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Oct. 29 2009 - 3:09 pm | 6 views | 1 recommendation | 1 comment

Manufacturing good news on Iran’s nuclear negotiations

TEHRAN, IRAN - APRIL 8:  Iranian President Mah...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I don’t understand why the New York Times has to put a good spin on the latest incremental development in our fraught negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program:

Iran has made an initial response to the United Nations nuclear watchdog on a plan to send the country’s uranium abroad for processing, but neither the agency nor Iran made the response public.

However, it came as the Iranian president made his most positive comments to date on the effort, saying, “We welcome cooperation on nuclear fuel, power plants and technology, and we are ready to cooperate.”

via Iran Delivers Response to U.N. Nuclear Watchdog – NYTimes.com.

As the story goes on to point out, “Iran had accepted the framework of the deal, but was seeking two crucial changes,” including gradually shipping Iran’s enriched uranium out of the country, rather than taking it all out of the country at once, which, “would undercut the intent of the deal: to leave Iran without enough nuclear material to build a weapon as the West works toward a broader international agreement on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

So Ahmadinejad made some political statement. Big deal. If Iran is not agreeing that it will exchange all of its enriched uranium for French-supplied fuel cells for the Tehran Research Reactor, his statement doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just more bluster from a guy who talks a lot, but governs little. Ultimately, it’s the Supreme Leader’s decision how Iran will proceed.

Other outlets did report Ahmadinejad’s statement – AP at the very bottom, and Reuters in the second half of the story. It’s clearly not what the Times should have led with, because all that Ahmadinejad’s statement proves is how much of a labyrinth negotiations with Iran continue to be.

Then again, that we’re spending so much breath on this Tehran Research Reactor deal at all is kind of the problem. See the end of this post where I explain why, with a bit of an interlude.

Now that I’m back on this question, it’s time for me to return to this post I did earlier this month calling out Henry Sokolski, the guy who runs the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. I don’t care for Henry’s approach to debating the merits of various approaches to countering WMD proliferation. The man runs to highly partisan outlets like the National Review when he has a point to make, implying that his goal is more to give the Obama administration a black eye, and less to constructively point out the risks and rewards of proposals for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

My castigation of Henry, which was picked up by Andrew Sullivan, prompted him to publish a four page fact sheet on his website (it seems to be gone now) in which he effectively showed his work, and it also led commenters on my blog to accuse me of smearing his good name.

I don’t see a need to apologize, because Henry is right; it’s possible that Iran could at some point in time use the fuel cells sent in the deal to make some kind of Iranian nuclear weapon. It’s just not likely. Henry is confusing technical possibility with political probability, and for partisan ends to boot (see the WSJ op-ed that upped the volume in the echo chamber and uncritically reprinted Henry’s assertions).

Serious analysis of Iran’s nuclear weapons intentions, such as that offered by Gary Sick of Columbia University, shows that Iran’s goal is to have a nuclear fuel cycle that would give it a credible breakout capability akin to what countries like Japan and Germany now possess. What Henry describes as the scenario for Iran making a bomb out of the fuel assemblies we should ship them in the Tehran research reactor deal is technically complicated and fraught with difficulties, however easily the engineers Henry talks to imagine they could do it. It doesn’t sound at all like the steps a state serious about developing a nuclear arsenal would take. Instead, it sounds like the sort of program Iraq launched prior to its invasion of Kuwait – the ‘crash program.’ It’s what a state in a panicky condition might do in order to give itself the flimsiest of nuclear deterrents. This isn’t the strategic posture Iran wants. It wants an ironclad nuclear deterrent that will credibly protect it from the threat of foreign invasion.

So that’s why I argue that Henry is continuing to spin tall tales about what’s at stake in this current stage of our dealings with Iran. Not because what he proposes is technically impossible – I granted that it could be done. I just said it’s not the likely scenario and that it should not be exaggerated for partisan purposes as Henry has done by taking it to publications that are more interested in giving our current president a black eye than they are in credibly shaping the debate on how to deal with Iran.

Now he’s right about plenty of other things, for instance, his statement in his original post was that, “Assuming Iran continues to make nuclear fuel, Tehran could have enough low-enriched uranium by next fall to make a bomb even if it followed through on its promised transfer.” This is absolutely true.

(It also disproves his ridiculous slamming of the research reactor fuel deal – why would Iran make a bomb out of research reactor fuel cells when it would continue making uranium that it could further enrich to weapons grade?)

And it’s out of this concern that I’d say I’m afraid we’re not getting a useful deal with the fuel talk. The fuel transfer deal is being framed as a ‘confidence building measure.’ But I’m not really sure why we need to build confidence at this stage of the game with Iran. President Bush and his ‘axis of evil’ and regime change speechifying are gone. President Obama has offered less fist and far more open hand to Iran than his predecessor. We should be setting the stage for a grand bargain to deal with all of Iran’s fuel cycle, not trying to back our way into one.

By allowing Iran to make a deal first over its existing fuel stock, we’re pushing back the timeframe to deal with Iran’s full national nuclear capability. And that’s what we should be talking about, not dividing up the various components of its nuclear program into bits and pieces. Right now, we’re hoping that if we can tackle one issue, we’ll have the energy to move on to the next step down the road. But if it’s proving this difficult to deal with Iran on fuel for the Tehran reactor, it’s going to be even more complicated once we get into these bigger issues, and it may undermine the patience of policymakers to deal with tougher problems. That’s why America and the world would be better served by dealing with the problem as a whole, and not in pieces.


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    I'm waiting for the day when I can get the news directly into my brain. Until then, I'll be lit up by the electric glow of screens, chasing the latest breaking like the hopeless news junkie I am. Ever since the Encyclopaedia Britannica tried to launch a web portal ten years ago, I've seen many ends of the online news spectrum, from my time as a political news reporter for both RawStory.com and the Huffington Post to the better part of a year I spent running the late New York Sun's website. There have been a lot of other stops in between. Now I am your homepage editorial overlord. But I haven't let it go to my head. Yet.

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