Steve Weissman / Reader Supported News – 2013-09-29 10:56:10
(September 22, 2013) — “Let’s Make a Deal” seems to be the new White House riff, which beats rattling sabers and sending in the Tomahawk missiles. But it’s too early for undue enthusiasm.
First, the Syrian deal could easily fall apart. Who will provide the boots on the ground to secure Assad’s chemical weapons? Who will pay for the destruction of the weapons, their chemical precursors, and their production facilities?
How much longer will Team Obama insist that the Security Council resolution include the threat of force, a blank check the Russians would be fools not to veto? And, when, if ever, will both Moscow and Washington stop their one-sided assertions of guilt?
The Syrian tragedy has more than one bad guy, and the world needs an objective look at all the suspected uses of chemical weapons in Syria, whether by the loathsome Basher al-Assad and his partners in crime, lesser elements of the Syrian army, or the Sunni rebels and their Saudi-led suppliers.
Second, the world faces a momentous contradiction between demands for justice at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the compelling need to find a messy compromise that will end the Syrian slaughter.
Third, all the players have hidden agendas, from competing imperial dreams of oil and gas pipelines to Obama’s murderous strategy of making certain that none of the factions ever win Syria’s civil war.
Still, even as the war hawks cheer every hint of failure on Syria, the rest of us will find hope that Obama, the new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, and even the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei all seem to be looking for a way beyond the devastating economic sanctions and the looming U.S. and Israeli military strikes on Iran’s nuclear program.
The dispute has long appeared to hinge on Iran’s intentions. As I wrote in “Nukes, Neo-Cons, and the Bush Who Cried Wolf” back in 2004, “Do the oil-rich Ayatollahs simply want to use atomic energy to generate electricity, as they insist? Or do they seek to join Pakistan, India, and Israel as a regional nuclear power?” My conclusion was – and is – that “the intelligence looks iffy, as it usually does when the questions count.”
At the time, George W. Bush’s CIA was warning Congress that Tehran was “vigorously” pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program. By November 2007, in their declassified National Intelligence Estimate, all 16 American agencies declared “with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.” This calls into question the sincerity of President Rouhani’s current insistence that Iran has “never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb.”
The American spooks believed with the same high confidence that Tehran had stopped its weapons program in 2003, the year before the CIA’s warning. They maintain, with high confidence in their 2012 estimate, that Iran is not actively attempting to build a bomb, but is pursuing research that might enable it to do so. British, French, and German spymasters believe that the Iranians continued some form of their weaponization program.
And, at least publicly, the Israelis have taken an even dimmer view, remaining unmoved by Rouhani’s charm offensive as the affable anti-Ahmadinejad. “His strategy is to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Smile and build a bomb.”
Take sides as you will, holding in mind that intentions can change. Understanding this, current discussions revolve more around two terms of art – “breakout period” and “nuclear capability.” At least for Team Obama, these are the crux of the dispute and the key to its resolution.
Unlike the Israelis, who have an all-but-admitted nuclear arsenal, the Iranians have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This permits the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to regularly inspect and continually monitor all of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities, though the agency suspects that the country has hidden sensitive activities.
The safeguards would not prevent the Iranians from diverting their fuel-grade enriched uranium for nuclear power (3.5% U-235) or higher grade enriched uranium for medical research (near 20% U-235) and further enrich them to weapons-grade (90% U-235). But the world would know of the initial diversion and other countries would have time to react, creating far more of an existential threat to Iran than to Israel.
For Team Obama and their European and Israeli allies, the big question is how much warning they would have. They call this the breakout period, and worry less about the Iranians actually building a bomb than in their getting enough weapons-grade uranium to do so. This is a politically expanded definition of nuclear capability. The term used to apply to Japan or Germany, who were often thought to be just a screwdriver away from having the bomb.
According to the well-connected Institute for Science and International Security, in October 2012, Iran’s Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant would have needed at least 2-4 months to get enough weapons-grade uranium to build a single bomb. The estimate assumes a race to enrich enough highly enriched uranium for only a single bomb. The time needed would expand if Iran tried to get enough to build more than one bomb.
Other, far less authoritative commentators have warned that Iran’s new advanced centrifuges could soon make the breakout period as short as ten days. This seems hysterical, and more propaganda than science. But that does not matter. The real question is how much of a breakout period Obama and his allies will find adequate.
Whatever Iran’s intentions, they are not likely to make a deal unless Rouhani can convince them that he is taking steps to maintain that amount of warning time should Iran ever choose to break out of IAEA safeguards. And, even if their demands sound a bit imperialistic, he just might do it with the blessings of his boss, Supreme Leader Khamenei.
According to Der Spiegel, their intelligence sources tell them that Rouhani is prepared to shut down the nuclear site at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom. The facility is 70 meters underground and believed to be virtually indestructible, even to bunker-buster bombs.
More important, its centrifuges are Iran’s most advanced and are enriching uranium to near 20%, ostensibly for medical research. This is just a short step to the weapons-grade uranium.
Closing down Fordo would eliminate this particular danger. Rouhani, the magazine’s sources tell them, “is reportedly prepared to decommission the Fordo enrichment plant and allow international inspectors to monitor the removal of the centrifuges.
In return, he could demand that the United States and Europe rescind their sanctions against the Islamic Republic, lift the ban on Iranian oil exports and allow the country’s central bank to do international business again.”
If Der Spiegel’s intelligence sources are correct, Obama may well do the deal, and even right-wing pundits will be writing that he finally deserves the Nobel Prize that he prematurely got in his first year of office. Rouhani would deserve a Nobel as well. As I think the Iranians would say in the borrowed Arabic of the Koran, Inshallah.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, “Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold.”
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