EconoMonitor

Last Days of Rome

The Middle Makes Its Move

If anyone needed reminding that the American Century is over, Turkey and Brazil provided it by giving notice that they won’t stand aside as another nuclear nonproliferation crisis slides toward armed conflict. The standoff between the U.S. and its allies in Israel and Western Europe on one side, and Iran and its sympathizers around the world on the other, may or may not end in violence. But the surprise Turkish – Brazilian diplomatic coup this week makes it clear that nations once relegated to the second-tier of influence in the world refuse to watch from the sidelines in deference to American power this time around.

The deal cut with Iran by the Turkish and Brazilian leaders proposes that Tehran would ship 1,200 kilos, or just over half of its uranium stockpile, to Turkey, where it would be enriched under international safeguards to the level necessary for use in medical applications – radiation therapy machines and other such devices. The need for this kind of nuclear medical capability, along with the pursuit of “peaceful research,” have been the explanations Iran has offered for the unusual amount of uranium enrichment it’s engaged in.

Credibility Gaps

Few believe this explanation, of course. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Washington’s response in testimony to the Senate Tuesday, announcing that the U.S. had reached agreement with the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to go ahead with a new round of sanctions against Iran.

Nor does the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has repeatedly uncovered evidence of secret facilities and undeclared efforts that look to most reasonable eyes like the byproduct of a weaponization program, take Tehran’s word at face value. But in the absence of a smoking gun – i.e., literally, a document showing plans for an Iranian warhead – neither the IAEA nor the west can prove anything.

And, frankly, given the fiasco over Iraq, what percentage of the world would believe such claims, anyway? This is the dilemma America (and, more pointedly, Israel) finds itself in. Western credibility on this issue is absolutely nil.

Thus, Iran’s own history of lying about its nuclear program gets lost in the shuffle. Even if the Turkish-Brazilian deal were to take effect, it contains significantly looser terms for Iran than those it agreed to last October with the so-called “E3” (Britain, France and Germany). Iran subsequently abrogated that agreement, and the E3 (and U.S.) strategy since has focused on toughening UN economic sanctions.

The new agreement is, indeed, a “deal” from Iran’s standpoint. It requires the transfer of only 52 percent of Iran’s declared uranium abroad, down from 73 percent in the initial deal. This leaves the other 48 percent of the stockpile to be enriched “for research purposes” to 20 percent purity – a much higher enrichment goal that Iran has imposed since the original deal collapsed. That’s still a long way from the 85 percent or more purity needed for nuclear warheads. But such gaps can be closed with hard work and focus.

This, of course, is where the world has been for the better part of a decade – at least since the discovery of the secret Iranian nuclear facility in 2003 at Natanz. Russia and China have been loath to clamp down on Iran – Russia due to its economic interests there, and China out of concern that Iranian energy supplies make up a significant portion of its import needs.

Other Agendas

More significant than the deal itself, in fact, is the boldness with which Turkey and Brazil acted. Turkey, a NATO ally whose Incirlik airbase is still an integral logistical link in the Iraq War, has drifted increasingly from the close alliance it once enjoyed with Washington.

The moderate Islamists who run the country, disliked at home by Turkey’s secular-minded army and under pressure from Washington and the EU powers, have decided to reach out beyond their EU membership ambitions. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have widened Turkey’s traditionally western-orientation and the narrow goal of EU membership to include improved economic and political ties with neighboring states, many of whom have been at odds with Turkey for decades.

Not only Iran, but ties with Russia, Syria, Lebanon and the historic enmity with Greece and Armenia all have been the subject of recent diplomacy – not all of it successful, of course, but most of it precedent setting.

Turkey’s economy, perhaps unfairly left out of the “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India, China) designation of the world’s rising stars, has powered this diplomatic drive, and the improved ties with Syria, Iran, as well as far off Venezuela and China, have done little to calm fears in Washington of a drifting Turkey. (The byproduct of improved Iranian and Syrian ties, incidentally, has been a collapse of the military alliance Turkey forged with Israel in the 1990s as Ankara has harshly criticized Israel’s Gaza War, called on Hezbollah and Hamas to be granted status in regional talks, and worked along with Egypt to force Israel’s own nuclear arsenal – the largest in the region – onto the diplomatic agenda).

The bitterness at Turkey’s decision not to allow the U.S. Fourth Army Division to attack Saddam’s army out of Turkish territory in 2003 soured ties for years, and even under Obama, things have never been quite the same geopolitically.

Southern Composure

Brazil, too, is on excellent terms with Washington. But President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva has deftly walked a tightrope, courting populist opinion in South America with cordial ties to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, even as he poses elsewhere as a darling of American hedge funds and energy investors. Lula was careful in his statements to credit President Obama’s policy of offering engagement with Iran for creating the atmosphere that made the deal possible.

Still, the reaction from Washington to the Brazilian-Turkish initiative was poor. The State Department welcomed the move, but couched it as a step back from the deal agreed last year, and emphasized it would do nothing to derail the western drive for tougher sanctions.

The U.S. and its European allies, who have spent the better part of four years lobbying China and Russia to join in tougher sanctions against Iran, were clearly caught flat-footed. Talks led by Britain, France and Germany largely ground to a halt late last year after Iran backed out of the previous, more stringent deal on transferring its uranium outside the country for enrichment.

So Brazil and Turkey have their moment in the sun, and Iran clearly has to be pleased at finding credible partners whose diplomacy will clearly make it more difficult to get the Russians and Chinese to agree to new sanctions, no matter what is said by the State Department.

American diplomats better get used to this feeling. The G20 summit meeting in Toronto next month will do nothing but underscore the point: America’s still indispensible, but no longer the undisputed only game in town.

One Response to “The Middle Makes Its Move”

arpit patelOctober 8th, 2019 at 6:04 am

Few believe this explanation, of course. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Washington’s response in testimony to the Senate Tuesday, announcing that the U.S Free Database Error had reached an agreement with the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to go ahead with a new round of sanctions against Iran.