Saturday, November 19, 2005

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The new American negotiating gambit towards Iran

The Financial Times reports that the United States has made a new concession over Iran's ambiguous nuclear program:

In a major concession towards Iran's nuclear programme, the US on Friday gave its public backing to a proposal by Russia and the European Union that would allow the Islamic republic to develop part of the nuclear fuel cycle on its own territory.

The shift in US policy - revealed after talks between President George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader - came despite a report from the UN nuclear watchdog that lent credence to US and European claims that Iran is trying, or once had ambitions, to develop nuclear weapons....

In Busan, South Korea, Stephen Hadley, the US national security adviser, said the US supported a Russian proposal that would give Iran an assured supply of nuclear fuel.

Under the proposal, Russia would take uranium that Iran had converted into gas in its own facilities, enrich it in a Russian plant that would be under part-Iranian management then deliver it back to Iran to be used as fuel in its civilian reactors.

It was a "potential avenue" out of the impasse, Mr Hadley said. Mr Bush gave his personal backing to the initiative in his meeting with Mr Putin, officials said.

The US has previously rejected proposals that would allow Iran to develop part of the nuclear fuel cycle, on the grounds that Iran would try to divert UF-6, the converted gas, into a covert enrichment programme for bomb-making....

Diplomats said the shift reflected a more realistic position by the US which was struggling to find the diplomatic support for imposing sanctions on Iran after referral to the UN Security Council.

The US may also be gambling that Iran will reject the proposal which Mr Hadley said required Iran to give up its "right" to enrich uranium on its territory. Iran has not formally responded to the proposal.

Britain, France and Germany, which have led an EU effort to reach a deal, are reluctant to refer Iran to the Security Council at the IAEA board meeting next week while diplomacy can run its course.

Having the Russians monitor Iran's WMD program strikes me as the IR equivalent of having Chivas Regal sponsoring an AA meeting [Or having you chaperoning Salma Hayek's dates!--ed.]. So why the switch in policy? I see three possible explanations in the FT article:
1) The U.S. doesn't like the end-game options on Iran and is trying to stall as long as possible;

2) The U.S. thinks Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad is such a loon that he'll reject this proposal as well. This would force the EU and Russia to admit that the current Iranian regime has gone completely round the bend and actually lead to some useful Security Council action.

3) Putin has those kind of hangdog eyes that George W. Bush simply can't resist in an intimate, one-on-one conversation.

I'm pretty sure the answer is not #3. And undesirable end games haven't stopped this administration from not compromising in the past. So my vote is for #2 -- the best way to deal with an unreasonable negotiating partner on the international stage is to convince everyone in the audience of that fact before taking more forceful action.

The Guardian's Simon Tisdall and Ewen MacAskill have some reporting to suggest that most Iranians -- including the all-powerful clerics -- now agree with the "unreasonable" label (link via Andrew Sullivan):

Iran is facing political paralysis as its newly elected president purges government institutions, bringing accusations that he is undertaking a coup d'état.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's clearout of his opponents began last month but is more sweeping than previously understood and has reached almost every branch of government, the Guardian has learned. Dozens of deputy ministers have been sacked this month in several government departments, as well the heads of the state insurance and privatisation organisations. Last week, seven state bank presidents were dismissed in what an Iranian source described as "a coup d'état"....

Growing resistance inside Iran to Mr Ahmadinejad, who was unexpectedly elected in June, is coming from several senior figures and sections of the media. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who was runner-up in the election, denounced the purge and, in comments reported by Iranian news agencies, suggested the president should be reined in.

"A tendency in Iran is trying to banish competent officials and it is harming the country like a plague," Mr Rafsanjani said. "Our society has been divided into two poles and some people are behaving aggressively." Hassan Rohani, sacked as Iran's senior nuclear negotiator, told Tehran newspapers that the negotiations with the west were being mishandled. The former president Mohammad Khatami also voiced concern that Mr Ahmadinejad was exceeding his powers.

In a sign of divisions at the top of the clerical establishment, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has until now supported Mr Ahmadinejad, said "irregularities" in the government's behaviour would not be tolerated....

