February 23, 2010
Number 02/10 #07
Today’s Update concerns Iran’s nuclear program, following the release of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on the issue. The report, which can be read here (PDF), is generally regarded as tougher and more detailed than most past IAEA reports, and discusses for the first time “the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” This New York Times article summarises the report and reactions to it, and serves as a good introduction to the issue for those who haven’t been following the story.
Our first article today is Sunday’s Washington Post editorial. In discussing the IAEA report, it points out two good things; that although Iran is advancing its nuclear program, it is doing so more slowly than it would like due to technical difficulties; and the new IAEA Secretary-General Yukiya Amano is clearly showing more steel than his predecessor Mohammed ElBaradei, who held back or watered down reports on Iran’s illegal nuclear activities for political reasons. The bad news, however, as the editorial points out, is that nothing – not sanctions, not technical problems, and not engagement – seems to show any sign of stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons drive. To read this informative editorial in full, CLICK HERE. (Emanuele Ottolenghi makes similar points in a blog for Commentary magazine here, as does Anne Bayefsky, who is cutting in her remarks on ElBaradei.)
Our second article today is from the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (BICOM) and deals with Israel’s attempts to convince Russia to a play a more positive role in efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program, Written in the wake of the recent visit to Russia by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, this analysis examines Russia’s position vis-à-vis the Iranian threat and its likely future responses. Russia, with its veto on the Security Council, has long been against meaningful sanctions against Teheran, although there is evidence of an evolution in Russia’s stance toward a tougher position on Iran. For UN sanctions regime to have any teeth, Russia must be convinced that a nuclear Iran is against its interests; hence Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow. To read about this key issue, CLICK HERE.
For our third and final article today, we return to the pages of the Washington Post, where the Council on Foreign Relations’ James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh discuss a day-after scenario. Responding to the claims by some that the US could successfully contain a nuclear Iran, thus ending any necessity to pre-emptively strike the recalcitrant regime or engage in other policies which might risk violent conflict, the authors point out what is required of an effective containment policy – namely a strong willingness to use force. They suggest that Iran would test the US very early on and if the US did not act decisively – meaning, with force – to such provocations, its credibility would be undermined. Therefore the choice would be either run a large risk of violent conflict with a nuclear-armed Iran or the effective end of containment. This is an extremely important rejoinder to those who suggest we can live with a nuclear Iran via “containment” and to read it, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, former CIA Iran analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht argues in detail the case for petrol sanctions against Iran as the best solution at present.
Readers may also be interested in:
- An informative blog entry on whether Iran’s claims on the advances of its nuclear program hold water.
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei’s latest uncompromising message.
- The Washington Institute’s Mehdi Khalaji on Iran’s Green opposition movement and Israel.
- The Foundation for the Defence of Democracy’s Clifford May on Iranian interference in Iraqi politics. More on the danger this creates for Iraq’s future come from military historians Fred and Kimberly Kagan (article is a pdf).
- New IAEA revelations seemingly confirm Syria had an illegal undeclared nuclear plant (while Syria refuses additional cooperation with the IAEA).
- An analysis of new efforts by Washington to improve ties with Syria from David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Syria’s overall political position here and here.
- A good analysis of how Syria benefits from membership in the ‘axis of proliferation.’
- Two informative on-the-ground pieces on the fighting in Afghanistan’s Marja here and here.
- Salman Rushdie on the scandal over Amnesty International suspending women’s rights specialist Gita Sahgal for criticising the organisation’s alliance with a Jihadist pro-Taliban group in Britain.
Editorial, Washington Post, February 21, 2010
THE LATEST report about Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency contains a lot of bad news: Iran has already produced its first batch of more highly enriched uranium, and it did so without waiting for IAEA inspectors to arrive; it has produced 4,550 pounds of low-enriched uranium — almost enough, if further processed, for two atomic bombs; and it has begun work on manufacturing uranium in metallic form, another key step in bomb production.
