War Stories

Are Brazil and Turkey Delusional or Deceptive?

Why their nuclear deal with Iran is worse than useless.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 

At first glance, it may seem that Brazil and Turkey had good reasons to oppose the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions against Iran and to push instead for a diplomatic solution that they’d already negotiated.

At second glance, however, the reason is clearly a sham. The only question is whether the Brazilian and Turkish leaders are delusional or up to no good.

Back in October 2009, the United States and Russia, still pursuing a diplomatic solution to the emerging Iranian nuclear crisis, offered Tehran a deal: Send Russia 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium; Russia will enrich it still further and send it back in a form that can be used only for medical reactors or electrical power, not for building A-bombs.

The deal was designed as a test: If the Iranians accepted it, that would mean they really were enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, as they’d been claiming. If they rejected it, that would suggest their goal was military, as much of the rest of the world suspected.

In May 2010, just as President Barack Obama was working up a U.N. Security Council resolution on sanctions, Turkey and Brazil suddenly announced that they’d put the old U.S.-Russia deal back on the table during talks with Iran—and this time Iran accepted. Diplomacy, they proclaimed, had worked; there’d be no need for sanctions after all.

But the Obama administration dismissed the deal and continued its own talks with Moscow and Beijing to punish Iran’s military establishment, which culminated, on June 9, in a 12-to-2 vote in favor of sanctions—with only Turkey and Brazil opposing the measure. (Lebanon, another temporary member of the Security Council, abstained.)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his two new friends loudly wondered why this deal, nearly identical to the one that Obama had initiated just seven months earlier, was now considered unacceptable.

Here’s why:

Back in October, Iran had only 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium; sending 1,200 kilograms to Russia would have meant unloading four-fifths of its stockpile. Over the next seven months, the centrifuges kept spinning to the point where, by the time of the Brazil-Turkey talks, Iran had 2,300 kilograms.

In other words, the U.S.-Russia deal would have allowed Iran to keep only one-fifth of its uranium stockpile; the Brazil-Turkey deal would let Iran keep nearly half. More troubling, the Brazil-Turkey deal would let Iran continue enriching the uranium it kept—and, over the previous seven months, it had already been enriching quite a bit of it.

As David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, put it in a report, the deal was “not as attractive” as it had been seven months earlier. Back in October, removing 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium would have put a lid on Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. By May, that would still leave them with enough uranium, some of it already highly enriched, to proceed toward nukes with no obstacles.

But there’s more. Even within its loose framework, the deal—formalized in a “joint declaration” that Iran, Brazil, and Turkey released on May 17—contained a gigantic loophole. The eighth paragraph of the 10-paragaph document read: “In case the provisions of this Declaration are not respected, Turkey, upon the request of Iran, will return swiftly and unconditionally Iran’s LEU [low-enriched uranium] to Iran.”

Amazing. It’s not enough that the deal would leave the Iranians with enough uranium to build A-bombs, if that’s what they want to do. It would also let them demand the return of the uranium they’d sent out, whenever and for whatever reason they choose. (The phrase “not respected” is nowhere defined.)

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Albright is not among those itching for confrontation with Iran. A prominent physicist and frequent adviser to the International Atomic Energy Agency, he is generally a strong supporter of what he calls “diplomatic engagement as the best way to address” issues relating to nuclear proliferation.

One can imagine Brazil and Turkey stepping into this morass with sincere motives. The U.S.-Russia deal of last October was never formally taken off the table. Even then, Tehran ran warm, then cold, on the proposal. Perhaps the backpedaling turnaround reflected a division within the ruling councils. Maybe the renewed enthusiasm reflected a bureaucratic victory for the moderates. Or maybe the rulers found the proposal more palatable coming from some country other than the United States.

Again, one can imagine the Brazilian and Turkish leaders entertaining such ideas. But they were no doubt soon advised—by the United States, the European Union, the IAEA, somebody—of the bamboozling the Iranians had dealt them. And yet they continued on their course, calling on the world to give their joint declaration a chance, voting against the Security Council resolution, even after Obama had persuaded Russia and China to vote in favor, something that many (including some of Obama’s advisers) had doubts was possible.

The resolution, of course, is a compromise, which by itself will probably have little effect on Iran’s decision-making. Even combined with further political and financial actions, which many hope the resolution will encourage, it’s not clear how deep a dent the sanctions will make.

But one thing is clear: The Brazil-Turkey deal is at best a nonstarter and, from Iran’s angle, a deception. If the two countries’ leaders want to re-ingratiate themselves with the civilized world and further isolate the hard-liners in Tehran, they should issue a new joint declaration, declaring the old one null and void.

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