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Too Early To Celebrate Iran Nuclear Deal

  • Robert Tait

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) and his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Tehran on May 16

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) and his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Tehran on May 16

It feels like deja vu all over again: months of diplomatic brinkmanship, saber-rattling, and defiant rhetoric leavened by news of a sudden breakthrough and hopes that a long-elusive deal is at last at hand.

The announcement, amid a blaze of fanfare, that Iran has agreed after all to send 1,200 kilograms of its enriched uranium to Turkey should, on the face of it, be cause for hope and even rejoicing among Western nations concerned that Tehran's nuclear program is a front for building an atomic bomb.

Except that we've been here before. Iran agreed in principle last October to ship uranium to France and Russia for further enrichment before being returned for use in a medical research reactor at Tehran University -- a similar arrangement to the one now being announced with Turkey. But the agreement unraveled after Iranian officials, under pressure from hard-liners at home, backtracked and tried to add further conditions.

That experience, and the fact that Iran's Islamic regime has acquired a reputation among Western governments as wily diplomatic chess players, explains the skeptical low-key international reaction -- best summed up by a European Union spokesman who said the deal did "not fully address the issue of Iran's nuclear program."

Even Russia, once a staunch ally of Iran and which has previously used its veto power on the UN Security Council to block resolutions against it, declined to get excited by the news. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev cautiously welcomed the deal but warned it may fail to fully satisfy the international community.

Merely A Retread?

So is today's agreement -- brokered by Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva -- merely a retread being hyped as a major breakthrough by a beleaguered government in Tehran trying to play for time and fend off further sanctions?

This notion is dismissed by Turkey, which -- as a member of NATO -- has long sought the role of mediator between Iran and the West.

Officials in Ankara point out that, unlike the previous putative deal, the new agreement is underpinned by the signatures of the Iranian, Turkish, and Brazilian foreign ministers.

"The previous time, there was a lot of talk," a Turkish Foreign Ministry official told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. "Now we have an agreed time frame. We have something signed. That's the big difference. Nothing was this concrete before."

The accord commits Iran to transfer 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey within one month. In exchange, 120 kilograms of more highly enriched uranium will be supplied within a year to Iran, where officials claim it is needed to produce medical isotopes.

It represents a considerable political risk for Erdogan, who has previously upset Turkey's Western allies with his outspoken criticism of Israel and by describing Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad as a "friend." Erdogan is widely believed to have won the trust of Iranian officials through his roots in political Islam and by publicly criticizing the West's approach to Iran's nuclear program.

Turkey, which has burgeoning trade relations with Tehran, is also keen to prevent further UN sanctions on its neighbor, believing it, too, would suffer from the knock-on effects.

'Last-Ditch Thing'

Despite his personal sympathies, Erdogan only agreed to travel to Tehran after being told by his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, that an agreement was in the offing -- something Turkish officials had previously warned was unlikely as they voiced frustration with Iranian tactics.

That frustration is now being credited in some quarters with pushing Iran toward an agreement. "We weren't expecting an agreement. It was a last-ditch thing," said the Turkish Foreign Ministry official. "Maybe the fact that Brazil and ourselves -- countries that understand them a little bit more -- were getting frustrated put added pressure on them."

Davutoglu hailed the agreement as a "historic turning point" and said it meant there was now no need for further sanctions against Iran, a sentiment echoed by his Brazilian counterpart, Celso Amorim.

But the United States and its allies will inevitably suspect Iran of a tactical maneuver intended to break the fragile unity building toward a fourth sanctions resolution among the UN Security Council's permanent five members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China. Israel was first off the blocks in criticizing the deal by accusing Iran of manipulating Brazil and Turkey to evade a further round of embargoes.

Professor Ali Ansari, director of the Institute of Iranian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland, acknowledges there are grounds for skepticism but says rising economic pressures, which have prompted a forthcoming reform to phase out subsidies, may have persuaded Tehran that the time is ripe for compromise.

"Why now? One reason could be that they are feeling the heat domestically or that the domestic situation clearly hasn't settled as much as they would like to argue," Ansari says. "The second thing is that they have subsidy reform coming in September. I think there is an urgency about those medical isotopes at the Tehran research reactor which they need to get solved, otherwise they are going to be short of those isotopes. So it may be that those who have been arguing for some face-saving agreement have won the day."

One possible stumbling block to an accommodation with the West is the lingering specter of last June's bitterly disputed presidential election, which Ahmadinejad is widely suspected of having stolen through mass voter fraud. Western governments may be reluctant to be seen doing a deal with a regime that stands accused of brutally repressing protesters and the country's reformist opposition.

Only A Starting Point

Paradoxically, however, a nuclear agreement may have the effect of depriving the authorities of one of their main rationales for the crackdown by removing the national security threat which they often cite.

"The nuclear crisis actually served their interests in being able to crush the opposition," Ansari says. "To remove this from the equation means, actually, they have removed one nationalistic justification for their domestic policy."

Yet even if today's agreement is taken as a done deal, it is unlikely to satisfy the United States -- let alone presage an end to the long-running imbroglio over Iran's nuclear file. Even before this weekend, officials in the Obama administration were pointing out that Iran had enriched much more uranium since the original outline deal was proposed last autumn. Iran would have to transfer around 2,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to meet the terms of that agreement, which laid down that Tehran must ship abroad 70 percent of its nuclear material.

Any agreement, therefore, would be little more than a starting point, according to Ansari.

"I cannot see this agreement indicating that relations with the West are going to be solved and everything is going to be hunky dory," Ansari says. "This is simply a means by which we bring Iran and the West, or Iran and Israel even, back from the brink. Inasmuch as it is that, it's an excellent move."

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