Friday, February 19, 2010

Nuclear chess: Iran executes a fork, the US saves the wrong piece

Iran made a request for fuel for its medical reactor in June. It wasn't a bluff as much as it was a fork. Or even a double fork that first put Iran into a position where it would either break the (absolutely illegal and immoral) US sanction on medical isotopes
The impending shortage of technetium-99 is caused by the controversy surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. The sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, aimed at moving Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program, are supposed to leave medical practice unaffected. In reality, however, Iran has become unable to procure a wide range of medical products. Body scanners cannot be imported from the US or the EU, since parts in these machines could also be useful to Iran's nuclear program. An embargo on medical isotopes was introduced in 2007, in defiance of the medical exception clause touted as part of the trade sanctions, Iranian leaders said.

Isotopes are a rare commodity produced at only five sites worldwide. One of these, the High Flux Reactor in the Dutch town of Petten, currently accounts for 30 to 40 percent of worldwide production, but it is scheduled for retirement soon. Apart from the UN sanctions, so many restrictions -- particularly American -- on trade with Iran exist, that in practice nobody is willing to supply Iran with medical isotopes any longer.
or demonstrate an ability to enrich uranium to near weapons level and also convert the uranium to metal.

The US had been using the medical isotopes as leverage to force Iran to stop enriching, but has been put into a position where it had to choose to either keep its ability to use isotopes as leverage to pressure Iran to disclaim enrichment and nuclear weapons capability or freeze for a some time Iran's status at the time of a country that only enriches uranium to 3.5% with no higher enriched uranium in its stock.

The US chose to keep its embargo on isotopes and whatever leverage that provides. Actually, there is nobody in Iran willing to suspend or limit its nuclear program over the isotopes. As far as leverage in negotiations over the nuclear program, the isotopes are worthless. Like a many US policies ostensibly aimed at Iran's nuclear program, denying Iran isotopes is a petty and vindictive way to punish Iran, but it has no effectiveness in altering Iran's nuclear calculations.

But right or wrong, the US chose to maintain its ability to deny the isotopes. Now Iran has a pretext, that it is using, to further enrich its uranium and learn the technology of turning enriched uranium into useful metal forms. If Iran successfully domestically fuels the medical reactor, there is no longer any serious doubt of its military capability.

The second part of the double fork is that if Iran fails to refuel the medical reactor in time, the US will face the same choice over Iran moving forward with the Arak heavy water research reactor. Now Iran has, until now, been willing to give up Arak for the foreseeable future if the US agrees to Iranian domestic enrichment. Next year, or possibly the year after, the US will be faced with a choice of holding Iran's nuclear program to just enrichment or allowing it to advance like it has this year, next time adding plutonium from Arak.

The same way the US now wishes it agreed with Iran to hold Iran to limited, workshop-scale enrichment in 2006 or 2007, it will wish by 2011 that it had held Iran to a modest uranium capacity without plutonium. The US is kind of destined to negotiate two or three years behind reality, which will cause Iran to gain a full and diverse nuclrear capability.

Why does the US consistently negotiate with Iran as if it was two years previous? Asking Iran to suspend enrichment in 2006 as Iran had been willing in 2004 - asking Iran to revert today to the level of uranium in stock it had in 2008? In one word, Israel. Israel has security needs with respect to its region that are extreme and unsustainable.
Israel fears that Iran’s nuclear ambitions could undermine its qualitative superiority of arms and its consistent ability to inflict disproportionate casualties on adversaries -- the cornerstones of Israel’s defense strategy. Although some idealists dream of reconciliation in the Middle East based on a genuine and mutual recognition of all parties’ legitimate rights, most Israelis believe the key to enduring peace in the Middle East is convincing Israel’s adversaries that ejecting Israel through force is an impossible task not worth pursuing.

Essential to inducing that sense of despair is Israel’s ability to continuously trounce its enemies on the battlefield and suffer far fewer losses than it inflicts. The Iranian nuclear program threatens Israel’s ability to do this in two ways. First, an Iranian nuclear capability would likely force Israel to restrain itself due to fears that Iran’s nuclear weapons could provide an implied security guarantee to other anti-Zionist forces -- the sort of guarantee that would prevent Israel from causing the massive losses it has in the past, while giving anti-Israel forces the confidence to keep up the fight.
Israel needs to permanently be able to make unanswerable catastrophic threats against its neighbors, but today that is just not feasible. Sanctions will not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability. military strikes won't work. There will not be a miraculous revolution that puts Zionists into power or people who can be corrupted into neo-colonial stooges like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.

As in 2006 and 2008, now the US will continue to have to choose how much nuclear capability it can live with. If the answer, on Israels behalf, remains none, the US will end up facing an Iran that has every conceivable option for militarizing its nuclear program.

1 comment:

Lysander said...

I love the analogy as well as that diagram. As for US plans, I'm guessing they think strong sanctions will hinder iran's economy and scientific development even if doesn't stop it's nuclear program. I think they fear an economic powerhouse more than nuclear capability.