x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Turkey credits Obama for Iran nuclear fuel deal

Experts say pact reached through an initiative by Brazil and Turkey that was possibly backed by US will move back Tehran's nuclear clock.

Turkey declared yesterday that it had been "encouraged" by Barack Obama, the US president, to pursue dialogue with Iran that resulted in Monday's unexpected nuclear fuel exchange accord.

The deal potentially represents a remarkable breakthrough in the long-running deadlock over Tehran's nuclear programme that has generated rising tensions in the region and beyond. But Washington kept up the pressure on Iran. Major world powers, including Iran's nominal allies, China and Russia, have agreed to a "strong draft" of proposed sanctions against Tehran, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced yesterday.

China, however, said it was encouraged by the fuel swap agreement, which Iran signed on Monday with Turkey and Brazil, the emerging world powers trusted by the Islamic republic that have valued trade links with Tehran. The West had been unable to clinch such a deal. Experts believe Monday's accord removes by several months Iran's ability to make a nuclear bomb, an ambition Tehran vehemently denies.

Some leading American newspapers reported yesterday that White House officials were angered by the intervention of Turkey and Brazil. Mr Obama, the papers said, was concerned they would give Iran a pretext to ignore UN demands that it halt uranium enrichment. Iran declared on Monday that the accord would not curb that programme. Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, however, credited Mr Obama's policy of engaging with Tehran for Ankara's success in pursuing a diplomatic solution. "[Obama] paved the way for this process," Mr Davutoglu said during a news conference in Istanbul. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been "encouraged" to pursue dialogue with Tehran by Mr Obama during a recent, high-level nuclear conference in New York.

The genesis of Monday's deal was mostly opaque, involving weeks and possibly months of delicate, behind-the-scenes negotiations. A key question - apparently answered by Mr Davutoglu - was whether Mr Obama had quietly encouraged the diplomatic initiative by Turkey and Brazil. Publicly, Ms Clinton, had taken an opposite approach. She phoned Mr Davutoglu last Friday, apparently seeking their intervention and later predicted that they would fail in their efforts to work out a deal.

Analysts believe she was applying pressure to ensure that any deal would include the main US demands that Tehran sends abroad at least 1,200kg of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) in one batch and that the swap takes place outside Iran. Monday's accord met both conditions. Two days before he flew to Tehran on Sunday, Mr Erdogan exerted pressure of his own, declaring he would not make the trip unless he was guaranteed a deal.

Under the accord, Iran will send the LEU - 55 to 60 per cent of its stockpile - to Turkey in return for higher-grade nuclear fuel from France and Russia for a medical research reactor in Tehran. Iran said the accord proved that it did not want nuclear weapons because it removed Tehran's immediate ability to further enrich its LEU stockpile to bomb-grade material. The deal is identical to the one brokered by the UN and endorsed by the US and other western powers in October last year. Mr Ahmadinejad was initially receptive but soon retreated in the face of domestic opposition.

Hardliners did not trust the West to deliver, while the opposition "green" movement feared he would use a deal to bolster his legitimacy at home. Tehran tried to re-negotiate the accord on terms unacceptable to global powers. By the beginning of this year, Mr Obama was losing interest in engagement and the US began the process of seeking support for a fourth set of UN Security Council sanctions. In February, Iran upped the stakes by starting to enrich its LEU to a higher level for its medical reactor.

Meanwhile, as Tehran sought the help of Turkey and Brazil - both non-permanent Security Council members - to stave off further sanctions, the Iranian regime seemingly began to review its position on the nuclear file. Leading conservatives moved closer to the reformist position, which promotes Iran's nuclear programme while tempering its speed to reduce the costs in terms of sanctions and international isolation.

Mr Ahmadinejad supported the shift, hoping to regain some legitimacy at home after months of unrest. The anniversary of his disputed re-election is just weeks away. At the same time, he hoped, a deal could avert a new round of sanctions, without compromising Iran's cherished uranium enrichment programme, analysts said. Some experts speculate that the US even may have had indirect contacts with Iran on the LEU deal through Brazil and Turkey. If so, a probable venue would have been the New York nuclear summit, where Mr Ahmadinejad, was accompanied by many aides, including nuclear advisers.

"I certainly hope the US was trying that sort of thing," said a former senior European diplomat to Iran. He argued that apart from trying to help revive the October fuel swap accord, the US should be striving to resuscitate the "basic idea" behind the deal. This was for "a proper, full-scale dialogue between Iran and the world powers on a wide agenda of all the concerns that each has about the policies of the other", the former diplomat said.

Iran's decision to press ahead with enrichment is one of the issues that would be addressed in the wider negotiations, he said. Most Iranian media yesterday hailed the nuclear fuel exchange accord signed as a "victory" for the Islamic republic that had "checkmated" the US. But, in a sign that the deal remains controversial in Tehran, Jomhuri Eslam, a hardline newspaper, struck a discordant note, insisting Iran had backed down "in the face of Western greed".

Some American experts saw the deal as a modest breakthrough that would set back Iran's nuclear clock by several months and prove that pressure works. "The whole point of this deal is to buy six to eight months," Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Politico, an influential Washington-based publication. Iran, he said, had dropped its demands that stalled the original UN-brokered deal. Tehran is no longer insisting that the fuel exchange takes place in Iran and only in batches.

"This is not an end to the problem," Mr Clawson said, "but a modest step that helps defuse the immediate crisis". @Email:mtheodoulou@thenatonal.ae