Turkey, Brazil scramble to seal Iran nuclear fuel swap deal

A senior Turkish official said Friday that momentum for UN sanctions was building, even as Brazil and Turkey work to find a last-minute nuclear fuel swap deal that would allay Western concerns on Iran nuclear ambitions.

By , Staff writer

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    Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan pauses as he addresses the media with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (not pictured) in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday.
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Nuclear diplomacy is set to gather pace in coming days, with Brazil’s president visiting Tehran over the weekend, hoping along with Turkey to find a last-minute compromise fuel swap deal between Iran and Western nations.

Yet even with recent signals from Iran toward rekindling a nuclear fuel plan that has languished for more than seven months, Turkey is tempering optimism that a diplomatic solution can be found in time. The US has been spearheading a push for a fourth set of UN Security Council sanctions on Iran to be imposed, possibly within weeks.

“There is nothing new going on” from the Iranian side, said a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official on Friday. “But let me tell you, on the other side, the track on sanctions is building up steam.”

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A discussed trip to Tehran by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to join his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Sunday is not likely, after a number of recent trips by foreign ministers between Tehran and Ankara. Turkey opposes sanctions, and currently holds a nonpermanent seat – like Brazil – on the 15-member Security Council.

“If [Erdogan] goes there … he wants something concrete to come out of this,” the Turkish official told journalists on the condition he not be named. “But we need to make some progress, and we’ve let that be known to the Iranians, that ‘c’mon, we have to show something concrete now, otherwise it’s going to be very difficult for us to make some headway.’ ”

A senior US State Department official told reporters in Washington that the Brazilian leader’s visit is “perhaps the last big shot at engagement” before sanctions. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called her Turkish counterpart this week to say that the US would nevertheless keep pushing for sanctions.

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On Thursday, US President Barack Obama and Russian Dmitry Medvedev spoke by telephone; a White House statement afterward said the two “agreed to instruct their negotiators to intensify their efforts to reach conclusion as soon as possible.”

Iran, US waffle on terms of nuclear swap deal

Iran has said it accepts in principle the original US-backed UN swap deal: to export the bulk of its homemade low-enriched uranium (LEU) to be further enriched in Russia and then turned in France into fuel rods designed for the small, decades-old reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes.

But Iran then rejected the deal, and has since come back with a counteroffer that would transfer its material in smaller batches to a third party on Iranian soil, and simultaneously receive the nuclear fuel it needs in return.

US and European officials have rejected that offer, because it does not achieve their primary purpose that the deal remove, in a stroke, Iran’s ability to enrich the leftover material to a much higher level – if it chose to do so – for a single nuclear weapon.

Also, American officials say that since the deal was first put forward in October, the 1,200 kg of LEU discussed then, which would have constituted 70 percent of Iran’s stock, no longer achieves the same aim. The new minimum figure would be closer to 2,000 kg.

“It’s been dragging on for months, and we don’t know … if one side is serious or not,” says the senior official. “At least we are serious. And we want them, the Iranians, to know that this is a very serious business.”

“I think that’s an important distinction, and it’s making it more difficult for us to convince the Iranians that they have to do something,” the official said. “The fact that the American position has changed slightly, that 1,200 kilos won’t cut it anymore, and we need more, is probably another excuse for the Iranians to say, ‘You see? The Americans have changed the parameters.’ ”

Reading the tea leaves in Tehran

Also complicating the job for would-be deal-makers Turkey and Brazil are the different power centers in Iran – and trying to read them, as they hold their meetings.

“There are so many different people involved in this,” said the Turkish official. “We don’t know if they are playing us – if the different power centers are real different power centers, or if they see eye-to-eye on this issue. So it’s difficult to gauge, actually, what is in the minds of the Iranians."

Iran denies wanting nuclear arms and says they are forbidden by Islam.

Speaking in New York two weeks ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said the “onus” was on Iran to accept the deal as a confidence-building measure.

Yet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking shortly after the UN chief, said: “We’ve accepted that from the start…. Therefore we have now thrown the ball in the court of those who should accept our proposal and embark on cooperation with us."

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