Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Iranian Nuclear Program


The snippet of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released on December 3 was a blow to those supporting tighter sanctions against Iran. The report, based on data from sixteen American agencies as well as shared information from the larger intelligence community - most significantly from the United Kingdom, but also from France, Italy, and even Israel (see Melman's piece in Ha'aretz) - argued that "in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." For many of those who opposed stricter measures against Iran (Russia and China) and those luke-warm about more meaningful steps (Germany), the report was welcome ammunition in the international war of words. A number of analysts declared that this American own-goal had wiped the military option off the table.

On the other hand, British intelligence sources disputed the veracity of the report, attributing the conclusions to the U.S. intelligence agents' misinterpretation of Iranian decoy conversations. Meanwhile, Israeli officials, most notably Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have vehemently criticized the American conclusions. Some American as well as Israeli commentators have raised the specter of a U.S. betrayal of its ally.

Of course, any hardline posturing by Barak should be evaluated with an eye to the domestic political front. The Labor Party defense minister in Olmert's government is trying as much as possible to profit from opportunities that the Iranian crisis as well as the ongoing qassam fire from Gaza provide him as he distinguishes his security record from that of Kadima and the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, no one is playing around merely to gain approval ratings. Israel is right to challenge the NIE and the interpretations of it advanced by those who have long been intent on throwing sticks in the spokes of the sanctions-wheel.

Iran did not stop its work out of humanitarian convictions about the evils of nuclear weapons. The regime fears both a preemptive military attack and international isolation. But it also knows the rewards that it would gain from reaching nuclear status. The Iranians, are thus going to do everything possible to continue covert work that would enable them to produce a nuclear weapon within a short period of time, even with a frozen nuclear program. As the NIE acknowledges, Iran is "keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons (NIE, p. 9)."

Unfortunately, the NIE undermines the very mechanisms that led to increased international pressure against the Iranian regime. Without the credible threat of an American military option, the incentives for such states as Russia, China, or even Germany to support tougher sanctions against Iran decline dramatically. Where there were once two sticks - sanctions and a military strike - only one of these remains today. If the world refuses to see a nuclear Iran as a problem, Israel has no choice but to devote all its resources to developing a credible answer to the challenge.

It does not matter whether or not Iran is a "rational" actor. Iran's rise to the nuclear powers' club would be disastrous for American as well as Israeli interests in the region. This is not a moral argument about who deserves to have nuclear weapons but a simple statement of the geopolitics involved. There are some who think that the Middle East will be a better place with the Islamic Republic projecting hard power in the Gulf and in the Levant. Others appear to be longing for a day when the U.S. is no longer able to secure the world's most important oil shipping lanes without the cooperation of other powers. They will regret this when it is too late.

I have to agree with Rosner that this report should never have been published. It may very well have taken the winds out of the diplomatic struggle against Iran's drive for nuclear weapons.

11 comments:

Nobody said...

It does not matter whether or not Iran is a "rational" actor. Iran's rise to the nuclear powers' club would be disastrous for American as well as Israeli interests in the region. This is not a moral argument about who deserves to have nuclear weapons but a simple statement of the geopolitics involved. There are some who think that the Middle East will be a better place with the Islamic Republic projecting hard power in the Gulf and in the Levant. Others appear to be longing for a day when the U.S. is no longer able to secure the world's most important oil shipping lanes without the cooperation of other powers. They will regret this when it is too late.

i think that eventually it's the arabs and the persians who are going to suffer most from this ... it's interesting that israel's nuclear program didn't bother arabs so much ... but they are all busy planing their own nuclear reactors ever since the controversy around iran's nuclear program has started ... i have a strong feeling that the end result of the current mess will be the arabs vs iran nuclear race ...

ariel said...

It's obvious that the best anyone can do is slow down the speed at which more and more countries acquire nuclear capabilities. Given the inevitability of eventual proliferation, shouldn't American strategy consider the long-term?

It seems clear to me that the new intelligence assessment was in large part a response to domestic political pressures, and not unjustified ones. I'm not sure I can agree with you Amos that the US should have just sat on the new information. It might be handy in international affairs to present the possibility of military action, but speaking as an American living under the Bush regime I can't help feeling relieved.

Amos said...

Yah, you're right, obviously once a report like that is written, it cannot easily be buried - nor should it. I'm certainly not eager to give the current administration a rationale for going to war. However, I'm concerned that the emphasis that this report (or many of its interpreters) placed on an alleged Iranian freeze on nuclear weapons production efforts may actually bring us closer to war by discouraging the Russians and Chinese from supporting tougher sanctions.

Without sanctions, the US of course still has the option of reaching some kind of accommodation with the Iranians - a division of the Gulf and/or the Levant into spheres of influence. I'm not exactly thrilled about that.

