Monday, May 17, 2010

Lost inTranslation

The United States Responds to the Turkey/Brazil/Iran Deal with Dismay, Denial, Deafness, Willful Misunderstanding, and the Occasional Malapropism

The deal for to provide fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, brokered by Turkey and Brazil, has been signed.

The deal threatens to derail the push for Iran sanctions, which is apparently the be-all and end-all of America's strategy.

No question what Turkey--a non-permanent member of the Security Council this year--thinks:

"This agreement should be regarded positively and there is no need for sanctions now that we [Turkey and Brazil] have made guarantees and the low-enriched uranium will remain in Turkey," [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto─člu] said.

The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler tells us that the deal will provide excuses for more Chinese mushiness on sanctions:

More important, the deal gives China -- a veto-holding member of the Security Council long reluctant to support new sanctions -- an excuse to delay or water down any new resolution.

Now the United States has to find a way to kill the deal.

More from Glenn Kessler:

The best hope for U.S. officials is Iranian intransigence. The Iranians could haggle over the details and implementation of the agreement until it collapses, much in the way it first agreed to a swap deal with the United States and its allies before backing away.

Iran now must present a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna explaining the details of the transaction, which U.S. officials privately hope will begin the process of unraveling it.

Stay classy, fellas.

The first line of opposition has already been drawn: It's a trap! The crafty Iranians have continued to enrich uranium since the deal was originally floated. So sending 1200 kg of LEU overseas leaves too much inside Iran and does not eliminate the dreaded bomb breakout scenario.

Second line of opposition is that Iran is continuing to enrich LEU to 20%.

As CNN spun the agreement on its its homepage: Iran to resume uranium enrichment, linking through to a story entitled Iran to resume uranium enrichment despite Turkey deal.

This does not appear to be quality reporting.

The original version of the article, which grew wings and circulated all the way to China (it was apparently also the basis for a report in the Chinese language media), implied that Iran had bookended announcement of the Turkey deal with an intentionally defiant statement that it would be enriching more LEU.

However, when CNN updated the story (including a passel of disparaging comments on the deal from the UK, France, and Israel) it transpired that what the Iran foreign ministry spokesman had really said was this:

"We are not planning on stopping our legal right to enrich uranium," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told CNN by telephone.

That's different. Iran's centrifuges might well be spinning, but sticking a thumb in the West's eye doesn't seem to have been Mehmanparast's intention.

As stated in the text of the agreement, Iran wanted to make clear that, by acceding to the TRR swap, it was not surrendering its right to enrich uranium to under 20%--the basic premise of its engagement with the IAEA and NPT regime, and a right that even the United States is, in principle, willing to acknowledge.

So, even as Iran attempts to present its most accommodating demeanour, it looks like some problematic reporting and, to be fair, a less-than-stellar use of the English language by Mehmanparast, combine to make the regime look intransigent and, indeed, willfully provocative.

Funny 'bout that.

China, which I suspect is rather gleeful about the deal, hasn't weighed in with any official comment or endorsement as of this writing.

A glitch in Xinhua's editing gives an idea of China's current effort to stay above the fray and keep up with the latest spin:

TEHRAN, May 17 (Xinhua) -- An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday his country will continue enriching uranium to 20 percent itself, despite a swap deal signed just hours ago in which Iran has agreed to ship some most of its low enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for 20 percent uranium needed for its Tehran reactor. [emph. added]

To console Xinhua with the knowledge that the decline of copyediting and authorial standards is not just a Chinese problem, Glenn Kessler wrote:

Brazil and Turkey, which were represented by their presidents in the talks, invested significant diplomatic cache in the negotiations.

Ahem.

One invests diplomatic capital to obtain an agreement. One garners diplomatic cachet from concluding an agreement. Cache, a collection of resources securely stored against a rainy day but by definition not yielding an investment return, resides, for the purposes of this sentence, in that dread limbo where Francophone ignorance, mispronunciation, and misapprehension reign and Spellcheck cannot go.

This deal represents bad news for the Obama administration.

Insisting on sanctions as a precondition for further Iran-related movement provided welcome domestic political cover for the administration.

If the UNSC sanctions drive sputters, then the U.S. either have to abandon the signature multi-lateralism of the Obama administration to pursue destabilizing and probably futile unilateral sanctions, or risk the wrath of the pro-Israel/security hardline/knee-jerk Republican bloc with inconclusive, moderate noodling on the issue.

And I don't even need to trot out my personal hobby horse--the theory that Iran sanctions was a precondition for Israel's entry into the non-proliferation regime and the success of the Obama administration's NPT Revcon-centric global security strategy--to observe that moderation by the U.S. would embarrass it in front of its European allies.

China Matters' favorite arms control wonk, Jeffrey Lewis, also went on record with his dismay with the announced deal:

The downside of not insisting is that the deal — which does nothing to constrain Iran’s program — creates a false sense that the problem is Iran’s break-out capability. In the Reuters story, Western officials claimed “Iran was trying to give the impression that it was the fuel deal which was at the center of problems with the West, rather than its nuclear ambitions as a whole.” Yeah, no kidding. As regular readers know, I have long argued that the problem is not Iran’s enrichment at Natanz, not even to 20 percent. The problem is Iran’s history of clandestine enrichment. Iran wants to change the narrative to focus on the West’s objections to its arguably legitimate activities. Why we keep helping them do that is beyond me.

My personal feeling is that the precondition to stopping Iran's clandestine enrichment is a) engagement and b) dealing with the Israel problem c) building a genuine security consensus both inside and outside of Iran on the issue.

If the U.S. had treated the TRR swap as a trust-building transaction instead of an opportunity to demand the incapacitation of part of Iran's nuclear program, and if the Israel double standard didn't exist, Turkey probably wouldn't have been so eager to defy the United States and broker the deal.

But whatever.

With this convergence of enlightened expert opinion, political necessity, and geopolitical calculation, the Obama administration might be quite ruthless in trying to derail the deal.

In addition to griping about the additional LEU in Iran, the U.S. could insist on an enrichment freeze. Or France--whose job is to actually fabricate the plates--could state that it couldn't bring itself to cooperate unless all the LEU went to Turkey.

The West can certainly scupper the deal--at the cost of humiliating and angering Brazil and Turkey. But can it garner Chinese support for sanctions--and acquiescence to whatever skullduggery it comes up to rescue them?

4 comments:

Helena Cobban said...

I think the big elephant in the room is the fact that the US desperately needs Turkish goodwill right now in a wide range of areas around the world. The only Muslim member of NATO, for heaven's sakes! If the Obamaites gratuitously disrespect Erdogan, they're shooting themselves in the foot.

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