There are, however, two pieces of good news amid all the bad — something the Obama administration and its allies are badly in need of at a time when the effort to stop Tehran’s nuclear program is showing little progress. The first is that the number of working centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant is declining, though the overall output is still increasing. A recent study by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) showed that more than half of the Natanz plant’s 8,700 centrifuges were not working in November; the new IAEA report records a further decline. Iran’s enrichment of its stockpile is also proceeding at a snail’s pace.
More significant, the report signals that under a new leader, Yukiya Amano, the United Nations’ nuclear inspection agency will scrupulously carry out its technical mission and honestly report the facts. That would be a sea change from the politicized tenure of former chief Mohammed ElBaradei, who envisioned himself as an independent actor and openly declared his opposition to sanctions or military action against Iran. Mr. ElBaradei kept the IAEA from reporting all that it knew about Iran’s pursuit of a bomb and refused to draw obvious conclusions.
No more, it seems: “The information . . . raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile,” says the first report issued under Mr. Amano. Let’s hope such frankness helps clarify the ongoing discussion at the U.N. Security Council about further sanctions. As the IAEA report makes clear, neither existing sanctions, nor technical problems, nor the Obama administration’s offers of engagement have stopped Iran’s drive for a weapon.
February 22, 2010
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent three days in Moscow last week for meetings with Russian leaders. Netanyahu is determined to help generate international resolve to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons diplomatically, and bringing Moscow on board for a new round of tough sanctions is a key goal in Israel and Western countries. A new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran has subsequently sharpened Russia’s focus on the threat. This document looks at the Russian stance towards Iran and Israel’s ongoing concerns in light of the latest developments.
Russia’s position vis-à-vis Iran
Russia has for years been far more equivocal in its approach to the prospect of a nuclear Iran than Britain, France or the US. Of the five permanent member of the UN Security Council, only China traditionally offers greater opposition to the idea of harsher sanctions against the Iranian regime. However, since last September’s revelation of Iran’s secret uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom, Moscow’s change in tone has increasingly led Western diplomats to believe that Russia may support new sanctions. Yet Russia still has some reservations, owing to a range of economic and political interests that govern its relationship with the Iranian regime.
The Kremlin’s cautious approach and preference for ambiguity has been a dominant feature in Russia’s foreign policy for some time. Before the Israeli visit, Russian officials said that they would fulfil a December 2005 contract to supply advanced S-300 air defence missiles to Iran. This was despite repeated calls by the US and Israel for Russia not to go ahead with the £507 million deal, because the transfer could seriously undermine regional stability. Israel sees the weapon system as a ‘game changer’, which would make it much harder to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities as an option of last resort. However, following Netanyahu’s Moscow meetings, Russia announced a delay in delivery, citing unspecified “technical problems,” and giving no indication of when these difficulties would be ironed out.
This decision, in turn, raises Western hopes that Russia will support tougher international sanctions against Iran. Relations between Moscow and Tehran have become strained recently. Russia has questioned the “sincerity” of Iran’s pledges not to be developing nuclear weapons, and said fresh UN sanctions on Tehran were a “realistic” option. It joined the US and France in signing a letter, dated 12 February, condemning Iran’s decision earlier this month to boost uranium enrichment to levels which experts fear would put Iran on the verge of nuclear breakthrough. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov also said last Friday that he is “very alarmed” by Iran’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA and prove that its nuclear programme is peaceful. All of this has prompted speculation that Moscow may be closer to acceding to Western demands for new UN sanctions.
Campaigning for effective diplomatic measures
There is a sense in Israel that events in Iran over the past year – from the disputed presidential election last June and violent crackdown on political opposition, to the uncovering of the Qom plant – have lifted the facade of the Iranian regime and alerted the world to the nature of the threat. Israel has focused its efforts on supporting the international coalition and ensuring broad support for diplomatic action against Iran. Israel has a fine line to tread, because Iran seems intent on escalating tensions, and Israel has no desire whatsoever for a full-scale conflict. So whilst seeking to ratchet up the international diplomatic pressure on Iran to the fullest and widest extent possible, Netanyahu has also clarified that he wants to see a peaceful resolution of the nuclear stand-off.
