Iran, China and Brazil intensify the nuclear chess game
Sat May 15, 2010 23:28

Iran, China and Brazil intensify the nuclear chess game
by Tony Karon (source: TIME Magazine)
Friday, May 14, 2010

Even as U.S. officials report steady progress in winning support for a new round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran over the nuclear standoff, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to welcome Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — and possibly also Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan — to Tehran for talks on a compromise. Are the two processes working at cross-purposes? Not necessarily.

Washington's U.N. ambassador Susan Rice said Thursday, May 13, that Lula's visit was "not impeding" progress toward a sanctions resolution, and other senior U.S. officials told reporters that the Brazilian's visit should be viewed as "the last big shot at engagement" with Iran. But the attempts by Brazil and Turkey to broker a new deal are based on strong opposition to further sanctions, which they believe will do no good. And then there are China and Russia, which have always held the key cards in the diplomatic game by virtue of their Security Council veto power and their close ties with Iran — and which share Turkey and Brazil's skepticism of the value of sanctions in resolving the dispute.

Still, that doesn't mean Moscow and Beijing won't vote for any new measures. "I hope that the Brazilian President will succeed," Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said Friday. "This may be the last chance before sanctions are adopted in the U.N. Security Council." European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Chinese President Hu Jintao two weeks ago to, as she put it, "reinforce the message that we need a twin-track approach. Sanctions alone will not solve the problem, but to solve the problem, you need sanctions." The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded that it "does not oppose the twin-track strategy." Under that rubric, it could conceivably support some new measures, although carefully targeted and never of such magnitude that they close the door to dialogue. A negotiated compromise, rather than sanctions, is the goal of China's strategy — and to get there, it's positioning itself somewhere between Washington's bad cop and Lula's good cop.

China's stance suits Washington, at least as far as sanctions are concerned. The U.S. had threatened tough measures if Iran continued to defy Security Council demands that it suspend uranium enrichment pending resolution of transparency concerns over its program. Although any measures likely to pass will be significantly watered down, support for some kind of sanctions from Tehran's key trading partners in Beijing and Moscow would send a powerful message. It's the negotiated compromise that might present difficulties for Washington.

Lula is hoping to revive a new version of last October's deal negotiated with the Western powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), under which Iran would exchange a substantial portion of its existing enriched-uranium stockpile for nuclear fuel to power the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes. Although Ahmadinejad had initially championed that deal as a great victory for Iran, he quickly retracted when it came under a hail of domestic criticism from both conservatives and reformists, spurred by Iran's intense postelection power struggle. Iran demanded to renegotiate the terms of the agreement, insisting that the exchange of reactor fuel for uranium occur on its territory, but the Western powers insisted the deal was off unless Iran agreed to immediately ship out the uranium.

The Western goal, primarily, was to remove most of Iran's stockpile, which could potentially be turned into material for a single bomb if it were secretly reprocessed. The TRR deal was viewed as a step toward an agreement under which Iran would relinquish the right to enrich uranium. But Iran is headed in a different direction, hoping to satisfy concerns over its intent in order to continue developing a civilian nuclear infrastructure that would put weapons capability within easy reach should it decide to build a bomb. And while Russia, China and much of the rest of the international community will demand that Iran satisfy IAEA concerns over the nature of its program, they don't share Washington's opposition to Iran's enriching uranium as part of its nuclear program.

U.S. officials hope Iran will accept a fuel-swap deal on terms acceptable to the West, but Tehran is clearly ramping up its diplomatic efforts to resuscitate a version of that deal less likely to be acceptable to Washington. Brazil and Turkey are reportedly proposing that Iran accept a compromise under which it agrees to the fuel swap on the territory of a friendly country like Turkey. Officials in Ankara said Prime Minister Erdogan would go to Tehran if there were a chance of concluding a deal and that the Turks were talking to both the U.S. and Iran to assess that possibility.

Iran, for its part, appears to be entertaining the possibility of accepting some new version of the TRR deal — the issue is being widely discussed in Iranian media right now, with a number of conservative voices associated with Ahmadinejad supporting such a move. While some Iranian analysts see it as simply tactical jockeying to take the wind out of the sanctions effort, others suggest Ahmadinejad may have embraced the approach to the nuclear issue favored by his pragmatic conservative and reformist critics of not relinquishing Iran's nuclear program but proceeding at a pace and in a manner that avoids creating a crisis with the West. Ahmadinejad may also be feeling more politically secure now that the challenge of the Green opposition presents less of an immediate threat. Those factors might make him more amenable to accepting a new version of the TRR deal, which, after all, was simply an interim confidence-building agreement between Iran and its critics.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Tehran and Washington can agree on new terms. Even the deal struck — and then abandoned — late last year did not deal directly with the U.N. Security Council demands whose defiance by Iran brought sanctions in the first place. So the new sanctions effort at the U.N. is unlikely to break the stalemate. It's very probable that the price of support from Russia and China for any new sanctions will be that the U.S. renew its own efforts to seek a diplomatic solution — and also send a message to Tehran to do the same.,8599,1989359,00.html


Brazil’s Iran Diplomacy Worries U.S. Officials
Saturday, May 15, 2010

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — As President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva heads to Tehran this weekend to make what many Western diplomats consider a last-ditch attempt at persuading Iran to temper its nuclear ambitions, officials in Washington have expressed concern that the effort could backfire, helping the Islamic republic to block — or at least delay — the United States and its allies from imposing sanctions.

