ISTANBUL, Turkey — The United States missed an opportunity to ease concerns about Iran's nuclear program nearly two years ago when it rejected a carefully negotiated deal that would have allowed Western powers to provide Iran uranium for its nuclear reactors, interviews and new research suggest.
The deal, known as the Tehran declaration, had been put together by the presidents of Brazil and Turkey, whose diplomats devoted enormous energies persuading power brokers in the Iranian government to accept it.
But the U.S. and other powers rejected it because they feared Iran had agreed to its terms only to undercut a U.N. Security Council resolution that imposed new sanctions on the government in Tehran.
The rejection of the Tehran declaration takes on new relevancy as the United States and five other major powers sit down with Iran here Saturday in hopes of reviving negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
No one expects a major advance, with the best outcome, diplomats say, an agreement that lays out an agenda for extensive negotiations and improves the atmosphere with the help of "confidence-building" measures by both sides.
One such measure might be an interim "freeze for a freeze," in which Iran would halt uranium enrichment if the United States and the European Union suspend Europe's ban on purchases of Iranian oil, due to start in July.
The alternative to near-term progress is a collision course that might start with an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities but could well drag the U.S. and Gulf oil-producing states into war against a well-armed nation of 77 million. Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as a mortal threat. President Barack Obama has refused to rule out the use of military force, although he has committed the United States to find a diplomatic resolution.
A Turkish official familiar with the details of the negotiations and the deal told McClatchy in an interview this week that the situation didn't need to reach its current impasse.
"We believe that the Tehran declaration was a missed opportunity," the official said. "Iran signed a document that is perhaps the first substantive breakthrough in negotiations in the last 10 years." The official asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
In the nearly two years since the deal's rejection, Iran has sped up its enrichment of nuclear material, expanding its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to 5,450 kilograms from 2,000 and has produced 100 kilograms of mid-enriched uranium. Weapons require highly enriched uranium with a purity of 90 percent. It's also pressed forward with construction of an underground facility at Fordow outside Qom and has begun enrichment there.
Turkey maintains that if the U.S. and the other countries in the negotiations — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — had endorsed the Tehran deal, Iran today conceivably would have a smaller stockpile and a smaller independent capacity to enrich fuel. That also would have lessened pressure on Israel, the official said.
"Israel wouldn't feel this imminent threat ... and in the run-up to the U.S. elections, there would have been more time, more breathing space, less stress and duress in the administration's concern to approach this issue," the official said.
The deal had something for both sides: It would have removed a large part of the low enriched uranium from Iran, but at the same time it would have acknowledged that under international law, Iran had the right to enrich uranium. Most important, it would have been a confidence-building measure that would allow the two sides to build trust and negotiate a more complete agreement.
But the United States and other powers rejected the Tehran declaration of May 17, 2010, as inadequate, and one day later voted in the U.N. Security Council for another round of sanctions against Iran. Turks are still smarting over the rebuff.
U.S. officials are still skeptical, saying that Tehran backed off after agreeing to a similar accord in October 2009.
"It was an Iranian attempt to undermine the upcoming U.N. Security Council resolution vote" that authorized more sanctions, said a Western official who spoke on condition he not be identified more precisely. He said only the threat of tighter sanctions made Iran willing to take the deal.
The Turkish official disputed this analysis.
"Knowing the inside story and how those negotiations took place, we know for a fact it wasn't the imminent next round of sanctions that brought Iran to that point," the official said.
The real reason Iran signed on was because diplomats from Turkey and Brazil had spent enormous effort securing agreement for the deal from the half-dozen or more power centers in Tehran that can block a deal, Turkish officials said.
The Turkish official's view is backed up by new scholarship on the 2010 Tehran declaration.
In a new book, Trita Parsi, a leading expert on Iran and former public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writes that Washington "miscalculated the diplomatic skills of two up-and-coming states — Brazil and Turkey."
In "A Single Roll of the Dice," Parsi quotes an unnamed senior Obama administration official as saying, "We could not take yes for an answer."
"What could have been viewed as a diplomatic breakthrough — with Iran blinking first and succumbing to American demands — was instead treated as an effort to sabotage the new and higher objective of imposing sanctions," Parsi wrote.
Both Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva met President Barack Obama in mid-April that year, and their governments were in frequent touch with Washington as the negotiations continued. Both leaders visited Tehran to clinch the deal.
Parsi credited Obama with making a sincere effort to engage Iran. But he said that by the time the Tehran declaration was announced, Obama's room for maneuver and his political will had disappeared, largely because of lobbying by Israel and pressures from Congress.
In late February, the International Crisis Group, a think tank that enjoys high respect among major governments, added its own praise of Turkey's approach to Iran in a paper titled: "The Risks of War and the Lessons of Turkey."
"The parties (to the talks) would be well-inspired to take a page out of Turkey's playbook," it said in the report summary. It said that current international policy of ever-tighter economic sanctions "has almost no chance of producing an Iranian climb-down anytime soon." Far from being a substitute to war, "it could end up being a conduit to it," the group said.
And what would Turkey do? As host to Saturday's talks, but not a participant, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davitoglu will not make formal proposals but will be on hand to facilitate discussions. Turkish leaders already have publicly criticized two directions they think will be counterproductive — the use of military force against Iran and the further ratcheting up of sanctions.
Instead, citing public statements by Iranian officials, and their own past experience, Turkish officials say they hope that Iran will propose a moratorium on enrichment as a confidence-building measure. This would not cost Iran dearly, because it already has enough 20 percent enriched uranium to fuel the Tehran research reactor for five years, and enough low enriched uranium to produce needed nuclear isotopes for medical purposes.
"This is a step Iran can take with zero cost to Iran," the Turkish official told McClatchy. In response, the major powers in the talks should not demand the shuttering of Iran's new underground facility at Fordow or demand full access to the Parchim military complex, where suspected nuclear weapons work was conducted, but to create an atmosphere where Iran will agree to hold technical talks on a visit to Parchim.
In return, Turkey has publicly called on the major powers to produce a "parallel actions package," to give incentives to Iran to join in future negotiations. Russia drafted such a package, but others in the negotiating group did not accept the proposals, and it is still unclear what will be offered here.
The one thing certain about the talks is that all the participants will be sitting at a single round table. At the last inconclusive set of talks, held in Istanbul in January 2011, the table was oblong, and Iran, seated at the end, was isolated and unhappy, Turkish officials said.
MORE FROM MCCATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.