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Friday, March 31, 2006

The Iran Crisis: A "roundtable" discussion at Princeton University 

Last night I attended "roundtable" discussion of the Iranian nuclear crisis at Princeton University. I originally wrote my report up as a "live-blogging" session, but it was sometimes tough to hear through the accents and some of it turned out to be a bit basic for our readers, so I have rendered it into an after-action report.

The discussion, at the Woodrow Wilson School's Dodds Auditorium, featured the following luminaries:
Ali Ansari, reader in the School for Modern History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and author of the forthcoming Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy And the Next Great Crisis in the Middle East (which I expect to be quite smart if Ansari's well-balanced commentary is any measure).

Johannes Reissner, head of the Department for Near East and Africa at the German Institute for International Politics and Security in Berlin.

Frank von Hippel, professor of public and international affairs and co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security in the Woodrow Wilson School.

Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, director of the Liechtenstein Institute.

It was not obvious why our Teutonic friends dominated the panel, although Professor von Hippel spoke English sans accent, suggesting that the demographic make-up may have been coincidental. I can, however, report that after reading Kenneth Timmerman's Countdown to Crisis : The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran, which obsesses about German technical assistance to Iran, there is the sense that in matters involving Iran, one cannot be too paranoid.

Rather than relate the whole discussion, which was interesting to listen to but tough to render into interesting blog fare, I'll mention a couple of the high points.

Professor von Hippel gave an interesting technical presentation about Iran's nuclear options, the sum and substance of which is that they are building their power program specifically around "dual use" technologies for which there are alternatives. If their sole concern was to build a power system, they could do so in ways that are much less inflammatory.

"It's a tale of two isotopes, and two routes to the bomb." U-235 will sustain a fission chain reaction if separated, and U-238 if turned into plutonium. Iran is pursuing both methods.

Iran is furthest along in separating out U-235 using gas centrifuges. You fill a spinning cylinder with a gaseous uranium. The heavier molecules go closer to the wall of the centrifuge, and a scoop skims them off. For a power reactor, you need a 4% concentration, but for weapons you need a 90% concentration. A cascade for power generation requires 987 centrifuges to get to 4% concentration, and a weapons grade cascade rquires around 4000 centrifuges (see, for example, a captured Libyan design). Professor von Hippel showed a slide of first-generation Urenco centrifuges in the Netherlands in the 1970s, a vast room that appeared larger than an airplane hanger with thousands of the things, all spinning down U-235.

Iran has build underground centrifuge halls, suitable for housing 50,000 of them. Professor von Hippel displayed a satellite image of the Natanz facility, which revealed the constructon of two larged centrifuge halls, plus a pilot plant for perfecting the technique. You can see a copy of the satellite image here.

What could Iran do with the 1000 centrifuges in the pilot plant?
Master the technology for commercial-scale enrichment.

Make enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb in one year using natural-uranium feed.

Produce low-enriched uranium for a year and then enrich the product to enough for a bomb in two months.

Iran could also try to build a clandestine enrichment plant.

No one has argued that Iran could produce enough HEU for a single nuclear weapon before 2009. (emphasis in original slide)

There is also the plutonium route -- India's chosen path, for example, and Israel's. Iran is building a 40 megawatt plant, which could produce enough inventory for a couple of Nagasaki-sized bombs a year.

Iran is developing a nuclear weapon option, although still a few years from fruition.

von Hippel notes that if Iran really just wanted an energy program, it has less provocative alternatives. If Iran were worried that it would be cut off from its supply of fuel, it could build ten years of fuel in advance, a buffer against fuel supply dispruptions.

Or, it could use a light-water reactor instead of heavy-water. Its light water research reactor could produce almost as many neutrons for research as the 40 MWt heavy-water reactor while producing less than 2% of the plutonium. Von Hippel asks, could these elements be part of a larger compromise?

The question of the fuel cycle keeps coming up, as it did later in the discussion. One questioner asked whether Iran might be receptive to a deal to enrich uranium in another country, so that the fuel could be tracked. One of the professors present believed that it might at one time have entertained such a proposal from the Western Europeans -- meaning the French -- but that it did not trust the Russians to live up to their word. The French, who are the only one of the E-3 with the capability of supplying Iran's fuel cycle, were not willing to entertain the proposal in part because they have been bending over backward to avoid ruffling Washington's feathers during this crisis. I admit, I had not realized that the French were working so hard to repair their relationship with the United States, but apparently they have been, which explains why Jacques Chirac has in some respects been Europe's most intransigent hawk in the confrontation with Iran.

Professor Ansari observed that one version or another of this crisis extends back a very long time. He reminded us of the thriller from 1976, the Crash of '79, which posits an expansionist Shah with a nuclear weapon, who hatches a plan to drop that bomb on the Saudi oil fields, grab the Iraqi fields in a surprise attack across the Shat al-Arab, and corner the market on variable oil production. Ouch.

