Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Deal in Review

Now that the next round of talks between Iran and the "P5+1" group of countries -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and U.S. -- will be convening in Istanbul early next year, it seems like a good time to take another look at the nuclear swap deal brokered between Turkey, Brazil and Iran last May. Although the deal was dismissed by the United States and others at the time as being insufficient, the venue of the upcoming talks does raise the question of where that deal might fit into the new round of discussions and what role the "Turkish approach" (less confrontation, more engagement) to Iran might play in how these new talks unfold.

To get a better sense of what some of the answers to these questions might be, I recently had an email interview with Aaron Stein, a a research fellow at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation in Istanbul, where he works on Turkey’s security policy and how Turkey perceives the Iranian nuclear program. Here's our exchange:

1. What is your assessment of the swap agreement worked out between Turkey, Brazil and Iran?

In my opinion, the Joint Declaration signed and negotiated by Iran, Turkey and Brazil has little nonproliferation value and does little to slow Iran’s controversial nuclear program. I am convinced that Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Taip Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had the best of intentions when negotiating the Declaration. Despite their best intentions, the document does not address, or limit Iran’s enrichment program. The Declaration fails to take into account Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to 19.75 percent. The Declaration resulted from months of diplomatic negotiations, which were preceded by similar negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran. The length of negotiations prompted prominent Arms Control and Nuclear Weapons Expert Jeffrey Lewis to call the Declaration the, “Zombie fuel swap” because it the initiative never seems to die.

The first iteration of the fuel swap appeared during negotiations in October 2009 between the P5 +1 and Iran. During these negotiations Iran agreed in principle to send 1,200 kg of low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France for fuel rod fabrication. The Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) – a small 5 MWt research reactor supplied by the United States to Iran in 1967 - is expected to run out of 19.7 percent enriched LEU fuel in 2010. Tehran’s dwindling supply of LEU fuel prompted the Iranian government to seek foreign suppliers, and signal its readiness to negotiate a fuel swap arrangement. Faced with the prospect of the TRR’s impending shutdown, Iranian ministers tentatively agreed with representatives of the P5+1 to this fuel swap arrangement at a meeting in October 2009. Despite the apparent diplomatic breakthrough, Iran backed off of its original agreement, proposing to ship out its LEU in 400 kg increments, and demanded that the transfer take place on the Iranian Gulf Island of Kish. The IAEA, the United States, and other members of the P5+1 rejected Iran’s counter proposal, claiming that it violated the spirit of the initial agreement, which called for the shipment of all 1,200 kg in one batch. The Obama administration and other members of the P5+1 were demanding that Iran ship all 1,200 kg LEU to France and Russia because, at the time, this would have left Iran without enough LEU for a nuclear weapon, should Iran choose to further enrich its LEU stockpile to weapons grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). At the time, the IAEA had reported that Iran had stockpiled 1,500 kg of LEU. If Iran were to have shipped all 1,200 kg of LEU, it would have taken Iran many months to replenish its LEU reserves, thus limiting its weapons break out capability.

The diplomatic impasse prompted Mohammed El-Baradei, the former director General Director of the IAEA, to step in and suggest Turkey as an alternative site for the fuel swap. El-Baradei believed that Turkey’s long standing participation in the NATO alliance and its close relations with the Islamic Republic made it an ideal place for the fuel swap to take place. Following the proposal, Ahmet Davutoglu indicated his country’s willingness to hold Iranian LEU. Thus, setting in motion Turkey’s participation in the Iran fuel swap negotiations.

Beginning in November, Ahmet Davutoglu and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehe Mottaki met a number of times to discuss the fuel swap arrangement. This culminated with the release of the Joint Declaration (for a full text of the Declaration please visit, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/julian-borger-global-security-blog/2010/may/17/iran-brazil-turkey-nuclear) indicating Iran’s willingness to ship 1,200 kg of LEU to Turkey within a month, if the Vienna Group (The United States, France, Russia and the United Nations) endorsed the declaration and specifically agreed to deliver LEU fuel rods to Iran for use at the TRR.

In its current form, the current Declaration has little non-proliferation value and does not address Iran’s nuclear breakout capability. Experts estimate that a country like Iran would need 1,200 kg of LEU to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon, should Iran decide to enrich its LEU to 90 percent. When the Declaration was concluded, the IAEA had reported that Iran had accumulated 2,300 kg of LEU. The removal of 1,200 kg of LEU would allow Iran to replenish its LEU stockpile quickly, thus negating the non-proliferation benefits of the fuel swap arrangement.

