Friday, May 21, 2010

Recycle Uranium, Not Iranians

There was an interesting sequence of developments in the recurring soap opera of Iranian enriched uranium. First, American diplomats reported progress in getting the Russians and Chinese to buy into new sanctions against Iran, targeted at Iran's trade in components in nuclear energy, and more specifically at Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements who are believed to control the nuclear program.

Next, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who is angling for an enhanced international role for his country and has opposed new sanctions, visits Iran. Within days, he announces that Iran agreed to a swap of enriched uranium for even more-highly enriched (but not suited for weapons), with Turkey the facilitator. The deal is similar, but not exactly the same, as one that had been worked out under pressure from the US last year. Iranian President Ahmadinejad said yes at the time, but then was apparently overruled by hardliner domestic elements.

The reactions to Lula's gambit were interesting. China and France both responded positively to the agreement, if cautiously. The US, though praising Brasilia and Ankara's sincere efforts, discounted the clear intention of the agreement--to head off the sanctions--and said it would press forward.

One can understand why we might dis, up to a point. First, Iran would have to follow through with official government approval to make the agreement real; second, there would need to be rigorous monitoring of the process at all stages (by the IAEA), because we should all suspect some kind of Iranian trick (like the hidden nuclear processing facility that was uncovered last year). Third, the agreement for sanctions has been hard-won, and it should not be given up on a flimsy Iranian promise.

That does not mean that our reaction was the best one, though--I like the cautiously positive response better. I'm all for punitive sanctions, but we can't punish Iran for doing things they are allowed by treaty to do, or for not choosing to defuse their nuclear program in an agreement with the right counterpart. First, we should note publicly and often how just the threat of sanctions moved the Iranians to make concessions. Second, if the exact details of the swap were not adequate, the terms should be improved. Third, it's good if countries like Brazil and Turkey can get behind the Wizard of Oz-type smokescreens Iran sends out and find the ones who are pulling the knobs and levels, if indeed they have done that (to us, the screens are pretty impenetrable).

The solution would seem to be simple: go ahead and get the approval for the sanctions--if it's still there--but include in them an incentive to make progress: specify the terms required for a swap that would allow Iran's nuclear energy program to go forward but not its nuclear weapon program (and, please, don't prohibit activities Iran is clearly allowed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty). If Iran has negotiated in good faith, they can follow through and cause an end to the sanctions. If their agreement was bogus, that will be revealed in time, and the sanctions will be fully justified.

My gut reactions to the news sequence are above, but I have to give credit to "The Globalist", Roger Cohen of The New York Times for his editorial which encouraged me to post them.

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