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Entries in Gary Sick (2)


Iran's Nuclear Program: Gary Sick on the US Approach after the "Secret Plant"

NEW Iran’s Nukes: Did Gates Just Complicate the Obama Position?
Iran’s “Secret” Nuclear Plant: Israel Jumps In
The Latest from Iran (27 September): Is There a Compromise Brewing?

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US IRAN FLAGSGary Sick, a former official in the Carter and Reagan Administration and one of the sharpest analysts of US-Iranian relations, works through the possibilities for American strategy and tactics after Iran's revelation of its second enrichment facility. Playing devil's advocate, I would argue that the Obama Administration already had "calculations" --- since it knew of the facility --- before Tehran's declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency. What changed was Washington's decision to go high-profile, with President Obama's public statements, on the claims of the threat posed by the second plant.

That, to me, bears out Sick's caution: "The risk for the P5+1 [US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China] negotiators is that they will be so filled with righteous indignation that they will overplay their hand" at the talks with Iran in Geneva on 1 October. And it points to an absence in Sick's evaluation: there is still no sign that Russia and China are on-board with a US-led pressure campaign against Tehran; their position is better characterised as wait-and-see.

Iran's Nuke-Talks Game-Changer

The discovery and announcement of a second Iranian uranium enrichment facility – apparently on a Revolutionary Guards base near the holy city of Qom – has changed everybody’s calculations.

For the Obama administration, it provides them the kind of leverage against Iran that previously seemed to be lacking in the run up to the October 1 start of negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1). The revelation of the new site brings closer than ever before the possibility that Russia, certainly, and perhaps even China, might lend their support (or at least tacitly acquiesce) to a new round of sanctions. That will make the threat of real consequences for Iran’s defiance of the United Nations Security Council much more credible and strengthen the hand of the western negotiators.

Iran, in turn, will arrive at the meeting red-faced but almost certainly not apologetic. Iran will claim that it had no obligation to announce the site until 180 days before introducing nuclear material. They notified the IAEA of that position in 2007 on the grounds that the original agreement was not ratified by the Iranian majles (parliament). Members of the IAEA will dispute this, since changes to the Safeguards Agreement are technical and do not normally require ratification.

The legal technicalities, however, are less important than the politics, and Iran will clearly be on the defensive in a way that has not been true for a long time.

Iran lied about this site. Very probably it was never intended to become public. Building a small enrichment facility in an underground chamber on a Revolutionary Guards base with no notification to any international authority, at a time when Iran was under intense pressure to respond to Security Council requests for more inspections, was clearly intended to avoid scrutiny.

Does that mean that Iran was prepared to proceed covertly with a nuclear weapon? Yes and no. If you start with the conviction, as I do, that Iran was and is determined to develop a nuclear capability that would permit it to “break out” and build a nuclear weapon if and when a decision was taken by Iran’s highest authorities, probably in response to a direct military threat to Iran by another nuclear power, then the creation of this site would serve two logical purposes.

First, it would disperse Iran’s enrichment capabilities, making it much more difficult for an enemy to destroy its nuclear program with a single strike. If the facility was unknown to the enemy, it would provide an immediate fall back capability in the event the enrichment site at Natanz was destroyed or severely damaged. It was very likely a component of Iran’s post-strike Plan B and assumed that any internal opposition to a nuclear weapon would have been removed by the military attack. As such, this facility would very likely be intended to produce a nuclear weapon.

The ambiguities of Iran’s position, which have always been present, would be amplified enormously by the existence of such a facility. The mere existence of such an undeclared site would be a constant worry for the non-proliferation community and a constant temptation to some in Iran to jump-start a weapons program. At a minimum, the availability of a covert enrichment site could shorten considerably the expected time from Iran’s moment of decision until the actual production of a weapon, since it could be launched without the knowledge of the IAEA inspectors.

The second key point, which is no less important, is that the site was apparently discovered by intelligence long before Iran made its announcement. That has to be an alarming and hugely unwelcome fact from Iran’s perspective. At a minimum, it pulls the rug out from under any Plan B, and Iran has to wonder about what western intelligence may know about any other covert activities that may exist or that might be undertaken in the future.

Both of these considerations serve to strengthen the hand of the P5+1 and to weaken Iran’s position.