Professor Ansari's most interesting comments related to the significance of Iran's new President Ahmadinejad. Mr. Ahmadinejad represents a "throwback" to the early ideals of the revolutionary era. His main platform was one of anti-corruption, social justice and the redistribution of wealth. During his campaign, he did not really mention religion at all, because he was worried that people would be turned off by it. He was therefore elected for three reasons. First, he ignored religion, which would not have been popular among the voters. Second, there was a massive fraud to get him into the second round. And, finally, the electorate preferred the unknown Ahmadinejad to Rafsanjani, who was very unpopular but foolishly thought he would win without having to campaign for it.

Ahmadinejad is not a particularly saavy person, and was quite surprised, perhaps, by his own election. Power seems to have seduced him rather quickly, and he appears to enjoy being provocative without having a real awareness of how his outrageous statements have hurt Iran's standing and polarized Western public opinion against Iran. He is a parochial person who had never been beyond the borders of Iran, and has an very, very deep distrust of the West. Unlike the reformists, or even the centrist technocrats such as Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad does not even have a willingness to deal with the West.

He does not have a strong political base, and did not do what he might have done, which was to spend the surging oil revenues on big public works projects.

He also has a rather fascinating obsession with the return of the "hidden Imam," which he says will return from a well in the ground south of Tehran, perhaps imminently.

Ahmadinejad is increasingly thought of as a loon within Iran, even among the elites, and he is not in a strong position. Ansari quoted an Iranian diplomat, who was amazed that Ahmadinejad thinks that he dazzled the United Nations with his oratory: "If he goes on like this we won't have to worry because the ayatollahs will get him." Ansari says that people are beginning to wonder whether he is leading the country.

All of this hammers home the point that Iranian politics is substantially more complicated than, say, Saddam's Iraq. Ahmadinejad is, in fact, a loon, but it is not at all clear that he himself has the power to move the military or press any button that might be available to press.

Ansari's other interesting observation related to the impact within Iran of the West's failure to react to the "stolen" parliamentary elections of early 2004. The parliamentary elections in 2004 were massively fraudulent by Western standards, insofar as the Guardian Council disqualified literally thousands of candidates, including all the reformists. There was a great deal of consternation in the Iranian press -- which while not free in the Western sense is substantially more robust than in much of the Arab world -- that the elections were not more open and, according to Ansari, that the West -- particularly the Europeans -- stood silent. This was compounded by Prince Charles' "quite unwise" visit to Tehran shortly thereafter, which suggested that the West actually supported the fraud that occurred. This has greatly eroded the credibility of the West in the eyes of those Iranian elites who are not friendly toward the mullahs.

Professor Ansari finally added that he thought that the nuclear crisis was to a great degree a proxy for other unresolved conflicts with Iran. He believe that if a crisis does emerge, it will be over Iraq, where Iran wants neither a permanent American presence nor instability.

Professor Reissner spoke quietly and with a fairly strong accent, so I had a hard time following him. He did, however, make a couple of observations that struck me as very sensible.

First, Reissner argues that it is not possible for Europeans to negotiate effectively with Iran while the United States and Iran are not themselves on speaking terms. This is too big a burden for the E-3 to shoulder, and it makes it very difficult for them to accomplish anything. Does the recent breaking of this taboo over Iraq, at least, indicate that some new thinking has been going on in the Iranian leadership? [And see this article off the wire yesterday, in which an unnamed U.S. "official" "did not, however, rule out direct discussions between the United States and Iran, suggesting they could be a spinoff of the U.S. administration's decision earlier this month to talk to Iran about Iraq after a nearly three-decade break in diplomatic ties."]

Profesor Reissner also argued persuasively that communication needs to improve considerably. The E-3 badly botched the presentation of the "incentives package" that Iran so defiantly rejected last August. In this regard, the E-3's failure to line up its own press in advance was significant -- Reissner believes that the Iranian leadership plays close attention to the Western media, and judges the credibility of Western negotiations based to a great degree on our own press coverage.

Reissner also observed that the Iranians thought that the Europeans were using the negotiations with Iran as "therapy" to repair their relationship with Washington after the Iraq crisis, and that to some degree the Iranians were correct in this perception. The essence of the charge is that the Europeans were less interested in the actual results with Iran than in rebuilding their credibility with the United States.

During the question and answer session, three generated a lot of discussion. The first was the question about whether a deal might still be done to enrich Iranian fuel in some other country, the upshot of which is discussed above.

The second had to do with looking at Iran's security situation from Tehran's perspective: the United States, a hostile power, has effectively encircled Iran with its military, squeezes Iran with sanctions, talks endlessly about regime change, has in fact changed the regimes of two bordering countries with military force, and quite openly appropriates money to undermine the regime. Why should we be surprised that Tehran is looking for a nuclear deterrant?

