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WASHINGTON, Jun 2 2010 (IPS) - A group of U.S. experts ranging from former top diplomats to non-proliferation specialists is praising the recent deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey on Iran’s nuclear programme as a potential “first step” towards ratcheting down tensions between the West and the Islamic Republic.
After stalling and eventually rejecting a Western proposal in October to ship most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) out of Iran in exchange for more highly-enriched fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), Iran agreed last month with the leaders of Brazil and Turkey to send the same quantity of its LEU stockpile to Turkey to be held in escrow pending delivery of fuel rods for the research facility.
However, the breakthrough got a tepid response in Washington, where the administration of President Barack Obama is trying to move a new round of sanctions through the United Nations Security Council.
But the latest statement from the Iran experts and non- proliferation hands, released here Tuesday, said the new deal should not be dismissed so quickly by world powers and the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“Iran’s agreement to export a large portion of its LEU outside of its borders for up to a year is worthy of consideration,” said the statement, which also noted that certain shortcomings of the deal would still have to be addressed.
“If enacted, this proposal would begin the process of addressing a major – but not the only – aspect of the strained relationship between Iran and the international community, and would represent a first step in halting Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapons capability,” it said.
Former U.N. chief weapons inspector David Kay, Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, and NIAC president Trita Parsi, among others, also signed.
The fuel swap deal, brokered personally by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an in Tehran last month, mirrors the proposal put forward last October by the “P5+1” – the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany – by providing for the shipment of 1,200 kg of Iranian LEU to Turkey to be held in “escrow” in return for fuel rods to power the TRR, which provides isotopes for medical use.
Tuesday’s statement called Iranian approval of the proposal a “significant concession” because the Iranian ‘escrow’ deposit would come in a single batch and be held outside Iranian territory – the two conditions the Iranians balked at after initially accepting the deal last fall.
“[The U.S.] should’ve looked much more closely at the deal instead of simply regarding it as unsatisfactory, which it may have been in certain elements,” said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, who said he concurs with the gist of the NIAC statement.
In its response to the deal, the U.S. complained that it failed to secure Iran’s agreement to end its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent – the higher level of enrichment needed for its TRR programme. Tehran began enriching at that level after the October proposal fell through.
Brazil subsequently leaked an Apr. 20 letter from Obama to da Silva. “For us, Iran’s agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of Iran’s [LEU] out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s LEU stockpile,” said the letter, making no mention of U.S. concerns about the TRR enrichment programme.
“I would urge Brazil to impress upon Iran the opportunity presented by this offer to ‘escrow’ its uranium in Turkey while the nuclear fuel is being produced,” Obama wrote in the letter.
But U.S. officials told Politico’s Laura Rozen that the demand to halt 20-percent enrichment was made clear in phone calls to Brazilian officials.
The fuel swap “is simply a confidence-building measure”, an official told Rozen. “This deal is separate from the basic factors which have brought this issue to the Security Council.”
“To say that [Brazil and Turkey] acted rashly or on their own when this first came out was a mistake,” Sick, who held the Iran portfolio at the National Security Council in the 1970s and 1980s, told IPS. “[The U.S.] should have looked at it as a potential opportunity.”
Sick recalled his own involvement in negotiating the release of U.S. hostages from Iran following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. He said the mediation of a mid-level power, Algeria, was critical to success.
Likewise today, Brazil and Turkey’s non-aligned status helped to revive the previously-dead fuel swap arrangement in an effort to ratchet down tensions.
Both countries also hold temporary seats on the U.N. Security Council, where the Obama administration proposed a new draft sanctions resolution only a day after the Brazil- Turkey deal was announced.
When introducing the draft resolution, Washington asserted that it had the support of the veto-holding five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council, namely Russia, China, France, and Britain, as well as the U.S. itself.
The experts’ statement was addressed to the P5 + 1, which is participating in negotiations, and the “so-called Vienna Group (Russia, France, the United States, and the IAEA)”.
The statement called for further consideration of the Brazil-Turkey deal rather than endorsing it, and made no mention of the sanctions resolution at the U.N.
But Robert Naiman, the policy director at Just Foreign Policy, said that running the sanctions track and the Brazil-Turkey deal in tandem might prove problematic.
“The whole point of the exercise of the Brazilian-Turkey deal was an alternative path,” Naiman told IPS. “This was the last chance before the sanctions path.”
Naiman noted that “no one could say it was a surprise” if the Iranians walk away from the Brazil-Turkey deal upon the passage of further sanctions.
Though the Iranian government has not yet officially done so, former Iranian nuclear negotiator and current parliament speaker Ali Larijani said last week that the latest agreement and sanctions are mutually exclusive.
“If the Americans want to seek adventure, whether in the U.N. Security Council or in Congress, all the efforts of Turkey and Brazil will be in vain and this path will be abandoned,” he said, according to Reuters.
Rozen reported Wednesday that a vote was pushed back until at least next week and a State Department spokesman said the deadline was Jun. 21.
Naiman suggested, as the experts’ statement counsels, that the U.S. use this as an opportunity to address the issues raised in the initial U.S. response to the Brazilian-Turkey deal: capping enrichment at five percent and the future of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. The experts’ statement added that “protecting human rights in Iran” can also be raised.
The U.S. also expressed concern that, while the original deal meant Iran was shipping out 80 percent of its LEU stockpile, enrichment during the intermittent seven months meant that the Brazil-Turkey deal only removed half of Iran’s LEU.
An IAEA report released Monday said Iran has 2,400 kg of LEU, enough for potential nuclear weapons. But Naiman noted that “if you do nothing, then next month they’re going to enrich more uranium”.
Larijani stated Wednesday that Iran intends to continue enrichment even if sanctions are passed.
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