What should we make of Iran's announcement that the country's production of nuclear fuel has reached "industrial scale"?
Arms control analyst Jeffrey Lewis reacted thusly to the news on his blog: "Whatever."
As Lewis goes on to explain in wonkish detail, there are good reasons to be skeptical of Iran's enrichment prowess. After all, getting enough material to build a bomb is extremely difficult. (Lewis coauthored the cover story on how a pickup team of terrorists could build a crude nuclear bomb for FP's November/December 2006 issue.)
So why make these grandiose claims, if they're so easy to debunk? Most likely, as nuke expert David Albright explains to the New York Times, "Ahmadinejad is trying to demonstrate facts on the ground and negotiate from a stronger position." After all, it worked for North Korea.
It will be interesting to see how the Bush administration reacts to Iran's announcement. As recently as March 27, the State Department's Nicholas Burns was essentially mocking the Iranians' lack of technical acumen:
I think the Iranians have had a considerable degree of difficulty in proceeding with their enrichment experimentation," he says. "They have made these fantastic claims . . . and yet according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, they have not been able to manage quite as well as they thought they would."
That, however, was before Iran played catch-and-release with 15 British sailors and marines, putting the U.S. military on edge. My guess? The Bush administration will keep plowing ahead on the diplomatic track at the United Nations and ratcheting up the financial pressure, while quietly signaling that it is ready to go the military route if Iran doesn't back down.
Buried in Saturday's New York Times profile of Rudy Giuliani, Republican candidate for president and former mayor of New York City, was this embarrassing goof:
At a house party in New Hampshire, Mr. Giuliani suggested that it was unclear which was farther along, Iran or North Korea, in the development of a nuclear weapons program.
For the record, North Korea tested a nuclear device on October 9, 2006, while the Iranians have yet to do so. The U.S. intelligence community believes Iran could have a nuclear weapon as early as 2010, but most likely in the time frame of 2012-2015.
I think it's time for Rudy to get new briefers. Alternatively, he could just read the newspaper every once in a while—lots of important information in there.
|35%||Demand for nuclear fuel currently not being met by nuclear fuel production worldwide [link]|
|4x||Amount China plans to increase its production of nuclear energy by 2020 [link]|
|3||Number of new nuclear power plants China needs to build per year until 2020 to meet that goal [link]|
|440||Number of nuclear reactors currently in operation worldwide [link]|
|82||Number of new nuclear power plants to be constructed in the next 10 years [link]|
|8||Number of countries that produce 80 percent of the world's uranium supply [link]|
|$64||Spot price of 1 lb of uranium (U308) in November, 2006 [link]|
|$95||Spot price of 1 lb of uranium (U308) on March 23, 2007 [link]|
|$1,787||Approximate cost of 1 kg of processed reactor-grade uranium, January 2007 [link]|
|Half-life of Uranium 238 [link]|
As part of its recent agreement with the United States, North Korea demanded the release of U.S. $25 million in funds linked to North Korea at Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macao, which were frozen by Macanese authorities in 2005 following U.S. accusations of money laundering. The U.S. Treasury Department's response has been confusing; Treasury green-lighted the release of all of North Korea's funds even as it confirmed that BDA was of "primary money laundering concern" and barred all American financial institutions from trading with it.
North Korea, in a face-saving gesture for the United States, agreed to use the funds only for "the betterment of the North Korean people." The DPRK will have access to the $25 million after it is transferred to a North Korean account at the presumably more trustworthy Bank of China in Beijing.
It's not clear, though, why the Macanese authorities agreed to cooperate with the United States at all (technically, the decision to release the funds was Macao's), given that the U.S. Treasury's decision "essentially crippled [BDA], paving the way for liquidation of its assets." Macao's acquiescence to a deal that has damaged its reputation and torpedoed a Macanese bank—even after an independent Macanese audit failed to find evidence of illegal activity—is hard to explain coming from a supposedly independent territory. (Read the rest after the jump)
Editor's note: Diyana Ishak was a fall researcher at FP. She's blogging from Iran this week, as time allows.
Want to get a real sense of a country's people? Go to a beauty salon.
Last weekend, my Iranian friend drove me, her aunt, and her grandmother to a back alley in central Tehran, where we walked into an apartment that had been converted into a makeshift beauty salon.
