Iran nuclear fuel swap: What's happening now

Tehran says it will hold talks with Turkey and Brazil over the Iran nuclear fuel swap, despite announcing yesterday a two-month delay in broader negotiations meant to 'punish' the West.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to the media at the start of his press conference, in Tehran, Iran, Monday. Ahmadinejad said Iran will postpone any talks over its nuclear program until late August to 'punish' the West for imposing tougher sanctions against Iran.

Angered by the failure of an Iran nuclear fuel swap to avert fresh sanctions, Tehran has declared a two-month freeze on any broader nuclear talks. The move puts Turkey – which has been trying to break the impasse over Iran's nuclear program – on the back foot just six weeks after it brokered the deal, along with Brazil.

“We are postponing the talks because of the bad behavior and the adoption of the new resolution in the (UN) Security Council,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in Tehran yesterday. “This is a penalty, so that that they are disciplined to learn the way of talking to other nations.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad added that Turkey and Brazil would side with Iran in any talks with the US, Russia, and France, and that the fuel swap deal “is a way for engagement and this is better than confrontation.”

That point was clarified today by Iran’s foreign minister, who stated that the delay would not apply to discussions with Turkey and Brazil.

Turkey surprised

Yet Iran’s position was news to Turkey, whose senior officials have been in daily contact with their Brazilian counterparts to find a diplomatic way out of Iran’s nuclear impasse. Both nations oppose sanctions, and cast the only negative votes in the latest UNSC vote on Iran.

“We’re still trying to have some kind of deal, but we’re not sure actually what to do next [and] the statement by Ahmadinejad, of course, has thrown some water [on it]," said a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official who briefed journalists on background in Istanbul today.

“We still have to give [Iran] the benefit of the doubt. We still are interested in a diplomatic solution, despite the fact that there are sanctions there,” said the official. But the “sanctions resolution has given Iran the possibility to wiggle out, and use this as an excuse. If the sanctions resolution was not there, it would have been easier [to apply] much more pressure, from us and from others, to comply.”

Little progress has been made on the nuclear fuel swap deal brokered with much local fanfare by Turkey and Brazil with Iran on May 17, except for a list of “concerns” raised by the US, Russia, and France – all countries that would likely need to play a role in the exchange of 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium for fuel that Tehran needs for an existing research reactor.

“It’s on the table,” the Turkish official said of the nuclear swap deal. “Whether we can move on it is, of course, another thing. Iran has not said it is not on the table – that’s a start.”

Russia: We want to pursue the fuel deal

Despite reservations, Moscow on Tuesday also said it wanted to pursue the fuel deal, which mirrored a previous offer put forward last October by the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Back then, the 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to be exported from Iran represented 70 percent of Iran’s stockpile. Today it accounts for less than half – leaving enough for Iran, theoretically, to enrich its remaining LEU stockpile to 90 percent for weapon use. Iran says its program aims only to produce peaceful nuclear energy.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that Russia and the US had asked the IAEA to convene a technical meeting to find a way to provide Iran the fuel it needs for its aging research reactor, which produces medical isotopes.

It was the first positive step taken by a member of the so-called Vienna Group since three of its five members – the US, Russia, and France – listed a number of “concerns” with the Turkey-Brazil deal, just hours before the UNSC vote on sanctions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Tuesday that a three-way meeting between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil is "on the agenda,” and that the fuel deal was a "separate" issue from wider talks with the permanent five members of the UNSC plus Germany, known as the P5+1.

Despite the tripartite deal, Iran had said it would continue to enrich uranium to 20 percent, which it began doing in February, in a bid to make the specialized fuel it needs.

Russia called for technical talks to begin “so that there will be no need for Iran to enrich the uranium to a level of 20 percent,” Mr. Lavrov said during a visit to Israel on Tuesday. “I hope very much that Iran will respond positively and that this will help prevent the situation from deteriorating.”

That is the hope of Turkey, too, which has criticized as “unhelpful” Iran’s declaration – made immediately after signing on to the Brazil-Turkey deal last month – that it would continue enriching to 20 percent.

Turkey: We are not defending Iran

NATO ally Turkey aspires to join the European Union, but its recent foreign policy decisions aimed at “zero problems” with neighbors – including Iran – have strained relations with Washington and European capitals. They have also caused some to suggest that Turkey is reframing its outlook, and turning from West to East.

Turkey has also clashed noisily with its once-close ally Israel over an Israeli raid on the "Freedom Flotilla" that tried to break the sea blockade of Gaza. The raid killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American dual citizen in late May.

But Turkey has sought to quiet fears that it is turning its back on the West and its concerns, which Turkey shares.

“We have tried to be very clear on one thing: We are not defending Iran,” says the senior Turkish official. “We don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons – that is the first thing we have always been saying. But … our approach to having such an outcome is different than the P5. We believe that there aren’t any options anyway – air strikes, or sanctions....

“Diplomacy is the best way out,” adds the official. “It may not produce the results immediately; it may not produce the results at all. But it’s the only viable outcome [with] which we believe we can function.”


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