The panel looked at this question from several angles. The questioner's observations were surely true -- Iran's feelings of insecurity in the reality of American encirclement are surely genuine. In addition, the panel appeared to agree almost universally that the Bush administration "regime change" vocabulary was not helping the situation. Ansari in particular argued that it was not well enough defined to be useful -- that you cannot get American officials to say what they mean in detail when they use the words "regime change" in the Iranian context. He noted wryly that the Americans seemed to be awakening to this analytical sloppiness insofar as Condoleezza Rice was begining to use the term "regime transformation." In any case, in a complex government such as Iran's with multiple elites and power centers, the threat to "change" the regime causes a great many people to wonder whether they are included in the group to be removed, and that has the perverse effect of strengthening the regime. [I agree. Note that "regime change" was pointedly not on the table in our negotiations with Libya(pdf), and that almost certainly made it easier for Qaddafi to come in from the cold.]

Finally, Ansari observed that the Iranians have not exactly handled their relations with the United States well. "You can't sieze their embassy and not expect the Americans to hit back some day. You can't destabilize Iraq and not expect American to bite back."

The third question came from me: If we have this time underestimated the pace of Iran's weapons program as we did with Saddam's the first time around, or if Iran has acquired a weapon on the black market, how do we react on the revelation of that fact? What do we know about Iran's command and control over its military? How do we know that our deterrance threat will be received credibly?

The answers to these questions are, I think, momentous, because the odds are quite low that we will actually prevent Iran from acquiring an atomic weapon. To my narrower questions the panelists offered a series of observations. First, these questions were eerily reminiscent of the debates in advance of Pakistan's atomic bomb, and we have learned to deal with that. This should not necessarily give us comfort in the Iranian case, but it does suggest that we will find a way to manage. [It is not at all clear that the Pakistani bomb will not yet prove to be a disaster -- see Wednesday's news that Pakistan may be helping Saudi Arabia build a bomb.] Second, Professor Ansari thought that the Iranians would maintain very tight control over any weapons that they did build. Their program has, to date, been characterized by a great deal of discipline, so there is no reason to think that it would become lax in its handling of an actual weapon. Finally, the credibility of American deterrance, Ansari observed, required that the United States actually have a clear policy toward Iran. Thus far, it has failed to articulate one beyond the demand that Iran not complete the nuclear fuel cycle and that it stop sponsoring terrorism. America needs to be much more clear in its objectives and its basis for negotiation going forward.

That, it seems to me, is very true.

11 Comments:

By Anonymous davod, at Fri Mar 31, 09:14:00 AM:

The Iranians will maintain tight security on the bomb when they get it.

In light of the Iranians meddling in Middle Eastern affairs by funding and otherwise supporting terrorism for the past 25 years why am I not comforted by your comments.

Is this from the same people who said that Sadaam and Osama would never get together.  

By Blogger Shochu John, at Fri Mar 31, 01:38:00 PM:

Saddam and Osama never did "get together."

Anyway, this sounded like a great discussion to me, clear-eyed and generally free of political agendas. I certainly agree that a satisfactory Iran policy depends defining goals, and shall I add, realistic goals. I would certainly agree that the agreement with Libya is a good model of how to address the problem. A first step to opening up the possibility of such a resolution with Iran is to give up the hollow regime change bombast. Nobody's buying the threat and it just kills serious conversation.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Mar 31, 02:29:00 PM:

A first step to opening up the possibility of such a resolution with Iran is to give up the hollow regime change bombast. Nobody's buying the threat and it just kills serious conversation.

Agreed. The good news is that I think the administration is moving in that direction.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Fri Mar 31, 07:48:00 PM:

"The second had to do with looking at Iran's security situation from Tehran's perspective: the United States, a hostile power, has effectively encircled Iran with its military, squeezes Iran with sanctions, talks endlessly about regime change, has in fact changed the regimes of two bordering countries with military force, and quite openly appropriates money to undermine the regime. Why should we be surprised that Tehran is looking for a nuclear deterrant?"

It's all very noble (and useful) to try to view things through your enemies' eyes, but this misses a key fact.

The Iranians were pursuing nuclear weapons *before* anyone talked about regime change or they became surrounded by US forces. I don't have any precise dates on hand but I think the project originated in the late 80s following Khomeini's death. In any case, it had to be long enough to have built all those big-ass underground facilities before 2002, when the existence of the project was revealed.

Anyone who thinks that the Iranians want nuclear arms as a deterrent (except maybe against Saddam) is naive. These people invented Islamic suicide bombing. They used human waves of *children* to clear minefields in the Iran/Iraq war. They helped bomb the Khobar Towers for no reason other than to help kill Americans.

