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Iran Fuel Swap Deal & U.N. Sanctions

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Just a few quick thoughts on the Iran fuel swap deal brokered by Trukey and Brazil. First, it shows that the threat of U.N. sanctions was tactically effective, even if the actual sanctions themselves prove to be strategically ineffective. The threatened fourth round, and the diplomatic isolation among the permanent UNSC members that it implied, was probably a motivating factor in getting Iran to sign on, and definitely the motivating factor in generating Turkish and Brazilian involvement.

Second, it's premature to say that the deal is proof of Turkey reaching the "big leagues" in terms of its diplomatic stature. Sometimes just being involved is an accomplishment (although that's usually the case for minor leaguers), and to whatever extent Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to gain concessions from Iran, it was a sign of Turkey's influence. But in the big leagues, influence is not measured by getting one party to sign on to a deal that's unacceptable to the other. It's measured by bridging differences to get both sides to sign on, and in the meantime, by getting both sides to abstain from provocative and inflammatory behavior. Turkey's ability to do that will clearly be limited in this case, as witnessed by Terhan's refusal so far to halt 20 percent enrichment and the U.S. decision to press on with U.N. sanctions. Having said that, if the deal does get finalized, it will clearly be the biggest success for Turkish diplomacy to date.

Third, with regard to how the U.S. should react to the deal, it has already been pointed out elsewhere that because Iran has continued to enrich uranium since the fuel swap deal was initially floated, Tehran would maintain enough enriched uranium for a "breakout" capacity if the deal is carried out today. The problem, of course, is not with the breakout capacity, since no one believes for a second that that is an immediate threat. The problem is that if the Obama administration accepts the deal today, it risks being perceived as having been played, which could have domestic political implications for President Barack Obama. Really the only way Obama could afford to agree to the deal would be if Iran agreed at a minimum to suspend its 20 percent uranium enrichment.

Fourth, as for the U.N. sanctions draft being circulated, it's important to continue moving ahead with that while the momentum is there, if only to maintain it as a bargaining chip. If Iran makes a serious gesture on the fuel swap deal (see above), Obama could then freeze the sanctions effort. That would then set up the next round of confidence-building measures. One face-saving proposal could be an Iranian suspension of all uranium enrichment for the timeframe of the fuel swap deal, about one year, attached to an offer to roll back some existing U.N. sanctions. Others could then be rolled back in return for Iran accepting the IAEA Additional Protocol. But all of that will depend on how serious Iran is about the fuel swap deal.

Finally, as I mentioned yesterday, I don't think Russia's willingness to sign on to the latest round of sanctions should be exclusively read as a success of the Obama "reset" on U.S.-Russia relations. The reset contributed to making it possible, but the shift in Russia's posture is due to structural interests. Russia has gained all it can from an obstructionist posture. To modernize its economy, its energy infrastructure, and even its military, it needs to nurture a productive relationship with the West. Cooperation was necessary, for both sides. This is the working version of that reality.