The nuclear deal announced Monday between Iran, Brazil and Turkey has certainly gotten many analysts and reporters excited, not least the LA Times, which described the agreement as, possibly, a ‘stunning’ breakthrough.
And it could be.
According to Ramin Mehmanparast, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, the deal will entail the transfer of 1200 kilograms of Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU), which has been enriched up to 3.5 percent, to Turkey. Once there, it will be exchanged for nuclear fuel.
But we shouldn’t get too carried away.
The 1200 kilograms that Iran will be sending abroad was part of a previous draft deal that the Obama administration offered to Tehran last October, a draft that was later rejected by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
To make a bomb, somewhere between 1000 to 1200 kilos of LEU is needed, which could then be turned into 25 kilograms of high-enriched uranium (HEU)—sufficient for one bomb.
The reason why Obama wanted Iran to ship over 1200 kilograms of LEU is that back in October the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran had 1763 Kg of LEU. By transferring 1200 (68 percent) of its LEU, Tehran would only be left with 563 kilograms. Based on its current capacity to produce 3 kilograms of LEU per day, it would have taken Tehran almost 5 months to have sufficient LEU again to make a bomb. Those five months would have allowed Obama sufficient time to negotiate with Iran (the last thing the US president wanted was to negotiate with Tehran while it was working on a bomb).
That was then. Iran has since increased its stockpile of LEU. According to the IAEA's last report, published on May 18, Iran had 2065 Kilograms of LEU. It’s believed that this figure has now reached 2300 kilograms, meaning that by handing over 1200 Kilograms of its LEU (taking into consideration the LEU produced since February), Iran will be left 1100 Kilos—enough to make a bomb—while talks continue.
The fact that Iran agreed to hand over 1200 kilograms of its LEU is, of course, positive and certainly makes the deal worth looking at. However, what could have sealed the deal and made it impossible to reject is if the Turkish and Brazilian presidents had accompanied it with another important document.
Such a document would contain answers to questions from the IAEA that Iran has not yet produced.
These are crucial questions. So crucial, in fact, that until such time that Iran does answer them, the IAEA will refuse to declare that Iran's nuclear programme is for civilian purposes only.
So, instead of rejecting the deal, Western governments should congratulate the Brazilian and Turkish governments for their achievement, but attach a condition for its acceptance, namely that it is conditional upon Iran answering the IAEA's queries.
Although Brazil and Turkey are major powers, it’s unlikely that they’d go against the United States and the EU. As a consequence, rather than risk their relations with such important trade partners, they could well be motivated to go the extra mile, and pressure Iran to clarify questions regarding its nuclear program.
That would be a win-win situation for everyone. Iran would come out of isolation. Obama and the EU can calm fears and nerves about Iran's programme and the Brazilians and the Turkish would be able to enjoy the economic fruits of their friendship with Iran without looking like they’ve just been bought out by Tehran. But until such a time, the fact that President Lula was accompanied by 300 businesspeople (and is planning to increase his dealings with Iran from the current $1.2 billion to $10 billion) will mean that’s exactly how his country looks. And so will Turkey, which is buying gas below market prices from Iran and whose exports to Iran have increased by more than 800 percent since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took office in 2002.
France also has an important role to play. The nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor can only be produced by the French or the Argentinians. Buenos Aires has rejected taking part, since it wants Iran to hand over suspects for the Israeli embassy bombing of 1992 and the AMIA bombing of 1994. France, however, has just greatly improved its position vis-a-vis Tehran by releasing Ali Vakili Rad, who murdered the former Iranian Prime Minister and dissident Shahpour Bakhtiar in 1991. This gives Paris leverage, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy should use this to pressure Iran to become more transparent over its nuclear programme.
Negotiations between the United States and Iran, after 32 years on hold, won’t be easy. Nor will they be short. They will take time and patience.
While Iran has every right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes, it must realize that the world doesn’t trust its intentions. Obama's initial offer last October aimed to create an atmosphere of trust for negotiations by approaching Tehran. It also meant to take more than half of its LEU away, so that it can't make a bomb while negotiating. This hardly seems too much to ask of the regime when it’s still allowed to enrich Uranium, despite three United Nations resolutions which urge it to stop.
But Iran appears to want to have the capacity to make a bomb while talking, making this latest deal a difficult sell to the West. The international community needs reassurances. Obama, for example, faced with difficult mid-term elections this year, needs to show his Republican rivals that he’s taking the issue of Iran very seriously. The same goes for the newly-elected Conservative-led British government—both want a negotiated settlement to this problem, but need some kind of firm indication that Iran's goals are purely civilian.
The key to finding a peaceful settlement to the current problem is in Tehran’s own hands. The Iranian government could make life much easier for itself and everyone else by proving that its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes only. Until this happens, it will increase the cost of its nuclear programme, as well as that of becoming friends with its government. Ultimately, few countries are willing to go against the wishes of the five permanent members of the Security Council—Brazil and Turkey included.