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Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

Iran’s Nuclear Deal Skips Over the West, Russia and China

Posted by K.E. White on May 17, 2010

Today brings news of a “surprise nuclear deal” between Iran, Turkey and Brazil.  (Watch MSNBC’s solid coverage from Tehran here.)  Under the admittedly hazy details, Iran has agreed to ship its enriched uranium to Turkey.  Note the absence of Western powers, Russia and China from the talks.

The Western response?  Well, Wesley Clark—interviewed on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown—welcomed other countries doing some diplomatic heavy-lifting, but cautioned viewers that few details of the deal are currently known.

In any case, the coming days will undoubtedly shed light on the inner workings of these (potentially momentous) tripartite talks.

Coincidently, Stephen Walt offers this blog on Turkey’s diplomatic evolution—and gives some advice to U.S. policy makers.

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Will A New Round of Iran Sanctions Have Any Bite?

Posted by K.E. White on April 5, 2010

At Contentions Jennifer Rubin reviews a WSJ article that points out the weakness of current sanctions on Iran.  Specifically the article notes that assets totaling only $43 million have been blocked to the Iranian regime.

But U.S. enforcement is not the problem with the Iranian sanctions.  Instead the problem remains that other countries, significantly Russia and China, do not seize Iranian assets.

Now Rubin is correct to note this grave weakness within the sanctions regime.  But there is a flip side.  While Iran can evade sanctions by going outside the United States or the EU member-states, getting Russia and China to agree to even mild sanctions would have an immediate and profound effect.

So in short, this is all posturing for possible deal-making between P-5 members and Iran.  With reports showing China and Russia possibly on board for sanctions, Iran must be feeling some squeeze.

While Rubin may not consider this enough to deter Iran, she doesn’t really offer another way forward.  And in any case, it only seems fair to size up any new sanctions when they are released.

In related news, Iran remains open to a ‘nuclear swap’ deal—but demands any such swap take place on Iranian territory.  And anyway, maybe the Obama administration has already accepted that Iran will possess nuclear weapons.

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Deterring Iran from The Nuclear Option

Posted by K.E. White on March 23, 2010

Leonard S. Spector, of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, writes on how to deter Iran’s nuclear ambition.  His verdict?  Not too optimistic for the Obama Administration.  Without offering a clear pathway to rallying international support, hopes for deterring Iran seem to rest with Iran:  either through Iranian internal difficulties or nuclear over-reach.

From Spector’s article Can Iran’s Accelerating Nuclear Program Be Stopped?

What are the goals of the Iranian government? With each passing month a nuclear arsenal must look more attainable and the government’s hold on power more certain, notwithstanding the uproar over last June’s elections. It is hard to imagine that Tehran will curb its nuclear ambitions short of acquiring nuclear weapons. Recent political support from Brazil, Lebanon, and Venezuela, all wary of Western pressure, may make Iran more confident it can weather any sanctions regime the United States and its allies can bring to bear.

The Obama Administration is attempting to implement a set of powerful new sanctions to pressure Tehran to comply with Security Council requirements. The first step is to command Iran’s attention by placing what its leaders value at risk. The Administration has indicated it will target enterprises run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, said to be leading the country’s nuclear program, and possibly the Iranian central bank. Sanctions that hit too hard, however, risk injuring the Iranian economy as a whole, potentially causing a backlash that could shore up support for the Ahmadinejad government and its apparent aspirations for a nuclear-armed Iran. Russian and Chinese support for an effective sanctions regime could also be undermined.

To stop a runaway nuclear program, the international community needs to push the brake pedal with both feet. As committed as the Obama Administration may be to this endeavor, without broader international support, it is difficult to be sanguine about its chances for success.

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TNR Explains Why China and Russia Don’t Mind Iranian Nukes

Posted by K.E. White on February 10, 2010

Matthew Kroenig’s TNR article reads like a review of ‘Confessions of Frustrated, Lonely Superpower’. Yes, a strategic goal to limit American influence undoubtedly plays a part in Chinese and Russian foreign policy. But one shouldn’t discount simple realism.

