Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Iran freezes expansion of enrichment and increases IAEA monitoring

Its becoming more difficult to get a sense of the interaction between the US and Iran about Iran's nuclear program because so much is obviously going on behind the scenes.

Iran has around 7,000 centrifuges in Natanz, about 5,000 operational and 2,000 in preparation. This is the same configuration in place since May and there can be no explanation other than that Iran has decided not to put in line the centrifuges that are in place and ready for vacuum testing or to install new centrifuges. One possible explanation for Iran not putting new centrifuges in line is that the US does not know how many centrifuges Iran has in reserve, that could be diverted to a different undeclared enrichment facility if, for example, the US bombed Natanz. But not activating already declared centrifuges is clearly a voluntary gesture on Iran's part. Another gesture is that Iran has expanded IAEA access to Natanz and allowed inspections of Arak had been suspended when the IAEA board reported Iran to the security council.

Possibly there is an agreement coming into view that will preserve Iran's right to enrich uranium and will not harm Iran's long term aspiration for a status of nuclear weapons capability comparable to those of Japan, Brazil or the Netherlands.

Once again, I'll point out that Iran having a nuclear weapons capability like that of Japan or Brazil is completely legal under the NPT. Iran sees the UNSC resolutions demanding Iran cede its rights as invalid just as Israel would see a UNSC resolution demanding it sign and ratify the NPT as another resolution to be ignored. In fact, for the UNSC under the pretext of protecting international peace and security, to demand Iran ratify the additional protocols and stop enriching uranium while not demanding that Israel ratify the NPT, dismantle its actual nuclear weapons, and stop military operations against neighboring civilian populations is reasonably seen in Iran as clear hypocrisy that decreases the legitimacy of the security council more than it decreases the legitimacy of Iran's nuclear program.

Hossein Askari and Trita Parsi wrote an interesting article for the New York Times that gasoline sanctions may actually benefit Iran from Iran's perspective by giving an excuse for ending expensive subsidies on gasoline and increasing the incentives for conversion to natural gas-run automobiles.

Even assuming that a gasoline embargo would be effective, what would be its result? Consumption would decline by 40 percent and government revenues would go up, because no payment would be needed for gasoline imports.

If Tehran allowed the reduced supply of gasoline to be sold at a price that would equate demand to supply, the price would increase to a level that would eliminate the subsidy, meaning no subsidy for imported gasoline and no subsidy for domestically refined gasoline. The government would have more revenue to spend elsewhere. The sanctions would have done what Tehran has wanted to do for years and the government would not be held responsible!
Anyway, Iran maintains the option of putting more centrifuges into production and increasing the rate of enrichment. That it has not is an indication that contrary to reports, Iran believes progress is being made on resolving the nuclear issue in a way acceptable to Iran's leadership. I wish I understood better what form any progress is taking, but nothing is being published.


Lysander said...

It is indeed very difficult to guess.

Some things to consider;

1) Iran thinks long term. If the heat is too high right now with the constant threat of sanctions and talk of military action, Iran can back down and restart its progress at a more opportune moment. In the meantime, as you say, it can build and store centrifuges to be used later.

2) Iran may need to give Russia and China a talking point to use on their behalf. "Look, they've frozen expansion. If we sanction them, they will only restart."

3) The west sees internal instability in Iran. The cause of it doesn't matter. As long as its there, they feel they can pressure Iran through sanctions and a gasoline embargo, as they see it, may anger the populace enough to get them to the streets. Maybe it wont, but from their point of view, its worth a try. I don't see reconciliation happening now.

4) Where is the price of oil going? At 70$ per barrel Iran is very resistant to any sanction. At 100$ it is probably immune. Higher than that and it will be very difficult to stop oil majors from investing in Iran. Of course, at 40$ per barrel, Iran would be in a much worse position.

All in all, I see this as more of a stalling tactic and a backing down now to fight another day at a time of Iran's choosing. It is probably a wise strategy.

Arnold Evans said...

I also feel like it's related to the recent study "released under the Freedom of Information Act", that Iran is (permanently) 4 years away from having enough HEU for a weapon.

That is based on the assumption that Iran would not use its declared uranium for a weapon - an assumption whose only possible purpose or rationale is to ensure the result we got.

Now the theatrics of the US supposedly having been compelled to release the study by the FOIA is borderline insulting, but I feel like this is another example of behind the scenes agreements the US and Iran have been making since the end of Bush's term.

William deB. Mills said...

Your idea that the real diplomacy is going on quietly between Washington and Tehran is interesting. Does it then follow from your argument that Washington feels that it should publicly allow itself to be humiliated by Netanyahu, pretending to cave in to him, while in secret Obama is really ensuring that no attack on Iran will occur?