The place was chock full of Iranian women primping for the New Year. (The most popular services seemed to be full-face threading and blond highlights.) After much unsuccessful cajoling to get my eyebrows tattooed (another popular trend), I opted for a safer package. While I was getting my hair done and my eyebrows threaded, a coiffured lady in her 60s waxed philosophical about the cultural differences between London and Tehran.
In London, she said, one can get away with anything, but not in Tehran. Here, appearances are incredibly important. Every detail of one's self is scrutinized by others.
An intense physical consciousness is quintessentially Persian, my friend later explained to me. It goes beyond appearances to a strong sense of pride in having what Iranians see as their superior culture and history. You could call Iranians the French of the Middle East.
The analogy applies to politics, too. I asked a middle-aged Iranian man I encountered (not in the beauty salon), "How do you feel about what's happening between Iran and the United States?"
With Gaulle-like prickliness, he answered: "Other countries telling Iran not to develop nuclear weapons is bullying. We do not oppose nuclear technology, even though most Iranians do not agree with the regime. But we have an even deeper mistrust for the United States. When it comes down to it, most Iranians would rather side with Iran than with the United States."
The sentiment seems common here. True, many in Iran are not happy with the regime (according to my friend's exaggerated estimate, 100 percent are fed up), and pine for the cultural freedoms and modern outlook they once enjoyed under the Shah. But ever since former President Khatami's foiled attempt at reform, however, many Iranians have calculated that getting involved in politics just isn't worth the trouble. They're keeping their heads down at the moment, but I sense that Iranians believe they can make their great country again someday. They want to do so themselves, though, not via Western meddling.
In a recent FP cover story, The Bomb in the Backyard, nuke experts Peter Zimmerman and Jeffrey Lewis showed that for just a few million dollars, terrorists could purchase highly enriched uranium on the black market and basic military supplies on the Internet and— voilà—have a nuclear bomb.
To stop this nightmare scenario, U.S. border officials must be able to detect smuggled uranium at the border. That's extraordinarily difficult, explains Steve Coll in a recent piece for the New Yorker, because, "unless it is being compressed to explode, highly enriched uranium is a low-energy isotope that does not emit much radioactivity."
Undaunted, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has promised to shell out $1 billion on "next generation" monitors at port and border checkpoints in order to catch illicit uranium. But in its zeal to shell out some cash, DHS has conveniently overlooked the fact that its new detection monitors don't really work.
A stinging new GAO report shows DHS essentially lying to Congress by asserting that its new monitors were 95 percent effective in detecting smuggled uranium. (Congress had insisted on seeing increases in operational effectiveness before cutting the check for new monitors.) But in truth, the new monitors detected uranium around 70 percent of the time. And when it came to "masked" or hidden uranium, the best new monitors worked only half the time.
So why the discrepancy between the actual and the reported figures? DHS explained to the GAO that "they relied on the assumption that they will reach that [high] level of performance sometime in the future."
Because why have real results when you can make them up?
Joseph Cirincione, author of the brand-new book Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons and director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Center for American Progress, has penned a hard-hitting new web exclusive for ForeignPolicy.com:
What once appeared the exception now seems the rule. Officials in U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration are gingerly walking back from claims that North Korea was secretly building a factory to enrich uranium for dozens of atomic bombs. The intelligence, officials now say, was not as solid as they originally trumpeted. It does not seem that the North Korean program is as large or as advanced as claimed or that the country’s leaders are as set on building weapons as officials depicted.
If this sounds familiar, it should. The original claims came during the same period officials were hyping stories of Iraq’s weapons. Once again, the claims involve aluminum tubes. Once again, there was cherry-picking and exaggeration of intelligence. Once again, the policy shaped the intelligence, with enormous national security costs. The story of Iraq is well known; that unnecessary war has cost thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and an immeasurable loss of legitimacy. This time, the administration’s decision to tear up a successful agreement—using a dubious intelligence “finding” as an excuse—propelled the tiny, isolated country to subsequently build and test nuclear weapons, threatening to trigger a new wave of proliferation.
Pressure is mounting on the international community to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Iran remains defiant; its president has declared a policy of "no surrender" on his country's nuclear enrichment program. But the United Nations Security Council is putting the final touches on new sanctions that would penalize Tehran for its intransigence.
And there may be more on the way.
Key U.S. lawmaker Tom Lantos wants to go further than the Bush administration has been willing to go, and present countries—even U.S. allies and powerful states like Russia and China—with a choice: Either you’re with the United States, or you’re with Iran.
