In a move that will do little for US-Brazilian relations but much for our understanding of the workings of the Obama administration, President Lula has released the full text of a letter from Obama sent to him prior to negotiations with Iran on the so-called “fuel-for-fuel swap”.
The letter, written on 20th April, appears to back Brazilian and Turkish efforts to reach a deal with the Islamic republic to ease tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme. The letter states that an agreement by Iran to transfer about 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country “would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s LEU stockpile”. In the letter Obama also writes, “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.” Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan also revealed that he received a letter from Obama and although he has not revealed its contents it is safe to assume that it says much the same thing.
A month later on 17th May, Brazil, Turkey and Iran signed a joint declaration in that would commit Iran to ship about half of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium for storage in Turkey. In exchange, Iran would get a supply of higher-enriched uranium to fuel its medical research reactor. This arrangement was almost identical to a deal put forward by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that was supported by Washington but rejected by Tehran last October. And yet, rather than welcome the deal, Washington responded with scepticism.
The following day, Hillary Clinton dismissed the Brazil-Iran-Turkey offer and announced instead a draft UN security council resolution to impose a new round of sanctions on Iran. The punitive escalation, she said, was “as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken by Tehran over the last few days as any we could have taken.” She argued although the deal might seem like a significant concession, Iran now has much more nuclear material since the IAEA first made the proposal last October.
Clinton, who describes the deal as a ‘ploy’, also points to Iran’s insistence that it will continue to enrich uranium to 20 percent as a sign of bad faith. And yet to demand that Iran cease all enrichment activities is perhaps not just unrealistic, but unnecessary. President Amadinejad is unlikely to give up an activity which he regards as his nation’s inalienable right. While many people have genuine concerns that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons, the way to ensure that it does not become a nuclear-armed nation is not to isolate Tehran. Instead, rigorous international monitoring activities need to be reinstated. Arguments about the possible timeline for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capacity become academic if we ensure their co-operation with the IAEA’s inspections regime.
Speaking just after the deal was announced, Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the IAEA, told me that he thought it was important.
“To dismiss this move as window dressing is unhelpful,” he said. “It is a dead end street.” And yet rather than being regarded as an historic breakthrough, the nuclear fuel swap brokered by Brazil and Turkey has been dismissed. A new round of UN sanctions on Iran would not only close the window of opportunity that has been opened but would also make armed conflict with Iran much more likely. The proposed latest round of sanctions will involve stringent inspection requirements of all goods entering or leaving Iran and an import embargo on refined petroleum products. The naval blockade required to enforce the sanctions—no doubt involving the Royal Navy—could well take us to the brink of war. As we have seen in the Gulf of Hormuz over recent years, skirmishes with the Iranian navy in the region have a tendency to escalate.
The Obama administration has repeatedly accused Iran of not being able to negotiate because of the fragility of Iranian domestic politics. But it seems that Tehran has not only been willing to come to the negotiating table but has been prepared to make significant compromises and to accede to Western demands. By doing so they have exposed the possibility that it is Obama rather than Ahmadinejad whose hands are bound by internal politics. Up against increasing pressure not just from Congress but from within his own party, the dismissal of the Braziliaan-Turkish deal suggests that Obama might no longer have a great deal of influence over US policy on Iran.
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and political analyst, and chair of the Westminster committee on Iran