"There is a very tense situation. Ahmadinejad has made a very bad start and needs to get attuned to political realities," the Iranian source said, suggesting that Mr Ahmadinejad could face impeachment proceedings in the majlis if he continued to pack the government with his appointees.

But the source said western threats of economic sanctions or military action against Iran were strengthening Mr Ahmadinejad at the expense of moderate conservatives, liberals and reformers.

The Bush administration has blunted that last problem. The interesting question is how Ahmadi-Nejad will react.


UPDATE: Tim Worstall is more optimistic than I am about the intrinsic value of the proposed deal:

What we're all worried about is Iran building a bomb. We really don't care if they make low enriched uranium for a reactor. So, if the enrichment is going to take place elsewhere (assuming we trust the Russians) then we can know that they are indeed only getting the low enriched, the stuff that doesn't go bang.
Two things -- 1) I don't trust the Russians when it comes to Middle East politics; and 2) according to the FT story, the reprocessing would take place in a Russian plant "under part-Iranian management." That doesn't make me feel any better either.

Over at NRO, Andrew Stuttaford is more pessimistic than I am:

The more I think about it, the more obvious it is that we are going to have to learn to live with the ghastly prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. The idea of 'taking out' Iran's nuclear facilities is a fantasy, and it is a dangerous fantasy in that it is a substitute for real thought. Sanctions are unlikely to do much (who will support them?) and the long-waited Iranian revolution never quite seems to materialize. As a practical matter, of course, the real nightmare is not that Iran will start launching nuclear missiles at anyone (despite all the overheated rhetoric), but that elements in the regime will be tempted to hand over nuclear materials to terrorist groups who share their ideology but cannot be linked to any one state. Do that, and the usual rules of deterrence do not apply.
Admittedly, stories like this VOA one buttress Stuttaford's point about the radical nature of the Iranian regime. And Stuttsford is making the same end-game point I've made before.

However, I'm slightly more optimistic for three reasons: 1) It's not clear how far along Iran has gone in its nuclear program (click here as well); 2) As stated above, Ahmadi-Nejad is the perfect kind of leader to cause greater cooperation among the other nuclear powers; and 3) Ahmadi-Nejad might just be the perfect kind of leader to provoke a mass revolt.

posted by Dan on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM


I'm pretty sure we're looking at choice No. 2 here, but my hope is that this idea will be more relevant to our relations with Russia than those with Iran.

To the degree the Iranian government will be able to agree on a response, it will almost certainly be negative. Indeed, a negative response initially is likely even if some powerful Iranians like the idea, because of the evident discord in Tehran. However, there are a number of issues we really should raise with the Russians that involve (or ought to) strong American disapproval of certain Russian policies in other areas. Though security, as Dan notes, would be a major concern with respect to the enrichment proposal, it is at a minimum highly useful to be so public with an idea that both flatters Russian pride and offers potential tangible economic benefits.

As to Iran, I wouldn't bury this idea if Tehran were to reject it now. Six months to a year from today the political situation there may be different. It's at least a good enough possibility to justify keeping this option open if we can.

posted by: Zathras on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

First let me say something about who is in charge in Iran. It isn't Ahmadinejad.

Knowing that, I know that any changes, challenges, choices are being made for him. I guess he may have a little input, but very little.

Iran is going to have nukes. That is what they have said, that is what they want, that is what they are doing.

There is nothing the EU and the US can do about it and everyone knows this. Of course everyone says that Israel could bomb them, but in truth, they have their hands full right now and they don't stand a chance of bombing anyone with out the US running interference for them. Just the overflight to get there would be difficult without our help. Then getting back would be impossible without our help.

We are not going to give them any help in MHO.

All this talk and bartering is just that. Nothing more. Bush may be stalling but he will have to stall until all our troops are not tied up and those that are not are trained, equiped and deployed. That is going to take at least two years.

Of course, all this is just MHO.
But I think I am correct.

Papa Ray
West Texas

posted by: Papa Ray on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

But the source said western threats of economic sanctions or military action against Iran were strengthening Mr Ahmadinejad at the expense of moderate conservatives, liberals and reformers.

Does anyone have any definitions of these mythical Iranian political types?

What exactly is a 'moderate conservative' in Tehran at the moment? And by the beard of the "Great Satan", what attributes does one have to have to be a 'liberal'?

