Iran, Brazil, Turkey and the US

Yesterday morning I was at the UN building in New York, with a small group of journalists meeting Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. One of the issues that came up was Iran — in fact the buzz at the UN generally speaking is that Iran is the main topic of conversation at high-level meetings and the G-summits, no matter what's officially on the agenda. Ki-Moon had just received news that the US had just gotten a tentative agreement over a new package of sanctions on Iran and shared it with us, although he didn't have much to say about it apart some vague statement that the best way of addressing the Iran issue was through dialogue.

Shortly before Hillary Clinton announced the consensus over a new sanctions resolution, which is going to the UN Security Council soon, Brazil and Turkey had successfully inked a deal with Iran. The deal would have Tehran turn over about half of its nuclear fuel stockpile for a period of a year, a similar deal that the US had earlier said it would be amenable to. So the announcement on new sanctions came as a big f-you to not only Iran, but also Brazil and Turkey, as Gary Sick writes:

Only hours before Clinton’s announcement, the foreign minister of Turkey held his own press conference. Obviously unaware of what was about to happen, he described in some detail not only the tortuous negotiation process with Iran, but his perception that he was acting directly on behalf of the United States.
According to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, he had been in “constant contact” with Clinton herself and with national security adviser James Jones, while his prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had face-to-face encouragement from President Obama in December and April.
The objective of Turkey and Brazil was to persuade Iran to accept the terms of an agreement the United States had itself promoted only six months ago as a confidence-building measure and the precursor to more substantive talks. There were twelve visits back and forth between the Turk and his Iranian counterpart, some 40 phone conversations, and eighteen grueling hours of personal negotiations leading up to the presentation of the signed agreement on Monday.
“What they wanted us to do was give the confidence to Iran to do the swap. We have done our duty,” said Davutoglu, calling the deal an important step for regional and global peace. “We were told that if Iran gives 1,200 kg without conditions, then the required atmosphere of trust would be created [to avoid sanctions]. So if we do all these things, and they still talk about sanctions … [it] will damage the psychological trust that has been created.”
The Turks and Brazilians, who felt they had “delivered” Iran on the terms demanded by the United States, were surprised and disappointed at the negative reactions from Washington. Little did they know that their success in Tehran, which had been given a 0-30 percent chance just days earlier, came just as the Americans were putting the final touches on a package of sanctions to be presented to the UN Security Council. The Tehran agreement was as welcome as a pothole in the fast lane, and the Americans were not reluctant to let their displeasure be known.
The five major powers had made up their minds (without consulting other members of the Security Council that currently includes both Turkey and Brazil), and these two mid-level powers were told in so many words to get out of the way.
The gratuitous insult aside, which approach do you believe would most likely result in real progress in slowing or halting Iran’s nuclear program? We have been imposing ever-greater sanctions on Iran for more than fifteen years. When we started they had zero centrifuges; today they have in excess of 9,000. To those who believe that one more package of sanctions will do what no other sanctions have done so far, I can only say I admire your unquenchable optimism.

Only hours before Clinton’s announcement, the foreign minister of Turkey held his own press conference. Obviously unaware of what was about to happen, he described in some detail not only the tortuous negotiation process with Iran, but his perception that he was acting directly on behalf of the United States.

According to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, he had been in “constant contact” with Clinton herself and with national security adviser James Jones, while his prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had face-to-face encouragement from President Obama in December and April.
The objective of Turkey and Brazil was to persuade Iran to accept the terms of an agreement the United States had itself promoted only six months ago as a confidence-building measure and the precursor to more substantive talks. There were twelve visits back and forth between the Turk and his Iranian counterpart, some 40 phone conversations, and eighteen grueling hours of personal negotiations leading up to the presentation of the signed agreement on Monday.

“What they wanted us to do was give the confidence to Iran to do the swap. We have done our duty,” said Davutoglu, calling the deal an important step for regional and global peace. “We were told that if Iran gives 1,200 kg without conditions, then the required atmosphere of trust would be created [to avoid sanctions]. So if we do all these things, and they still talk about sanctions … [it] will damage the psychological trust that has been created.”

The Turks and Brazilians, who felt they had “delivered” Iran on the terms demanded by the United States, were surprised and disappointed at the negative reactions from Washington. Little did they know that their success in Tehran, which had been given a 0-30 percent chance just days earlier, came just as the Americans were putting the final touches on a package of sanctions to be presented to the UN Security Council. The Tehran agreement was as welcome as a pothole in the fast lane, and the Americans were not reluctant to let their displeasure be known.

The five major powers had made up their minds (without consulting other members of the Security Council that currently includes both Turkey and Brazil), and these two mid-level powers were told in so many words to get out of the way.

The gratuitous insult aside, which approach do you believe would most likely result in real progress in slowing or halting Iran’s nuclear program? We have been imposing ever-greater sanctions on Iran for more than fifteen years. When we started they had zero centrifuges; today they have in excess of 9,000. To those who believe that one more package of sanctions will do what no other sanctions have done so far, I can only say I admire your unquenchable optimism.

Now we're seeing some of the big five waver over the sanctions Iran is bragging about (NYT):

On Wednesday, however, Russia seemed to strike a more ambivalent note when Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov released a statement expressing cautious support for the draft resolution, but stressing that it is far from completion. 

He said there is a “basic understanding” of the new draft, but that it must be approved by non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. If Washington and its European partners proceeded unilaterally, he said, the proposal “would go beyond decisions agreed upon by the international community and would run counter to the principle of the supremacy of international law guaranteed by the U.N. charter.”

Mr. Lavrov’s statement said he “expressed concern” over this during a conversation with Mrs. Clinton on Tuesday night, and encouraged her to re-examine Tehran’s latest proposal to “help establish a favorable atmosphere for the resumption of political and diplomatic efforts to regulate Iranian nuclear problems.”

An official in the Russian Foreign Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity under ministry rules, said Mr. Lavrov placed a call to Mrs. Clinton after learning of her announcement on Tuesday night. The official said Russia views Tehran’s proposal to enrich uranium in Turkey as very similar to a deal brokered in October by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but acknowledged that Washington is skeptical.

“Our position is, give them another chance,” the Russian official said. “We should take into account this demonstration of readiness by Iran.”

So much for either "smart diplomacy" or the multilateralism that the Obama administration touted last year. I can understand skepticism about Iran's intentions and frustration with its delaying tactics. However, the Obama approach to Iran was supposed to be getting them to the negotiating table. The Brazil-Turkey deal does that and they decided to deliberately sabotage it, in the process embarassing Western-allied emerging powers that are among Iran's important business partners. And this comes back to the basic problem with US approach to Iran — is it about:

  • Negotiating with Iran to ensure it respects the NPT
  • Ending its support for Hamas and Hizbullah
  • Containing its influence regionally
  • Overthrowing the Islamic Republic regime (as Congress assigns funds to)

 So which one (or several) is it, and are they compatible?

Update: There is more good analysis of this at the BBC and the Economist, looking at the move by Iran to drive a wedge between the great powers and the middle powers over sanctions. There is no reason to trust Iran's motives, but shouldn't this opportunity for negotiations on core issues be seized upon? Is time that much of the essence, especially since previous sanctions have been partly ignored? See also Rami Khouri's latest.