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.

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