Sunday, February 03, 2008

As the Centrifuges Spin

Last December, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence suddenly revised its assessment of Iran's nuclear program concluding the Mullahs had halted nuclear weapons development in 2003. Both the new NIE's flip-flopped conclusions, and the decision to release it publicly, were controversial. But the report provided an "easy out" for Bush-bashers already opposed to any action -- hortatory, monetary or military -- against Iran.

The cover of this week's Economist asks "Has Iran Won?". The magazine explained (in two articles):
  • It doesn't take a fevered brain to assume that if Iran's ayatollahs get their hands on the bomb, the world could be in for some nasty surprises. Iran's claim that its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful is widely disbelieved. That is why Russia and China joined America, Britain, France and Germany at the UN Security Council to try to stop Iran enriching uranium. Until two months ago they seemed ready to support a third and tougher sanctions resolution against Iran. But then America's spies spoke out, and since then five painstaking years of diplomacy have abruptly unravelled.

    The intelligence debacle over Iraq has made spies anxious about how their findings are used. That may be why they and the White House felt it right to admit, in a National Intelligence Estimate in December, that they now think Iran halted clandestine work on nuclear warheads five years ago. As it happens, this belief is not yet shared by Israel or some of America's European allies, who see the same data. But no matter: the headline was enough to pull the rug from under the diplomacy. In Berlin last month, the Russians and Chinese made it clear that if there is a third resolution, it will be a mild slap on the wrist, not another turn of the economic screw.

    At the same time, Iran is finding an ally in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Its director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, is a Nobel peace-prize winner who is crusading to confound those he calls “the crazies” in Washington by helping Iran to set its nuclear house in order, receive a clean bill of health and so avert the possibility of another disastrous war.

    Honest spies, a peace-loving nuclear watchdog. What can be wrong with that? Nothing: unless the honesty of the spies is deliberately misconstrued and the watchdog fails to do its actual job of sniffing out the details of Iran's nuclear activities.

    Beaming like cats at the cream, a posse of Iranians went to January's World Economic Forum in Davos claiming a double vindication. Had not America itself now said that Iran had no weapons programme? Was not Iran about to give the IAEA the answers it needed to “close” its file? In circumstances like these, purred Iran's foreign minister, there was no case for new sanctions, not even the light slap Russia and China prefer.

    Yet Iran's argument is a travesty. Although the National Intelligence Estimate does say that Iran probably stopped work on a nuclear warhead in 2003, it also says that Iran was indeed doing such work until then, and nobody knows how far it got. The UN sanctions are anyway aimed not at any warhead Iran may or may not be building in secret, but at what it is doing in full daylight, in defiance of UN resolutions, to enrich uranium and produce plutonium. We need this for electricity, says Iran. But it could fuel a bomb. And once a country can produce such fuel, putting it in a warhead is relatively easy.

    Some countries, it is true, are allowed to enrich uranium without any fuss. The reason for depriving Iran of what it calls this “right” is a history of deception that led the IAEA to declare it out of compliance with its nuclear safeguards. So it is essential that Mr ElBaradei's desire to end this confrontation does not now tempt him to gloss over the many unanswered questions. With a lame duck in the White House and sanctions unravelling, Iran really would be home free then. . .

    One obvious danger is that a nuclear-armed Iran, or one suspected of being able to weaponise at will, could set off a chain reaction that turns Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, even Turkey rapidly nuclear too. America and the Soviet Union, with mostly only their own cold war to worry about, had plenty of brushes with catastrophe. Multiplying Middle Eastern nuclear rivalries would drive up exponentially the risk that someone could miscalculate—with dreadful consequences.

  • Israel, which had been counting on America to put the frighteners on Mr Ahmadinejad and his ilk, is left mulling its own dwindling options in a fissile neighbourhood. Yuval Steinitz, a former chairman of its parliament's foreign-affairs and defence committee, calls the NIE “the most bizarre and flawed intelligence report I've ever read”. For Holocaust remembrance day this week, just before Mr Bush's speech, Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, sent a not very coded message to Iran and America, promising not to be complacent about “voices calling for the obliteration of Israel”, and recalling the allies' failure to destroy the Nazi death camps during the second world war.

