Editor's Note: Minor corrections have been made to the original posting of this analysis.

Progress or Setback—Brazil and Turkey’s EngagementXIran, Brazil, and Turkey announced an agreement on Monday to ship some of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to Turkey in a deal designed to alleviate fears over Tehran’s nuclear program. The United States and other Western powers are worried that this agreement does not require Iran to resolve outstanding questions about the possible military purposes of its nuclear program or to curtail its enrichment program.

In a Q&A, James Acton analyzes Brazil and Turkey’s involvement in brokering a deal, whether it is likely to proceed, and how it will impact efforts to sanction Iran. While the agreement is similar to the deal negotiated last year, Acton warns that Iran’s nuclear capabilities have progressed and the new agreement may not satisfy the United States and its allies. What is clear is that Brazil and Turkey are emerging as  key players in shaping the nuclear nonproliferation regime’s future.

 

What was agreed to this week in Tehran and why are Brazil and Turkey involved?

Brazil and Turkey negotiated a new version of last year’s fuel swap agreement with Iran. Under the deal, if it actually transpires, Iran will exchange 1,200 kg of its stockpile of low enriched uranium for 120 kg of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. During the time that is required to produce the fuel, Iran’s low enriched uranium will be held in escrow by Turkey.

The involvement of Brazil and Turkey is an interesting and significant development. Brazil is a leader in the global South and Turkey is a NATO member and Muslim country that sees itself as a bridge between the Western and Islamic worlds and between Europe and the Middle East.

Brazil and Turkey believe they are well placed to broker a compromise with Iran and want a more inclusive model of global governance. The G20 has given both countries greater sway over economic affairs and they are now trying to broaden their influence to nonproliferation.

This deal will be seen as a significant diplomatic coup for both Brazil and Turkey, who currently have seats on the United Nations Security Council and have opposed another round of sanctions against Iran.

 

How does the new agreement compare to the fuel swap proposed by the United States, Russia, and France back in October?

This deal is very similar to the one agreed to in principle eight months ago. In Geneva last October, Iran and the P5+1—the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany—first agreed to the principle of a fuel swap. Under the original agreement, 1,200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium (enriched to 3.5 percent) was going to be exported to Russia. In turn, France and Russia agreed to produce fuel (enriched to 19.75 percent) for the Tehran Research Reactor. This reactor has nearly run out of fuel and Iran does not currently have the capability to fabricate more on its own.

After the original agreement was signed, Iran entered into a series of technical talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to discuss the detailed arrangements for implementing the deal. Negotiations proved slow and painful. Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was subject to intense domestic criticism—from both the Green Movement and conservatives in the ruling establishment—for agreeing to export any of Iran’s low enriched uranium.

In November, talks broke down and Iran announced that it was unwilling to proceed unless the swap took place simultaneously within its own borders. Various senior Iranian officials also said that they were unwilling to exchange the agreed-to amount of 1,200 kg and floated other figures. In December, for instance, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that Iran was only willing to give up 400 kg.

The new deal is intended to provide a bridge to the old one. Iran has agreed to formally notify the IAEA that it is willing to proceed with the fuel swap in the next week. Brazil and Turkey have made it clear that they then expect France, Russia, and the United States to go ahead with the original deal, with the one change that Iran’s low enriched uranium will be held by Turkey rather than exported to Russia.

Under this new agreement, Iran dropped its insistence that the fuel swap take place inside Iran and agreed once again to the exchange of 1,200 kg of low enriched uranium. Without a doubt, Brazil and Turkey pushed hard to get these concessions from Tehran and will argue that it’s a sign of their diplomatic success.

 

Will Iran go ahead with the agreement or is this a stalling tactic to derail efforts on new sanctions?

Western powers have already expressed their skepticism that the agreement with Brazil and Turkey is merely a stalling tactic by Iran to avoid further sanctions. The deal does not contain the detailed arrangements that proved so problematic to negotiate last time. It commits Iran to negotiate them with the so-called Vienna Group—France, Russia, the United States, and the IAEA. Iran has said that it will not transfer the uranium until the details have been worked out, but that it hopes negotiations can be completed within a month. From a political perspective this is an ambitious timetable.

Whether negotiations will be successful—indeed whether they will even start—remains to be seen and may not be known for some time. It also remains unclear whether there is a domestic consensus in Iran behind this agreement. Without internal support, President Ahmadinejad may find it impossible to proceed, even if he wants to.

