Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Anything going on outside of Iran?

I'm going to try to get 5 posts in a row, after this one, that do not mention Iran at all. Iran has taken the role as by far the most effective opposition to US/Israeli hegemony not only right now, but of this generation. The dispute in the Middle East today is the dispute between Iran and the US and Israel. The dispute is over the Palestinians, but those in the West Bank are indirectly ruled by the Americans and those in Gaza are largely, though not fully boxed in directly by the Egyptians and indirectly by the Americans.

The Palestinians, sadly and due to huge expenditures of resources by the US and Israel, are not the most important direct agents in the campaign for the recognition of their rights.

The Saudi and Egyptian leaders are still solidly in the pro-US/Israel camp but have not seemed to be moving independently in any interesting way.

Iran has had a dramatic last few months, but even though it is not widely understood, Iran has reached a steady state. Iran will discuss fueling its medical reactor and will be in somewhat broad talks with the US over its nuclear program and it will not suspend enrichment.

So we'll see what we can come up with outside of Iran to write about.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ephraim Sneh wrongly predicts sanctions or war this year

"If no crippling sanctions are introduced by Christmas, Israel will strike"

George Friedman's prediction of either sanctions harsh enough to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear program or war "in the near future" was close to absurd.

Now former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh claims that either crippling sanctions will be imposed on Iran or Israel will strike by Christmas this year. That prediction is so ridiculous that it brings into question his mental health.

I've gone over the reasons the US is not going to either attack Iran or impose unagreed sanctions on Iran. Iran has a lot of leverage in Iraq and Afghanistan that it would use to retaliate either in the case of war, and a military strike means war, or sanctions that actually put Iran's economy, people or leadership into distress.

It may occur that there may be tacitly agreed-upon sanctions, where in order to placate US constituents who want to see some sanctions on Iran, a deal is reached where the sanctions are set to a level the Iranians consider reasonable while Iran increases its enrichment rate by an amount the US considers reasonable. Agreed-upon sanctions such as this are unlikely but not impossible like "crippling" sanctions.

I have not recently discussed why Israel will not attack Iran on its own. The answer is that it cannot. Of course there is the issue of flight over US-controlled airspace, but more importantly Israel is a supplicant in its relationship with the US. Any Israeli policy that would predictably and drastically harm US interests, regardless of flight-paths, is off of the table just because Israel cannot survive as a Jewish state even over the medium term, even for a decade or so, without large outlays of material, financial and diplomatic support from the US. An attack on Iran that the US predicts would be seriously harmful would put needed US support for Israel in jeopardy.

US voters would definitely choose Obama over Israel if the two were to come into conflict - and this is before the consequences of the attack become visible. As US casualty rates go up in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel could expect a severe punishment. Severe enough that Israel may not after that be viable as a Jewish state in the Middle East.

Iran has already said, if it was not already obvious, that an Israeli attack would be interpreted by the Iranians as a US attack.

[MSNBC Interviewer Ann Curry]: If Israel strikes Iran and the U.S. says it did not approve that strike, would you believe that Israel acted alone?

[Mahmoud Ahmadinejad]: First of all, the Zionist regime is much smaller to entertain ideas of ever attacking Iran. Today, it's very well known, it's very clear that this illegal, murderous regime, which is killing children and women and innocents. This regime is being influenced by parties which are, in Europe and the U.S., in political corners, if you will. As far as we're concerned, the Zionist regime is not alone. And it’s continued life and – all the murderous activity it engages in has something to do and is connected with – the arms industrial complex in Europe and the U.S.
Such an attack would have all the drawbacks of a US attack from Iraq and the Persian Gulf, but Israel doesn't even have enough planes to inflict substantial damage. The idea of it is just nonsensical.

So Sneh is bluffing. He doesn't usually give a date as specific as he has given here. On December 26, he's clearly hoping that his prediction has been forgotten so he can claim Iran has to stop enriching by March and someone somewhere may take him seriously.

Friday, October 09, 2009

George Friedman from Stratfor wrongly predicts war or sanctions

George Friedman believes that over the "very near future", there are two options for the issue of Iran's nuclear issue.
There are two possible outcomes here. The first is that having revealed the extent of the Iranian program and having revealed the Russian role in a credible British newspaper, the Israelis and the Americans (whose own leak in The New York Times underlined the growing urgency of action) are hoping that the Iranians realize that they are facing war and that the Russians realize that they are facing a massive crisis in their relations with the West. If that happens, then the Russians might pull their scientists and engineers, join in the sanctions and force the Iranians to abandon their program.

