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U.S. Eyes Sanctions as Iran, Turkey Forge Nuclear Fuel Swap

May 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Iran plans to ship more than 2,600 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for uranium fuel rods to use in a research reactor, as part of a fuel swap deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey. Judy Woodruff talks to two nonproliferation experts about the agreement and where it leaves the possibility of sanctions.
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GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to Iran and today’s agreement on nuclear fuel.

Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As flashbulbs pop, the leaders of Brazil, Turkey and Iran celebrated a deal today to shift some of Iran’s nuclear fuel out of the country. Iran’s foreign minister said his government would outline the details within the week.

MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI, Iranian foreign minister (through translator): On the basis of receiving a positive response from the Vienna group, which includes the U.S., Russia, France, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, further details of a fuel swap will be meticulously elaborated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Under the terms, Iran would send more than 2,600 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Turkey. In exchange, Iran would receive 265 pounds of uranium fuel rods for use in a research reactor.

Iran has long denied U.S. claims that it’s bent on building nuclear weapons. And many analysts said today’s announcement was aimed in part at staving off a new round of U.N. sanctions. In fact, the deal resembled a U.N. fuel swap proposal that the U.S. endorsed last October.

But U.S. officials voiced skepticism today.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley:

P.J. CROWLEY, U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs: The United States continues to have, you know, concerns about the — the arrangement. The joint declaration doesn’t address the core concerns of the international community. Iran remains in defiance of five U.N. Security Council resolutions, including its unwillingness to suspend enrichment operations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elsewhere, Britain’s new government said its support for new sanctions is unchanged for now. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he would like a small pause in the push for sanctions to find out more about the Iranian fuel swap. And Brazil and Turkey said the agreement means new sanctions may no longer be necessary.

AHMET DAVUTOGLU, Turkish foreign minister: Turkey and Brazil, together with Iran, achieve a great success, showing that there is room for diplomacy in any case. And with this understanding, we produced this paper, which guarantees that Iran will deliver the uranium to Turkey in order to open a constructive way for nuclear cooperation in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkey Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan negotiated the final deal in Tehran over the weekend. Both nations have expressed a willingness to engage countries at odds with American policy.

CELSO AMORIM, Brazilian foreign minister: You don’t choose with whom you have to deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Celso Amorim is Brazil’s foreign minister. He spoke to the “NewsHour”‘s Simon Marks in 2008.

CELSO AMORIM: We are able to have dialogue with people with whom I believe the United States doesn’t want to have a dialogue or can’t have a dialogue. I don’t — it’s not for me to judge. And, in the end, if you want peace, you have to have dialogue with everyone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Tehran today Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the announcement shows power is shifting from the postwar structure that the U.S. dominated.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, Iranian president (through translator): The United Nations and Security Council has lost its efficiency and credibility. Some of its permanent members still act as if they are in the same environment as 65 years ago, and expect other governments and nations to obey them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Iranian regime also insisted that, even with the fuel swap, it will continue enriching uranium to higher levels.

For more on all this, we get two views. Henry Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a think tank focused on the threat of nuclear weapons. He previously served as the deputy for nonproliferation policy at the Pentagon during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. And Cliff Kupchan is a research director at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm. He previously dealt with Russian and Eurasian policy at the State Department under President Clinton.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

And I’m going to begin with you, Henry Sokolski.

What — what’s going on here? What — what is this deal all about with Turkey and Brazil working out an arrangement with Iran? What do they get — what does each side get out of this?

HENRY SOKOLSKI, executive director, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center: Well, the Brazilians and the Turks get a chance to show that they can do what the United States, France, and Russia couldn’t.

And they get closer ties, in the case of Turkey, with a potentially hostile state, Iran, in the case of Brazil, leadership, leadership for the nonaligned movement. Many states sympathize with Brazil’s view that America is trying to pressure Iran.

And, in addition, Brazil has a nuclear program of their own that they do not really want to have thoroughly inspected. So, they have a little bit of a chip — nuclear chip on their shoulder at work.

Iran, on the other hand, gets time to continue its push to get nuclear weapons capabilities, without the threat of being isolated or stigmatized by sanctions. And they get this all before the IAEA gets to reveal even more how much progress Iran has made towards getting more bomb material.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cliff Kupchan, do you have the same take on this, and is it good that Turkey and Brazil have taken the lead on this?

CLIFF KUPCHAN, research director, Eurasia Group: I think Mr. Sokolski did a good job of summing up what each side gets.

I think it is good they have taken the lead, though, because I think we, potentially, the United States, potentially, gets something out of this, too. Look, the prize here is not to sanction Iran. The prize here is to find a diplomatic solution to this very worrisome crisis.

Now, it’s just possible that, through this swap, we could build more confidence than we have now, which is virtually none, and more…

JUDY WOODRUFF: More confidence…

CLIFF KUPCHAN: More confidence, yes, with Iran in a bilateral relationship, and possibly move forward to talks.

