Earlier this week, Passport speculated as to why the mood of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il improved so dramatically from Tuesday to Wednesday during his summit with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. On Tuesday, Kim looked sullen and glum, but on Wednesday, he was all smiles, even asking Roh if he wanted to extend his stay for a few more days. Was Kim putting on a show for the international community? Was he happy about the agreement to end the decades-long Korean War, or relieved about the agreement to dismantle nuclear weapons?
None of the above. Knowing Kim is a film buff, Roh gave him a stack of DVDs of South Korean movies and television shows. One was "Jewel in the Palace," a television show about a cook for the Korean royal family back when the peninsula was unified. It stars Lee Yong-ae, rumored to be Kim's favorite actress. For a guy who loves movies so much that he once kidnapped a director and actress and forced them to fulfill his cinematic vision, it's a nice gift.
It's also ironic, considering Pyongyang prohibits DVDs from the South. Here's how the government enforces the ban, according to Reuters:
A routine tactic used by North Korean police is to cut the electricity to apartment blocks before a raid and then go to each home to check what is on video tapes or DVDs that have become stuck inside players.
The downside for Kim is that he's going to have to enjoy his DVDs on an old television. It was rumored in the South Korean press that Roh would present Kim with a flat screen TV. That idea was scrapped - the TV would have violated UN sanctions prohibiting luxury good exports to the North.
The summit between North Korea and South Korea took a strange turn today when news of an offer by the North's Dear Leader Kim Jong Il to extend the conference by two days emerged. The offer—quickly rejected by South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun—came a day after Kim greeted Roh coldly, seemed disinterested in the talks, and appeared ill. But on Wednesday, reports indicate Kim was in good spirits, smiling occasionally, and engaging Roh in conversation. See for yourself:
On Thursday, the two are expected to issue a joint declaration and unveil a so-called "mystery package," rumored to include plans for increased economic cooperation and a peace plan that could be the first step towards officially ending the Korean War.
Was Kim's improved mood behind the breakthrough and the invitation to stay a few extra days? Was he happy he had finally reached an agreement to dismantle his nuclear weapons? Did he realize he's in a tight spot with this Syria situation, and hoped a little hospitality might help his international image? Or did Kim ask Roh to stay because he's "a rittle ronery" all by himself Pyongyang?
Famed investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who has a new piece in the New Yorker, had some very interesting things to say in an interview with Der Spiegel last week. Topics ranged from Hitler to the First Amendment in the United States, but his most interesting comments were on Iran and Iraq. On how much the West knows about Iran's nuclear program:
A lot. And it's been underestimated how much the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) knows. If you follow what (IAEA head Mohamed) ElBaradei and the various reports have been saying, the Iranians have claimed to be enriching uranium to higher than a 4 percent purity, which is the amount you need to run a peaceful nuclear reactor. But the IAEA's best guess is that they are at 3.67 percent or something. The Iranians are not even doing what they claim to be doing. The IAEA has been saying all along that they've been making progress but basically, Iran is nowhere.
On Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's status inside Iran:
The reality is, he's not nearly as powerful inside the country as we like to think he is. The Revolutionary Guards have direct control over the missile program and if there is a weapons program, they would be the ones running it. Not Ahmadinejad.
On the "surge" in Iraq:
The Surge means basically that, in some way, the president has accepted ethnic cleansing, whether he's talking about it or not. When he first announced the Surge in January, he described it as a way to bring the parties together. He's not saying that any more. I think he now understands that ethnic cleansing is what is going to happen.
Unlike a lot of journalists, Hersh will publicly state what's he thinking, even if it shows political bias. What he said might not be that surprising, but it's telling because it provides an indication of what some journalist think about what's going on in the Middle East. It should be noted, however, that Hersh himself has admitted to fudging the truth a bit. So take what he says with a large grain of salt.
Foreign ministers from the major powers met today to iron out their differences on how to deal with Iran's nuclear program. Given the importance of the meeting, I asked George Perkovich, vice president here at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a top expert on nonproliferation, to weigh in on today's statement, which was issued by the so-called P5+2, the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom (plus the European Union). Here's Perkovich:
ElBaradei and Iran have won this round. In August the IAEA Director General accepted what were essentially Iranian terms for answering the IAEA's outstanding questions about Iran's suspicious nuclear activities. This agreement seemed to surrender the IAEA's rights and responsibilities to conduct follow-up investigations and pursue new leads. The agreement also neglected the U.N. Security Council's legally binding demands that Iran suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as long as the IAEA is unable to satisfy itself that Iran's nuclear activities have been entirely peaceful. Yet Iran and Mr. ElBaradei hailed it as a breakthrough. ElBaradei and others who are convinced the U.S. plans to go to war against Iran felt the agreement would spare the world another catastrophe.
The P5+2 statement reveals that the Iran/IAEA deal effectively neutralized the U.S., French, U.K. effort to tighten sanctions on Iran in response to Iran's ongoing refusal to accede to U.N. Security Council resolutions. The statement basically says the world should wait and hope that Iran gives the IAEA full answers and that somehow all the outstanding issues are indeed resolved. (If this were so easy, why has Iran waited more than four years to provide such answers and suffered U.N. sanctions for failing to cooperate?) Then, in November the P5+2 will reconvene and, if Iran has not satisfied the IAEA, they will huff and puff some more.
When President Ahmadinejad said last week that the Iran case is closed in the Security Council and the matter is with the IAEA where it belongs, he was absolutely wrong from a legal standpoint. The U.N. Security Council Resolutions remain active and binding. But now some members of the Security Council, following the lead of Director General ElBaradei, are showing that President Ahmadinejad is having his way, at least for now.
Shimon Peres, Israel's president and former ... everything, denounced Columbia University this morning for hosting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday:
I think that Columbia University made a mistake ... With Hitler there was a dialogue. (British Prime Minister Neville) Chamberlain went to talk to him. What did it help? It helped cover the fact that Hitler prepared concentration camps and death camps."
