The 2010 Nuclear Swap Deal (Brazil, Turkey & Iran) – 5 Lessons, 4 Recommendations

Swap Deal Triumph

NGC is happy to share with you the speech it delivered during the USEK International Symposium on the Relations between the Middle East and South America.

Enjoy the reading and share your thoughts with us!

NGC Team

Your Excellencies,

Distinguished Colleagues,

Dear Friends,

Allow me to start by welcoming all of those who came a long way to join us and by congratulating the organizers for this important event, the University of Saint Esprit of Kaslik (USEK) and the RIMAAL.

This is truly a fantastic opportunity to have an in-depth discussion on the potential of a new relation between the Middle East and South America. We are, I believe, the pioneers of an emerging strategic alliance that will bring about many benefits for the peoples of both regions and beyond.

Let me focus today on the potentialities of a Latin American political mediation in the post-Arab spring Middle East. It is mainly a prospective exercise that will:
– Draw five lessons from the nuclear swap deal between Iran, on the one hand, and Brazil and Turkey on the other hand,
– Formulate four recommendations for future initiatives.

I. Five Lessons Learned from the Nuclear Swap Deal

Let us start by analyzing a real historical precedent: the nuclear swap deal between Brazil, Turkey and Iran. In the spring of 2010, Brazil and Turkey carried out a diplomatic initiative to broker the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) fuel swap with Iran, taking in a former US proposal of October 2009. Under the deal, Iran was to ship 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, in return for fuel for its research reactor.

This initiative was hailed by some observers as a powerful indicator of the empowerment and “autonomization” of emerging diplomacies from traditional decision centers and western powers.

This is not the place to discuss whether the initiative was almost a success or partly a failure and who’s to blame for what. Others have done it at length better than me. What matters here is to draw from this historical precedent some useful recommendations for potential future mediations in the region.

Turkey and Brazil had key assets to succeed in this daunting mission.

First, Brazil did not act as a free rider, but instead teamed up with Turkey. This collaborative precedent of a Latino country partnering with an influential local player is a very interesting model that should be kept in mind for future initiatives.

Second, both countries were rather well positioned to play a mediating role. Brazil, with its diplomatic tradition of cordiality, was not aligned with any of the players but instead kept an open channel for dialogue with all the parties while Turkey adopted with the AKP a pragmatic and beneficial “zero-problem” policy with its neighbors.

Finally, Brazil had a very strong political legitimacy and a sound technical expertise in the field of nuclear nonproliferation. The country could preach by example in many respects: it had voluntarily relinquished its secret military nuclear program in 1990 and was active globally for a nuclear-free world. As President Lula put it: « It is more difficult for those who have nuclear weapons to ask others not to develop them ».

Against all odds, the Turkish and Brazilian mediators succeeded and announced the swap deal in a spectacular press conference in Teheran on May 17, 2010. A few hours later, however, Washington announced an agreement among the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council (the “P5”) to adopt a new round of sanctions against Iran….

Now the question is: what went wrong? How can we explain the massive gap between the apparent triumph of diplomacy and the real intensions of the parties?

Some say, and they are probably somewhat right, that the US “could not take yes for an answer”. In our view however, the answer lies mainly in the evolution of the negotiation process itself.

First, the mediators, convinced that the deal had already been endorsed by the P5 + 1 , focused progressively on the sole parameters of a solution that would be acceptable by Iran. In doing so, they gradually left aside their role of mediator and intermediary between the key players and drifted away from the preoccupations of the P5+1.

Second, the political timing was not propitious. The idea of a new round of sanctions was already quite mature when Ankara and Brasilia launched their initiative.

Third, a deal could not be stroke against the will or without the final endorsement of the traditional decision centers, principally the P5. For the time being, the autonomy of an emerging diplomacy cannot be total if it aims at efficiency and enforcement.

So, to sum up the key lessons of the swap deal, we can say that there are a number of conditions that are needed but not sufficient to succeed:
1. The mediator must be accepted by all stakeholders and there should be a certain degree of confidence in its mediation based on three criteria: legitimacy, expertise and equidistance.

