Sunday, November 01, 2009

Fooled me once, but fundamentals are fundamentals

I tried, but there is almost nothing happening that I find interesting in the greater Middle East that is not Iran-related. I hope Pakistan holds together. Turkey may be leaving the US orbit, but the extent and irreversibility of any move are not clear yet. The Palestinians feel betrayed by Obama's reversal on settlements, but Abbas is dependent on the US and Israel and everyone knows it. Same for the rest of the pro-US Arabs. Hezbollah's hold on power in Lebanon remains a fact on the ground, but it looks like not all of March 13th's backers are willing to accept that. Things are pretty stable, and they are pretty stable in Iran also.

But I do find it notable that it looks as if the US is painting itself into a corner that if Iran does not ship its uranium out of the country, the US will be forced to initiate sanctions. In other words, it looks like it looked on September 30th, when the word was that if Iran did not agree to suspend enrichment sanctions would be imminent.

Sanctions had never been imminent. It came out that there had been behind-the-scenes talks all along. The corner it looked like the US had painted itself into, it walked right out of, by claiming that shipping uranium out justified further talks.

So here's the fundamental fact that we have to remember when it comes to sanctions. The United States does not want sanctions. Israel wants sanctions, the United States does not. Israel wants sanctions because sanctions increase the chance of a confrontation spiraling into a full war between the US and Iran. In this war, thousands of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will die. Israel considers that a small price to pay to ensure that Iran never has the capacity to build a weapon in theory.

The United States calculates differently. The direct impact of sanctions will be that Iran will accelerate its enrichment program. I'm pretty sure an agreement has been in place for the last year or so that Iran will not increase the amount of centrifuges producing uranium and the US will not increase sanctions. I'm also pretty sure Iran is ambivalent about this agreement. Iran won't break the agreement first because they see themselves as the good guys, but if the US breaks it, obviously that is a sign that God's plan cannot be denied.

The faster Iran gets its ten or so bombs worth of LEU enriched, the faster it can move to other things. Sanctions will cut at least two years off of that process because Iran can very quickly increase its production by 50% and double it not long after that. Iran has reason to want sanctions, just to enrich faster. The US has no reason to want sanctions and does not want sanctions.

It looks as if the US is painting itself into a corner. Obama said he had to see progress by the end of the year or sanctions would be next. Either a "breakthrough" will be orchestrated at the end of the year, or "negotiations" in the Security Council will begin then so that a "breakthrough" can be orchestrated between the US and Iran before sanctions can be agreed upon.

I perceive nearly no chance of new sanctions in 2010. If there are sanctions, Iran will benefit, but the US really does not want them.

But what happened with this deal? Two things were true by the middle of October that were not true on October 1. The first is that separatist forces killed high profile Iranian military commanders. The second is that France did everything in its power to embarrass the Iranians and thereby scuttle a deal. I'm sure both had impacts, and I think possibly either one alone would have prevented an agreement from being reached in 2009. I'm not sure if there is a relationship between the two and I'm not completely sure where both happening leaves us.

The attacks on the revolutionary guards commanders were done by suicide bomb, but they were not terrorist attacks by the normal definition. They were attacks on military personnel whose aim is to loosen the authority of Iran's central government on their region. While the US pushed through a strong anti-terrorist resolution in response, the US openly supports Iranian separatist movements. Which means that the US cannot credibly claim to even oppose this attack. This attack would have created enough anger in Iran's leadership to end any deal Iran was considering reaching with the US.

France just started acting crazy. France leaked negotiating notes that it would only agree to a deal if all of the uranium was exported from Iran at once before the end of the year. Iran never accepts publicly made ultimatums on its nuclear program. Every deadline is missed by at least a week. France just allowing its position to become public ensured that no uranium would ship in 2009. But further, if one report I saw is true, France claimed that it would only return the uranium if Iran made policy changes. That is enough to kill the deal forever.

I saw the deal initially as the US gaining a face-saving way to allow Iran to continue enriching and in exchange Iran gained a respite from public US pressure to stop enriching. This is a deal Iran would make. After the French even mentioned the possibility that the uranium could be held up the way Bushehr is being held up, the entire frame of the deal changed. Now Iran was giving the US leverage over its enrichment program for free. This is not a deal Iran would make.

One problem is that the Western foreign policy community has a very distorted view of Iran's decision-making process. Iran was not feeling pressure on September 30. The Qom revelation, even if somehow it was forced (how could it have been forced? Iran announced it first - and Washington admits that after learning of Iran's disclosure to the IAEA, it rushed to put together a statement in Pittsburgh before Iran's statement became public knowledge), but all the Qom revelation ever meant was that a site that has no uranium will be looked over by inspectors. Even if Iran should have reported it, so what? Iran is already under Security Council sanctions and Iran isn't afraid, at all, to say the least, of more Security Council sanctions.

