Turtle Bay

The revenge of the middle powers

Brazil and Turkey’s announcement of a nuclear fuel deal with Iran has done more than complicate U.S. plans for a U.N. sanctions resolution. It also threatens, or promises, to upend the political order that has held sway in the Security Council for decades — one in which the five permanent members of the U.N.’s most ...

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Brazil and Turkey’s announcement of a nuclear fuel deal with Iran has done more than complicate U.S. plans for a U.N. sanctions resolution. It also threatens, or promises, to upend the political order that has held sway in the Security Council for decades — one in which the five permanent members of the U.N.’s most powerful body make all the critical decisions on key security matters.

Not since the run-up to the Iraq war have the council’s middle and small powers sought to foil the ambitions of the big five. Despite intense pressure from the United States, Mexican ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser and Chile’s envoy Juan Gabriel Valdés refused to back the U.S. drive to war. They were both driven from their jobs (Zinser after ripping the U.S. for cultivating "a relationship of convenience and subordination"), and the United States invaded anyways.

In announcing today’s deal, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu made it clear that they were rejecting the Obama administration’s case for sanctions and asserted Iran is entitled to its rights, under the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to enrich uranium and develop its own capacity to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful nuclear power. Today’s pact makes no mention of the three U.N. Security council resolutions demanding that Tehran cease its enrichment of uranium until it can persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it is being used solely for peaceful purposes. "This plan is a route for dialogue and takes away any grounds for sanctions," Amorim told reporters in Tehran.

The move reflects deeper reservations among many key middle powers — including countries like Egypt, Indonesia, and South Africa — that the big five powers are preparing to use this month’s ongoing NPT review conference in New York to impose greater restraints on the rights of developing countries to develop nuclear fuel programs in the name of preventing proliferation. They fear that any effort to restrict Iran’s right to develop its own fuel might be used against them in the future.

Addressing the General Assembly last month, Egypt’s U.N. ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz, who chairs the 118 nation Non-Aligned Movement, said it is crucial to "preserve the right of non-nuclear powers to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and not to allow a fuel bank or any kind of supply arrangement that is going to decide on behalf of the countries concerned what are their developmental needs and how [they should] deal with this fuel."

The accord may be sufficient to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other. Moscow and Beijing have both professed their preference for a negotiated settlement over Iran’s nuclear program. And they have both pressed Iran to accept the fuel swap as a way of showing it is serious about resolving the nuclear standoff.

The Britain, France, Germany, and the United States favor a fuel swap as a confidence-building measure aimed at enhancing international trust in Tehran’s nuclear intentions. But they harbor suspicions that Iran has cut the deal to evade U.N. sanctions and that it has no intention to adequately addressing international concerns about its nuclear activities.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs delivered a carefully measured response to the nuclear pact, saying the U.S. welcomed the deal to ship nuclear fuel off Iranian soil, but that Tehran’s assertion that it will continue enriching uranium "is a direct violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions." He urged Iran to report the agreement immediately to the IAEA, where its commitment can be tested.

Gibbs said the U.S. would continue to press Iran to "demonstrate through deeds-and not simply words-its willingness to live up to international obligations or face consequences, including sanctions." He said that the U.S. expected Iran to comply with all U.N. resolutions, including those calling for full cooperation with IAEA inspectors and the suspension of Iran’s enrichment of uranium. "Given Iran’s repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and the international community continue to have serious concerns," he said.

Despite their frustrations, U.S. officials were cautious not to criticize the Brazilian and Turkish role in pushing a deal that is all but certain to weaken their case for sanctions. The approach contrasted with that of the Bush administration, which initial sought to punish former allies that opposed its quest for a war resolution in Iraq, according to U.N. diplomats.

In the aftermath of the invasion, "allies loyal to the United States were rejected, mocked, and even punished" for their refusal to back a U.N. resolution authorizing military action against Saddam Hussein’s government, Chilean U.N. ambassador Heraldo Muñoz wrote in a book on the matter.

But the latest deal came under fire from analysts who said it would do nothing to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment and would leave Iran with enough low-enriched uranium to be reprocessed into weapons-grade fuel if Tehran acquires the technological knowhow to do it. "This is a poorly negotiated deal that doesn’t serve U.S. interests and may only worsen the situation," said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear weapon inspector who tracks Iran’s nuclear program. "Here you have a subgroup of nations weighing in and saying the enrichment program is not subject to further negotiations."

The arrangement requires Iran to ship 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey within the next month. In exchange, Iran will receive fuel rods containing 120 kilograms of a more purified form of reprocessed uranium for Iran’s Tehran medical reactor within one year. If any provision of the pact is breached, Turkey would be required to return the uranium to Iran. Turkey and the IAEA (which has not yet signed on) will monitor the stored uranium in Turkey.

The deal hinges on Tehran’s ability to negotiate a deal with the France, Russia, the United States, and the IAEA (the so-called Vienna group) to assure the delivery of fuel rods for the research reactor to Iran. "The nuclear fuel exchange is a starting point to begin cooperation and a positive constructive move forward among nations," according to the pact. It should replace and avoid "all kinds of confrontation through refraining from measures, actions, and rhetorical statements that would jeopardize rights and obligations under the NPT."

Iran first expressed interest in the fuel swap after the IAEA presented the proposal to Tehran in October. But Iran quickly reversed course. In the weeks leading up to the deal, the United States has expressed skepticism over Iran’s intention to implement a fuel swap. "I have told my counterparts in many capitals around the world that I believe that we will not get any serious response out of the Iranians until after the Security Council acts," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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