Sure, Ahmadinejad may be strengthening his domestic position. But notice what happened today at the U.N.: French President Sarkozy called for "combining firmness with dialogue," reiterating his position, "if we allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, we would incur an unacceptable risk to stability in the region ad the world." And Germany's Angela Merkel came out in support of a new round of sanctions "if [Iran's] behavior doesn't change." She added, "Israel's security isn't negotiable," and referred to Ahmadinejad's history of comments on Israel as "inhumane".
These statements may well have been worked out on Friday, when the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany met in Washington to discuss the sanctions issue. But it sure was easier for Germany to toughen its stance after yesterday's farce at Columbia. Ahmadinejad had a chance to come across as a moderate, undercutting the unity of the EU3. Instead, he came across as a buffoon not ready for prime time. We'll see if he acquits himself better here at the U.N. in a few minutes, but suffice it to say that Iran is back on its heels today.
Recently, Passport noted a very interesting tidbit from Der Spiegel: French President Nicholas Sarkozy apparently suggested that "perhaps the Germans would consider taking a political stake in the French atomic arsenal."
Der Spiegel appears to be the only source for this assertion, which could actually have several interpretations. Der Spiegel itself interpreted it as a suggestion that France might physically host nuclear weapons on German soil, but derided the idea as "pointless" and just another in a series of Sarkozy’s gaffes that have "surprised, stymied, annoyed, and flabbergasted" German leaders.
The magazine failed to note, however, that such an offer would not be without precedent, since Germany has hosted U.S. nuclear warheads for decades (for use by NATO forces). All but a handful have been withdrawn, but somewhere around 20 remain, probably at Ramstein Air Force Base. Hosting French nuclear weapons in a similar manner would not suddenly make Germany a nuclear power—which makes the German response, that "Germany did not seek to become a nuclear power," all the more perplexing.
Perhaps this incident is really a story about European integration, which has often been driven forward by a Franco-German "engine" of cooperation. One of the most difficult sticking points of integration in the European Union has always been defense capabilities—of which nuclear weapons are perhaps the most difficult, for obvious reasons.
Even in the context of integration, though, the facts on this incident are too vague to come to any firm conclusions. Perhaps Sarkozy is trying to jumpstart the integration process, in the face of possible new referendums on a new EU constitution. Perhaps he was trying to position France, as opposed to Britain, as the critical guarantor of the EU's security. Either way, the nuclear aspect of cooperation in Europe will be an area to watch in coming years.
Glenn Kessler has another big piece on the mysterious Israeli raid on Syria, this time on the front page and coauthored with Robin Wright. Joseph Cirincione writes in with an update to last week's blog commentary on this story, which isn't going away:
The Syria-North Korea story continues to spiral out of control, based as far as I can see on hyperbole and speculation. Its tiny spark has been repeatedly fanned by The Washington Post into what the paper yesterday called "the boldest act of nuclear preemption" since Israel's attack on the Iraq reactor at Osirik in 1981.
But there is no Syrian reactor about to go on line generating plutonium, as there was then in Iraq. (That attack, by the way, was condemned by the world, including President Ronald Reagan, and it backfired, pushing Iraq's program underground and onto a fast track.) There is no evidence that there was anything of nuclear significance in Syria.
I have been at the IAEA's General Conference in Vienna all week. No delegation has raised this issue in the conference. The last two times there were attacks on nuclear facilities—the Israeli Osirak bombing, and the Iraqi attack on Iranian facilities during the Iran-Iraq war—the attacks brought the conference to a screeching halt. This time, nothing.
I have spoken to dozens of experts and officials here, including American officials. None has any knowledge of any significant Syrian nuclear program or can imagine what sort of North Korean exchange with Syria would have constituted a nuclear threat worthy of an airstrike.
The last time American officials raised claims of suspect activities, in 2003, IAEA inspectors went to Syria for a "transparency inspection" and were given wide latitude above and beyond the official requirements of routine inspection. The inspectors accounted for all equipment and facilities and judged it improbable that key elements of the equipment could be diverted from the stated research use without clearly impacted the use for which they were intended. The claims, trumpeted by then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton, were baseless.
This hasn't stopped Bolton, now with the full support of the Post, from crying wolf again. If the United States, Israel or any nation seriously believed there was prohibited or suspicious nuclear activity, they could have called for a special inspection. They still could. Any nuclear material—even after a bombing—would leave traces that IAEA inspectors could detect. This is precisely why we have international agencies—to provide independent, rapid verification of suspect activities. The Washington Post's encouragement for states to shoot first invites a more unstable, less secure world for all.
FP interviewed Bolton earlier this week on this story as well, and he told us, "what exactly the target is, I don't know myself." The North Koreans need to provide "very clear answers" about their alleged proliferation activities, Bolton said. But why not send the IAEA to Syria to verify that there was, in fact, nuclear material at the supposed site? That would clear up this whole mystery, no?
UPDATE: Glenn Kessler writes in—
I just want to make clear that I, as a reporter, have nothing to do with the opinions of The Washington Post editorial page. Joe's commentary seems to merge the news reporting of the Post with the editorial that appeared yesterday. He also seems to suggest the Post has been all alone on this story, when in fact my competitors at The New York Times have also broken good stories on this subject. The story today reported that Israel shared this intelligence with the United States; it pointedly noted there are many questions about this intelligence and it has not been verified. Certainly, the official silence on this story has been striking, which makes it all the more puzzling.
Many folks have commented on this sensational story in Sunday's London Times, which describes in great detail a daring Israeli raid on a secret Syrian nuclear facility. I have more questions than answers at this point, but I remain very skeptical. Others have already poured cold water on the story, but Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper of the New York Times reported Tuesday—very carefully, you might observe—that some American officials apparently believe that Israeli jets attacked "a site that Israel believed to be associated with a rudimentary Syrian nuclear program." As Mazzetti and Cooper note, the sudden postponement of the six-party talks with North Korea remains a mystery, but it could be tied to tensions over this alleged incident.
After Google recently updated its satellite images of parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, much of the region still looked blotchy — the kind of low resolution that persists in coverage of, say, upstate New York. But several small squares (they stand out as off-color patches from 680 miles up) suddenly became as detailed as the images of Manhattan. These sectors happen to be precisely where the US government has been hunting for bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Turns out, Google gets its images from many of the same satellite companies — DigitalGlobe, TerraMetrics, and others-that provide reconnaissance to US intelligence agencies. And when the CIA requests close-ups of the area around Peshawar in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, Google Earth reaps the benefits (although usually six to 18 months later).
