The Brazilian-Turkish diplomatic breakthrough with Iran has taken Washington by surprise. Clearly, the geopolitical center of gravity has shifted-five years of EU-led negotiations led nowhere while the new emerging powers Brazil and Turkey only needed a few months to produce a breakthrough. Now, the West needs to pull off some political acrobatics to avoid being on the diplomatic defensive.
Before Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s trip to Iran this past weekend, few among the permanent members of the UN Security Council were optimistic about his chances of success. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was charitable when he put Lula’s odds at 30 percent. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly called her Brazilian counterpart to discourage Brazil from undertaking the diplomatic mission. And few in Washington seemed to have been prepared for a diplomatic breakthrough.
But against all odds, Turkey and Brazil seem to have succeeded in resolving the most critical obstacle in the Iranian nuclear stand-off: the issue of trust. Both through the modalities of the new deal as well as by virtue of who they are, Turkey and Brazil have succeeded in filling the trust gap.
For the Iranians – beyond their political paralysis of last year – the issue of trust was the primary flaw of the October 2009 proposal. As the Iranians saw it, the deal would have required that Iran place disproportionate trust in the Western powers by agreeing to give up its low-enriched uranium stockpile in one shipment, only to receive fuel rods for Iran’s research reactor nine to twelve months later. This would have required a significant leap of faith on their behalf.
Iran’s relations with most permanent Security Council states (P5) are fraught with tension and mistrust. This includes its relations with Russia. European power’s past support for Saddam Hussein – including providing him with high-tech weaponry and components for chemical weapons – has not been forgotten in Tehran, particularly not by those in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s circles.
Iran’s relations with Turkey and Brazil are different, however. Though tensions and rivalry with Turkey have historic roots, relations have improved significantly under the Erdogan government. Though some skepticism remains, Iran has nevertheless noted Turkey’s increased independence from – and at times, defiance of – the United States. In particular, Turkey’s position on the Iraq war as well as its campaign to prevent a new round of UN Security Council sanctions on Iran must have impressed Tehran.
Moreover, unlike with the P5 states, Iran does not only have some trust in Turkey, it also senses that it has some leverage over its Western neighbor. In 2009, Iranian-Turkish trade stood at around $11 billion, with Iran providing a significant portion of Turkey’s gas needs. The combination of trust and leverage seems to have been critical in getting the Iranians to agree to put their stockpiles in Turkish territory.
In Brazil, Iran has found an unlikely but much needed ally. Brazil is a rising global power, with a legitimate claim for a permanent seat in the Security Council. It’s a state with a long history of sympathizing and identifying with the Iranian position on nuclear matters. If the reprocessing takes place in Brazil, as opposed to Russia, it would be a political victory for Iran to have it occur in an emerging power who for long has endorsed Iran’s right to enrichment and who itself achieved recognition of its enrichment right in spite of international pressure.
While Iran has been suspicious of European and American maneuvers and proposals, out of a fear that the ultimate objective of the West is to eliminate Iran’s enrichment program, that suspicion is unlikely to arise in a Brazilian-sponsored deal due to Brazil’s own nuclear program and self-interest in ensuring that Iran’s nuclear rights aren’t inhibited and turned into a legally binding precedent.
In fact, the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian agreement explicitly endorses Iran’s right to enrichment, a position the US has refused to officially accept.
Beyond economic interests, international prestige and the opportunity for Brazil and Turkey to become indispensible global actors, it should not be forgotten than both states have viewed war and confrontation as the likely alternative to their diplomacy. In particular, there has been a fear that the current Security Council draft resolution, while not providing an explicit justification for military action, would nevertheless provide regional states outside of the Security Council with a legal basis to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Washington’s reaction has thus far been muted. Though details of the agreement remain unknown, two potential points of objection have emerged.
First, the amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) that will be shipped to Turkey, 1200 kilograms, constituted approximately 75 percent of Iran’s entire stockpile back in October. Though that percentage has shrunk, it will still leave Iran with less LEU than it would need for a bomb. Still, even though Washington insisted that the deal from October remains on the table and that it is non-negotiable, it may be the US itself that ends up seeking to renegotiate the terms. Second, Iran has expanded its enrichment activities and is currently enriching uranium to 19.75 percent. The US insists that this activity must be suspended.
In spite of these potential sticking points, it is important to note that both Brazilian and Turkish decision-makers have intimate knowledge of the American position. America’s red lines are crystal clear to both. And even though both have shown significant independence from the US, it is unlikely that they would announce a deal with Iran that wouldn’t meet America’s requirements.
Rather, the Obama administration’s problem with domestic actors may be a greater challenge. Both the House and the Senate have prepared broad sanctions bills, which they intend to send to the President in the next few days. Even if the deal meets American security requirements, Congress may still push forward its extraterritorial sanctions bill, citing other concerns with Iranian behavior.
With the November elections only months away, President Obama may face some stiff opposition from Congress, even over a deal that meets America’s red lines on the nuclear issue.
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine.
Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council and the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.