Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A broad and detailed view of the current situation around Iran's nuclear program

Where we are now is Iran is preparing for a confrontation with the United States that it expects to win and in doing so humiliate the West, especially the United States.

The message Iran sent with its over-reaction to the IAEA report (the announcement that it plans to make 10 enrichment facilities, all underground) is that it is preparing to dash ahead in its nuclear program - not to build a weapon but to develop an unpreventable nuclear weapons capacity as soon as any new UN sanctions are passed or there is any significant change in the current sanctions structure. At the same time, Iran is leaving the US in a position that its credibility, as well as pressures from Israel, require it to change the current sanctions structure.

My best guess as to what happened earlier this year is as follows:

While the US has publicly retained the George W. Bush formulation that Iran must comply with its "international obligations", which effectively means the UN Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran suspend enrichment, it has indicated in private channels that there is some flexibility on that matter.

A detour into "international obligations". The story with the Security Council resolutions is that in 2003, Iran agreed to what the IAEA described as "voluntary and non-legally binding" confidence-building measures. The NPT and safeguards agreement that Iran ratified describes the process to be followed if fissile material - thorium, uranium or plutonium - is detected that has not been reported according to the agreement. The process, according to the written rules, does not require suspension of any nuclear activities and does not require a country to take on new obligations.

As a voluntary measure, Iran began to implement the Additional Protocols - which put obligations on a country beyond those of the NPT and safeguards agreements. Implementation of the Additional Protocols allows the IAEA to make a stronger declaration about the absence of a nuclear weapons program than is required or possible under the NPT and safeguards agreements that Iran actually ratified.

The IAEA, in order to make the strongest possible declaration of lack of a possible nuclear weapons program, would require cooperation with Iran even beyond that described in the Additional Protocols. The IAEA requested, on a voluntary and non-legally binding basis, that Iran offer the cooperation necessary to make the strongest possible declaration that Iran has no nuclear program, that Iran ratify the Additional Protocols and further that Iran suspend aspects of its nuclear program such as enrichment until the IAEA has time, possibly measured in decades, to declare that all possible investigation into any weapons program in Iran has been exhausted and there is no potential weapons program.

The Security Council in 2006 made these voluntary and non-legally binding measures into "international obligations" for Iran. Either such an action by the Security Council is legal or it is not. If it is legal, states have no sovereignty that is to be respected before the UN Security Council. The Security Council has demanded Iran ratify a specific treaty. There really is no sovereign right more fundamental than the right to determine which treaties a country ratifies. If this is legal, the UN Security Council also has the power to demand that Iran cede the municipal area of Tehran to Israel. If there are limits at all to the scope of the Security Council's authority to infringe on the sovereignty of member states, the nuclear resolutions regarding Iran cross those limits.

If, as is commonly held in UNSC veto-wielding countries, there is no limit to the authority of the UN Security Council over the sovereignty of UN member nations then Iran's position is that on sovereignty grounds and national defense grounds, it will ignore the resolutions despite that behavior being illegal. Iran also describes as hypocritical the failure of the Security Council's unlimited authority to force, for example, Israel to sign and ratify the NPT itself, or to provide maps of cluster bomb fields in Lebanon currently killing Lebanese civilians, or to cease restricting the access to food of civilians in Gaza, which is a war crime.

But the Bush and Obama administrations prefer the more vague term "international obligations" to "Security Council resolutions", probably because the second term is more transparently political, and highlights the true but inconvenient fact that before those resolutions, the steps being asked of Iran were voluntary ones that Iran had every right to refuse.

And now another detour into "national defense grounds." The NPT requires its signatories not to build, manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons. The NPT is nearly silent on the issue of the technologies underlying nuclear weapons. Nearly silent, but not quite silent. The NPT expressly holds that the right to technology, outside of building actual nuclear weapons, is a sovereign right that does not come from the NPT, and the NPT does not limit every nations right to that technology "without discrimination". If Iran does not build an actual weapon, it has as much right to enrichment technology as Brazil. It has a much right to be nuclear capable as Japan. There is no requirement that Iran take voluntary confidence-building measures to have the same capacity as Japan or Brazil.