Netanyahu’s message, which he is seeking to convey the world over, is that ‘watered-down’ sanctions will not suffice in order to avert disaster. However, where Netanyahu urged Russia to support sanctions “with teeth,” including a blockade on energy exports, Lavrov’s deputy, Sergei Ryabko, remarked that Russia “find[s] the term ‘paralysing sanctions’ completely unacceptable.”
But several other developments highlight the need for urgent stringent sanctions. The first relates to the new IAEA report which, as noted above, drew a strong response from the Kremlin. The UN nuclear watchdog’s assessment, published last Thursday, states that Iran’s level of cooperation with the IAEA is decreasing, adding to concerns about the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear programme. Whilst the findings are not new, the report does contain language that is more directly critical of Iran’s intentions than previous reports. This appears to reflect a tougher approach by the agency under its new Japanese director-general, Yukiya Amano. Furthermore, the Iranian regime’s recent uranium enrichment announcement appears to indicate that Iran no longer seeks to cover up its nuclear ambitions.
Russia and the next stage
The fear among some Israeli observers is that, as has happened in the past when Iran takes a step closer to achieving its nuclear ambitions, calls for more decisive action will not materialise or become diluted in practice. Russia has the potential to play a key role in ensuring that this does not happen this time around.
The US administration, along with its Western allies, is presently pushing for a fourth round of sanctions via the Security Council. The IRGC and is affiliated companies and organisations are expected to be targeted heavily. However, a timeline and details remain diplomatically sensitive, mainly because China, which relies on Iran’s energy exports, is still sceptical about sanctions, and Russian support for specific measures still needs to be firmed up. Israel and other Western powers attach high strategic importance to winning the Russians over; the hope is that it would force Beijing to recalibrate its policy to avoid being out of sync with the rest of the world, choosing to abstain at the UN instead of using its power of veto.
Russia, on balance, wants to notch up the pressure on Iran, with whom it says it is losing patience, but it would still prefer doing so without severing its long-standing links to a valued trading partner. In particular, it is likely to resist a ban on arms sales to Iran, and to try to protect investment in civil nuclear energy, oil and natural gas. Iran’s ambassador to Russia, Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi, last week tried to make Russia think twice before changing its stance, issuing a veiled threat to bilateral economic ties, including energy cooperation. He warned, “if Russia voted for sanctions, then this process would certainly slow down”. But Iran’s defiance of the international community continues, and Moscow is increasingly opposed to Iran’s defiant nuclear policies. It also wants to be seen as a reliable guarantor of nuclear non-proliferation, and fears that an Iranian nuclear umbrella would undermine its energy interests in the region.
For Israel and Western countries, the price for Russian cooperation over the Iranian issue may be allowing Moscow greater influence on regional diplomacy, including the peace process. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Russia in late January and supported the idea of a high-level meeting of the Middle East Quartet on Russian soil to discuss renewal of the peace process. In addition, Moscow would like to host a summit once Abbas agrees to resume peace talks with the Israeli government. Russia also attaches importance to its contacts with Hamas: Khaled Ma’ashal, the group’s Damascus-based political leader, visited Russia earlier this month. Whilst Russia’s ties with militant Islamist forces are not welcomed either in Washington or Jerusalem, there has been an improvement over the last year in US-Russia relations, and greater cooperation between Russia and NATO. As such, regional initiatives that involve Russia may be acceptable to the Obama administration and to Europe, especially if they help to further isolate the Iranian regime.