Remembering this, I set out to discover if there happened to be any high-resolution images on Google Earth around the area where the Israeli air strikes reportedly took place. The London Times story purported to offer some clues:
An audacious raid on a Syrian target 50 miles from the Iraqi border was under way. [...] The target was identified as a northern Syrian facility that purported to be an agricultural research centre on the Euphrates river.
Following this description takes you to al-Mayadin, a Syrian town along the Euphrates river and roughly 50 miles from the Iraqi border. Here's what the area looks like on Google Earth:
There are a couple things to note about the above image. One, it certainly doesn't look like the green banks of the Euphrates are desert, though CNN quoted "sources in the region and the United States" as saying that the air strikes "left a big hole in the desert." Two, the image is not, you may have noticed, very high resolution. (Nor are the areas around it, in case you're wondering.) Contrast blurry al-Mayadin and environs with this shot of Natanz, Iran's once-secret uranium processing facility:
If U.S. intelligence agencies had suspected nuclear activities near al-Mayadin, Cole's reporting suggests that we'd see high-res pictures in Google Earth. But that does not appear to be the case. I can think of several possible explanations:
What do you think?
A number of reports out of Asia today add precious little clarity to what is becoming a growing international story: Israel's alleged bombing on September 6 of nuclear materials of North Korean origin in Syria. First, South Korean and Japanese officials mysteriously said that the next round six-party talks to end North Korea's nuclear program, which had been scheduled for September 19, are being delayed. Japanese officials told the Associated Press they did not know why Pyongyang delayed the talks. However, AFP reported that South Korean officials said the talks were pushed back because the Chinese had yet to deliver 50,000 tons of fuel, as they agreed to do in February. An unidentified South Korean foreign ministry official said:
It appears the North's refusal is a simple protest against something it is not happy with, rather than to squeeze more out of the others.
News of the delay was unexpected, given Kim Jong Il's recent cooperative moves. It's also suspicious, as the most likely reasons for a delay would seem to be related to the charge North Korea was providing nuclear assistance to Syria. That connection was disputed by Joseph Cirincione here, but the story continues to gain traction in the British press, with detailed new reports over the weekend alleging the North Korea-Syria axis. On Saturday, U.S. nuclear negotiator Chris Hill didn't directly address the allegations, but told reporters the plan in any case was to press ahead with the six-party talks. On Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Gates neither denied nor confirmed the allegations, but said that the U.S. was watching both North Korea and Syria closely.
Then on Monday morning, Seoul's foreign minister dismissed any nuclear connection between North Korea and Syria. Granted, this could be an effort by the South Koreans to salvage the talks the progress made in the last year, and the upcoming summit between the two Koreas. But given the sensational quality of the reports—clandestine air strikes, dumped fuel tanks on the Turkish border, secret nuclear caches and such—this story is not likely to disappear.
The French and the Germans have cooperated on many fronts since the end of World War II. Their partnership is largely credited with driving economic growth in Europe, and both countries champion further European integration. Now, French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to take the relationship to a whole new level.
According to a report in Der Spiegel, Sarkozy, in a recent meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, asked if Germany would be interested in some French nuclear weapons. Der Spiegel explains the German reaction thusly:
Both the chancellor and her foreign minister were speechless. The idea of possessing nuclear weapons is taboo in Germany. Sarzoky's predecessor Jacques Chirac cautiously brought up the issue 12 years ago, but he quickly realized it was pointless to pursue it.
Steinmeier eventually explained that as Germany had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; it wasn't interested in French nukes. Merkel said nothing.
Sarkozy's offer is the latest in a series of odd incidents between the French and the Germans. For instance, Sarkozy asked Merkel to force German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück to publicly apologize for contradicting the French president at an EU meeting over the independence of the Central European Bank. Merkel told Sarkozy she couldn't reprimand Steinbrück, as he was articulating German policy.
Disputes over more substantive issues like Iraq have also emerged. The Germans were miffed when French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner visited Baghdad recently to express support for U.S. policy. Berlin was also upset by France's nuclear agreement with Libya. Both were done without consultation.
What does this new dynamic between France and Germany mean for the rest of Europe? Der Speigel says it best: "It's possible that Europe's legendary Franco-German motor might shift into neutral for a while."
I think we know what side of the burgeoning "bomb Iran" discussion Bob Gates is on. Speaking with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, who asked about comments by Gen. David Petraeus about Iranian Revolutionary Guards bases thought to be supplying arms to Shiite militants in Iraq, the U.S. secretary of defense indicated that diplomacy remains the Bush administration's preferred approach to the Islamic Republic. My transcription:
Wallace: As the general's boss, why not cross the Iranian border to take out these camps that are endangering U.S. soldiers [in Iraq]?
Gates: Now, first of all, there's a question of just how much intelligence we have in terms of specific locations and so on. But beyond that, I think that the general view is we can manage this problem through better operations inside Iraq and on the border with Iran—that we can take care of the Iranian threat or deal with the Iranian threat inside the borders of Iraq, and don't need to go across the border into Iran.
Wallace: Let me ask you a more general question, because there's a lot of chatter in Washington now that the administration is more actively considering various plans to take military action against Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment program. First of all, is that true, and secondly, can you promise that the president will consult, will go to Congress for approval before he would ever take any such action?
Gates: Well, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about what we may or may not do. I will tell you that I think that the administration believes at this point that continuing to try an deal with the Iranian threat, the Iranian challenge, through diplomatic and economic means is by far the preferable approach. That's the one we are using. We always say, "All options are on the table," but clearly, the diplomatic and economic approach is the one that we are pursuing.
Wallace: That's on the front burner still?
Wallace then turned to another, possibly related subject of Washington chatter: the recent Israeli air strikes on Syria. Many analysts view the strikes as a pointed warning from Israel to Iran; some administration officials say they were aimed at North Korean nuclear materials. Gates was cagey:
Wallace: Let's turn to another part of the world. Is Syria involved in a covert nuclear program with North Korean assistance?
