Iran Forces a Wedge Between U.S. and Its Allies

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Is today’s nuclear deal with Iran, in which the Islamic Republic will ship 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium to Turkey for safekeeping, a historic climb-down by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the face of the threat of biting sanctions—or an empty ploy designed to fend off sanctions and split the international community?

On the face of it, the deal looks a lot like the kind of concession demanded by the United Nations. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promises that, in Turkey, the uranium can be monitored by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In exchange, Iran will get 120 kilos of higher-enriched fuel rods to power a small research reactor in Tehran that, Iranian authorities claim, makes medical isotopes.

So far, so good—especially because of the deal’s resemblance to a bargain proposed by the Vienna Group (Russia, France, the U.S., and the IAEA) last year. In that plan, Iran would have sent its whole stock of 3.5 percent enriched uranium to Russia, which would have enriched it and sent it back as 20 percent enriched fuel rods. Iran at first accepted the deal, then backtracked, engendering moves toward a new round of sanctions from the U.N. Security Council.

But there are several fundamental differences between that offer and today’s version. For one, the whole point of last year’s proposal was to stop Iran from enriching nuclear fuel completely—something on which the Security Council has also insisted. But Ahmadinejad has made it clear that Iran has no intention of abandoning its program of building nuclear centrifuges.

For another, there’s no clarity in today’s agreement whether the nuclear fuel shipped to Turkey—which in any case is thought to be a small proportion of Iran’s total stockpile—will itself be converted to higher-grade fuel rods, or whether it will remain in Turkish hands as a kind of security deposit. Turkey has no nuclear reactors and any further enrichment will have to be done by another, nuclear nation in any case. In other words, today’s agreement takes a step—but only a step—toward the Vienna Group’s original offer.

The intention, then, is surely to drive a wedge between the supporters of sanctions (led by the United States) and potential waverers (like Russia, Turkey, Brazil, China). If Ahmadinejad can show some level of compliance, he can cultivate the latter nations. In fact, Russia’s leaders chimed in their support for the deal today, and Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmed Davutoglu, drove the point home: “The swap deal shows that Tehran wants to open a constructive path … There is no more ground for new sanctions and pressures.” It also helps to have played on traditional resentments between the developing world and the United States, which is why today’s negotiations were announced on the sidelines of an international conference of developing nations hosted by Ahmadinejad in Teheran.

The pressure is now on the U.S. to prove to its allies that there are still grounds for sanctions. Russia, for one, is backpedaling from its support for sanctions, which President Obama had worked hard to win. It’s clear that Ahmadinejad is still a master of making last-minute concessions just large enough to split his opponents.