Thursday, April 13, 2006

Iran and regional war

"God may smile on us, but I don't think so." - anonymous Pentagon adviser quoted by Seymour Hersh April 2006

The Bush administration ratched the rhetoric against Iran up another level yesterday with the following claim (Iran Could Produce Nuclear Bomb in 16 Days, U.S. Says Bloomberg News 04/12/06):

Iran will move to "industrial scale" uranium enrichment involving 54,000 centrifuges at its Natanz plant, the Associated Press quoted deputy nuclear chief Mohammad Saeedi as telling state-run television today.

"Using those 50,000 centrifuges they could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 16 days," Stephen Rademaker, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, told reporters today in Moscow.

Josh Marshall doesn't give this source high marks for credibility:

Now, I'm pretty new to this issue. But even I can spot that Stephen Rademaker works for Robert Joseph. And that's the same Bob Joseph who was charged with muscling the CIA into letting President Bush use the Niger bamboozle in the 2003 State of the Union address. And he actually managed to get it done, even after the Alan Foley and others at the CIA told him repeatedly they didn't think it was true. So he certainly speaks with a lot of credibility on this issue.

Experts who are not hardline pro-Bush Iran hawks have a different view: Analysts Say a Nuclear Iran Is Years Away by William Broad, et al, New York Times 04/13/06.  Referring to Iran's boast that it could quickly bring 54,000 centrifuges on line - and Rademaker's version puts an alarming spin on the Iranian program - the Times reports:

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. TheUnited 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.

The same David Albright quoted in the Times co-authored this article from 2004:  Iran: Countdown to showdown by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Nov/Dec 2004.  Their recommendation from a year and a half ago is a reminder of time and opportunity lost, not least because of the conditions created by the Iraq War:

Iran does Iran does not appear to have nuclear weapons and seems unlikely to be able to make them for at least several years. Nonetheless, the IAEA board of governors is correct to view the Iranian situation as urgent and to issue a firm demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment and heavy-water reactor programs. Two years have passed since secret Iranian nuclear sites were first brought to public attention, and Iran appears unwilling to abandon its fissile material production programs. Iran has too often dictated the pace of diplomatic progress, giving the impression that it is playing for time. In the next one or two years, Iran could build up unstoppable institutional and public momentum to finish and operate its enrichment plant or a heavy-water reactor and outlast the current international diplomatic effort.

An ultimatum is the best way to require Iran to come clean and suspend its fissile material production programs or be perceived widely as pursuing a nuclear weapons program. If Iran chooses to stonewall the IAEA on safeguards issues or refuses to suspend its programs, it risks paying an enormous price for its choices.

But an ultimatum requires the international community to act in concert and develop a unified approach. So far, the United States and the European Union have been unable to agree on an approach. For months, the Bush administration has pushed for a rapid referral to the Security Council with little follow-up in mind. The EU has sought a negotiated solution to the crisis with referral to the Security Council a much more distant option.

Meanwhile, along with the mutual nuclear posturing of Iran and the Bush administration comes news of possible progress on getting Iran to help stabilize the situation in Iraq: Iran, Arab Roles in Peace Talks Urged by Gareth Porter Inter Press Service 04/11/06.  Porter writes:

Steven A. Cook, a Middle East specialist and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told IPS that some foreign policy specialists "close to the administration" have been saying in private conversations that the United States will need to bring Iran and the Arab states into Iraqi peace negotiations.

Another Middle East expert at a Washington think tank, who asked not to be identified, said that arguments for involving the Iranians and Arabs in an Iraqi peace process have been heard with much greater frequency and urgency in recent weeks in closed, off-the-record meetings.

The expert said advocates of that option are arguing that,given the influence of these neighbouring states on the Shiite and Sunni political-military forces in Iraq, "You have to have something like a 'contact group' involving regional states to maximise leverage on the Iraqi parties." ...

In a speech at a Democratic Party think tank, the Centre for American Progress, on Mar. 16, [Zbigniew] Brzezinski [National Security Adviser 1977-81] said the stabilisation of Iraq is in Iran's interest.

It's hard, as it so often is, to tell exactly what's going on in these situations.  It seems likely that some officials like Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad want to give priority to stabilizing Iraq without widening the war.  The latter is exactly what the Iraq hawks want to do.

This is a time where the lack of party discipline and unity in the Democratic Party really hurts.  If the Democrats in Congress could mount a united opposition of the kind they did last year against Bush's Social Security phase-out proposal, they could at least raise public opposition to an attack on Iran, and especially opposition to a nuclear attack.