In addition, the Declaration does not address other issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Since the Iranian rejection of the original fuel swap proposal in October 2009, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) decided to further enrich its stockpiled LEU to 19.7 percent for use in the TRR. In May 2010, the IAEA released its comprehensive Safeguard Report, which detailed Iran’s stockpile of 19.75 enriched uranium. As of November 2010, Iran has produced 21 kg of 19.75 percent enriched uranium. Perhaps the most glaring weakness of the Iran-Turkey-Brazil declaration is that Iranian enrichment issue is not addressed. The process to further enrich uranium is very complicated. It requires the disassembly and reassemble of centrifuge cascades, while ensuring that the machines will still function correctly. These recent developments, combined with Iran’s growing knowledge about centrifuge technology, has demonstrated Tehran’s ability to produce weapons grade uranium, should it choose to enrich its LEU.

2. Does the agreement bring anything new to the table?

The first iteration of the agreement had a lot of positive aspects and would have delayed Iran’s ability to further enrich LEU for a nuclear weapon, should it choose to do so. The original intention of the fuel swap was to limit Iran’s break out capability. The P5+1 believed that the removal of 1,200 kg of Iranian LEU would give the P5+1 and Iran time to negotiate a diplomatic settlement. The Obama administration’s original intention was to use this “window” to move negotiations along quickly and eventually conclude some sort of nuclear agreement with Iran.

The Declaration does not ascribe to the spirit of original agreement and most importantly, does not deal with any of the major issues that I outlined above – namely Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to twenty percent.

3. Turkey is arguing that the swap deal is useful as a confidence building measure with Iran, which could lay the groundwork for further deals with the country? Do you see any value in that argument?

Despite the tepid response from the P5+1, AK Party officials maintain that the fuel swap arrangement is an important confidence building measure. They argue that the Agreement is nearly identical to the October P5+1 proposal that Iran rejected in October. Despite Iran’s questionable LEU accounting, Iran’s willingness to ship 1,200 kg of LEU to Turkey, all at once and before receiving the reactor fuel from France and Russia, is a step in the right direction. In my opinion, there is some validity to Turkey’s argument.

For Iran-Turkey relations, the Agreement reaffirms the AK Party’s commitment to pursuing a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear issue, despite heavy U.S. pressure to support the latest UN Sanction’s package. Turkey has proven that it is committed to strengthening its relations with Iran, despite pressure from its traditional allies. By doing so, Ankara may have proven itself to be a valuable intermediary between Iran and the West. It also reaffirms Ankara’s new independent minded foreign policy, and may signal to leaders in Tehran that Turkey acts in good faith when discussing its nuclear program.

In my opinion, any agreement with Iran over its nuclear program is a “diplomatic win” and should be pursued whole-heartedly. In the complex world of international relations, agreements and iterated interaction between two parties increases trust and cooperation. It breaks the cycle of negative reciprocity, and may lead to each side making concessions. In short, any effort to break the persistence and perseverance of “zero-sum” thinking can help move diplomatic processes forward and help contribute to an eventual agreement. Thus, the confidence building argument has some validity and I do not think critics of the Agreement shouldn’t dismiss Turkey’s diplomatic efforts.

However, non-one should believe that this Agreement, even if it were to be implemented, wasn’t politically motivated and served the interests of all of the parties involved, especially Iran.

4. What's your take on the role Turkey has been playing in helping resolve the Iran nuclear issue?

Since the election of the AK Party in 2003, Turkey has set about changing the basic tenets of its foreign policy in the Middle East. AK Party’s foreign policy has been based on what Turkey’s current Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutogolu, calls “strategic depth”- a foreign policy seeking to balance Turkey’s relations with the West and its former Ottoman provinces in the South and East. Davutoglu promotes Turkish “soft power,” believing that friendly relations with all of Turkey’s neighbors will benefit Turkish economic and political interests in the region. The AK Party is opposed to further sanctions against Iran, arguing that they hurt Turkish economic interests, and that they serve as the first step towards the legitimization of war.

