Huffpost WorldPost
Robert Naiman Headshot

U.S. Media Censors U.S. Support of Iran Fuel Swap

Posted: Updated:

Sao Paulo - If you get your information from major U.S. media, and you follow U.S. foreign policy, then you know that last week Iran, Brazil, and Turkey signed an agreement for Iran to ship about half of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, in exchange for subsequent Western supply of higher-enriched uranium to fuel Iran's medical research reactor - fuel Iran needs in order to treat Iranian medical patients, fuel to which Iran is entitled as a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

If you were paying close attention, you might know that the deal is quite similar to one proposed a few months ago by the United States. An initial AP story on the Washington Post's website last Monday - which I cited at the time - said the agreement was "nearly identical" to the deal the U.S. was pressing for, although by the end of the day the AP article on the Post's website had been revised to downgrade this comparison to "mirrors." [The original AP story is still visible here.] U.S. officials have dismissed the deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey, even though the deal is "nearly identical" to the one proposed by the U.S. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, U.S. officials are "thoroughly irritated" with Turkey for its role in mediating the agreement.

But if you get your information from major U.S. media, here's something that you almost certainly don't know: Brazil and Turkey say that before they reached the deal, they understood that they had the backing of the Obama Administration for their efforts. The available evidence suggests that Brazil and Turkey had good reason to believe that they had U.S. support, and that the Obama Administration has taken a 180 degree turn in its position in the last few weeks, and is now trying to cover its tracks, with the active collaboration of major U.S. media.

Reuters reports from Brasilia - in an article you won't find on the web sites of the New York Times or the Washington Post:

Brazil argues Washington and other Western powers had prodded Brazil to try to revive the U.N. fuel swap deal proposed last October.

"We were encouraged directly or indirectly ... to implement the October proposal without any leeway and that's what we did," said Amorim.

In a letter to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva two weeks ago, U.S. president Barack Obama said an Iranian uranium shipment abroad would generate confidence.

"From our point of view, a decision by Iran to send 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium abroad, would generate confidence and reduce regional tensions by cutting Iran's stockpile," Obama said, according to excerpts from the letter translated into Portuguese and seen by Reuters.

I haven't seen any reference to this letter from President Obama to President Lula in the U.S. press - have you? But in Brazil, this letter from Obama to Lula was front-page news on Saturday morning - I saw it on the front-page of O Estado de S. Paulo, above the fold. [Update: on May 24, the New York Times carried an article that contained a glancing reference to the letter from Obama to Lula that diminished its significance; I compare the New York Times reference to the Reuters report below, after the video.]

Note that the Reuters story, dated May 22, says Obama sent this letter two weeks ago. The deal was announced Monday, May 17. So, about a week before the deal was announced, Obama told Lula that from the U.S. point of view a decision by Iran to send 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium abroad would generate confidence and reduce regional tensions. Note furthermore that Obama's words - according to Reuters, this is a direct quote from Obama's letter - actually specify an exact amount of transfer that would "generate confidence": 1,200 kilograms, exactly what was agreed a week later. So the U.S. officials and media stenographers (like Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post - "Iran creates illusion of progress in nuclear negotiations") saying a 1,200 kilogram transfer would have been great in October but would be worthless now are directly contradicting what President Obama himself wrote to President Lula one week before the deal was announced. But if course you wouldn't know about that direct contradiction from the U.S. media, because in the U.S. media, the letter from Obama to Lula apparently doesn't exist.

Morever, Brazil says that before the deal, no-one raised the issue of Iran's 20% enrichment as an obstacle:

"It wasn't on the agenda. Nobody told us, 'Hey if you don't stop 20 percent enrichment, forget the deal'," said [Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso] Amorim.

So, if Brazil is telling the truth - and there is no evidence that they are not - then this means that President Obama's letter to Lula did not raise the 20% objection, and the excerpt provided by Reuters suggests that it didn't.

So far, I've seen one clear reference in U.S. media to claims by Brazil and Turkey that they had the Obama Administration's backing in pursuing negotiations: not in a news article, but in an International Herald Tribune column by Roger Cohen reprinted by the New York Times, "America Moves the Goalposts."

Cohen wrote:

No wonder Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, is angry. I believe him when he says Obama and U.S. officials encouraged Turkey earlier this year to revive the deal: "What they wanted us to do was give the confidence to Iran to do the swap. We have done our duty."

Cohen's explanation for the Obama Administration's stunning flip-flop? Domestic politics:

I believed Obama was ready to think anew on Iran. It seems not. Presidents must lead on major foreign policy initiatives, not be bullied by domestic political considerations, in this case incandescent Iran ire on the Hill in an election year.

Last year, the Administration concluded that Iran wasn't ready to negotiate with the U.S. because of Iranian domestic politics. Now, it seems, the United States isn't ready to deal because the Obama Administration is afraid of Congress.

It's a shame we don't have a leader in the White House right now who is ready to lead on this issue. If only we had elected this guy:

UPDATE: On May 24, the New York Times - in an article titled "Iran Deal Seen as Spot on Brazilian Leader's Legacy"- I wonder which side of this dispute the New York Times' news pages are on? - gave a glancing reference to the letter, which appears calculated to obscure its significance:

Brazilian officials have called the negative response by American officials hypocritical. An adviser to Mr. da Silva said Monday that in the days leading up to Mr. da Silva's trip to Iran, President Obama sent a letter to the Brazilian leader outlining "various points that were very similar to what ended up in the agreement."

Compare the New York Times account to the Reuters account. In the Reuters account, the existence of the letter from Obama to Lula is not the claim of an unnamed adviser to Lula, but an objective fact. And in the Reuters account, the letter does not merely outline "various points that were very similar to what ended up in the agreement," the letter explicitly endorsed the specific goal of gettting Iran to export 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium - an amount subsequently denounced by critics of the agreement in the U.S. media as insufficient when it appeared in the agreement.

Moreover, this New York Times reporter - unless he is suffering from dementia - is perfectly aware that Obama asked Lula in November to press Iran to accept the fuel deal, having reported it at the time:

President Obama sent a letter on Sunday to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil reiterating the American position on Iran's nuclear program, a day before Iran's president made his
first state visit to Brazil, an aide to Mr. da Silva said Tuesday.

Mr. Obama did not explicitly criticize Mr. da Silva for hosting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, implying instead that he hoped Mr. da Silva would use the occasion to express support for the international effort to forge a compromise on Iran's nuclear ambitions, according to two American officials.

In the three-page letter, Mr. Obama restated his support for a proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency that would try to steer Iran into developing nuclear energy for peaceful, civilian purposes. The proposed accord calls for Iran to export most of its enriched uranium for additional processing into a form that could be used in a medical reactor in Tehran.

Iran has so far declined to accept the proposal.
[...]
Mr. Obama has discussed Iran with Mr. da Silva before, expressing hopes at a meeting of the Group of 20 in April that Mr. da Silva could engage Mr. Ahmadinejad in a dialogue on the nuclear issue, according to American and Brazilian government officials.

UPDATE: as of this morning's [May 28] Washington Post, the headline of these my piece from Tuesday (this piece) is no longer current: Glenn Kessler has a piece in this morning's Washington Post, giving the Administration's defense, that the April 20 letter was "out of date"[!] Obama's full letter is published here.