Tag: nuclear proliferation (page 2 of 3)

Nuclear Arms Control

Yesterday, in Prague, President Obama signed a new START deal with Russian President Medvedev. In strategic and military terms, the treaty does not make much difference. I think it is generally good to reduce nuclear overkill, but the treaty allows both states to retain 1550 strategic nuclear weapons. That’s plenty for deterrence purposes and still a long way from zero.

Potentially, the 30% cut in nuclear weapons is symbolically important as the U.S. tries to convince other states (like India) that it is serious about its NPT Article VI commitments. Russia shares this interest as well. It makes a nice bookend with the “negative security assurances” announced earlier this week.

Interestingly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Louisville right now, speaking as I type (I’m watching the stream) in support of the treaty. She flew to Louisville from Prague and must be exhausted.

Why would she do that?

That’s easy to answer.

Clinton is speaking at the McConnell Center (for Political Leadership, though that part of the name seems to have disappeared from the website). Indeed, the Secretary was introduced by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. This speech is an obvious effort to make sure that Republicans do not block the new START accord in the Senate. After all, a treaty requires a supermajority in the Senate. Indiana’s Dick Lugar is apparently on board, but the administration will need six more Republicans and clearly wants many more.

They’re apparently aiming for the big enchilada, McConnell. At minimum, they don’t want him to lead a strong opposition movement though he reportedly has concerns about scaled-back U.S. missile defenses. Clinton pointed out in the speech that this treaty does not limit U.S. plans in those areas (though to please Russia, the administration has changed the policy in an earlier action).

The Secretary pointed out in her speech that recent arms control accords (post cold-war, basically) have been approved overwhelmingly, with 90+ votes in support. George W. Bush’s arms accord had zero votes against. Clinton did not mention the CTBT, which her husband failed to get through the Senate. It was a rare outright defeat for a treaty as presidents usually avoid pushing agreements that will fail.

In his opening remarks, Senator McConnell pointed out that Clinton is the 6th Secretary of State to speak in the Center that bears his name. This is not a coincidence. He’s proud of the Center and has used his position on committees or leading his party to leverage speakers. When he had great influence over foreign aid, the University hosted ambassadors from both Israel and Egypt (separately). At the time, guess which states received the most foreign assistance from the U.S.? Hint: Israel is still #1.

Most of the audience questions after the address pertain to horizontal proliferation (Iran, especially), which I think everyone recognizes is a more important problem than the precise size of the U.S. and Russian arsenals. In her address, Secretary Clinton mentioned “next week’s 40-plus head-of-state nuclear-security conference in Washington.” That event will directly address the broader proliferation problem.

In short, Hillary Clinton was performing political theater for Mitch McConnell. Her script is only indirectly related to the more important foreign policy concerns that are to be addressed in a completely different political context. However, the Obama administration needs McConnell’s tacit support because Article VI of the NPT links horizontal and vertical proliferation. From the U.S. point of view, “getting to zero” is a two-level game and McConnell is a key player in it.


New Nuclear Posture

Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Defense presented its latest Nuclear Posture Review Report. I haven’t had a chance to read the entire document yet, but media reports have focused on a new policy declaration that is of great interest to states and scholars alike.

The statement garnering the greatest attention is included in the “Executive Summary” of the NPR (p. viii):

The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.

To that end, the United States is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing “negative security assurance” by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

Essentially, the U.S. is reversing longstanding nuclear policy by promising merely to employ “devastating conventional military response” against threats it previously used nuclear weapons to deter: potential chemical or biological weapons (CBW) attacks against the U.S. or its allies. The document makes this explicit, noting that even though the U.S. had abandoned its own CBW programs, it “reserved the right to employ nuclear weapons to deter CBW attack on the United States and its allies and partners.”

Among scholars, this development is interesting because it potentially contributes to strengthening a norm (or perhaps tradition or taboo) of non-use of nuclear weapons. As McGill’s T.V. Paul argues in the book that I just linked, the U.S. refusal to preclude the threat of nuclear retaliation against states using CBW had long weakened the tradition — to the dismay of non-nuclear weapons states everywhere. In fact, during the last decade other nuclear-armed states had followed the U.S. lead and weakened prior non-use pledges in the face of CBW threats in the post-9/11 era.

By excluding the threat of nuclear retaliation against CBW attack, the U.S. is now potentially strengthening the tradition (or norm or taboo) and could serve as a role model for other states that emulated its more threatening previous posture.