He says his new strategy is "the single most effective avenue of compelling Iran to give up its military nuclear ambition."
Find out why in this week’s Seven Questions.
Remember when debates about nuclear deterrence, mutually assured destruction, and ICBMs dominated Western politics? British politicians are enjoying a brief fit of nostalgia as Tony Blair pushes the government to update its old Trident missile system. Labour Party diehards are livid, and another government official just resigned on principle. Meanwhile, Greenpeace protesters are ratcheting up the rhetoric.
The Greenpeace campaigners clambered up the crane next to Big Ben and unfurled a 50ft banner suggesting the prime minister "loved" weapons of mass destruction. Armed with telephones to lobby MPs, the campaigners plan to occupy the spot until the parliamentary debate takes place tomorrow. One of the activists on the crane, Cat Dorey, said: "Trident is a cold war relic designed to destroy Russian cities. If MPs buckle under pressure from Tony Blair and vote to renew it, the repercussions will be felt around the world. We can't oppose proliferation of WMD if we're building them at home."
Parliament will vote on the measure tomorrow, and it is widely expected to pass, but expect some fireworks—and perhaps a few more resignations—in the House of Commons.
Everyone knows about the nuclear states: the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, and France, along with Pakistan, India, North Korea, and probably Israel. Another category of potential concern exists, though: nuclear-capable states.
FP looked at five of these back in October, but there are actually over 40 (pdf) nuclear-capable states, often defined as those that currently have or at some point had nuclear research reactors. The ability to build these indicates a certain level of technical expertise, and the reactors themselves can produce fissile material for use in weapons.
Taiwan, despite its lack of official statehood, has such a capability. It briefly pursued its own nuclear program following China's test in 1964 and then tried to build a secret facility in the late 1980s. And as the military buildup across the Taiwan Strait in China continues and Taiwan tests new missiles, this raises the question: How long would it take Taiwan to go nuclear?
The short answer: over two years. Nuclear weapons programs are complex endeavors that require scientific expertise, money, effective bureaucracy, political support, hard-to-acquire materials, and more money. Building one from scratch could take anywhere from 2-8 years. U.S. Intelligence estimated it would take Japan 3-5 years in 1967, for instance, a time frame that probably hasn't changed much. Taiwan, a country with technological expertise comparable to Japan's, would probably take a similar amount of time. The only exception would be if either had sufficient weapons-grade nuclear material (and a host of other critical items) hidden away; in that case they could likely slap together a crude bomb in around six months.
There are probably no such clandestine stockpiles in Taiwan, however. U.S. pressure forced Taiwan to give up nuclear weapons programs twice, and Taiwanese officials probably have little desire to strain the alliance on this topic again today. Tawian does have a civilian nuclear power program, which helps to maintain some, but by no means all, of the technical chops relevant to building a nuclear device (In February, Bloomberg reported that the country's fourth civilian nuclear power plant, slated to go online in 2009, will likely be delayed by two years). But Taiwan currently has no reprocessing facilities of its own, and its nuclear laboratories are monitored regularly by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In order to get the bomb quietly, Taiwan would have to source nuclear materials on the black market without the world noticing, a risky endeavor for a state that depends heavily on Western support for its unique quasi-independent status. That's highly unlikely, so paranoid types can rest easy, for now.
Back in February, the director-general of the Israel Electric Corporation, Uri Ben-Nun, said that the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission is "mulling the construction of a nuclear power plant in Israel."
It may be surprising that Israel has never built a civilian nuclear power plant, since it has long been assumed to have a sophisticated nuclear weapons program. All other countries with advanced nuclear weapons programs also have substantial civilian nuclear power programs. Add Israel's uniquely pressing need for energy independence and the question becomes even more puzzling: Why hasn't this already happened?
Geopolitics, mostly. According to a report by Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, "Israel has flirted with nuclear power three times, beginning in 1976, but security concerns and the international environment have thus far prevented such a project's completion." For example, nuclear materials have been hard for Israel to acquire (since it has not signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) and a hostile neighbor could have attacked the plant.
The international environment has changed, though. Nuclear power is becoming more attractive worldwide because it does not generate greenhouse gases. While some Gulf States had been calling for a "nuclear-free zone" in the region, now Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interest in developing nuclear power. And Israel's military preeminence in the region makes an attack on any nuclear power plant much less likely today.
Most important for Israel, though, is the recent U.S.-India deal on nuclear cooperation. India, like Israel, never signed the NPT but has nuclear weapons. They, too, had difficulty buying nuclear fuel abroad, but the new deal will allow the United States to sell nuclear materials to India for its civilian program. This may open the door for Israel in the future.
While Israel won't be building civilian nuclear reactors tomorrow, Stratfor is probably right that these changes "make an Israeli civilian nuclear power program more likely than ever before."
This bizarre animated film aired on Tehran TV on February 21, 2007. It shows the completion of nuclear plants in several Iranian cities by the year 2023. In Tehran TV's view of the future, the United States, encouraged by Israel, mobilizes the international community to stop Iran's efforts, but fails.
Reports about Iran's nuclear program have been almost uniformly negative lately, and with good reason—Iran has continued to pursue enrichment in defiance of the U.N. Security Council. But as diplomatic rhetoric heats up, it is easy to forget just how difficult building a nuclear capability can be, whether for weapons or for electricity.
Thursday's International Atomic Energy Agency report (pdf) on Iran's nuclear activities is quite depressing. It highlights many areas where, in addition to defying the Security Council, Iran has been dragging its feet or refusing to comply with IAEA requests. For instance, Iran has "declined to agree at this stage" to remote monitoring at the Natanz enrichment plant, a safeguard the IAEA deems crucial. Iran's lack of cooperation doesn't necessarily imply nefarious intent—Iran says it needs clarification of the "legal basis" for remote monitoring, and has accepted "interim safeguards" instead—but to many, it certainly looks like Iran is hiding a weapons program.
However, the report also highlights the slow, incremental nature of nuclear technology development. Remember the Iranian centrifuges that blew up? Any number of things could have gone wrong: Human fingerprints can unbalance a centrifuge enough for it to break down, and problems with the tiny ball bearings they spin on can derail an entire project. The IAEA report confirms that the Iranians are moving carefully and slowly; they still probably have fewer than 500 centrifuges running, though they say they have almost finished installing another 300 or so. Iran has long maintained that it will install 3,000 centrifuges by March, a goal it will not meet if it continues at its previous rate.
This should not take attention away from Iran's blatant defiance of the U.N. Security Council and the IAEA, but—for now—there is some time to pursue options before Iran is even capable of building a nuclear bomb.
Who says the United Nations can't get things done? The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency—that's the body in a slow-motion confrontation with Iran—has just come out with a new radiation symbol. It seems the old symbol just wasn't scary enough.
[T]he traditional international symbol for radiation, the three cornered trefoil...has no intuitive meaning and little recognition beyond those educated in its significance. The new symbol is the result of a five-year project conducted in 11 countries around the world that included testing with different population groups - mixed ages, varying educational backgrounds, male and female - to ensure that its message of "danger - stay away" was crystal clear and understood by all.
With that pressing task out of the way, the decks are clear for the U.N. to tackle Iran's accelerating nuclear program.
Many analysts have characterized the recent deal with North Korea as not much different from the "Agreed Framework"—the 1994 agreement that successfully froze North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear program for 8 years. But what do they mean? Below is a quick side-by-side comparison of major points of the Agreed Framework and Tuesday's agreement, "Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement."
United States was promised:
United States is promised:
North Korea was promised:
North Korea is promised:
If the steps listed above occur successfully, and North Korea declares all nuclear programs and disables all existing facilities, the United States and its allies will also provide assistance up to "the equivalent of 1 million" tons of heavy fuel oil.
Now, some context. First, North Korea desperately wants a security guarantee from the United States. While the prospect of attacking North Korea seems far-fetched to many Americans, the DPRK fears just such an attack. The United States promised to eventually provide a formal security guarantee in the 1994 Agreed Framework, but along with several other parts of the agreement, it never materialized.
In this 2007 "Initial Actions" document, there are no explicit security assurances per se. Instead, the United States will reassure the nervous North Koreans through talks "aimed at resolving pending bilateral issues." However, in the 2005 Joint Statement the latest agreement aims to implement, the United States did affirm that it "ha[d] no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons" (emphasis added). This is still far from the explicit, formal guarantee North Korea wants, but it seems to be working for now.
Second, North Korea will only "shut down and seal" its primary nuclear facility at Yongbyon; the rest of its nuclear program will not even be frozen. Any other steps—involving, say, its existing weapons or other, secret facilities—are presumably contingent upon the United States and its allies meeting the terms laid forth so far. As Robert Gallucci noted, this agreement is an encouraging step on both sides. Even so, the road to complete and verifiable disarmament in North Korea will be long and arduous.
Diplomats from five capitals emerged in Beijing this week with what appears to be a long-awaited deal with North Korea. The trade-off? In the first 60 days, North Korea would give up its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for roughly 50,000 tons of fuel oil, or its equivalent in economic aid (Passport will have more on the specifics later today). The agreement comes exactly four months and four days after North Korea's groundbreaking nuclear test. Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill, who seems to have won over some fans in China, called the breakthrough "a very solid step forward."
Not everyone sees it that way. John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been the most vocal critic, saying that he would be the "saddest man in Washington" were President Bush to follow through on the agreement. To Bolton, among others, the deal is nothing more than a reward for Pyongyang's intransigence, a Pyhrric victory that comes three years, eight nuclear bombs, and one nuclear test too late.
So which is it? For this week's Seven Questions, we asked Robert Gallucci, dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and the diplomat who signed the 1994 accord with North Korea, to weigh in with his thoughts on this very early agreement. His take?
We now are in a situation where we’re saying, “OK, we’ll go step by step with [North Korea]. We’ll provide some of the benefits you want, and you’ll provide some of the restraint that we want.” So we are on a track now that could lead to the ultimate dismantlement of their nuclear weapons programs. It’s a new and better position to be in.
Check out the entire interview here.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) usually makes headlines for its leadership on nonproliferation issues, so it is easy to forget that its primary mission is actually to promote the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The IAEA runs roughly 800 "technical aid" projects around the world, many of which involve transferring knowledge that would be helpful in making nuclear weapons.
Enter Iran. The limited sanctions imposed by the Security Council in December focused on blocking cooperation in nuclear programs that could lead to weapons. Accordingly, the IAEA has reportedly "suspended" almost half of its technical cooperation programs with Iran.
These reports are misleading, though. The status of "almost half” (22) of the programs was changed today, but not all are suspended completely. According to the IAEA report (pdf), Iran is participating in 55 technical cooperation programs. Ten of those are exclusively for medical, agricultural, safety, food, or humanitarian purposes and will be allowed to continue. Ten are very sensitive and will be suspended entirely. The other 12 can continue only on a case-by-case basis. That is, upon Iran's request, an individual "project activity" can be assessed by the IAEA to determine whether it can proceed. Essentially, the Iranians must prove that activities under those projects are benign in order for them to proceed. All of the suspensions are temporary, pending a full vote of the IAEA Board of Governors on March 5. So Iran has yet another chance to change some minds in the interim.
The United Kingdom has only one way to deliver its nuclear weapons: U.S.-built submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) called Tridents, which are carried on British Vanguard-class subs. These subs are aging and due to be decommissioned in 2024. Since the British government estimates it will take 17 years to design and build a new submarine, a decision looms and an unusual debate has arisen: should the U.K. even bother maintaining its own nuclear deterrent?
Britain's answer will almost certainly be yes, but the fact that there is a real debate at all is interesting. Detractors of Prime Minister Tony Blair's plan to extend the lifetime of the U.K.'s nuclear forces attack it from several different angles. Nearly everyone cites the expense: roughly £20 billion (~$39 billion) that they say could be better spent. Some maintain that Britain should set an example by giving up its own weapons—as they are obligated to do under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Other opponents say deterrence is an "unproven theory" that is "essentially flawed." Churches across the country have decried nuclear weapons as immoral.
But most of Blair's Labour party and the opposition Conservatives support the prime minister's plan, and together they have more than enough votes to push the proposal through. They argue that nuclear weapons are the "ultimate insurance" against unseen future threats, especially when the number of nuclear states seems set to increase. Plus, none of the other nuclear states show any sign of giving up their own nuclear weapons. So why should Britain?
Then there are the implicit concerns, mostly unsaid. If Britain gave up its nuclear weapons, France would be the only European country to retain them. And many politicians in Britain, just like elsewhere, believe that nuclear weapons are their ticket to keeping a seat at the great-power table. At least for now, it seems, nukes are almost impossible to give up.
Having spent another refreshing night in the flesh-eating bacteria wing of the Davos Dermatological and Allergy Clinic, I have arrived at the Congress Hall refreshed if a little bit worried about the first signs of a strange rash. (Not really. And I am sure the place has not been a clinic for months. There are signs all over announcing that it is not only a hotel, but a Grand Hotel. I harbor a bit of a sense that were I to peel the signs away it would say "biohazard" underneath, but why tempt fate?)