From time to time I come across an assertion that Japan is not weapons capable because it does not have a stockpile of uranium. Anyone who knows enough about Japan's program to specify that it does not have uranium also knows that Japan has over 60 tons of plutonium, which could make over 10,000 nuclear warheads. Japan is clearly nuclear weapons capable, and has stockpiled material that serves to guarantee its nuclear capability. Assertions to the contrary are deliberate deception. It's annoying to be directly lied to but you see it a lot when discussing the Middle East with Westerners.

If a country like Iran does not build a weapon, there are degrees of confidence its potential adversaries may have that if alerted, they could prevent the non-nuclear country from building a weapon. Today, Iran's uranium stockpile and most of its assembled centrifuges are in a single, relatively vulnerable location. Iran could in some scenarios build a weapon in a moderate amount of time, but the US is confident it could, in the short term prevent it.

As Iran's stockpile increases, and its number of locations with already assembled centrifuges and stockpiles of uranium increases, the US loses confidence that, if it chooses, it can prevent Iran from building a weapon. There is an important barrier between "we probably could stop a rapid drive for a weapon" and "we do not have confidence that we could, through military means, prevent a dash to a weapon".

Iran has not crossed that barrier yet. An US analyst today can claim that "In the race between an Iranian bomb and bombing Iran, we would win, we would cave in the roof before they got a bomb’s worth of material." Iran will gain real strategic benefits from rendering the US unable to confidently make that statement. Once the US can no longer make that statement, the defenseless position Iraq was forced into before the US in 2003 will never have to be endured by Iran.

Now the detours are over, we're back to the story of negotiations this year. The deal that was made public was a poor deal for Iran. Iran ships its uranium overseas and then waits at least a year for fuel to return for its medical reactor in Tehran. Of course the West would withhold the return of the fuel until Iran suspends enrichment entirely. Why would it not? The US public position is that Iran must comply with its "international obligations." The deal as presented to the public gives the US another lever of pressure to attempt to force Iran to do just that.

Because there was Iranian support for the deal when it was first announced, and also because El Baradei, who if nothing else understands that Iran does not intend to stop enrichment clearly had hope that Iran would accept this deal, I'm fairly certain that in private there were details that made the deal far more favorable to Iran.

One possible scenario is that this was envisioned as the first step in a multi-step process. The first step would be that Iran, using the pretext of the medical reactor, ships enough fuel overseas to have an agreed amount of less than one ton on hand. Next Iran would be presented with an invitation to commit its nuclear facilities to an international fuel bank - that ships its output overseas, maybe even to Turkey for storage, but its nuclear facilities would remain on Iranian soil under joint management, maybe with the Russians. Iranian enriched fuel could be added to other fuel in this scenario to actually help fuel Bushehr, which would come on line rapidly after the deal is accepted.

Possibly, there could even be a "retooling period" during which Iran would not be enriching uranium and the US could declare that the Security Council requirement that Iran suspend enrichment has been satisfied.

What this deal would have done is slowed Iran's move from a theoretical nuclear weapons capacity to a theoretical militarily unpreventable nuclear weapons capacity. Under this deal, in an emergency Iran would have to assemble an entire plant new, and then start enriching uranium from a very small pre-enriched stock. But this deal would have allowed Iran to move past this crisis with its dignity intact and with both domestic enrichment and a nuclear weapons capability that though modest, could be steadily if slowly built up outside of its current sanctions regime.

Most of the deal is private. I don't know what US negotiators have been talking about with Iranian negotiators at least since when they began coordinating on the idea of a fuel transfer earlier in 2009. I do know that the complete deal is more favorable to Iran that what has been released and that it has to include an element of Iranian allowed domestic enrichment or Iran would not have talked at all.