Gates: Well, I'm not going to get into things that may involve intelligence matters, but all I will say is we are watching the North Koreans very carefully. We watch the Syrians very carefully.
Wallace: How would we regard that kind of effort, both in terms of the Syrians and the North Koreans?
Gates: I think it would be a real problem.
Gates: If such an activity were taking place, it would be a matter of great concern, because the president has put down a very strong marker with the North Koreans about further proliferation efforts and obviously, any effort by the Syrians to pursue weapons of mass destruction would be a concern for us.
Something didn't smell quite right in Glenn Kessler's recent story in the Washington Post about a possible nuclear link between North Korea and Syria. It looked to me like déjà vu all over again. So I asked Joseph Cirincione, senior fellow and director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress, author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, and a frequent FP contributor, to weigh in. Here's his take:
This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have been headlined "White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection." This is a political story, not a threat story. The mainstream media seems to have learned nothing from the run-up to war in Iraq. It is a sad commentary on how selective leaks from administration officials who have repeatedly misled the press are still treated as if they were absolute truth.
Once again, this appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted "intelligence" to key reporters in order to promote a preexisting political agenda. If this sounds like the run-up to the war in Iraq, it should. This time it appears aimed at derailing the U.S.-North Korean agreement that administration hardliners think is appeasement. Some Israelis want to thwart any dialogue between the U.S. and Syria.
Few reporters appear to have done even basic investigation of the miniscule Syrian nuclear program (though this seems to be filtering into some stories running Friday). There is a reason that Syria is not included in most proliferation studies, including mine: It doesn't amount to much. Begun almost 40 years ago, the Syrian program is a rudimentary research program built around a tiny 30-kilowatt research reactor that produces isotopes and neutrons. It is nowhere near a program for nuclear weapons or nuclear fuel. Over a dozen countries have aided the program including Belgium, Germany, Russia, China, and the United States (where several Syrian scientists trained) as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If North Korea gave them anything short of nuclear weapons it is of little consequence. Syria does not have the financial, technical or industrial base to develop a serious nuclear program anytime in the foreseeable future.
Nor is there anything new about Syria being on the U.S. "watch list"; it has been for years. Unfortunately, this misleading story will now enter the lexicon of the far right. For months we will hear pundits citing the "Syrian-Iranian-Korean nuclear axis" and complaining that attempts to negotiate an end to North Korea's program are bound fail in the face of such duplicity, etc., etc.
The real story is how quickly the New York Times and the Washington Post snapped up the bait and ran exactly the story the officials wanted, thereby feeding a mini-media frenzy. It appears that nothing, not even a disastrous and unnecessary war, can break this Pavlovian response to an "intelligence scoop."
For information on the Syrian nuclear program that any reporter should have read, see the Web site of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
UPDATE: Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler responds via e-mail:
I think the world of Joe Cirincione. So I obviously take his concerns seriously.
All I can say in response is that I (and a number of uncredited colleagues) spent more than week knocking on doors of many agencies, seeking answers. No one tried to wave us off the story, including people who normally I thought would have tried their best to prevent us from printing it. I did note a number of caveats and explained that Syria never had much of a nuclear program. There appears to be a connection to the Israeli raid, which is now the subject of some of the tightest censorship in years. We will keep pursuing the story in hopes of providing greater clarity for our readers--and especially experts like Joe.
... more here from Kessler, who reports that the State Department's Chris Hill doesn't expect negotiations with North Korea to be derailed by this.
For at least a year and a half, a dangerous conventional wisdom has been percolating within the foreign-policy community and it is this: America ain't gonna attack Iran. Whether ignoring familiar warning signs or waving them away, most mainstream analysts are towing this line, too. If you don't believe me, just check out some examples of what I'm talking about here, here, and here (us, too). Too bogged down in Iraq. Just talking tough to Tehran. The generals won't let it happen. These are all convenient forms of denial, and the foreign-policy establishment and media appear to have bought into them big time.
And why shouldn't they? Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said flatly: "We are not planning for a war with Iran." But the situation appears to be changing—and fast. Germany reportedly informed the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council last week that it would not back further sanctions against the Islamic Republic. That decision could deadlock next week's meeting of the six powers in Washington, where Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns hopes to secure a new set of sanctions. The European Union is also failing to fully back International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei's plan for new inspections in Iran.
All of this has official Washington's patience wearing thin, and should be cause enough for concern. If not, this startling report out today by Fox News ought to do the trick:
Political and military officers, as well as weapons of mass destruction specialists at the State Department, are now advising Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the diplomatic approach favored by [Under Secretary of State Nicholas] Burns has failed and the administration must actively prepare for military intervention of some kind. Among those advising Rice along these lines are John Rood, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation; and a number of Mideast experts, including Ambassador James Jeffrey, deputy White House national security adviser under Stephen Hadley and formerly the principal deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs.... [T]he likely timeframe for any such course of action being over the next eight to 10 months, after the presidential primaries have probably been decided, but well before the November 2008 elections.
Next thing you know, you'll start hearing folks at AEI saying that Iran was responsible for 9/11. Wait a minute, that's already happening, as Peter Beinart pointed out in Sunday's New York Times. "It's the 2007 equivalent of the claims made in 2002 and 2003 about Iraq," Beinart noted. "The years between 9/11 and the Iraq war gave rise to a cottage industry ... charging that Saddam Hussein was the hidden mastermind behind a decade of jihadist terror. While refuted by the 9/11 Commission and mainstream terror experts, these claims had a political effect."
Looks like it's time to stop the epidemic of denial that has the foreign-policy community convinced that an attack on Iran is out of the question. Before it's too late.
Last week, the Pentagon admitted that a B-52 had mistakenly flown nuclear-armed cruise missiles across the United States. And worse, for almost fourteen hours no one—at the base of departure, on the bomber itself, or at the base of arrival—had any idea something was wrong. Officials have assured the public that there was no danger of a nuclear explosion, even if the plane had crashed.
