Friday, September 25, 2009

Wow. Iran had another enrichment plant

I guess we'll just add this to the table.

Of course Iran did not have to report the plant until six months before introducing uranium under its safeguards agreement.

The United States is going to demand access to the site and will not get it. Other than that, nothing changes with this new information.

We may well hear some concocted theory about why Iran has an NPT responsibility to report the plant earlier. That theory will go against the written terms of the NPT and safeguards agreements and will be of no importance on the ground.

The real issue is, as it has always been, the US' and Iran's options to manage an increase in pressure on Iran. Nothing changes with this information.

Let's say the US gets sanctions. What sanctions do is break the agreement that Iran freeze its number of productive centrifuges while the level of sanctions is frozen. Iran can certainly increase its productive capacity, if only by putting into production centrifuges that are already on line. It is possible that Iran could double its capacity, enriching enough uranium - only to 5% enriched, not to weapons grade - for almost a dozen uranium bombs before Obama ends his second term.

Another interesting development is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's suggestion that the US sell it 20% uranium.

This is really saying that after Iran is done getting its uranium to 5%, it will have a pretext, no matter how flimsy, for going further to 20%. After reaching 20%, I guess Iran will suspend enrichment and freeze its capability into place.

If the US gets sanctions, all of this happens more quickly. I'm not sure Iran is getting a good deal right now with its freeze at about 5,000 centrifuges in production.

Iran has the most leverage against the US that it has ever had, and more than it can expect to have indefinitely. The US will decrease its exposure in Iraq over the medium term and over the long term will remove its vulnerabilities in Afghanistan. But it has done neither yet.

Iran's best move at this point would be to get as much uranium enriched as possible while the US can most effectively be deterred - but Iran seems to have given its word and be honoring its word not to increase its number of productive centrifuges.

The US is willing to introduce sanctions. I'm not sure why. But once sanctions are introduced, the first Iranian response is to increase its number of centrifuges in production.

Second, if sanctions actually reach the point that Iran is being hurt, Iran has a lot more levers to hurt the US than Iraq did after the Kuwait war. Certainly the US will pay a price in Iraq and Afghanistan if an when Iran begins feeling squeezed.

At that point, there is a real danger of a spiral of hostilities. A spiral would be bad for Iran, but it would be bad for the world oil market and disastrous for the US positions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

In the end, at worst for Iran, it will trade whatever the US bombs - meaning as much of its nuclear program as the US can reach and whatever other targets the US attacks - for increased ascendancy as well as humiliating defeats for the US in Iran's border states.

Will these defeats alter the US' appetite for interfering in the Middle East? It's hard to predict that far in advance.

Iran's calculation is that any coming hostilities with the US will be far less threatening to the country than the Iran-Iraq war. Iran will survive, toughened, still with a military nuclear capability and still with a clear path to regional dominance.

US failure in Iraq has begun creating cracks in US prioritization of Israel's regional dominance and in the perceived legitimacy of the project of ensuring that Israel have a permanent Jewish majority despite the wishes of almost everyone in the region and the rights of the Palestinian refugees.

The US setbacks that result from any spiral of hostilities will be of much greater scale than the losses in Iraq. Iran can only expect that in the end its rivalry with Israel will be impacted in a way favorable to Iran by all of the events.

So are we headed towards sanctions, which are the first step down a road of increased confrontation? We can only guess. The US has to understand the ramifications. It is possible that there can be a controlled escalation - in which sanctions Iran knows about and commits in advance that it can unofficially live with are accompanied by an increase in Iranian uranium production that the US knows about and commits in advance that it can unofficially live with.

Does the US still have dreams of Iran giving up a military nuclear capability essentially for free? In exchange for talks that could lead to further concessions from Iran in exchange for more normalization with the US? If so, the US is drastically misreading Iran.

If the US is going into this uncontrolled, then the spiral probably is not going to be to the US', or Israel's liking. I doubt Obama is reckless enough to take that course, but time will tell.

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