Non-nuclear weapons states are likely to be pleased by the new U.S. declaratory strategy since many of them have been arguing since the 1960s for these kinds of “negative security assurances.” It was a point of contention even in the original NPT debates.

Before anyone gets too excited about the U.S. announcement, it should be noted that Iran and North Korea are excluded from the U.S. promise. These states, now apparently called “outliers” rather than “rogue states” by the U.S., have now been explicitly warned that they could still suffer a nuclear blow if they used CBW against the U.S. or its allies.

Indeed, even as the NPR reduced the number of nuclear threats the U.S. is making, Defense Secretary Robert Gates also arguably increased them. By isolating and highlighting the “outliers,” the U.S. is essentially trying to leverage a nuclear threat for counterproliferation purposes:

“If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is that if you’re going to play by the rules, if you’re going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you. But if you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you,” said the secretary of defense.

Still, Gates called the use of nuclear weapons a “last resort.”

This statement amounts to a renewal of the Bush Doctrine, linking the potential first use of military force — in this case nuclear weapons — to counterproliferation aims. As Phil McCauley and I recently warned, the fears about biological weapons proliferation are sufficiently strong that they render the current taboo against their use illogical by classic arms control standards as they increase the risk of war.

The U.S. needs to couple the new policy with active efforts to strengthen the chemical and biological arms control and disarmament regimes as well. It was the U.S. after all, that blocked the negotiated verification protocol to the Biological Weapons convention just months after the 9/11 attacks.


Good news on Iran?

Haaretz.com is reporting that Iran is suspending its uranium enrichment program for two months. This news arrives amidst a flurry of other related reports about Iran and its nuclear program.

Many political pundits have been blasting the Obama administration for its “total dud” diplomatic efforts towards Iran, noting that the U.S. deadline for Iran to make a deal about uranium enrichment elapsed in December. During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama repeatedly said he would talk to Iran without preconditions.

Did Obama say what would happen if the talks failed to produce results?

Is there any reason to believe the talks might still succeed?

Yesterday, General David Petraeus reminded the world what could happen if negotiations fail — Iran could “certainly be bombed” if necessary:

“It would be almost literally irresponsible if Centcom were not to have been thinking about the various ‘what ifs’ and to make plans for a whole variety of different contingencies.”

I doubt this comment was made flippantly as it echoes statements Senate candidate Obama made as far back as 2004. In 2007, Obama said “I don’t think the president of the United States takes military options off the table.”

The U.S. has also been talking about expanding the sanctions against Iran, though Chinese (and European) reluctance has made that threat seem perhaps even less credible than the idea of a U.S. strike on Iran.

I do not think Iran has been bullied into making an important concessions, but I do suspect that the Iranian government realizes the gravity of the situation. As Marc Lynch noted at the end of December, even the New York Times recently ran an op-ed calling for strikes against Iran. U.S. military leaders for some weeks have been saying that they do not see good military options vis-à-vis Iran and they support ongoing diplomacy. However, of course, they acknowledge their preparation to implement military options if the President orders their use.

Laura Rozen reported over the weekend that Iran has made a new offer in the ongoing negotiations:

While the Obama administration has stepped up talk of expanding sanctions on the regime’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iranian news reports and U.S. official sources say that Iran has recently returned a formal counter offer to swap low enriched uranium, or LEU, in exchange for nuclear fuel cells produced in the West…

One source told POLITICO that an agreement between Iran and the “P5+1” – as the group composed of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. is known – could be announced in “the very near future.”

Reportedly, the deal would ship LEU to Turkey rather than Russia, as the west proposed. However, the key point is that Iran would be left without enough nuclear material to construct a bomb — thereby creating more time for additional negotiations on broader issues.

That seems like a good deal for now.


Syria updates

Back in fall 2007 and spring 2008, former Duck blogger Peter Howard was carefully following reports about the apparent Israeli attack on an alleged Syrian nuclear facility of some sort. I just linked Peter’s last post on the event, from April 2008, and to a Duck search result that should unearth his entire series of posts. The Israel target was quite mysterious and the rumors associated with the attack far outnumbered the facts.

The German periodical Der Speigel has a lengthy story on-line dated 2 November that attempts to tell the tale.

According to Erich Follath and Holger Stark, Israel’s “Operation Orchard” destroyed a secret nuclear reactor — perhaps linked to Iran’s nuclear program. However, that allegation is not stopping the Obama administration from trying to improve relations with the Syrian regime (which is apparently reducing its ties to Iran).

The world has changed a lot since 2003 when the neocons were saying “on to Syria” in the wake of the initial successes in Iraq. Now, former AIPAC executive director Tom Dine is working for a group trying to improve US-Syrian relations!