The specific warheads carried by U.S. cruise missiles belong to the W80 family, in this case the W80-1. (Other versions of the W80 are designed for use with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which are launched from submarines.) There are about 1,450 of these warheads in the active stockpile, with another 360 or so in the inactive stockpile. They have "dialable" (variable) yields of up to 150 kilotons, or about 10 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. And, as mentioned by the Pentagon, they have several safety measures built in to prevent accidental detonation.
First, the actual detonation system is physically protected by an "exclusion zone," which isolates it from electric (and to some extent physical) shocks. The exclusion zone can be connected to the rest of the warhead’s electronics by a "strong link," which does not physically connect until the warhead is armed.
An accident—fire, lighting strike, crash, etc.—could breach either or both of these safeguards, so the electronics inside the exclusion zone also contain safeguards, called "weak links." These are electronic links designed to fail under lower stress than either the exclusion zone or the strong link. This ensures that, for instance, if the exclusion zone collapses, the weak links will as well and the nuclear core will remain inert.
And beyond those nested safety systems, most U.S. warheads have other safeguards, including insensitive high explosives that will not detonate easily due to mechanical shock. The biggest worry with this incident was not technical, but organizational: How did nuclear warheads get loaded onto a plane and flown across the country before anyone even noticed they were gone?
NYU professor and Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin started a flurry of speculation on liberal blogs this weekend when he posted this nugget:
Today I received a message from a friend who has excellent connections in Washington and whose information has often been prescient. According to this report, as in 2002, the rollout will start after Labor Day, with a big kickoff on September 11. My friend had spoken to someone in one of the leading neo-conservative institutions. He summarized what he was told this way:
They [the source's institution] have "instructions" (yes, that was the word used) from the Office of the Vice-President to roll out a campaign for war with Iran in the week after Labor Day; it will be coordinated with the American Enterprise Institute, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, Fox, and the usual suspects. It will be heavy sustained assault on the airwaves, designed to knock public sentiment into a position from which a war can be maintained. Evidently they don't think they'll ever get majority support for this--they want something like 35-40 percent support, which in their book is "plenty.
But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn't fear a U.S. attack:
I am an engineer and I am a master in calculation and tabulation. I draw up tables. For hours, I write out different hypotheses. I reject, I reason. I reason with planning and I make a conclusion. They cannot make problems for Iran."
Mahmoud's calculations are probably right. By rattling some sabers, but doing so in a deniable way, the Bush administration is trying to stiffen the spines of its European partners and the IAEA. The current goal is to pass new sanctions via the U.N. Security Council, not go to war. Remember, we saw a very similar pattern of leaks and official statements in the run up to the second round of sanctions that were passed in March. That drumbeat "worked" precisely because it sounded so plausible. But the Iranians aren't fooled. Expect them to keep thumbing their noses at everyone, while offering just enough cooperation with the IAEA to sow dissension among the Western powers.
Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a new agreement this week called Understandings of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the IAEA on the Modalities of Resolution of the Outstanding Issues (pdf). "Outstanding Issues" refers to the handful of past and current issues with Iran's nuclear program that the IAEA has not been able to resolve to its satisfaction.
Essentially, the agreement lays out a logical order for addressing these issues and begins to set a timetable for doing so. The IAEA is to submit all outstanding questions in writing by September 15, 2007, and Iran will then respond to each in a defined sequence.
The agreement is a mixed bag, from a U.S. perspective. On the upside, the IAEA appears to have resolved its outstanding questions on Iran's plutonium experiments, the first such resolution in four years. And clarifying publicly the issues that remain to be addressed, as well as setting out which should be resolved first, will be helpful as the diplomatic process moves forward.
But the agreement also has its downsides, some of which David Albright and Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) pointed out (pdf) yesterday. They worry that the text's reference to "closing files" could block reconsideration of crucial issues, if new information came to light after a particular issue was "closed." Albright and Shire also note that the timetable for the process has been drawn out at least until late 2007, and possibly even to early 2008.
However, ISIS's press release does not mention a worrisome undercurrent running through the entire agreement. Basically, Iran is putting the burden of proof on the IAEA to show that its nuclear activities are not peaceful. The underfunded, understaffed Agency would benefit greatly from a political push to reverse this state of affairs; member states themselves should be responsible for providing such proof.
A recent report by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center suggests one way of achieving this: "country-neutral" rules regarding noncompliance, which would go into effect automatically if the IAEA cannot reach consensus on the compliance of a suspected proliferator. Such rules would trigger certain consequences if consensus is not reached, regardless of the country being scrutinized, and would give much stronger incentives for countries like Iran to actively work at dispelling worries about their nuclear programs. If this role reversal could be achieved, Iran and its ilk would have much more difficulty buying time or avoiding sanctions by manipulating the IAEA.
As the so-called "war on terror" rolls on, the balance between security and public oversight remains tense. Recently, this tension surfaced when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission revealed a series of previously undisclosed accidents that took place over the past few years at Nuclear Fuel Services, one of only two U.S. companies that are allowed to process highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear fuel. In 2004, citing national-security concerns, the NRC deemed as "Official Use Only" all documents relating to Nuclear Fuel Services and the other HEU processing company, BWX Technologies, and sealed them away from public view.
As a result, several "abnormal occurrences" remained secret, including one particularly dangerous incident involving a spill of 9 gallons of HEU in liquid solution on March 6, 2006. When in liquid form, HEU must be handled with particular care to prevent creating a critical mass. If enough of the liquid collects within a certain volume, a dangerous, uncontrolled chain reaction can occur. Usually, such reactions will not result in a nuclear explosion, but they do release significant amounts of radiation. Processing facilities have extensive safeguards in place to prevent this, but accidents do happen.
This time, the spill did not turn out to be serious, ranking a lowly 2 out of 7 on the IAEA's International Nuclear Events Scale. (With a 2, there is very little threat to the surrounding area or even to the actual facility. Three Mile Island was a 5. With a 7, you're in Chernobyl territory.)