But, as Robert Dreyfuss wrote earlier this week, the opposition party consists of Hawk-Tied Demcocrats 04/11/06.  In an ironic echo of a favorite Republican whine, Dreyfuss blamess ... Bil and Hillary!  Unfortunately, this complaint is better founded than the typical Republican version:

 [J]ust as the Democrats meekly got in line to support the invasion of Iraq, many (perhaps most) elected Democrats are demanding a confrontation with Iran, too. Some, such as Hillary Clinton, are even trying to out-Bush the president in demanding a showdown with Iran. ...

At least one leading Democratic foreign policy strategist is upset with the party's refusal to contradict the president. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter administration ├╝ber-hawk who become an Iraq dove, provided the bluntest commentary on why the Democrats shy away from confronting the Bush administration’s war-based foreign policy. Brzezinski, appearing on the April 5 "Diane Rehm Show" on NPR, noted the traditional sad critique that Democrats fear being seen as weak or vacillating on issues related tonationalsecurity. But then he put the real blame squarely where it belongs: on Bill and Hillary Clinton. The former president, he said, wants his wife to be president, and together they have determined that this goal can best be reached by Hillary disguising herself as the reincarnation of Maggie Thatcher. And since Hillary the Iron Lady II is the frontrunner for the 2008 nomination, she sets the tone for the rest of the party, said the former national security adviser.

Unfortunately, Brzezinski is on the mark. Despite the fact that former Vice President Al Gore is speaking out consistently against the war in Iraq, despite the fact that Representative John Murtha has called for an American withdrawal, despite the fact that even John Kerry is now demanding a deadline for a U.S. pullout, the Democratic establishment has avoided a forthright challenge to Bush. That was obvious when, following the State of the Union speech, the Democrats chose Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to give a befuddled, Mr. Nice Guy response, whose refrain was that the Democrats have “a better way.”  (my emphasis)

What's that?  Al Gore has been speaking out consistently against the war in Iraq?  I wonder how often we'll hear this from our "press corps" or the Big Pundits if Gore decides to run in 2008.  Al Gore consistently opposed the Iraq War.  Doesn't fit with the press corps script of Al Gore, the man who constantly reinvents himself.

Dreyfuss gives a good description of the dilemma in which the Democrats have put themselves by excessive timidity in defining an opposition stand on foreign policy issues.  Analyzing the official Democratic Party position paper on national security, he observes:

Rather than call for downsizing the bloated U.S. military, which under President Bush has enjoyed a breathtaking expansion that rivals Ronald Reagan’s early 1980s buildup, the Democrats call for even more military spending, hiring more spies, increasing the deployable army by 30,000 troops, expanding the National Guard, and rebuilding “a state-of-the-art military by making the needed investments in equipment and manpower.” They say: “The president’s budget fails to include $21 billion in requested military needs - the largest amount denied since 9/11.” So, giving the Pentagon the billions it wants is “a better way”?

This is one of the real dangers of this particular moment in time.  Recognizing the need to plan more for irregular, counterinsurgency time warfare, it does make sense to increase the number of soldiers available for that.  But the problem is that this needs to be done in the context of a serious reorientation of the US security posture that will have us spending something less than half of the military budgets of the entire world.  Otherwise, we could wind up with both Democrats and Republicans agreeing to bloated military budgets without the very badly needed changes in approach to overall military policy.

And if increasing counterinsurgency preparedness just means that we're more tempted to get involved in conflicts like the Iraq War, that would be the opposite of what the country needs.

Meanwhile, the recent war propaganda over Iran makes the speculation a couple of weeks ago by Justin Raimondo (Fasten Your Seat Belt: The war in Iraq is about to escalate 03/29/06)sound more plausible.  Commenting on the Bush administration's increasingly confrontational policy toward the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government, which amounts to a shift toward the Sunnis in the Iraqi civil war, he wrote:

The Americans, it seems, are turning on their one-time allies [the Iraqi Shi'a] and launching a two-front war against both the Sunnis and the Shi'ites. This seems like a military strategy straight out of the Bizarro World version of Clausewitz. It makes no sense – unless, that is, the Americans are planning on extending the war into Iran.

They have certainly set the stage, on the diplomatic front, with a full-scale assault on Tehran's nuclear ambitions in the UN. On the political front, they are accusing the Iranians of interfering in Iraq's internal affairs – an odd charge, coming from the overseers of a military occupation – and of sending arms to their Iraqi proxies. ...

As American forces begin to take on the Shi'ites in Iraq, and Iran is drawn into the conflict, this new turn ... could not be more ominous. If you thought the invasion and occupation ofIraq was a major military production, with more shock and awe than anyone was prepared to withstand, then wait until you get a gander at what's coming next. All I can say is: fasten your seat belts, because it's going to be a very bumpy ride.

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