America's new 'dual track' approach to Iran nuclear program

At first, the US said, the new push for sanctions on Iran was a rebuff of a fuel swap deal. But now, it says, both the sanctions and the deal should try to address the Iran nuclear program.

Vahid Salemi/AP
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, flashes a victory sign before signing an agreement to ship most of Iran's enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap deal, in Tehran, Monday. The US will take a new 'dual track' approach to addressing the Iran nuclear program.

The US appears to have switched its tune.

When it unveiled an accord among the big powers of the United Nations Security Council for new sanctions on Iran, the US said it was a rebuff of a deal reached this week by Turkey and Brazil for an Iran nuclear fuel swap.

But now, the Obama administration says, both sanctions and the fuel swap should be able to proceed: Both address aspects of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, although they take separate paths in doing that.

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The United States is hoping for as close to unanimity in the 15-member Security Council on Iran sanctions as possible. This means the support of smaller, nonaligned countries that have expressed sympathy for Iran’s position. Thus, the US is now following a dual-track approach to Iran diplomacy.

Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, said Wednesday that the sanctions resolution “has nothing to do with” the proposed fuel-swap deal, which she compared to a “confidence-building measure” that the US and other powers proposed to Iran last fall.

In a statement on a telephone conversation Wednesday between President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House said the president “acknowledged the efforts of Turkey and Brazil.” But Mr. Obama also informed the prime minister that negotiations on the new resolution “will continue” because of “concerns about Iran’s overall nuclear program” and its continuing failure to meet its “international obligations.”

The new tack amounts to an argument in favor of additional sanctions, some nuclear experts say, because it is saying that it’s the heat from all sides that is forcing Iran to respond to the international community.

The US dual track is really an argument that “it’s only the continuing pressure that is making Iran agree to this fuel swap,” says Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the strategic security program at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

“Was Iran’s sole intention [in accepting the fuel swap] to derail sanctions?” Mr. Oelrich adds. “If that’s your judgment, then this [Turkish-Brazilian] proposal is not legitimate.” But, he says, the US should accept the fuel-swap deal “as a test” of Iran’s intentions.

He says, “It gets a bomb’s worth of fuel out of Iranian territory” – low-enriched uranium that under current conditions in Iran would take a year to amass. If nothing else, he adds, “You’ve added a year to the clock.”

Both the US-proposed Security Council resolution and the Turkish-Brazilian fuel-swap deal would put new pressures on the regime in Tehran. Yet neither would force Iran’s nuclear program to grind to a halt. Iran says the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but Western powers believe it is aimed at producing a nuclear weapon.

The proposed resolution of sanctions is aimed at making further nuclear progress by Iran increasingly costly and thus forcing Iran into serious diplomacy and transparency over its program. The fuel-swap deal, which would remove about half of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, is designed to reduce international tensions over Iran’s growing pile of fuel and thus to give diplomacy a chance.

The new resolution toughens existing international economic constraints on Iran in a number of ways:

• Establishes a “framework” for inspection of suspicious cargo ships, either on the high seas or in ports.

• Sets new asset freezes and travel bans for individuals and companies linked to the Iranian revolutionary Guard Corps.

• Expands an existing arms embargo to missiles, combat aircraft, and battle tanks.

• Calls on financial institutions to block the transactions of Iranian banks that are considered under reasonable doubt to be related to banned activities and purchases – for example, of materials that could be used in the nuclear program.

The resolution as negotiated among the Security Council’s permanent members does not include a comprehensive arms embargo, which the US and France wanted. And it is devoid of any measures targeting Iran’s oil sector – measures the Chinese and Russians rejected.

The US and other members of the international community should have learned this week that Iran does respond to pressure, says Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Iran, he says, only accepted the Brazilian-Turkish plan after Tehran became convinced that a UN resolution was advancing.

Iran is seeing its “circle of diplomatic partners” shrink, Mr. Clawson writes in a commentary on the week’s events. Whereas in past years Tehran tried to play the US and Europe off each other, the Iranians now have decreasing sway with the Russians and even the Chinese, he says.

But, he says, the basic challenge of Iran’s continuing will to enrich uranium remains unresolved. “Neither the new [fuel-swap deal] nor the proposed sanctions address that matter directly,” he says.

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