The second possibility is that the Russians will continue to play the spoiler on sanctions and will insist that they are not giving support to the Iranians. This leaves the military option, which would mean broad-based action, primarily by the United States, against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Any military operation would involve keeping the Strait of Hormuz clear, meaning naval action, and we now know that there are more nuclear facilities than previously discussed. So while the war for the most part would be confined to the air and sea, it would be extensive nonetheless.

He does not give a date. I think a reasonable assumption is that he means one of his options will take place before the end of 2010. Given that assumption, his prediction is almost certainly wrong.

I find the leaks Friedman mentions, that some IAEA staffers have assessments of Iran's program more in line with Israel's than Baradei's and that Israel accuses Russia (and also China) of actively helping with Iran's missile program to be less impressive than Friedman does. Fundamentally, the only thing that has changed since Bush rejected an Israeli request to attack Iran in 2008 is that the US now has a president who was elected and has a mandate to reduce, rather than increase provocations between the US and the Muslim world.

There are two issues that Friedman misses along with a large segment of the US foreign policy community. The first is that sanctions so stringent that they will force Iran do abandon their nuclear program do not exist. Not even in theory. A developed latent military capacity for Iran - which Iran is now less than a decade away from - would represent freedom from threats of US, Israeli or Western military intervention in Iran. For Iran, as for any country where there are real and continuous threats against its sovereignty, this freedom is worth a decade of whatever sanctions the West could dish out. Iran would withstand sanctions as stringent as the Oil-for-Food sanctions imposed on Iraq without abandoning its nuclear program.

In reality, very stringent sanctions are never going to be applied because they begin an escalating spiral that leads to war. Iran would retaliate against "crippling sanctions", to use Hillary Clinton's term. This retaliation has the potential to become very painful to the US positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan especially, the US does not need an openly hostile neighboring state.

For domestic consumption, the US pretends Russia and China are blocking crippling sanctions. The US has military control over the Persian Gulf. The US can begin stopping ships to and from Iran today if it wants. It would be no more illegal than getting a Security Council resolution demanding that Iran ratify the Additional Protocols. Much less illegal than Obama's refusal to investigate the previous administration over charges of torture. Much, much less illegal than the US invasion of Iraq under a doctrine of preemptive war.

So yes, technically imposing a blockade against Iran would be illegal, but that's not the reason the US does not do it. If the US were to do it, it would claim to be following its own unique interpretation of the sanctions resolutions already passed. The US is becoming well-known for its unique interpretations of international law. The US does not impose the ultimate sanction, a blockade, not because it would be illegal but because Iran's response would render such an action counterproductive from the US point of view. No Security Council resolution can change that.

I guess that takes us to what Friedman describes as the second possibility - a US attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, or war. This is not a plausible option. The US military vetoed an attack on Iran during the end of the Bush administration. Nothing has changed since then, we've known that Iran is attempting to reach a latent nuclear capacity. The US was deterred by the threat of an Iranian response to any attack in 2008. Now in 2009 and easily through 2010, the US remains deterred for all of the same reasons.

When you hear a US or Western analyst say sanctions in the context of Iran, you can think of a very modest increase in sanctions over what is in place today that will be met with an increase in Iran's uranium production. Iran has also adopted a policy that once production increases, it never decreases, so if Iran is at 5000 centrifuges today and another round of slight sanctions is imposed prompting Iran to increase to 8000 centrifuges, negotiations from that point can aim at preventing Iran from going to 12000 centrifuges, but returning to 5000 will never be considered again.

Iran considers the sanctions that it has already endured as the price it paid for the permanent right to keep around 5000 centrifuges producing uranium. This stance, embodied in the "freeze for freeze" deal that was put into place in 2008, is the real reason, not China or Russia, that the US has not been willing to increase sanctions over the last year.

Humorously I sometimes read that Iran rejected such a deal. Then I guess Iran coincidentally stopped increasing the amount of active centrifuges at the same time the US coincidentally stopped its program of periodically increasing the UNSC sanctions, and this coincidence has held for over a year now. There are a lot of signs that discussions and agreements are being held and made behind the scenes between the US and Iran, and have been since before the 2007 NIE was released and anti-US violence committed by Shiite groups decreased in Iraq.