The risk for the P5+1 negotiators is that they will be so filled with righteous indignation that they will overplay their hand. The purpose of the negotiations, after all, is not simply to posture, to issue impossible demands, and thereby justify moving to sanctions. Iran is plagued by political divisions at home, and this latest revelation undercuts their international arguments. But that is no guarantee that they will simply roll over and comply with whatever is demanded of them.

All of the factors that were well known before this latest discovery remain true. Sanctions have not worked after fifteen years of trying, and sanctions alone are almost certainly not going to get Iran to abandon its basic nuclear program. Sanctions are and always have been more useful as a threat or a trading card than as an effective tool in practice. Iran clearly dislikes the sanctions that are in place now, and they are anxious to avoid more in the future. So there is room for discussion. But there is no evidence whatsoever that if increased sanctions are actually applied Iran will dismantle its enrichment program. Instead, they will escalate. The reality today is the same as before: the end game of sharply increased sanctions is war.

In my view, the objective of these negotiations has also not changed. We want Iran to stop its nuclear growth and agree to much more intrusive inspections. The west should be willing to pay a price for such concessions, perhaps in the form of conditional removal of sanctions, freezing United Nations Security Council action on Iran in the interim, and inviting greater inclusion by Iran in regional affairs as Iran implements concrete steps of confidence-building. That is not easy, but neither is it an unreachable goal.

The negotiators going into the October 1 meetings are starting with a much better hand than most of them anticipated. Will they play their hand as cleverly as they have managed the pre-negotiation period?

The Latest from Iran (22 September): A Trip to New York

Iran: More on Rafsanjani and Khamenei’s End-of-Ramadan Speech
The Latest from Iran (21 September): Distractions

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1520 GMT: EA's Mr Johnson goes over the Rafsanjani speech, adding to and correcting our earlier analysis.

While there is no open challenge to the Government, Rafsanjani's call for unity includes recognition and inclusion of those senior clerics who have offered criticisms: "A measured thoughtful approach can lead to an optimal solution for the problems....The help and support of the Marjas (Grand Ayatollahs ) for the Establishment is absolutely necessary. In the last 30 years we have never had a problem in this regard and hopefully in the future this will not happen again. Threats must stop and small problems that must not be allowed to cause rifts [between the establishment and Marjas]."

Then Rafsanjani manoeuvred behind the general chiding of Ayatollah Khamenei of conflict:  "The Supreme Leader has condemned the atmosphere of defamation and confrontation that currently exists....All of us officials must pay attention to these issues so that this atmosphere does not get worse."

This led to the key passage of Rafsanjani's strategy of resolution which EA noted earlier: "Currently experienced and concerned individuals of the establishment are in the process of designing a blueprint providing a solution for the current situation....Considering that the University academic year will start soon, these efforts can be very useful, and we must reduce opaqueness from the atomosphere of society and refrain from opaque that an atmosphere for constructive criticism of society can be created....The supreme leader has emphasized the importance of the law, therefore both officials [a.k.a the Goverment and the Revolutionary Guards] and the protesters must act according to law."

And so Rafsanjani's manouevre without direct reference to the issues of detentions and abuses: "Both the officials and the protesters must not expect indifference if they break the law, since lawlessness breeds chaos in society...The supreme leader has also emphasized that the right of people to defend themselves [from accusations] must be observed [and] has prohibited broadcasting the confessions of accused individuals....If any member of the media broadcasts a confession accusing others [that broadcast] is against the law  and must be prosecuted. The fact that certain members of the media [irresponsibly] publish whatever they choose is against the law and should be dealt with."

Mr Johnson also clarifies and corrects our earlier report --- it was Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi (not  Mesbah Yazdi) who was absent a very well-attended session.

1105 GMT: Speculation of Day. According to witness accounts, members' turnout at the Assembly of Experts meeting was the highest ever, but the Vice Chairman, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a fervent supporter of President Ahmadinejad, was absent.

1045 GMT: 1030 GMT: More on the Rafsanjani statement, as presented by ILNA:

As expected, it is very clever and very cautious, with interpretation left to the beholder. Rafsanjani upheld the greatness of the Iranian nation on Qods Day, as the "holy and glorious presence" of marchers make clear that the defense of rights would never be forgotten. Iranians were ever-ready to stand up to "imperialists" and their "psychological warfare" trying to reduce Iran to "passivity" ahead of negotiations. The priority for Iranians was the "unity of our country".