Finally, in a new twist, Syrian President Bashar Assad is reportedly thinking about the Gadhafi pathway towards international respectability: renounce a failed WMD program.

Assad has been considering taking a sensational political step. He is believed to have suggested to contacts in Pyongyang that he is considering the disclosure of his “national” nuclear program, but without divulging any details of cooperation with his North Korean and Iranian partners. Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi reaped considerable benefits from the international community after a similar “confession” about his country’s nuclear program.

Peter, if you are reading, I hope you enjoy the new turns in the tale.


The North Korean nuclear test: something doesn’t smell right

Now this is pretty damn interesting:

Researchers were scratching their heads earlier today at a meeting convened by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) over puzzling results from last month’s nuclear test by North Korea. While the test produced a clearly recognizable seismic signal that was picked up by CTBTO’s worldwide network of sensors, the organization’s atmospheric detectors failed to pick up a whiff of the expected radionuclides in air. Even a deep underground test is usually expected to leak radionuclides, so their absence in this case caused quite a stir. Anders Ringbom of the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm says CTBTO’s detectors for radioactive noble gases—a telltale signature of a nuclear test—can pick up a couple of hundred atoms from a cubic meter of air. On the lack of a signal, he said: “I was a little surprised, yes.”

Some 400 scientists gathered here, CTBTO’s home base, this week to discuss the results of a series of studies carried out by external researchers over the past year to test the capabilities of the system for detecting clandestine tests and to consider other scientific uses for the wealth of data collected. The system comprises 337 sensors across the globe looking for seismic signals, radionuclides, hydroacoustic signals in the oceans, and very low frequency infrasound in the air. Seismologists at the meeting say that the 25 May Korean test was an unmistakably man-made event and showed characteristics that make it almost certainly a nuclear rather than a chemical explosion. But the presence of radioactive xenon is considered the smoking gun for the nuclear nature of an explosion—and it wasn’t detected.

Here’s the problem: if the scientific community does not find evidence of xenon, then this raises questions about our ability to effectively monitor and enforce compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the United States has failed to ratify. Susan Watts of the BBC writes:

But there was one thing everybody in the room wanted to know. Had the network of sensors picked up radionuclides from the North Korean explosion two weeks ago? Seismologists here today say they are comfortable that explosion was a nuclear test, but detecting radionuclide evidence in the form of radioactive gas is the “smoking gun”. And the big news here is that they have not found that signal.

What’s more, scientists don’t really seem to know why. One delegate, an expert on radionuclide detection from Sweden, told the conference how well the network performed after North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006. Twelve days after that event the network picked up just a few hundreds of atoms of the noble gas Xenon 133 in Canada. He confessed to being “surprised” that this time round, so far, there has been nothing. He said he is sure the sensors are working properly. So why might there be no signal, and does it matter?

The eminent seismologist Professor Paul Richards from Columbia University implied it didn’t matter so much. The network includes a range of technologies – using seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic and radionuclide technologies precisely to give the world what he described as a “a quiver of arrows”. Thus if one arrow doesn’t hit the target, then others will; if one detection set-up sees no nuclear signature, others will. And his personal view is that this was most likely a nuclear test.

So was there a deliberate attempt by the North Koreans to contain the explosion? Or was the explosion contained by accident? Some larger yield nuclear explosions can apparently “melt” the rock around them, so less noble gas seeps out. Attempts to explain the lack of a noble gas signal remain educated guesses at the moment. The official line here is that all this highlights the need for more countries to ratify the Treaty, so that it can come into force, thus allowing on-site inspection teams to move in to check out such tests.

In the meantime, scientists here might be keeping their fingers crossed that something shows up soon, but they seem already to be resigned to the possibility that it may not.

Still, some news sources are raising the possibility that the North Koreans faked an explosion:

eports indicate that a global network of sensors designed to verify nuclear testing has failed to pick up radioactive gases from North Korea’s nuclear blast, which indicates that the country might have used conventional explosives to mimic a nuclear test.

North Korea conducted what it claims was its second nuclear test on May 25 this year. Within seconds, a global network of seismographs had detected the shock wave from the blast.

The seismographs are operated by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), a Vienna-based body that would enforce a global ban on nuclear testing if enough nations were to sign up to the treaty.

The CTBTO seismographs showed that the tremors caused by the explosion were of magnitude 4.5, far larger than the nation’s first nuclear test in October 2006.

