U.S., Brazilian officials at odds over letter on Iranian uranium

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010

Maybe there should have been a follow-up note.

On April 20, President Obama sent a 2 1/2 -page letter to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva outlining a deal that the United States had unsuccessfully pursued in October, one in which Iran would swap the bulk of its enriched uranium for fuel for a medical research reactor. At the time, Brazil and Turkey were contemplating mediation efforts with Iran.

"For us, Iran's agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran's LEU stockpile," Obama wrote, according to a copy of the letter posted Thursday on the Web site PoliticaExterna.com.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received a similar letter.

That letter has become a sort of talisman for Brazil, which says Lula and Erdogan used it as a guide when they negotiated a deal with Tehran on May 17. Brazilian officials are shocked that the United States is raising objections to the agreement and its terms, including the fact that it did not end Iran's recent decision to begin enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent.

Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, said that his government was encouraged "to implement the proposals in October, without deviation, and we did." As for the 20 percent enrichment, he said, "Nobody told us, 'Hey, if you do not stop the enrichment to 20 percent, forget the deal.' "

U.S. officials beg to differ. A senior U.S. official said the letter was designed to deal with a discrete problem. At the time, the Turks and Brazilians seemed inclined to accept an Iranian proposal to ship the uranium out piecemeal, rather than in one batch.

"It was a letter that was responding to something they were doing, in which we were pointing out that what you are doing falls well short of what we are seeking before," he said.

Meanwhile, in the days leading up to the negotiations, the official said, there were "multiple conversations" between the Americans and their Turkish and Brazilian counterparts laying out what needed to happen, including an end to the 20 percent enrichment. "There was a constant drumbeat in the conversations," he said.

But U.S. officials said there was no president-to-president letter laying out those broader concerns. So Lula and Erdogan went to Tehran with the earlier -- and, in the White House's view, out-of-date -- missive.

"They became riveted on the TRR," the official said, referring to the Tehran Research Reactor. "Lula wanted to go there. He wanted to play a certain kind of role. This was the most immediate thing out there."

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