Sunday, December 13, 2009

A long view of the trajectory of Iran's nuclear program in view of Gary Sick's description of the recent simulation

Last week, Harvard University conducted a simulation of possible approaches to the issue of Iran's nuclear program. The results and the feelings about the exercise of some of the participants were reported along with a small review by Gary Sick, a former US government Iran policy-maker. Mr. Sick played the part of Iran's decision-makers in the Harvard simulation.
"We started out thinking we were playing a weak hand, but by the end, everyone was negotiating for us," said the leader of the Iranian team, Columbia University professor Gary Sick.
Gary Sick was an early and enthusiastic proponent of the theory that Ahmadinejad's electoral victory was the result of fraud. His most recent position is that we will never know if there was fraud or not. His current theory about Iran's government is that the Revolutionary Guards have mounted a coup of some sort and silently taken control of Iran's government without actually deposing anyone.

Mr. Sick seems to have some animus against the Iranian government, which is overwhelmingly common among western analysts. My immediate impression was that if an actual Iranian official cannot be convinced to play Iran in this simulation, it would be better to use an analyst less hostile to the Iranian regime - possibly Flynn and/or Hillary Leverett or Kaveh Afrasiabi. But when I read that the result of the game was that Iran ended up in a stronger position at the end of the year my thought was that if they couldn't get Gary Sick to stop enriching, of course they won't get Iran's actual leadership to stop.

Now Mr. Sick presents a much more in depth view of how the game played out. Unlike last week's article where he was quoted saying he thought Iran started from a weak position but was surprised that the other players made deals, he corrects or clarifies that position by saying that playing Iran he knew from the beginning that the West would not be able to stop the enrichment program or apply enough pressure through sanctions to threaten the survival of the regime.
Those of us on the Iran team scarcely paid any attention to all this massive US policy exertion. Admittedly, we felt lonely at times. But we never believed that our core objectives (freedom to proceed with our nuclear plans and our growing appetite for domestic political repression) were at risk – nor was the survival of our rather peculiar regime, which was of course our most immediate concern.
The single sentence I found most interesting was: "It was probably realistic that no one challenged Iran’s right to enrich. That has reluctantly been accepted as a fait accompli." It is so clear by now that there is no plausible way to stop Iran from enriching uranium that it does not make sense that the US government and the international negotiators would still have suspension as a practical objective.

If US negotiators realize that Iranian enrichment is already a fact on the ground, that makes it more plausible that over the last year they've privately presented an arrangement that would maintain Iranian enrichment. I think it is likely that the Obama administration has not gotten behind such an arrangement publicly to avoid pressure from supporters of Israel.

I recently stumbled upon a presentation by Dr. Bruno Pellard of an organization called the Swiss Nuclear Forum that proposed in March 2008 that Iran continue to enrich uranium, but export its production so that it remains at a target domestic stock of LEU of around 300 kg. If Iran was to agree to this, after the initial export, Iran would make further shipments of LEU to an international fuel bank, which is an idea Ahmadinejad mentioned in November.

In early October, all parties' behavior struck me as consistent with an agreement along these lines. The most efficient way to reach this would be to commit to it before-hand, but I suspected and suspect that political considerations on the US side dictated that details be released piece by piece if it was to be agreed at all.

The fundamental structural problem with such an arrangement is that if Israel's supporters are powerful enough with the Obama administration that the administration is afraid to say the obvious, that it will have to accept Iranian enrichment, in public, then Israel's supporters are powerful enough that they'll be able to prevent the US from committing to any deal later.

As of now, I doubt Iran would go for this. I still believe the Iranian position hardened after the Balochistan bombing. Iran is approaching the next important point in its nuclear program. Iran may have already passed, or certainly is nearly passing the "point of no return", at which an Iranian decision to make a weapon could not reliably be thwarted even militarily. The next point is what I call the "the point of magnanimous suspension". When Iran has a certain stock of uranium, maybe three or four times what it has now, it could comply with the UNSC resolutions without compromising its weapons capability.

With a stock of four tons of uranium, Iran can then agree to suspend enrichment and implement the additional protocols but still retain the acknowledged ability to restart the program and build a weapon if there is ever a crisis. How virtual nuclear weapons work is that Iran's ability to build a weapon in a crisis will prevent any crisis from being reached in the first place. That means Iran will get to keep its pledge and follow its ideals that nuclear weapons are inhumane and unnecessary.

What the US has not gotten and likely aims to get is first an IAEA request and then a UNSC resolution demanding that Iran export all of the uranium it has enriched so far. A resolution like that would allow sanctions to continue even if Iran decides it has enriched all it needs, which point is very likely to arrive before the end of Obama's second term. Such a resolution would be bizarrely arbitrary but no more illegal than those we've already seen. The US must have presented such a resolution to Russia and China by now and been denied. Iran would ignore such a resolution, just as it ignores present resolutions but an important point to watch is that the bigger Iran's stockpile, the more room Iran has to make gestures towards the negotiators while maintaining nuclear weapons capability.

Gary Sick thinks the US should try to reach a deal with Iran and should have been more flexible on the issue of Iran exporting its uranium immediately. I disagree. I do not think the important issue is the pretext for exporting uranium that Iran and the West use to get Iran's domestic stock to the target level. The important issue is a public commitment by both sides to an overall arrangement.

To break out of the impasse that Iran and the US have reached, the US has to get enough independent flexibility to publicly offer an agreement in which Iran retains domestic enrichment - despite vehement opposition to acceptance of Iranian enrichment by Israel. If the US had been able to do that in September an arrangement like the Swiss proposal could well have been implemented during 2010. If the US becomes able to do it today, it likely could get a cap on Iran's domestic stock of LEU of about a ton, maybe a little less.

If not, it looks like Iran is just going to enrich all of the uranium it has or enough that there is no benefit to a larger stock, then Iran will suspend unilaterally which will take the wind out of any sanctions that are actually in place and Iran will resume trade with whatever countries are willing to trade. At this point, that seems like the most likely outcome. Whoever is president after Ahmadinejad will find himself permitted by Iran's Supreme Leader (who will certainly still be in place and in power) to make a grand confidence building gesture for peace while Iran sits on several tons of 3.5% enriched uranium and possibly even one weapon worth of 20% enriched uranium.

1 comment:

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