ASPIRATIONS FOR NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveils a sample of Iran's third-generation centrifuge for uranium enrichment during a ceremony to mark the National Nuclear Day in Tehran on April 9 (XINHUA/AFP)
On May 17, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Brazil signed a joint declaration, in which Iran agreed to ship 1,200 kg of its 3.5-percent enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for 120 kg of 20-percent uranium fuel.
Against the backdrop of Iran's refusal last year of a similar proposal put forward by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to swap nuclear fuel via a third country, the agreement represents a step forward with more flexibility being shown on the part of Iran.
Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the League of Arab States, praised the declaration as a positive step toward dispelling Western fears over Iran's nuclear program.
Though the agreement was hailed as a major diplomatic breakthrough by Moussa, what will happen in the future is unclear due to a number of factors.
First, the implementation of the agreement faces some major technical difficulties. Turkey is supposed to play a key role during the fuel swap. But, as a non-nuclear country, Turkey possesses neither the technology nor the facilities to process or store the nuclear materials in question.
Second, Iranian nuclear enrichment would continue. Iran has made clear that it did not intend to suspend domestic enrichment of uranium to 20-percent purity even under the new arrangement. This has caused concern to countries that still maintain long-standing suspicion of Iran's nuclear activities. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Iran's decision to continue its 20-percent uranium enrichment is a "direct violation" of UN Security Council resolutions.
Third, despite progress made on the signing of the tripartite nuclear fuel swap deal, negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue will be likely to reach an impasse following the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution imposing broader and stricter sanctions against Iran.
The tripartite agreement was viewed by many as a last-ditch effort to stave off the resolution containing further sanction measures against Iran. Yet, the Security Council passed Resolution 1929 on June 9 by a vote of 12 in favor. Brazil and Turkey voted against the resolution, while Lebanon abstained. The vote underlined the fact that members of the Security Council hold different views on the new sanctions.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had said earlier Iran would halt cooperation with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany if new sanctions were adopted.
Shortly after the adoption of the resolution, the six countries issued a joint statement calling for "an early negotiated solution" to the Iranian nuclear issue. The resolution "keeps the door open for continued engagement" between the six countries and Iran.
It is highly questionable Iran will continue to honor the fuel swap agreement under the new resolution. So, we all need to think twice: Will the resolution bring Iran back to the negotiation table, or nullify all previous diplomatic efforts and turn it away from the search for a diplomatic solution?
The main hindrance
The Iranian nuclear issue has been on the table of the UN Security Council and has preoccupied the international community for years. Past experience such as the handling of "Iraqi weapons of mass destruction" issue shows, sanctions serve little purpose in the solution of issues of this kind. Military actions would only make matters worse.
Without a change of mindset, a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue will be as elusive as a mirage.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, "Lack of confidence is the main hindrance to efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue."
U.S. distrust of Iran is deep-rooted. Iran's nuclear program started as early as the 1950s, with the help of the United States. During those years, Iran was an ally of the United States and the nuclear program was, of course, no problem at all.
Now, the situation has changed drastically. Ever since the eruption of the Islamic Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in the late 1970s, relations between the two countries have been different. The United States harbors more animosity than any other country in the world toward Iran and has labeled Iran as part of the "axis of evil" and a "rogue state."
Though Iran has repeatedly declared its nuclear activities are for peaceful and civilian purposes, the United States is hardly convinced. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "Given Iran's repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran's nuclear program, the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns."
As for Iran, it is equally difficult for it to trust the United States, a "hostile country" that does not care to hide its pragmatism and multiple standards on almost any issue one can list. For instance, there are dozens of countries around the world that possess nuclear capabilities and are conducting various kinds of nuclear activities. Some of them have already crossed the nuclear threshold, while others are standing at the doorstep. Nonetheless, few of them attract as much suspicion and pressure from the United States as Iran does.
Moreover, whatever the steps taken by Iran, either forward or backward, toward the solution of its nuclear issue, they would invariably entail the same skepticism from the United States—followed by more demands, more pressure and more sanctions.
It appears the amelioration of bilateral relations and restoration of mutual confidence between the United States and Iran could go a long way to create favorable conditions for a solution of the Iranian nuclear issue. The United States, as the stronger power of the two, should and could take the initiative.
Of course, the issues involved are not purely bilateral relations between the United States and Iran. What is at stake is the validity of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)—that is, the fight against nuclear proliferation and the right of states to peaceful use of nuclear energy. Iran is obligated to cooperate fully with the IAEA and fulfill its obligations under the NPT and relevant UN Security Council resolutions to allay the international community's concerns. The final solution lies in the conviction of the world that Iran's nuclear programs are indeed for peaceful and civilian purposes.
The author is a guest research fellow with the Center for United Nations and International Organization Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai