Iran’s Uranium Deal Offers ‘Vexing Choice’ for President Obama

BY Quinn Bowman  May 17, 2010 at 3:27 PM EDT

Iran on Monday announced plans to ship most of its enriched uranium to Turkey, an unexpected agreement that could stifle U.S. efforts to secure a new round of international sanctions against Tehran.

Under the agreement, brokered by Brazil and Turkey, Iran would ship 2,640 pounds of enriched uranium to Turkey for safe storage. In return, Iran will receive approximately 265 pounds of fuel rods from Russia and France for a research reactor.

The Associated Press reports:

“The deal would deprive Iran – at least temporarily – of the stocks of enriched uranium that it could process to the higher levels of enrichment needed in weapons production. The material returned to Iran in the form of fuel rods cannot be processed beyond its lower, safer levels.”

While the agreement is similar in scope to a plan reached between the United Nations and Iran in October 2009 — a pact Tehran later reneged on — support from the Obama administration remains uncertain.

The New York Times called the deal a “vexing choice” for President Obama:

If he walks away from this deal, it will look like he is rejecting an agreement similar to one he was willing to sign eight months ago. But if he accepts it, many of the urgent issues he has said will have to be resolved with Iran in coming months — mostly over suspected weapons work — will be put on hold for a year or more. Many American officials believe that is Iran’s most pressing goal.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called the development a “positive step.” He cautioned, however, that “Given Iran’s repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns.”

Among those concerns is whether “the Iranians will be reliable partners when it comes to implementation,” says Matias Spektor of the Council on Foreign Relations. “To many in Washington, Brazil has been ‘naïve,’ playing the role of Iran’s ‘useful idiot.’”

Says Foreign Policy’s Joshua Keating:

“Iran’s apparent cooperation with the new agreement could make it less likely that Russia and China will support tougher sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council and puts President Barack Obama in the awkward position of potentially rejecting a deal, nearly identical to one he negotiated months earlier.”

Prior to Monday’s announcement, Russia had joined the chorus of Security Council nations calling for Iran to halt enrichment. Support from Moscow is now in question, though. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has welcomed the deal, but said further talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions must still go forward.

“More important, the deal gives China — a veto-holding member of the Security Council long reluctant to support new sanctions — an excuse to delay or water down any new resolution,” writes The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler.

“Unless details of the new deal … contain pleasant surprises, it appears Iran may have successfully repeated its old trick of widening divisions between the countries preparing to tighten the sanctions net around it,” says The Economist.