April 13, 2006

More on Iran

As the war drums beat, it's worth remembering that it's not five minutes to midnight. And likely won't be for the duration of the Bush Administration. I still see this as ultimately a challenge for the next Administration that comes in to power in 2009. That's not to say there won't be complicated diplomacy in and around the UNSC, and perhaps major sanctions and other robust tactics that will be necessary to wield by 2008, say. But I do not see a responsible use of military power before 2009, meaning a strictly necessary one, unless there is a secret (meaning, you know, secret, secret) program the Iranians have fast-tracked, and we have unimpeachable evidence of same, meaning their ability to wield a nuclear weapon within 1000 or so days. I don't see it, and have yet to see any responsible intelligence analyst argue otherwise.

Western nuclear analysts said yesterday that Tehran lacked the skills, materials and equipment to make good on its immediate nuclear ambitions, even as a senior Iranian official said Iran would defy international pressure and rapidly expand its ability to enrich uranium for fuel.

The official, Muhammad Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran's atomic energy organization, said Iran would push quickly to put 54,000 centrifuges on line — a vast increase from the 164 they said Tuesday that they had used to enrich uranium to levels that could fuel a nuclear reactor.

Still, nuclear analysts called the claims exaggerated. They said nothing had changed to alter current estimates of when Iran might be able to make a single nuclear weapon, assuming that is its ultimate goal. The United States government has put that at 5 to 10 years, and some analysts have said it could come as late as 2020.

Iran's announcement brought criticism from several Western Nations and to a lesser degree from Russia and China. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for "strong steps" against Iran, using the country's clear statement of defiance to persuade reluctant countries like Russia and China to support tough international penalties. But Russian officials said they had not changed their opposition to such penalties. Nuclear analysts said Iran's boast that it had enriched uranium using 164 centrifuges meant that it had now moved one small but significant step beyond what it had been ready to do nearly three years ago, when it agreed to suspend enrichment while negotiating the fate of its nuclear program.

"They're hyping it," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, a private group that monitors the Iranian nuclear program. "There's still a lot they have to do." Anthony H. Cordesman and Khalid R. al-Rodhan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington called the new Iranian claims "little more than vacuous political posturing" meant to promote Iranian nationalism and a global sense of atomic inevitability.

The nuclear experts said Iran's claim on Wednesday that it would mass-produce 54,000 centrifuges echoed boasts that it made years ago. Even so, they noted, the Islamic state still lacked the parts and materials to make droves of the highly complex machines, which can spin uranium into fuel rich enough for use in nuclear reactors or atom bombs.

It took Tehran 21 years of planning and 7 years of sporadic experiments, mostly in secret, to reach its current ability to link 164 spinning centrifuges in what nuclear experts call a cascade. Now, the analysts said, Tehran has to achieve not only consistent results around the clock for many months and years but even higher degrees of precision and mass production. It is as if Iran, having mastered a difficult musical instrument, now faces the challenge of making thousands of them and creating a very large orchestra that always plays in tune and in unison.

Posted by Gregory at April 13, 2006 05:30 AM | TrackBack (1)

I'm not particularly knowledgeable on this stuff a la Messrs. Djerejian or Britt. And yet the past month I have been constantly bemused that as the stories about Iran get worse and worse, the stories about North Korea have vanished. Now, I'm not bemused by _why_ that happens -- sadly, our attention only gets so big. And I'm _deathly_ afraid that what is true for us as a society is also true of the administration: there is only a focus on the top two or three crises at a given moment. So goes the world.

But but but. My understanding is the North Korean mess is at as least as much of an impasse as the Iranian one (and maybe rather bleaker in terms of cards we hold). And I also gather that while it's not five minutes to midnight there either, well, people have started looking at their watches: it's closer.

