Hogan's Alley

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Iran - Scary Events, Serious Choices

Today the government of Iran has announced that it has enriched uranium for the first time, using its 164 centrifuges. The government of the Mullahs further states that it intends to expand to the use of 3,000 centrifuges as quickly as possible and that its ultimate goal is to expand to production using 54,000 centrifuges.

Of course the Iranians say that their intention is purely to produce enough enriched uranium to fuel a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power station to produce electricity. Many may have been persuaded that electricity is Iran's only goal by a recent Op Ed piece in the NY Times by Iran's Ambassador to the U.S., Javad Zarif. Jacqueline Shirer, consultant for ABC News, in a Bloggingheads video blog interview with Richard Wright explains why virtually no knowledgeable people believe him. The most persuasive rationale for disbelief is that the Iranian refusal to accept enriched uranium produced in Russia would have been far less costly for them. So their plans to ramp up to 50,000 centrifuges makes no economic sense. The suspicion is that they really desire the weapons grade plutonium that is the byproduct of uranium enrichment. In terms of time, the increase to 3,000 centrifuges would permit the building of two nuclear weapons in one year, not the 10 year timetable that has been widely discussed. That timing was based on a 164 centrifuge program.

Even the Federation of American Scientists, no friend of the U.S. military, concludes:

It is generally believed that Iran's efforts are focused on uranium enrichment, though there are some indications of work on a parallel plutonium effort. Iran claims it is trying to establish a complete nuclear fuel cycle to support a civilian energy program, but this same fuel cycle would be applicable to a nuclear weapons development program. Iran appears to have spread their nuclear activities around a number of sites to reduce the risk of detection or attack.

Given that no western expert is confident that Iran's intentions are purely civilian in nature and that they are open in their desire to wipe Israel off the map of the middle east, what is America to do? Obviously, a diplomatic solution in conjunction with the rest of the world's major powers is the desirable goal. To date, however, I have seen no expert assert a diplomatic plan that seems likely to succeed in the face of Iran's plain spoken intention to achieve major power status itself by joining the club of nuclear nations. It also seems obvious that the treat of military action, as fraught with dangers of effective retaliation in Iraq and at home via suicide agents of Iran, has to be on the table to provide some incentive for the Iranians to negotiate. Currently they are moving ahead on their own timetable with no regard for the concerns of any foreign nation.

In the face of this lack of an effective diplomatic course, it would be absolute dereliction of duty if any White House and Pentagon had not developed contingency planning for military action. Yet here we have the recent spate of outraged journalists, headed by the perpetually outraged Sy Hersh, claiming to have discovered that such planning exists. I am shocked, shocked to discover planning going on here!

In case anyone thinks these recent revelations are actually news, read this recent piece William Arkin's "Early Warning" column in the Washington Post. Arkin points out, not without some signs of a bruised ego, that he has been reporting on such planning for months and he links to his prior articles.

There are only two broad options. Either we can accept a nuclear armed Iraq or they must be stopped. We have not yet come to the point where diplomacy is hopeless and the outcome of military action, both immediate and long term, are not yet unarguably necessary. What is needed is broad debate and creativity to develop an effective multilateral initiative that works to bring Iran's program to a halt while assisting them in verifiably peaceful nuclear development.

Essential for this outcome is a Bush administration capable of listening to broad input from outside its collection of the usual suspects, not something they have shown themselves capable of in the past. Open debate also requires that those outside the administration get beyond their reflexive hatred of anything that emerges from the current White House. This is too serious to play by the recent rules of normal behavior, especially among politicians and the blogosphere, where playing to one's base is the holy road to increased donations, or increased traffic and ad income.