Somehow I get the feeling that these words don't mean what the Guardian somehow seems to imply they mean.

Inquiring minds really do want to know if anyone has any answers.

posted by: dougf on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Its not unreasonable for Iran to want nukes. As long as ammoral states like Russia and the US pursue militaristic foreign policies, the ambition for lesser powers to develop nukes is understandable. That is particularly so in the Iranian context given that the amount of oil they have makes them a potential target for hostile intervention.
In a more perfect world, Putin's initiative would be linked to guarantees of Iran's sovereignty against potential attackers and to a reduction of extra-regional military forces in the area.

posted by: peter on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

What I found most interesting was the purge of bank officers. That has wonderful implications for Iran's immediate future.

And it started me wondering whether it means that Ahmadinejad and his cronies will start using Iran's nuclear weapons program as their piggy bank too.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Iran has ever right in the world to have nuclear technology and produce nuclear energy, including a full, local fuel cycle. No one (USA or otherwise) has given any evidence that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. The best that can be said is that the west has imperfect information on what Iran is doing (which is meaningless). This is fact!

Ahmadinejad does not seem like a very pragmatic leader, and this is unfortunate for Iran because this is being used by the west as an excuse to target Iran. Rafsanjani is a selfish bastard who has more wealth in the west then then any other Iranian (that is why he is so scared of sanctions). Ahmadinejad may or may not be a good leader, it is unclear to me thus far. But he obviously does not accept the western dominated world and the free market system that they force on the poor world but don't apply to themselves. This may be bad domestic policy for Iran for economic and political reasons, but even in the best of times, pressure from the west makes it almost impossible for Iran to have a successful economy and continually creates unnecessary political pressure in Iran.

Iran should not accept any deal that limits its ability to have technology, and imperialist nations have no right to demand that from Iran. Would the USA, China, France, England or Russia ever accept the "international community" making such demands of them? Yet these are the countries who have done more to colonize, rape and destroy the world over the last 100 years then any others.

The US government can not be trusted and has proven itself to be an international rogue state, committing wars of aggression and crimes against humanity as a norm. I agree that Iran is a rogue as well, but it is not nearly as dangerous as the vicious monsters that have appointed themselves masters of the world.

posted by: joe m. on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Just to be clearer, when I say "imperfect information", I do not intend to imply that they know anything. Obviously, the USA has a proven track record of lies and vicious distortion when accusing its enemies such as Iran, Iraq, Cuba and such... of being threatening. By "imperfect information" I mean that, what is most likely is that they have the equivalent of their aluminum tube fantasy or their Niger uranium claim, supplied by an Iranian Ahmed Chalabi. But what they have most of is a wild imagination, imperial ambitions to make sure they rule toe world and a thirst for blood. Well, and a endless line of military suppliers and “civilian contractors” just waiting to get their piece of the pie.

I am waiting to see Condi's version of Colin Powell's admittedly fraudlent UN speech before I am willing say for sure that Iran has nothing or no intentions (though, even the USA says it will take around 10 years! Which, is basically proof they would have to start from scratch). So I will stick with "imperfect information" for now.

posted by: joe m. on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Look, apologizing for a government notorious for its support of terrorism and Islamist bloody-mindedness is one thing. I really object, though, to abusing the English language.

It is nonsense to say that the member states of the UN Security Council have "colonized, raped and destroyed the world over the last 100 year." I mean it is literal nonsense. Colonizing any piece of land one then destroys is rather hard on the colonists, something I do not think humans needed any practical experience to figure out. Colonizing a piece of land one then rapes exposes the colonizer to ridicule, as it involves assembling an audience to watch one humping the ground. Also, actually destroying the world could be done in much less time than 100 years, if that is what the Security Council members were really trying to do.

