This week, the international community offered two contrasting solutions to Iran's nuclear defiance. On Monday, Iran, Brazil and Turkey unveiled an agreement to engage in a nuclear fuel swap, whereby Iran would hand over a stockpile of low enriched uranium to Turkey, in exchange for processed nuclear fuel. The next day, the United States and its allies on the UN Security Council gave a decisive response to the deal - a draft resolution imposing a fourth round of sanctions on Iran.
Both approaches have their pros and cons. But the fact is that neither offers a realistic chance of stopping Iran from continuing to enrich uranium and ignore the will of the international community. The world has no idea what to do next - and the implications for global security are staggering.
The Brazil-Turkey deal is one large con. Superficially, it is almost identical to a proposal by the Obama administration to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in October 2009. Both deals require Iran to hand over 1200 kilograms of low enriched uranium (LEU) to a neutral third country, which would then be exchanged for nuclear fuel rods to power a small research reactor.
But the Obama offer was made when Iran's total LEU stockpile was only around 1700 kilos according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By giving up over half its uranium, Iran would not have had enough left to build an atomic bomb, which requires at least 1000 kilos. It would have taken months to replenish the stockpile, setting back any current work towards a warhead and giving more time for diplomacy. But since October, Iran has continued its illegal enrichment activities and added to the stockpile, which now totals 2065 kilos of LEU. So agreeing to give Turkey the same amount of uranium specified in the Obama deal, does not make this the same deal.
In fact, under the provisions of the Brazil-Turkey deal, Iran not only retains the ability to construct a bomb, it is barely hindered. Astonishingly, the deal does not include a requirement that Iran stop uranium enrichment. This is the principle outcome which the international community is demanding of Iran, and has been the subject of the three previous rounds of UN Security Council sanctions.
Some pundits suggest that this is a mere detail in the plan. This is absurd. Allowing this process to continue is giving Iran invaluable expertise in the future production of nuclear weapons. Iran is also enriching fuel at the 20% purity level, which is below the 90% required for weaponization, but far beyond the 3.5% standard for nuclear fuel. Iran is obviously keeping its options open on a nuclear weapon, since once at the 20% mark, uranium can be enriched to weapons-grade quality in a relatively short space of time.
Altogether, this is a lousy deal. But the Western strategy promises to be little more effective.
The strategy relies on a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions. The draft text, already agreed by the five permanent members of the Council (US, UK, France, China and Russia), includes stronger provisions than those found in previous resolutions. A ban on Iran undertaking ballistic missile activity will help build the dossier of evidence against Iran in the court of public opinion; every time Iran engages in new missile tests, it will be breaking international law. The restriction of Iranian investment in 'sensitive activities' abroad potentially cuts off access to uranium supplies, including those which Zimbabwe recently agreed to sell to Tehran. And the strengthening of existing limits on the transfer of major weapons systems to Iran, including a ban on the sale of all missile systems, could mean that Russia has abandoned its plan to hand Iran control of a state of the art S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. An eventual attack against Iran's nuclear facilities will be made considerably easier.
But if sanctions are designed to actually avert such an outcome, then this package falls far short of the mark. Although expected to be included in the draft, there is little effort to increase external pressure on Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military-government branch responsible for running the country's nuclear program. Instead of a crackdown on the vast business and commercial empire of the Guard, countries are merely asked to exercise "vigilance" relating to its overseas financial assets. There is also no attempt to target Iran's energy sector, despite this being a surefire way to generate immediate economic consequences for Iran. This is undoubtedly the result of a need to placate China, which has made extensive investments in the sector and is reliant on daily imports of more than 400,000 barrels of Iranian oil.
And ultimately, this is why sanctions won't work - the lack of global unity. I don't subscribe to the notion that sanctions are inherently flawed as tools of international power. Throughout history, sanctions have had a dramatic impact on the behavior of states, including ending South Africa's apartheid regime in the 1990s. But sanctions only work when they are strong, comprehensive and credible. That can only happen when there is a sustainable international coalition which supports them. Without this, Iran can diplomatically outflank the great powers with alternative deals such as the Brazil-Turkey agreement, and UN sanctions will be watered down and rendered insignificant.
The US needs to go back to the drawing board urgently, and make the case for global action against Iran in a smarter, tougher way. The first step is to talk to Brazil and Turkey, and consider including them in the existing P5+1 framework for designing sanctions.
It may not lead to anything, but right now that's all we have anyway. Unless the international community summons some fresh creativity, we should start getting used to the idea of a nuclear Iran.