03 January 2010

Some Positive Signs on Iran & Nukes

While I have generally been pessimistic about what the endgame in the standoff between Iran and the West over the former's nuclear program will be, an article in today's NYT provides some--well maybe not hope, but some positive signs for both the direction of the nuclear program and US policy:

1. First, it looks like the Obama Administration has convinced Israel to hold off attacking Iran.

[An] administration official said that Israeli officials, while still publicly hinting that they might take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, “now feel that what’s happening in Iran makes the country vulnerable to real sanctions,” and might give Mr. Obama more time to persuade China and Russia to go along. A senior Israeli diplomat in Washington said that in back-channel conversations “Obama has convinced us that it’s worth trying the sanctions, at least for a few months.”

I'm pretty skeptical that Russia and China will ever "go along," but I think that war or air strikes would probably be the worst option possible here. I think it's pretty obvious why war would be bad. Air strikes, while seemingly a more benign option, would a) kill civilians, b) not be certain to end the nuclear program, c) strengthen Iran's resolve to pursue nukes, and d) alienate the Greens, who are Iranian nationalists first. So, I think the fact that attacks are unlikely to occur soon is a good thing.

2. Second, it seems that things aren't looking so hot for the prospects of the Iranian nuclear program in general. There are a number of reasons for this:

a) the Qom site revelation
...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...

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.

b) "technical problems"
...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.

...administration officials and experts say that another factor slowing Iran’s nuclear development is that it is working with older centrifuge technology that keeps breaking down.

By the recent count of inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency, there were 3,936 centrifuges running at Iran’s enrichment plant in the desert at Natanz — down from a peak of 4,920 centrifuges in June.

Administration officials say Iran began producing almost all of its own centrifuge components after discovering that the United States and other Western countries had sabotaged some key imported parts, and they have made a series of manufacturing errors.

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.”

If Mr. Kemp and others are right, it suggests that Iran has a long way to go before it can make good on its recent vow to open 10 new enrichment plants. Iranian officials have said publicly that those plants will use a new version of the centrifuges. But Paul K. Kerr, a nuclear analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said research on the new generation of centrifuges had apparently proved “less successful” than the original, primitive design.

c) pushing back of the "breakout window"

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.

“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.

3. Third, the Obama Administration seems poised to pursue sanctions targeted against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The White House wants to focus the new sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the military force believed to run the nuclear weapons effort.

While I'm not all that convinced that sanctions are the key to success here, this seems to be the best possible target for any new sanctions. The IRGC is a major economic player in Iran and targeting their transactions and front companies could hurt them without alienating the reformers. Unfortunately, Congress does still seem poised to pass counterproductive gas sanctions this year that could cancel out any positive effects from the IRGC sanctions.

4. Fourth, we're probably using covert action, and it's probably working!

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.

Another possible problem for Iran is the Western sabotage efforts. In January, The New York Times reported that President Bush had ordered a broad covert program against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including efforts to undermine electrical and computer systems that keep the nuclear program running. The Obama administration has been silent about the progress of that program, one of the most heavily classified of the United States government.

I think some on the left probably would have a problem with this, but this seems to me exactly the type of situation where covert action is useful (rather than manipulating political events and overthrowing leaders).

5. In conclusion, the new formula for dealing with Iran & nukes seems to be becoming:

Diplomacy+Targeted Sanctions+Covert Action-(Sabre Rattling+Bluster)

I think that, overall, this may be the best possible approach to dealing with an incredibly difficult situation.

No comments:

Post a Comment