National Security Network

Dealing with Iran Demands Flexibility

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Report 17 May 2010

Iran Iran diplomacy iran nuclear weapons

5/17/10

Iran's announcement today of an agreement with Turkey and Brazil to ship a portion of its uranium stockpile abroad left much unclear:  as the deal stands, it does not address the full range of concerns put forward by the U.S.  What is clear, however, is that the Iranian regime is under intense pressure coming from both external and internal sources.  Externally, from multilateral efforts to place sanctions on the regime for failing to comply to internationally supported demands regarding its nuclear activities. Internally, from the domestic unrest dating back to last year's controversial Presidential elections. This latest measure demonstrates how much the regime wishes to escape this mounting pressure.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding Iran's intentions, and because of the unanswered questions related to this latest agreement, the U.S. must maintain its clear headed approach. It must maintain its resolve regarding the need for Iran to address the full menu of concerns surrounding its nuclear program. Iran will be eager to pin blame on Washington for rejecting a deal. An administration statement, demanding that Iran live up to its international obligations through "deeds - and not simply" words served as an initial demonstration of the Administration's resolve. In order for the Administration to navigate this sensitive landscape effectively, a well-coordinated and flexible partnership among the Administration, Congress and the international community is essential.

Proposed nuclear agreement between Iran, Turkey and Brazil indicates Teheran's growing sense of its own isolation. On Monday, Iranian officials announced that Iran, Turkey and Brazil had reached an agreement aimed at allaying the international community's concerns over Iran's nuclear activities. According to the Associated Press, the deal "was similar to a U.N.-drafted plan that Washington and its allies have been pressing Tehran for the past six months to accept in order to deprive Iran - at least temporarily - of enough stocks of enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon."  AP reported that Iran had dropped several of the demands that had previously kept the deal from going forward: "In return for agreeing to ship most of its uranium stockpile abroad, it would receive fuel rods of medium-enriched uranium to use in a Tehran medical research reactor that produces isotopes for cancer treatment."

The deal seems to reflect the Tehran regime's growing sense of isolation and desire to avoid additional pressure. It comes as U.S.-led efforts to increase sanctions on the regime gain traction. Over the last few months, Russia and China, traditional opponents of efforts to sanction Iran, had given assurances that they would be willing to negotiate terms for a Security Council resolution.  Last week, Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism Gary Samore expressed that, "[U]nless Iran does something significant that demonstrates that it is taking confidence-building measures, I am very confident we will get a Security Council resolution that is supported by the majority of the U.N. Security Council.

The New York Times also points out that domestic instability within in Iran is further contributing to the regime's sense of isolation: "Coinciding with pressure for new sanctions, Iran will on June 12 mark the anniversary of last year's disputed presidential election, which had led to months of protests and conflict." The Times noted that "Iran is also wrestling with serious economic pressures of inflation, loss of foreign investment and the prospect of lifting subsidies on commodities, which would mean higher prices and, perhaps, renewed social tensions." The fact that the nuclear talks were endorsed by Supreme Leader Khamenei, as noted by Iran expert Trita Parsi, may serve as confirmation of the regime's interest in alleviating both international and domestic pressure. [Associated Press, 5/17/10., Gary Samore, via the Cable, 5/13/10. Bill Burns, via CQ, 4/14/10. Trita Parsi, via the Politico, 5/17/10. NY Times, 5/17/10]

Ambiguity surrounding deal requires "deeds - and not simply words" from Iran, watchfulness from Washington.  As the New York Times pointed out, despite the positive aspects of the deal, "[t]here appear to be reasons to be skeptical." For instance, according to the Times, "[i]n Tehran, the Foreign Ministry spokesman told a person attending the press conference that Iran would not, for example, suspend its program to enrich uranium to 20 percent - which brings it closer to weapons grade."  Moreover, Iran has significantly increased its stockpile of low enriched uranium since the fuel swap was first proposed last October.  "In October, the 2,640 pounds that Iran was supposed to ship out of the country represented about two-thirds of its stockpile of nuclear fuel - enough to ensure that it would not retain sufficient nuclear material to make a weapon.  But now, the same amount of fuel accounts for a smaller proportion of its declared stockpile," reported the Times.  The Times continued, "According to a Western ... the amount of low-enriched uranium that Iran was prepared to ship to Turkey was believed to represent a little more than half its current stockpile."

The New York Times reports, "Mr. Obama now faces a vexing choice. If he walks away from this deal, it will look like he is rejecting an agreement similar to one he was willing to sign eight months ago. But if he accepts it, many of the urgent issues he has said will have to be resolved with Iran in coming months - mostly over suspected weapons work - will be put on hold for a year or more."

A statement from the White House indicated that the Obama administration would expect such ambiguities to be cleared up before taking any further action.  The statement read: "The United States will continue to work with our international partners, and through the United Nations Security Council, to make it clear to the Iranian government that it must demonstrate through deeds - and not simply words - its willingness to live up to international obligations or face consequences, including sanctions. Iran must take the steps necessary to assure the international community that its nuclear program is intended exclusively for peaceful purposes, including by complying with U.N. Security Council resolutions and cooperating fully with the IAEA."

International partners have also voiced skepticism.  The AP reported this morning that the British and German governments have taken a wait-and-see attitude:   ‘Our position on Iran is unchanged at the present time,' Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman Steve Field told reporters. ‘Iran has an obligation to reassure the international community, and until it does so we will continue to work with our international partners on a sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council.'" [NY Times, 5/17/2010. White House Statement, 5/17/10. Politico, 5/17/2010. AP, 5/17/10]

Effective pressure on Iran has many moving pieces - demands flexible leadership from Washington.  The negotiated fuel swap deal comes as Washington balances international pressures and concern for the plight of the Iranian people with the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program.  As the Washington Independent detailed last month, President Obama will soon be the one who "shepherds an economic sanctions package on the Iranian regime's key organs through the United Nations Security Council. After winning China's acquiescence; spending almost a year and a half rebuilding relations with Russia; and leveraging new and less patient leadership at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the administration has pieces in position to unite the international community against Iran's uranium enrichment."

In addition to resolve, the Administration needs flexibility to act in the international arena, differentiate between the Iranian people and their repressive government, and demonstrate that we will work with other governments that are willing to work with us.  As Congress and the Administration continue to negotiate the terms of new sanctions bills, flexibility to waive some sanctions for countries deemed to be cooperating with the overall regime remains critical for the US to raise its influence with countries such as Brazil - and make sure that the only international agreements reached are ones the US can live with. [Washington Independent, 4/19/10. NY Times, 5/17/10. The Cable, 4/28/10. The Cable 5/4/10]

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