The new agreement could also impact the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference now underway in New York. The Review Conference will have concluded before the month-deadline of the Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal. This gives Iran some leverage in the NPT discussions—it can argue that tough language against Iran from the NPT conference will cause it to walk away from a deal that many countries probably view positively. 

 

Are Western powers likely to support the new deal?

This deal is less attractive to France, Russia, and the United States—the three states directly involved in  the original offer—for two primary reasons. First, from their perspective the original proposal was agreed to in part to help dissuade Iran from enriching uranium to 19.75 percent (the enrichment level of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor).

After pulling out of the deal in February of this year, Iran started enriching to this higher level and has announced that, in spite of the new agreement, it will continue to do so, even though Iran would have no use for such material if and when it receives the fuel from Russia and France. Brazil and Turkey were probably happy to concede on this point because they didn’t want to set a precedent that might affect their nuclear programs in future.

Second, when the Geneva deal was negotiated Iran possessed about 1,700 kg of low enriched uranium.[1] If Iran succeeded in enriching it further, this quantity would have been enough to make a nuclear weapon (roughly speaking, 1,000 kg of 3.5 percent enriched uranium is needed for one weapon). The removal of 1,200 kg would have been significant because it would have alleviated concerns—for a few months at least—that Iran might quickly build a bomb. The United States hoped to use the time to negotiate a broader settlement to the nuclear dispute.

According to the most recent IAEA report, however, Iran possessed about 2,100 kg of low enriched uranium at the end of January. By now, Iran could have as much as 2,500 kg (a new IAEA report with exact figures will be issued shortly). The removal of 1,200 kg is somewhat less significant at this point as it would still leave Iran with enough low enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon. (That said, one nuclear weapon would have relatively little value to Iran. If it used or threatened to use it offensively, it would have no nuclear deterrent left to deter Israeli or U.S. retaliation. And as a deterrent against invasion, one nuclear weapon that has not been tested is a weak reed.) 

Ultimately, it is unclear if France, Russia and the United States will proceed with the deal. This will depend on whether the details can be hammered out to their satisfaction. In fact, it is quite possible that the three countries will disagree about whether or not to proceed.

 

How will the deal influence Washington’s push for tougher sanctions on Iran?

Although sanctions are not an end, but only a means to isolate Iran and raise the costs of its noncompliance, they have become a way of keeping score. Thus, this is a big issue for the United States, and it remains to be seen what will happen next. The United States, together with France, Germany, and Britain, have spent this year painstakingly negotiating a new sanctions resolution in the Security Council. Until the deal was announced on Monday, it appeared as though China was on board—after considerable diplomatic efforts by the United States—and a resolution looked likely within the next month.

Washington and its allies will be deeply worried that the new fuel swap agreement will derail the push for sanctions. Already, Brazil and Turkey have used the supposed breakthrough to argue against sanctions.

In response, the United States and other Western powers are likely to make two points. First, new sanctions are needed in light of Iran’s decision to enrich to 20 percent. Second, it was the threat of sanctions that led to the current deal and a new sanctions resolution is needed to keep the pressure on Iran to negotiate further. Within the next week it will be clearer where Russia and China fall on the issue.

 

Does the new agreement address the core concerns over Iran’s nuclear program?

The collapse of the previous deal confirmed convictions held by the United States and its allies that Iran was either unable or unwilling to negotiate in good faith. Other members of the international community—most importantly, Russia—also were convinced. If Iran informs the IAEA of its desire to proceed with the new agreement and if it negotiates in good faith over the details for implementing the agreement, some skeptical states will reverse their judgment.

For the United States and many others, however, the litmus test would be whether this agreement is the start of a process that leads to Iran cooperating fully with the IAEA to resolve serious outstanding questions about its nuclear program.

Critics of the United States will charge that Iranian cooperation with the IAEA is made less likely by another round of sanctions. In any case, even if the deal goes ahead, the path to resolving the broader dispute over Iran nuclear program is a long one. What is now clear, however, is that with Brazil and Turkey’s involvement there are two more players in the process.

Notes

1. All figures in this and the following paragraph are kg UF6 (not kg U). It is unclear, however, whether the Iran has agreed to transfer 1,200 kg U or 1,200 kg UF6.