According to a report in Nature News, the seismic signature of the test strongly suggested that the blast was man made, but the CTBTO hoped to use a follow-up set of measurements to verify its nuclear nature. […]

Zerbo points out that the CTBTO network is far more complete in 2009 than it was in 2006 and that all stations were operational at the time of the test.

“If we didn’t measure it, it’s unlikely that anyone outside of North Korea’s borders did,” he said.

The lack of isotopes has become an interesting puzzle for proliferation researchers. It could mean that the North Koreans used conventional explosives to mimic a nuclear test.

Such a mock test would be unusual, although not unprecedented.

In the 1980s, the United States government set off several multi-kilotonne chemical explosions to test how various weapons and communication systems would respond to a nuclear blast. (ANI)

Given that the last test struck many as a likely fizzle, I suppose this isn’t outside the realm of possibility.


North Korea explodes nuclear device

Breaking news: North Korea has conducted a nuclear test, this one more successful and powerful than its initial test back in 2006.

You can read some (very) instant analysis, but the short story is that this move seems puzzling, out of context, which is to say that it doesn’t fit North Korea’s existing pattern of telegraphing its moves and using its nuclear program to extract maximum bargaining concessions from the United States. An initial and early read might be that this test does quite the opposite, confronting a new US administration broadly committed to diplomacy and alienating other could-be allies (Russia, China).

My only additional insight comes by way of Drezner, pointed out a very interesting article on the Administration’s take on North Korea’s succession politics. Re-reading that in light of the nuclear test reminds us to keep two key points in mind when making sense of this test:

1. This could be driven by domestic politics. From a theoretical point, this is entirely consistent with liberal foreign policy analysis approaches to the study of international politics. However, in areas such as nuclear weapons proliferation and such–the highest of the high politics of security–realism is generally assumed to have an advantage, and states are supposed to put international factors first in making such decisions. That a state would put domestic politics first in matters of such high stakes doesn’t fit our standard explanatory models of state behavior.

2. We have no idea what on earth is going on in North Korea. The DPRK is more than just Another Country, its perhaps the most closed and authoritarian regime in the world today. As Drezner points out, much of the analysis of the DPRK has a hint of Kremlinology to it, and we are right to be skeptical. Information is scarce, and context in which to make sense of that information is even more scarce. That said, even in an authoritarian regime there are politics, and in times of succession, the stakes are high. However, few, if any analysts have a clear picture of who the players are and how the game is played.

In that context, a meaningful and effective (from a US foreign policy perspective) response is difficult to construct.

Stephen Bosworth
will certainly have his hands full–though it is entirely possible that he’ll have his hands full of free time…


Significant developments on the WMD front

I would be negligent if I did not call attention to three important developments on the nuclear proliferation front.

First, the Ukrainian government claims to have arrested three of its citizens–including one local politician–who were trying to sell radioactive material.

The metal cylinder supposedly contained eight pounds of plutonium 239, a highly dangerous radioactive material that could be used in a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. The price: $10 million, sought by three Ukrainian men, officials said Tuesday.

The men did not make a sale, the officials said, but were arrested in an undercover operation in Ukraine last week that was conducted by the Ukrainian Security Service. Still, while the plot was foiled, it underscored longstanding concerns that unsecured radioactive material in the former Soviet Union might fall into the wrong hands.

Marina Ostapenko, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Security Service, said it had turned out that the radioactive material was not plutonium 239. A preliminary analysis indicated that the material was most likely americium, a much more common and less potent radioactive material, Ms. Ostapenko said in a telephone interview from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

She said americium could be deployed in a dirty bomb but not in a nuclear weapon.

An americum-based dirty bomb is actually a nothing to sneeze at:

Americium (Alpha Emitter)

If a typical americium source used in oil well surveying were blown up with one pound of TNT, people in a region roughly ten times the area of the initial bomb blast would require medical supervision and monitoring, as depicted in Figure 4. An area thirty times the size of the first area (a swath one kilometer long and covering twenty city blocks) would have to be evacuated within half an hour. After the initial passage of the cloud, most of the radioactive materials would settle to the ground. Of these materials, some would be forced back up into the air and inhaled, thus posing a long-term health hazard, as illustrated by Figure 5. A ten-block area contaminated in this way would have a cancer death probability of one-in-a-thousand. A region two kilometers long and covering sixty city blocks would be contaminated in excess of EPA safety guidelines. If the buildings in this area had to be demolished and rebuilt, the cost would exceed fifty billion dollars.

