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Iran sanctions pit major powers against developing world

As expected, the U.S.-led push for sanctions on Iran has opened a wide rift between the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the world’s developing nations, threatening international consensus on efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged on Thursday that there were “very serious disagreements” between the U.S. and Brazil over a nuclear fuel swap deal between Iran and Turkey. The agreement, which the parties formally presented to the U.N. nuclear watchdog earlier this week, would require Iran to ship some of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for fuel rods for energy production.

The framework of the agreement mirrored a proposal endorsed last year by the U.S. and other Western powers. But the deal was seen widely as a ruse by Iran, which has most likely manufactured more uranium since the measure was first crafted, and would still have enough left over for a nuclear bomb. Brazil’s role was seen as a legacy-building move by outgoing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has sought to assert Brazil’s role as a leader of the world’s emerging nations.

American officials dismissed the agreement as a last-ditch effort by Iran to evade sanctions. But the maneuver nonetheless complicated their efforts to isolate Iran on the world stage. As Deepti Choubey of the Carnegie Endowment explained in an interview last week, Iran’s strategy for thwarting international sanctions has been two-fold: drive apart the five permanent members of the Security Council, by playing on the sympathies of Russia and China; and rally the world’s developing countries, by pitting them against the West.

The latter approach has worked in the past. At a summit on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2005, Iran successfully turned a procedural debate at the start of the conference into a war of words between developing nations and the U.S., which under the Bush administration had withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The tactic halted any progress toward a final agreement.

But this year was supposed to be different. The Obama administration had gone to great lengths to win the trust of delegates from developing states, by striking a new accord with Russia and revealing, for the first time, the exact size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. When the 2010 NPT conference began, delegates reported a much more hopeful atmosphere. Developing nations had distanced themselves from Tehran. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fiery speech railing against the West was largely ignored.

In announcing the fuel swap deal, Iran gambled that the U.S. would not risk undermining international progress on nuclear nonproliferation by angering Turkey and Brazil. American officials, in turn, wanted to dispel any lingering doubts among allies that Iran had turned a corner in the diplomatic back-and-forth. So Clinton announced an agreement on sanctions the very next day.

The result, as former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright put it, was that Turkey and Brazil got “rolled.”

The two countries, both members of the Security Council, have since condemned a draft U.N. resolution outlining new sanctions on Iran. It’s unlikely that they would be able to block the measure from passing, but they could nonetheless stir up trouble at the NPT conference, which wraps up at the end of the month. The Obama administration has sought to strengthen key provisions of the treaty, which is only possible if leading developing nations agree to the changes.

So far, Iran’s allies in the developing world aside from Turkey and Brazil have remained silent. If countries like Singapore, Chile, Colombia and Egypt begin to align themselves with Turkey, Brazil and Iran, their influence within the Non-Aligned Movement, a loose confederacy of developing nations, could potentially derail any agreement on the non-proliferation treaty.

Meanwhile, fissures also began to show in the alliance of six major powers seeking sanctions on Iran. Russia, which has long maintained close ties with Tehran, seemed to welcome the fuel swap deal on Thursday, suggesting it might help defuse the crisis.

“The scheme [on uranium swap] meets the requirements for a peaceful resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue, that is why we will do everything possible to implement it,” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told a news conference on Thursday, according to the official state news agency RIA Novosti. “If [Iran] strictly follows [its obligations], Russia will actively support the scheme proposed by Brazil and Turkey.”