An Iranian bomb, then, won’t disadvantage China or Russia. In fact, it might even help them. Neither country has hidden its desire to hem in America’s unilateral ability to project power, and a nuclear-armed Iran would certainly mean a more constrained U.S. military in the Middle East. Indeed, at times during the 1980s and 1990s, Beijing and Moscow aided Tehran with important aspects of its nuclear program. While we don’t have detailed information on the motives behind the assistance, we do know that governments don’t export sensitive nuclear technologies for economic reasons alone. Rather, as I show in my forthcoming book, they generally do so in an attempt to hinder their enemies. For example, France helped Israel acquire the bomb in the late 1950s and early 1960s in order to balance against Nasser’s Egypt, and China provided nuclear aid to Pakistan in the 1980s to impose strategic costs on its longtime rival India. It is likely that China and Russia’s nuclear assistance to Iran was partly intended as a counterweight to American power in the Middle East. Although these countries no longer actively aid Iran’s nuclear program, they may still secretly welcome its development.

If any country fails to understand the strategic consequences of a nuclear Iran, then, it is not Russia or China, but the United States. Disproportionately threatened by proliferation, American officials will struggle to convince others to join their fight against the spread of nuclear weapons. They must prepare to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, or, if they cannot do that, they must stop Tehran’s nuclear program themselves.

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Kuperman’s NYTimes Iran Editorial: “Air strikes are the only plausible option”

Posted by K.E. White on December 26, 2009

Alan J. Kuperman, Director of UT of Austin’s Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program, makes the case for U.S. airstrikes against Iran. Three main points form his position: 1) the proposed nuclear transfer deal failed to halt Iran’s nuclear program and both sides knew it; 2) America should pounce now; and 3) that the Iranian reaction both inside and outside Iran may prove less dire than many predict.

Kuperman, boasting a unique and impressive academic and professional resume, deserves out attention—even if his editorial imposes a fair too neat narrative behind American and Iranian motivations. (Be sure to check out Kuperman’s other published works through his biography)

From Kuperman’s NYTimes editorial:

…Iran is far more likely to engage in “salami slicing” — a series of violations each too small to provoke retaliation, but that together will give it a nuclear arsenal. For example, while Iran permits international inspections at its declared enrichment plant at Natanz, it ignores United Nations demands that it close the plant, where it gains the expertise needed to produce weapons-grade uranium at other secret facilities like the nascent one recently uncovered near Qom.

In sum, the proposal would not have averted proliferation in the short run, because that risk always was low, but instead would have fostered it in the long run — a classic example of domestic politics undermining national security.

But there are three compelling reasons that the United States itself should carry out the bombings. First, the Pentagon’s weapons are better than Israel’s at destroying buried facilities. Second, unlike Israel’s relatively small air force, the United States military can discourage Iranian retaliation by threatening to expand the bombing campaign. (Yes, Israel could implicitly threaten nuclear counter-retaliation, but Iran might not perceive that as credible.) Finally, because the American military has global reach, air strikes against Iran would be a strong warning to other would-be proliferators.

Negotiation to prevent nuclear proliferation is always preferable to military action. But in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement. We have reached the point where air strikes are the only plausible option with any prospect of preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Postponing military action merely provides Iran a window to expand, disperse and harden its nuclear facilities against attack. The sooner the United States takes action, the better.

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Sizing Up Ahmadinejad’s Post-Crackdown Global Standing

Posted by K.E. White on July 15, 2009

Can Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be the leading Western critic after Iran’s brutal post-election crackdown?

The Christian Science Monitor’s Liam Stack explores the issue in light of Ahmadinejad’s attendace at this week’s Non-Aligned Movement sumit in Eygpt.

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Cracking The Iranian Nuclear Dilemma: Does Success Run Through Kabul?

Posted by K.E. White on March 31, 2009

Today’s meeting between a top Iranian and American foreign minister is big news. But perhaps bigger than the historical nature of this official contact, is its delivery method. Choosing Holbrooke makes clear that the Obama administration is serious about improving relations with Iran, but that success might just first flow through Kabul—not DC or Tehran. While by no means a risk-free strategy, Obama’s determination to engage Iran and others does not merely set the stage of diplomacy (which might very well fail). Neo-conservative critics would do well to realize Obama’s strategy also sets the stage for possible punitive action against Iran.

The Holbrooke-Adhundzadeh meeting in the Netherlands marks the first high-level contacts between Tehran and the Obama administration. The unplanned and brief meeting described as “cordial.” But Iran mixed signals: having this positive development shaded by criticism of the White House’s recently unveiled Afghanistan plan and refusing to send high-level Iranian officials to the Dutch meeting.

Today’s meeting reminds us of just how difficult the Iranian dilemma remains for the Obama administration.  On one side are voices demanding tougher action on the Iranian regime—whether through a military strike or greater economic sanctions. To these voices engaging in high-level negotiations with Iran before it suspends its nuclear enrichment program only will embolden negative Iranian behaviors. First and foremost, America must negotiate from a position of strength—i.e. be tough on Iran.