It's worrisome, however, that the NRC kept such a basic safety breach secret for so long. Rather than examining documents to see which truly contained sensitive information, the NRC just hid everything. And interestingly, the NRC did not fine Nuclear Fuel Services for the violation. Instead, a performance review was initiated. In past years, the NRC fined companies for violations like this and made the events public. Replacing fines with performance reviews is fine, but the NRC should bring back public announcements. To its credit, the NRC at least admits that "the pendulum maybe swung too far" towards excessive secrecy.
Potential terrorists might benefit from knowing the exact details of an accident or the security changes implemented after it, but there will rarely be much harm in disclosing the incident itself. In some cases even the old security procedures that led to such accidents could be safely disclosed, if they were no longer being used. And in general, increasing the transparency of the NRC's oversight role can spur greater vigilance and hopefully help prevent more dangerous "nuclear mishaps" in the future.
A few months ago, I predicted the U.S.-India nuclear deal would "mutate, but move forward, in the coming months." With negotiations between the United States and India completed and a draft agreement released, mutated may be too mild a description of its policy shifts.
According to Sharon Squassoni of the Carnegie Endowment, "As far as I can tell, the U.S. caved to all the Indian demands."
Among other things, the United States agreed that if it ever recalled its nuclear technology, it would reimburse India for the "fair market value thereof and for the costs incurred as a consequence of such removal." So if India tested a nuclear weapon and the U.S. government terminated cooperation—as required under U.S. law—and demanded its stuff back, American taxpayers would have to pay India for the privilege.
The U.S. Congress, which must approve the deal before it can go forward, still seems interested, but has so far reacted cautiously. As expected, Pakistan has expressed strong displeasure, citing a "nuclear arms race in the region" as one possible outcome of the deal. But goodwill toward Pakistan is at an ebb in Washington, and the U.S. administration brushed this claim aside.
In fact, it may be in India where the critics are loudest. There, opposition to the deal is wide-ranging, based on nonproliferation concerns as well as national sovereignty; coming from the Left parties as well as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which controlled the government when India tested nuclear weapons in 1998. So it's no surprise that on Monday, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed India's parliament on the deal, he faced a maelstrom of anger.
So why is this tortured agreement still moving forward? Aside from the oft-mentioned strategic concerns (grand alliance of democracies, counterbalance China, etc), the business communities in both countries have been lobbying hard for the deal. According to the U.S.-India Business Council, the planned expansion of India's civilian nuclear industry could generate $150 billion in commercial opportunities for U.S. companies. And India's third-biggest electric provider, Tata Power, has already lined up "major nuclear equipment suppliers and is ready to go." Remember Ike's famous warning about the danger posed by the military-industrial complex? Perhaps he was on to something.
I must admit, I don't lose sleep worrying about what's inside the 11 million containers that arrive at U.S. ports every year. But with the new anti-terrorism bill being debated in the U.S. Congress, container security has become a (relatively) hot topic. Today, only the containers deemed high risk get separated and scanned, but Democrats are pushing to screen every piece of cargo in case there is a bomb packed somewhere among all those sneakers and DVD players.
According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, this 100-percent scanning plan will only disrupt the flow of commerce and raise transportation costs for U.S. importers. And it makes no sense for a terrorist to smuggle in an explosive this way, argue James Jay Carafano and Robert Quartel of the Heritage Foundation, since it would be much easier to assemble it once it arrives. They add:
If terrorists had a nuclear weapon, it's not at all clear why they would risk allowing it leave their control. After all the time and trouble required to build a bomb, would they really wave good-bye and hope it gets to the right place?
Carafano dismisses the comprehensive-scanning proposal as just another form of "feel good security." That sounds about right to me.
France's chattering classes are agog at l'audace of Nicolas Sarkozy, who sent his wife Cécilia to Libya earlier this week. Cécilia flew to Tripoli to secure the dramatic release of five Bulgarian nurses in a deal that, in truth, had already been all but inked by more publicity-shy EU and Bulgarian negotiators. Back in 2006, the Bulgarians, the Libyans, and the European Union set up a fund for over 400 Libyan kids who had been infected with HIV. That was the vehicle through which this deal eventually worked, but Cécilia is getting most of the credit for her last-minute involvement. Miffed EU officials have, understandably, grumbled to the press about how the Sarkozys are stealing their diplomatic triumph.
But the French are actually getting away with more than mere publicity here. French companies are wasting no time cutting deals with the Libyans in the defense, oil, gas, and civilian nuclear sectors, with more likely on the way.
So what does Libya get? The nurses' harrowing tales of their internment certainly give Libyan jails a black eye, but the regime is getting the international recognition and investment it has long craved. No domestic reform necessary. Thus, the real long-term winner of Libya's euros-for-hostages deal may be not Sarkozy, but Seif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the Western-educated son of the Libyan leader who was heavily involved in the negotiations over the Bulgarian nurses. You can bet that Seif is going to take his share of the proceeds, and that Libya's heir apparent has advanced his claim to the throne with this coup.
Fast-rising oil prices and greenhouse gas emissions have reignited the debate over nuclear power. Some claim this type of energy is clean and safe; others argue that going nuclear is not the great green hope.
On Monday, Mother Nature scored a point for the skeptics. An earthquake of magnitude 6.8 hit the coast of central Japan caused some leaks in the nuclear power plant near the city of Kashiwazaki. The Tokyo Electric Power Company told the BBC on Monday that "the small amount of radioactive material that leaked into the sea posed no environmental risk." The New York Times reports that this "small amount" was "317 gallons of water containing trace levels of radioactive materials."
This isn't the first time Japan has had problems with nukes, the BBC article notes:
The safety of Japan's nuclear installations, which supply much of Japan's power, have come under the spotlight in recent years after a string of accidents and mishaps.
But if Japan's jitters are enough to make us fret, what about Pakistan? President Musharraf's rule is not the only shaky thing in the country. Sitting right on top of the rift between the Asian continent and the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan is one of the hottest seismological spots in the world. The latest brutal evidence of this came in in October of 2005, when an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 killed more than 86,000 people.
Japan's sophisticated reactors shut down during Monday's earthquake, but I have my doubts that the same would have happened in Pakistan. Or consider Iran, where the same crowd that was responsible for Chernobyl is running the show. Are we sure nuclear energy is the best energy solution for developing countries?
