President Obama Should Be Honest about the Iran-Turkey-Brazil Nuclear Deal

Brazilian President Lula, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, and their foreign ministers have been too polite in their characterization of President Obama’s role in the nuclear deal they mediated with Iran last week.  For we now have documentary evidence that President Obama’s Secretary of State and his White House spokesman are simply not telling the truth when they say that the Brazil-Turkey deal does not meet the standards that the United States has defined for an acceptable international arrangement on refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).

That documentary evidence comes in the form of a letter from Obama, dated April 20, 2010, to President Lula.

The bottom line: On April 20, roughly a month before the Joint Declaration between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil was announced in Tehran, President Obama conveyed, in writing, to President Lula that, to be acceptable to the United States, a deal to refuel the TRR would need to include Iran’s shipment of 1,200 kg of LEU to Turkey for “escrow” for one year, pending the delivery of new fuel.  In the deal they brokered with Iran, Brazil and Turkey delivered on every one of those points.  Obama’s letter says nothing about a U.S. requirement that Iran halt its enrichment program, or even stop enriching uranium at near-20 percent levels — which Obama Administration officials now claim are irredeemable flaws in the Brazil-Turkey deal.

In his letter, Obama notes that he had promised his Brazilian counterpart a detailed response to Lula and Erdoğan’s proposal to try to mediate an agreement on refueling the TRR, reaffirming that “the TRR is an opportunity to pave the way for a broader dialogue dealing with the more fundamental concerns of the international community regarding Iran’s overall nuclear program.”  In Obama’s own words, his letter is meant “to offer a detailed explanation of my perspective and suggest a way ahead.”

Specifically, Obama states that, “for us, Iran’s agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s LEU stockpile.  I want to underscore that this element is of fundamental importance for the United States” (emphasis added).  The Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal, of course, stipulates that Iran will transfer 1,200 kg of LEU out of the country.

On the issue of timing for a fuel swap and third-country custody of the Iranian LEU, Obama writes:

We understand from you, Turkey, and others that Iran continues to propose that Iran would retain its LEU on its territory until there is a simultaneous exchange of its LEU for nuclear fuel.  As General Jones noted during our meeting, it will require one year for any amount of nuclear fuel to be produced. . . .  There is a potentially important compromise that has already been offered.  Last November, the IAEA conveyed to Iran our offer to allow Iran to ship its 1,200kg of LEU to a third country — specifically Turkey — at the outset of the process to be held “in escrow” as a guarantee during the fuel production process that Iran would get back its uranium if we failed to deliver the fuel.  Iran has never pursued the “escrow” compromise and has provided no credible explanation for its rejection.  I believe that this raises real questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions, if Iran is unwilling to accept an offer to demonstrate that its LEU is for peaceful civilian purposes.  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.  (again, emphasis added)

As part of the Brazil-Turkey deal, Iran has agreed to take the “opportunity” presented to “escrow” its uranium in Turkey, for one year, pending the delivery of new fuel for the TRR.

Finally, Obama notes that “throughout this process, instead of building confidence Iran has undermined confidence in the way it has approached this opportunity.  That is why I question whether Iran is prepared to engage Brazil in good faith, and why I cautioned you during our meeting.  To begin a constructive diplomatic process, Iran has to convey to the IAEA a constructive commitment to engagement through official channels — something it has failed to do.  Meanwhile, we will pursue sanctions on the timeline that I have outlined.  I have also made clear that I will leave the door open to engagement with Iran.”  Pursuant to the Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal, Iran has, of course, now conveyed a “constructive commitment to engagement through official channels” to the IAEA.

And, with regard to enrichment, Obama had written earlier in the letter that “notwithstanding Iran’s continuing defiance of five United Nations Security Council resolutions mandating that it cease its enrichment of uranium, we were prepared to support and facilitate action on a proposal that would provide Iran nuclear fuel using uranium enriched by Iran — a demonstration of our willingness to be creative in pursuing a way to build mutual confidence.”

It saddens us to write this — but is President Obama prepared to engage Iran, Brazil, Turkey, or anybody else in good faith on this issue?

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 27 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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