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Analysis

Iran creates illusion of progress in nuclear negotiations

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010; 2:54 PM

In the long-running diplomatic battle between Iran and the West, Iran appears to have scored a victory on Monday.

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By striking a deal to ship some of its low-enriched uranium abroad, Iran has created the illusion of progress in nuclear negotiations with the West, without offering any real compromise to the United States and its allies, who have demanded substantive negotiations on Tehran's broader program.

Nearly eight months ago, the United States, France and Russia proposed a swap of nuclear fuel -- to support Iran's research reactor -- as a confidence-building measure that would have, in effect, paused the Iranian program and allowed for international talks to proceed. Now, however, in reaching a similar agreement with Turkey and Brazil, Iran has succeeded in narrowing the discussion. What was supposed to be a sideshow has become the main event.

As initially laid out, the swap proposal would have removed about 70 percent of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium for conversion into fuel for a nuclear reactor. But because Iran has continued to enrich uranium since the plan was first raised, a deal based on the same terms would remove only about 50 percent of the country's stockpile.

In the meantime, Iran has started enriching uranium to an even higher level -- from 3.5 percent to 19.75 percent -- and Iranian officials said they will keep doing so, even though the need for that enrichment has now been negated by the swap deal announced Monday.

The Obama administration now faces the uncomfortable prospect of rejecting a proposal it offered in the first place -- or seeing months of effort to enact new sanctions derailed.

Ironically, the swap proposal has nothing to do with the sanctions under consideration by the U.N. Security Council, which relate to Iran building another nuclear facility in secret and failing to heed previous demands to stop enriching uranium.

And the brief text of the deal makes only glancing reference to the possibility of talks with the countries that had previously led the negotiations -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- citing "the common concerns based on collective commitments according to the common points of their proposals."

Significantly, the text does not mention whether Iran's nuclear program would be on the table in future talks. Tehran, which insists the program is solely for energy purposes, has repeatedly said it is not up for discussion, and the Brazilian-Turkish deal reaffirmed Iran's right to enrich uranium and even offered the prospect of cooperation "on nuclear power plant and research reactors construction."

The text gives Iran the right to terminate the deal at any point. It also says the new fuel must be delivered within a year, which might be a technical impossibility.

U.S. officials were highly skeptical of the Brazilian and Turkish efforts in the first place -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had tough conversations last week with her counterparts -- but because they currently hold rotating seats on the Security Council, the Brazilians and Turkish have clout. In Tehran, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim declared that the deal "takes away any grounds for sanctions," suggesting it will take significant efforts to convince either country otherwise.

Brazil and Turkey, which were represented by their presidents in the talks, invested significant diplomatic cachet in the negotiations. It is rare for non-permanent members of the Security Council to intervene in a process led by nuclear powers, and in many ways the result could be seen as a revolt by smaller powers over the rights to nuclear power and prestige.

More importantly, the deal gives China -- a veto-holding member of the Security Council long reluctant to support new sanctions -- an excuse to delay or water down any new resolution.

The best hope for U.S. officials is Iranian intransigence. The Iranians could haggle over the details and implementation of the agreement until it collapses, much as Tehran first agreed to a swap deal with the United States and its allies before backing away.

Iran now must present a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna explaining the details of the transaction, which U.S. officials privately hope will begin the process of unraveling it.


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