Even more frightening, one of the themes that came up several times yesterday was nuclear terrorism. A very senior Wall Street banker with whom I spoke said the session he attended on the subject made him want to run screaming into the night. One panelist on that session was the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz, who had early in the day been on the terrorism panel I chaired. In both sessions, he displayed both articulate aplomb and a deft ability to sidestep any question that he felt was uncomfortable.
"Everything is fine with Pakistan's nuclear facilities, everything is safe," he assured unconvinced observers. One such man, a former foreign minister who now heads a well-respected NGO, noted to me (in the men's room of the Congress Hall, where polite urinal chit-chat inevitably turns to WMD proliferation) that he emphatically disagreed, asserting that "Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world." It's a refrain I have heard several times in the past few days, as the precariousness of the broader Middle East situation reminds observers that Pakistan's nuclear stockpile is only a coup away from falling into the hands of radical elements who might well be allied with al Qaeda. (more after the jump)
Last week, the Associated Press reported a setback in Iran's pursuit of uranium enrichment technology: 50 newly installed centrifuges had "exploded".
The Washington Note seized on the explosion as a definitive "reality check" on Iran's nuclear capability. As Paul Kerr points out, though, this incident actually happened last April. Setbacks can be expected in such a technically challenging operation (picture fragile vacuum cylinders—filled with hot gas, spinning faster than the speed of sound, and linked together in cascades—and you'll see what I mean). That same month, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported that Iran would be able to master centrifuge technology (i.e., be able to prevent explosions) within a few months. If the IISS analysts were right, the problem has likely been solved by now.
The exact number of centrifuges lost also needs to be put into context. As of December, Iran had installed two cascades of 164 centrifuges, as well as several 10- or 20-centrifuge cascades, for a total of 350+ (keep in mind this is the number remaining after the April explosion). The Natanz plant, where these cascades are located, can ultimately hold upwards of 50,000 centrifuges (though 3,000 seems to be the near-term goal). Alongside such large numbers, a loss of 50 seems less momentous, though still a significant setback.
Nevertheless, Iran is still a long way from making large amounts of bomb-grade uranium on its own—even if problems with supply of parts, testing, and implementation of larger cascades are ignored. Some of the installed centrifuges were still being tested late last year, and even with 3,000 operational centrifuges it would take almost a year for Iran to produce enough material for just one bomb. With the roughly 350 known to be installed, it would take over six years.
While the early Davoisie arrivals were sipping their carbon-neutral San Pellegrino and munching on organic canapés, another conference was taking place elsewhere in the world. No, it wasn't the World Social Forum, a.k.a the anti-Davos assembly being held in Nairobi, Kenya. It was another sort of thing entirely: a seventh annual high-level Israeli security meeting in the Mediterranean resort town of Herzliya. Judging by the sound bytes I'm reading, you could call it the Bomb Iran conference. U.S. government officials as high as Gordon England and Nick Burns were in attendance. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was also there, as were his rivals John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Romney went for a strained historical analogy:
I believe that Iran's leaders and ambitions represent the greatest threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union and before that Nazi Germany."
Expect more of this over-the-top rhetoric from both sides of the aisle. What to do about Iran is going to dominate the American debate from now until 2008, and beyond. In President Bush's speech last night, he stressed again the consequences of failure in Iraq, warning that a U.S. defeat could embolden a dangerous Iran. So it's timely that for this week's Seven Questions, FP spoke with Dr. Ali Ansari, an expert on Iran at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, about the Bush administration's policy toward that country (Iran, not Scotland). Check it out.
See also this week's List: Regime Change. It may surprise you to know that Iran makes the list of countries with tottering leaders.
Was it just us, or was Dick Cheney texting during the big speech? What was so important?
Cheney: U R soooo lucky.
Gonzalez: Tell me about it.
Cheney: I 4got, no red wine. Furniture @ [undisclosed location] isn't scotch-guarded.
Gonzalez: n/p. btw, I tried on your power ties... So where do you keep the launch codes?
Cheney: Check next to the Wii.
Gonzalez: I still haven't spotted Hastert.
Cheney: Denny, where R U?
HouseSpeaker4Eva: I can't see. I'm sitting behind Dikembe Mutombo.
Cheney: Yo, we miss U up here big guy.
The world has moved closer to doomsday, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices. North Korea’s recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a renewed U.S. emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.
As in past deliberations, we have examined other human-made threats to civilization. We have concluded that the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons. The effects may be less dramatic in the short term than the destruction that could be wrought by nuclear explosions, but over the next three to four decades climate change could cause drastic harm to the habitats upon which human societies depend for survival.
As a result, the Bulletin has moved its iconic Doomsday Clock two ticks clockwise, to 5 minutes before midnight. Midnight, of course, being when we all die.
The clock was started in 1947 by the organization as a way to dramatize the dangers in the nuclear arms race. It debuted at 11:53, and has been adjusted 18 times. Total annihilation was deemed closest in 1953 following the detonation of the first thermonuclear explosives; after the Soviet Union's fall in 1991, mankind was a full 17 minutes away from destruction.
The Bulletin may be losing some historical perspective here. It's hard to believe that we're actually closer to Armageddon now than we were for more than half of the Cold War. And as scary as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il may be, the world is actually a more peaceful place than it ever has been.
Time is working in Iran's favor, and barring military action, Iran's possession of nuclear weapons is only a matter of time," the institute said in a statement distributed at a news conference where it released its annual assessment of the Middle East's strategic balance.
The report punts, however, on the vital question of whether Israel should launch military strikes.
Of course, any Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would require U.S. approval, especially given that the United States controls Iraqi airspace.
Finland and other pro-Turkey European countries are scrambling to salvage the Muslim country's flagging bid join the European Union. The stumbling block? Cyprus. If the Greek Cypriots remain inflexible, Turkey doesn't back down, and the EU ultimately says no, will Turks turn away from Europe? What does Turkey think about Iran and the bomb? Will Turkey seek its own nuclear weapon? Which is a greater threat to Turkish democracy: the military or the Islamists?
To answer these and other questions, FP spoke with Mensur Akgun, an expert on Turkish foreign policy.
The six-party talks have failed yet again, though the North Koreans have promised to study more generous U.S. proposals. Pyongyang has also promised to "improved its nuclear deterrent."
The deal-breaker was North Korea's demand that U.S. financial restrictions be part of the negotiations on the North's nuclear weapons. That was met by a stiff refusal by Christopher Hill, the chief negotiator for the United States. The Bush administration says the sanctions are tied to North Korea's criminal enterprises, not to its nuclear program.
Our sympathies are with Mr. Hill, sandwiched as he is between the unrealistic demands of the White House and the unstable negotiating tactics of Pyongyang.
First, Hill must deal with Mr. Bush's North Korea policy: bluster and saber-rattling one day and pleading for a return to talks another. Until the North's nuclear test in October, Washington had demanded a complete dismantling of the nuclear program as a pre-condition to talks. Having had to crawl back to the table (a pattern), the Bush administration maintains that the only solution it is willing to accept is complete dismantlement. But out of the nine countries that have ever acquired nuclear weapons, only South Africa has ever given them up—and that happened because apartheid regime collapsed. Every other country has done what the UK just decided a few weeks ago: Maintain and improve their nuclear stockpiles.
A more realistic goal than complete disarmament, says Brookings scholar Ivo H. Daalder, would be for North Korea to freeze and verify its existing program. This means: No more testing, a freeze on plutonium production, the return of international monitors, and the end of North Korea's uranium enrichment program. As Daalder tartly observes, if the U.S. achieves these goals, we'd be back where we were under Clinton 12 years ago.
But the Bush administration's negotiating foibles pale in comparison to the calculated unpredictability of the North Koreans. Mr Hill is the latest of a series of envoys to match wits with Mr. Kim Kye-gwan, who has been North Korea's chief negotiator since the mid-1990s. As Tim Johnson explains, North Korea has honed erratic negotiating behavior to an art:
Make outlandish demands. Appear unyielding. Threaten to bolt at the slightest provocation…escalating a mood of crisis, demanding last-minute concessions and unilaterally reinterpreting past accords…"They basically demand everything but the kitchen sink, and they are not offering much in return so far," Snyder said. "It helps to shape the field of negotiation to their advantage."…"Nobody has ever effectively countered their negotiating style. That's why we're in the mess we're in," said Ralph A. Cossa, head of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy institute.”