Whatever the deal was, it broke down in October. I blame the Balochistan attack. Israel, at least in early October did not approve of the US giving up on its zero enrichment stance. Possibly more pro-Israel elements of the Western coalition, even within the US, indicated that the West might renege on any later stages of the deal once the uranium had left Iran. More important though, for the first time in decades, high ranking Iranian officers were killed in Iran. That had to shake the Iranians up.

A lot happens behind the scenes. I can only assume that the US is competent enough at diplomacy that it has discussed with the Iranians ways to defuse the anger over Balochistan, and there is nothing the US can do that would be sufficient to put the parties into the positions they were in on October 1.

Now that the deal has broken down, it is possible that Iran has permanently taken a preventable nuclear weapons capacity off of the table. Once sanctions come, if they come as a single name added to the list or as a full gasoline embargo, Iran will break the freeze for freeze that has been informally followed by both sides since late at least 2008 and fairly quickly double its production of enriched uranium.

Iran currently enriches about a ton of LEU per year. Under perfect conditions, a ton is enough to build a weapon, more realistically a safer estimate may be two tons of LEU per weapon. Iran has enough high quality imported yellowcake to make about 12 tons of LEU. By the end of Obama's first term, at today's pace, Iran will have four tons of LEU. If we get sanctions this year, Iran will increase its rate so that it has six or more tons by that time, also in better defended locations.

By the end of Obama's first term, the claim that the US would win a race against Iran's nuclear program will be false. Iran will have some confidence that even if the US attacks its nuclear program, enough will survive to still amass the HEU for a weapon in a matter of months.

Iran intends to harden its nuclear program and disperse it so that the US will not be able to bomb it. Iran still does not need an actual weapon, but it is within its rights to have to option to build one. What Iran having that option means is that, if there is a scenario in which the US wants to mass troops in a neighboring country the way it massed in Kuwait in anticipation of an attack on Iraq earlier, that threat that Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapon that would prevent any of Iran's neighbors from agreeing to host.

Also if Israel attempts to force a mass expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories, the fact that Israel has a nuclear monopoly means its neighbors ultimately do not effectively have a choice but to accept more refugees. If Iran has a nuclear capacity that cannot be bombed, it can counter any threat Israel could deliver to Cairo, Damascus or Beirut, which gives Egypt, Syria and Lebanon more room for maneuver in dealing with Israel.

The sense I get from Iran today is that either the US will completely back down in a humiliating fashion or Iran will acquire an unpreventable nuclear weapons capability relatively quickly, and Iran is willing to endure sanctions to do so. We have arrived at the day that one way or another, Iran will certainly in the short term have the ability, if it chooses and regardless of any action by the US or Israel, to build a nuclear weapon.


Lysander said...

Very good thinking.

As an aside, today we here announce officially that the U.S. is about to embark on a serious escalation in Afghanistan. This alone belies any talk of an attack. The U.S. will be more, not less dependent on Iranian good will.

It may be that part of the reason for the Afghan surg is that it shields Obama and the U.S. from accusations of weakness. This may allow Obama to dodge demands by the far right to deal with Iran.

But we should consider an alternate analysis; that the U.S. expects to have pacified Afghanistan to a point where it could be used as a base from which to attack Iran. Or, at the very least, that U.S. troops there would not be vulnerable to Iranian aid to insurgents.

b said...

Arnold you write:

"The message Iran sent with its over-reaction to the IAEA report (the announcement that it plans to make 10 enrichment facilities, all underground) is that it is preparing to dash ahead in its nuclear program - not to build a weapon but to develop an unpreventable nuclear weapons capacity"

I believe the history of the 10 sites has some background. There are likely at least five sites along the Qom site that are already in preparation and five more to be set up. They are part of a program, started in 2007 (why then?), to replace Natanz in case it gets bombed. The total capacity of all the new sites together would likely be the same than Natanz, i.e. 50,000 centrifuges. (With newer centrifuge technology at the small sites theoretical max output would probably be higher by a factor of 2.5.)