"All parts of [our] centrifuges are built in Iran," said an advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. If true, it's depressing news. Some analysts argue that the Iranians are having trouble enriching uranium because they can't import the right spare parts.
On the other hand, Khamenei might just be blowing smoke. The Iranians say they can make all the parts, but that doesn't mean they can make all the parts well. They're still feeding uranium into the assembled centrifuges slowly, which could indicate worries about operating them at high speeds. And the centrifuges are not being spun at full capacity, either.
Most likely, the Supreme Leader wants to instill doubt in the Security Council that new, targeted sanctions would be effective. Khamenei's assertion—combined with a few other recent Iranian maneuvers—could delay Security Council action, at the least. At worst, it could splinter support among the permanent five and entirely derail the possibility of further action.
Few people have noted two other interesting tidbits in Iran's announcement. First, it was an advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei, not President Ahmadinejad, who made the statement. Rumor has it Khamenei thought Ahmadinejad was going too far in his rhetoric towards the West about Iran's nuclear program. With Khamenei's advisor now making aggressive statements in support of the nuclear program, perhaps the Supreme Leader has decided to adopt a confrontational approach more like that of Ahmadinejad.
Second, Khamenei's news may have caused crude oil prices to rally earlier this week. Iranians are increasingly unhappy with their country's deteriorating economy, and violent unrest followed the government's recent decision to ration gasoline. Khamenei may be trying to manipulate the oil markets, hoping to alleviate domestic pressure. Given how fickle oil markets can be, this might be an encouraging sign of just how desperate the Iranian regime has become.
The nuclear community has been abuzz lately with talk of a "nuclear renaissance"—a prophesied increase in the use of nuclear energy due to its low greenhouse emissions and relative dependability. Charles Ferguson and Sharon Squassoni outlined their concerns for FP here, and in fact, a lot of nonproliferation wonks have been agonizing over this for a different reason than Ferguson and Squassoni lay out: An increase in nuclear energy will almost inevitably involve the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies.
Here's something else for the wonks to chew over. At this week's Carnegie Nonproliferation Conference, Mark Hibbs of Nucleonics Weekly, one of the most careful reporters in the field, expressed his belief that if nuclear power expands as projected, the current market to supply precision materials will not be sufficient to meet demand. This could force the creation of a "second tier" of nuclear suppliers who, by virtue of inexperience, callousness, or other factors, may be less committed to export controls like those recommended by the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
If Hibbs is right, a lot of dangerous technology could wind in the hands of the wrong people. Watch this space.
After many, many fits and starts, North Korea reportedly got its $25 million in frozen funds back today. Banco Delta Asia released the money to a undisclosed location, possibly a Russian bank.
The apparent issue holding up the transfer was that the North Koreans didn't want the United States to simply wire them the money; they wanted a private bank to handle the funds in order to confer a sense of legitimacy on the country's accounts. But no bank would take the reputational risk involved in passing along cash that could be tied to drugs or money laundering.
One thing the North Koreans will soon find out, however: Resolution of the $25 million won't end the country's financial isolation. As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Wall Street Journal recently:
Once one of these -- once you are -- your accounts are called out this way in the international financial system, the international financial system is not readily available.
This is a problem for the international community as well as North Korea, however. Kim Jong Il's regime engages in nasty illegal activities not for the heck of it, but to make up for an estimated $1.7 billion shortfall (pdf) in hard currency. Now that the nuclear deal appears to be going forward, serious effort needs to be made to help the North Koreans understand that there are other ways to make a buck.
Soviet Russia was never overly concerned with nuclear waste disposal. For decades, the Soviets simply dumped radioactive materials into the Arctic Ocean or erected temporary storage facilities for such materials. Those facilities are now beginning to age, and are becoming a serious environmental problem. Frighteningly, one of these facilities may even be in danger of exploding.
Norwegian researchers have obtained an alarming report from Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, about a site on the Kola Peninsula, an ore-rich area near the northern border with Norway. Since 1982, 21,000 spent uranium fuel assemblies have been stored there in three concrete tanks right next to the coast. Inside the tanks, large metal pipes contain the rods. Unfortunately, the concrete has begun to leak and allow sea water in, corroding the metal tubes.
Leakage is a problem because spent rods contain many types of fissile isotopes, and salt water could cause them to disintegrate relatively quickly. Essentially, those fissile isotopes will dissolve in the water, creating a radioactive slurry inside the tubes.
This could be dangerous because, in the right conditions, enough fissile material concentrated in a small space creates a lot of heat—the same principle we exploit for nuclear power generation. Uncontrolled, this heat could cause steam to build up in the tubes, eventually leading them to explode. If concentrations of fissile material are high enough, dangerous chain reactions could occur, releasing more intense (and potentially explosive) "bursts of radiation and heat." The risk of such explosions is small— both Russian and Norwegian nuclear officials have accordingly "downplayed the danger"—but still significant given the potential for widespread fallout.
And while an actual atomic explosion is probably impossible in this situation, even steam explosions could send huge quantities of dangerously radioactive material into the environment. Rosatom claims there is no danger of that happening, but given the Russian track record on waste disposal, we should watch sites like this very carefully.
Last week, the New York Times reported that Iran "appears to have solved most of its technological problems and is now beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before." The article now reads like a preview of what International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei will likely tell the U.N. Security Council tomorrow in New York: that Iran already possesses "the knowledge about how to enrich," and that therefore trying to convince Iran to comply with U.N. resolutions and suspend its enrichment program is pointless. ElBaradei's remarks quoted in the Times have provoked the ire of United States and the EU3, so the findings on which they are based bear close scrutiny.
According to the Times, the IAEA found that the Natanz plant has "roughly 1,300" centrifuges, all of which "were producing fuel suitable for nuclear reactors." A few months ago, I noted that Iran was probably running fewer than 500 centrifuges, with perhaps another 300 installed, so 1,300 would represent a significant gain.
However, the Iranians failed to meet their goal of having 3,000 centrifuges installed by March. David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security, thinks they could achieve that number by the end of June, though at the rate they've been going the Iranians would not achieve it until September.