So, much as I'm loving this site more and more --- particularly with Mr. Djerejian discovering his inner gangsta rapper-cum-gallicist (and, please God, let some intrepid soul find an actual recording of the guy speaking somewhere and grace us all with a hip-hop remix) --- I think this idea of, OK it's a mess but I don't trust these incompetents so, worst case let's just ride it out a couple more years, is a pleasant fantasyland. Far too much stuff is on the burners right now and I don't think running down the clock 'til 2008 is smart at all; somehow somehow these guys have to get their act together. And if someone is going to use military power in 2009 or whenever the Bush team had damn well better be tasking peple to work on how that's going to b done; I don't trust them to task the right people with the right job, either, but it's "please, God, make Bush more competent," not "please, God, let him just stay away from it for two years." Not an option.

Posted by: Sanjay Krishnaswamy at April 13, 2006 06:52 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It matters little in the malignant atmosphere of war hysteria, which the Bush administration has manipulated for its domestic political advantage since the 9/11 attacks, whether Iran is ten years, ten months or ten days away from producing nuclear weapons. Bush wants war like a junkie needs a fix. His entire legacy as President will be judged by his war on terror. And it seems to be working rather effectively since supposedly hawkish bloggers like yourself, Greg, are terrorized at the prospect of the impending war in Iran. When you signed on with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course, you thought it would stop there, and all that cant about an axis of evil was really political theater for the hard-core Christian base of the Republican Party that he has continuously pandered to in his speeches. But he really believes it and it validates his identity as leader of the free world, subject to the usual illegal wiretapping of American citizens.
Bush will attack Iraq. There's no going back for him. War is the only issue that gives his failed tenure as President any meaning. Ignatius was astute in his historical allusion to World War I. Sleepwalking toward the abyss occurs in a climate of arrogance, and this country has certainly a great deal of hubris. Joseph de Maistre, the intellectual godfather of modern fascism according to Sir Isaiah Berlin, once stated that citizens usually get the government and political leaders that they deserve. How do you like war now?

Posted by: George Hoffman at April 13, 2006 08:43 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Does AQ Khan, hero of the muffled people in Pakistan, figure into this somehow? I'm guessing not, or they'd probably already have a few bombs.

Posted by: norbizness at April 13, 2006 02:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Norbizness, AQ Khan did tell our intelligence people things to help them scare us about iran. So he figures into it that way.

Posted by: J Thomas at April 13, 2006 02:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"I still see this as ultimately a challenge for the next Administration that comes in to power in 2009."

Just like pulling out from Iraq!

Posted by: Chris at April 13, 2006 04:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Last I heard Pakistan was still refusing to allow the US to question Khan.

Have you heard differently? And if so where?

Posted by: Davebo at April 13, 2006 04:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Chris, the US is questioning Khan--at least according the New Yorker Sy Hersh article.

Posted by: Mike at April 13, 2006 04:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sorry, my post should have been directed to Davebo.

Posted by: Mike at April 13, 2006 04:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Wouldn't invading a peaceful nation simply to rid it of a weapon be a war crime?

Posted by: paul at April 13, 2006 05:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Officially at least the Pakistan government has continued to refuse to allow his questioning.

Hersh may be right of course, but I hope he's wrong on his other "scoops" of late.

Posted by: Davebo at April 13, 2006 06:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, this situation has been thoroughly discussed at Winds of Change and a consensus has been reached.

Our only choice is to invade Iran and occupy the country until such time that the laws of physics can be changed and nuclear fusion or fission is no longer physically possible.

Posted by: Davebo at April 13, 2006 07:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Any discussion that refuses to include North Korea, or leave the Saudis attempts to acquire nukes off the table, is risibly risible.

Posted by: Marky at April 13, 2006 08:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Anybody notice how Bush's buddies, in the Arab monarchies, who back Al-Queda and back the Sunnis in Iraq are ignored?

Look...over there.

Bush is loyal...but to the wrong nation.

Posted by: rs at April 13, 2006 09:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You're right, but your choice of argument is far too thin to win the policy debate about attacking Iran.

