For years, Iran has danced a reverse moonwalk with Europe and the United States. It appears to move forward toward compromise over its atomic ambitions when it really moves backward – toward a nuclear-weapons capability.
On Monday, however, the Islamic Republic changed dance partners. It instead cut a deal with Turkey and Brazil, two fellow “emerging giant” countries that want to flex more global clout against the West. It agreed to ship low-enriched uranium abroad to Turkey in return for imports of safe nuclear material for use only in its medical research reactor.
On the face of it, this swap proposal appears to be a concession by Iran. A similar plan was offered by the West last year as a trust-building step, only with Russia and not Turkey as the transfer point. Iran at first agreed to it but then backed off (another reverse moonwalk).
Despite the apparent compromise, the new plan is different enough, and the timing is so suspect, that the West has every reason to quickly test Iran’s sincerity.
For one, Iran agreed to only ship uranium enriched to few percent purity. Since last year, it has begun another process to enrich up to 20 percent purity. Somehow Turkey and Brazil weren’t able to get Iran to agree to ship that material. (About 90 percent purity is needed for an atomic bomb. Iran may be months, or years, from achieving that.)
It is also not clear how much of the low-enriched uranium would actually be transferred. And Iran can back out of the deal at any moment.
But the biggest challenge to this deal is in the timing. It comes soon after China, as the key veto on the United Nations Security Council, indicated it would support a new round of tougher UN sanctions on Iran.
In other words, the threat of sanctions, let alone sanctions themselves, can force Iran to move, even if the move is designed to buy time as it builds up its very secret nuclear program.
Adding to the suspicion is the fact that Turkey, which now imports natural gas from Iran, might be hurt under the proposed sanctions, and therefore has an interest in putting off the day of international confrontation with Iran. In addition, Brazil, which played the prime mediator in this deal, may be worried about global pressure on itself. It is under suspicion about whether it has a secret nuclear weapons program.
The likelihood of this plan failing is high enough that President Obama may want to be patient. Turkey and Brazil might yet join a list of other countries that have lost patience with Iran’s perfidy over its nuclear goals.
Mr. Obama himself has less patience after he offered to engage Iran on a host of issues last year. He was rebuffed.
It’s not easy dealing with a regime that kills its own peaceful protesters and cites divine authority for clinging to power despite widespread unpopularity and a failed economy.
The US must still somehow prevent Iran from destabilizing the Middle East and threatening the existence of Israel with nuclear capability. With each diplomatic stumble by Iran, the US can win over more allies to its sanctions strategy.