Mr. Hill got a taste of this strategy when the North Koreans pulled one of their favorite tactics, arriving a day late. Much of this is for show. The North Koreans are loth to display any sign of weakness in public, but according to U.S. negotiators, in private sessions there is greater willingness to talk and sort things out. Yet, if last week is any indication, they aren't very willing. For now, Mr. Hill faces an uphill battle to resolve East Asia's biggest security challenge.
The site may be chugging along today, but the content doesn't stop at FP.
We've got a new piece from Debra Decker, research associate at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Decker argues that since it's easier than ever for terrorists to acquire nuclear material (the focus of the cover story in our most recent issue), the world needs a new strategy of deterrence. What could help keep the right ingredients out of the wrong hands? Giving bombs birth certificates.
If anyone is aghast that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert let slip the worst kept secret in international affairs - that Israel is a nuclear state - perhaps they should turn their sights on another blabbermouth: Bob Gates. During Gates's Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing last Tuesday, the nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as SecDef also let the "secret" slip:
SEN. GRAHAM: The president of Iran has publicly disavowed the existence of the Holocaust, he has publicly stated that he would like to wipe Israel off the map. Do you think he's kidding?
MR. GATES: No, I don't think he's kidding. And -- but I think that there are, in fact, higher powers in Iran than he, than the president. And I think that while they are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for a nuclear capability, I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent. They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons -- Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us in the Persian Gulf --
It is not a threat," said Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister. "It is an announcement so that there will be no misinterpretation for what we are doing."
The timing of the announcement, coming as it does on the heels of the Baker-Hamilton report, would indicate otherwise. The Baker report urges the administration to engage Iran to secure its support on Iraq, but punts on the nuclear issue.
Saudi Arabia is already quite nervous about having a Shiite Iraq controlled by the Iranians right on its borders. Its largest oilfield, Ghawar, is close to the Iraqi border and lies beneath a sizable and increasingly restive Shia population. Bahrain, another oil-producing state, is majority Shiite but is ruled by a Sunni minority. The precarious position of these Sunni regimes has them freaking out about growing Iranian influence in the region.
The message is that the gulf countries will develop their own nuclear program if Iran is rewarded with the terms of the Baker-Hamilton report," said Abdelaziz O. Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, who is familiar with the nuclear initiative. "They are trying to say that if the Iranian program continues, you will force us to become nuclear capable too."
This is not an empty threat. Saudi Arabia, for example, has been considering nuclear weapons for at least a decade. Their quest became more fervent in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion and Iran's nuclear shenanigans. The Saudis certainly have the cash. And they already have the missiles, courtesy of China, and have flirted with using Pakistani know-how to develop the payload.
Tehran's nuclear ambitions spook the Saudis more than the Israeli bomb ever has. After all, Iran has supported Shiite terrorists operating in Saudi Arabia (it was blamed by some for the 1996 Khobar Tower Bombing) and spares no effort to embarrass Saudi Arabia for its close relationship with the U.S. As Mark Levenstein put it in a earlier posting chez Passport: "we need to stop Iran's enrichment program cold lest nuclear power plants start sprouting up in the Middle East like mushrooms after a storm." But it's easier said than done.
Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said recently that the possibility of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities is still on the table. "I consider it a last resort. But even the last resort is sometimes the only resort," he said. Don't consider it at all, Mr. Ephraim. It won't work and the United States can't help.
A summer 2004 Center for Nonproliferation Studies article explains the difficulties in attacking Iran, comparing it to Israel's 1981 surprise attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear facilities. First, conducting what would optimally be a simultaneous air strike against nuclear facilities that are separated by hundreds of miles would be nearly impossible. Second, reaching the nuclear sites requires gaining permission from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and/or Jordan to use their air space—a difficult task indeed. Third, some of Iran's nuclear facilities are underground, insulating them from bombardment, even from U.S. forces. Fourth, the Iraqi government did not pursue nuclear weapons in earnest until after the strikes on Osirak, meaning that a successful attack could turn Iran's currently "suspected" nuclear weapons ambitions into an overt reality. Fifth, such an attack by Israel or the United States would spark popular outrage around the Middle East, perhaps resulting in a regional war. I would like to add a sixth: the U.S. military's experiences in Iraq, a country that is much smaller both in terms of population and geography than Iran, show that occupying Iran is an impossiblity.
Make no mistake, I consider a nuclear-armed Iran to be an untenable prospect. But if diplomacy fails, there is no military solution.
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