If you want to see the world through Iranian eyes, you have to be able to rationalize and be comfortable with the above.

Take a minute.

Ready?

Now, in your pseudo-Iranian state, why do you want nuclear weapons?  

By Blogger Robert Schwartz, at Fri Mar 31, 10:09:00 PM:

I am with Dawnfire. They are bad guys and all of this talk about Ahmenijad being a punk with no power is just whistling past the graveyard.

Bomb them back to the stone age.  

By Anonymous payman, at Sat Apr 01, 07:29:00 AM:

Friends you have written about consider Iranian’s view points . As an Iranian it’s very strange for me that you entirely believe that Iranian people want to hurt American people.
I am living in Iran and you can be sure it’s almost impossible to find somebody in the street that intends to kill Americans.
I remember about your hostages in Iran and I see you anger, but (if you want to consider Iranian’s point of view) as an Iranian shouldn’t I be angry about missile attack on liner airplane that killed 190 person? At least your hostages freed healthy ,not killed.
Although there are some censorships, unlawful actions (like other countries in the world included U.S.) and some people that aren’t elected democratically but the most democratic country in the middle east is Iran .about three decade before there was a king in Iran and as you probably know the most back warded governing system in the world is the kingly form of government. About 1952 we tried to gain more freedom but as C.I.A documents prove your country was involved in the coup that caused our reformation to be failured. Instead of supporting this movement American authorities tried to fade it and clearly as a result it became an explosive movement that damaged everything in 1979.
Frankly, we don’t need any support from abroad; the only thing which is needed is that no country interferes in Iran’s domestic issue. Bush` postures about democracy just worsen situation because there are some sensitiveness toward united states of America in Iran and any kind of support of special movement means failure for that movement, briefly we just need to let every evolution process in the its appropriate time.
All I try to say is that as my country (and any other country), your country is full of fanatic diplomats that try to encourage people for the war that brings suffer only for ordinary people.
Finally about nuclear issue it’s just enough to say the only country in the world that has used atomic bomb is U.S. and may be use it again. Even in Afghanistan (the most back warded army in the world) the U.S. army has used depleted uranium.  

By Blogger Red A, at Sat Apr 01, 12:26:00 PM:

Here's the problem:

Regime change will fix the problem in a much more long-term way.

Anything else is a band-aid.

So, by abandoning the regime change talk, I guess it means you can try the band-aid for a while.

Great. That worked so well with North Korea...

But, I can also see there isn't much choice as regime change has been slammed in Iraq.

I suspect we will end up with a 2000 George Bush policy of no nation building and realism in the end.

Yeah, we could have built a better world, but it did not happen.  

By Blogger mrsizer, at Sat Apr 01, 04:40:00 PM:

Finally about nuclear issue it’s just enough to say the only country in the world that has used atomic bomb is U.S. and may be use it again.

You say that as if we should be embarressed or ashamed. We're not. In fact, it sounds like a good reason NOT to provoke us to me.

Even in Afghanistan (the most back warded army in the world) the U.S. army has used depleted uranium.

Apprently Iranian schools aren't any better than American schools: Depleted uranium isn't "nuclear".

btw: How long do you have to study English to learn the word "depleted".  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sun Apr 02, 04:04:00 AM:

If you want to compare numbers, Mr. Payman, remember these:

Khobar Towers - 19
Beirut - 258
Iranian-supplied IEDs and militias in Iraq - 100+, Still happening

Looks like we have some catching up to do, doesn't it?

You may be right in saying that Iranian people don't want to hurt American people. On an individual level, that is. However, your government is all about hurting Americans, as past history has shown and is continuing to show.

And I hate to break it to you, but the most democratic country in the Middle East is Turkey. Iran is run by a theocracy, and that theocracy has the power to disqualify people they don't like from running for elections, thereby ensuring that political opponents are never elected. Very democratic.

Fanatic diplomats who encourage war... aside from being a strange thing to say, is untrue, but maybe that's what you people think over there. We think that a country that uses (like I mentioned) human waves of children to clear minefields and who blow themselves up to kill our citizens, like Iran, is full of fanatics too. Funny, that.

And finally, depleted uranium is not radioactive (hence the term, depleted) and it was better to use the atom bombs to kill 100,000 Japanese than invade the home islands which was expected to cost upwards of 2,000,000 lives. Or no?

One's answer to that question speaks volumes about one's moral values.  

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By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Mar 01, 04:57:00 PM:

There is currently a delegation of notables from Hollywood now in Tehran. They include Anette Benning and others of the same ilk. Some Iranians have demanded an apology from Hollywood for the way the US movie industry has treated Iran.
I, for one, pray for the safe return of all members of this group and hope that the Iranians overlook the propaganda value and leverage it would create with Obama of taking all members of the brave group hostage.  

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