Brazil, Turkey try to hammer out 'last chance' Iran nuclear fuel swap deal

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew late Sunday to Tehran sounding bullish about a possible Iran nuclear fuel swap deal that could help Iran avoid another round of UN sanctions.

Raheb Homavandi/Reuters
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (l.) and his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva attend an official meeting in Tehran to talk about an Iran nuclear fuel swap deal, Sunday.

Nuclear summitry between Iran, Brazil, and Turkey got underway in Tehran on Sunday, with no final result from what has been cast – from Washington to Moscow – as a “last chance” for Iran to avoid another set of United Nations sanctions.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was welcomed with a brass band, hailed as a “brother” by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and had a rare audience with Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.

But even as Iranian state media made little mention of the nuclear issue – and cast the Brazilian leader’s visit as “mainly” about expanding Iran-Brazil ties – Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew late Sunday to Tehran.

Turkish officials, frustrated after months of fruitless high-level negotiations with the Iranians to broker a compromise deal, had earlier ruled out a visit by the Turkish leader unless “something concrete” would emerge.

Turkey had been mooted as a compromise site for a nuclear fuel swap, in which Iran would hand over the bulk of its homemade low-enriched uranium (LEU), to be made into fuel rods in Russia and France, as part of a US-backed United Nations “confidence building” measure.

“I am going to Iran because a clause will be added to the proposal which says the swap will take place in Turkey,” Mr. Erdogan said before leaving, according to Turkey's Anatolian news agency. “We will have the opportunity to start the process of the swap. I guarantee that we will find the opportunity to overcome these problems, God willing.”

Increased hope

In Tehran, Mr. da Silva told reporters that “the level of hope (of reaching a deal) has increased.”

Pushed by the US and some European countries, the UN Security Council is expected to vote within weeks, perhaps days, on a fourth set of sanctions against Iran.

Previous Security Council resolutions require Iran to stop enriching uranium while it resolves outstanding questions about possible design efforts for a nuclear bomb – projects that Iran denies.

Brazil and Turkey both oppose sanctions, and currently hold non-permanent Security Council seats.

Washington has called the Brazilian’s visit the “last shot” to avoid sanctions; Russian President Dmitry Mevedev termed it the “last chance” for Iran.

“The president remains optimistic about the nuclear talks,” a member of the Brazilian delegation told Agence France-Presse. “There are still ongoing negotiations and we have to wait until the end of the talks tomorrow [Monday].”

Iran's reluctance

Iran has been reluctant to accept a deal that is designed to leave too little LEU in Iran to make a single nuclear weapon – if it chose to enrich the uranium to far higher levels.

When the UN deal was first offered Oct. 1 last year, Iran’s government first appeared to accept, and then – in the face of opposition even from pro-democracy leaders, who charged that the government was giving away the fruit of Iran’s nuclear scientists — put forward a compromise deal months later.

That was rejected by key Western powers.

It is not yet clear how a compromise fuel swap brokered with Brazil and Turkey—even if acceptable to the US, Europe, Russia, and senior UN officials – would alter the sanctions timeline.

Iran says it wants only peaceful nuclear energy, and rejects nuclear weapons. If a swap deal were done, however, it would effectively delay the speed with which Iran – if it chose – could move toward a weapon, which is what some Western countries believe to be Iran’s aim.

Turkish media Sunday night described a “statement of agreement” being worked out.

The original deal called for Iran to export 1,200 kilograms of its LEU, though continued enrichment in the meantime means that US officials have made clear that the figure that Iran must export now would need to be higher to achieve the same end.

“That would give the West … about two years breathing space, before Iran was back to Day One and could use that 3.5 percent [enriched] uranium stock to actually go up to 90 percent stock” to produce a weapon, says John Large, an independent British nuclear expert.

Russia would enrich Iran’s homemade material to almost 20 percent, and then give it to France to make the complex fuel rods necessary to power Iran’s small and decades-old research reactor in Tehran, which produces medical isotopes.

Led by the US, those nations pushing for the deal “would be worried if the LEU stockpile stayed in Iran. They want that taken out immediately,” says Mr. Large. “One of the previous arguments from Iran was it didn’t want to lose that for the six to nine months it would take Russia to convert it. It wanted to do a swap deal at the end, but that is no advantage to the West because that means we still haven’t taken away the two-year cycle that we want to take away.”

Iranian state media made barely any mention of the nuclear aspect of the meetings, and cast the visit of Mr. da Silva – and his entourage of 300 – as a trade visit meant to cement “strategic ties” between Iran and Brazil.

PressTV reported that Ayatollah Khamenei’s meeting with the Brazilian leader focused on “cooperation needed to end injustice,” and the end of American “unipolarism.”

Declaring that “the capitalist system is on the verge of collapse,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said Brazil and Iran served as a “role model” for cooperation to achieve global “justice.”

Turkish media reported that Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met on Sunday for 2 ½ hours with his Brazilian and Iranian counter-parts, during which they apparently agreed the elements to a joint document.

But Iran’s Fars News Agency, which is linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, quoted “informed sources” stating that “no trilateral meeting has been held,” and denying any nuclear progress had been made between Iran and the West.


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