Dealing with Tehran: The Return of Diplomacy

The Obama Administration has had something of a diplomatic success in dealing with Tehran. But Iran still has nuclear ambitions

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Behrouz Mehri /AFP / Getty Images

Ahmadinejad delivers a speech at the opening session of a two-day nuclear disarmament conference hosted by Tehran on April 17, 2010.

"Diplomacy emerged victorious," Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared on May 17, after his country and Turkey signed its sketchy nuclear deal with Iran. That was something of a reach. But, if not victorious, diplomacy was taking a rare turn on center stage — especially after the U.S. announced, the very next day, that it had completed the far more tricky feat of getting the Russians and Chinese to sign on to a new round of sanctions against Iran. Neither of these deals will prevent Iran from building itself a nuclear weapon, if that's what it desires — indeed, the Turkey-Brazil deal would allow Iran to enrich uranium at much higher levels of purity than currently allowed by international law. But both, as Vice President Biden might say, are big ... deals. They represent significant changes in the international landscape.

The real surprise was the Russians and Chinese signing on to a new round of sanctions. This certainly was a victory for the Obama Administration's patient, collegial diplomacy, but it was also attributable to sheer idiocy on the part of the Iranians. "The Iranians are the world's worst negotiators," says Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. "They've managed to infuriate everyone."

The story begins with a deal that was made last October: the Iranians agreed to send 2,640 pounds of low-enriched uranium (3.5% pure) to Russia and receive a smaller amount of higher-enriched uranium (20%) so it could continue to operate the Tehran Research Reactor, which is used for medical purposes. They also agreed to meet the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) demand for a full accounting of their nuclear weapons program. Iran reneged on the agreement, then tried to change it, hoping to ship the uranium to Turkey instead of Russia, before withdrawing that ploy too. Recently, the deeply goofy Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the U.N. that Iran had accepted the original plan. But it hasn't.

All of which ticked off the Russians, who have been close strategic partners of the Iranians. The Russians were not pleased that they had to learn about the secret Iranian nuclear facility in Qum from the U.S. And they were definitely not pleased when the Iranians said they'd be more comfortable sending their uranium to Turkey than to Russia. That fed Russian suspicions that the Iranians and Turks were cooking up a deal to build a pipeline that would funnel natural gas from Turkmenistan and Iran through Turkey to Europe, breaking an effective Russian monopoly. In the proposed new sanctions regime, Russia would ban all arms sales to Iran, as well as joint missile-development projects. That is not insignificant; it may signal the beginning of the end of the historic partnership between those two countries, and the beginning of a new tactical and commercial alliance between Iran and Turkey.

The Chinese have also not been overly pleased with Iran, though in a quieter, Chinese sort of way. China prizes stability, and the Iranian negotiating style is mercurial, to say the least. The Chinese have negotiated an estimated $20 billion in oil-development deals with Iran, but only a fraction of those have actually been signed by the Iranians and an even smaller fraction activated. The Chinese were also miffed when they sent a delegation to Tehran to find some common ground on the IAEA deal and the Iranians negotiated them into an impenetrable maze. China cares deeply about economic security; that it is willing to diss not only Iran but also valuable trading partners like Turkey and Brazil by agreeing to a new sanctions regime on the day after the Turkey-Brazil-Iran deal sends as powerful a message as Chinese diplomatic vocabulary allows.

Which brings us to the Turkey-Brazil deal: it's a lousy one and, clearly, the Iranians are using Turkey and Brazil as yet another means to delay or avoid compliance with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty to which Iran is a signatory. But what's in it for Turkey and Brazil? There are potential commercial benefits, to be sure. But there is also national pride at stake. Brazil is a global economic power that has been relegated to the back benches of international diplomacy. Turkey, spurned by the European Union, has decided to become a leading player in its region.

These impulses are potentially valuable: Brazil's and Turkey's interests will align, most often, with those of the U.S. Indeed, the bottom line in all this is pretty positive: traditional powers like Russia and China are edging away from Iran, while potentially constructive new players, like Turkey and Brazil, are pushing their way into multilateral diplomacy. On the other hand, unfortunately, Iran is still merrily enriching uranium at levels that are approaching weapons-grade, and it isn't likely to stop anytime soon.