BACKGROUND: Since early last year, the Iranian government has been seeking to acquire more specially enriched uranium fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which manufactures medical isotopes to detect and treat diseases such as cancer for about 500,000 people every year. Although Iran had already achieved the ability to enrich uranium on an industrial scale to the level of 3.5 percent, which is sufficiently high to fuel most commercial power reactors, it had yet to develop the capacity to achieve the higher enrichment level of 19.75 percent required by the TRR. Last year, representatives of France, Russia, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United States (the Vienna Group) constructed a package deal whereby Iran would receive additional TRR fuel from a foreign supplier about a year after Tehran surrendered a large share of its existing enriched uranium and accepted various temporary constraints on Iran’s nuclear program as a confidence-building measure.
In the end, the parties were unable to resolve their differences due to mutual suspicions. The Iranians refused to trust the other governments to provide the needed TRR fuel after Iran surrendered a large share of its enriched uranium. Western officials considered Tehran’s counterproposal that the parties conduct an immediate fuel swap somewhere on Iranian territory so patently impractical that they interpreted it as a deliberate stalling tactic designed to give Iran time to increase its enriched uranium stocks further. In February 2010, the Iranian government announced that it would proceed to make its own higher enriched TRR fuel. The Obama administration responded by seeking additional international sanctions on Iran for its nuclear policies.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the day after the May 17 trilateral declaration, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the dramatic announcement that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) had reached agreement on a draft resolution that she argued contained “strong” sanctions. Clinton described the trilateral declaration as a last-ditch effort to avert an imminent great power agreement on a draft sanctions resolution. While thanking Brazil and Turkey for their efforts and expressing a willingness to work with the two governments further on the Iranian nuclear case, Clinton warned that the finalizing the trilateral agreement would require months of further negotiations. She said that such an “amorphous timeline” was “not acceptable to us and to our partners.” When asked why the United States cannot “say yes for an answer” and accept the previous day’s trilateral declaration as the basis for further negotiations, Susan Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, explained that the trilateral accord did not address the issues for which the Council was sanctioning Iran: its violations of previous resolutions demanding that Iran cease enriching uranium and meet its IAEA obligation. Although Rice and other U.S. officials said they were open to further dialogue along with the new sanctions as part of their “dual-track approach,” they indicated that the next step was to circulate their draft among the ten other rotating UNSC members, which includes Austria, Bosnia, Gabon, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, and Uganda as well as Brazil and Turkey.
Turkish and Brazilian officials expressed irritation that the great powers would agree on a sanctions resolution only a day after they had achieved their “breakthrough” in Tehran. Their initial reaction was to stand behind their accord. Shortly after Clinton announced the agreement on the draft sanctions resolution, the two governments sent a letter to the other UNSC members urging them to refrain from adopting new sanctions. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, warned that seeking additional sanctions risked undermining the trilateral deal. President Obama subsequently called Prime Minister Erdoğan in an attempt to overcome the breach.
IMPLICATIONS: The immediate reason that the Iranian government accepted the trilateral agreement was to avert new sanctions. As in the past, Iranian diplomats sought to make some concessions in order to keep the focus on the negotiation track, especially by giving a justification to governments that were looking for a plausible excuse to delay adopting new sanctions. Until recently, Iranian officials had ignored Turkish offers to mediate the dispute, including a Turkish offer last year to allow the proposed nuclear fuel exchange to occur on its territory. Even in late April, the Iranian Foreign Ministry was insisting that any exchange had to happen on its territory. Thus far, Iran’s gambit has failed to break the great power unity. Years of frustrating negotiations have led European governments, the U.S., and now Russia and China to discount Tehran’s present willingness to negotiate acceptable constraints on its nuclear program. Middle-ranking powers like Turkey have been drawn into this diplomatic vacuum, but their mediation efforts have proven equally unsuccessful, and they still lack the power to block further sanctions.
