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Dan Rozenson is a young professional in Washington, DC. Naturally, he assumes he is destined for greatness. The Compendium is an informal collection of his (mostly informed) opinions on policy, politics, and culture. Special focus on the Middle East.

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27 September 13

Diplomacy with the Islamic Republic?

There is historic potential in the so-called “charm offensive” by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his government. An optimistic reading of his outreach to the U.S. and the West sees an opportunity to resolve some of the most difficult challenges of American security—namely, the unrest in Syria, Iran’s nuclear progress, and our general relationship with Iran. A cynical reading sees Rouhani’s actions as a stalling and diversionary tactic to reduce pressure on Iran. And the alarmist position, voiced presently by the government of Israel, fears that many years of efforts to isolate Iran and delay its nuclear progress will be squandered through sham diplomacy—all but ensuring the necessity of military force to resolve the question.

The space for optimism is higher now than it has been in a long time. Recent developments in Syria have catalyzed interest in resolving that conflict. Iran, meanwhile, has been sending unambiguous signals it is interested in negotiations about its nuclear program. The state of Iran’s political dynamics is more favorable to diplomatic solutions, as well. Given the high potential rewards of engaging Iran, the low risks, and the high cost of foreclosing diplomatic options completely from our relationship with Iran, it is prudent to explore what can be accomplished.

The alarmists, meanwhile, have tools at their disposal to keep a solution from being reached. Coordinating American strategy with these alarmists is important for everyone involved. Luckily, this is doable if planned ahead of time.

First, I’ll run through what makes the current moment a unique opportunity to explore a diplomatic settlement with Iran, by looking at what’s changed in the Middle East as a whole and in Iran specifically. Then I’ll talk about the need to approach this issue with knowledge of the tripwires that could take apparent progress in unexpected directions.

What has changed in the region

The biggest difference in Iran’s posture internationally is its cost-benefit calculus with regard to propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

First, Assad’s use of chemical weapons (and the world’s reaction) has managed to embarrass Iran. Rouhani explicitly condemned the use of chemical weapons, which all of a sudden Assad has confessed to possessing. Rouhani also mentioned recently that Iran would respect the outcome of free elections in Syria, no matter the victor. It’s a change in emphasis from the blunter language we’re used to.

Meanwhile, the Russian proposal to unhand Assad of these weapons has ironically put Iran in a position where it benefits from a more conciliatory policy. Iran wants a say in the outcome of the Syria mess, regardless of that outcome. But as Russia and the U.S. now start making critical decisions about Assad’s future, Iran has to demonstrate its interest in being a constructive player. Talking seriously about the nuclear program is one such way.

What has changed in Iran

Iran’s 2013 elections were not marked by mass protests against the regime like in 2009, but the message in the results was the same: we are unhappy with the status quo. The Iranian economy is ailing under the weight of American and world sanctions. According to Patrick Clawson, “Iran’s useable oil export revenue was around two-thirds less than it would otherwise have been this year. At about $30–$35 billion a year, Iran’s useable oil revenue now stands at a level last seen a decade ago.” Iran’s economy shrank more than 5% last year.

Rouhani’s mandate is to reverse these sanctions. He spoke at length on the campaign trail about how his experience in foreign policy would be an asset to Iran’s economy because he would be able to free Iran from the weight of the sanctions. He has appointed a technocratic government, including a foreign minister who has significant ties to the United States. He also moved the nuclear portfolio out of the hands of the security elite and into the foreign ministry. He’s offered to implement the IAEA Additional Protocol his country signed in 2003 (when he was the nuclear negotiator for Mohammad Khatami’s government) but never ratified—greatly improving the international community’s ability to verify the scope and safety of Iran’s nuclear technologies.

What makes the Iranian charm offensive so intriguing is that it is clearly being done with the blessing of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Khamenei, who has always had a deep suspicion of the West, nonetheless spoke publicly last week about the need for “heroic flexibility” in policy. He even drew upon Shi’a Islamic history to make this case. Khamenei’s backing of Rouhani’s outreach is critical to allowing the president the political space necessary to meet his mandate. (And as I’ve written before, negotiating with a divided Iran is no good.)