Upon his return from Moscow, Netanyahu claimed that the “gap in understanding” with regard to how the world is seeking to deal with Iran is narrowing. Whilst Moscow may not yet have shifted as far as Western countries would like, they do see movement in the right direction. Russia is unlikely to dramatically alter its cautious, wait-and-see approach to dealing with Iran, at least until it becomes convinced of the broader benefits and reaps any available rewards for doing so. In this regard, US President Obama’s diplomatic skills – and the extent of European support he receives – could be important in persuading the Russians that preventing the emergence of a nuclear Iran is a global security priority which must overshadow regional political and narrow business considerations.
James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, Washington Post, February 21, 2010
As Iran relentlessly moves toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, calls will grow for the United States to think seriously about how to contain Tehran. A preventive attack will not work, some will argue, and could unleash a wave of terrorism that would further imperil Iraq and Afghanistan. Conversely, containment will be held up as a way to deter Tehran without having to resort to military force.
But this view draws a false distinction between containment and force. A preventive attack might not end Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Defense Secretary Robert Gates argues that a successful attack would delay the Iranian program by at most a few years. Yet a policy of containment will not save the White House from having to make tough choices about using force. Indeed, Iran can be contained only if Washington is prepared to use force against an emboldened adversary armed with the ultimate weapon.
The rationale for the Iranian nuclear program has changed over time. It began as part of a largely defensive strategy under the moderate presidencies of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Nuclear weapons would provide a way to deter a range of foes while enhancing national prestige.
Today, as Iranian hawks consolidate their power and the Revolutionary Guards emerge as a key pillar of the state, Tehran views nuclear weapons as the means to regional preeminence. A nuclear shield would give Iran freedom to project its power in the Middle East. Such an Iran is unlikely to be subtle about brandishing the nuclear card.
It would take considerable American political skill and will to contain such regional pretensions. Washington would need to be explicit about its red lines: no initiation of conventional warfare against other countries; no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material or technologies; no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. Washington would need to be just as explicit about the consequences of crossing those lines: potential U.S. military retaliation by any and all means necessary.
Tehran would probably test U.S. resolve early on, believing that regional dynamics had shifted sharply in its favor. In that case, the United States would face a momentous credibility crisis because it had failed to stop Iran from going nuclear after persistently declaring that such an outcome was unacceptable. Even close U.S. allies would doubt Washington’s security guarantees.
An emboldened Iran would test Washington in several ways. It would probably lend more support to Hezbollah and Hamas and encourage them to act more aggressively against Israel. It might step up subversive activities against the Gulf sheikdoms and demand that they evict U.S. troops from their territory.
A nuclear Iran could also be tempted to transfer nuclear materials and technologies to other countries. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has already declared that “Iran’s nuclear achievements belong to all those countries thinking of peace and welfare, and we are prepared to provide these achievements to those who hate war and aggression.” How would the United States respond to an Iran that transferred advanced centrifuges or nuclear weapon designs to its Syrian ally? Or if it gave fissile material to a terrorist group?
Such dangerous and destabilizing actions cannot be addressed by tough diplomatic talk or yet more U.N. Security Council resolutions. It can be addressed only by a willingness to respond with force. And in the curious logic that governs deterrence, a Tehran that believes Washington will retaliate will be less likely to act aggressively in the first place.
The challenges of making containment work make it far preferable that Iran stop — or be stopped — short of becoming a nuclear power. Efforts to negotiate limits on Iran’s nuclear program must be pursued with vigor, and economic pressure on Tehran must be maintained. Military options should not be taken off the table.
If Tehran remains determined to go nuclear and preventive attacks prove too risky or unworkable to carry out, the United States will need to formulate a strategy to contain Iran. In doing so, however, it would be a mistake to assume that containment would save the United States from the need to make tough choices about retaliation. If Washington is not prepared to back up a containment strategy with force, the damage created by Iran’s going nuclear could become catastrophic.
James M. Lindsay is senior vice president and Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Their article “After Iran Gets the Bomb” will be published in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs.