By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 17, 2010; 12:20 PM
TEHRAN -- Iran signed a surprise deal for a nuclear fuel swap with Western nations on Monday, brokered by Brazil and Turkey. It was the first such agreement by the Islamic Republic with foreign nations since 2004.
The unexpected pact is aimed assuaginginternational concerns over Iran's nuclear program and could provide an alternative to tough new sanctions against Iran that have been proposed by the United States and other Western powers. It will bring the discussions over the nature of the Iranian nuclear program into a new phase, analysts said, and presents the United States and a coalition of mostly Western nations with a new bloc of developing countries that are supportive of Iran's nuclear program.
The deal involves Iran sending a large part of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Turkey as a trust-building measure, possibly within one month. Diplomats here said the move is aimed at proving that Iran has no intention of using the material to build a nuclear weapon.
Under the accord, Iran's uranium would stay in Turkey as official Iranian property until the Islamic Republic received in exchange a batch of higher-enriched uranium, which it would use -- under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- in a 42-year-old, U.S.-built research reactor that produces medical isotopes.
The deal widens a divide between a group of countries led by the United States, on the one hand, and some developing nations on the other, over the right of Iran and other developing countries to use nuclear energy.
Countries such as Brazil and Turkey, but also Egypt and Indonesia, increasingly view the Western-led debate over Iran's nuclear program as an important test case for their own nuclear ambitions. While the United States and its allies say they fear nuclear weapons proliferation, some developing nations say that world powers are determined to control nuclear technology and want to prevent the development of independent nuclear energy programs.
In announcing the new deal, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim and his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, condemned any new sanctions against Iran and said Iran has a right to a "full nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment."
"This plan is a route for dialogue and takes away any grounds for sanctions," Amorim told reporters in Tehran. In an earlier interview, he said that it is time for Western nations to come to terms with the fact that Iran has a nuclear program.
U.S. officials did not react immediately to the announcement. But Germany, said the swap deal, which still needs the approval of the United States, Russia and France, does not free Iran from U.N. Security Council demands that it immediately stop enriching uranium.
The agreement announced in Tehran on Monday builds on a swap deal Iran struck in October with the "Vienna group" -- a negotiating bloc that consists of the United States, Russia and France and representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
That pact fell apart after Iran insisted that any swap must take place on Iranian soil and be carried out in batches or simultaneously. The failure prompted the Obama administration to back off its policy of engagement with the Islamic Republic.
The big difference now is that Iran -- facing tougher sanctions -- has severely compromised on its demand that the swap take place within its borders. It is now prepared to send 2,640 pounds of low-enriched uranium to neighboring Turkey and to wait up to a year for the delivery of higher-enriched fuel from Russia and France.
If, for any reason, the swap fails, Iran's stockpile would be returned by Turkey, Davutoglu said.
The amount of low-enriched uranium agreed upon in the new deal, however, is significantly lower than the 70 percent of Iran's stockpile that U.S. officials have said they expect to be sent abroad.
An unnamed State Department official told Reuters news agency on Monday that 70 percent of the stockpile would equal nearly 4,400 pounds. In February, 70 percent of the stockpile was estimated at between 3,179 and 3,828 pounds.
The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, in an interview said the increase was "insignificant." Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman also stated that Iran would not stop enriching its uranium up to 20 percent, a controversial move that Iran started after the first swap proposal failed.
"All of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities will continue as planned and programmed, and there will be no alteration," Ramin Mehmanparast said in an interview.
Brazilian and Turkish representatives said they hope the deal will lead to further talks focused on solving the international standoff over Iran's nuclear program. Iran is supposed to send the Vienna group a letter within one week, seeking its approval.
"We hope the Vienna group will react positively," Davutoglu said in a statement after signing the deal.