Thursday, November 19, 2009

A pretty good Q&A on Iran's nuclear program by BBC

I'm late to write about this BBC summary, in question-and-answer format, about the October 2009 deal in which Iran was to trade some of its low enriched uranium for fuel for a medical reactor. It is a pretty good summary, clearly not written from my point of view, but far less in line with a Mossad point of view than we are used to seeing in Western press.

If I could change the article, I would add more focus on what the reader should expect in the future, and the measures each side has at its disposal to ensure that it prevails in this conflict. That taste may well be a result of my perception of the strength of Iran's position now in practical terms, which these questions do not address as well as they address each side's theory.

Anyway, the original questions are left in bold. Several questions do not strike me as needing anything added to the BBC response and are left out entirely.

Iran is now considering an offer to have much of its enriched uranium converted into fuel abroad.

What is the significance of this offer?

The BBC points out that if Iran accepted this deal, there would be a period during which Iran has less than roughly a ton of LEU in its domestic possession, but at Iran's current rate of enrichment, that period would end at some point over the year. The deals the West intends to offer Iran would have to involve Iran's domestic LEU stock freezing while still below the one ton level that could be used to build a weapon in theory for it to be valuable to the West's negotiating position to reach such a situation.

One way Iran's domestic stock could freeze would be for Iran to suspend enrichment. Iran has refused all suggestions, requests or demands that it suspend enrichment since early 2006. Another could be that the West might have offered to implement some "internationalization" of Iran's effort that could see Iran's domestic enrichment diverted to a fuel bank. Hints that discussions of a scenario of this type were under discussion include that Ahmadinejad began speaking of such an arrangement publicly and discussions El Baradei held with Tehran were leaked in a hostile fashion by some party that opposes such an arrangement.

It is admitted that only an outline of a deal that is more detailed has been released to the public. The details which are under discussion are what separate an agreement from a situation where each side would prefer leaving the table. If the proposed details involve an Iranian suspension of enrichment, then it is safe to predict Iran will reject the deal. If the details are such that Iran would retain enrichment and a nuclear capacity, Iran may accept such a deal, though that would mean the US and West have retreated from the position they took under the previous administration and from the position articulated by Clinton and Obama recently.

What is known about the second enrichment plant?

The BBC's reporting of the Fardo facility is accurate for what it is. The acknowledgment of a second enrichment plant that could potentially be stocked with enrichment capacity does not change the situation in any important way. The West has assumed that if Iran's enrichment facilities were bombed, Iran would reconstruct them quickly and there is a chance Iran would go as far as to build a weapon under that circumstance. The Fardo facility, or one better hidden, would be one of Iran's potential means for doing what everyone basically expects Iran to do if attacked.

Why is Iran refusing to obey the Security Council resolutions?

The Security Council resolutions would have the effect of preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear capability and, if Iran followed them, would effectively give the US a veto over every aspect of its nuclear program. Iran refuses to either give the US a veto over its nuclear program for reasons of sovereignty and refuses to give up a nuclear capability for strategic reasons.

Why has the Security Council ordered Iran to stop enrichment?

For a question of motivation, the BBC misses entirely why the West does not want Iran to have a nuclear capability. The reason is that Israel believes having a monopoly of nuclear capability in its region is an important element of its strategic position. This question, will Israel's monopoly be broken, is really the core of the dispute between the West and Iran. I've discussed why Israel opposes the prospect of another country gaining a nuclear capability at length elsewhere.

What precisely does the Security Council and the IAEA want Iran to do?

The NPT and safeguards agreement that Iran ratified spell out what is to happen if safeguarded material is discovered that had not been disclosed. Essentially under the agreements Iran ratified, the IAEA is to expands its inspections until it can verify that no material (uranium, plutonium or thorium, i.e. material that could be the "nuclear" part of a nuclear weapon) has been diverted to a military program.

In 2003, Iran began implementing, on a voluntary basis because they were unratified, the Additional Protocols, which give the IAEA a mandate to make a more thorough inspection and to search for elements that are not related to fissile material but to inspect a wide swathe of a country's military establishment for evidence of a nuclear weapons program.