Now, it is still a long shot. But, on Friday, it was a no-shot. So, I think we have somewhat improved the prospects for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, again, going back to Iran…

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … is Iran better off in terms of getting toward that nuclear enrichment that it clearly wants, or not?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Iran has delayed sanctions. So, Iran has more time to develop the capabilities that could be used either for nuclear fuel or a nuclear weapon.

Now, that time can be used to develop a nuclear weapon or it can be used to negotiate. And it’s up to us to direct it in the direction we want.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see that clearly one way or another?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: I would say they are going to do both. They are going to negotiate and move closer to getting a bomb.

One of the differences with this deal from the October deal that the Turks and the Brazilians agreed to was, it allows Iran to call back its fuel at any time for any reason if it determines the deal is not being respected.

So, this one is a bit of a joker. Hang on. There’s a reason why Paris and Washington are quite reserved in their enthusiasm for being dragged into having to honor this deal. Their heart is not in it because their head tells them they should have taken this deal off the table, and they didn’t. And they got caught.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was the U.S. caught off guard by this?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: The U.S. was caught off guard by this. The U.S. has been focused on this swap deal since last October. I would agree with Mr. Sokolski that we probably should have taken it off the table. But we didn’t.

And, right now, if we turn out to be the spoiler, if we say no, we could well get no-votes at the United Nations from Brazil and Turkey. We could well see China and eventually Russia running towards the no camp, too. So, we’re in a sticky — sticky wicket right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I mean, in essence, does this undercut the U.S., or you are saying it remains to be seen; it depends how the U.S…

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Well, it’s both. It undercuts the U.S. drive for sanctions. If we play it right and skillfully, and if the Iranians, for the first time, are serious about finding a solution, it opens a door that didn’t exist before today.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: I don’t know. I worked at the Defense Department. We were paid to be more dour.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: My read’s different.

I think this is pretty embarrassing. It wasn’t a great idea, the original deal. It made more sense, as weak as it was.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The original deal was a swap just like this, but it was…

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, and it was obligatory. There was no going back. And there was more material coming across as a percentage of what it is they had. They have made a lot more and they are making a lot more per month then they were back in October.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Iranians.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: The Iranians.

And so I think — I agree we are in a bad place, and we’re going to have to swallow this. You would kind of like to figure out, how the heck did we get this far? Why wasn’t this thing taken off the table? And, you know, can we learn anything from this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cliff Kupchan, where does this leave the whole idea of sanctions?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: It leaves the whole idea of sanctions in trouble, in my view. I think moving forward sanctions before we smoke out what the Iranians really have in mind is going to be impossible.

Now again, we have to keep our eye on the prize. The prize is not to let Iran become a nuclear power under apartheid-like sanctions. Nobody really wins there. So, instead of sticking, you know, to a swap deal that was stuck, now we have it unstuck and let’s see where it goes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Come back to Turkey and — and Brazil in this. Are they enhanced by the — by the fact that they have been able to work this out…

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … with — with a country like Iran?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: I think, look, in the short run, they look very clever, and they have bested us, and they have put us in an awkward place.

I mean, by the way, the prize in this case isn’t just, you know, somehow persuading Iran to give up the bomb. Good luck. It’s persuading everyone in the neighborhood that this is the kind of treatment that they’re going to get.

And if people think that that’s the kind of treatment they are going to get, you are going to have a hard time stopping other countries in the neighborhood from getting that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean the treatment they are going to get?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: This not a very firm hand on misbehavior.

There is a U.S. resolution, after all, that says they should suspend making nuclear fuel. We have not enforced that. That is what the sanctions are about. There is a bigger set of issues. How many other countries will follow Iran’s model?

On that front, we’re not looking good.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Well, Judy, Henry’s right that we’re not looking good. On the other hand, in my view, the Iranian nuclear train has left the station. You know, they are an incipient nuclear power right now, and to pretend otherwise is just to fool ourselves.

On the issue of Brazil and Turkey, I think this is good for the U.S. and it’s good for the world. Brazil and Turkey are major economies. They’re increasingly influential. And as the U.S. becomes slowly possibly overshadowed by other economies, certain countries have to step forward and become stakeholders in the global order.

And, to me, Brazil and Turkey doing that — maybe they got out over their skis a little bit here, but I think, all in all, it is a good development.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And U.S. options going forward?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: You know, I think that the United States has to start really bearing down on how close Iran’s getting to the bomb. When the IAEA comes out with its next report, it’s got to denigrate the value of this swap deal and get on with the business of upholding the U.N. resolution.

If it doesn’t, it’s going to lose a lot of influence, not only in the region, but in the world. And the president has sworn to dedicate this administration to reducing nuclear threats. Whether they get the bomb or not, he’s got to bear down on this bad behavior much more than this swap deal will do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re going to leave it there.

Henry Sokolski, Cliff Kupchan, gentlemen, thank you both.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Thank you.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Thank you.