The statistics and evidence back Davutoglu’s arguments and Ankara’s Iran policy makes perfect sense. Iran is Turkey’s second largest provider of natural gas and bilateral trade between the countries topped 10 billion dollars in 2008. Thus, from an economic standpoint Turkey’s hesitation to support any new UNSC sanctions is perfectly logical. In addition, Turkey and Iran share a common threat from Kurdish separatist groups operating based in Northern Iraq. Since the formation of the Party for Freedom in Kurdistan (PJAK), a sister terrorist organization of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey and Iran have increased counter-terrorism and military cooperation.

Furthermore, Turkey’s determination to conclude some sort of nuclear agreement with Iran reflects the AK Party’s thinking about foreign policy. Turkey’s negotiations with Iran can simply be seen as a manifestation of what Davutoglu and the AK Party have been saying all along. Namely, that while in power they would pursue an interest led foreign policy, promoting regional peace, while balancing Turkey’s relations with the East and West. Turkey’s recent actions smack of Realpolitique, a term and concept that should not be foreign to leaders in Washington, Paris and London.

5. There seems to be less concern in Turkey about a nuclear Iran than in Europe and the US. Why do you think that is?

Since the election of AK Party, one cannot go one week without reading a headline in some major American/European newspaper that asks “Is Turkey Turning East?” Reporters, security analysts, and foreign policy bloggers often point to Turkey’s religious government and its balanced foreign policy as proof of Ankara’s creeping “Islamization.” Frequently, these article are precipitated by a comment or speech made by Prime Minister Erdogan, where he says something about his country’s Iran policy. These fears are exacerbated by Turkey’s position on the Iranian nuclear issue and by its recent decision to vote “no” on the latest UNSC sanctions.

I believe that the difference between the West and Turkey’s position on the dangers posed by Iran’s nuclear program is driven by each country’s immediate and long-term security threats. The West views Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon as a threat because they believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon will upset regional stability and prompt the Sunni Arab states to build their own nuclear weapons. Needless to say, a nuclear arms race in the world’s oil producing nations would harm American and European security and economic interests.

Secondly, I don’t think that one can ignore the West’s discomfort with Islam and its immediate association with terrorism. Thus, there is a persuasive and pervasive discourse in American and European communities that believe Iran’s religious beliefs will exempt them from believing in the traditional concepts of deterrence.

Turkey and Iran, on the other hand, have a shared sense of national identity that stems from a common history of powerful empires that were usurped by imperialism. Both countries are home to historic Middle Eastern Empires that controlled large swaths of territory in the Middle East and Central Asia. The two former empires share a number of cultural and religious similarities and they have shared a common and un-changing border since the signing the Kasr-i Şırın Treaty in 1639. I believe that the long history of cordial relations has lessened Turkish threat perceptions.

Despite the similarities, there are differing perceptions within Turkey about the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran. In my opinion, Turkish thinking about the potential dangers posed by Iran’s nuclear program appear to correlate with an individuals interpretation of Turkey’s secularist principles – those that argue that Iran’s nuclear program is a major threat to tend to favor a rigid and strict interpretation of secularism, while those that favor a more loose interpretation of Ataturk’s secularist principles are generally less threatened by Iran’s nuclear program.

Thus, like all of Turkish politics there is an internal struggle over the direction of the country’s foreign policy. I think these divergent opinions can be traced back to the words of Ataturk who said “Peace at home, peace in the region.” Thus far, the AK party has flipped the meaning of these words and has come to believe that “peace in the region leads to peace at home.” The AK Party’s primary fear is an American or Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. The resulting chaos, they believe, will upset Turkey’s economic growth and could contribute to terrorist activity in the Southeast. The specter of a nuclear Iran takes a back seat to Turkey’s immediate security interests, meaning that in the short term the prospect of an American/Israeli attack is more of a threat to Turkey’s security than a nuclear armed Iran. In the West, the opposite is true; officials argue that a nuclear-armed Iran will be the catalyst for regional upheaval and instability.

Thus, it seems that the two sides will continue to not see eye-to-eye on this important issue.

1 comment:

William deB. Mills said...

Very useful interview. Now, let's think about the future.

Obama's idea of a new approach toward Muslim countries, along with his domestic political standing, seem to be in a state of collapse. He is discarding his power even faster than his Republican adversaries can pick it up. In two years, it now seems, the War Party will be back in power in Washington.

So, what do Turkish and Iranian national security thinkers think about this? If I were Turkish or Iranian, rather than American, I would be very worried.

Specifically, what options do Iran and Turkey have for avoiding war two years from now?