It’s a deal that has the potential to win its brokers a Nobel Peace Prize. Or it could ultimately be remembered as an exercise in appeasement. What’s already certain, though, is the May 17 announcement that Iran is willing to ship the bulk of its enriched uranium to Turkey has instantly become an important milestone in the long-running controversy over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The deal signed between Turkey, Brazil and Iran calls for Tehran to ship 2,640 pounds (1,200 kilos) of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, where it would be held in storage. In return, Iran would receive 264 pounds (120 kilos) of uranium enriched to 20 percent to be used at a medical reactor. The deal – which aims to deprive Iran of having enough highly enriched uranium to build a weapon – mostly mirrors one offered by the International Atomic Energy Agency last October, and which was rejected by Tehran at the time.
Speaking in Tehran, both Turkish and Iranian officials contended that the May 17 deal confirms Iran’s goodwill, and opens a new chapter in the debate over its nuclear program. Led by the United States and European Union, the international community had been moving toward the tightening of economic sanctions on Iran, due to Tehran’s reluctance to comply with demands that its nuclear program become more transparent. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The May 17 deal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil, would make new sanctions unproductive, Ankara now insists.
"The swap deal shows that Tehran wants to open a constructive path ... There is no more ground for new sanctions and pressures," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
Experts across Turkey characterized the deal as vindication of Ankara’s emphasis on a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. “Of course Iran needs to provide further transparency. There is no question that there are certain things that Iran needs to do. But the presence of other problems should not lead us to underestimate what has been achieved here,” said Mustafa Kibaroglu, an expert on Turkey-Iran relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University. “It’s a diplomatic success for Turkey, there’s no question about it.”
Added Ilter Turan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University: “There [will be] many difficulties or tests along the way, but at least there seems to be an opening that can pursued, and from that perspective, Turkey’s argument that there was room for diplomatic options proved to be true.”
Outside of Turkey, suspicion about the deal is running high. Some Western experts fear that Iranian officials may have duped Turkey, and in so doing, may have bought enough time to build a nuclear weapon.
“This could be perceived as a victory for Iran, something cooked up by the Iranians, the Turks and the Brazilians and that Western governments will have to hold their nose and accept it politically because now it will be hard to justify sanctions,” said Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In that case, there will be seething anger behind the scenes.”
A statement issued by the White House made it clear the Obama administration has its doubts that Iran will keep its word. "Given Iran's repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran's nuclear program, the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns," the statement said.
European Union officials reacted to the May 17 announcement with similar skepticism. "If Iran has now accepted the IAEA proposal, this is welcome, but it does not solve the fundamental problem, which is that the international community has serious concerns about the peaceful intention of the Iran nuclear program," a spokeswoman for the European Union‘s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said.
"Iran‘s failure to engage seriously and provide reassurances about the program and not respecting the resolutions that were adopted is the reason why we are still pursuing the sanctions resolution in the [UN] Security Council," the spokeswoman added.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said France wanted to see more details of the accord. "However, let us not deceive ourselves, a solution to the (fuel) question, if it happens, would do nothing to settle the problem posed by the Iranian nuclear program," he said in a statement.
Despite the profound concerns about Iran’s willingness to honor a deal, Turkey and Brazil’s efforts to explore diplomatic solutions to the nuclear standoff with Iran should not be dismissed, said Ian Lesser, a Turkey and Iran expert at the German Marshall Fund in Washington.
“We should be careful not to paint this as something negative,” he said.
At the same time, Lesser admitted that the skeptics had good cause to be concerned. “Politically, I think we have to ask is Iran serious, or is this just another case of Iran playing chess without a timer. It’s not clear. There have been numerous instances in the past of Iran agreeing to deals like this, and then it evaporates.”
Regardless of how the deal turns out, Lesser said he sees Turkey’s role in pushing for the deal as fresh confirmation of a “new geometry” in Ankara’s foreign policy.
“It’s not about the West, or the Islamic world, or the East, or Eurasia. It’s about redefining Turkey’s foreign policy interests and behavior in a way that looks more like Brazil, or India, or China, or Russia. It harks back to the non-aligned movement,” Lesser said. “It’s almost inconceivable that Turkey would have done something like this 10 years ago.”
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.