When you hear a Western analyst say stringent sanctions, you can think "war". Any sanctions that the regime actually considers threatening will provoke counter-responses at least in Iraq and Afghanistan. The final course of these escalating responses and counter-responses is unpredictable, but open fighting is more than a plausible outcome. US planners are actually understand this very well.

When you hear a Western analyst say war, you can think "bluff". The US has already admitted that it considered strikes and declined under Bush/Cheney. The US continues to claim attacks are on the table because they wrongly believe it increases their negotiating leverage. Attacks may return to the table after the US resolves the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we are several years from that. Until then, we all know there will not be an actual overt military attack on Iran by either US or Israeli forces.

In one way the US is in an position from which it is much more difficult to engage in war with Iran. The US foreign policy community seems to be newly willing to describe the dispute with Iran as one over Iran's capability to create a weapon instead of one over Iran building an actual weapon. There clearly would develop opposition to an attack should tangible preparations be made or should an attack happen which would elicit a response. That opposition would be better placed than it would have been in 2008 to charge that the parties that took the decision exaggerated the Iranian threat - as there is support for attacking Iran to prevent Iran from getting an actual nuclear weapon, but none for attacking Iran to prevent Iran from being able, theoretically in what Iran considers an emergency, to produce a weapon.

So instead of Friedman's two options, we'll see the continuation of the third option. The US is negotiating with Iran the degree of nuclear capability it will have. One idea on the table is limits to the amount of LEU in Iran, another is limits to Iran's pre-installed centrifuge capacity.

Thinking of the medium term, 5 or 10 years from now, Iran's first ton of low enriched uranium is of little consequence, so Iran is willing to make a gesture of giving it up while Iran currently has an entirely different and effective deterrent to US military action in the US vulnerability in the neighboring states. Offering to send that uranium overseas gives the US a way out from the corner it seemed to be painting itself into by committing to sanctions. It also allows Iran to restock on a supply of medical-use uranium that had been running and that would not have been replaced had Iran not had the leverage of its own active enrichment program.

Iran likely will not accept permanent or effectively permanent limits on its program of any sort. So there will be no deal that can only be altered with US permission, instead any deal will have to be set to expire with a provision for renegotiation in light of future facts or allow Iran to unilaterally pull out given some agreed upon notice.

I think a deal that accepts some degree of continuous nuclear capability for Iran and that can be extended indefinitely with mutual agreement is possible and actually likely to be arrived at in 2010. This is somewhat bad news for Israel, but there had been no better alternative. Sanctions or war with Iran would have led to consequences for the US that are unfavorable enough that the US would reconsider its entire relationship with Israel.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Juan Cole explains the Iranian nuclear situation

Juan Cole's explanation of the issues around Iran's nuclear program is close to exactly correct, but he does not do as good a job as he could at explaining exactly why Israel especially, and the US, France and the West in their roles as defenders of Israel or defenders of Zionism, are threatened by what Cole describes is Iranian nuclear latency.

If Iraq had gotten a Japan option, then over the months-long period that the US was amassing an invasion force in Kuwait in late 2002, early 2003, Hussein at that point would have produced a weapon.

What that means is that if the US believed Hussein could build a weapon, it would never have massed its troops for an invasion as that would have been a waste of time since they'd have to disband once Iraq announced or even hinted its nuclear weapon was complete.

(Despite a program of calculated deception, there was no doubt at all in the minds of US military planners that Hussein could not field a nuclear weapon.)

An Iranian nuclear latency or Japan option would render Iran invasion-proof. And take forcible regime change off the table permanently. It would also provide a lot of deterrence for any plan to even attack Iran from the air.

John Bolton went on Jon Stewart's daily show and said that if Serbia had been nuclear capable, the West would not have been able to get regime change. Bolton is right, but I wonder if he realizes how that sounds to Iranian planners.

The first Israeli nightmare is not that Iran will bomb Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but that once Iran knows it will not be invaded or even bombed, it will feel free to offer more support to the Palestinians and to pressure Egypt and other Arab countries to do the same.