    If America's spies have concluded that Iran is out of the nuclear-weapons business, why the gloom and doom? Iran, after all, has always insisted that its nuclear programme is peaceful. Indeed, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, its supreme leader (shown above in conversation with Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA), says that building or using nuclear weapons is against Islamic law.

    If only judging Iran's nuclear intentions were that simple. Contrary to the impression left by the NIE's published conclusions (the bulk of its analysis remains classified), a nuclear-weapons programme has three main elements: the design work and engineering to produce a workable weapon; the production of sufficient quantities of fissile material—very highly enriched uranium or plutonium—for its explosive core; and work on missiles or some other means of delivery. Although the NIE talks of a halt to Iran's “weapons programme”, its conclusions relate only to the design and engineering effort and past hidden uranium experiments . But the weaponisation work the NIE thinks was halted is easy to restart and easy to hide.

    Hence the fury of even some of America's closest European allies at the NIE's selective and then mangled message. Iran boasts of its skill in building ever farther-flying (and potentially nuclear-capable) missiles. And by far the hardest skill in bomb-making is the one Iran now pursues in plain sight, in defiance of those UN resolutions: producing uranium or plutonium. Israel claims to have evidence that the warhead work continues too—but this fails to pass muster in Washington under rules designed to avoid another debacle like that over the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Britain's intelligence analysts, studying the same information as America's, have not yet decided whether the American conclusion is right.

    The damage done by what the NIE did and did not say cannot easily be undone.
The Economist articles brought to mind Richard Fernandez's famous 2003 post, The Three Conjectures, which are:
Conjecture 1: Terrorism has lowered the nuclear threshold

Conjecture 2: Attaining WMDs will destroy Islam

Conjecture 3: The War on Terror is the 'Golden Hour' -- the final chance
ShrinkWrapped recently saw the same connection:
Since Iran is speedily approaching the point of no return in their quest for a deliverable nuclear weapon, despite the NIE which chose to err on the side of inanity, Conjecture 2 is looking more and more possible.

I suspect even those of us who take the dimmest view of Islam would agree that losing Western cities in exchange for destroying hundreds of millions of Muslims is the worst case scenario. That raises the question of what policies and behaviors the West could adopt which could minimize the risk of the worst case scenario. After all, we should not particularly care if 75% or 90% of Muslims think they are superior to us and want us all to submit or die, as long as they do not actively seek to bring it about. The question then becomes, how do we best convince them to leave us alone. . .

Our own governments have been extraordinarily reluctant to support our own values. This is much more advanced in Europe, where people are being censored and pre-emptively censoring themselves for fear of offending the easily offended Muslims. By appeasing these nbullies, we are actively empowering them. Once a bully has been empowered, the nature of the beast is to be unable to modulate their aggression and arrogance. Bruce Bawer notes that Sharia law is already in effect for European gays, First They Came for the Gays, and Pam Meister notes that once again in Europe, books are being banned, This Little Piggy Was Banned from Market. The Holocaust is no longer taught in some English schools and crosses must be covered up for fear of offending those who commit "anti-Islamic activity." This is appeasement, pure and simple.

We see the same kind of behavior on the international scene. The current administration has gone from being exceptionally clear in setting standards for acceptable civilized behavior, to muddying the waters with ambiguity in search of an illusion of progress. By setting strict limits and then moving the lines when they are transgressed, we merely show the Islamist, whether in Gaza or Tehran, that we might speak loudly but we carry a very small stick. Threatening a bully with a small stick, or a piece of paper, is unlikely to deter him from stealing your lunch money.

The U.S. tries again to tie Iran to nukes.

(via Cheat Seeking Missiles)

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