Stephen M. Walt

Big deal?

Well, speaking of Turkey, what do I make of the surprise nuclear deal between Turkey, Brazil and Iran, which was announced as I was packing up to leave Istanbul? The deal was proclaimed with great fanfare in Tehran, and it basically resurrects an earlier arrangement by which Iran agreed to give up a large part ...


Well, speaking of Turkey, what do I make of the surprise nuclear deal between Turkey, Brazil and Iran, which was announced as I was packing up to leave Istanbul? The deal was proclaimed with great fanfare in Tehran, and it basically resurrects an earlier arrangement by which Iran agreed to give up a large part of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile in exchange for a much smaller quantity of more highly enriched (~20 percent) uranium (for use in a research reactor that produces medical isotopes).

The first thing to note is that we’ve seen this movie before (or at least, we’ve seen something rather like it), and it remains to be seen whether any uranium will actually change hands. It’s possible that the whole thing is just a subterfuge designed to ward off stricter economic sanctions, and that eventually one of the signatories (most likely Iran) will find a way to wiggle out of the deal. 

But it is also possible that this is a first step towards a diplomatic resolution of the whole Iranian nuclear problem (albeit a rather small step). The crux of that issue isn’t Iran’s stockpile of LEU or its desire for fuel for its research reactor; the dispute is over whether Iran is ever going to be permitted to have its own indigenous enrichment capability at all. And this deal says nothing about that question; the best that can be said for it is that it might — repeat might — open the door to a more fruitful diplomatic process.

Here’s why I think the United States should welcome the deal. The only feasible way out of the current box is via diplomacy, because military force won’t solve the problem for very long, could provoke a major Middle East war, and is more likely to strengthen the clerical regime and make the United States look like a bully with an inexhaustible appetite for attacking Muslim countries. (And having Israel try to do the job wouldn’t help, because we’d be blamed for it anyway). I think George Bush figured that out before he left office, and I think President Obama knows it too. So do sensible Israelis, though not the perennial hawks at the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, who appear to have learned nothing from their shameful role cheerleading the debacle in Iraq back in 2002.

Furthermore, the only way to get a diplomatic deal is for the United States and its allies to find some way to climb down from the non-negotiable demand that Iran give up control of the full nuclear fuel cycle (i.e., its indigenous enrichment capacity). This is a prestige goal for the Iranian government and it enjoys wide support among the Iranian population, including most leaders of the opposition. Instead, the goal ought to be to encourage Iran not to develop nuclear weapons, and the best way to do that is to take the threat of military force off the table and negotiate a deal whereby Iran signs and fully implements the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Given the parlous state of Iran’s relations with the West, however, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. And the more that the WSJ and other sound the tocsin for war, the more likely Iran is to conclude that the only way to be safe is to have a genuine deterrent of their own. So the Turkish-Brazilian initiative could be a welcome opportunity to get a diplomatic process started, although as noted above, it is only a small first step.

The key point to bear in mind is that the latest deal is essentially meaningless unless outside powers (e.g., Russia, France, or the United States) buy into it. Why? Because Turkey or Brazil can’t fulfill the terms of the deal (i.e., they can’t provide the reactor fuel that Iran needs). And that means that one of the parties to the earlier deal that fell apart last fall will have to go along.

Hardliner worry that the deal is a disaster because it will undermine support for stronger economic sanctions. It might, but who cares? Sanctions weren’t going to change Iran’s mind either. And states that are now worried about a double-dip recession are not going to be eager to impose sanctions that might involve real costs. (And no, that’s not an argument for launching a preventive war either, because the last thing a fragile world economy needs right now is a war in the Persian Gulf and the soaring oil prices that this would entail).

So what should the United States do? It should welcome the deal in principle, while making it clear that it will monitor implementation carefully and emphasizing that this particular agreement does not resolve the larger question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Rejecting the deal would do nothing to advance broader U.S. objectives and would be an unnecessary slap in the face of Turkey and Brazil. Trying to scotch the deal would also allows Iran to blame Washington should the deal fall through, and it will only reinforce Iranian assertions that U.S. leaders are lying when they say they would like to improve relations.

But if the United States welcomes the deal and it then falls apart, Iran won’t be able to blame us for the failure and third parties will see the United States as reasonable and Iran as intransigent. Indeed, if we greet it favorably and Iran eventually backs out (as it did last fall), our position with Istanbul and Brasilia will be enhanced and Iran’s is likely to suffer, because both President Lula da Silva and Prime Minister Erdogan won’t appreciate having been taken for a ride. So to the extent that we are worried about an emerging Istanbul-Teheran-Brasilia axis (and we shouldn’t be), the smart play is not to criticize the deal at this stage and to thank them for their efforts. (From what I’ve been able to tell, that’s more-or-less the line the Obama administration appears to be taking).

I might add that this announcement reinforces some of the observations I made in my earlier post about Turkey’s new foreign policy. Moreover, Stephen Kinzer reports that Turkey played a pretty hard-nosed role in the negotiations, and apparently convinced Iran to make important concessions. Instead of being miffed, we ought to see this as a sign that Turkey can be a useful intermediary in some difficult situations, and we ought to be looking for ways to work with Istanbul instead of feeling threatened or slighted.

One last point: It would also be desirable if the various parties didn’t try to use the deal to make domestic brownie points or settle other scores (I know, that’s asking a lot of most politicians). U.S. officials should avoid giving the impression that they are upset because progress was made without their being in the room. Similarly, if the deal goes south in the months ahead, we should resist the temptation to say "told you so" in public (though we might want to do so in private). Similarly, Turkish and Brazilian leaders would be wise not to crow too much about the achievement, or to boast about how they have succeeded where others have failed. It’s hard for democratic leaders to resist such temptations, but Harry S. Truman was right when he said it was amazing what one could accomplish if you didn’t mind who gets the credit. 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola