This Commentary was originally published as an op-ed in the Huffington Post May 24, 2010.
Now that Iran today notified the International Atomic Energy Agency that it apparently plans to go forward with the trilateral agreement regarding its enriched uranium, there is a practical question which is being overlooked: Iran's leaders stated this past weekend that, while they support the agreement, they will scrap the deal if further UN sanctions are passed. So do the United States and some European states really believe there is more to gain from a sanctions regime than what could be the first step of many in coercing Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program?
Like it or not, Turkey and Brazil have succeeded where the five permanent members of the UN Security Council had failed, and some European states are starting to publicly recognize this reality. The deal struck with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva requires Iran to transfer about half of its enriched uranium to Turkish soil, and in turn, Tehran would be provided with enriched material to be used for medical isotopes. In this deal, the 5 plus 1 -- not to mention Israel -- moves closer to its ultimate goal of setting the clock back on Iran becoming a nuclear armed state.
It is hard to believe that further UN sanctions -- this round targeted at Iran's secretive and elusive Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps -- could possibly be more effective in addressing Iran's nuclear capability than the trilateral agreement. What Western states also do not understand is that President Ahmadinejad needs this deal to enhance his credibility at home with an increasingly restive society, which is now planning to stage more demonstrations on June 12 to draw attention again to the rigged presidential election last year. The trilateral agreement is being applauded by a cross section of Iranian political elites who have portrayed the deal as showing Ahmadinejad to be a great statesman on the world stage and Iran as a nation with which major powers engage as an equal partner.
Granted, the trilateral agreement falls far short on many counts. It in no way can prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It does not address the larger question of Iran's nuclear ambitions and it has multiple escape clauses, which leave room for Iran to withdraw or renege on its commitments, as it has so often done in the past. It also does not prevent Iran for continuing to enrich uranium at its current 20 percent. Yet, the international community should still welcome the deal as a small first step towards a diplomatic solution to more transparency and monitoring of Iran's nuclear program.
Apparently, Turkey believes this is a wise move for the West and the region, despite skepticism at home and abroad. In policy and academic circles in Turkey, the AKP's efforts to reach out to predominantly Muslim countries and sign strategic partnership deals to strengthen cooperation with them have raised concerns about whether EU-aspirant Turkey was turning East instead of West. The question of whether Turkey's foreign policy is driven by the current government's Islamic ideology or geopolitical necessities has become one of the most debated topics among Turkey experts. Skeptics believe Turkey's close relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran is proof that Islamic ideology is more important to the government than protecting its national interests.
But a close examination of the facts proves otherwise: Turkey has placed its reputation on the line in the negotiations; Turkey's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have said that if Iran did not do its part, Turkey would step aside, which is at least some evidence that Turkey's foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran is driven by its national interests. Turkey will not support Iran at all costs.
More importantly, Turkey does not want a nuclear Iran on its border for two reasons. First, a nuclear Iran would alter the balance of power in the region where Iran and Turkey compete for clout. Second, an Iran with nuclear weapons would destabilize an already existing fragile region, threatening Turkey's economic and political interests in the Middle East by provoking U.S. or Israeli military intervention. Such an intervention would jeopardize Turkey's 10 billion dollars worth of trade with Iran and threaten the fragile ethnic and sectarian balance of neighboring countries, such as the predominantly Kurdish regions in Northern Iraq. It would imperil Turkey's mediation efforts in the region.
Critics of the nuclear deal argue that Turkey can afford to have a "laid-back" approach to Iran's nuclear program because it is less threatened by Iran than the United States, which regards Iran as one of its biggest security concerns. Turkey has a more direct interest in what happens in Iran than the United States because of a simple fact that Turkey and Iran share a common border. They are both part of a conflict-prone region and peaceful resolution of conflicts is crucial to the economic and political interests of both parties. Iran currently exports 25 million cubic meters of natural gas to Turkey per day. The two countries are planning to triple the trade volume to $ 30 billion. Sanctions would affect Turkey's economy and its energy policies.
Any effort to dealing with Iran's nuclear capability will have to include realistic expectations. Expecting Iran to give up control of its full LEU capacity is not plausible, especially when the nuclear program is Iran's most important card and enjoys the support of at last part of the Iranian population. Any plan should include small steps of confidence building. Instead of threatening Iran and thus justifying its nuclear program, the United States and Europe should welcome initiatives which aim to establish a platform for engagement. This agreement could be a first step in this process. It will delay Iran's nuclear program 10 to eleven months, which can be used to take further action, such as encouraging Iran to sign and implement the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran seems to be cooperating for the first time in years. It is in the West's interest not to add this opportunity to all the missed chances of engagement that have occurred over the last 30 years.
Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.