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.


Lysander said...

We are seeing hints of Iran's strategy. Ahmadinejad's request to purchase 20% enriched uranium is a double whammy I think. either the U.S. agrees, thereby breaching its own sanctions and possibly opening the flood gates for othet]rs to do so. Or, if the U.S. refuses, Iran has the perfect excuse to go ahead and enrich on its own.

Previously, an Iranian parliamentarian hinted that Iran could withdraw from the NPT entirely.

Now the west is in a pickle. It will not get real sanctions because Russia and China are unlikely to allow it. But the U.S. and Europe have talked up sanctions so much that they have to pass some kind of sanctions for as a fig leaf.

That fig leaf may be all the excuse Iran needs.

That said, finding themselves loosing the chess game, the U.S./Israel may simply knock the board over and attack Iran.

Unlikely, but the costs of loosing the chess game may be so high that they try it. You can't assume they will always act rationally.

Lysander said...

Arnold, what are the chances Iran will do a full breakout? Meaning multiple active warheads attached to ballistic missiles ready to fire at a moment's notice.

In that hypothetical, what are the advantages/dangers for Iran?

Arnold Evans said...

Right now Iran is ready for an attack. Iran would force the US out of Iraq and leave it dangling in Afghanistan and throw some missiles at Israel just out of principle.

The main targets of attack, just me guessing, would be US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, then oil installations in the gulf, then Israel.

Overall, Iran would come out refocused, like after the Iran-Iraq war, while the US will come out demoralized and wonder what exactly its interest ever was in the region, like the USSR after Afghanistan.

I don't think Iran has any fear of war.

I don't think there is any benefit to actually making a weapon after it is well known that Iran could make one in an emergency.

In fact once it is known that Iran could make a weapon, the US isn't going to put Iran into that position, and there actually never be that kind of emergency.

The deterrent of nuclear capability is very similar to Iran's current deterrent that it could kill a lot of US soldiers in neighboring states. The main difference is that the deterrent in the neighbors can go away at any time while a nuclear capability is permanent.

I don't see any reason Iran would go further than letting the IAEA know it has 15 or so tons of LEU and knows how to get it to 20% which means it could get it to 99%.

I think this entire crisis reaches a new equilibrium after Iran's stockpile as been brought to LEU and waits there for the foreseeable future.