This was my thought when Qom came up with being prepared for 3,000 centrifuges - a number that does not make sense as a stand alone side.

Iran planned to announce each of the new sites to the IAEA at convenient points of the negotiations. But being accused of "secret" sites and with the IAEA board reaction to Qom, it has now rushed to reveal the plans for the others. This diminishes the chance that the U.S. can claim Iran does something "secret" with these plants.

Joshua Pollack developed a similar theory here:
Though he gives the U.S. secret services too much credit.

I mostly agree with your other take on the issue. The Baluchistan bombing really screwed things up. Who within the U.S. government ordered it???

Arnold Evans said...

Talk of attacks has declined to the lowest level ever. The last two New York Times that I read that mentioned the possibility of an Israeli attack pointed out the possibility that Israel is bluffing.

A larger presence in Afghanistan means, among other things, more necessary but vulnerable supply lines.

I've never heard an Iranian talk about the US position in Iraq or Afghanistan except a year or so ago Ahmadinejad said something like they thought they would trap us but they ended up trapping themselves.

Because of that, I don't know how much Iran credits US vulnerabilities there as a deterrent instead of other options Iran has in the region. I think Iran worries that the US may get out of Afghanistan and Iraq too soon, but I haven't heard the Iranians talk enough about Iraq and Afghanistan to feel secure in that thought.

I don't expect Natanz to be bombed. So when I heard of the Fordo's capacity for 3000 centrifuges, I saw it as an option that could be developed, if necessary, if Natanz was bombed, which it wouldn't be.

I figured that Iran would begin replicating its program in hardened sites and adding redundancies over the next couple of years but the exact number of centrifuges in any one location isn't important, because some of the locations will survive, some won't Iran won't know which until after an attack, and I don't even think there will actually ever be an attack.

For theoretically attack-resistant capacity to build a weapon, Iran doesn't need specific plans for what would happen after the attack, just to know that there will remain substantial options.

Sites like Fordo are part of that, but announcing ten sites like Fordo, some of what haven't even been mapped out yet, is loudly saying "we don't respect your opinion that we are not allowed to expand this program".

I feel like Iran's last rebuff of Baradei, where Baradei was pleading with Iran to be more flexible but not pleading with the West, indicates that Baradei really believed Iran's needs could be met in the framework of the deal he was proposing, and Iran was not in the mood to hear it.

I don't think the US directly ordered Balochistan, but I think the Iranians are right that if the US had not begun a program of assisting Iranian separatist groups, the attack would not have happened. Even if it was the French, British or Israelis who were more directly responsible for the execution of the attack.

The French in October seemed to really be going out of their way to oppose Iran and support Israel. Acknowledging how little information is available, if I was to guess, Sarkozy - who seems to have stepped into George W. Bush's role as fanatic unconditional supporter of Zionism - is the leader most responsible for the Balochistan bombing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Arnold,

I think the 'off the record deal' as you describe it is too elaborate to have been anything close to what was actually discussed. For one thing, negotiations were too short(although we don't know how extensive back channel contacts were), but more importantly we the proposals described require an incredible amount of much trust between the too sides in order for discussions to proceed with any level of credibilty.
I think the 'off-the-record' deal was probably closer to what was officially stated, plus the offer of serious technical assistance, through the IAEA or otherwise, with upgrading the TRR and other facilities.

In any case, I don't think the Balouchistan attack had as grave an impact on scuttling the deal as you seem to. Iran doesn't tend to make important decisions like this on an emotional basis, and high ranking IRGC members of been killed or kidnapped before as well. I think it's much more likely that media pressure in the West, in the form of praisig Obama for getting the LEU out of Iran made it impossible for him to accept a simultaneous swap, or offer any other objective guaruntees that the Uranium would be returned.


Arnold Evans said...

You may be right Masoud. The whole story has not been released so it's all just guessing.