Also, the Times article says nothing about Iran's ability to machine centrifuge parts, or about Iran's ability to produce sufficiently pure gas to feed into the centrifuges, or about whether the existing centrifuge cascades are linked together—a necessary step to produce useful levels of enrichment—or about whether the cascades can operate continuously. (The inspection, while performed at very short notice, might have just caught the Iranians on a good day).
So, in short: Take reports about Iran's capabilities with a grain of salt, and listen carefully to tomorrow's report from ElBaradei. Iran still has a ways to go before it can produce significant quantities of its own nuclear weapons-grade uranium. As Jeffrey Lewis observed last week, there's an important distinction between "knowing how to enrich and perfecting that knowledge," and it's over that ground that the next diplomatic battle will be waged.
Reporting on the Russia-Burma nuclear deal Christine covered yesterday has been somewhat inconsistent, so I'd like to clarify some details for Passport readers.
First, it is unclear what sort of uranium fuel the facility will require. Some reports say 20 percent enriched; others say under 20 percent (civilian reactors generally use 3-5 percent). Since any level of enrichment above 20 percent is usable in a weapon, this is a crucial distinction.
Second, the size of the reactor doesn't matter if Burma wants a uranium bomb—it could only serve to justify purchases of highly enriched uranium. IAEA safeguards and Russian controls on the fuel supply will be the real barriers to a Burmese nuclear weapons program.
One thing to keep in mind: Talks over the reactor are "only preliminary." As Christine said: Watch closely.
Back in April, amid speculation that Vice President Dick Cheney had lost influence within the Bush administration, I wrote of the North Korea deal:
Cheney, like Richard Perle and John Bolton, thinks the North Korea deal will ultimately fail. If and when it does, he'll be vindicated. That's why he let it go through.
Well, here comes former Ambassador to the U.N. Bolton with a big, fat, "I told you so" column in today's Wall Street Journal. Writing a day after a historic train ride between the two Koreas, Bolton crows:
Over a month has passed since sweetness and light were due to break out on the Korean Peninsula. On Feb. 13, the Six-Party Talks in Beijing ratified a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and North Korea, providing for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs. The first step, 60 days after ratification, was to be that North Korea "will shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment" the Yongbyon nuclear facility, and readmit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Other steps were to follow, but the first move was unequivocally to be made by Pyongyang. The 60 days came and went, and indeed, another 35 days have come and gone. No IAEA inspectors have been readmitted, and not even Pyongyang claims that it has "shut down" Yongbyon.
I'm not ready to declare the deal a failure just yet. But you can expect Cheney to do so, and to use the situation to his advantage on other fronts—such as Iran, where he's been losing the policy fight to the State Department of late. (Witness the upcoming bilateral talks on Iraq between the United States and Iran.) Bolton hints at next steps in his piece:
How these issues play out will have ramifications far beyond North Korea, particularly for Iran.
Indeed they will. Cheney has hinted darkly that the United States may have to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, if only because Israel will do so on its own. Incidentally, 71 percent of Israelis "believe that the United States should launch a military attack on Iran if diplomatic efforts fail to halt Tehran's nuclear program." Military action is not necessarily on the table—few in Washington think that, at least for now. We might just see a more confrontational approach to Tehran, tighter sanctions, less willingness to offer incentives, etc. The point is, if you think the hawks have completely lost this argument, think again. Of course, if U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill manages to get the North Korea deal back on track, Iran will then be State's game to lose.
Lost in the hubbub surrounding Condoleezza Rice's Russia visit earlier this week was some disturbing news out of Moscow. Pretty much as soon as Rice boarded her plane to return home, Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom announced that it would help build a nuclear energy research facility in Burma. The facility will have a 10MW light-water reactor, use 20 percent-enriched uranium-235, and have processes for storing nuclear waste. Russia plans on training some 300 scientists for the center.
With such low-grade uranium, and with a relatively limited reactor, the center will not have capabilities to develop a nuclear weapons program. Also, Burma is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Moreover, Rosatom promises its activities will be supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Nevertheless, the news is troubling on many fronts. Russia has history of exporting nuclear science to regimes that the West considers sketchy. And for the past 45 years, Burma has been controlled by a military-led junta that Human Rights Watch describes as one of the most repressive in the world. Since 1996, when the United States and the EU imposed sanctions on Burma for its human rights violations, Russia has become a leading supplier of weapons to Burma's military.
According to The Irrawaddy (a Thailand-based publication about Burma that FP covered last year), Burma has been trying to develop a nuclear energy since 2000, when science and technology minister U Thaung visited Moscow to solicit support. The resulting agreement fell through when questions arose about how the impoverished Burmese would pay for Russia's assistance. But now, evidently, Burma's vast natural gas reserves have provided the necessary capital.
So far, the cost and specific location of the project has not been disclosed. And obviously, it will be some time before ground is broken, and even more time until the facility is up and running. But still, this is something to watch closely. Very closely.
After a week of deadlock, the standoff at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting was resolved Tuesday … by a footnote. Iran had balked at a phrase in the agenda stressing the "need for full compliance with" the NPT treaty. Just as it seemed likely that the conference would effectively end if nothing happened by Tuesday morning, Iran acceded to a compromise submitted by South Africa. The magic solution? A simple footnote making explicit that the contested phrase refers to all aspects of the treaty, including those that require major nuclear powers like the United States to disarm.
Silly as it sounds, this was actually a rather clever solution. Iran got the clarification it desired, while others avoided setting a precedent for changing an agenda text and saved the conference from being a complete waste of time. Now, the agenda can move forward on disarmament, setting up a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, and compliance with NPT safeguards.
Even if the agenda antics were initially the product of confusion in Tehran, Iran appears to have recovered its usual diplomatic finesse. The country was certainly tarred as obstructionist, but it also benefited in at least two important ways. Leaving just two days for the conferees to deal with substantive issues, Iran has minimized the amount of time available for criticism of its own nuclear program. And by waiting for non-aligned South Africa to introduce a compromise, Iran placated its own supporters and avoided bowing to pressure from the West and its allies. This conference was not a resounding victory for Iran, but it does have successes to celebrate.
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.