Iran Cuts Unexpected Nuke Deal with Brazil and Turkey

President Lulu of Brazil, Ahmadinejad of Iran, and Prime Mininster Erdogan of Turkey (AFP/Getty Image photo)

On May 17, Iran, Brazil, and Turkey issued a joint declaration intended to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis. The declaration came as a shock to Iran watchers and evidently to the US government as well. Many thought that Iran was using the recent talks with Brazil and Turkey to stall UN sanctions. The declaration might complicate President Obama’s diplomatic efforts to sanction Iran, and ultimately, to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

The UN has already sanctioned Iran three times over its nuclear program since the Bush presidency. One of the unique factors in the fourth round of sanctions has been Brazil’s role. Brazil holds one of the ten rotating seats on the UN Security Council (alongside the five permanent members -the US, UK, France, China, and Russia) and is also a fast-rising economic power.

Brazilian author and political historian, Matias Spektor, explains his country’s foreign policy forays in the Iranian nuclear crisis (and in other parts of the world) as a natural outgrowth of Brazil’s growing economic influence. Spektor writes, “The dominant perception in Brasilia today is that problems diplomats could afford to ignore only a few years ago now require a response. …Existing models of governance have failed to produce a fair and stable international system.”

The Brazilian government thinks it can contribute to positive change on the international scene where the traditional major powers have failed. However, Brazil also has business and political reasons for seeking a resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. Brazil is Iran’s biggest Latin American trading partner. Trade between the two countries has skyrocketed since 2007. In addition, Brazil will hold its presidential election this October and the ruling party might benefit domestically from demonstrating competency in foreign affairs.

Brazil’s current president, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva (or “Lulu”), is from the left-leaning Worker’s Party, which traditionally has been anti-American. Lulu tempered the anti-American face of his party when he became president in 2002, but he may be facing domestic pressure to distance himself from American foreign policy positions in order to energize his party’s base for the upcoming election.

Lulu cannot run for a third presidential term according to Brazil’s constitution. However, his party’s candidate, Dilma Rousseff, is running and if she is to increase her chance of winning, Worker Party members must believe in their party so that they will make a strong showing in October. A recent poll indicates that Rousseff and her challenger, Jose Serra, are in a virtual tie. Lulu’s work in securing the nuclear agreement with Iran (and Turkey) may give Rousseff a political boost.

In the Iranian nuclear crisis, shoring up his party’s base in regards to foreign policy means that Lulu should support Iran and distance himself from the US, and this is precisely what he has done. However, Lulu, a seasoned politician known for his pragmatism, has resisted US calls for new sanctions on Iran but at the same time has worked towards a solution that addresses Iran’s uranium capability.

The main part of the May 17 nuclear declaration is worth quoting at length:

…The Islamic Republic of Iran agrees to deposit 1,200 kg [2,646 lbs] LEU [low-enriched uranium] in Turkey. While in Turkey, this LEU will continue to be the property of Iran. Iran and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] may station observers to monitor the safekeeping of the LEU in Turkey. … Upon the positive response of the Vienna Group (US, Russia, France and the IAEA) further details of the exchange will be elaborated through a written agreement and proper arrangement between Iran and the Vienna Group that specifically committed themselves to deliver 120 kg of fuel needed for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). When the Vienna Group declares its commitment to this provision, then both parties would commit themselves to the implementation of the agreement…. Islamic Republic of Iran expressed its readiness to deposit its LEU (1,200 kg) within one month. …The Vienna Group should deliver 120 kg fuel required for TRR in no later than one year. In case the provisions of this declaration are not respected, Turkey, upon the request of Iran, will return swiftly and unconditionally Iran’s LEU to Iran. (Words in brackets added.)

As is evident, the nuclear declaration is actually a uranium enrichment agreement pending the acceptance of the Vienna Group. Understanding the details of the nuclear declaration requires some knowledge of the nuclear fuel cycle and uranium enrichment. In brief, uranium is the element used to power nuclear reactors for peaceful energy purposes or to make nuclear weapons. Once uranium is mined, it must be enriched for it to power a reactor or to be used in a bomb.

Nuclear reactors require uranium to be enriched by 20% or more. Nuclear weapons demand that that uranium enrichment be at least 80%. High enriched uranium is a difficult technological feet and Iran has not yet mastered it.

Iran is believed to have about 2,400 kg of low-enriched (technically Iran’s uranium stockpile is “slightly” enriched, which is even less than “low” enriched) uranium that is significantly under the 20% enrichment level needed for peaceful nuclear power. If this amount of uranium were enriched to 80%, Iran could have enough high-enriched uranium to make about two nuclear bombs.

The nuclear declaration calls for Iran to swap half of its uranium with the international community for a lesser quantity of uranium enriched to 20% that can be used for an Iranian research reactor. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would help supervise the nuclear swap.

The problem with the declaration is what it does not include. It does not stop Iran from continuing its own uranium enrichment activities. Neither does it permit IAEA officials to inspect all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, which Iran agreed to when it signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Even with the declaration, Iran’s nuclear program largely remains covert.

All that Iran has agreed to in the declaration is to take half of its uranium and to swap it with a smaller quantity of enriched uranium to 20%. While a step in the right direction, it does not resolve the nuclear crisis, which primarily centers on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. Western states, Sunni Gulf states, and Israel fear that Iran will eventually master the high enrichment uranium process.

What the declaration does do for Iran is that it scores politically at the international level to all those who are sympathetic to Iran and/or have an anti-American or anti-Western bias. The nuclear declaration is likely to reinforce their support for Iran in the nuclear crisis especially if they do not understand what the uranium declaration does and does not state.

To this group, the declaration gives the appearance of an Iranian government that is willing to strike a peaceful compromise, when in fact the declaration has not hampered Iran’s ability to make a nuclear bomb. More worrisome, the declaration provides fodder for the Chinese government (and to a lesser extent Russia) to call for a postponement of the current round of UN sanctions.

While the Chinese government would not like to see Iran develop nuclear weapons, China’s competing foreign policy interests with Iran (namely energy and trade) push the Chinese government to support new sanctions against Iran only reluctantly and provided that the sanctions are in diluted form, which incidentally negates the reason for tough sanctions in the first place.

If the Chinese government signals renewed support for Iran in the coming days due to the uranium declaration, then the US could like the imperial villain if it continues to push for more sanctions. For now, all eyes should be on China.