Mr. da Silva is scheduled to discuss the issue on Sunday with his Iranian counterpart, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the trip comes at a delicate diplomatic moment. After months of negotiations, American officials said Thursday that the United States was close to securing the support of the United Nations Security Council for a resolution to impose sanctions against Iran.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has warned that Mr. Ahmadinejad might use his talks with Brazil to stall for time in order to move Iran closer to developing a nuclear weapon. “We will not get any serious response out of the Iranians until after the Security Council acts,” she said Friday.

Brazil opposes sanctions as ineffective and likely to intensify the conflict. As a developing country that has defended its own nuclear aspirations against international pressure, Brazil strongly identifies with Iran.

Celso Amorim, the Brazilian foreign minister who represented the country at the United Nations when the United States used inconclusive evidence to build a case against Iraq, has described this weekend’s talks as an effort to prevent that from happening again.

But the effort is hardly a selfless one, analysts say, arguing that Mr. da Silva sees the Iran talks as a way to stand against American dominance and advance Brazil’s emergence as a major player on the international stage.

In that new role — which rests largely on Brazil’s position as South America’s largest economy — the enormously popular Mr. da Silva has challenged the United States on everything from trade and climate change to last year’s coup in Honduras to Washington’s longstanding embargo against Cuba.

But the dispute over Iran has generated an unusual amount of friction, and Brazilian officials worried that failing to achieve progress in this weekend’s talks could cast Mr. da Silva as an amateur and scuttle his country’s pursuit of a permanent seat on the Security Council. Critics in Brazil have also questioned why Mr. da Silva has embraced Iran in recent months at the risk of alienating the United States.

“There is a sense in Washington that a lot of this is a product of the tremendous confidence that Lula has in himself, that he believes he is a wizard that can perform miracles and accomplish what others have tried and failed to do,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy research group in Washington.

On Friday, that confidence was on display when Mr. da Silva told reporters in Moscow that his chances of success were “9.9” out of 10. At the same news conference, Russia’s president, Dimitri A. Medvedev, put the Brazilian president’s chances at 30 percent.

Earlier in the week, Mr. da Silva scolded the world’s most powerful nations on Brazilian television, saying that none of the heads of state pushing hardest for sanctions had spoken directly with Mr. Ahmadinejad.

“Why doesn’t Obama call Ahmadinejad,” Mr. da Silva asked, “or Sarkozy, or Angela Merkel, or Gordon Brown,” he said of the leaders of France, Germany and, until recently, of Britain, three of the countries that strongly support sanctions against Iran.

“People aren’t talking,” the Brazilian president added. “I’m going there to talk.”

Publicly, the Obama administration has wished Brazil luck in the talks, though officials add that they are hardly optimistic about the outcome. One senior State Department official said Iran was likely to show the same intransigence it had shown in previous negotiations.

“This is Brazil’s one big play,” said another American official. “If it fails, the Security Council will move forward with sanctions, and they will expect Brazil to be there with them.”

At the United Nations, some diplomats said the trip by Mr. da Silva had cast a shadow over the talks since they started in early April, because it gave both China and Russia, which have shown little real enthusiasm for sanctions, reason to continue emphasizing the diplomatic track.

The text of the resolution could go to the full 15 members of the Security Council in the next few weeks, diplomats said. Since Brazil holds one of the rotating seats on the Council, its support for sanctions is crucial for the kind of unanimous vote that the Western powers want.

The disagreements over Iran were evident at the end of March, when the United Nations convened a meeting to focus on rebuilding Haiti.

During a news conference at the end of the meeting, Mrs. Clinton hailed the international support for sanctions on Iran. But Mr. Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, made it clear that his country believed negotiations would be more effective. Mrs. Clinton shot back, saying endless talks had failed to get Iran’s attention. France’s foreign minister echoed her comments.

Then Haiti’s president, René Préval, interrupted, saying, “Do I need to develop a nuclear program so that we come back to talking about Haiti?”

The differences over Iran aside, American and Brazilian officials said the dispute had not stopped their two governments from reaching new agreements in other areas, including the first military cooperation pact in more than three decades, and a deal that ended a longstanding dispute over American subsidies to cotton farmers.

Matias Spektor, a Brazilian scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that nuclear nonproliferation was a particularly delicate issue for Brazil because, in the face of American opposition in the 1970s, it established a secret effort that developed the capacity to enrich uranium.

Brazil did not sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for another decade, Mr. Spektor said. The country’s latest Constitution prohibits the use of nuclear materials for military purposes.

Mr. Spektor recalled a comment by a high-ranking Brazilian diplomat who told him, “When Brazil looks at Iran it doesn’t only see Iran, it sees Brazil too.”

Julia Sweig, also of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Brazil was exercising its own version of what America often did.

“Americans believe that only they can cast themselves halfway around the world to refashion events on the ground, and expect the international community to defer,” she said. “Brazil, too, and for similar reasons, is motivated to insert itself on an issue seemingly beyond its natural interest.”

Alexei Barrionuevo reported from São Paulo and Ginger Thompson from Washington. Neil MacFarquhar contributed from New York.


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