The IAEA had spelled out a number of steps, beyond the NPT and safeguards requirements, that it requested Iran take on a "voluntary and non-legally binding" basis to meet the mandate the IAEA would have if Iran had ratified the Additional Protocols, and until that mandate could be met, to voluntarily refrain from the use or acquisition of technologies that could give Iran an military nuclear capability.

The Security Council resolutions take these explicitly voluntary and non-legally binding steps the IAEA requested Iran take, and make them mandatory. These steps are well beyond those required by the NPT and safeguards agreement Iran ratified. They include answering questions beyond the scope of Iran's ratified agreements, suspending enrichment and actually ratifying a the Additional Protocol, which is a separate treaty that countries are able to voluntary ratify in addition to the NPT.

President Obama offered an "extended hand" to Iran. What happened to that?

While John Kerry, likely speaking with the knowledge of the Obama administration, has called the Bush position that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium "ridiculous on its face", Obama has not publicly moved away from the previous administration's position. In his public position on Iran's nuclear program, Obama is identical to Bush. Bush also had unofficial discussions with the Iranians. In practical terms, there has not been a difference in US Iran policy under Obama from US policy under Bush.

What new sanctions are possible?

I take the very unusual position that I do not expect to see any new sanctions pressed against Iran because of Iran's position that new sanctions cause it to accelerate its program. I consider the calls for sanctions to be a performance that ignores the underlying reality that sanctions hurt those who would slow Iran's attainment of a military nuclear capability more than it hurt proponents of Iran's attaining the capability. Bush did not get, or make any attempt to get, any new sanctions by his last year in office. Iran is enriching at approximately the same rate it enriched during Bush's last year and the sanction situation has not changed. I do not expect the West to break this equilibrium, despite increasingly shrill statements from some inside and outside of the Obama administration.

Incentives are being offered to Iran. What are these?

The West has a strange idea of what an incentive is. The incentives offered are of the form "first you stop enriching, then we'll talk about what we can offer if you make other policy changes". I originally thought this was some weird idea Condoleeza Rice and George Bush came up with, but see Hillary Clinton and Obama making the same "offer". An offer for talks is not an offer at all. Iran can talk for free. Iran could offer to stop funding Hezbollah right now and the US would come to the table, just as it would have under Bush, suspension or no suspension.

Behind the scenes, the US is presenting Iran with options under which Iran could continue to enrich but to a limited degree and with a uniquely restrictive inspection regime. If a deal is reached that both sides find acceptable, it will be made public. Until then, we just see the public offer which is "ridiculous on its face" as well as an insult to the intelligence of the Iranian side. But this public offer is not very important for understanding the true situation.

Doesn't Israel have a nuclear bomb?

At some point, this topic should probably get its own blog post. The BBC's answer is that Israel has not signed the NPT. The West's demands on Iran go far beyond Iran's NPT requirement. The Security Council resolutions demand Iran to ratify a new treaty, the Additional Protocols.

Iran's justifiable contention that there is a double-standard is not weakened by the fact that Israel has not signed the NPT. The Security Council has found Iran's failure to ratify the Additional Protocols to be a threat to peace and security, but did not find Israel bombing civilian targets in Lebanon and Gaza to be so. Does not find Israel's current policy of restricting the import of food to Gaza's civilian population for political reasons - a war crime - to be a threat to peace.

The Security Council would be just as justified in demanding Israel relinquish its sovereign right to choose which treaties it ratifies and ratify the NPT as it does to demand Iran ratify the Additional Protocols.

The BBC's careful stepping around the Additional Protocols issue in its answer to an earlier question suggests that it is aware of and prefers not to address this issue.

But it is almost a cliche that European news sources are better balanced on Middle East matters than US news sources. That holds here as Iran's position was explained more fairly than is customary in the West. That does not mean its readers would get an unbiased view of the issues, but this is less craven in its elevation of Israel's issues than most US new sources are when attempting the same thing.

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