The second Israeli nightmare is that once Egypt and Saudi Arabia see that Iran has achieved immunity to US bombings or invasion without making unpopular concessions to the project of Zionism, they will want the same deterrence. Once they get it, their domestically costly policies of cooperation with Israel will be less useful. These countries, whose cooperation Israel needs to remain viable as a Jewish state may follow the wishes of their people and become more hostile to Zionism.

(Contrary to reports of rivalry with Iran, Iran has publicly offered to share its nuclear technology with any Muslim state. Saudi or Egyptian nuclear latency threaten Israel and make those states less dependent on the US, which is good from Iran's point of view.)

Knowledgeable supporters of Zionism, such as France's Sarkozy, Israel's Netanyahu and many US political figures are lying, not mistaken but lying, when they declare the danger of Iran getting a nuclear weapon.

The threat of an Iranian bomb is more emotionally compelling than the threat of an Iranian "Japan option". An Iranian bomb is also illegal unless Iran leaves the NPT, while a Japan option is not.

But the true threat, and everybody knowledgeable knows it, is that Iran gets a Japan option.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Anti-climax: OK Iran, you can enrich uranium

I was taken aback by how suddenly the US has accepted that it will not be able to prevent Iran from enriching uranium.

It is interesting to look back on what signals were being sent and how they played out.

The first signal was John Kerry, speaking obviously with the knowledge and approval of the Obama administration, but deniably and in a way that could not be interpreted as a commitment.

After the election Hillary Clinton chimed in, stating supposedly committed US policy that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium domestically under its own control.

The Kerry line was forgotten and the Clinton line repeated continuously right until the post-meeting press conference where Kerry's line was put into an official offer that Iran accepts in principle.

This deal sets the terms for the negotiating period. The problem with a suspension as a pre-condition for negotiation is that if Iran accepted it 'temporarily', the US would be comfortable with negotiations never ending which would be a de-facto permanent US ban on Iranian enrichment.

Instead, during the negotiation period, sanctions will not increase while Iran's uranium production, at least in terms of productive centrifuge count, will not increase.

Possibly there has been an agreed principle that Iran's stock of LEU will remain under 2 tons for the entire negotiation. Possibly this was offered as a one-time gesture. We'll see, but possibly not until 2011.

Of course Iran will not now dismantle its nuclear program. Iran is nuclear weapons capable, the extent is now under negotiation and Iran has a modest Japan option starting now.

Iran is now set short term and only has to be sure it does not restrain its long term options. While Iran has a modest capability today, it cannot give the US a veto over its long term growth. Iran's next generation, if it chooses will have a much more robust Japan option.

So what was Clinton's job? If it was misdirection, she fooled me. I thought the US was committing to sanctions if Iran did not suspend.

If all of the sanction talk over the summer had been war talk, I would have realized immediately that it was bluster. Sanctions all along had been maybe less dramatically so but implausible for all the same reasons. I figured, wrongly, that the US isn't stupid enough to bomb but somehow stupid enough to increase sanctions. Wrong on me. I'll be more alert for theatrics on the part of the US going forward.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Iran should not suspend enrichment

If I was Iran, my realistic medium term goal would be to have 15 tons of low enriched uranium enriched to 3.5 percent. My aspirational goal would be to have the same amount of LEU enriched to 20 percent. We can roughly think of a ton of 3.5 LEU as enough to further enrich to one nuclear weapon in an emergency.

15 tons is the amount the nearly exhausts Iran's stock of natural uranium, meaning unless Iran imports or mines more yellowcake, when it reaches that point it will have no more uranium to enrich.

If Iran reaches 15 tons, then it will have enough that it could divert it to different places with a reasonable chance that a US bombing campaign would miss an enrichment location, so that Iran will have a reasonably bomb-proof nuclear capability.

These theoretical exercises are the whole game. Once Iran has a program that is reasonably bomb-proof in theory, the US will take that into account in its dealings with Iran so an actual bombing will never happen. It takes more steps, but Iran being theoretically nuclear capable also drastically reduces the advantage Israel gets from its nuclear monopoly - and makes an Israeli conventional defeat much more plausible in scenarios where no actual weapon is used.

