Monday, November 19, 2007

Winking Between Iran and the US

An editorial sympathetic with the US view of the nuclear enrichment conflict with Iran in the New York Times.

One European policy maker and friend of the United States says the Iranians want a deal with the Americans. Whatever the lack of specific evidence for this, he says "some Americans" - presumably administration officials - see a possible way forward through working out a cap on Iran's enrichment of uranium. It would be followed by a strong international agreement to keep the mullahs from converting it to nuclear weapons.

... ... ....

The task for those who favor the direct approach is finding the patch of terrain where American-Iranian talks, perhaps called negotiations without conditions, can proceed. The United States needs a signal from Iran, something better than a wink, indicating that a real basis for a settlement exists.

One problem, not the biggest problem but one problem, with not talking with opponents is groupthink. There are certain issues a partisan side of a dispute prefers not to deal with and so they don't. Terms begin to expand to encompass the uncomfortable ideas.

A year or two ago, I would read about the Iranian refusal to "negotiate". Negotiate didn't have its usual meaning. It meant "suspend enrichment and negotiate", but the US community was not comfortable spelling out that requirement so it skipped it. And since everyone anyone in the community spoke to felt the same discomfort, it just never had to be spelled out.

Here I'm struck by "a real basis for a settlement". What does that mean? An Iranian willingness to forego enrichment? An Iranian willingness to cap its store of low enriched uranium below some amount? An Iranian willingness to cancel its support for Hamas and/or Hezbollah?

There exists a set of settlements Iran would accept and there exists a set of settlements that the US would accept. Exactly what are they? The US does not know for Iran and Iran does not know for the US. Besides talks, there is no way to find out. Without talks, Iran has to assume that "a real basis for settlement" refers to some conditions that aren't being spelled out because they are unreasonably drastic.

The idea that talks in themselves are a concession is the type of thing a very untalented leader such as George W. Bush would agree with. It is just purely stupid and counterproductive. The only thing it accomplishes is stalling, as if the US believes time is on its side. Both leading Democratic candidates for president have said their administrations would talk directly to Iran without preconditions, so the stupid Bush no-talks policy will not survive the administration in any event.

If talks had begun last year, Iran would have come to the table and probably accepted something less than it will accept now. In the long term there is not a huge advantage of delaying an agreement for one or two years, but the Iranians very likely expect that ten years from now they'll be slightly happier if they accept limits in 2008 or 2009 than they would have been if they had accepted limits in 2007.

Iran at this point expects to be nuclear capable in ten years. What exact thresholds are passed in 2007 or 2008 are not nearly as important.

But winking. I wonder if this editorial in itself, with a European telling the New York Times that some in the administration are willing to accept a cap on enrichment but with Iran retaining a domestic enrichment program, is the administration winking at Iran.

The Times would have contacted these some in the administration, if it is not in regular contact with them, and asked about the release of this information. This is the first I've seen about anyone in official Washington saying that they will accept an enrichment program of any kind in Iran.

We'll see what happens to this seed. Maybe we'll hear the sourcing of this acceptance of Iranian enrichment come closer and closer to the administration over the next few months. Maybe unnamed senators or military personnel will hint at it, or "some in the administration" will say it themselves, instead of European friends of the administration. At some point this idea may even be attached to a name.

The editorial continues that maybe the Europeans will sanction Iran and add more pressure on them to accept a deal. Of course he is skeptical that it will work. I may be more skeptical. The only way to pressure Iran to stop enriching is to remove Iran's deterrent of 150,000 hostages in Iraq. Until they are gone, I doubt Iran can be intimidated into suspending by any amount of sanctions.

I don't think oil-for-food level sanctions would dissuade Iran, and China is very clear that it will not go anywhere near that level.

"Already there are two sanctions resolutions, and to talk about more sanctions, we have to be careful," Wang said.

"Especially for China, and some others, we made it clear from the beginning that sanctions should not hurt the Iranian people's daily lives," he said.

Iran could be threatened into suspending enrichment if it could not punish the US as it now can, especially in Iraq. But the US leaving Iraq would more than compensate for a suspension of enrichment that Iran could be forced to undertake while to the degree possible retaining its on-paper right to resume enrichment later.

While I'm here, I've thought that just maybe the key to the Saudi proposal was that the Gulf states including Iran can have nuclear plants, ship the uranium in from Switzerland, but still have the spent fuel cooling where it could be reprocessed. No strict return conditions like the Russians have.

Iran expects a reprocessing capability anyway on the long run, and is not trading the uranium enrichment it has now to get it. The Saudi foreign service establishment is as untalented as the US establishment right now. But they may have thought they were being clever.

Unless there is going to be a pull-out from Iraq, Iran is going to win, for lack of a better way to put it, the enrichment conflict. Iran is going to, before Bush leaves office, have a decent store of uranium and the ability to produce more. At some point it will have enough that it feels ready to get the sanctions lifted. Ten years from now nobody in Iran will care if the sanctions were lifted in 2008 or 2010.

The US may be beginning to send small signals that it understands this reality.

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