Opinion: Push is on for UN sanctions on Iran

NEW YORK — The surprise Turkish-Brazilian diplomatic coup this week, which resulted in Iran agreeing to transfer a quantity of its uranium abroad for enrichment, may or may not help solve the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program. But it does indicate that nations of increasing influence whose traditions and history place them far outside George W. Bush’s black-and-white world of “evil” don’t intend stand aside as another nuclear nonproliferation crisis slides toward armed conflict.

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,” has been one of the explanations Iran has offered for the unusual amount of uranium enrichment it has engaged in.

Few believe this explanation, of course. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the U.S. view clear Tuesday before the Senate by announcing an agreement with the five permanent members of the Security Council on a new round of sanctions. The draft is now being circulated to the full Security Council.

Nor does the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) take Iran at its word any longer. The IAEA has repeatedly uncovered evidence of secret facilities and undeclared efforts that look to most reasonable eyes like the byproduct of a weaponization program. 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. 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 is significantly looser in terms than the deal cut last October and subsequently abrogated by Iran. Also, it only transfers 52 percent of Iran’s declared uranium abroad, leaving the other 48 percent to be enriched “for research purposes” to 20 percent purity. 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.

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 still want Turkey to enter the European Union someday. But for political and economic reasons, they have made a point to reach out to their neighbors in the Middle East and Central Asia, too.

Turkey’s robust economy has powered this diplomatic drive, and 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 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.

Brazil, too, is on excellent terms with Washington. But President 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.

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 finalized 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 indispensable, but no longer the undisputed only game in town.