The deal as described in public is really Iran just giving its uranium away. I can't see how it would have gotten onto the discussion table.

There had to have been an agreement at least that the US stop pressuring Iran to stop enriching.

Ahmadinejad's off-hand remark that Iran could participate in an international fuel bank had the same feel to me as his statement in September that Iran was interested in purchasing fuel for the medical reactor.

The reactor fuel request, looking back now, was certainly choreographed.

There is also only value to Iran going below 1 ton of LEU if Iran was going to stay below that level.

The plan had to be either that the West would increase pressure on Iran once the uranium had been shipped out and get Iran to submit, or there was an agreement that Iran would in exchange for something stop increasing its LEU stock in 2010.

The first option, Iran succumbing to pressure in 2010 to stop enriching is something I can't see either side entertaining. Nobody in the West believes that would happen. If Iran is not going to stop enriching over the course of 2010, then it does not matter if the LEU is shipped in one part or many parts.

So I feel like it had to be some version of the second option and what I presented is one example of an option that would stop Iran's domestic LEU stock from increasing while in some way avoiding Iran's public red lines.

Otherwise, it just doesn't make sense. The discussions would not have become public if they were an arrangement that Iran is guaranteed to reject from the beginning.

But it is dead now. Iran was in a cooperative mood before and it is not now.

Maybe the Americans changed the deal around, but Baradei, in public, acted as if this is a deal he believed Iran can accept. He can't have believed Iran would accept "give away your LEU and we'll add medical fuel to the list with the s-300s and Bushehr of things you've been promised but whose delivery is delayed indefinitely"

There has to have been more to it, and from there, I can only guess what more there was.

Lysander said...

I'm not sure if it is "behind the scenes" or a matter of Iran agreeing to one thing at the negotiating table but then the media spinning the agreement into something else entirely, causing Iran to appear to be reneging.

I think Iran's plan was to request to purchase 20% uranium for medical uses. This was, as I believe b mentioned in a comment he made somewhere, a plan to put the west in a position of agreeing to sell it and thus giving de-facto recognition to Iran's nuclear program and contravening their own sanctions. Or, conversely, refusing to sell and giving Iran the pretext to move on to 20% enrichment on its own.

The west's counter plan was to get Iran to use its own uranium for enrichment. It would promise Iran something seemingly reasonable at the negotiating table, get Iran to offer tentative agreement, then change the deal. Iran would then refuse and the west would get a media blitz of Iran having gone back on its word.

Probably in early October the west offered the swap deal. Iran gave tentative agreement and a mid October meeting was set to iron out the details.

As it turned out, the details from the west's point of view were non-negotiable. Take it or leave it.

I don't know if anyone seriously expected Iran to fold on this. It may be that making Iran look intransigent was the whole idea. It may be that they know perfectly well that Iran's enrichment program is a fact. Reconciliation with Iran is simply beyond the pail for influential forces in the U.S. establishment. Sanctions are their means of preventing reconciliation rather than the nuclear program.

Also, I think the west assumes that "eventually" the Iranian government will collapse just like the Soviet Union did. Thus, no deal is needed. This may be child-like thinking but they probably believe it and so act accordingly.

Anonymous said...


I think one shortcoming of your analysis may be that you assume the US had "a" plan. I don't think this is neccesarily the case. I think with Iran, there are multiple parties, each with different axes to grind, and different goals in mind. The Iranian anouncement of the intention to buy Uranium was likeley co-ordinated with US administration 'doves', but it turns out that the administration 'hawks' were able to scuttle it. I don't think elbaradei beleived his draft would be anything other than a starting point, precisedly because the draft contained no objective guaruntees that Iran would receive fuel, in fact it seems almost deliberately designed to fail.

In any case I wouldn't overanalyze elBaradei too much. He is an Egyptian in the mold of Sadat.(I have nothing against Egyptians in general, I hope they take no offence)


Anonymous said...

Lysander seems to have the right idea.