We've never going to know for certain what the story is, and when you combine uncertainty about the facts with strong political and psychological incentives to assume and/or make up the worst, the argument "we don't have to use military force yet because Iran isn't that close to a bomb yet" is stupid and self-defeating. If it's smart to invade Iran because they're getting really close to a nuclear weapon, than it's even smarter to invade them when they're not really close, so you don't screw up and they test one while you're waiting.

So, you're missing the point. The point is that the very idea of invading states because they are about to acquire weapons is, at the very least, a bad general principle. It makes a form of military sense for one state against another state that it is already actively at war with. It could possibly make sense - a narrow, long-term destructive sort of sense, but some sense, for a two competing hegemons when one was about to seize a permanent strategic advantage.

But the world's dominant force invading a weak regional power that we are not at war with and has not taken any overt belligerent actions against us in decades and has no intentions of doing so? Invade them? because they're obtaining a weapon we have tens of thousands of?

You're still not thinking with any sense of context or history, Greg. You're just muddling along staking a middle ground. Your method of argument is, essentially capitulation to the people whose policy prescription you allegedly disagree with.

Say it with me: It's stupid for America to invade this country, in this situation, because it's about to acquire nukes. And airstrikes aren't really any different, because they make eventual invasion just about inevitable. It would be stupid to invade just about any country under this relative power dynamic just for a potential acquisition of nukes. Especially absent any obvious, evidence of plans and serious intent to use them. I'm not talking about stupid rhetoric, but prepatory actions.

Posted by: glasnost at April 14, 2006 12:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Glasnost, what policy debate is Greg engaging in? With who? Who gets to decide whether he's winning?

The debate that decides whether we nuke iran is only between Bush and a few people he trusts. None of them pay attention to blogs.

Blogs might have some influence over whether generic democrats win elections against generic republicans, in districts that have been gerrymandered to strongly favor republicans. Then perhaps the freshman congressmen might do something-or-other under the leadership of the same democrats who've done nothing so far.

Also they might have some sort of influence over who wins the 2008 election -- it will be a bush-bashing democrat or a bush-bashing republican.

But OK, if it isn't Bush who decides who wins the policy debate, then who judges the debate? You?

That aside, I like your stand. The problem with it is that it's either a moral stand, or a long-run working-principle stand. Morally we have no good justification to attack nations that have done nothing to us. And it's a bad principle to establish that it's OK for nations to attack other nations they think might someday be a threat. And neither of these approaches will have any traction at all with people who tend toward the dark side.

Never mind morality, after 9/11 we can't take any chance that terrorists will get nukes. If it's a nation that hates us and that's talked to terrorists, that's enough reason to put aside all morality and take them out however we have to. So much for the moral argument.

And the long-run-principle argument is likewise easily disposed. We aren't just any nation, we're the USA, the only superpower, the only nation that has Right on our side. What's right for us isn't right for usual nations. If some other nation attacks somebody who hasn't done anything to them (like, say, Saddam attacking kuwait, or any nation attacking israel, that sort of thing) then we'll just do whatever it takes to show them they done wrong. But when we do it it isn't wrong, if it was wrong for us to do it we wouldn't do it. You can't judge the USA like it was just any nation. You aren't qualified to judge the USA at all. We aren't here to do things according to your standards, you're here to support the USA in doing whatever has to be done for the long-run good of the whole world. And don't you forget it.

Since we aren't trying to convince Bush, what's left is to convince voters. And to convince voters, we're working against the following argument (which typically isn't said out loud). "Look, nobody's going to tell you the truth about foreign stuff. Democrats lie just as much as we do. So who do you trust? Do you trust people who're on your side, who want to keep America the only superpower, running the whole world? Or do you trust people who act like we don't deserve any better than anybody else? And also, look how many people work for the military. Not just the soldiers, the civilians who work for the military too. And look at all the people who work for military contractors. All those people get paid, each and every month. The economy depends on them. If our military gets cut back it could cost you your job. Where do you live? Who do you trust to keep the base open? Who do you trust to make sure the contractors get lots of contracts? A solid republican who'll keep the military budget growing, or some pacifist democrat?"

