The New York Times has for a long time functioned as the mouthpiece of choice for the White House. The January 2 article by David Sanger and William Broad represents the current state of US public policy on that issue.
There is not much new. Not much that could not be gleamed from observing the behavior of the administration up to now. But there are a few things that can be commented on.
The long-discussed sanctions would initiate the latest phase in a strategy to force Iran to comply with United Nations demands to halt production of nuclear fuel. It comes as the administration has completed a fresh review of Iran’s nuclear progress.So we see the administration is still insisting on Iran suspending enrichment. That basically spells the whole game. There is one question that determines what course the conflict over Iran's nuclear program will take. That question is, does the US accept Iran enriching uranium.
As of now, the answer is no. The United States, and Iran's neighbors other than Israel have never been threatened by Iran enriching uranium. Israel believes, quite possibly with reason, that it cannot survive long term without a monopoly over the threat to use nuclear weapons in its region. If Iran enriches, even without making a weapon, that threatens Israel because Iran would have the ability in theory to build a weapon later to retaliate against an Israeli nuclear attack on one of its neighbors. Israel believes that to survive its nuclear threat must be unanswerable. Neither the US nor any of Iran's other regional neighbors is threatened by an Iranian virtual nuclear capability.
The US commitment to Israel prevents the US from accepting Iranian enrichment. When Ahmadinejad says that the US must choose between Israel and Iran, and when Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei says that "one of the main reasons behind the enmity of the global hegemony toward the Islamic Republic is the Palestinian issue", US policy towards Iran's nuclear issue provides an argument that they are right.
In interviews, Mr. Obama’s strategists said that while Iran’s top political and military leaders remained determined to develop nuclear weapons, they were distracted by turmoil in the streets and political infighting, and that the drive to produce nuclear fuel appeared to have faltered in recent months.Preventing enrichment is not necessary to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It is necessary to prevent Iran from developing the capability to build weapons in an emergency. There is not now, nor has there ever been any indication that Iran has decided to build weapons. This is a distinction that is well known by experts, the New York Times is also aware of the distinction but is transmitting a deliberately misleading explanation of Iran's goals.
Although repeated rounds of sanctions over many years have not dissuaded Iran from pursuing nuclear technology, an administration official involved in the Iran policy said the hope was that the current troubles “give us a window to impose the first sanctions that may make the Iranians think the nuclear program isn’t worth the price tag.”There are no sanctions that will convince Iran to give up right to nuclear capability and I think US strategists fully understand that. As of today, partly because of the US positions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran does not have to worry about attacks from the US. One day those US positions will be gone, and the ability to build a weapon in an emergency may be what prevents the US from considering attacking Iran the way it attacked Iraq in 2003. The more the US insists Iran give up a potential weapons capability, the more important it is that Iran keep that capability.
US strategists understand that sanctions, especially targeted sanctions, will not deter Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability. What sanctions do, is allow the Obama administration to seem as if it is doing something, rather than ignoring Israel's security needs. What sanctions cost is that they increase the level of hostility between the US and Iran, which hurts Iranians and Americans, especially in the region.
Is this a tradeoff that the United States really wants to make? I'm not going to believe it until I see a commitment to sanctions that I have not seen yet. Sanctions strengthen the voices in Iran of parties that would rather see the US suffer humiliating failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Actual sanctions would be the first escalation of hostility since Bush deescalated hostility in the last two years of his presidency. Bush had good reasons, based on US interests, to de-escalate. I'm not yet convinced that Obama has decided to reverse that, rather than trying to bluff the Iranians.
It seems as if US strategists do not understand the basic point that no proposal that does not explicitly allow Iran to continue enrichment would be satisfactory to any section of Iran's decision making community. I don't think that's what's happening. I think US strategists do understand that Iran will not accept the kinds of deals the US is willing to make, but the US, to avoid publicly giving up on what Israel considers a strategic necessity, is stalling. It is also considering stalling in a way that risks the lives of US soldiers neighboring Iran.
While outsiders have a limited view of Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration officials said they believed that the bomb-development effort was seriously derailed by the exposure three months ago of the country’s secret enrichment plant under construction near the holy city of Qum. Exposure of the site deprived Iran of its best chance of covertly producing the highly enriched uranium needed to make fuel for nuclear weapons.I'm not sure if they're serious, but that's not what Qum is. Qum is part of the Iranian nuclear program that might or even might not survive a US attack. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability means that in an emergency, it could build a weapon. In that emergency, Iran expects to be bombed by the US. After the bombing is over, Iran expects to have some surviving facilities and assets, and expects to have information on those assets the US does not have. Maybe Qum, or usable parts of Qum would survive, since it is underground. Maybe some other facilities would be missed by the US concentrating on Qum. One way or another, after being bombed, Iran will reconstruct what it can and have the option of building a weapon.
American officials say that the Qum plant is now useless to the Iranians. “They spent three years and tens of millions of dollars on a covert plant that they will probably never turn on,” said the senior official involved in the White House strategy.
The point of Qum is that US military planners cannot confidently tell the US President that Iran will remain unable to reconstitute its program for some given amount of time after the bombing. That lack of confidence, the inability for US planners to be sure Iran will not be able to retaliate with a nuclear weapon a year or two years after being bombed can be enough to deter an attack in the first place. That is the point of Qum. Qum is effective without ever being turned on.
In addition, international nuclear inspectors report that at Iran’s plant in Natanz, where thousands of centrifuges spin to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel, the number of the machines that are currently operating has dropped by 20 percent since the summer, a decline nuclear experts attribute to technical problems. Others, including some European officials, believe the problems may have been accentuated by a series of covert efforts by the West to undermine Iran’s program, including sabotage on its imported equipment and infrastructure.It is possible that Iran's technical difficulties or Western covert operations have slowed down Iran's production. Another part of the story could be that Iran made a political decision to hold its production at a certain pace in agreement with the West. While the number of centrifuges went down, the production of LEU remained about constant. The monthly production of LEU did not go up substantially even as the number of centrifuges went up. There could well have been an agreement with the Bush administration that was part of a package including Iran restraining Sadr and capping LEU production while the US produced the 2007 NIE and stopped pressing for sanctions.
R. Scott Kemp, a Princeton University physicist, said that another factor was in the basic design of the centrifuges, obtained from Pakistan nearly two decades ago. “I suspect design problems,” Mr. Kemp said. “The machines run hot and have short lives. They’re terrible. It’s a really bad design.”
These factors have led the administration’s policy makers to lengthen their estimate of how long it would take Iran to accomplish what nuclear experts call “covert breakout” — the ability to secretly produce a workable weapon.I'm not sure "covert breakout" is necessary. In an emergency, Iran would openly break out, within the terms of the NPT. Iran is very close to having overt breakout capability now, and certainly will be there by the time the US is able to attack if the US were to want to. By focusing on a new target of "covert breakout" capability, the US may be rationalizing in advance two or three years of preventing Iran from suspending enrichment.
“For now, the Iranians don’t have a credible breakout option, and we don’t think they will have one for at least 18 months, maybe two or three years,” said one senior administration official at the center of the White House Iran strategy. The administration has told allies that the longer time frame would allow the sanctions to have an effect before Iran could develop its nuclear ability.
What the administration is doing through the New York Times is refusing to abandon the idea that Iran will suspend enrichment. Everyone should understand that this means Iran will continue building its stockpile of LEU. The administration is threatening sanctions - which may be a bluff or may not be. And the administration is now publicly reasserting that there are covert programs on Iranian soil aimed at sabotaging the nuclear program.