Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Another look at "nuclear weapons capacity"

So I guess it is clear now, the post election turmoil in Iran has resulted in a hardening of the US position on Iranian enrichment of uranium. What's going on is that Iran is not in a position to test a weapon in the very short term even if it withdraws from the NPT. US strategists calculate that possibly in a decade Iran, if it continues building its capacity, will be able to pull out of the NPT and even if the US bombs known facilities, Iran will either be able to construct new facilities or will plausibly have running facilities pre-built to build a weapon despite US intervention.

That leaves the US with a question: how are we going to spend the time between now and when Iran reaches a state where no US action could prevent it from building a weapon if it chose. Iran is not there yet. We can spend that time before reaching there lowering the temperature, and possibly building connections that will give the US leverage to dissuade Iran - or we can spend that time in a state of hostilities, in hopes that at some point Iran will find US pressure unbearable and buckle.

The post election conflict has convinced the United States to give hostility a few more years, with the understanding that as an unstoppable weapons capacity becomes more imminent, the US will be free to change strategies later. Essentially the presumption that time is not on the US' side has been changed. The US expects Iran's position to be weaker two years from now than it is today, and is willing to wait on any rapprochement in hopes that it can get better terms, even including a disavowal of domestic uranium enrichment or even a resumption of the Shah's peace with Israel later rather than accepting Iran as it is today.

This is all as background to look at Hillary Clinton's speech today in which she claims Iran does not have a right to what she describes as a nuclear weapons capacity.

Direct talks provide the best vehicle for presenting and explaining that choice. That is why we offered Iran’s leaders an unmistakable opportunity: Iran does not have a right to nuclear military capacity, and we’re determined to prevent that. But it does have a right to civil nuclear power if it reestablishes the confidence of the international community that it will use its programs exclusively for peaceful purposes.

This is a substantial retreat from John Kerry's interview of June 10, before the election.

The key here is that, first of all the Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous, on its face, because Iran is a signatory to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty and whether they are inside or outside their obligations, to ask them to give up something that was within their rights within the treaty assuming they were up to their obligations is a non-starter. It was bombastic diplomacy. It was wasted energy. It sort of hardened the lines, if you will (inaudible).

Because it seemed so unreasonable to people. They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose. But they don’t have a right, obviously, to be outside of the other restraints of the IAEA and of the non-proliferation agreement. And so the key here was to really open a different kind of dialogue with them about where you draw the line.

The "capacity" language Clinton uses, without the type of express admission that Iran has the right to enrich uranium that Kerry gives translates to a resumption of the previous US position (which has been Israel's consistent position) that uranium enrichment itself is makes up a weapons capacity and that therefore is outside of Iran's rights.

As one more demonstration that the NPT is silent about "capacity", let's look at a statement by Japan's Ichiro Ozawa

It would be so easy for us to produce nuclear warheads. We have plutonium at nuclear power plants in Japan, enough to make several thousand such warheads.

A true statement, and a statement that is not inconsistent with Japan's NPT obligation, as long as it remains in the treaty, "not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."

Japan clearly has a military nuclear capacity. Having this capacity is clearly consistent with upholding its NPT obligations. The US position that Iran has different NPT obligations from Japan is, as it always has been, and as Kerry admitted it was, contrary to Clinton's speech, "ridiculous".

So the United States has decided to give one more shot to getting Iran to give up its right to enrich uranium. Of course, Iran is not going to buckle the way US planners now seem to think it might. In the meantime, increased hostility with Iran and decreased cooperation are moving Iran into closer alignment with US rivals and weakening pro-US factions inside of Iran. The process is not completely irreversible, but the US strategic situation in that region will suffer to a greater or lesser extent for a long time because of this decision.

1 comment:

Lysander said...

The post election turmoil has left the sharks with the smell of fresh blood. Whether this is wishful thinking remains to be seen. Where Iran will be in 2 years time is anyone's guess. But here are some trends.

1) Oil, which had dropped to 35$/barrel seems to be trending back up. At 70$, Iran likely can withstand any sanction. At 100$ it can even prosper.

2) Afghanistan seems to be circling the drain. It is unlikely the Taliban will be brought to heel in 2 years time.

3) The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will approach completion.

4) Russian-U.S. relations are not getting the Obama boost one might have expected.

5) China very loudly backed the Iran government after the elections. A sign that the other major powers can't tolerate an Iran flipped to the U.S.

All these things favor Iran.

OTOH, The risk of military attack seems less remote than before. Many will argue that Iran's government is weak and that a strike will be the signal for popular uprising. That isn't true but it doesn't mean it wont be believed.

Then there is the truly unexpected. Mubarak's death, a new Israel-Lebanon conflict, another 9/11 style attack.

On the whole, though, Iran may well be much stronger in 2 years time, forcing the U.S. to make even more concessions than now.