TEHRAN - With the Tehran nuclear swap deal approaching like a curve ball, the
United States swung into action in an attempt to hit it out of the park and
press on with its attempt to impose further sanctions on Iran.
Washington announced it had secured Russian and Chinese support ''overnight''
backing strong United Nations sanctions, irrespective of the proposal brokered
on Monday by Turkey and Brazil to defuse tensions over the nuclear standoff.
After months of negotiations and one day after the trilateral declaration, the
release of a draft UN resolution that would represent a fourth round of
international sanctions against Tehran if eventually passed, was ''as
convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days
as any we could
provide',' US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.
Clinton may have come under intense pressure to push on with the United States'
bid for further sanctions, with a Wall Street Journal editorial painting
Monday's agreement in Tehran as a "debacle" for US President Barack Obama's
The Tehran agreement could create enough doubt to undermine or delay the White
House drive for sanctions at the UN, especially since the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, has yet to consider details of
an agreement that opens up an alternative route to sanctions.
''There are a number of unanswered questions regarding the announcement coming
from Tehran,'' Clinton said in a statement that acknowledged efforts by Turkey
and Brazil to find a solution to the standoff. The permanent five members of
the United Nations Security Council - Russia, China, the United States, the
United Kingdom, and France - plus Germany, known as the "Iran Six", are
rallying ''the international community on behalf of a strong sanctions
resolution that will, in our view, send an unmistakable message about what is
expected from Iran", Clinton said in the statement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Clinton overnight that Moscow still
agreed with the draft text, after a nuclear deal agreed between Iran, Brazil
and Turkey, the Foreign Ministry said. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma
Zhaoxu said the efforts by Brazil and Turkey would "aid the process of
peacefully resolving the Iran nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations".
In a regular press briefing, Ma added, ''We hope relevant actions of the
Security Council could help safeguard the international non-proliferation
regime, maintain peace and stability in the Middle East and press for a proper
settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue.''
The 15-nation council is expected to vote on the resolution early next month,
with minor revisions in the intervening period. Brazil and Turkey, both members
of the council, have said that further sanctions aren't necessary if Iran
respects the pending trilateral arrangement under which enriched uranium from
Iran would be shipped to Turkey in exchange for new fuel for a Tehran research
The 10-page UN draft resolution agreed by the "Iran Six" calls for
international inspection of vessels suspected of carrying cargo related to
Iran's nuclear or missile programs and to clamp down on financial transactions
suspected of aiding Iran's nuclear or missile programs. It also calls for
expansion of an existing arms embargo on Tehran to include more types of heavy
weapons. Originally, the US and the Europeans had hoped to impose a total arms
embargo and blacklist the Iranian central bank, but Russia and China opposed
The chances are that the Tehran declaration, reflecting Iran's embrace of a
fuel swap deal openly supported by Obama last October, represents a
mini-victory for US (ie a win-win scenario) despite the Tehran dailies' rush to
describe it as a "check-mate" for the US.
As per the terms of the Tehran declaration, the Vienna Group, consisting of the
US, Russia, France and the IAEA, will need to study and reflect on the terms of
the declaration, wherein Iran commits to ship a bulk of its low-enriched
uranium (LEU) to Turkey for safekeeping until an equivalent mass of
high-enriched uranium is delivered to Iran, plus fuel rods, ostensibly from
Russia and France. From Iran's vantage point, the Tehran declaration satisfies
the issue of "objective guarantees" via Turkey, which is obligated to return
Iran's LEU in case there is any hitch in the deal and Iran requests it back.
The IAEA said it had received the joint declaration and wanted "written
notification" that Tehran would follow through. After the letter is received by
the IAEA, an agreement between Tehran and the agency must be drawn up and
On Monday, Iran, Brazil and Turkey agreed that a letter be sent to the IAEA
within one week of the trilateral agreement being signed, to declare that Iran
was ready for the fuel exchange. The Tehran declaration also mentions the need
to focus on "common elements" of the two packages - of the "Iran Six" and
Iran's own package of ideas - and that could mean a "Vienna II" with a broader
agenda inclusive of extra-nuclear, ie regional and security issues.
Clinton went on record several times over the past few months to accuse Iran of
rejecting an equivalent fuel-swap agreement, but in effect torpedoed it with
her announcement of coming sanctions. This will anger the Turkish officials who
coordinated their Tehran moves with Washington, only to see the Americans
about-face in the form of Clinton's abrupt remarks before the US Congress. Not
only that, in light of China's positive response to the Tehran declaration, it
is far from clear that China is on board with new sanctions, as Clinton claimed
to be the case.
Part of the problem is that at the Vienna meeting in October, the US did not
insist on any preconditions for the IAEA "draft agreement", such as the
suspension of Iran's uranium-enrichment program, and yet increasingly that is
precisely the impression that Clinton and other top US officials give.
The net result is that on one hand, a mini-breakthrough in the form of the
nuclear fuel swap is on the table at the IAEA, while on the other, a major
intensification of the nuclear standoff could also be in the offing if new and
"strong" sanctions are imposed by the UN. In such a scenario, the glue that
binds Iran to the IAEA through the swap agreement would be considerably thinned
or perhaps unraveled by the heat of coercive sanctions.
A prudent diplomatic alternative would be to hold off on new sanctions and give
the nuclear swap deal a chance. "Iran has now demonstrated a good deal of
reconciliation at the UN by telling the world that we are totally opposed to
nuclear weapons and their production and acquisition and we support a Middle
East free from nuclear weapons, unlike Israel, and we have now accepted the
swap deal with a minor modification of [role for] Turkey,'' a Tehran foreign
policy analyst told the author. ''Our question is: Is the US going to let this
Skepticism may be justified, yet no matter the instant, face-saving diplomatic
gestures in Washington, the sequel that will take place in Vienna creates an
opportunity for both sides to concentrate on areas of agreement and the
potential for a breakthrough in the nuclear stalemate reflected in the Tehran
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.