Sunday, November 08, 2009

The two faces of US Iran policy - and can the fuel export deal be salvaged?

The United States speaks with two voices about its policy on Iran's nuclear program, one voice is represented by John Kerry in a June interview with the Financial Times:
Certainly [the line should be for Iran] not to be a quote nuclear weapon state. Now some people can argue about when you are a nuclear weapons state. Capability versus, different definitions of that, just leave that there for a minute.

The key here is that, first of all the Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous, on its face, because Iran is a signatory to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty and whether they are inside or outside their obligations, to ask them to give up something that was within their rights within the treaty assuming they were up to their obligations is a non-starter. It was bombastic diplomacy. It was wasted energy. It sort of hardened the lines, if you will (inaudible).

Because it seemed so unreasonable to people. They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose. But they don’t have a right, obviously, to be outside of the other restraints of the IAEA and of the non-proliferation agreement. And so the key here was to really open a different kind of dialogue with them about where you draw the line.
The second view, widely at variance with the first, is expressed by Hillary Clinton after Iran's elections, but also is consistent with George Bush and Condoleeza Rice's policies on Iran's nuclear program:
Our hope is--that's why we're engaged in the president's policy of engagement toward Iran--is that Iran will understand why it is in their interest to go along with the consensus of the international community, which very clearly says you have rights and responsibilities. You have a right to pursue the peaceful use of civil nuclear power. You do not have a right to obtain a nuclear weapon. You do not have the right to have the full enrichment and reprocessing cycle under your control. But there's a lot that we can do with Iran if Iran accepts what is the international consensus.
Clinton's construction there is so bizarre in so many ways that we have to look at it before moving on.

The first thing is that her parallel use of "obtain a weapon" along with "have the full enrichment cycle under your control" suggests that she believes, and is even here asserting that the two are the same thing. There is a big difference between having a weapon and having an enrichment cycle. This is exactly what I thought Kerry meant when he called the Bush position ridiculous on its face.

But it goes further. Why would Iran not have the right to enrichment and reprocessing cycle under its control? Where could the "under its control" language possibly come from? What would a non-proliferation agreement look like that said signatories do not have the right to enrichment under their own control? Maybe signatories can have enrichment, but they can't control it. Of course the NPT does not say this. But how crazy would any agreement have to be for Clinton's statement to be based on an agreement?

And the answer to that question is the most bizarre element of Clinton's position. Clinton is really saying that as Secretary of State of the United States, she may say because of the Security Council resolutions and the US veto power in the Security Council, she gets to just invent arbitrary restrictions with absolutely no basis in the language of any document but that are still binding on Iran. No sovereign nation would tolerate that if it had any alternative at all. No Iranian government could remain in power if it was inclined to submit to this type of demand.

An important thing to notice is that this was an early and expanded example of the administration's "rights and responsibilities" formulation. When Obama speaks of "rights and responsibilities" after that (as in his counter-productive recent speech on the anniversary of the hostage taking), it is a reasonable interpretation that Obama is using a shorthand to reference the lunatic position fully expressed by Hillary Clinton on July 26.

So anyway, we have two points of view. One that Iran cannot be reasonably denied the right to enrich uranium, that I'll call the Kerry view for short, and the other that Iran must (and more importantly "can") be prevented from having enrichment under its control. I call that the Clinton view.

First. The Kerry view is right. Iran has enrichment under its control now. Iran has far more spare capacity to increase its enrichment than it has ever had - thousands of centrifuges operational but not processing uranium - and could nearly immediately bring them on line given a political decision. Iran has not made that political decision because there has not been an increase in sanctions. The West and Iran have been more or less at an equilibrium the United States can continue to expand its implementation of current sanctions and Iran can relatively slowly increase its enrichment capacity, but neither side is racing or making abrupt changes since at least mid 2008.


Sanctions would break that equilibrium and cause Iran to reach its enrichment goals faster. War, even if started by Israel, would be very painful for the United States (Iran officially does not see Israel as separate from the United States, and while Iran's capability to harm Israel is limited, its capability to harm the US is vast.) And in the end, war would not prevent Iran from building a nuclear capacity anyway, but would make Iran more determined to do so. What this means is that the Clinton view is just not attached to reality. There is no way to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapons capability. Fortunately the part of the Clinton view that holds that a nuclear weapons capability is the same thing as a nuclear weapon is also just as crazy.

So we have two views of policy - both directly contradictory, one that also contradicts reality. It is easy to believe that the view that contradicts reality is not the truly held view, it is presented for domestic consumption or to satisfy some internal or external constituency. It is reasonable to think that the people who actually make decisions make them on the basis of the Kerry view.

Countering that, the US public foreign policy community seems to be dominated by the Clinton view. Exponents of the Kerry view include Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, Kerry himself and sometimes Roger Cohen. Every other commentator on Iran policy who claims to have access to the Obama administration seems to put forward the Clinton view. A key element of the Clinton view is that Iran is desperate for a deal with the US because of the loss of legitimacy it took due to the "fraudulent elections".

(And they always describe them as "fraudulent elections", they never any more even attempt an argument that the elections were fraudulent. The elections were not fraudulent, most of my posts in June and July were about this issue, but in light of the September 2009 poll that over 80% of Iranians think the election was fair, and also the fact that over three months later, there still is no tangible evidence of fraud that has surfaced, it really is time for them to give that up.)

The fact of the matter is that as long as the Clinton view dominates the administration thinking on Iran policy, there will be no deal for Iran to export its uranium before getting its fuel rods. The Clinton view of the deal is that now that the Iranians are weak, we can trick them into exporting their uranium, and after the uranium is out, we'll tell them they'll never get it back unless they suspend enrichment - at which point Iran may buckle.

The Kerry view of the deal is that because we cannot prevent Iran from enriching uranium, but we've put our reputation on the line by making that a requirement, if Iran exports its uranium, for compensation, that will give us a way to present Iran's continuing enrichment - at significant but possibly negotiated levels - as a victory.

The Clinton view of the deal cannot be salvaged. Iran now will not proceed without assurances that any uranium export is not part of a ruse aimed at increasing leverage to force Iran to cease enrichment. When an unnamed European diplomat said that negotiations with Iran were "like playing chess with monkeys, you get them to checkmate and they swallow the king", he was expousing a Clinton view of the negotiations, where somehow the Iranians had been gotten to checkmate. As an aside, French public statements presenting the Clinton view have been very unhelpful up to now. Just a guess, just by the hostility I've felt from France against this deal, is that the unnamed European diplomat was from France.

The Kerry view may be salvageable. ElBaradei seems to have an idea that Turkey can be used to store Iranian uranium until the fuel is ready. The key is not that Turkey is somehow more trustworthy or independent of US pressure than Russia. If Russia can be pressured on Bushehr and the S-300s, Turkey can be pressured on Iranian uranium. The key is that Turkey can provide an excuse for the deal to move forward. But there has to be an assurance, not necessarily public, that the US is following the Kerry view on Iran's nuclear program.

For example, if the US commits to Russia and China that negotiations in 2010 can acceptably proceed with 36 cascades during talks toward a long-term arrangement that will include substantial Iranian capacity for enrichment possibly that independent capacity can be put on hold once an international consortium comes on line.

If the US is going to remain holding the Clinton view, then to make a deal, Iran will have to get its processed uranium up front. The delivery of the processed uranium cannot be used as leverage to pressure Iran to cease enrichment. The Iranians are not monkeys who would have ever fallen for that. But if fuel rods are built while arrangements are made to ship Iranian uranium to Turkey, an up-front swap can be made using Turkey as a face-saving excuse.

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