Iran and the United States: Next Steps on the Brazil-Turkey Deal?

On May 24, Iranian representatives, accompanied by Brazilian and Turkish counterparts, met with the IAEA’s Director General, Yukiya Amano.  The purpose of the meeting was to present a letter to Amano — as called for in the May 17, 2010 Joint Declaration by Iran, Turkey, and Brazil — formally notifying the IAEA of the Islamic Republic’s acceptance of the terms laid out in the Declaration, including its commitment to deposit 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) in Turkey.

So what happens now?  The Joint Declaration is, in its way, a complicated diplomatic undertaking.  The odds that it will actually be executed in full seem relatively small, in our view.  But, over the next several weeks, both the United States and Iran will be working to position themselves so that they are not blamed by important “audiences” if the deal falls apart.  These “audiences” include domestic constituencies, but, even more significantly, they include critical players on the United Nations Security Council — e.g., Brazil, Turkey, and China.

Here is a guide to the next steps in the process.

With the transmission of the Iranian letter, the proverbial ball is now in the court of the so-called “Vienna Group” — the United States, Russia, France, and the IAEA.  These players were, of course, centrally involved in the development of the Baradei proposal for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) last October.

How will the Vienna Group respond to Iran’s letter?  In broad terms, four alternative responses are possible:

  • “Yes” — the Vienna Group can accept the proposal.
  •  “No” — the Vienna Group can reject the proposal.
  •  “Yes, but. . .” — the Vienna Group can indicate that it is willing to work with the Joint Declaration, but wants to clarify specific issues — i.e., the precise amount of (LEU) to be transferred out of Iran and/or whether Iran will continue enriching uranium at the significantly higher level (almost 20 percent) required to produce new fuel for the TRR.  Other possible concerns requiring clarification could include who will pay for the fabrication of new fuel for the TRR (something which is not addressed at all in the Joint Declaration) and how much time is actually required to fabricate new fuel (France now seems to be indicating that it could take longer than the one year stipulated in the Joint Declaration).
  • “No, but. . .” — the Vienna Group can decline to work with the Joint Declaration, unless Iran complies with some additional requirements — such as cessation of uranium enrichment at the nearly 20 percent level, or suspension of all enrichment activities.

It is unlikely that the Vienna Group will offer an unequivocal “yes” or “no” in responding to the Iranian letter.  So far, the Obama Administration’s position toward the Brazil-Turkey deal has been a version of option #4, “no, but. . . .”  Since last week, the Administration has said, in effect, that, even if Iran did everything required of it by the Joint Declaration, it would still need to suspend enrichment in order to avoid the imposition of new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council.

To avoid being perceived as not being able to take “yes” for an answer, will Washington be willing and able to pivot to some version of “yes, but. . .” with regard to the Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal?  And, if it does make such a pivot, will the concerns raised by the United States as part of its “yes, but. . .” be perceived by key international constituencies as legitimate, or at least reasonable?  Or, will U.S. concerns be seen either as poorly disguised “poison pills” meant to kill the Joint Declaration or as attempts to renegotiate the Declaration’s terms?

In this regard, if the United States offers “yes, but. . . ,” with the matter of Iran’s continued enrichment to the near-20 percent level as its principal concern, that position might attract at least some international support, given that a number of non-Western countries question why Iran would need to continue enriching at this higher level if the basic issue of refueling the TRR had been addressed.  (In writing this, we recognize the legal argument that Iran has a right to enrich up to this level; we are making a fundamentally political point here.)

On the other hand, if the United States offers “yes, but. . .” and focuses on increasing the quantity of LEU to be shipped out of Iran as its main concern, that is more likely to be perceived by key countries as an attempt to renegotiate the deal — and would almost certainly be rejected by the Iranians.  Indeed, if Washington proceeds in this way, it confirms our hypothesis that the Obama Administration is, in fact, not interested in finding a way to make the Brazil-Turkey deal work.

Once the Vienna Group has responded to the Iranian letter, what will Tehran do?  Even if the United States behaves in “provocative” ways, will Iranian negotiators still be authorized to sit down with representatives from the Vienna Group parties to discuss details of the Joint Declaration and its implementation?  How will those negotiators (be perceived to) handle their discussions with the Vienna Group?  And — assuming that the United States does not go ahead and ram a new sanctions resolution through the Security Council during the next month — will Iran actually transfer 1,200 kilograms of LEU to Turkey, as specified in the Joint Declaration?

How these questions get answered during the next few weeks will largely determine who “wins” and who “loses” from the Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal.

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 first published in The Race for Iran on 24 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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