But of course if one goes back 100 years one is at a time before the creation of the UN. Russia, China and France all had different forms of government; in the period since all three countries have changed their form of government more than once. Is it really fair to accuse the Romanovs of having colonized, raped and destroyed the world? What about the Kuomintang, which once dominated the government of China but doesn't even run Taiwan anymore? I'll grant that the Nazis, who ran France for a few years, gave destroying the world their best shot. But even they fell short; I've seen the newsreels. There wasn't occasion to debate then whether the Nazis could be proved to want nuclear weapons or whether they had a right to nuclear energy that the criminal imperialists were wrong to deny them -- which is just an observation, not an invitation to actually have such a debate. That would be most tiresome.

posted by: Zathras on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Getting back to Realityville, consider Dan's desperate attempt to find a spark of light in the darkness: "Ahmadi-Nejad might just be the perfect kind of leader to provoke a mass revolt." And what, pray tell, if this revolt happens AFTER Iran gets the Bomb, thereby providing an excellent chance of scattering its Bombs into the hands of God knows who? (Which, of course, is also the main danger for Pakistan, and even for North Korea.)

As for Papa Ray's comment: that has always been, by far, the biggest reason to be outraged at Bush's lies to persuade us into Iraq -- the fact that, with our troops tied up there as the result of the pursuit of a nonexistent nuclear threat, we are helpless to deal with REAL ones (either with Iran's imminent acquisition of the Bomb, or with any crises produced by the fact that North Korea and Pakistan already have it). Of course, the reason the Bushites rigged the intelligence on Iraq's nuclear program is precisely the same reason they bungled the occupation beyond belief: their cretinous absolute confidence that the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq would be Ken Adelman's "cakewalk", and thus would gain us enormous strategic advantages for very little cost. Measured by the degree of harm that's been done to the interests of America and the entire world, the dishonesty of the Bushites is tremendously less important than their stupidity, and in fact is (in foreign affairs) entirely a consequence of that stupidity.

Personally, I find myself wondering whether Iran's (and any other future dictatorship's)imminent acquisition of the Bomb isn't serious enough to justify the threat -- and even the use -- of U.S. nuclear weapons to prevent it.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

"So why the switch in policy? I see three possible explanations in the FT article:"

And there's a fourth: Bush has a very weak bargaining position.

posted by: Jon H on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

If Iran's mullah regime produces its own nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons absolutely, positively, WILL be used in anger within five years by someone.

At some point after that one of our enemies will use nuclear weapons against us at home.

Once nuclear weapons are used on us at home, we will use nuclear weapons to commit nuclear genocide against all active enemy states (right now those are Iran, North Korea and Syria), and quite possibly against every Muslim state which is not at that point using its best efforts, as defined by us, to eliminate terrorism.

Within about five years, though, it is likely that there will be no Saudi state, that we will be in occupation of its eastern provinces with the major oil fields with the permission of a friendly Shiite Arab successor state there, and that tides of refugees from what had been Saudi Arabia will be slopping into all their neighbors save Kuwait (because we'll control that access). Western intelligence agencies and John R. Bradley seem to agree on this.

Hopefully this Saudi scenario will take place before we're nuked.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

The scenario that stays in my head is the one based on that classic terrorist principle, "Kill one, frighten a thousand" -- or in this case, "Kill a hundred thousand, frighten a hundred million". Terrorists set off a single nuke in a single American city. They then announce that they have several more planted in various American (or Western) citites -- which they refuse to name -- and will be setting them off periodically. (As an added fillip: they later back this up by setting off a second one.) Then they just lean back and wait for tens of millions of terrified city dwellers to flood out into a countryside totally unprepared to support them. Bye-bye, US as a Superpower. Indeed, quite possibly bye-bye, Western civilization. It's a glaringly obvious stratagem, and if it happens Holsinger's scenario in which we fry the entire Middle East in retaliation isn't going to help us much. (Pakistan is currently thought, according to "Nature", to have 45 nukes. Think what al-Qaida sympathizers could do with just one-fifth of them.)

The horrible thing, as Stuttaford says, is that the logic of deterrance breaks down. If the US undergoes an attack with a warhead and we can't identify which nation it originally came from, we have no choice but to either not retaliate against anyone -- thus openly inviting the next attack - or to retaliate against EVERY nation that MIGHT have provided it, including the innocent ones (who will, of course, then feel obligated to retaliate against us). The more new nations that might have served as the Bomb's original source, the more innocent but nuclear-armed nations we will have to attack in that case. Thus my rage against both Clinton for allowing North Korea to acquire the Bomb -- no matter what military measures he had to take to prevent it -- and Bush for crippling our ability to prevent Iran from doing so with anything short of a preemptive nuclear attack ourselves (or to respond militarily to any crises ignited by NK's and Pakistan's possession of the Bomb). And, for that matter, against most politicians in both parties for remaining as silent as a cathedral on this entire subject, when it has always been by an overwhelming margin the most important thing in the Megaterrorism War. (I thought for one brief moment in the first 2004 debate that Kerry would start talking about it seriously. No such luck.)