2. The issue of the timing is crucial. There should be a window of opportunity for the mediation initiative (international momentum, support of key players, favorable electoral agenda…).

3. The mediator should not act without a clear negotiation mandate. In case of doubts or ambiguity on the red lines of the parties, clarifications should be sought as a priority.

4. The broker should exert a permanent effort of go-between and liaison between the parties, especially when there is not direct channel of dialogue.

5. It is highly recommended to resort with great caution to announcements and public communication. The management of expectations is a key element for success.

Based on these five lessons, let us now try to extrapolate to potential future mediation efforts of a Latino player in a post Arab Spring Middle East.

II. Four Recommendations

1 – Acquire Knowledge & Understanding of Local Dynamics

It is no secret; the community of experts in Middle Eastern Studies is pretty narrow in South America. This represents a serious handicap in many respects:
– lack of support to political decision-making,
– lack of debate on the different foreign policy options,
– In the end, capture of the topic by a few members of the diaspora…

Any diplomatic move in the region by an outsider should be preceded by a serious in-depth research, analysis and fact-finding phase, building on the capacities of local Think tanks and academic networks.This is all the more needed in the current context where Arab springs took by surprise many recognized experts, leading to a reappraisal, a full aggiornamento of the whole field and related policies.

2 – Build an Intelligent Network

To prepare the ground for a diplomatic initiative, efforts must be put beforehand on building a diversified network of key connections, including with the new actors who emerged with the Arab revolutions.

The uprisings shook old orders and replaced familiar dynasties with new actors that no one really knows. New figures have emerged: the young liberal urban bloggers, governing Muslim Brother Ministers, woman groups militating for their rights, a younger generation of moderate Islamists questioning the elder’s authority etc….

Engaging these stakeholders beyond the basic intergovernmental channels (MPs and Ministries) could prove to be a key asset the day you need to explain an initiative, diffuse tensions, clear up a misunderstanding and gather support for the diplomatic efforts.

3 – Pick the Right Mediation

Playing a prominent role in solving a strategic crisis of the international system is any foreign minister’s dream. But risks of failure are proportionally high due to the radicalization of the positions of the parties, huge media pressure and lack of enthusiasm of those – often the elite of the diplomatic community – who have been trying for years to find a solution…

The alternative would be to pick a less strategic dispute for which the country has a certain expertise and legitimacy. We cannot decide for others what to do, but we can give a few illustrations:
– Brazil could play a positive role in the context of the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue on the improvement of camps living conditions, based on its successful “pacification policy” in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro
– Colombia could be associated to efforts in the field of DDR
– Chile and Argentina have a lot to share on the haunting issue of disappeared and detained citizens.

4 – Apply the Right Negotiation Method

There are basically two ways to negotiate: a flamboyant diplomacy with special envoys, ambitious public objectives and press conferences and a more low profile, even secret diplomacy. A case in point is the Norwegian negotiation secret efforts and gradualist approach that led to the Oslo agreements.

A new player in the region would be well advised to first confidentially test the waters with key stakeholders, and then start building a process away from the Medias. Public announcements and formal negotiation conferences should only come at the end of this first informal phase, after making sure that everyone is on board.


Latin American countries do have a potential to play a more active role in the region, in particular those who are not perceived as being too aligned on either the US or the “anti-imperialist” front. A partisan is hardly any mediator.

This potential is even greater than for other South-South formats for different significant reasons: a real tradition of mediation and peaceful settlement of disputes; the presence of Diasporas that could become, if properly engaged, real enablers; a generally positive perception of Arab and Islamic culture in Latin America, and last but not least, a common quest for popular sovereignty and democracy over foreign interference and dictatorships. An agile diplomacy, maximizing its assets, preparing the ground and applying the right method to the right dispute could definitely go a long way.

There is however one massive unknown factor: how will Latin American diplomacy (and public opinions… it matters in democracy) react and adapt to the emergence of Islamist governments in the region? It is too early to say, but one thing is certain, no serious mediation efforts will happen in the MENA region without engaging and better understanding these new actors.

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