Bad nuclear deal with Brazil and Turkey hands Iran a diplomatic coup

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

THE DEAL struck Monday by Iran with Brazil and Turkey will do nothing to restrain Tehran's nuclear program. It could, however, derail the Obama administration's effort to focus international pressure on Iran and buy the regime more time to enrich uranium and defeat its domestic opposition. In other words, it could be a major diplomatic coup for the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which has skillfully exploited the eagerness of the Brazilian and Turkish leaders to prove themselves as global players.

The memorandum signed by the three governments outlines an exchange that superficially resembles one proposed by the United States, France and Russia in October. Iran would give up 1,200 kilograms of the uranium it has enriched in exchange for 120 kilograms of fuel rods it could use in a medical research reactor. But the differences are crucial. The October deal would have left Iran without "breakout capacity," or enough enriched uranium to produce a bomb with further processing. In this one, Iran will retain a bomb's worth of material.

Moreover, Iranian officials are saying they will continue enriching uranium, including to the higher threshold needed for the research reactor. The agreement also gives Iran the right to take back the uranium it ships to Turkey at any time if it decides that the provisions of the deal "are not respected." That includes a declaration of Iran's right to enrichment -- in contradiction of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions -- and to "cooperation including nuclear power plant and nuclear research reactor construction."

The deal arrives just as the Security Council was about to begin considering a new sanctions resolution, which was to be followed by tougher measures by the European Union. As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hoped, Brazilian and Turkish officials on Monday declared that their bargain rendered further discussion of sanctions moot. The timing is crucial in more than one way: Iran is approaching the June 12 anniversary of last year's disputed presidential election, and the regime is intent on preventing a resurgence of the opposition Green Movement. Avoiding sanctions for even a few more weeks could help Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad entrench their extremist rule.

The Obama administration and its allies will have to work skillfully to deflect this challenge. The White House issued a properly skeptical statement saying that the proposed swap must be "conveyed clearly and authoritatively" to the International Atomic Energy Agency by Iran "before it can be considered by the international community."

It's possible that Tehran will retreat even from the terms it offered Brazil and Turkey -- in which case those countries should be obliged to support U.N. sanctions. Even if Tehran sticks to what was announced, the plan should be unacceptable to the United States. At a minimum, Iran should be required to end its higher-level enrichment of uranium if the swap is to take place. And if it does not agree to discuss the implementation of U.N. resolutions barring enrichment, the sanctions in the Security Council must go forward.

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