Iran's Nuclear Deal: A Success for Sanctions Diplomacy

By David Cortright 5-18-2010

The nuclear fuel swap deal signed between Iran and Turkey and Brazil is a positive development that deserves U.S. support. Rather than expressing skepticism, the White House should be offering encouragement. If implemented, the deal will reduce the immediate danger of nuclear proliferation in the region, lowering the nuclear risk to Israel and neighboring states. The agreement creates an opportunity for engagement with Iran to improve regional and international security.

Iran has agreed to turn over more than half of its low enriched uranium to Turkey, in exchange for the supply of medium enriched fuel for medical isotopes. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran will ship 2640 pounds of low enriched uranium to Turkey one month after the deal is signed. The fuel will remain the property of Iran but will be under UN monitoring. A year later it will receive 265 pounds of medium enriched isotope fuel produced by France and Russia.

The uranium Iran is giving up would be enough, if re-enriched, to produce one or two nuclear bombs. The removal of that fuel will reduce Iran's nuclear potential and will set back the clock on its effort to accumulate enriched uranium. The deal strengthens the hand of the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in monitoring Iran's fuel supply. It could provide a basis for negotiations to reach a long-term agreement that establishes greater transparency and international control over Iran's fuel program.

Iran has made some concessions in signing the deal. It dropped its insistence in recent months that the fuel exchange take place on Iranian soil. It also abandoned its demand that the swap take place in small increments, agreeing instead to turn over the full amount originally pledged last October.

The deal certainly is not perfect. It does not stop or suspend Iranian enrichment and therefore does not comply with UN Security Council resolutions. More than 2600 pounds will be shipped to Turkey, but approximately 1900 pounds will remain in Iran. Tehran will continue its current enrichment program, which at the current rate of production will allow it to generate 3300 pounds of additional low enriched uranium over the course of the year-long process. These are serious shortcomings, but they do not alter the fact that the fuel swap deal reduces the immediate proliferation risk and provides some breathing space for Israel and other states threatened by Iran's nuclear potential.

The fuel swap deal may slow the U.S. drive to impose additional Security Council sanctions. Some in Washington will see this as a setback to the administration's carefully crafted efforts in recent months to assemble an international coalition in support of further sanctions. A more balanced view would see the agreement as a success for sanctions diplomacy. It was the threat of sanctions and the very success of U.S. coalition building efforts that no doubt convinced Iran of the seriousness of the sanctions threat. Evidence from other cases confirms that the threat of sanctions can be an effective form of leverage. States facing sanctions pressure often try to find a diplomatic solution to avoid further isolation and economic hardship.

The fact that Iran has yielded in the face of sanctions pressure suggests that the United States and its allies should keep the threat of additional sanctions in the background, as a spur to further concessions. It would be a mistake, however, to press ahead with the immediate imposition of additional coercive measures. The logic of diplomacy involves carrots as well as sticks. Conciliatory gestures should be rewarded by inducements not additional punishments.

Many in the U.S. and at the UN have criticized the fuel swap because it does not stop Iran's enrichment program. Under Article IV of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, however, Iran and other countries have an 'inalienable right' to develop nuclear industry, including enrichment capacity -- provided they are in compliance with IAEA safeguards obligations. Tehran has not been in full compliance with these obligations, which is the basis for the UN dispute over its nuclear program.

Insisting on an end to the enrichment program is a non-starter, however. No political leader in Iran will agree to such a demand. Even Mir Hossain Moussavi and other leaders of Iran's 'Green Movement' have declared their support for the nuclear program and the right to enrichment. Rather than pressing a demand that blocks the prospects for agreement, the U.S. and its allies should offer a compromise that allows limited enrichment. The idea would be to amend Security Council resolutions to allow continued low level enrichment, provided Tehran agrees to greater transparency and more rigorous verification standards. The proposed amendment would be linked to renewed Iranian acceptance of the Additional Protocol, which is a stronger inspection protocol that allows IAEA inspectors to detect cheating and that would provide greater confidence in the civilian character of Iran's nuclear program.

Many questions about Iran's fuel swap agreement remain unanswered. The details will be negotiated in the coming days with the IAEA. Hopefully the deal can become a breakthrough that not only reduces short term nuclear dangers but opens the way for negotiations to seek longer term solutions. The text of the agreement specifically refers to the fuel swap as a "starting point to begin cooperation and a positive constructive move forward among nations." Rather than criticizing the agreement, the United States should work alongside its ally Turkey to test Iran's declared sincerity and begin talks to achieve further steps toward nuclear restraint.

David Cortright is a contributing editor to Sojourners magazine. He is director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the co-author of the forthcoming Adelphi Papers volume, Towards Nuclear Zero, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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