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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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18 October 11

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.

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.

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.

Sanctions can have (some) impact, apparently

Though most Iran observers wrote off UN sanctions as ineffective — or worse, counterproductive — they have been useful to a large extent. They not only proved to be an impetus for further American sanctions, but Europe recently joined in on these quite impressive measures. And the President, to his credit, is using all the tools of the government at his disposal to enforce the sanctions — such as by enlisting the Securities and Exchange Commission to help make compliance easier for American companies. Are the sanctions going to create a change in results? As I suggested in response to Ray Takeyh’s concerns, the real hope for sanctions is to spur internal pressure from powerful elites. Marc Lynch says there is “intriguing evidence" that this is taking place. And on the broader economic front, it looks like Iran is indeed finding it harder to conduct trade. So, in a sign of the times, Iran has decided to turn to a new ally for help: Turkey.

Another questionable quote on the Middle East Channel

Joy Gordon, who just wrote a book about the U.S.’s failed sanctions regime against Iraq in the 1990s, makes — along with some fair points — a rather unfair comparison (emphasis mine):

Coming on the heels of the massive bombing strikes of the 1991 Gulf War, the sanctions had a catastrophic humanitarian impact, preventing Iraq from rebuilding or even maintaining its infrastructure. Electricity production, agriculture, water treatment, telecommunications, transportation, health care, and education were all crippled. A UN envoy described the situation in 1991 as “near apocalyptic." The best estimate of "excess child mortality" — the number of children under five who died during the sanctions who would not have under Iraq’s economy and policies before sanctions — is between 670,000 and 880,000. …

It is hard to look at the current sanctions on Gaza and Iran without recalling the Iraq sanctions regime — both the structural damage and pettiness.

Really? I think it’s pretty simple to do that.

This is what I hate about the Middle East Channel at Foreign Policy. They cover a lot of interesting and relevant material about the Middle East, but their articles and blog posts routinely — almost religiously — make a point of making Israel look bad. Really, Israel does plenty on its own. It’s excessive to have everything you post be a criticism of Israel.