Such an issue becomes more pressing with the possible transfer of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. There purpose? To deter an Israeli strike. Will this force Israel’s hand? (Probably not, at least right now, given the messy state of Israel’s newly confirmed Netanyahu government)

On the other side are calls for a fleshed out diplomatic plan. Such a plan requires a developed set of increasing consequences for Iranian defiance and clear carrots; coordination (currently lacking) between Russia, China and the United States; and, finally, a comprehensive approach, linking the Iranian nuclear dilemma with global nonproliferation in general.

But first it’s useful to illustrate just how far US-Iranian relations have a way to go. Today’s LA Times editorial page offers this message from Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

The policies of previous U.S. administrations led to a rise in hatred, anger and worries. In all corners of the world, it is worth noting, the only flags being set ablaze belong to the U.S. and the occupying Zionist regime. 

President Obama has proclaimed a policy of “change,” and the American people have embraced it. But to remedy its image in the world, the U.S. needs to truly change its past methods.

Change is mandatory for the U.S. administration. For as history demonstrates, either you change, or you are forced to change. 

But it seems that before picking between ‘dove’ or ‘hawk’ response, the Obama administration is buying time. And this is a smart move. Obama’s public message to Iran, presently cooler rhetoric and today’s brief diplomatic meeting all show an administration intent gathering a clearer picture of the Iranian dilemma.

Tightening the screws, a la Jim Bolton, now does not seem prudent. If the Obama administration can get time to chat with Russia and China over Iran and possibly change their stance on Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly the diplomatic calculus changes.

But laying the ground work for a coordinated diplomatic approach on Iran seems inexorably tied to Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan—and Pakistan. It’s no coincidence that Richard Holbrooke, Special Envoy to for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was the chosen emissary. Beyond the procedural rationale (deputy ministers meet with deputy ministers), three messages were being conveyed:

-Attention-Grabber: Holbrooke brokered the Dayton Peace accords. A respected deal-maker initiating a converstation with an Iranian minister conveys status and respect to Iran. It also makes America appear inviting to dialogue with Iran.

-That United States is serious: Holbrooke earned his reputation for getting things done; Adhundzadeh agreed to keep in touch, a key means or communication and deal-making was opened.

-Muscle-Flexing: Choosing Holbrooke, the point-man for diplomatic strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan also holds a muscular, symbolic resonance. It signals the overlap of two Obama administration goals: victory in Afghanistan and improved Iranian relations.

This third component is the most important. Victory in Afghanistan, tied with a continuing presence in Iraq, seems to be the lynch-pin in the Obama administration’s attempt to mold dialogue with Iran from a position of strength:

1)      It puts Iranian aspirations for hegemony on note

2)      Allows Obama to frame future discussions with Iran from an image of strength, at least relative to the image of America in 2005-2006. In this light he is not only a dove to Bush hawk, but a dove who fights and wins.

3)      It strengthens the faith of our allies in the region that the United States will not simply cut a deal with Iran and jump ship

4)      It signals our priorities to other key nations—Russia and China—about what is important: chiefly Iran’s nuclear program. When this is tied other discussions—for example, discussions over missile defense with Russia or modernizing our nuclear arnsenals—deals can be made

In short, it allows the Obama administration—in conjunctions with many other moving parts—to both whip up the international support it needs for any diplomatic break-through and pushing (not begging) Iran to the negotiating table.

Now neoconservative voices, such as John Bolton, may disagree with this ‘doveish’ approach. But what these voices fail to recognize is that these steps are also needed to make punitive action against Iran—whether through economic sanctions or military strikes—work.

Sanctions only work if they are enforced. Attempting to win Russian support, tied with greater efforts at screening supplies that go through Gulf States are key to 1) punishing Iran economically and 2) keeping dangerous materials out of Iran.

Furthermore any military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities are more likely to succeed with support—however mild from major powers. If a military strike is seen by countries as a unilateral power grab on the part of America, American stature and partnerships will be seriously damaged. But if over time the Obama administration can successfully turn the narrative to patiently dealing with a ‘bully’ state consequences of military action—while severe—will be minimized.

Success with Iran—whether through tough-talk & proxy competitions for influence (Iraq and Afghanistan) or military strikes (most likely through Israel, but seen as green-lit by the United States)—both require the moves the Obama administration is making.

Make no mistake: Obama is taking a big gamble. In putting his chips on Afghanistan, it has become his war—one with little support in the United States. And some suggest he’s doing this on the cheap. If Obama’s Afpak strategy does not work, pushing Iran back from the bomb—let alone our allies in the region—will become more difficult.

