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The Great Debate

On U.S.-Iran deal, devil is in the details

The feel-good mood engendered by promising overtures from Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani and President Barack Obama has raised hopes for a settlement in the Iranian nuclear crisis. But the devil — especially in this case — is in the details.

The nuts-and-bolts of Iran’s nuclear program, and whether Tehran can give guarantees that it is not designed to make nuclear weapons will determine whether a deal with the United States is possible.

Here is a look at what Iran has achieved in a decade of intense nuclear work; what the main areas of concern are, and how the Iranian program can be reined in to give adequate guarantees that Iran does not seek the bomb.

In 2002, when Iran was discovered building two secret plants, one at Natanz to enrich uranium and the other that could make plutonium, the Islamic Republic had basically zero capability to make either of these strategic materials. Uranium and plutonium can be part of the fuel cycle that powers atomic reactors — but they are also the two main avenues toward building the explosive core of atom bombs.

Iran has pressed ahead over the past decade, building up its nuclear capabilities. It has continued even as the major powers carried out a diplomatic offensive to get Tehran to suspend both uranium enrichment and the construction of the Arak heavy-water plant, where plutonium could be produced.

from David Rohde:

Iran’s offer is genuine — and fleeting

President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday is not expected to generate much excitement. Battered by his uneven handling of Syria, no bold foreign policy initiatives are likely.

Instead, the undisputed diplomatic rock star of the gathering will be Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. In his first six weeks in office, the cleric has carried out one of the most aggressive charm offensives in the 34-year history of the Islamic Republic. And the Obama administration responded Thursday, saying the president would be open to having a meeting in New York.

If Obama and Rouhani, who will both address the assembly on Tuesday, simply shake hands in public, it will be the seminal event of the gathering’s first day.

Obama’s key nuclear deal with Russia

President Barack Obama recently unveiled in Berlin a new proposal to have the United States and Russia reduce their long-range deployed nuclear weapons by roughly one-third, relative to levels under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

Arms control skeptics swiftly attacked his plan. They asserted that reducing deployed U.S and Russian strategic warheads to about 1,000 each would risk U.S. and allied security — especially when other countries are now modernizing their nuclear forces. They also claim that Russia will not take up the offer.

These critics, however, fail to make a persuasive case that Obama’s proposed cuts go too far. In fact, 1,000 deployed strategic warheads is a solid proposal. The case is compelling:

Helping Iran safeguard its nuclear stockpile

Diplomats from six world powers  are due back in Kazakhstan on Friday for talks with Iran about its controversial nuclear program. From the hawkish “bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran” crowd to the “jaw-jaw-not-war-war” folks, there is no shortage of ideas about how to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

Lost in the din is the prospect that the United Nations agency charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities could settle the most pressing issue – by helping Iran convert its enriched uranium gas stockpile to safer metal form. If only the world powers will encourage it to do its job.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) not only monitors member states’ nuclear programs to make sure they are in compliance with required safeguards obligations, but it also provides technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

Can diplomacy prevail with Iran?

New talks with Iran ended Wednesday with a surprising forward spin. More meetings are planned in the now decade-long American-led effort to ensure the Islamic Republic does not get nuclear weapons.

Iran must now accept or reject a proposal that offers some sanctions relief in return for Tehran’s reducing its stockpile of uranium enriched close to weapon-grade. This hopeful note – Tehran’s reaction was positive – comes as a showdown looms, because Iran continues to inch ever closer to being able to make a nuclear weapon.

In a diplomatic process where expectations are low, the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday and Wednesday were considered a success. The United States and its negotiating partners – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – got what they wanted. A senior U.S. official said Washington was “not expecting a breakthrough in Almaty.” It was enough, the official said, that the six major powers had the “opportunity to put a new and promising proposal on the table.”

How close is Iran to nuclear weapons?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed last week that new second-generation centrifuges, which Iran plans to start up at its Natanz uranium enrichment facility, could cut by a third the time needed to create a nuclear bomb – underlining his deadline of this summer to take military action against Iran.

Netanyahu’s prediction, however, appears to be based on some unsubstantiated assumptions regarding Iranian intentions and capabilities. Yet it can provide ammunition to the hawks in Washington and Jerusalem, who could rush us into another needless and counterproductive war in the Middle East. Netanyahu’s assertions do not stand up to technical scrutiny.

