Saturday, September 26, 2009

That Enrichment Plant and Nuclear Negotiations

The announcement yesterday that Iran has clandestinely been building another enrichment facility, in many ways, changes nothing, but it may open some opportunities.

James Acton makes a good argument that the facility should have been declared to the IAEA when the decision was made to build it. I would argue that, even Iran has behaved legally, the smarter thing, some time ago, would have been to open up to greater transparency. If its program is indeed oriented toward peaceful uses of nuclear power only, IAEA inspection would have confirmed this. Iran has invited the IAEA to inspect the site, which it pretty much had to do, but no date has been announced.

The claim that American and other intelligence services were monitoring the site for several years is persuasive. The nature of the site was probably not known for most of that time; excavations are relatively easy to see in overhead photos, but trucks with equipment would most likely unload inside the tunnels. Heightened truck traffic over the last few months would have been a clue that something was being installed, and “A senior intelligence official said Friday that Western spy agencies had ‘excellent access’ to the site, suggesting human spies had penetrated it.”

So President Obama has known about the site for some time, perhaps as long as he has been president. Joe Cirincione parses out some of the implications of this, which are consistent with the analysis of Obama’s strategies I began this week (here and here). Andrew Sullivan (h/t Helmut) and Juan Cole provided somewhat similar analyses.

I’ll agree that Obama has handled this well. Iran’s credibility is now seriously damaged, and even Russia now seems to have serious doubts about Iran as an ally. Obama’s change of direction in the missile defense deployments is worth rethinking in light of this week’s revelation. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that new intelligence changed his way of looking at the deployments; he just didn’t tell us all that new intelligence.

Israel is now in a box of its own. If the new site was hidden, how many other sites may be hidden and underground? Andreas Persbo suggests that there may be a clandestine facility for manufacturing feed gas. Not to mention that the new site is near Qom, one of Islam’s holy cities, collateral damage to which would have repercussions beyond the Moslem world. Iraq’s president now adds that Iraq’s airspace is not open to attacking Israeli warplanes (h/t Steve Hynd).

I think that Jim Walsh gets it right on sanctions.
A wise government hand once told me (when talking about North Korea) that “they will never change their nuclear policy in the face of sanctions, and they will never change their nuclear policy without sanctions.” The key to this nonproliferation koan is that sanctions give a country an incentive to alter their policy but that public in-your-face sanctions and finger waving only make governments dig their heels in. Sanctions create incentives for negotiation not capitulation.

The same is true for Iran: the more public the chastisement, the more likely that the answer will be resistance, no matter what the cost.
Mark Hibbs points out that the existence of secret sites means that banning enrichment loses effectiveness, just as does bombing. He also points out that pressure has not led to the abandonment of nuclear programs; that requires a change in the motivations of the state in question.

So the publicly advocated actions against Iran and the expectation that Iran should suspend enrichment have not been strengthened. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan plans to visit Iran next month for talks on the nuclear project.

The weakened Iranian position opens some opportunities, however, to moves that would encourage Iran to the leadership and recognition it wants through constructive actions. The public talks will continue in the vein we’ve become accustomed to. According to Julian Borger in The Guardian,
At [next Thursday’s] meeting the US will demand access to the plant within the next few days and to all other sites within three months. It will tell Tehran to open all notebooks and computers to inspection and answer questions about its suspected efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
But there could be additional talks, out of the public eye, that could explore internationalization of reactor fuel fabrication and the formation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. Security guarantees from the United States (and Israel?), which haven’t been mentioned in some time, might also be part of this discussion. Unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu once again showed an inability to take the high road, so Israel’s credibility on these subjects has been damaged. But Erdogan could broach some of these topics during his upcoming visit.

Such a second track could split the already fractious Iranian government. Pressure alone will help to unify Iran, but a double-track strategy would amplify differences.

Separately, it would be a good idea, as George Perkovich suggests, to develop a “list of nuclear-related activities that have no non-military purposes.” Some activities, like enriching uranium to bomb-grade, are obvious, but there will also be gray areas, and they may be the most difficult. But it would improve the credibility of accusations if such a list existed. After the claims of WMD used to justify the Iraq War, this isn’t too much to ask.

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