Nothing there to separate Rafsanjani from the Government, especially as the call could be read as defiance of the "West" in talks on Iran's nuclear question. And the former President's reference to the recent assassination of the Kurdestan member of the Assembly was a call to support the security forces and judiciary as they investigated and prosecuted such crimes.

But what of the security forces, and the Government behind them, in the post-election conflict? Ahh, there's the rub: there's no obvious reference by Rafsanjani on that key matter, leaving his audience --- whatever their position on and in the issue --- in suspense.

1030 GMT: Gary Sick offers an excellent analysis of a recent poll of Iranians regarding the election and its aftermath. EA's Chris Emery adds his own take:
I think there are some statistical anomalies with the poll and major methodological problems- there is a perception that the government routinely tap phones and this will affect people's responses to some degree. There was also a very high refusal rate amongst those called (52%).

In many ways its greatest signficance lies in how it has been read. Those, especially in the West, who cry foul on the methodology will be to some degree influenced by their refusal to accept the unpalatable truth that Ahmadinejad is undoubtedly popular amongst millions of Iranians. On the other hand, I would never use this poll as a litmus test for support within either camp. The situation is simply far more complicated and the dynamics of the current power struggles cannot be accurately drawn out from this poll.

In sum, it is more interesting to watch how it is kicked around as a political football than as a genuine indicator of the relative strength of either Ahmadinejad or the Green's position.

0945 GMT: The spin is coming in on Hashemi Rafsanjani's statement at the Assembly of Experts meeting. The Iranian Labor News Agency links a call for unity with a declaration that resolution is imminent: "Those who care about the Regime have devised a plan to get out of current situation."

0915 GMT: The "Western" media are running with "news" that President Ahmadinejad has claimed that "his country is now stronger than ever and warned that Iranian military will retaliate with full might against anyone who dares attack it".

This is not news. If Ahmadinejad had told those assembled for the military parade commemorating the 1980-1988 Iraq War that Iran was really weak and its military hopeless, that would be news. The story, however, will set up tomorrow's coverage of the UN speech: Big, Bad Ahmadinejad and the World That Must Confront Him.

Of course, it's not like Mahmoud isn't helping the portrayal: “Our armed forces will cut the hand of anyone in the world before it pulls the trigger against the Iranian nation,” Ahmadinejad said during a military parade marking the anniversary of the start of the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war.

0415 GMT: All very quiet in Iran in the last 24 hours, apart from some rumblings over the position of Imam Khomenei's grandson, Seyed Hassan Khomenei (see yesterday's updates). The regime will roll out a two-day setpiece ,with the presentation of detainees Saeed Hajjarian, Mohammad Atrianfar, and Saeed Shariati in a televised "roundtable" to discuss how the velvet revolution has been pursued against Iran. And Press TV has an intriguing story, given President Ahmadinejad's attempts to ensure a "proper" bureaucracy responding to his wishes, of "the first of the post-presidential-election diplomatic appointments of the Ahmadinejad government...being implemented with new ambassadors lined up for European countries".

But it appears that we are in the midst of a 72-hour diversion with President Ahmadinejad presenting himself as undisputed leader in front of the United Nations General Assembly. He will speak at about 5 p.m. New York time (2100 GMT) on Wednesday. This will get sneers and denunciations from most of the "Western" media, but mainly over his references to Israel and possibly Iran's nuclear programme. Iranian state media will hail the pride of the nation in their President on the world stage.

Opposition activists are pinning hopes on a show of protest, with Mir Hossein Mousavi's Facebook page laying out a schedule of events. At the risk of being a jaded cynic, I'm not sure there is enough attention to the Iran issue in the US now to generate a high-profile demonstration, at least on the Iranian internal issue. (There will undoubtedly be protests from pro-Israel groups, but I'm not sure how this will intersect with the Green wave.)

All this said, there is one prominent wild card in the deck. Iran's Assembly of Experts, chaired by Hashemi Rafsanjani, holds its regular (but delayed) meeting today. Will the former President use the occasion to make his challenge, supported by other members, to the current regime? Or will he maintain his cautious line of vocal support for the Supreme Leader but no direct attention to the Ahmadinejad Government? And what will be the dynamic beyond Rafsanjani?