Washington’s Reaction to the Iran Nuclear Deal Brokered by Brazil and Turkey

The compromise agreement on refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) mediated by Brazil and Turkey is a truly big deal.  From a “macro” perspective, this is a watershed event: two rising economic powers from what we condescendingly used to call the “Third World” have asserted consequential political and strategic influence on a high-profile matter of international peace and security.  Furthermore, they have done so in a manner that politely but clearly signals that rising powers will no longer let the United States unilaterally define the terms for managing major challenges to global security.

We will have more to say about the global strategic importance of the Brazil-Turkey TRR deal in coming days.  At this point, we would note that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ham-handed statement about the deal to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today and the Obama Administration’s subsequent circulation of a draft sanctions resolution to the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council (including Brazil and Turkey) raises the chances of serious international backlash against the United States on the issue.

Obviously, the deal is also very important in terms of its implications for U.S.-Iranian dynamics, on the nuclear issue and beyond.  On these points, we want to highlight an edgy and excellent piece published today by our friend and colleague Rami Khouri, Editor-at-large of The Daily Star (Beirut) and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.  Rami argues that

the political agreement on Iran’s nuclear fuel announced Monday after mediation by the Turkish and Brazilian governments should be good news for those who seek to use the rule of law to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation.  From both the American and Iranian perspectives, the political dimension of the current dynamic is more important than the technical one.  Also, this accord should remind us that the style and tone of a diplomatic process is as important as its substance.

Iran and its assorted international negotiating partners in the past half decade have not reached agreement on Iran’s nuclear programs to a large extent because American- and Israeli-led concerns have been translated into an aggressive, accusatory, sanctions-and-threats-based style of diplomacy that Iran in turn has responded to with defiance and resistance.

Iran’s crime, in the eyes of its main critics in Washington and Tel Aviv (they are the two that matter most, as other Western powers play only supporting roles), is not primarily that it enriches uranium, but that it defies American-Israeli orders to stop doing so.  (The Iranian response, rather reasonable in my view, is that it suspended uranium enrichment half a decade ago and did not receive the promises it expected from the United States and its allies on continuing with its plans for the peaceful use of nuclear technology — so why should it suspend enrichment again?). . .

The political imperative in the agreement announced this week is clear, and repeats the basic principles that Iran and American-led negotiators agreed on in principle last autumn: sending abroad Iran’s low-grade enriched uranium and transforming it into fuel rods for use in Tehran’s research reactor.  The political dynamics now should also be clear: Iran is willing to negotiate seriously and enter into agreements that honor the nuclear non-proliferation treaty’s dictates, if such talks are conducted in a non-colonial manner and also acknowledge Iran’s own national interests.

The first paragraph of the 12-point agreement is the most important, with Brazil, Turkey and Iran stating that: “We reaffirm our commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and in accordance with the related articles of the NPT, recall the right of all State Parties, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (as well as nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities) for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”  Article 2 speaks of looking ahead to a “positive, constructive, non-confrontational atmosphere leading to an era of interaction and cooperation.”

These suggest that a win-win option is available (and always has been, in my view and that of many others in this region) that respects sovereign rights on nuclear development while prevents nuclear weapons proliferation.  Whether this option will be pursued reflects political, rather than technical, dictates.  The available signs indicate that the Obama administration remains committed to its schizophrenic policy of reaching out to Iran while also sermonizing to it with condescension and even some disdain.  This was most recently reflected in Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s statement a few days ago, after predicting incorrectly that the Turkish-Brazilian mediation would fail, “Every step of the way has demonstrated clearly to the world that Iran is not participating in the international arena in the way that we had asked them to do, and that they continued to pursue their nuclear program.”

This presumptuous, aggressive approach has failed to change Iran’s nuclear strategy, while the Turkish-Brazilian approach has been more successful.  The coming days and weeks will clarify if the US-Israel-led side finally grasps the important political lessons of the Turkish-Brazilian mediation: Drop the arrogance and double standards, negotiate fairly and realistically, and accept that Iran is a power that is at once strong, technically proficient, and proud of its sovereignty, and on that basis agree to lock in its respect for existing nuclear non-proliferation standards and conventions.

Rami closes with an important observation about the Middle East’s changing political dynamics and the challenge that poses for the United States and its allies:

Iran and Turkey represent something novel and historically significant in the Middle East: Muslim-majority countries that are politically self-confident and dare to stand up to the United States, Israel or anyone else who encroaches on what they see as their strategic national interests.  Washington and Tel Aviv remain confused on how to deal with such new phenomena.

The Obama Administration’s initial response to the Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal suggests that confusion continues to run high in official Washington.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was published in The Race for Iran on 18 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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