Mohsen Milani says this is the most willing the Islamic Republic has ever been to openly negotiate with the United States.

Skepticism and fear about diplomacy

The three groups most afraid of Rouhani’s diplomacy are the U.S. Congress, the Israeli government, and Arab allies like Saudi Arabia. It would be at Obama’s own peril to ignore the stumbling blocks posed by pursuing a policy of engagement without addressing the concerns these actors have.

Israel, in particular, is deeply displeased at the latest developments with Rouhani. The margin for error is smaller with Israel on Iran, and constant American pressure on Iran is actually what Israel considers to be the best-case scenario. The U.S. can marshal international support for the sanctions regime, enforce the sanctions, and threaten military force much more effectively than Israel can. With America distracted in diplomatic engagements, Israel feels more isolated and the pressure to act on her own grows. Only President Shimon Peres, who enjoys a good relationship with Obama, has expressed support for the project.

Likewise, America’s Arab allies will want to see a major change in Iranian behavior before they start trusting Iran’s diplomatic outreach. Saudi Arabia, in particular, will not hesitate to undermine Obama. Recall that the Saudis dispatched 1,200 troops to Bahrain right after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew to the region and pressed on the Bahraini government to open space for dialogue with its protestors. It was a defiant act that demonstrated how seriously the Saudis believe the Iranian regime is trying to invade its sphere of influence.

The last group is Congress, which will continue to press Obama into further sanctions and demand significant Iranian concessions if Obama wants Congress’s permission to relax those sanctions.

Realistic limits of progress

I dislike the constant use of “rapprochement” to describe the course set out by Rouhani. Supreme Leader Khamenei is not interested in rapprochement with the United States and never has been at any point in his capacity as President or Supreme Leader of Iran. He is deeply suspicious of the West’s culture, seeing it as a pollutant of Iranian minds against the theocracy. Khamenei has not granted Rouhani permission to restore diplomatic ties and begin a strategic alliance with the United States; this would undermine one of the most fundamental principles of the Islamic revolution. What Khamenei has done is see if he can shore up the regime’s stability by easing sanctions on the nuclear program. As Khamenei elaborated in the speech in which he invoked “heroic flexibility,” any agreement with the U.S. must be narrow: “A wrestler sometimes shows flexibility for technical reasons. But he does not forget about his opponent nor about his main objective.”

Even if Rouhani’s desire to reach out is legitimate and Khamenei is willing to provide him a leash, the history of U.S.–Iran relations shows that even the littlest amount of goodwill is hard to sustain. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the pragmatic president who succeeded Khomeini and is in some ways a mentor to Rouhani, cautiously tested whether improvements in relations with the U.S. were possible. One of his maneuvers was to help facilitate the release of remaining hostages that Hizballah held after the Lebanese Civil War. That eventually earned him the scorn of Iran’s principlists for capitulating to the West, and from President George H.W. Bush for being too slow in delivering the hostages. No rapprochement occurred.

As we’ve seen, Rouhani is already taking flak from the hardline elements of the Iranian regime for doing something as simple as acknowledging the brutality of the Holocaust. It may seem to the alarmists that Obama is now under great pressure to deliver “concrete” results, but so is Rouhani. Those results—the relaxation of sanctions—are a complicated process that can easily be halted by a dissatisfied Congress or show of defiance from hardliners in Iran.

Putting it all together, there’s an unusual apparent willingness on the part of the Supreme Leader of Iran to negotiate a nuclear deal. For the U.S. to not even explore this opportunity, given the range of undesirable alternative outcomes, would be irresponsible statecraft. The U.S. should come in to negotiations fully aware of the tight leash Rouhani is on. It should also be prepared to explain to jittery allies what is happening and what the contingency plans are. And lastly, Obama must formulate a base of support to be able to sell an agreement to Congress.

This will require extensive policy coordination with Europe, Israel, the Arab world, and Congress. That’s basically the only way we can negotiate with Iran right now—even on a technical issue.

Bomb, bomb Iran? Part 1

The foreign policy question of our time: to use overt military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program. I have studied it for more than five years with great interest and emotional investment. I’ve attended debates, read countless articles, participated in simulations, and more. In the midst of this quest to understand I was frustrated by an inevitable wall of ambiguity. There’s just so much about this issue that is unknown and still more that is unknowable.

Formulating coherent policy is extremely difficult in such circumstances, and I can’t offer foolproof recommendations. But, at the very least, I think I have winnowed the debate on the military option down to three key questions:

  1. Is Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons sufficiently dangerous to the national interest so as to seriously consider air strikes?
  2. Are there realistic military options available to the attacker(s) that could effectively damage the nuclear infrastructure?
  3. Are the political, military, and human costs manageable enough to allow for military action?

I see these three questions as the test to which policymakers should subject themselves, only proceeding to the next question if there’s a “yes” to the previous one. Military action should only be taken, then, if the answer is “yes” to all three questions.

I will devote a post to each of these questions, starting naturally with number 1, the question of whether a nuclear Iran is that bad. I’m going to cheat a little bit on this one and re-post a large portion of a post I wrote back in October 2010:

[A] lot of Iranian “irrationality” is assumed and not demonstrated. There is also a tendency to resort to other unproven ideas like the “nuclear domino theory” where Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab powers would try to replicate the Iranian feat. I find this unlikely, though conventional arms purchases, enhancement of asymmetrical capabilities, and perhaps even biological and chemical weapons programs are likelier developments.

A real danger in defensive realism’s analysis of nuclear proliferation is not the assumption of “rational actors” — that states act in logical ways — but the assumption of unitary actors. State decision making, especially in Iran, is complicated and not always predictable. Worse, Iran experts say that the chain of command over the nuclear program is at best blurry. With the IRGC and the mullahs vying for internal power, this could get even more unstable.

But even setting aside all the other potential factors — the loss of American prestige, the gain in Iranian prestige, the blow to the non-proliferation treaty, the buildup of regional arms, the emboldening of Iranian leadership, the damage to the peace process — the worst reason of all to cite the relative safety of nuclear weapons is the non-incidence of Cold War nuclear detonations; the U.S. and Russia nearly used nuclear weapons on each other multiples times.

For instance, a scheduled U.S. ICBM test occurred during the Cuban missile crisis. If the Soviets had better early warning systems at that point, they probably would have assumed the test was an actual ICBM launch aimed at them. In 1983, false alarms of an American missile attack on Russia nearly set off a retaliatory strike. A NATO exercise later that year nearly convinced Russia to preempt what they thought was a coming nuclear strike; overzealous KGB agents interpreted the NATO move to DEFCON 1 as real and not a drill. Even as recently as 1995, mistaken identity of a rocket almost led to Russian use of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union understood and trusted each other very little throughout most of the Cold War. I think it is safe to say that Iranian hardliners trust and understand the U.S. even less. Anti-Americanism is a core part of their ideology; for them, the Islamic Revolution depends on anti-Americanism. To some degree, it’s irrelevant whether Iran’s leaders intend to commit suicide. What matters is whether they would be able to prevent misunderstanding and brinksmanship from making nuclear war a 1-in-100,000 event to a 1-in-6 event.

Iran is highly unlikely to use nuclear weapons unprovoked or pass them off to terrorists with the expectation that they will use them. There are also understandable defensive reasons for acquiring nuclear weapons. Regardless, the security picture in the Middle East becomes far murkier with a nuclear Iran. The substantial damage to American and Israeli interests merits further consideration of whether a military strike is wise. That analysis will follow.

The next step in our Iran policy

Talk of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is springing up again, on the heels of two major developments: one is an an IAEA report on the progress of the nuclear program, and the other is a column by Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea outlining the debate in Israel’s security establishment over whether to attack.

This has forced the question in Washington: What is the next step once our current prevention strategy runs its course? I am still skeptical that the military option will be exercised anytime soon, despite all the recent chatter. One thing we learned as a result of the debate in Israel is that a number of crucial political and military figures are opposed to an attack at this stage. These include IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, the heads of the Mossad and Shabak (Israel’s internal security service), influential members of Knesset Moshe Ya’alon and Shaul Mofaz (who have both served as defense minister and IDF Chief of Staff), Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, and even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Also importantly, President Barack Obama is opposed.

One answer which I have previously rejected may be a better option due to changed circumstances. That option is the “naming and shaming" route, to aggressively wage a "PR war" against Iran’s systemic human rights abuses and illegal clandestine operations.

These circumstances have changed somewhat. With the quantum of credibility that the Obama Administration has received on human rights as a result of the Arab Spring, Iranian allegations of American hypocrisy sound less credible. (Note to realists and conservatives: This is what is known as soft power.)

Russia and China will still refuse to endorse the language of Europe and the U.S., but they must now be more cautious not to tread on Arab popular sentiment. For the first time, their insistence on “non-interference” could draw political costs. Arab rulers have discovered that they cannot make policy completely independent of Arab public opinion. Soon, other countries will, too.

This is why it would have been strategic folly to have backed Mubarak to a bitter end. And it is why Saudi Arabia’s backing of the repression in Bahrain was foolish. Building resonance with an angry Arab public is undermined by such short-sighted duplicity. (It has also had the effect of pushing some Bahraini Shia to align closer with Iran than they did before.)

Going the quasi-humanitarian route on Iran is not guaranteed to work, but it is an option that U.S. could not have exercised as easily a year ago. It also helps maximize our gains in the war of narratives with Iran, putting us in better position to influence affairs throughout the region. As long as we do not initiate military action (in the foreseeable future), those gains could mean a whole lot for American foreign policy.

Iran’s nuke program see-sawing back in our favor?

Extrapolating the course of Iran’s progress in constructing an atomic weapon is pretty hard to do. A year ago, everyone in the counter-proliferation world was buzzing about the potentially game-changing effects of the Stuxnet virus, with speculation that Iran’s nuclear program was all but kaput. Then, just months later, came reports that Stuxnet merely caused a mild hassle, and that Iran was chugging along. Now the news is swinging slightly back to the positive:

At Iran’s largest nuclear complex, near the city of Natanz, fast-spinning machines called centrifuges churn out enriched uranium. But the average output is steadily declining as the equipment breaks down, according to an analysis of data collected by U.N. nuclear officials.

Iran has vowed to replace the older machines with models that are faster and more efficient. Yet new centrifuges recently introduced at Natanz contain parts made from an inferior type of metal that is weaker and more prone to failure, according to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington nonprofit group widely regarded for its analysis of nuclear programs.

“Without question, they have been set back,” said David Albright, president of the institute and a former inspector for the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Although the problems are not fatal for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they have “hurt Iran’s ability to break out quickly” into the ranks of the world’s nuclear powers, Albright said.

Albright’s actual report at ISIS takes a less optimistic tone, but any good news is still good news.

What’s the big fuss over uranium enrichment?

Paul Pillar is trying too hard to be a contrarian again. He takes issue with the idea that stopping Iranian enrichment of uranium is a paramount American foreign policy goal:

It has come to be treated as a be-all-and-end-all objective that must be achieved—by any means necessary, some would even say. Lost sight of is the fact that Iranian enrichment per se doesn’t harm anyone’s interests (except possibly the economic interests of alternative suppliers of nuclear fuel). It is nuclear weapons that are the worry, and even they would become a threat only if they could and would be used in certain ways—another subject that has been insufficiently explored, but that is a topic for another day

First, let’s make one thing very clear: Iran does, by way of signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, have the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. As Pillar notes, Hillary Clinton acknowledged this in December.

But he loses sight of the fact that Iran’s right to enrich is dependent on its cooperation with the international community’s standards. The IAEA’s February 2010 report on Iran’s compliance noted that Iran must still

resolve questions related to the alleged studies [of creating nuclear warheads]; clarify the circumstances of the acquisition of the uranium metal document; clarify procurement and R&D activities of military related institutes and companies that could be nuclear related; and clarify the production of nuclear related equipment and components by companies belonging to the defence industries.

And, it concludes,

While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

Iran is not implementing the requirements contained in the relevant resolutions of the Board of Governors and the Security Council, including implementation of the Additional Protocol, which are essential to building confidence in the exclusively peaceful purpose of its nuclear programme and to resolve outstanding questions. In particular, Iran needs to cooperate in clarifying outstanding issues which give rise to concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme

Contrary to the relevant resolutions of the Board of Governors and the Security Council, Iran has continued with the operation of PFEP and FEP at Natanz, and the construction of a new enrichment plant at Fordow. Iran has also announced the intention to build ten new enrichment plants. Iran recently began feeding low enriched UF6 produced at FEP into one cascade of PFEP with the aim of enriching it up to 20% in U-235. The period of notice provided by Iran regarding related changes made to PFEP was insufficient for the Agency to adjust the existing safeguards procedures before Iran started to feed the material into PFEP…. Iran is not providing access to information such as the original design documentation for FFEP or access to companies involved in the design and construction of the plant.

Contrary to the relevant resolutions of the Board of Governors and the Security Council, Iran has also continued with the construction of the IR-40 reactor and related heavy water activities. The Agency has not been permitted to take samples of the heavy water which is stored at UCF, and has not been provided with access to the Heavy Water Production Plant. (emphasis added)

The language gets technical, but the pattern is clear — the IAEA is unsatisfied and concerned with Iran’s level of cooperation. Iran’s failure to clear up these outstanding issues while expanding its program has given license to UN sanctions. Indeed, four rounds have passed and further rounds are possible in the future. It’s not clear to me why Pillar is being kinder to Iran than Russia and China have been.

Second, Pillar loses sight of the fact that — and this is one reason why the IAEA continues to be concerned — uranium enrichment is the most technically difficult aspect of creating a nuke. Fashioning the uranium into a workable warhead and building an appropriate delivery system (e.g., a ballistic missile) are comparatively easier. Indeed, Iran’s Shahab-3 and Ghadr-110 missiles are reported to already be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

While most of us see the international community’s interest in uranium enrichment as a function of the inherent dangers of the activity, Pillar sees it as some plot to deny Iran its rights. In fact, he sounds like an apologist for the Iranian government at times. What’s his proof that Iran is ready to cooperate fully with the West? Well, they said so:

The Iranian leadership has repeatedly expressed a willingness to explore possible safeguards that would meet Western and Iranian needs. Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said last week, “We are ready to adopt any confidence-building measure while preserving our nuclear rights.”

Taking the words of Iran’s leaders as fact while ignoring their record is astonishingly poor analysis for a guy who made a living out of it. Iran’s Supreme Leader vetoed a deal that his own negotiators — and even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad! — favored as a way of resolving the impasse. Honest attempts at resolution were made, but Iran’s arch-conservatives are sincere in their hatred of the West, whether Pillar wants to believe them or not on that point.

The imaginary engagement track with Iran

I feel rather sorry for Daniel Brumberg and Barry Blechman, co-authors of a USIP report called “Engagement, Coercion, and Iran’s Nuclear Challenge.” They interviewed over 40 Iran experts for a document they hoped would blaze a trail and instead came away with the most incredibly banal recommendations. The banality of these conclusions contrasts with their declarative rhetoric in a Foreign Policy piece describing their report. They say that after the probable failure of the diplomatic track once again, “some Iran analysts would have U.S. policy plunge once again into the murky territory of regime change. Some hope that a military attack might bring about this goal.” I highly doubt anyone jumped from a diplomacy-focused strategy to a military-regime change strategy just because of the latest Geneva talks. Nobody’s opinions require validation after Geneva except those who would sue for rapprochement. But what’s odd (given the alarmism of the FP article) is that not even the authors endorse a very radical strategy.

As I say, what’s strange is that the report’s findings are incredibly establishmentarian. This owes to a fundamental contradiction in their report: They say the U.S. needs a “strategic engagement” policy, but then they basically end up conceding it won’t work anyway since Supreme Leader Khamenei wouldn’t allow it. Here’s how that contradiction plays out in their recommendations:

US and European leaders should communicate a comprehensive picture of what Tehran has to gain from a mutually acceptable agreement on the nuclear issue. Such an effort cannot be piecemeal. Instead, it must spell out a wide range of incentives that Washington and its allies would be prepared to support in return for clear and sustained evidence of Tehran’s cooperation.

Already done. Next.

Washington should signal its clear—if also clearly conditional—acceptance of Iran’s enrichment rights, providing that Tehran negotiates verifiable limits on the degree of enrichment and on the volume of enriched fuel stored in Iran. Given the secretive history of Iran’s nuclear program, the US and its allies also are entitled to demand clarification of the questions raised by the IAEA, a complete declaration by Iran of its nuclear activities, including any weapons-related activities, an audit of that declaration by the IAEA, and Iran’s implementation of the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

Again, already done. Anything else?

While pursuing diplomatic engagement, Washington should continue to sustain the sanctions and other punitive measures that clearly and effectively signal to Tehran a real geo-strategic, diplomatic, and economic cost for failing to cooperate on the nuclear issue. These measures should be pursued through prudent actions rather than through a language of confrontation, threats, or insults. Threats and coercion will be far more effective if they are implicit rather than explicit: a key element of over-all US policy, but not the sole basis of that policy. … All of the above measures should be accompanied by words and actions that clearly signal continued US geo-strategic support for its regional allies, including intelligence sharing, joint military planning and training, and advanced weapon sales. Israel and the Arab states must be reassured that a policy of strategic engagement that secures a negotiated end to Iran’s weapons program will enhance their security.

OK. So basically, if diplomacy fails, they advocate the very “containment” approach they say would be the best fallback to a failed engagement approach. Indeed, the report says that “[i]nternational sanctions have intensified” the power struggles between pragmatic conservatives and hardliners, as well as delaying Iranian nuclear progress and complicating their freedom of action.

The report does suggest talking to Iran on broader issues of concern, like regional energy and counternarcotics policies. But, if the power brokers in Iran’s foreign policy oppose engagement with the U.S. on principle — as the authors acknowledge is the case, and most mainstream experts think is so — then whatever lipstick is put on the pig will not make any difference to Iran.

So despite the grandiose language of “strategic engagement,” the report basically endorses the status quo. I suppose that’s not a crazy idea given that most of the experts consulted represent the centrist consensus on our Iran policy, but the report shouldn’t parade around pretending to advocate a new approach.

Another non-secret in the leaked cables

One more little takeaway from WikiLeaks. One detail that has caught some eyes is a January 2010 cable that obliquely describes a possible quid pro quo between Saudi Arabia and China; the Chinese would support sanctions against Iran if the Saudis ensured the Chinese cheap access to oil. And yet this “secret” is not new, actually. It’s a proposal I first came across in Myths, Illusions, and Peace, co-written by Dennis Ross, now Obama’s senior NSC official on Iran. Ross and co-author David Makovsky explain, “Business is business, and the Chinese have a higher stake in Saudi Arabia than in Iran.”

Unfortunately, the reason I knew that the actual offer was made before the publication of the cable is that the Israeli press reported it in December 2009 — and the result was not favorable, at least at that point. Still, conservatives really ought to admire how President Obama has enlisted the help of Europe, the Arabs, and even Russia in confronting the Iranian nuclear threat in a number of ways. Feckless, communist, jihadi-inspired, Kenyan-born president or not, he’s made more progress uniting the world against Iran than Bush did.

The double-edged sword of clandestine nuclear cooperation

The nuclear nonproliferation world is alight with discussion these days with major discoveries coming in both Iran and North Korea regarding the progress of their fissile material enrichment programs. It’s a mix of good and bad news with equally mixed takeaways.

First, a report reveals that the North Korean government has created a 2,000-centrifuge uranium enrichment facility at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. This facility is quite new and its creation in a short period of time attests to the resilience of the North Korean nuclear program in spite of the shutdown of the main reactor at Yongbyon several years ago. That they were able to acquire, manufacture, or had hidden the necessary equipment to fast-track an enrichment program is disturbing.

The news from Iran is better. Perhaps due to the Stuxnet virus, Iran is experiencing significant technical problems with its uranium enrichment at Natanz — including a temporary shutdown of all activity in the enrichment hall.

Still, there are two important questions. Is North Korea helping Iran with its centrifuges? And, if so, does that mean North Korea is vulnerable to Stuxnet? Stay tuned …

New study: Natanz likely target of Stuxnet

I don’t want to say “I told you so,” because many commentators observed the same thing at the time, but that gut feeling about the cyberworm Stuxnet — that it was aimed at the Natanz enrichment facility, not the Bushehr nuclear reactor as some reports first suggested — may be borne out by some new details:

Researchers have uncovered new clues that the Stuxnet worm may have been created to sabotage Iranian attempts to turn uranium into atomic bomb-grade fuel.

According to Eric Chien, one of three Symantec researchers who have dug into Stuxnet, the worm targets industrial systems that control very high speed electrical motors, such as those used to spin gas centrifuges, one of the ways uranium can be enriched into fissionable material. [snip]

"Interfering with the speed of the motors sabotages the normal operation of the industrial control process," said Chien.

Sabotaging centrifuge motor speed will do more than that, said Ivanka Barzashka, a research assistant with the Strategic Security Program of FAS, and an expert on gas centrifuges. “A centrifuge is a delicate piece of equipment and operating a centrifuge at the right frequency is extremely important,” Barzashka said in an e-mail Sunday. “Problems controlling the operating frequency can cause the machines to fly apart.”

This takes us seductively close to being able to name Stuxnet as one of the main reasons for Iran’s technical challenges at Natanz. Stuxnet could even be part of the “black ops" authorized by President Bush in 2007 as he tried to find new levers against Iran. If so, this would be a fantastic success for American clandestine agencies. There is no doubt in the nonproliferation world that faulty centrifuges have slowed Iran’s nuclear progress and lengthened the nuclear timeline. Stuxnet may be a centerpiece of that development.

Why doesn’t Obama invoke human rights to sanction Iran?

Ray Takeyh asked this very question in a Washington Post column the other day:

As part of any negotiations with the West, the Islamic Republic should be asked to amend not just its nuclear infractions but also its human rights abuses. This entails releasing political prisoners, lifting the restrictions on civil society groups and allowing publication of banned newspapers. Unless Tehran accedes to such measures, it must continue to confront economic pressure and political isolation. Should the United States take such an unequivocal stand as part of its diplomatic outreach, it can further stimulate domestic dissent in Iran. In the meantime, an isolated, weakened regime faced with economic decline, political ferment and international ostracism maybe tempted to offer important concessions to escape its predicament. The path to disarmament and democracy lies in making common cause with the Green Movement and making Iran’s behavior toward its citizens a precondition to its reintegration in the community of nations.

Takeyh, unlike a lot of other people who encourage adding a human rights element to our Iran policy, is an expert on the country. This is why his position confuses me a little. He knows that the mullahs could not alter its nuclear stance in the face of pressure over human rights. That would only hasten the doom of the regime, as it would demonstrate their weakness in a new way and in the process also allow more political dissent.

Tying human rights to the nuclear issue is a non-starter in terms of getting a nuclear deal with the mullahs. Whether it will actually stimulate domestic dissent, I don’t know. But I do know that it will end the very noteworthy unanimity of purpose in the international community against Iran. Russia and China have been reluctant to support sanctions, but they eventually understood the need. They are guaranteed not to support further sanctions if human rights is the justification, as they — especially the Chinese — are extremely sensitive to criticism of their human rights policy and think that sanctions could be used against them in the future for similar reasons.They will only support sanctions that seek to enforce international norms.

The benefit of pursuing a human rights-based language on Iran is unknowable, unquantifiable, and not guaranteed. The drawbacks are easily seen.