Iran nuclear fuel swap deal: What it involves, and how it will affect US push for sanctions

The Iran nuclear fuel swap deal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil, was cast by many as a confidence-building measure. But Iran would still continue enriching uranium, in defiance of the UN Security Council.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, center, and his Brazilian counterpart Celso Amorim, left, and Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, right, exchange documents after signing the agreement to ship most of Iran's enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap deal, in Tehran, Iran, Monday.

Tehran has agreed to ship the bulk of its enriched uranium to Turkey, in an Iran nuclear fuel swap brokered by Brazil and Turkey that is certain to complicate American efforts to impose new United Nations sanctions on Iran.

Under the deal, Iran would ship 1,200 kg (2,640 lbs) of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey, where it would be held. In exchange, it would be entitled to 120 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent for its medical reactor, likely to be provided by France and Russia.

Iran said the deal was proof that Tehran does not want nuclear weapons, because it would deprive the Islamic Republic of the immediate ability to enrich its stockpile of uranium further and build a nuclear weapon. While Western countries did not embrace the deal immediately, most analysts cast it as a confidence-building measure.

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“What it really says is the Iranians want to deflect the sanctions … and it’s a way of telling the international community that they are not on a crash course to get nuclear weapons,” says Shahram Chubin, a Geneva-based Iran specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

'No grounds for sanctions' – Turkey

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey said the deal would “open a constructive road.” He said that there is now “no ground left for more sanctions or pressure.”

Some European nations and Israel – which along with the US believe that Iran’s nuclear energy programs are a cover for a weapons program – were immediately dismissive of the deal.

They have been pushing for months for a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. Washington and Moscow portrayed the visit by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to Tehran over the weekend as a “last chance” to avoid sanctions.

Germany was quick to point out that the deal did not address Security Council demands that Iran stop enrichment, or unresolved questions about possible nuclear weapons efforts. Israel said Brazil and Turkey – whose leaders brokered the deal after months of high-level diplomacy – had been “manipulated” by Iran.

Mr. Chubin, author of the book Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions, said that even though Iran will continue to enrich uranium under the deal, it buys time for a more complete resolution.

“They are continuing enrichment – and that defies the Security Council still – but what they are doing as a confidence-building measure is getting rid of some of that pile of fissile material they have,” says Mr. Chubin, author of the book Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions. “So in a sense it delays the accumulation of their fissile stockpile that could be used for a weapon.”

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said on state-run PressTV that that was Iran's view.

“In fact this shows the world [Iran] is not after nuclear weapons, and is after peaceful nuclear science,” he said. “Such an interaction must replace a confrontational approach.”

US officials wanted more enriched uranium shipped

Prior to the talks, top American officials predicted that Brazil and Turkey would fail to broker a deal that was first put to Iran in October.

US diplomats have stated that the 1,200 kg stipulated in that offer – 70 percent of Iran’s LEU stock at the time – would need to be raised to be acceptable, because Iran has since continued to enrich uranium. The new fuel swap deal would remove roughly 55 to 60 percent of Iran’s LEU.

Iran has for months waffled on the deal and wanted changes that would have left the bulk of its enriched uranium in Iran, or required a simultaneous swap on Iranian territory – all proposals dismissed by the US and several Western leaders.

Stipulations of the deal

A 10-point joint declaration states that Iran will inform the IAEA of the deal within a week, and that if what it called the “Vienna Group” – the US, Russia, France, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – accept the terms, then details will be worked out for 1,200 kgs of Iranian LEU to be transferred to Turkey.

The material would stay in Turkey under IAEA and Iranian monitoring, and “will continue to be the property of Iran,” the deal states. Within a year, Iran would receive 120 kg of fuel enriched to 20 percent necessary for a decades-old research reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes. The deal agreed in Tehran specifies that if it is "not respected," then "Turkey, upon the request of Iran, will return swiftly and unconditionally Iran's LEU to Iran."

It was not clear in which country the material would actually be found, enriched to 20 percent and then turned into fuel rods, while Iran’s original LEU stayed under wraps in Turkey. In the original deal, those tasks were originally set for Russia and France, using Iran’s own material.

The joint declaration also reaffirms Iran’s commitment to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and notes that, as a signatory, Iran should have access to all necessary nuclear technology.

The declaration says the fuel exchange is a “starting point” for further cooperation, and that the deal is an “opportunity now to begin a forward looking process that will create a positive, constructive, non-confrontational atmosphere.”

'Hard to get to sanctions' now – analyst

The deal was announced early Monday, after Mr. Da Silva’s meetings on Sunday with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei – who has final say on all matters of state in Iran.

State TV broadcast footage of the Brazilian leader with a notebook during his meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader, as if adhering to a checklist. But it did not appear to be a jovial meeting, and state-run media outlets throughout the weekend downplayed any nuclear content to the meetings, portraying them instead as bilateral meetings to expand economic ties.

“It’s quite clever if Khamenei is giving Turkey and Brazil the nod, because the sort of strategic defiance by Turkey and Brazil of the US would be reinforced, and I think it will be very hard to get to the next step of sanctions, if there isn’t something we don’t know about the agreement,” says Chubin.

Brazil and Turkey – both non-permanent members of the UNSC, which have opposed sanctions – will argue that Iran has shown a willingness to find a negotiated solution, says Chubin. “And of course Russia and China will pile on, unless there is an obvious fault in the agreement.”

Brazilian and Turkish diplomats would not want a breakdown of the new deal, adds Chubin, and be forced to “come back and make fools of themselves.”

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