In a deal reached with Brazil and Turkey, Iran says it has agreed to send much of its uranium stockpile to Turkey for reprocessing. Opinion is divided over whether it is an important breakthrough or a ploy by Tehran to avoid new U.N. sanctions.
Iran says it is committed to sending 1,200 kilograms of low-grade uranium abroad for reprocessing, in exchange for nuclear fuel. The agreement seeks to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, which critics say could be used to build an atomic weapon.
Turkey and Brazil, non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have been working to resolve the crisis, and the leaders of both countries were at the signing ceremony in Tehran.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the deal as a breakthrough.
He says he thanks Iran for the decision to ship uranium to Turkey. Mr. Erdogan said, the step taken by Iran is "an opportunity," and Turkey and Brazil will do what they have to do, based on the confidence that Iran has in the two countries.
Mr. Erdogan used the occasion to take a swipe at Israel by saying the Middle East should be free of nuclear weapons. Israel is believed to be the only country in the region that possesses nuclear weapons.
Observers say Mr. Erdogan's comment will play well with the Iranian leadership. Turkey's Islamic-rooted government has been trying to improve relations with its Iranian neighbor and Prime Minister Erdogan describes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a friend.
Iran has become an increasingly important Turkish trading partner, in particular in the energy sector.
Turkish Foreign Office Adviser on Iran Gokhan Cetinsayar says Turkey is ideally placed to negotiate with the Iranians. "There are good relations with Iran, there are good relations with the United States. I think Turkey is, in that sense, Turkey is in a very unique position," he said.
But doubts about the deal are being raised, along with the accusation Tehran could be using Ankara in an attempt to avoid new sanctions.
Critics have pointed out Iran has not committed itself to sending all its uranium abroad for reprocessing, which means it could develop weapons-grade uranium. Tehran's agreement also comes after the French foreign minister claimed important progress had been made in talks at the U.N. Security Council on fresh economic sanctions against Iran.
Political columnist Semih Idiz of the Turkish daily "Milliyet" says Turkish diplomatic efforts may not be so welcome by some of its Western allies. Turkey is a candidate to join the European Union and is a NATO member.
Bilgi University Political Scientist Soli Ozel says, in a diplomatic showdown with Iran, Ankara runs the risk of isolating itself from its allies. "Not only we defy our partners, we are extraordinarily reluctant to work with them or to be on the same page as them. If a sanctions regime is ever proposed at the U.N. Security Council [then] Turkey will present itself as not part of the Western alliance, as a busybody go between, between Tehran and the West, of which it's presumably a part of," he said.
Mr. Erdogan has been strongly opposed to new sanctions, arguing they are ineffective. And following the signing of the deal with Iran, he says there is now no need for them.
But observers say Tehran's new agreement, on its own, is unlikely to end efforts by Europeans and Washington for new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran - and that means, in the coming weeks Mr. Erdogan could well have to choose between his allies in the West and Iran to the East.