This, if I am not carrying the logic of your argument too far, implies more chess-playing ability on the part of both Washington and Tehran than I would have thought either capable of.

The idea merits further discussion. I'd love to say, find evidence, but by definition if we are hypothesizing secret deals, there won't be evidence...until it appears in the Italian press!

Lysander said...

I'm not convinced that there is a comprehensive discussion behind the scenes, although almost certainly there is low level talk about Iraq and Afghanistan. My guess is that Obama and most of the U.S. military would avoid war with Iran at almost any cost, and would like any help they can muster so long as they don't have to pay for it.

Within the U.S. there is probably a realist camp (Zbig Brzezinski, Howard Baker, Brent Scowcroft) that sees Iran as an important potential ally against Russia and China in the future. There is also a pro Israel camp that cannot countenance a Muslim nation that potentially would be stronger than Israel.

When it comes to an argument between the two, the latter camp almost always wins. My guess is that such an argument occurred in the last few months. And so whatever behind the scenes discussions that may have started probably got strangled in the cradle.

Of course both camps seek as much American power as possible, and so both would love to see Iran's government collapse and be replaced by an Iranian Mubarak. Better still, if Iran were to break up along ethnic lines, they would love that too.

But the realist camp is probably not optimistic about those prospects whereas the pro Israel camp can think of nothing else.

That is probably why U.S. policy is hard to gauge WRT Iran. I suspect a similar conflict is happening within Iran's leadership.

Arnold Evans said...

I'm really troubled by the lack of evidence, but I feel like Iran is cooperating too closely with the United States, especially in Iraq but also in Afghanistan to explain without Iran being repaid in some way.

Iran is not racing to enrich as much uranium as possible as quickly as possible.

Yes Iran has leverage in Iraq and Afghanistan to prevent a US attack on its installations, but this is not permanent and may well no longer be the case in 5 or 6 years. I expect Iran to have established the best possible position on the ground that it can before the US is able to leave.

The US is also keeping a presence in Iraq and Iran is not supporting any Iraqi actors who are calling for the removal of the US.

The US has at least slowed its drive to increase sanctions - which introduces a puzzle in that the US has committed to increase sanctions in September. This will break the "freeze for freeze" agreement that was spoken of publicly last winter and that by their actions, both sides have been observing since then.

If the process of introducing sanctions is not controlled, there is a real risk that it spirals into violence. If Iran feels pinched, it will certainly withdraw its cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan to a limited degree that will hurt the US.

If the US retaliates, we can see the beginning of escalating measures that end in military strikes and Iran supply material and volunteers to anti-US forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which risks ending as badly for the US as Vietnam.

I very much doubt there will be sanctions that are not coordinated and agreed upon between the US and Iran. With an understanding of how much Iran will increase its uranium production after the sanctions are introduced, and how the impact of the sanctions will be limited.

If there are new sanctions - which is something the US has committed to - and Iran does not increase its rate of uranium enrichment, then that will falsify my theory. That will demonstrate that Iran had not been holding back on enrichment voluntarily as a gesture to the US in exchange for the US holding back on sanctions.

The idea that the election has exposed divisions that can a) lead to Iranian submission on the nuclear issue, b) lead to the collapse of Iran's government or even more far-fetched c) lead to the dissolution of Iran as a nation strikes me as so far fetched and unrealistic that it is difficult for me to believe there is anyone paying attention to the situation who would even hope for any of them in any serious way.

But the US foreign policy community sees from a very different angle than I do, and they may well be struggling to base US strategy on the imminent weakening of Iran's anti-US governmental factions.

It seems to me there is a level of cooperation, or a level of actions Iran and the US are taking toward each other that is less hostile than I would expect based on their positions that I can't explain as infighting between rival factions, especially in the US between realists and Israel-firsters that Israel-firsters usually win.

Lysander said...

News is moving fast. Now the 5+1 have accepted Iran's offer to talk about topics of global concern even though they stated specifically enrichment is non-negotiable.

Is that is just a face saving stance by Iran and Russian intermediaries are hinting Iran is willing to compromise?

Or did the west finally come to the conclusion that they really have no options?

We can't be sure of course, but I;m inclined towards the latter.

1) The situation in Afghanistan is getting worse and NATO, like it or not, needs Iran's help.

2) It seemed that talking to Iran was a done deal before the elections. In the aftermath, the west may have entertained hope that Iran's government would collapse. That unrealistic hope is now dead.

Can't wait to read your thoughts on this, Arnold.