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The Iranian flag with an atom symbol
Iran is hoping to avoid new UN sanctions through the dealImage: AP Graphics/DW

Nuclear breakthrough?

May 17, 2010

Hopes are high that the deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey to turn Iran's controversial enriched uranium supplies into fuel rods outside the Islamic Republic will be a major step toward solving the on-going stand-off.

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The deal, agreed during a trilateral meeting between the Iranian, Turkish and Brazilian leaders in Iran over the weekend, will see Iran's stocks of enriched uranium processed into fuel rods in Turkey and returned for use in Tehran's civilian nuclear energy program.

The arrangement with Turkey is expected to deprive Iran of its stockpile of enriched uranium which would now be shipped abroad for further processing, returning in a lower-level, safer form which could not be adapted for use in nuclear weapons. The rods would then be used in the Tehran research reactor (TRR).

The deal appears to revive a stalled nuclear fuel-swap deal backed by the United Nations in October last year.

Iran's enrichment of uranium has been at the heart of international concern over Tehran's nuclear activities with Western powers convinced that the Iranians were pursuing an atomic weapons program. Previous efforts by the five permanent UN Security Council members - the US, Britain, France, Russia and China - and Germany have focused on stopping Iran's enrichment activities.

Abandoned talks, belligerent rhetoric and sabre rattling on both sides appeared to have driven Iran and its Western rivals further towards a dead end in negotiations, with the threat of new sanctions and the last-resort of military action bandied about as possible next steps in the West's attempts to deny Iran its nuclear technology.

Experts see deal as a step toward a breakthrough

Presidents and foreign ministers of Brazil , Iran and Turkey raise their arms in unity in front of the media 17 May 2010 in Tehran , Iran , after signing an agreement to ship Iran's low enriched uranium to Turkey to exchange with nuclear fuel for a Tehran reactor.
The Iranian, Brazilian and Turkish delegations hailed the deal while the West remained tight-lippedImage: picture alliance/dpa

While it is currently unclear how much uranium will eventually be shipped to Turkey, whether Turkey will actually be doing the enrichment itself and when the swap will begin, it is hoped that Iran's acceptance of the deal will be enough to at least provide the West with a period of reflection.

"We don't know as yet how this deal will pan out and there are still some questions over who will be doing the enrichment," Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East Analyst and the director for the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis (MEEPAS) think-tank, told Deutsche Welle.

"France was the original country suggested in the previous UN proposal but Iran rejected that. But if the deal goes through and the level of 75 percent on Iran's enriched uranium is sent abroad in one batch - as stipulated by the Obama administration -then we can cautiously begin looking at this as a breakthrough."

"This is of course very beneficial for the Iranians as it will take some of the edge off the talk of further sanctions," Rouzbeh Parsi, an Iran expert at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris, told Deutsche Welle.

"It will also give Russia and China the opportunity to strengthen their positions against sanctions so that will also be good for Iran. But it's not as good as it could be. Iran has been enriching since rejecting the initial UN proposal in October and so they have a lot more uranium than before. This means the levels of the deal could be met but the Iranians could still have a lot more at home, which will continue to cause friction."

Details of agreement to be presented to IAEA

Iran will be hoping that the IAEA's acceptance of the deal will ease the pressure building on Tehran over its nuclear ambitions.

Iran's atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi
Iran's atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi hopes for IAEA approvalImage: ISNA

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast revealed that the IAEA will be informed of the details of the deal in a letter within the week before a final agreement is signed between Iran, its main negotiating partners and the IAEA.

A month after the agreement is signed, the uranium - currently enriched to a level of 3.5 percent - would be shipped to Turkey, where it would be stored under IAEA and Iranian supervision, Mehmanparast said. The fuel rods would contain material processed to just under 20 percent. Enrichment of 90 percent is needed to produce material for nuclear warheads.

However, Rouzbeh Parsi believes that the IAEA will not be rushing to embrace the deal as a breakthrough just yet.

"IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano is more in line with the Western thinking about Iran's nuclear ambitions and so will be more skeptical of this deal until there are more details," he said. "So far, there has been nothing said about whether Iran will agree to cease all enrichment while the uranium is out of the country, a demand of the Security Council. So this deal looks to fall short of the Council's resolution which could mean louder calls for sanctions."

United States skeptical over developments

The United States has acknowledged that the agreement represents a positive development, however skepticism and the threat of sanctions remain. "It does not change the steps that we are taking to hold Iran responsible for its obligations, including sanctions," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Obama in front of the Iranian flag
Obama should be pleased with any breakthrough on IranImage: picture-alliance/ dpa / DW-Montage

Notwithstanding the muted reaction, the agreement, which could pave the way to a resolution of the drawn out stand-off, puts the US in a difficult position. Should the US reject the Turkey-Brazil deal, it will be seen as taking an unreasonably hard line. Should it accept the deal, its position in the power play over Iran's nuclear ambitions could be affected.

Rouzbeh Parsi believes that hawkish factions in the US Congress will not be pleased with the latest developments, believing that the deal could delay stronger action against Iran, something some factions in Washington are eager to avoid. Parsi said that these factions are afraid that any new UN resolution based on the deal will be too weak and that they would prefer to ignore the UN and adopt their own.

However, Meir Javedanfar believes that, after the details of the deal are revealed, US President Barack Obama will offer a positive acceptance of the arrangement - despite the growing internal struggle over Iran policy in the US.

"Obama would have liked to have taken the credit and the glory for this but I think that he'll just be happy and relieved if this deal goes through," he said. "Iran has been a major headache for him and the US at a time when he has a lot of other problems to take care of so if Brazil and Turkey succeed where he has failed - and the level of enrichment the US demanded is met - then I think he will be pleased."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Michael Knigge

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