Critically, he does not mention that Iran has been converting part of its 20-percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride gaseous stockpile into metallic form, for use as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. This conversion essentially freezes the enrichment level and subtracts from the “enrichable” gaseous stockpile used in centrifuges. It is not something that a nation hell-bent on weaponization would do.

The U.S. needs a completely different approach to Iran

As Washington and its great power partners prepare for more nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration and policy elites across the political spectrum talk as if America is basically in control of the situation. Sanctions, we are told, are inflicting ever-rising hardship on Iran’s economy. Either Tehran will surrender to U.S. demands that it stop enriching uranium or, at some point, the American military will destroy Iranian nuclear installations.

This is a dangerous delusion, grounded in persistent American illusions about Middle Eastern reality. Because of failed wars-cum-occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan; a war on terror that has turned Muslim societies ever more firmly against U.S. policy; and de facto support for open-ended Israeli occupation of Arab populations, America’s position in the region is in free fall. Increasingly mobilized publics will not tolerate continuation of such policies. If, in this climate, the United States launches another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, the blowback against American interests will be disastrous. Nonetheless, that is where our current strategy – negotiating on terms that could not possibly interest Iran while escalating covert operations, cyber-attacks, and economic warfare against it – leads.

For its own interests, Washington must take a fundamentally different approach. President Obama needs to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran as thoroughly as President Nixon realigned relations with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. Simply “talking” to Iran will not accomplish this.

Will this be the year that Israel goes to war with Iran?

Israel did not bomb Iran last year. Why should it happen this year?

Because it did not happen last year. The Iranians are proceeding apace with their nuclear program. The Americans are determined to stop them. Sanctions are biting, but the diplomatic process produced nothing visible in 2012. Knowledgeable observers believe there is no “zone of possible agreement.” Both the United States and Iran may believe that they have viable alternatives to a negotiated agreement.

While Israel has signaled that its “red line” (no nuclear weapons capability) won’t be reached before mid-2013, it seems likely it will be reached before the end of the year. President Barack Obama has refused to specify his red line, but he has made it amply clear that he prefers intensified sanctions and eventual military action to a nuclear Iran that needs to be contained and provides incentives for other countries to go nuclear. If and when he takes the decision for war, there is little doubt about a bipartisan majority in Congress supporting the effort.

Still, attitudes on the subject have shifted in the past year. Some have concluded that the consequences of war with Iran are so bad and uncertain that every attempt should be made to avoid it. Most have also concluded that Israel could do relatively little damage to the Iranian nuclear program. It might even be counter-productive, as the Iranians would redouble their efforts. The military responsibility lies with President Obama.

Mideast’s WMD ‘red line’ gauntlet

“Red lines” are all the rage this year. Even as the swirl of Middle East headlines focus on Gaza and Egyptian politics, the region remains under two “red lines.” If Iran and Syria, respectively, cross the nuclear and chemical weapons thresholds, it would generate a strong, if undefined, Israeli and American response.

Washington’s red line, however, lays bare another issue: Should the executive branch have carte blanche to commit the country to military action? Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton Monday appeared to suggest so. She declared, in public remarks in Prague, that the Syrian government’s use of its chemical arsenal would be a “red line” for Washington to act.* Or is it time for Congress to make its own evaluation before the country again turns to the gun?

Let’s first recall how the red lines emerged (one literally) and why the line issued against Syria is now most concerning.

Syria as dress rehearsal: Securing WMD in midst of civil war

As Syria’s civil war spirals into mounting violence, the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile is generating increased anxiety throughout the Middle East and beyond.  Taking precautionary measures, the United States has reportedly placed 150 “planners and other specialists” in Jordan to work on contingencies — including the chemical weapons threat.

As odd as it may seem, however, we are lucky that Syria’s chemical stockpile marks Damascus’s most serious weapons of mass destruction risk.  Had Israel not bombed the country’s weapons reactor in 2007, the embattled nation — and the rest of us – could have been staring at the globe’s first civil war with a nuclear dimension.

Consider the domestic and international panic that could ensue if rebel factions, terrorists, government insiders or looters in civil war got control of nuclear weapons or their feedstock, or strike at a nuclear reactor to release radioactive contents.  Yet this is what we could indeed face if any one of three relatively unstable countries with nuclear infrastructures–Pakistan, North Korea or Iran– were to suffer the violent political disintegration we see in Syria today.  Equally disturbing — the international community does not have a reliable plan to cope.

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