacted cautiously. “Given Iran’s repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said in a statement. “While it would be a positive step for Iran to transfer low-enriched uranium off of its soil as it agreed to do last October, Iran said today that it would continue its 20 percent enrichment, which is a direct violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and which the Iranian government originally justified by pointing to the need for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.” Mr. Gibbs made clear that the administration would continue to press forward with sanctions until Iran met its obligations. "The United States will continue to work with our international partners, and through the United Nations Security Council, to make it clear to the Iranian government that it must demonstrate through deeds — and not simply words — its willingness to live up to international obligations or face consequences, including sanctions," he said. The agreement could undermine the Obama administration’s chances of securing international approval for punitive measures against Iran. China and Russia, which have been highly reluctant to impose sanctions on a major trading partner, could use the announcement to end discussions about a fourth round of sanctions. Washington is seeking further sanctions because Iran has refused to halt further enrichment or to answer international inspectors’ questions about evidence suggesting research into possible weapons designs and similar experiments. The inspectors have also been blocked from visiting many locations they have asked to examine. Mr. Obama now faces a vexing choice. If he walks away from this deal, it will look like he is rejecting an agreement similar to one he was willing to sign eight months ago. But if he accepts, many of the urgent issues he wants resolved with Iran in coming months — mostly over suspected weapons work — will be put on hold for a year or more. Many American officials believe the delay is Iran’s most immediate goal. Iranian officials, however, applauded the deal as a breakthrough, with the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying at a news conference that the agreement would be “to the benefit of all nations who want to live freely and independently.” Officials said on Iranian state television that the next step would be to agree to terms for the exchange with the so-called Vienna Group — Iran’s description of an informal association comprising the United States, France, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog based in Vienna. The Iranian officials said they would send a formal letter confirming the deal to the atomic agency within a week. “This shows that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons but rather peaceful nuclear technology,” said Ramin Mehmanparast, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a televised news conference on Monday. “Such interactions must replace a confrontational approach.” Diplomats in Vienna said the I.A.E.A. had not been formally notified about the reported deal, but added that Tehran’s agreement to a swap outside its own territory was potentially significant. Though the agreement was regarded as a positive step by regional experts, there was also skepticism as to whether it was real or a tactic to transfer blame for the conflict to the West, while derailing the prospect of the United Nations Security Council imposing new sanctions, which appeared possible within weeks.
“Iran has a history of forging a deal and then going back on it,” said Emad Gad, an expert in international relations at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “It lets the situation get really tense and then reaches an agreement. This is a genuine characteristic of the nature of Iranian politics.”
As international pressure for new sanctions grows, Iran is preparing for the June 12 anniversary of last year’s disputed presidential election, which led to months of protests and conflict. Iran is also wrestling with a serious inflation problem, declining foreign investment and the prospect of lifting subsidies on commodities, which would mean higher prices and, perhaps, renewed social tensions. “With deals like this or announcements like this you have to be a bit skeptical, at least initially, because so many in the past have proved to be a virtual opportunity rather than a more substantial one,” said Michael Axworthy, the former British diplomat and Iran expert who lectures at the University of Exeter. There appear to be reasons to be skeptical. In Tehran, the Foreign Ministry spokesman told a person attending the news conference that Iran would not, for example, suspend its program to enrich uranium to 20 percent — which brings it closer to weapons grade. Iran has said that its nuclear program is peaceful while the West has charged it is aimed at building weapons. Those charges have been amplified as Iran has improved and tested its long-range missile capacity. The terms of this deal appear similar to the general terms of a deal negotiated in Geneva last year. That agreement fell apart when Iran appeared to backtrack from its commitment to send its fuel to a third country. Iran had initially insisted that any swap be conducted on its territory, a demand rejected by the West. Sending most of its fuel out of Iran would for a time at least delay its ability to build a nuclear weapon during which time more long-term negotiations could take place. The Geneva deal called for shipping 2,640 pounds of 3.5-percent enriched uranium to Russia where it would be more highly enriched, to 20 percent, and then to Paris, where it would be turned into fuel rods for Iran’s medical reactor. Part of what made that deal acceptable in Washington was that the amount was believed to be the majority of Iran’s stockpile. The Geneva agreement fell apart under intense political pressure in Iran when nearly every political faction criticized it as compromising Iran’s right to nuclear energy. Then and now, Iran’s negotiating team argued that the deal was in Iran’s interest because it effectively confirms Iran’s right to enrich uranium. “And with Iran’s support, today a statement has been issued which has officially recognized Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, especially uranium enrichment,” Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Nuclear Energy Organization, said on state television. The terms of the deal were agreed on in a meeting involving Mr. Ahmadinejad; the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki; Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council; President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil; and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the official IRNA news service reported. If successful, the agreement would enhance and underscore the continued rise of Turkey and Brazil as global forces. Turkey, in particular, has in recent months re-engaged in the Middle East, seeking to fill a vacuum in leadership there. Ferai Tinc, a political analyst writing in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, said, “Ankara was neither a full supporter of Iran nor an advocate of violence and sanctions against it but stood strongly for promoting a diplomatic resolution.”
Reporting was contributed by William Yong from Tehran; Mona El-Naggar from Cairo; Alexei Barrionuevo from São Paulo, Brazil; Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul; David E. Sanger and Peter Baker from Washington; and Alan Cowell from London. This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: May 17, 2010 Earlier versions of this article misidentified the newspaper running an article by the Turkish analyst Ferai Tinc. The newspaper should be Hurriyet, not Millyet.