Gary Sick on the Latest Nuclear Agreement

Gary Sick: What to make of the new nuclear agreement by Turkey and Brazil with Iran?

Perhaps the main point is to be reminded of the moral from the old folk tale: Be careful of what you wish for, since you just might get it. The United States took a rather righteous position that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the West had made Iran a remarkably generous offer, and when it was rejected they had no choice but to go all out for sanctions.

There are those in Washington (but also in Paris and London) who were fully committed to passing a strong sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council next month, and this is a blow to them and all the intense diplomatic work they have done in the past five or six months. Clearly, it will be immensely more difficult, if not impossible, to get a sanctions resolution if this deal is on the table.

According to preliminary information, the agreement provides that Iran will, within a month, ship 1240 kg of roughly 5 percent low enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey where it will be held in escrow for up to a year until Iran is provided with 120 kg of fuel cells (uranium enriched to near 20 percent) to replace the nearly exhausted fuel of the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) that makes medical isotopes. This represents more than half of the 2065 kg of LEU that Iran had produced as of February according to the IAEA, and it greatly reduces Iran’s capability to produce enough fissile material for a bomb.

We should all be reminded of the original purpose of the agreement. It was intended as a confidence-building measure that would open the way to more substantive discussions of other issues. The original offer that Iran provisionally accepted in October tacitly accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium; in return Iran would give up control over a significant portion of its existing stash of LEU. Even low enriched uranium can be further enriched to create bomb-grade (roughly 90+ percent) highly enriched uranium (HEU) that is required for a bomb. The October agreement would have created an environment conducive to at least minimal mutual trust and the beginning of serious negotiations.

Note to negotiators: In the past six months, Iran has not used its LEU to build a bomb, even without an agreement.

Iran has set up a special line of centrifuges to enrich uranium to the 20 percent required for the TRR. But that line is small, separated from its other enrichment facilities, and under inspection of the IAEA. The move to enrich some uranium to 20 percent was obviously intended as a pressure tactic to drive the West back into negotiations, since Iran does not have the capability to manufacture fuel cells for the TRR.

We should also be reminded that Iran did not reject the original deal: they proposed amending it. Basically, when the Iranian negotiators came home with the proposed deal, they were attacked from all sides – including members of the Green Movement – for being suckers. Their opponents pointed out that they were going to rely on the word and good will of Russia (where the LEU would be enriched to 20 percent) and France (where the fuel cells would be fabricated). Iranians from left to right argued that both of these countries had repeatedly cheated Iran on nuclear issues: Russia by delaying endlessly the completion of the nuclear power plant at Bushehr, and France by refusing to grant Iran rights to the Eurodif enrichment facility partially owned by Iran since the days of the shah. Why, they asked, should we believe that this agreement will be any different?

Instead, they proposed that the swap of LEU for the fuel cells should happen on Iranian soil, probably in stages and within a fixed period of time. That idea was rejected by the United States and its negotiating partners.

The new bargain appears to be a compromise in which the LEU would physically be removed from Iran and held in escrow in Turkey for up to a year, in which time the fuel cells would be manufactured and delivered to Iran. The new bargain also appears to go much further in formally recognizing the legitimacy of Iran’s independent enrichment program. That should not be a surprise given the fact that Brazil, one of the parties to the bargain, has its own enrichment facility similar to Iran’s and in fact concealed its details for some time.

So where does that leave us?

Essentially, it takes us back to last October. The one big difference is that Iran has more LEU now than it did then. But the reality is that Iran will keep producing LEU unless a new agreement is reached to persuade them to stop. If we had completed the agreement of a swap in October, Iran would have the same amount of LEU as it has now. If we wait another six months for negotiations, Iran will have still more LEU.

In short, this agreement is largely symbolic and limited in its practical effects. If the West accepts the deal as worked out by Brazil and Turkey, and if a new round of negotiations begins – on both the nuclear and other major issues – then this could be a breakthrough. If the West turns it down, or if the two sides do not use it to negotiate some of the major issues that separate them, then nothing much will have been accomplished.

The next step is up to the United States and its negotiating partners.

Although angst is high among the sanctions-at-all-costs crowd, this path to a nuclear swap deal was fully endorsed by the United States and was the centerpiece of the justification for sanctions. One way to respond at this point may just be to declare that our threat of sanctions worked: Iran has capitulated and we accept yes as an answer.

Hmmm…are we that smart?

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