Saturday, December 08, 2007

Keep Up the Pressure

This - "middle option" - makes the most sense to me right now, and at least has the grace and simplicity of covering all options. Take note of the effect that US military power (2nd to last paragraph) always has on shaping the political realities on the ground...T

For Democrats, good news in Iraq is bad news. For me, good news is good news, whether from Iraq or now from Iran. Facts are facts. And if the conclusions of the most recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran's nuclear program are true, they are moderately encouraging. Moderately only, because the NIE itself expressed only "moderate confidence" in its most sensational conclusion--that Iran had not restarted its previously suspended covert nuclear-weaponization program.

First, the good news. To go nuclear, you need three things: a) the raw material, b) the ability to turn the raw material into a weapon and c) the missiles with which to deliver the weapon. Regarding a and c, Iran is proceeding with alacrity and determination on uranium enrichment (with 2,000 to 3,000 centrifuges running) and on the development and testing of long-range missiles. It is the intermediate step--weaponizing the uranium into a bomb--that the intelligence estimate tells us has been suspended.

Now the caveats. First, weaponization is the most opaque of the three elements. Iran has never declared it or admitted it. Accurate information about it would be hardest to come by. Second, the logic is odd. We now believe weaponization was suspended in fall 2003, at the same time uranium enrichment was suspended. However, when uranium enrichment was resumed a few months after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's accession to power, the weaponization program (we are now told) was not.

This does not make a lot of sense. Uranium enrichment is more public and therefore more likely to bring sanctions--which, of course, it did. Why reactivate that and not the covert weaponization program--inherently a less open provocation? And why invest enormous resources on the centrifuges for enrichment and on the missiles for delivery if you're not going to eventually weaponize?

Nonetheless, we learned from the Iraq WMD debacle that logic has a limited place in assessing the behavior of radical regimes. Saddam Hussein bluffed his way into a war that cost him his regime and his life, when he could easily have come clean regarding a WMD program he no longer had. So we must be prepared to grant that bluff and pretense may be part of the Iranian nuclear game as well.

Third, we seem to be relying on one giant and juicy piece of information that came to the U.S. this summer. President George W. Bush said it then took time to determine whether it was disinformation. One can never be sure how these double- and triple-agent mirror games are played, which might be why the NIE is only "moderately confident" it has gotten this one right.

Assuming it has, the conclusion drawn by some--that this means Iran has abandoned its nuclear ambitions--is not just wrong but also contradicted by the NIE itself. Suspension does not mean abandonment. The program can be restarted at any time. The fact that huge amounts are still being spent on uranium enrichment and missile development--the other essentials for a nuclear-weapons program--while the weaponization part remains dormant is overwhelming evidence of a country that wants to go nuclear but is being restrained by international pressure.

Which is why the critics' claim that this NIE report is a mandate for a new and soft Iranian policy is wrong. John Edwards immediately said the report justified his vote against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and imposing sanctions on it. But the NIE's major conclusion is that Iran calibrates its nuclear efforts--including the suspension of the weaponization part--in a real-world cost-benefit reaction to outside pressure. It makes the case precisely for sanctions.

Moreover, the critics seem not to have noticed when uranium enrichment and weaponization were halted: fall 2003--before the rise of the Iraqi insurgency and while the shock and awe of the U.S.'s three-week conquest of Baghdad was still reverberating throughout the Middle East, scaring WMD pursuers, like Gaddafi's Libya, into giving up their nuclear programs altogether. Timing suggests that the American military option exercised in Iraq contributed to Iran's suspension of weaponization.

The military option may not be necessary right now. If weaponization has been suspended, the window for sanctions has been widened. But there is no reasonable argument for taking military action off the table. If the Iranians refuse to negotiate seriously--their new negotiator says all previous negotiations are void and talks now return to square one--the military option needs to be on the table and in plain view.
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