But back to Iran, a reasonably bomb-proof nuclear capability, even in theory, without actually building a weapon, permanently makes Iran essentially immune to threats of a US attack. An Iranian nuclear capability will be a tremendous strategic advantage for Iran. Iran happens to be immune to US threats at this very moment because of the US positions in states bordering Iran, but a nuclear capability will make that immunity permanent and something Iranian planner can depend on. An Iranian nuclear capability would have tremendous value to Iranian planners.

Taking into account its current stock, at its last reported rate of about 85 kilograms a month, Iran needs 13 years to reach 15 tons of LEU.

After enriching all of its uranium, Iran will then be in a position to suspend enrichment and acquiesce to nearly every Western demand presented so far. That's the point where Iran would complete Bushehr, run a pipeline to India, China and Europe and in many economic fields catch up to where it would have been if it had capitulated earlier. But in this scenario, Iran gets all the economic benefits of accepting US demands while still benefiting from a huge strategic shift in its direction of by having a nuclear capability.

I'm reasonably sure that the US will be tied down in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, giving Iran substantial leverage - enough leverage to turn the region into a nightmare for US planners - for 5 years. I'm much less sure about 13 years.

If I was an Iranian planner, I'd be looking for an excuse to at least double Iran's enrichment capacity as soon as possible. Nearly a third of Iran's installed centrifuges right now are idle. This is a clear message that as a gesture Iran is holding to its late 2008 level of enrichment. My guess is that this gesture was traded for the West holding to the late 2008 level of sanctions. I don't think this is a good deal for Iran.

If Iran was offered that after undergoing economic restrictions comparable to Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union for 5 years, but after that it would have a full nuclear capability, I think Iran would take that. But the US cannot even dream of imposing sanctions on Iran that restrict Iran's economy as much as Cuba's has been restricted.

So threats of sanctions really are not that threatening. Not only that they would actually help Iran end a policy of gasoline subsidies that is popular but economically harmful - but even if sanctions have the effect Westerns wrongly hope they may have, they are worth it for the benefits Iran would get.

Iran is in a strange position today in which the status-quo is close to the worst plausible case scenario. Iran may not have a full nuclear capability by the time the US is in a position to attack it militarily and Iran is still enduring these annoying sanctions.

If the US breaks this impasse by imposing sanctions then from the perspective of 5 to 10 years from now, this is the best gift the US can give the Iranians. Fortunately, there are many indications that the US has cornered itself into committing to do just that.

One last thing I want to discuss is that in articles about the Iran's nuclear issue, US nuclear experts make statements such as Iran does not seem like it will accept "the types of compromises we're asking for", or even "very reasonable compromises". There seem to be some people in the US foreign policy community who are unwilling to spell out exactly what compromises they want Iran to make in exchange for exactly what benefits are on offer.

There has been this systematic problem of self-delusion on the part of the US foreign policy community for years. We all know what the US is asking of Iran - the cessation of its enrichment program. We all also know what the US is offering Iran - nothing ... except that the US will at that point be willing to discuss reducing its sanctions on Iran if Iran capitulates further by cooperating more with Israel.

Not exactly nothing. It looks like the US is willing to end its illegal embargo on aviation technology just for Iran giving up its nuclear capability. The US is also willing to go remove the sanctions that were applied specifically to Iran's nuclear program - but which are designed to harm Iran's economy somewhat more widely.

It's clear that this is a deal Iran is not willing to accept - for good reason, Iran is being asked to give up a lot in exchange for very little. But more interesting, the US foreign policy community seems unable to admit to themselves how much they are asking and how little they are offering.

It is very unlikely that a deal will be reached. The deal that seems to be in effect today, that Iran is holding its uranium production steady and no new sanctions are being introduces seems to be unraveling. If that deal falls apart, we'll see Iran reach its 15 tons of LEU much faster.

At some point reality itself will force the US to accept that Iran has, and will keep, a nuclear capability - just as China accepts that Japan has one. The later it happens, the more robust program Iran will have in place as a fact on the ground. Even without doubling its enriched uranium production, Iran will be in a stronger position this time next year than it is now.

Also a year from now, Iran will have a year's worth of additional information about how long the US will be held to Iraq and Afghanistan. It may well still be a reasonable expectation then, as it is now, that 5 years on the horizon the US will still be there.

Iran has no structural incentive to cooperate or reduce tensions with the US, except to the degree that it can get some sanctions so it can break the freeze for freeze and still minimize the impact of these sanctions. I guess that's what we'll see.