But some critics of diplomatic accommodation may point to the issue of time. Is there time to put all these moving parts in place before Iran builds the Bomb? I believe such an objection is a red herring.

A premptive military strike against Iran will not stop an Iranian nuclear weapon, but guarantee it. And done brusquely, such a strike will diminish America’s ability to a) stop nuclear proliferation worldwide and b) hurt America’s standing in the region irrevocably, let alone predictable flare-ups in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Keeping materials out of Iran is the key, along with a robust inspection force. Getting there requires cooperation (yes, from a position of strength), not preemptive military action.

To get there, the Obama administration must work with the time it has.

And the administration needs success in Afghanistan, ideally paired with stability in Paksitan.

Even if this ‘tough-diplomacy’ does not fail to deter Iran from virtually possessing or acquiring an operational atomic weapon, it places America in the best position possible to justify action against Iran.  The Obama administration is taking a breath and insuring America the widest possible range of action possible: something we should be thankful for.

Let’s just hope the Afghanistan gamble pays off.

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Chicago Tribune: ‘West is urged to accept Iran’s nuclear program’

Posted by proliferationpr on December 11, 2008

Attention-grabbing headline, though a bit misleading—the next line reads: ‘Arms-control expert says goal should be stopping Tehran from building a bomb

So is the best way to stop an Iranian nuclear bomb to accept Iranian enrichment of uranium and nuclear-energy production: thereby giving Iran the raw materials nessecary for nuclear weapons?

The Tribune brings attention to a recent IISS report  (download PDF here or read summary text without download) by Mark Fitzpatrick calling on Western nations shift their diplomatic energies from stopping Iran’s nuclear energy program to stymieing an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

 I would comment on the report, unfortunately it demands a reader’s fee. But my first reactions to such a shift in strategy are as follows:

1)      Isn’t the real problem in the Iranian nuclear dilemma the threat of Israel preemptively attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities? Would shifting U.S. foreign policy away from Iran’s nuclear enrichment only further the likelihood of such an attack?

2)      Fitzgerald’s approach seems very similar to the approach taken by Western nations towards India and Pakistan’s nuclear programs throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Though there is an important difference: Iran remains a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—concerned nations offering diplomatic leverage over Iran. Also the gradual evolution from ‘latent’ to ‘active’ nuclear weapons capability did provide time for the international system to respond, and in the case of Iran might hold out the following possibility: in five to ten years, the Iranian regime may look very different than it does today. And shifting focus from Iran’s nuclear energy program would play well to Iranian citizens, currently supporting what they believe to be their country’s fight for sovereignty and energy independence.

3)      President-Elect Obama’s task: To resolutely combat Iran’s nuclear program, while designing a new and appealing diplomatic posture towards Iran while preparing the American public for a world with another latent nuclear power. Iran successfully testing a nuclear bomb could very well box-in Obama’s ambitious foreign and domestic policies, mirroring the campaign against Truman when China went Communist under his watch. And such a Iran debacle comes with this added thorn: an anxious Israel one-step away from launching air-strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.    

The IISS report mirrors suggestions by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who holds out hope that Obama can turn the tide on what he considers the Bush administration’s failed approach towards Iran. From the Global Security Newswire:

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei last week said the international community has failed to contain Iranian atomic activities that could support a nuclear weapons program, the Los Angeles Times reported (see GSN, Dec. 4).
Iran has endured economic isolation over its nuclear drive but has repeatedly rejected offers of economic and security benefits to halt its disputed nuclear work, which it defends as strictly peaceful.
“We haven’t really moved one inch toward addressing the issues,” ElBaradei told the newspaper. “I think so far the policy has been a failure.”
Sanctions aimed at punishing Tehran’s defiance have ultimately contributed to “more hardening of the position of Iran,” he said. “Many Iranians who even dislike the regime (are) gathering around the regime because they feel that country is under siege.”
However, ElBaradei added that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has offered “lots of hope” by expressing willingness to diplomatically engage U.S. antagonists such as Iran and by making worldwide nuclear disarmament a goal of his political party.
“He is ready to talk to his adversaries, enemies, if you like, including Iran, also (North) Korea,” ElBaradei said, arguing that President George W. Bush has been slow to engage international foes. “To continue to pound the table and say, ‘I am not going to talk to you,’ and act in a sort of a very condescending way — that exaggerates problems.”
ElBaradei suggested that Washington and Tehran could launch talks addressing the nuclear dispute along with other points of contention dating back decades (Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 6).