Another option is to arm the Gulf states to the teeth. That is what the US appears to be trying to do at the moment, though we'll see how much Congress will allow the White House to move (see this article in Defense News). The conventional arms race between Iran and its neighbors is in full gear.

Danny said...

I think nobody is partially correct. The real concern about Iran is twofold.

a) Already we have declarations from people like Saudi, Turkey, Egypt and slightly less seriously Jordan about building reactors. Whether or not you think Iran is OK with a bomb a Saudi nuclear programe should terrify any half way rational person. One should also remember that Iran still claims chunks of the gulf as his.

b) However even in Iran's case I wouldn't be happy with an Iranian bomb. Whether or not you trust Khameni - the person with the power in Iran - their current system is very decentralised and unstable. You only need someone like the Baseej to gain control over the weapons for very bad things to happen very quickly.[The Baseej are graduates of the teenagers who cleared Iraqi minefields by running across them with plastic keys to heaven].

As for the NIE, rather like the recent IAEA report, it seems you can spin it anyway you like. Iran peace-loving, tree-hugger of a country then take the "moderate confidence" they have not restarted their weapon programe. You in the "Iran into parking lot" camp? Well we have comments which show Iran [only] responds to external pressure.

Iran has it's own major issues, it's ability to extract it's oil is declining every day due to lack of investment. Pretty much every prediction shows Iran as a net importer prior to 2020 - some much sooner - at which point you'll see a different ME and a different Iran from now.

Finally, I feel a post here would not be complete without me disagreeing with Ariel. It should be possible to prevent proliferation. Nuclear programes are big and they are very expensive and there are relatively few sources for expertise. What we need is an IAEA with some teeth and more pro-active, preventative work rather than the incompetent, crooked layabouts the UN seems to produce in abundance. One has to look at the cold war to see how many times even "rational players" can come to nuking each other.

Amos said...

Danny,
You seem most concerned with elements in a destabilized Iran (or other Gulf state) making tactical use of nuclear weapons. This is indeed a very scary prospect. Actually, we face such a situation with Pakistan right now. But I am also curious about the strategic uses to which a stable Iran might put nuclear weapons. I'd like to figure out how exactly Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would reconfigure the alliance systems in the Middle East, and what implications it would have for the positions of America, Turkey, and Israel in the region.

Danny said...

Amos,

Firstly an unkind person may say there is no strategy in the Middle East just tactics....

You are of course right about Pakistan. Not only does it have a rather unstable government but via the AQ Khan network it is proliferating enemny no 1. US tacit acceptance of an "Islamic bomb" programe was of course one of the prices paid to get Pakistan to aid the mujahideen in 1980.

What would happen with a stable Iran in posession of nukes? The short and honest answer, no idea. It is tough to see an "anti-Iranian" alliance of any substance coming together - this is despite the claims such a thing already exists. Ironically, it is probably going to have more of an effect on the gulf countries and some of the asian ex-soviet republics than on Israel. I can't see nukes being given by a centralised Iranian government to Syria or Hizbollah. I don't believe the Iranians have the delivery technology to fire missiles with nuclear warheads at Israel. They may talk a good game but this is a country where planes regularly fall out of the sky, where their pilots have zero combat experience and their airforce is pre-revolution equipment. Maybe there would end up being a permenant US presence in the Gulf a-la US on the Rhine during the cold war.

All in all, it is bad news all round if Iran gets the bomb. Interesting times...

Aardvark EF-111B said...

Mr.Kishkushim

I really wish to have more (detailed) interpretation of this paragraph:

[[If the world refuses to see a nuclear Iran as a problem, Israel has no choice but to devote all its resources to developing a credible answer to the challenge.]]

Amos said...

Mr. Aardvark,
It's not as ominous as it sounds. Israel has to be able to convince Iran and the world that it would be able to strike Iran's nuclear infrastructure using conventional weapons - without actually carrying out such an attack!

Nobody said...

you may be interested: Talking to Neighbors

Aardvark EF-111B said...

Mr Amos

Israel already have at least 3 [Dolphin-800], each can carry CATCMs (borrowed from DiegoGarcia Base), enough to devastate the Iran Fuel Enrichment Fascilities from anywhere in the indian ocean

as i recall, these subs where threatening enough for Khatemi Cabinet to suspend enrichment and go for IAEA-Monitored Process, [[The Fiasco took place Q4 2003]]

but obviously NAJAD does not care the shet about Israel capabilities as long as he or the hawks in Tehran believe(s) that Israel is too faint-hearted to pull the trigger
[[can i say that The performance of the political command & C&C during 2006 boot camp in lebanon made them believe more in that]]

not to exclude the possibility of [Nuke for Iraq] deal ((why should i believe that NIE report is not politicized?))

Nobody said...

another discussion you may like to read: not nice people