Iran has agreed to ship most of its enriched uranium to Turkey in a deal that may help defuse tensions over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.
The proposal, hashed out by the top leaders of Brazil, Turkey and Iran, is nearly identical to one forged in Switzerland seven months ago, leaving some to wonder if the agreement is an attempt to buy time.
“They are now accepting what they refused to accept several months ago,” Bruno Pellaud, a Swiss physicist and former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, told swissinfo.ch.
“I’m still very cautious with the Iranians because they can sometimes be very tricky. But I expect the agreement will still be substantial.”
The terms of the new deal signed in Tehran on Sunday would see Iran ship 1,200kg of low-grade uranium to Turkey, where it would be enriched within one year and given back to Iran. The fuel could be suitable for making medical isotopes but not for making a bomb.
During talks in Geneva in early October 2009, the United States, Russia and France had proposed that Tehran, under the auspices of the IAEA, deliver the same amount of low-grade uranium to Russia and France, which could enrich it further to make the fuel which Iran needs. Iran agreed, then rejected that proposal, citing a problem of trust.
“Basically we are back to October 1,” Pellaud said. “But the sanctions train is running. What’s very interesting now is whether the US and the West can change course and start renegotiations. Iran has led them by the nose a little bit.”
The Iranians have presumably been feeling the heat from a US-led push for new sanctions that Pellaud says would be far more biting than anything proposed to date. Iranian officials have been organising dinners and meeting with members of the United Nations Security Council to explain Iran’s position.
Immediately following the nuclear-swap announcement, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany to meet for new discussions on grounds of “honesty, fairness and mutual respect”. The statement echoed phrasing used by US President Barack Obama, who has attempted to engage Iran after years of isolation.
While Brazil and Turkey have said there is now no need for sanctions, others have reacted cautiously to the news. The ink was still wet when Iran announced it would nevertheless not stop enriching uranium on its own territory, a process that could lead to the making of a nuclear weapon. Iran has insisted its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.
Removing low-grade uranium from Iranian territory would slow down the development of a weapon which requires highly enriched uranium.
“Uranium enriched to low levels is a very good starting point toward a military level,” Pellaud said. “It’s like a pre-cooked cake, so well pre-cooked that a few minutes in the microwave suffices to bring it to the table.”
Switzerland’s reaction to the deal was more upbeat than that of many other western countries.
A foreign ministry spokesman told the Swiss news agency that the agreement had made it possible to overcome “a first obstacle” blocking the resolution of the crisis.
“Switzerland has always worked to promote a diplomatic solution,” the spokesman said. It has called for Iran to cooperate with the IAEA. The agreement “is a step in that direction”.
A White House spokesman said Washington and its international partners were still "seriously concerned" about Tehran's nuclear programme, although it described the transfer of low-enriched uranium out of the country as a "positive step".
The EU withheld praise for the deal, saying the big worry isn’t over uranium for a research reactor but for material for Iran’s atomic programme itself.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy said on the sidelines of a Latin America summit on Monday that Iran has failed to remove doubts about its true motives. The Iranian regime must now present its proposal in writing to the IAEA.
A spokesman for the new British prime minister, David Cameron, said the British position on Iran remained "unchanged", and that the country would continue to work on a sanctions resolution.
Russia also withheld overt optimism, saying it wanted to look more closely at the deal, while Israel, Iran’s sworn enemy, said Brazil and Turkey had been fooled by Iranian subterfuge.
Egypt, however, called the swap a “positive step”.
“The agreement between the three countries is a positive step,” Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said. “We hope this move will lead to resolving the crisis between Iran and the West.”
Tim Neville, swissinfo.ch and agencies
July 19, 2008 - Iranian officials rule out any freeze in uranium enrichment during talks in Geneva.
April 9, 2009 - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran has mastered the nuclear fuel cycle and also tested more advanced machines for enriching uranium.
Sept. 12 – Iran’s foreign minister says Iran will not back down in its row with the West.
Sept. 24 - China tells major powers that more pressure would not persuade Tehran to halt its nuclear programme.
Sept. 25 - The IAEA says Iran has told it of a second uranium enrichment plant being built near the city of Qom.
Oct. 1 - Iran meets 6 world powers in Geneva, and agrees to move most of its enriched uranium out of the country, but does not confirm it is prepared to go through with the deal.
Nov. 18 - Iran says it will not send its enriched uranium abroad for further processing but would consider swapping it for nuclear fuel within its borders.
Nov. 19 - Obama issues a strong warning to Iran of consequences of its failure to respond to the nuclear deal.
Nov. 24 - World powers have drafted an IAEA resolution urging Iran to clarify the purpose of its previously secret enrichment site, diplomats say.
Nov. 29 - Iran announces plans to build 10 more nuclear sites.
Jan. 19, 2010 - Diplomats say Iran has formally rejected key parts of the deal to send abroad for processing most of its material that could be used to make nuclear arms.
Feb. 2 - Ahmadinejad announces Iran is ready to send its enriched uranium abroad.
March 25 - The US, Britain, France and Germany begin talks with China and Russia on a US-drafted proposal for a new round of UN sanctions.
April 12 - Obama's drive for tougher sanctions gains momentum at a summit called to highlight the global threat of nuclear terrorism.
April 27 - Brazil folows Turkey in offering to help end the West's standoff with Iran.
May 17 - Iran, Brazil and Turkey sign a nuclear fuel swap agreement. Ahmadinejad calls for fresh talks with major powers.