How many voters will listen to morality and long-term consequences when they have the chance to vote their wallets? When they're scared about their debts in a mediocre economy....

Anyway, I liike it that Greg wants to talk about the truth, instead of acting like a republican and considering nothing but how well it will play with voters. There's time to do both, we can look at the truth as best we can and also think about how to say it so it sounds convincing.

Anyway, here's my argument.

There was an old woman who swallowed a toad.
When asked why she swallowed the toad, she explained
Someday likely a fly will crawl down my throat.
And then a spider will crawl down my throat to get the fly.
And a bird will crawl down my throat to get the spider.
And a cat will crawl down my throat to get the bird.
And a dog will crawl down my throat to get the cat.
And so on. That would be terrible
So if that fly crawls down my throat he'll find the toad waiting for it.
I'm preventing a terrible sequence of events.

But then she had to swallow a snake to get the toad.
And she had to swallow a mongoose to get the snake.
And she had to swallow a tiger to get the mongoose....

Posted by: J Thomas at April 14, 2006 01:59 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hi Greg,

You surely raise some interesting issues here.
For many reasons, the Iran pill will be hard to swallow...but with Gargantuan Wilsonian fools with nukes still calling the shots in Washington, anything can happen!

Basically the Neocons are now trying desperately to rebuild the Arab/Iranian geopolitical balance that they had deliberately destroyed in the first place by toppling Saddam´s secular regime.

I guess that’s what self-proclaimed ´universal fascists´ such as Mike Ledeen call ´creative chaos´ whatever that means...

Faster please!

Posted by: Dr Victorino de la Vega at April 14, 2006 12:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It is an interesting spectacle. Ethics aside, I mean. I have never much admired foreign policy realism, though often a degree of it it is necessary in this sorry jungle of a world - but intellectually it is quite facile and can lead to disasters in incapable and unchecked hands. But this particular incapability seems to me to be motivated by very dangerous ideology which by definition seems to trump the boring, pre-postmodern "facts on the ground" (that even realism attempts to respect). So, there is a sense that any folly is feasible now and with that goes the knowledge that the particular folly will moreover be executed with mindblowing incompetency. So, there is a certain horrid fascination about this idea of attacking Iran (the current next Third Reich) during this administration. Would they really, really do it? The way the generals are acting it would seem that they would have to promote a second lieutenant (by a gunpoint) to be in charge of the "master plan".

Posted by: llwyd at April 14, 2006 12:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sorry, but it took the USA about 10 months to produce enough U235 for several weapons using gaseous diffusion of UF6, the early version of centrifuging this corrosive chemical, in 1944, using that technology set, and with no one available to help, in secret.

Ideas that the Iranians are not capable of a similar effort, in an undetectable manner, using modern techniques, now that they have solved thte engineering problems in spining the gas to enrichment are simply fantasy. Ideas that there is no one willing to sell them help, for great reward, are delusionary regarding human nature, and the national interest of several nations who have already stood by the Iranian's side, blocking btw DIPLOMATIC efforts to block progess in this vein.

We are not omniscient.
It took us months 62 years ago.
It can be done, and they ARE going to try to do it. There are making that effort as I type these words, and it is their NATIONAL MISSION.

Posted by: epaminondas at April 14, 2006 04:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We have only two options; real, honest, (possibly benign) imperialism, or multilateral cooperation.

But we can't do both at the same time, half-assed, which is what the current strategy amounts to.

And I agree with glasnost: Greg's post (perhaps unintentionally) amounts to agreement with the core principles of today's failed strategy.

Posted by: Mads Kvalsvik at April 14, 2006 05:54 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mads, we built giant gaseous diffusion plants. We used something like 10% of all the electric power in the country for them. We didn't have to worry about spy satellites seeing them, and we didn't have to worry about getting bombed. It took us a long time to build the things but once we did they turned high-enriched stuff pretty quick from moderately-enriched stuff.

