Saturday, May 19, 2007

Iran, geopolitics, and politics 

Gerald Seib thinks that Iran is about to become a significant factor ($WSJ) in the presidential race.

Note to 2008 presidential contenders: It isn't just Iraq any longer. Iran is about to move in as a significant headache for all presidential wannabes.

Iran will reach this status next week, when the International Atomic Energy Agency issues a report on the country's nuclear capabilities. That report is expected to declare that a recent inspection showed Iran making faster progress than previously thought toward enriching uranium on a large scale.

That will prompt a rethinking of how much closer Iran is toward having the capability to produce nuclear warheads. Experts will continue to disagree over exactly how close it may be. But, for the presidential candidates, this still will produce a special kind of quandary -- and an especially acute one for Democratic contenders.

Republicans can stake out a position that at once declares support for the president, hostility toward Iran, a commitment to negotiations, and a willingness to attack Iran as a "last resort." None of that will alienate the Republican activists, except perhaps the part about negotiating (of which a bit more below).

Democrats, on the other hand, have to choose between the geopolitical nonsense demanded by their activist base and the obvious point that taking military action "off the table" will actually reduce our ability to negotiate our way to a sustainable resolution of our confrontation with Iran:
The balance is trickier for Democrats because they are playing to a party base that has become increasingly antiwar because of the conflict in Iraq. Moreover, the top candidates are operating in a field where fringe candidates are disparaging any suggestion that military action against Iran is an option. Thus, the formula that might work for Republicans such as Mr. Gilmore -- a call for economic sanctions that leaves open the prospect of military action -- is tougher to pull off for a Democrat.

The difficulty was illustrated at the first Democratic debate last month, when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was thrown on the defensive on Iran. In a recent, extensive national-security speech, he had declared "we must never take the military option off the table" in trying to stop the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.

That brought attacks from the left, from both former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who virtually accused Sen. Obama of war-mongering. He responded by saying Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would be a "major threat," but also felt compelled to add: "I think it would be a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran." The balancing act, for him and others, isn't going to get any easier in the days ahead.

The interesting question is whether these dynamics will operate to constrain the Bush administration even more than it has been. As recently as last week Washington insiders were predicting a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, the rumor being that the relative doves were ascendant in the White House.
There is evidence that US-Iran relations are reaching a tipping point. Javier Solana, the EU’s top foreign affairs official, has told the White House that based on his conversations with the Ali Larijani, the Iranian nuclear negotiator, he believes that Iran wants a way out of confrontation. “Solana told us,” a White House official commented, “that our financial sanctions are having such a drastic impact that Tehran wants a deal.” However, finding compromise language will be challenging. The Iranians are still insisting that they will not surrender any rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that are available to other members, including an enrichment program. The US requires verifiable guarantees that Iran cannot and will not advance to a nuclear weapons capability. “Bush faces a hard choice,” the White House official continued. “Any deal will likely fall short of his original requirement that Iran abandons its enrichment program. He will have to overrule some of his closest advisers, including Vice-President Cheney to whom any agreement with Tehran is anathema.” Based on other conversations inside the Administration, our sense is that Bush is inclined to strike a bargain with Iran.

If Seib is right -- and I think he is -- that Iran will muck up the Democrats, will Republican partisans who might otherwise support the right deal with Iran object because it will perversely help the Democrats? Or are such people scarcer than hen's teeth anyway?

Finally, if the International Atomic Energy Agency comes to the expected conclusion that Iran is much closer to bomb-grade uranium enrichment capacity than previously thought, will that be another humiliation for the intelligence officials who prepare the "National Intelligence Estimate" (the last version of which declared only 21 months ago that Iran was approximately 10 years from that achievement)? Will they now accuse the White House of having pressured them into a too-dovish assessment of Iran's capabilities? Or will their original assessment, once offered as proof that the Bush administration was inflating the threat posed as Iran, now be regarded as another example of the Bush administration's incompetence?

The one thing we do know is that the press is unlikely to acknowledge that the White House had good reason to worry that our spies had underestimated Iraq's programs back in 2002.


By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sat May 19, 10:07:00 AM:

declared only 21 months ago that Iran was approximately 10 years from that achievement

The Manhattan project did it in far less time working with 1940's manufacturing technology and having to develop the knowledge from scratch.

Anyone who thinks it would take 10 has to be a moron when you can stand on the shoulders of those who came before you.

Iran also has very significant domestic uranium deposits. The device, if their intention is actually to build nukes, has undoubtedly constructed already and is awaiting the fissile material.

As one of his parting final year "gifts", Clinton handed over the design of a Russian device to the Iranians. The design was crudely tampered with of course, but the Iranians are smart enough to fix that.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat May 19, 04:37:00 PM:

Point well taken.

Has anyone considered that they Iranians may quickly leap-frog to H-bombs, with their concomittantly greater yield? A handful of 2 megaton air-bursts would truly incinerate most of Israel. I would be interested if there is any intelligence on Iranian efforts to separate deuterium from water and make lithium deuteride.
The US could have had H-bombs two years after Trinity, if the political impetus had been present. It was only the 'surprise' (oops, they did it again!) of the Soviet successes with their A-bomb program in 1949 that spurred on the US H-bomb program.
While the "West" shilly-shallies about worrying about the 'consequences' of the alleged Iranian enrichment program, public sentiment and multi-culti niceties, Iran plunges ahead. Nothing so far has dissuaded them from job one for them: getting nukes.
Oh wait, perhaps nuance and negotiation will persuade them of the errors of their ways?


By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sat May 19, 06:36:00 PM:

You still need a small fission device to initiate a fusion device. The limiting factor on their ambitions is the quantity of centrifuges they can get spinning to make the fissile material  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat May 19, 07:16:00 PM:

Dear Purple Avenger:

Yes, you need a fission device for the H-bomb.

But you don't need centrifuges or U235 for that fission device. Plutonium is preferred, used in an implosion-type device, the standard fission trigger. The U.S. got its plutonium during the Manhattan project from the Hanford, WA site, using natural U238 'piles', moderated by graphite. The irradiated uranium cores were then dissolved and the created plutonium residual processed out. Between 1944 and 1950 Hanford produced enough plutonium for almost 200 Nagasaki-type implosion bombs.

The Iranians are building their analogue, the heavy-water 'research' reactor at Arak. The North Koreans did the same for their nuclear weapons.

The West should be moderately concerned about Natanz, highly concerned about Arak, and wondering if the Iranians have a clandestine heavy-water reactor and plutonium reprocessing facility we don't know about.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat May 19, 08:13:00 PM:

On the other hand, Westhawk, Uranium type "gun-devices" were so dead simple (though inefficient) that Oppenheimer did not bother to even test them.

Clearly plutonium devices are preferred because they are the only ones mountable on warheads of ICBMs, of which the Iranians currently can hit most of Europe.

But ... if they can at least bluff that they have plutonium implosion style warheads, and "decapitate" the US with gun-style Uranium bombs delivered via untraceable Hezbollah (imagine say NYC, DC, Chicago, and LA destroyed by four near simultaneous bombs delivered by Hezbollah) then Iran would have the ME to itself. Or so the thinking by the Mullahs would proceed.

Certainly we have given the Iranians no evidence we would do anything but cower and perhaps even surrender by converting to Islam. From their perspective they think we are weak.  

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