During their two-year rotating term on the UN Security Council, Turkey has joined Brazil as perhaps the most vocal opponent of imposing additional sanctions on Tehran for its nuclear activities. Their representatives have attacked the “dual-track” approach adopted by the UNSC and other countries toward Iran—combining offers of cooperation with threats of retaliation—as counterproductive. Instead, they argue that the best way to prevent Iran from seeking nuclear weapons is to address the underlying sources of insecurity that might induce Tehran to seek them. Rather than rely on threats and sanctions, they want to offer Iran security pledges in return for reciprocal Iranian guarantees that Tehran will not use its nuclear activities for military purposes.
Economic considerations also are motivating Brazilian and Turkish opposition to a new round of sanctions. Turkey suffered considerable losses during the years in which the UNSC imposed sanctions on Saddam Hussein government and then as a result of the invasion of Iraq. Earlier this year, the Turkish Petroleum International Co. pulled out of a $7 billion deal to develop a part of Iran’s enormous South Pars field. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu observed that, “We don't want any new sanctions in our region because it affects our economy, it affects our energy policies, and it affects our relations in our neighborhood.” Brazil also has growing economic ties with Iran.
In addition, the governments of Turkey and Brazil have long objected to key dimensions of the global nuclear order. They decry the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) for enshrining a discriminatory hierarchy that gives some countries the privilege of temporary keeping nuclear weapons as well as enforcing restrictions on the transfer of nuclear materials and technologies. The two governments also denounce the unrepresentative nature of the bodies that enforce the NPT. This critique encompasses the IAEA, but especially the UNSC, which is even less representative since it includes a small percentage of the world’s nation states. In addition, the Council gives precisely the five countries the NPT recognizes as nuclear-weapons states the right to veto actions aimed at enforcing the NPT and other nonproliferation agreements. After the nuclear weapons states spurned his Tehran deal, Erdoğan angrily remarked: “This is the time to discuss whether we believe in the supremacy of law or the law of the superiors. While they still have nuclear weapons, where do they get the credibility to ask other countries not to have them?”
Turkish and Brazilian representatives insist that any country should have the right to engage in all civilian nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment and the other phases of the cycle needed to produce nuclear fuel, provided it applies traditional IAEA safeguards and complies with other nonproliferation norms. They also denounce what they describe as the hypocrisy of Western governments in approaching nonproliferation issues. They note that these countries have repeatedly sought to sanction Iran despite its having signed the NPT and the absence of any concrete proof that Iranians are seeking nuclear weapons. Erdoğan has been especially incensed by what he sees as the contrasting unwillingness of the Council to compel Israel to join the NPT and abandon its widely suspected stockpile of nuclear weapons.
CONCLUSIONS: The governments of many developing countries share the attitudes of Turkey and Brazil, whose influential status has been recognized by their recent election to the UNSC. While Turkey and Brazil have only rotating membership on the Council and therefore lack the privilege of being able to veto UNSC resolutions, they wield considerable global influence, especially among developing countries that already sympathize with Iran’s position. The negative fallout from the failed Brazil-Turkey initiative bodes ill for the efforts to revive the proposed uranium fuel exchange as well as for the NPT Review Conference currently meeting in New York. The recent affair will likely further alienate Turkey and Brazil from U.S. nonproliferation policies.
The immediate concern in Washington is that Turkey and Brazil might abstain or even vote against the proposed UNSC sanctions resolution, and that some other developing countries on the Council—such as Gabon, Lebanon, Mexico, and Nigeria—might join them. If all five permanent members vote in favor of the resolution, it is likely to pass, since enacting a resolution requires only the affirmative support of four of the remaining ten rotating members. But the three previous UNSC sanctions resolutions passed without a single negative vote. Washington seeks equally strong backing for the next resolution to enhance its legitimacy, further isolate Iran, and provide cover and momentum for the stronger sanctions Washington hopes other countries might independently adopt.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".