It's quite likely that iran would have to go slower. They aren't going to do it like we did, nobody does any more. The centrifuge method is a lot pickier, and also it scales; you can purify a little stuff with one sequence of centrifuges, and then you can make more when you set up more of them. The claim is that iran has got the system working in principle, but they haven't yet built most of the centrifuges they'll want to use. It might easily go as slow as the experts say.

On the other hand, they might try a collection of other methods that might possibly get faster results. They will probably go with the method they have worked out, but they might try some others too and one of them might succeed. However, even when they figure out that it will work faster, they still have to scale it up. Like, if they don't already have a reactor to produce plutonium, they'll have to build one and figure out how to tune it to produce plutonium at a respectable rate. That could be slow. But then, maybe they could figure out how to tune their civilian reactors for that, and either withdraw from the NPT or watch the inspectors find out right away. I don't know what the consequences of that would be.

So we're facing a lot of uncertainty.

Posted by: J Thomas at April 14, 2006 07:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You're not really quoting the NY Times as support are you? I mean you may be right, but if all you have to go on is a flimsy NY Times article loaded with anonymous sources and a few no-name analysts, then you have to work harder to convince us.

Posted by: roger rainey at April 14, 2006 11:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


If' you'd have bothered to actually read the Times story you wouldn't be spouting nonsense about anonymous sources.

David Albright isn't anonymous, nor are Anthony H. Cordesman and Khalid R. al-Rodhan. Nor are any of the leftist doves.

So before you start whining about the story, why not take a moment to read it first.

Or just keep making a fool of yourself on a public forum. Doesn't really matter.

Posted by: Davebo at April 14, 2006 11:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Your spin is worthy of the Faux network. Gas diffusion and gas centerfuges are separate methods and technically different. Your revision of history is interesting, but does not stand up. Doing a google search for "uranium centerfuge" shows that your statements do not stand up to facts. You could work for the Whitehouse, but the DOE would laugh at you. You might be an expert for Horowitz and FrontPage website!!!

Posted by: Rudi at April 15, 2006 01:27 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sorry Rudi but you are factually in error, gaseous diffusion uses EXACTLY the same principle. The heavier U238 moves at a different rate than U235...and is gathered differentially based on that difference in atomic weight. Quite elementary.

The centrifuge method replaced one massive gaseous diffusion plant. IF you can deal with the corrosive effects, for one, you have a shot. It uses far less electricity, and is far faster...if you chooise to be a delusionary fantasisyts about this, fine. But do yourself a favor and check FAS.

BTW if you search for this as you entered "uranium centerfuge" Best of luck.

The Iranians have made their mind up.
Google this:
"Hassan Abbassi"

No words of men will dissuade them from this effort, an effort whose purpose has been well defined since 1979. They have nothing different since then.

Posted by: epaminondas at April 15, 2006 01:45 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Rudi, you typed "uranium centerfuge".

I'm sorry, but you misspelled a word.

The word you are looking for is "subterfuge".

Posted by: J Thomas at April 15, 2006 03:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Rudi, you typed "uranium centerfuge".

I'm sorry, but you misspelled a word.

The word you are looking for is "subterfuge".

Posted by: J Thomas at April 15, 2006 03:13 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

...manipulated for its domestic political advantage since the 9/11 attacks...

That would be "advantage" in the form of 38% approval ratings right?

Posted by: Ploof at April 16, 2006 01:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If nothing is going to happen in Iran why has a friend of mine recieved deployment orders then? Which, I might add, he is not to happy about.

Posted by: Unknown at April 16, 2006 11:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

...manipulated for its domestic political advantage since the 9/11 attacks...

That would be "advantage" in the form of 38% approval ratings right?


Bush got giant approval for 9/11, and giant approval for invading iraq. After each bit of manipulation the approval starts slipping away....

Posted by: J Thomas at April 16, 2006 03:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It is as if Iran, having mastered a difficult musical instrument, now faces the challenge of making thousands of them and creating a very large orchestra that always plays in tune and in unison.

Why not, the Republicans have done it.

Posted by: J Thomas at April 19, 2006 02:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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