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US Treasury Department Designates Iran’s National Shipping Line ‘Proliferator’

Posted by proliferationpresswm on September 16, 2008

The Wall Street Journal reports on the recent US Treasury decision to label Iran’s national shipping industry a ‘proliferator’. The move further tightens the screws on Iran, which while a large supplier of crude oil is dependent on other nation’s refiners to turn that oil into usable products—like gasoline. 

It’s an interesting episode of how international trading laws governing maritime commerce intersect with nuclear proliferation and raw realpolitik. 

The move isn’t all that unprecedented for the Bush administration: in 2005, several firms from China, India and Austria faced US Treasury sanctions for providing Iran with missile and chemical-arms related products. But this is the first time a nation’s shipping industry has faced such action: illustrating the Treasury Department’s evolving role in non-proliferation issues.

Read Iran’s response to the news here.

From WSJ

The U.S. Treasury Department accused Iran’s national maritime carrier of helping the country’s nuclear and missile programs, a formal move designed to pressure Iran amid stalled talks over its nuclear work.

The Treasury, in designating the carrier as a “proliferator,” said the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines and 18 of its affiliated entities were secretly “providing logistical services” to Iran’s military, falsifying shipping documents and using deceptive terms to describe shipments in order to hide their activities from foreign maritime officials.

The designation, which typically is designed to stop companies on the list from doing business in the U.S., further blocks the carrier’s ability to move money through U.S. banks as well as blocking it from carrying food and medical supplies not included in Washington’s longstanding trade sanctions against Iran.


This is the first time Treasury has designated a shipping company as a proliferator, the department said.

The company says it has a fleet of 91 ships, most of them bulk carriers designed to transport dry cargo such as grain, coal and iron ore. Oil shipments from Iran, one of the world’s biggest exporters, aren’t likely to be affected. The company says it has just two tankers, and they are used to transport vegetable oil and similar products.

The move could complicate Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines’s dealings with other countries. Its ships call frequently at nearby Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, according to the Iranian carrier’s Web site. The company also says it makes regular trips to big ports in Hong Kong, Singapore, the U.K., Germany and France.

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US Intelligence: Did December’s NIE Get It Wrong on Iran?

Posted by K.E. White on February 8, 2008

The Wall Street Journal discusses Intelligence Director Michael McConnell’s recent Senate testimony. The editorial portrays McConnell as back-pedaling on last December’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that found Iran backing off its nuclear weapons program. The editorial paints the December NIE the work of fervent anti-Bush partisans with—even worse—State Department connections. 

Whether right or wrong, the editorial illustrates one point painfully: America has yet to effectively collect and release intelligence into the public; and, as a result, the corrosive politicization of intelligence continues. 

From the editorial:

The December NIE made headlines the world over for its “key judgment” that in 2003 “Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programs” — programs that previously had been conducted in secret and in violation of Iran‘s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations.

This was a “high confidence” judgment, though the intelligence community had only “moderate confidence” that the program hasn’t since been restarted. The NIE also waded into speculative political and policy judgments, such as that “Tehran‘s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.”

He expressed some regret that the authors of the NIE had left it to a footnote to explain that the NIE’s definition of “nuclear weapons program” meant only its design and weaponization and excluded its uranium enrichment. And he agreed with Mr. Bayh’s statement that it would be “very difficult” for the U.S. to know if Iran had recommenced weaponization work, and that “given their industrial and technological capabilities, they are likely to be successful” in building a bomb.

The Admiral went even further in his written statement. Gone is the NIE’s palaver about the cost-benefit approach or the sticks-and-carrots by which the mullahs may be induced to behave. Instead, the new assessment stresses that Iran continues to press ahead on enrichment, “the most difficult challenge in nuclear production.” It notes that “Iran‘s efforts to perfect ballistic missiles that can reach North Africa and Europe also continue” — a key component of a nuclear weapons capability.

All this merely confirms what has long been obvious about Iran‘s intentions. No less importantly, his testimony underscores the extent to which the first NIE was at best a PR fiasco, at worst a revolt by intelligence analysts seeking to undermine current U.S. policy. As we reported at the time, the NIE was largely the work of State Department alumni with track records as “hyperpartisan anti-Bush officials,” according to an intelligence source. They did their job too well. As Senator Bayh pointed out at the hearing, the NIE “had unintended consequences that, in my own view, are damaging to the national security interests of our country.” Mr. Bayh is not a neocon.

Admiral McConnell’s belated damage repair ought to refocus world attention on Iran‘s very real nuclear threat. Too bad his NIE rewrite won’t get anywhere near the media attention that the first draft did.

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