Just when you thought the Iran problem couldn’t get worse, it’s worse.
Earlier this week Tehran agreed to a deal, brokered by Brazil and Turkey, to ship out more than 2,500 pounds of its enriched uranium across the border to Turkey. In exchange the Iranians will receive fuel rods containing about 250 pounds of uranium enriched to 20 percent for use in their low-wattage Tehran Research Reactor, which the regime says will be used to generate medical isotopes (for instance, sodium iodide 131I to treat thyroid cancer).
The wonky details are important. Natural uranium is overwhelmingly made up of u-238, which is highly stable. It will not undergo fission in a reactor or in a bomb pit primary (though in a thermonuclear secondary—i.e., the fusion part of a hydrogen bomb—it will when bombarded by a cataclysmic surge of neutrons). U-235 is the more easily splittable isotope. This is what makes nuclear power reactors work and bombs go boom.
Enrichment separates out and then concentrates levels of u-235. To generate electricity, uranium enriched to three or four percent u-235 is plenty. Iran has not been content to stop there but has zoomed past and reached, or neared, 20% with some of its stockpile. This alarms Iran watchers because, first, 20 percent is good enough to make a (not terribly good) nuclear bomb. And second, once you’ve mastered enriching to 20 percent, it’s not qualitatively more difficult to keep going and get to 80 or 90 percent, which makes a very good bomb indeed.
Iran’s public justification for enriching to 20 percent is that it needs that fuel to run its research reactor and produce medical isotopes. But “need” is an elastic concept. Not only could Iran buy the necessary fuel rods far more cheaply than it can make them, it could buy the separated isotopes far more cheaply still. Most countries do exactly this. In fact, two-thirds of the world’s entire medical isotope output is produced in just one reactor—the Chalk River site in Ontario, Canada.
Tehran claims that, when it comes to national sovereignty, money is no object. It would rather waste billions on needless infrastructure than forgo its “right” to develop every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. Another explanation that fits the facts is that all this money does indeed have an object: making bomb-grade nuclear fuel.
The Brazil-Turkey deal changes none of the essentials of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s centrifuges will still spin and the regime’s stockpile of enriched uranium will continue to grow. “There is no relation between the swap deal and our enrichment activities,” Iran's nuclear chief told the press. He’s right. In that respect, the deal is no better than a nearly identical proposal floated by the Obama administration last fall and rejected by Iran.
In other respects, it’s worse. First, the amount of uranium that Iran has agreed to ship to Turkey is identical to the amount proposed last fall—except now Iran has a much larger stockpile. So instead of giving up three-quarters of its total, Iran is only shipping out about half—and retaining more than enough to make a nuclear weapon. Second, the new deal has an out clause that allows Iran to demand its uranium back at any time, for virtually any reason. Third, last fall’s deal included provisions to allow inspectors into Iran’s enrichment facility near Qom, which had been developed in secret and discovered by Western intelligence services; the new deal contains no such provision.
Fourth and worst of all is what the deal says about relations with Brazil and Turkey. Both countries are supposed to be “good guys” in this struggle—Turkey because it’s a NATO member and (at least in theory) the world’s most successful and modern Muslim state, Brazil because it is one of only a handful of nations to voluntarily relinquish a nuclear program and foreswear nuclear ambitions.
In reality, however, Turkey has been slouching toward Islamism and away from its longstanding pro-Western orientation for nearly a decade. In recent months the Turkish government had repeatedly expressed its insouciance about a potential Iranian bomb and its opposition to sanctions. Brazil, for all its supposed aspirations to join the elite club of responsible, world-order supporting nations, has apparently decided that poking the United States in the eye is, at least for now, more important.
That the Iranians agreed to the deal indicates their comfort level in working with Brazil and Turkey—itself a worrisome sign—and their shrewdness in not missing an opportunity to divide NATO and strengthen ties with two important countries on the periphery of the West. Another added benefit to saying yes was to put the Obama administration in a pickle—forced either to endorse a deal it has to know is bad or reject one that critics will say is identical to one it already proposed (even if, in key respects, it isn’t). So far, Washington has chosen the latter—leading liberal commentators to howl at the administration’s hypocrisy. For instance, Roger Cohen—a true believer in the potential of a “grand bargain” to transform Iranian-American relations—writing in the New York Times called the administration “peevish.” The Turks and the Brazilians naturally agree, and have said so.
The timing also suggests that Tehran calculated that now is a good time to let some of the building international pressure for sanctions out of the valve. Throughout the spring, the Obama administration has been working to craft a new UN sanctions resolution that could pass muster with Russia and China. The contemplated terms, as ever, are weak tea and have little chance of convincing Tehran to change course. But apparently the prospect of further diplomatic isolation was worrisome enough to warrant this attempt to short-circuit even a limp resolution.
Will that attempt succeed? “My expectation is that after this declaration there will not be a need for sanctions,” Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan said. The Brazilians have said much the same. Yet surprisingly, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council had held firm. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister went as far as to reject any link between the deal and the impending sanctions resolution. Chinese statements have been more cautious but Beijing is still indicating that it will support the resolution.
But the UN Security Council has ten rotating members beyond the Perm Five—and right now Brazil and Turkey are two of those ten. Of the others, Lebanon is a sure bet to vote against, while Austria has indicated skepticism for the resolution and Japan has praised the uranium swap deal. Passage is therefore far from certain.
Whether the measure passes or not, however, the damage has been done. Iran has done what it always does when confronted by the specter of international consensus—feint, make a deal, concede on the margins, buy time. In this instance that time has been bought very cheaply. Its value to Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program is nonetheless priceless.
Michael Anton is policy director of Keep America Safe.