x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Iran signs breakthrough nuclear deal

The involvement of Brazil and Turkey in arranging a fuel swap agreement will go a long ways in placating concerned western leaders, but only if Iran can prove its uranium will not be used for making a weapon.

TEHRAN // If the uranium fuel exchange deal ultimately succeeds, it will likely ward off another round of sanctions against Iran and pave the way for wider negotiations between Tehran and global powers, if not defuse tensions, analysts said.

Western powers responded with caution while Iran portrayed the agreement, which is essentially a confidence-building measure, as an important starting point to broader negotiations. Talks between Iran and world leaders - which Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for yesterday - would give the West the opportunity to press Tehran on the underlying issue of its uranium enrichment programme.

Key to the apparent breakthrough was the high-profile diplomacy of Turkey and Brazil - and symbolically important for Iran - that the negotiations took place in Tehran. The involvement of the two emerging world powers - both non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council ? "underscores the shift in the geopolitical global centre of gravity. A shift that Iran very much welcomes", said Trita Parsi, the director of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council.

The original fuel swap deal brokered by the United Nations last October stalled in part over Iran's deep mistrust of the West. "Turkey and Brazil may have succeeded in filling in the trust gap," Mr Parsi added in an e-mail comment. And the fact the swap will take place in Turkey "makes it politically easier for the Iranian leadership". Iran, in other words, can argue it did not bend to American pressure.

That Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, met Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio da Silva, on Sunday may be interpreted as the Iranian leader's "tacit endorsement of the deal", said Mr Parsi. "If so, that would ? make it more difficult to turn the deal into a domestic political football [between the Iranian president and his rivals]." Although details of the swap have not been disclosed, apart from the designation of Turkey as the exchange location, the proposed deal appears to be close to the UN-drafted framework.

The agreement could reduce tension between Iran and the West if it can ensure the US and its western allies that Iran's enriched uranium cache cannot be used for making a nuclear weapon, analysts said. Fuel rods used in the reactor cannot be processed further for that purpose. The new proposal, however, does not require Iran to cease its enrichment programme even if an agreement to swap low enriched uranium (LEU) for reactor-grade fuel is reached with the Vienna Group, the foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, said after the announcement of the trilateral agreement with Turkey and Brazil.

The Vienna Group consists of representatives from France, Russia, the US and the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. "Reaching this agreement is an indication that our country's natural right to possess [nuclear] knowledge and enrichment activity is recognised and is confirmed by all countries ? We will produce 3.5 per cent nuclear fuel and swap it with 20 per cent uranium," Mr Mehmanparast said.

Scott Lucas, a professor of American studies and Iran expert at Birmingham University in England, said that the US may even have had indirect contacts with Iran through Brazil and Turkey. Mr Ahmadinejad of Iran also needed an agreement now, experts believe. He hopes it will bolster his internal legitimacy nearly a year after his disputed re-election last June. "The fact that this agreement takes place less than a month before the anniversary of the elections is not a coincidence," Mr Lucas said.

Sceptics will see Iran's agreement to send the bulk of its low-enriched uranium abroad as an 11th-hour attempt to scupper the western-led push for new sanctions. But others believe there has been a major change in the way that the Iranian regime regards its nuclear file. Mr Ahmadinejad had appeared to favour the initial fuel swap deal brokered by the UN last October. But he retreated swiftly in the face of domestic opposition from across the political spectrum.

Many conservatives, however, have moved closer to the reformist position, which promotes Iran's nuclear programme while tempering its speed to reduce the penalties in terms of sanctions and international isolation. Among them is Ali Larijani, the powerful parliamentary speaker, who opposed the October accord but supports the new one. He is a key adviser on the nuclear issue to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,

"The reason why this deal is now on is because of the shift inside Iran," Mr Lucas said. Reformists, while far from intrinsically opposed to a nuclear compromise, were concerned that a deal could bolster Mr Ahmadinejad's government internally. Hardliners, meanwhile, were reluctant to give up Iran's cherished LEU stockpile. Even with the fuel swap deal ? if it works ? "Iran is less of a pariah", said Mr Lucas.

Iran's opposition green movement, however, is likely to fear that the international community, relieved by apparent progress on the nuclear issue, will become less vocal on Tehran's human-rights abuses. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae msinaiee@thenational.ae