The balance of power that has reigned in the international system since the end of the cold war is undergoing profound shifts. Iran’s agreement with Brazil and Turkey on 17 May 2010 over the treatment of its enriched uranium, and the sanctions that the United States wishes (through a United Nations resolution) to impose on the Tehran government over Iran’s nuclear programme, reveal this system’s deep cracks. The change can be measured in the way that (as an editorial in Le Monde noted) discussion of issues such as nuclear proliferation, which used to be confined to permanent members of the UN Security Council, now finds countries from the global south playing a key role (see Nucléaire iranien: le Sud émergent veut sa place dans la négociation, Le Monde, 19 May 2010).
Turkey and Brazil are classic examples of such countries – and their influence is increased by their current presence (as non-permanent members) of the Security Council. The fuel-swap deal they agreed with Tehran provides for the transfer of that part of the uranium enriched at Iranian laboratories - initially to Turkey, then to France and Russia - in order for it to be processed for peaceful (specifically medical) purposes. The material would subsequently be returned to Iran. The three signatories indicated that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – to which Iran formally submitted the deal on 24 May - would verify this cycle of transfer and return.
The document signed in Tehran does not envisage that all Iranian-enriched uranium would be involved (only the amounts enriched to the higher level required in principle for weapons-production); but it does create the possibility of a formal accord on the issue with the UN Security Council.
The question of UN sanctions...
Washington’s immediate response was to step up negotiations with the permanent and non-permanent members of the UN Security Council to impose a harsh tranche of further sanctions on Iran in the next few months. These would include cargo-inspections on tankers entering and exiting the country, restrictions on diplomatic mobility, freezing the funds of Iranian state employees abroad, and restricting the sale of heavy weapons to Iran.
It is not yet clear whether the ten non-permanent members of the UN Security Council will support such a resolution. Turkey and Brazil seem most inclined to reject it outright. The fact that Turkey and Russia are scheduled to hold the rotating presidency of the Security Council in August-September 2010 adds further pressure to an already straitened timetable.
The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton issued a pithy rejection of Tehran’s agreement with Brasilia and Ankara on 18 May, implying that the timing was designed by Iran to avert the threat of sanctions (see Daniel Dombey et al, “Clinton attacks Turkey-Brazil deal with Iran”, Financial Times, 18 May 2010). Yet only a few months earlier, Washington was trying to reach a very similar pact with the Iranian, French and Russian governments. The Turkish government has declared itself deeply dissatisfied with the situation, indicating that the United States requested its help in negotiating with Iran (see Trita Parsi, "The Turkey, Brazil-Iran deal: Can Washington take 'yes' for an answer?", Foreign Policy, 17 May 2010).
...and of US strategic goals
However, the swap agreement reached by Iran with Brazil and Turkey has highlighted that what the United States really wants is for Iran to shut down its nuclear programme and to cease processing any uranium whatsoever. This is also a strategic goal for Israel. Tehran argues that it cannot be forbidden from developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, as the nuclear-weapons non-proliferation treaty (NPT) allows such activity.
Washington’s attitude disappointed Ankara. The Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that “this is the moment to discuss if we believe in the supremacy of law or in the law of the supremes and superiors”. He added: “while [the United States] still has nuclear weapons, where does it get the credibility to ask other countries not to have them?” (see Paul Woodward, “’For the world has changed, and we must change with it’”, War in Context, 20 May 2010). The NPT establishes that nuclear powers should negotiate disarmament while ensuring that other countries do not develop their own nuclear weapons. In reality, neither of these two objectives seems very likely to succeed, even if countries such as Brazil, Argentina and South Africa have explicitly renounced nuclear escalation.
The role of the UN
The forceful American rejection of the Brazilian-Turkish-Iranian diplomacy is itself under fire. The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York on 24 May that the tripartite agreement to be an important "confidence-building" initiative. In welcoming the role played by Turkey and Brazil, he expressed the hope that “these and other initiatives [would] open the door to a negotiated agreement” involving the IAEA. This would seem to suggest that the sanctions that the US seeks are unlikely to be forthcoming (see), though the UN report published on 31 May saying that Iran has sufficient fuel to make two nuclear weapons highlights the delicacy of the current diplomatic balance.
For Turkey, the fuel-exchange accord is proof of its growing influence as a regional power in the middle east and parts of Asia, and even beyond (Ankara plans to open thirty new embassies in Africa and Latin America). While the European Union blocks its membership, Ankara is actively pursuing a diplomatic role in open-ended talks with countries caught in a stalemate (see David Gardner, "Determined Turkey aims to show EU it is an asset", Financial Times, 17 May 2010). An example is its role in facilitating dialogue between Israel and Syria.
Yet despite this shift, Turkey remains a key geopolitical ally for Nato in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, any tension between Turkey and the US is not easy for Washington; nor is it very comfortable for London and Paris (see Carsten Wieland, “Turkey’s political-emotional transition”, 6 October 2009).
The same is true in the case of tension between Turkey and Israel, acutely highlighted by the crisis over the Israeli commando-raid on 31 May on a flotilla of international activists intent on carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza (see Kerem Oktem, “Turkey and Israel: ends and beginnings”, 10 December 2009).
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government firmly believes that the UN should not ban any country from developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Brazil’s voice, moreover, speaks with authority: the country wants to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council; plays a key role in relations between Washington and Latin America; and has now passed the test as a recognised world power.
The sanctions faultline
Hillary Clinton’s instant criticism of the Brazil-Turkey agreement included the confident statement that the United States has the backing of the other four permanent Security Council members - Russia, China, France and Britain - against it. But Moscow and Beijing have denied that the oil-and-gas trade is included in the draft resolution on sanctions on Iran (as published by the Washington Post); and China has indicated that, even were it to support sanctions, it is still interested in collaboration between emerging economies.
Russia sees the sanctions issue as a matter of its own international reputation far more than one of American credibility. The Washington Post reports that the draft resolution would exempt a set of weapon-systems that Russia intends to sell to Iran. In fact, Washington also lifted other restrictions constraining official Russian institutions and companies with respect to the arms they may sell to Iran and to Syria. There are questions here over the consistency of the Barack Obama administration’s policy (see Paul Woodward, “Is Obama’s word worth anything?”, War in Context, 28 May 2010).
The agreement between Iran, Brazil and Turkey may not resolve all the tensions surrounding Iran. But it is a watershed in the configuration of a new multipolar world.