Of course, the worst thing about tyrannies possessing the Bomb is that they tend to collapse violently -- a fact which terrifies the tyrants into being tempted to make otherwise crazy nuclear threats to get the cash to stay permanently in power (see North Korea), and means that when the tyrany DOES collapse, the Bombs fall into God knows whose hands. We were incredibly lucky in the case of the Soviet collapse. We won't be so lucky again.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

I still can't follow the chain of events from "Iran has a bomb" to "Iran gives a bomb to a terrorist group". This has never happened before.

The Soviets supported "movements of national liberation" all over the place, and never gave any of them nukes. Although Soviet war plans included covert delivery of nuclear weapons against targets like nuclear submarine bases in time of war, this was to be done by Spetsnaz, not by domestic sympathetic terrorist groups in the target countries (IRA in Britain, for example). The US supported insurgent groups in Latin America and the rest of the world - but not with nukes. The closest they came, I suppose, was shipping Stingers to the mujahedin, and look at the trouble that caused. Pakistan has supported Kashmiris who, among other things, raided the Indian parliament - but not with nukes.

Is there any reason to suppose that Iran (or North Korea, etc) would do this, other than "They are unpredictable and irrational, and it is theoretically possible"? Given the flakiness of most terror groups, and the risk of penetration and counterintelligence, would anybody risk handing them a nuclear bomb? Sorry, this is fantasy.

posted by: ajay on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]


You fail to think things through. If Iran's mullah regime develops home-grown nukes, other countries will too, if only to deter Iran's nutballs. I.e., non-proliferation will be dead and dozens of countries will build nukes. That dramatically increases the chance that terrorists will get one from somewhere.

This is why I said above that nukes will be used in anger by someone somewhere within five years, i.e., not necessarily against us. That's just the first time. They'll be used on us eventually, and then we'll uncork on all the usual suspects plus a bunch more.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

As far as we know, Iran wants nuclear weapons to deter US attack, not to supply terrorists. But a nuclear Iran could more openly provide terrorists with sanctuary in the manner of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The danger of nuclear proliferation is not the deliberate transfer of nukes by governments to private groups but the sort of rogue private enterprise that A.Q. Khan had going for a while, or a breakdown in a government's control of its nuclear warheads. But these are real dangers.

It may be that effective preventive measures simply aren't possible unless and until nuclear weapons with no return addresses begin going off in cities. Anyone proposing a way to head off this problem is too easy to shoot down for going beyond what is practical under present conditions. But if a radical idea that could begin with something manageable is not out of bounds to propose, here is one:

posted by: David Billington on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

"I don't trust the Russians when it comes to Middle East politics;" ??

From my perspective, Russia under Putin is more predictable (and perhaps boring) than most others.

posted by: Thomas Esmond Knox on 11.19.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Ajay, the big dangers are that:

(1) A government with nukes will fall apart, letting said nukes fall into God knows whose hands. (Since tyrannies frequently end with a bang instead of a whimper, they represent a hugely greater danger than nuclear-armed democracies in this regard -- something we had damn well better keep in mind when we're accused of double standards in allowing some nations but not others to have nukes.)

(2) Since the officials in tyrannies live in terror of a violent revolt by their own people -- something which officials in democracies don't have to worry about -- they have a huge temptation which democracies don't have to try and acquire the cash necessary to fend off such a revolt by whatever means necessary. Even, when they get desperate enough, with the hugely risky gesture of either selling Bombs, or (much more likely) of using their Bombs to try and stick up their neighbors. This, after all, has always been the undertheme of North Korea's song: "Give us the assistance we need to protect ourselves from our own people forever, or we'll start BLOWING YOU UP!" It's not "madness" that motivates them at all; it's perfectly rational but extremely dangerous desperation.

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