So Iran was not feeling pressure from Qom. Western analysts keeps insisting that the elections have weakened Ahmadinejad's hold on power somehow. They even still refer to the elections, reflexively though without argument, as "fraudulent elections". 80% of Iranians disagree with that assessment. Ahmadinejad does not need a deal with the United States to be legitimate. Iran is not under pressure and it seems like some parts of the US foreign policy community believe Iran is under pressure.

Iran will make a gesture that over the long term is nearly meaningless to help the US save face. Giving away its first ton of LEU means that it will ultimately have, maybe, 10 tons instead of 11 when its domestic supply is exhausted. Iran will not give the US leverage that the US can use to try to force a suspension later. Mostly France's behavior, along with the general loss of trust and the anger caused by the separatist attack changed the perception of the transaction from a meaningless gesture into a capitulation to put new tools in the hands of the US. At that point the deal died.

So where we are now is that Iran will not send uranium out of the country until it is sure the fuel for its medical reactor will be sent. That means that if an order is placed today for the first plates, and it takes six months for Russia and either France, Argentina or someone else to create the fuel, then it will be possible for Iran to export uranium in April. The US and Iran are talking behind the scenes. I consider this a reasonably likely outcome. If the entire order can be completed by then, that can be the "breakthrough", that Iran sends all of its uranium out just as the US demanded, only a few months late.

Otherwise, there will be another breakthrough. I don't know what the US and Iran are negotiating behind the scenes. I just know that the corners the US pretends to paint itself into are just theater.


Anonymous said...

Arnold, yours is certainly a more reassuring picture than that provided by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi:

For what it's worth, I hope you're right.

I must say, though, that I agree with you on the domestic stature of Ahmadinejad; I do not believe Iran needs this deal the way the US portrays it.

I'm hopeful for that breakthrough you portend.


Anonymous said...

Hi Arnold,

I agree with most of what you say, but i don't think it's safe to approach US actions as if there is necessarily a method behind the Madness. The September revelations and talk of pressure and Iran wilting were just theatrics to sell the American public on talks. These talks were likely the culmination of significant back channel activity, yet they have been a failure for all intensive purposes. They were scuttled by the Europeans the Hawks, and that part wasn't a show. While Obama may yet find another way to dance out of this particular corner, he can't keep it up forever. Eventually he'll be forced to either take a stand or, more likely, throw the dialogue intiative under the bus, just as he did with Jeremiah Wright.


Arnold Evans said...

I feel like the most important thing about the Iranian program that is not widely understood is that Iran has a prepared response to sanctions - which is an acceleration of its enrichment program. Iran also has a prepared response to a military attack - which is mainly a sustained war against the US in Iraq and Afganistan and some other strikes against Israel and US positions in Gulf states.

Sanctions are not worth it. Iran will become nuclear capable faster with sanctions. Military strikes are not worth it. Iran will not only become nuclear capable faster after military strikes, but it will cause a disastrous and humiliating retreat by the US from its region.

I don't know why the US keeps saying they are, but sanctions and military strikes are not on the table as tools to deal with Iran's nuclear program.

Reading between the lines, I find consistent indications that the US understands its position. I saw an article in October where an unnamed source from the administration spoke about drawbacks of attempting sanctions. The drawbacks of an attack are becoming more widely reported in US media.

So my point is that there is no such thing as Obama running out of dancing room to get out of corners. It was theater for domestic, Israeli and European consumption before. It is theater now.

Obama may end up being totally humiliated by the Iranians if they do not end up making a gesture for him but keep enriching past all of these theatrical deadlines, but he still will not attack because the US would not tolerate a campaign season of losses in Iraq and Afghanistan even at 2007 levels, much less the substantially greater levels Iran would bring about if it makes a full effort.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the hopelessness of military action or sanctions. I hope you are right about the rest, but I don't think just because Obama can not attack or further sanction Iran does not mean a thaw in relations is imminent, as these two players have fundamentally different views of the region. The two sides can remain unreconciled indefinitely a la North Korea. The big difference here is that the US is actively sponsoring terrorist groups such as MKO and Jundullah inside Iran, and though Iran does have a lot of patience, this won't last forever. They may be tempted to respond in kind, and things could escalate in a fashion that nobody expects.

In any case this is a great blog, I'm fiding myself looking you up everytime anything significant goes down in the Middle East.