The Middle East Channel

Secretary Clinton’s cold shoulder on the Iranian fuel-swap deal

This week saw Iran formally submit its fuel-swap proposal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil last week, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yet it is important to recall the curt response of U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton to the initiative to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff and the far-reaching repercussions it is likely to have ...

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This week saw Iran formally submit its fuel-swap proposal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil last week, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yet it is important to recall the curt response of U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton to the initiative to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff and the far-reaching repercussions it is likely to have in the region. Indeed, just one week before the Turkish-Brazilian initiative, U.S. officials reiterated that the fuel-swap proposal for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) — a confidence-building initiative that was designed to open the way to Iranian negotiations with the West on a range of issues — was still on the table and that its terms could not be altered. The 20 percent enriched uranium that would be returned to Iran was earmarked to fuel a fully safeguarded reactor which produces isotopes for the treatment primarily of cancer. Previously, Iran purchased the necessary fuel on the open market.

Now, as Iran moved to accept the terms "that was still on the table," Clinton responded that this was not enough. She raised the bar on negotiations with a new precondition to talks and asserted it in a tone that was intended as a slap in the face for Brazil and Turkey. U.S. officials belittled the new initiative as naive and to hammer home the point, brought forward a new draft sanctions resolution to the Security Council. An affronted Turkish foreign minister was adamant that Clinton had been briefed on his initiative from the start. In retrospect, it is clear that the United States simply had gambled on Ahmet Davutoglu’s "certain" failure.

The Turkish-Brazilian fuel-swap agreement, however, was no small achievement. Iran has experienced a history of canceled or delayed projects, and of access to the nuclear infrastructure to which it was entitled denied (e.g., Iran’s $1 billion investment in an Eurodif uranium enrichment facility in France). For Iran to have acceded to the Turkish-Brazilian plan was a tremendous leap of faith for Iran and a tribute to the Turkish and Brazilian style of diplomacy.

What Iran did in negotiations with Turkey and Brazil was to accept the main elements of the original proposal mediated by Mohamed ElBaradei, the then director of the IAEA: Iran agreed to transfer of all 1,200 kilos of low-enriched uranium (LEU) out of Iran within one month. In exchange, Iran was to receive 20 percent enriched TRR fuel, one year later.  In response, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley commented: "… the United States continues to have concerns about the arrangement. The joint declaration does not address the core concerns of the international community. Iran remains in defiance of five U.N. Security Council resolutions, including its unwillingness to suspend enrichment operations." Shortly thereafter, Crowley added that "public statements today suggest that the TRR deal is unrelated to its [Iran’s] ongoing enrichment activity. In fact, they are integrally linked."

This strongly implies that the problem with the Brazil-Turkey-Iran uranium swap is that the agreement does not provide for Iran to suspend its enrichment activities: that the TRR refueling swap is "integrally linked" (i.e., conditional on the suspension of enrichment).

This "linkage" never was a part of the earlier proposal and constitutes a new condition. The original swap agreement, tentatively accepted in October 2009 by Iran, included no such linkage. If it had, Iran would never have accepted it. This first proposal too was conceived as a confidence-building measure. In fact, the lack of linkage was the very reason that Iran tentatively accepted the October offer, for it was widely interpreted as a tacit U.S. acknowledgment of Iran’s right to enrich uranium as per the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It was, after all, LEU produced at Natanz that was to be swapped for new fuel cells, and there was no provision in the agreement that Iran was required to cease such enrichment.

Now, according to Crowley, the refueling of the research reactor was "integrally linked" with the suspension of enrichment activities. Near the end of the State Department transcript, when he was being pressed about whether the United States would be willing to sit down with Iran to discuss the swap, Crowley says: "Iran has to come forward ultimately and indicate that it is willing per U.N. Security Council resolutions to suspend its enrichment program while we work with Iran on how it can pursue its fundamental right to civilian nuclear energy."

In other words, the United States is insisting that Iran must agree to suspend enrichment before talks can begin. From the Iranian perspective, the Islamic Republic has traveled this route (of suspension) before: It agreed to suspend enrichment for two and a half years in response to a demand by the EU-3, but this gesture led nowhere (the EU-3 demanded permanent suspension, rather than attempt to safeguard Iranian low enrichment). 

Their gesture of temporary suspension came to be viewed as an error by the Iranians: The EU-3 pocketed the temporary suspension and saw the purpose of negotiations to be no more than to ensure its permanence. Iranians however had little confidence in the European "guarantees" of alternative fuel supplies, over which the West would maintain control, nor in their "security" assurances from which the United States deliberately stood aloof.

Although the new U.S. and EU-3 U.N. sanctions resolution has been watered down in response to Chinese and Russian demands, its language has been carefully worded to allow France, Britain, and Germany to build a more "crippling" superstructure of voluntary sanctions on the loose U.N. framework — for a new "coalition of the willing" of European states. 

The consequences of the U.S. move to deride others’ efforts and to cut direct to sanctions procedures without exploring the Turkish "opening" is likely to be far reaching:

  • The Turkish-Brazilian diplomatic success will be seen throughout the Middle East to demonstrate that it is possible, contrary to most Western commentary, to engage with Iran diplomatically. The dismissive, curt U.S. response has already swayed sentiment and will foster suspicion of U.S. and its allies’ ultimate intentions toward Iran. It is now less likely that the Untied States and its European allies in the Security Council will succeed in achieving an Security Council consensus vote on their sanctions draft: What will the United States and its allies, including Israel, do next? More coercive action?
  • The shadow of suspicion cast will also extend to President Barack Obama’s wider nuclear ambitions. Clinton’s response implies that the five nuclear weapons-holding states are intent on unilateral change to the terms of the NPT. The attempt to close the so-called "loophole" of the non-weapons states’ right to enrich represents a major breach of the original pillars and understandings of the treaty. Other states, such as Brazil, are likely to contest this pre-emption of one of the basic pillars underlying the NPT, while weapons-states continue to maintain huge stockpiles of weapons, in conflict with the NPT disarmament pillar. 

Secretary Clinton’s cold shower may seem to have closed the avenue to any subsequent U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran, but Iran’s low-key response suggests that Iran can observe the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wonders whether America may yet have to eat humble pie — and seek Iranian help.

Alastair Crooke is the director and founder of Conflicts Forum.