US pushes Iran sanctions over Brazilian-Turkish uranium swap

The Brazilian-Turkish deal does nothing to address concerns about Iran’s continuing enrichment of uranium, US officials said Friday. The US believes Iran is using the swap as a tactic to delay a UN sanctions resolution.

By , Staff writer

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    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during a public meeting in the central city of Khorramshahr, Iran on May 23. Ahmadinejad urged the United States and Russia to back a nuclear fuel deal, warning it would be the last 'opportunity' to resolve the atomic standoff.
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Obama administration officials insisted Friday that a US-sponsored United Nations resolution with new sanctions on Iran is moving forward – even as they scrambled to remove the speed bumps placed in the resolution’s path by a recent Brazilian-Turkish uranium fuel-swap deal with Tehran.

The Brazilian-Turkish deal, also known as the tripartite agreement, does nothing to address US and international concerns about Iran’s continuing enrichment of uranium, senior administration officials said Friday. Because of that, they added, the agreement cannot be seen as a substitute for “pressure” on Iran to reassure the international community that its nuclear program is, as it says, solely for peaceful purposes.

The tripartite deal is “separate from the basic facts that have brought this issue to the Security Council,” a senior US official says, citing Iran’s continued uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity. For that reason among others, “it’s important we proceed to New York to adopt the sanctions resolution.”

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In an unusual Friday afternoon conference call with reporters, the officials said Brazilian and Turkish officials were “well aware” of waning Western interest in a fuel swap deal with Tehran before the two countries took their proposal to Tehran earlier this month.

The tripartite agreement, which would remove to Turkey about half of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile – or about enough to produce a nuclear weapon if enriched to the level required for a bomb – was announced in Tehran May 17. The deal would be a “swap,” because within a year Iran would receive the fuel rods it needs for an aging research reactor

Hours later on May 17, the US responded by announcing it had secured the support of the Security Council’s permanent members – meaning crucially Russia and China – plus Germany, for a fourth round of UN economic sanctions on Iran.

Friday’s conference call appeared to be an attempt to answer questions that have swirled around the diplomacy behind the Brazilian-Turkish agreement – questions that have at least slowed progress towards a full Security Council vote on the proposed resolution. Both Brazil and Turkey are current non-permanent members of the Security Council, but have refused to join in council discussions of the resolution.

With the support of the council’s five permanent members seemingly assured, the resolution should have no trouble reaching the nine votes necessary for passage from the 15-member council, UN diplomats say. But council members prefer to reach unanimity, and at least two “no” votes from Turkey and Brazil (Lebanon is also a non-permanent member) could dilute the resolution’s message value to Tehran.

One of the issues roiling the diplomatic waters is a letter President Obama sent to Brazilian President Joao Lula da Silva in mid-April taking up US concerns about Iran and responding to Brazil’s questions about US requirements for a swap deal (The US, along with Russia and France, had put a similar deal to Tehran in October, though Tehran never formally accepted it).

Brazilian officials now claim that the tripartite deal reached earlier this month met all of the demands Obama expressed in the letter.

But US officials say Obama’s letter was never meant to be a full presentation of US concerns about Iran. Nor was it meant to be a listing of US demands for a swap deal, they add – especially since the US had lost interest in such a deal, given that Iran had continued to enrich uranium since the October deal fell through and to increase the size of its stockpile.

“We weren’t asking Brazil and Turkey to go out and negotiate on our behalf,” one of the US officials on the conference call said. “We were reacting to some of the ideas they had put before us.…We didn’t feel we needed to be comprehensive.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will take up the issue when she meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu next week. But US officials say that while the US “appreciates” the two countries’ efforts to encourage Iran to cooperate with the international community, they also say the US believes Iran is using the swap deal as a “tactic” to “delay the momentum towards a sanctions resolution.”

Related:

As sanctions loom, is Iran sending peace signals to the US?

Tehran details Iran nuclear deal amid debate over UN sanctions

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