Friday, December 18, 2009

Iran: Where We Are

I’ve wanted to do a couple of big thoughtful posts (in contrast to my recent insta-responses) but haven’t had quiet time to work them up. But, in the insta-response mode, there have been a couple of developments today that make me think I should write this one up.

Sean Paul comes up with a bit of what I’ve been thinking on Iran, but I’ll take off in my own direction. I’m also going to try to avoid the set-piece arguments about Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran has a long history of which it is proud, during part of which it dominated its region. For the past century or so, it has been dominated by others, frequently in a very humiliating manner. The United States did it the favor of eliminating its most immediate enemy in the region, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The next competitor is Israel, which has a nuclear arsenal of probably 200 weapons and the means to deliver them.

George Bush put Iran on his short list of enemies, along with Iraq and North Korea. North Korea had plutonium and Iraq didn’t.

Iran has had a nuclear program since the United States helped to start it under the Shah. It is very hard for me to believe that there have been no proponents of an Iranian nuclear weapon during that time; for some scientists, this is the ultimate challenge, and the contrast in treatment of the other two members of the “Axis of Evil” made clear yet one more attraction of a nuclear weapons program, if not a full-up arsenal.

In any case, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allows its non nuclear weapon signatories access to the full nuclear fuel cycle for civilian purposes. The full nuclear fuel cycle also allows the production of nuclear weapons if the IAEA inspectors are removed.

The technological challenges and perhaps the trade potential of a full nuclear fuel cycle also would be attractive to any Iranian government. European nations have reneged on Iran in nuclear matters several times, and Russia has been suspiciously slow in finishing the Bushehr reactor that the Germans started.

Iran’s internal governance has been difficult, partly because of the complex decision-making structure of its government and partly because the revolution introduced a number of stressors, including limitations in human rights and ever-present revolutionary questions of who are its proper heirs. Difficulties in external relations and trade have also stressed the government.

Pride in technological achievements of the nuclear and missile programs is one way to bring the people together; additionally, these achievements can be felt to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Iran is dangerous to mess with. While that demonstration may be comforting to some in Iran, it can also convince others that something needs to be done about Iran. There is a slender line to be walked here.

Iran’s nuclear program keeps offering surprises to the rest of the world: some genuine and some perhaps not. Surprises do not build confidence; they tear it down. The latest surprise was a large quantity of heavy water that the IAEA inspectors found at the Arak nuclear plant; before that it was the Fordow enrichment facility, near Qom. And there were others. Some came from documents that may or may not be authentic; in several cases, the holders of those documents are unwilling to make them available for authentication, so we don’t know.

The timing of the release
of some of those documents is also suspicious. Iran takes a small step toward negotiating, and a new document shows up. The most recent one apparently has been around for a year or more, but it just happened to leak right after Iran made a proposal on exchanging some of its low-enriched uranium for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.

Once, I had a professor working for me on a contract on which he was not delivering. I called him on the phone to talk about it; the conversation was interrupted, he said, by someone coming into his office. When I called the next week, oddly enough, before we could get to substance, someone came into his office again, interrupting the call. The timing of these document leaks is like that.

Are all these documents forgeries? Probably not. It’s not impossible that Iran has done some experiments, or thought about doing some experiments, on problems related to building nuclear weapons. From what I’ve seen of scientists, highly likely. My conclusion is that the evidence that has surfaced so far indicates only that some people have tried to check out some things, far short of a full-up nuclear weapons program.

But Iran has an obligation to report and explain those experiments to the IAEA, and it hasn’t been willing to. Whatever the reasons for Iran’s reticence, the impression that it gives is that Iran wants to hide something. And there are those who will put the worst interpretation on that.

Further, Iran’s inclination to respond to unfavorable developments with bluster, like its missile test this week or its declaration that it will build ten enrichment facilities, comes across more as weakness than strength, but a dangerous weakness.

The societal unrest and accompanying disagreements within the Iranian government further complicate the situation and most likely explain the on-again, off-again nature of Iran’s response in the nuclear negotiations and the resignations of negotiators. Ray Takeyh provides one more possible narrative of what is behind that back-and-forth.

Roger Cohen counsels the Obama administration to do nothing for a while. I think the administration has largely been doing that, with the occasional fierce word on sanctions to remind Iran that there are outstanding issues. The conference on sanctions was called off. Cohen points out that part of what the George H. W. Bush administration did right on the Soviet breakup in the early nineties was what it didn’t do. The George W. Bush administration, of course, poisoned the waters with Iran by publicly saying it would try to undermine the regime; the Obama administration has to live with the aftereffects.

Cohen argues that the Iranian regime is now destabilized and likely to fall under its own contradiction. Sanctions would indeed give the Iranian government a rallying point. The opposition leader Mehdi Karoubi is becoming more outspoken.

Iran would like to be the regional hegemon and sees its nuclear program, whether civilian or military, as part of that. Its internal disarray is an enormous barrier to that ambition. Its competitor, Israel, has been relatively subdued the last week or two. Has the United States told Israel to damp down the rhetoric?

Incorporating Iran into the region as a major player but not dominant is key to stabilizing the situation. Unfortunately, that can’t happen until Iran’s internal situation stabilizes. Or might it be possible to devise regional talks that would give Iran’s leaders a way to get some of what they want and motivate them toward an internal solution that would improve human rights?

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