This episode underscores the continuing threat posed by “nuclear leakage,” particularly from the former Soviet Union. In many respects, leakage presents the most likely scenario for terrorist acquisition of WMD. Obama talked a great deal about strengthening various cooperative programs the US has in place to reduce leakage–programs that suffered from benign neglect under the Bush Administration–and it won’t be a moment too soon.

Second, the situation on the Korean peninsula seems to be headed from bad to worse. The conventional wisdom still holds that this is yet another of Pyongyang’s tirades in its eternal quest to extract greater concessions from the world. But the North Koreans have gone further than usual this time, and so experts are starting to worry that this is a more serious confrontation that those we’ve seen in the recent past.

Third, fears about Pakistan’s fate continue to mount. I suppose this isn’t really a “development,” but a way of saying that the prospects for the non-implosion of nuclear-armed state haven’t exactly improved of late, despite Islamabad’s strong denial of its own fragility.

This has been the latest installment in our occasional “we’re all doomed” series.


Israeli threat inflation?

Over the weekend, the AP ran a story based on high-level Israeli sources suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program has “crossed the threshold,” which implied that the program is now militarized:

Iran is now capable of producing atomic weapons, Israel’s top military intelligence officer said Sunday, sounding the highest-level warning that Israel’s archenemy has achieved independent nuclear capability.

At a Cabinet meeting, the chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, did not say Iran already has an atomic bomb, participants said. However, he said, Iran has “crossed the threshold” and has the expertise and materials needed for one.

Meanwhile, American intelligence sources disagree and reported their dissent to a US Senate committee this week. The Post today quoted Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair:

“The overall situation — and the intelligence community agrees on this — [is] that Iran has not decided to press forward . . . to have a nuclear weapon on top of a ballistic missile,” Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single weapon is 2010 to 2015.”

Readers may remember that I pointed out similar apparently contradictory statements about Iran’s nuclear material recently delivered on weekend TV progams by high-level US officials just last week.

What’s going on?

Iran has demonstrated that it can enrich uranium. So far, none of the uranium has been enriched to weapons-grade, but the technological skill required isn’t all that substantial. This is a huge flaw in the Nonproliferation Treaty and I’ve previously discussed the much-needed Additional Protocol to the NPT, which would improve verification.

Some experts, like Harvard’s Graham Allison, call for an end to nuclear enrichment. The big mistakes were made when Ike promoted Atoms for Peace and the NPT reflected his guarantee allowing non-nuclear states to pursue a wide range of “peaceful” technologies.

As for the moment, Blair notes that the Israelis are engaged in classic worst-case planning:

“The Israelis are far more concerned about it, and they take more of a worst-case approach to these things from their point of view,” he said.

Israel wiped out Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981 and destroyed something mysterious in Syria in 2007.

Israel has often hinted that it might attack Iran, so this story isn’t over by any means — even if the Obama administration worries more about Pakistan.


Iran’s bomb

Yesterday, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN interviewer John King that he thinks Iran has enough fissile material to make a nuclear bomb. He said:

“We think they do, quite frankly.”

Meanwhile, on NBC, Defense Secretary Robert Gates apparently said the opposite:

“They’re not close to a stockpile, they’re not close to a weapon at this point

Politico noted the discrepancy.

What’s going on here?

The LA Times story about the interviews mentions a recent IAEA report finding that Iran has a bit more than a ton of “enriched uranium.” Additionally, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control estimates that Iran actually had enough of this particular “low enriched uranium” to make a bomb by December 2008 and will have enough for a second one in October 2009.

As Mark Kleiman clarifies on his blog, however, low enriched uranium is not the same substance as highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is the weapons-grade material needed to make a bomb (without plutonium anyway).

In his 2005 Nuclear Terrorism book Graham Allison explained (see pp. 99-100) that it would take a substantial effort using a cascade of 1500 centrifuges operating for about one year to yield the 35 to 100 pounds of HEU that a state would need to manufacture a single nuclear bomb. The state needs the smaller amount only if it has mastered the technology and developed a beryllium reflector. Otherwise, it needs the larger amount.

Iran currently has close to 4000 centrifuges operating at the Natanz facility (and is heading to 6000), which means they could theoretically create HEU in months. However, the IAEA and the world would notice that kind of enrichment — at least at Natanz.

Granted, the technical barriers to an Iranian bomb are falling, but some stories about Mullen’s remarks definitely make it sound as if Iran has made a political decision to construct a bomb. After all, this is the sentence following the one I quoted above:

And Iran having a nuclear weapon I’ve believed for a long time is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world.”

Yet, there’s no publicly available evidence that Iran has moved to make a bomb.

The late 2007 NIE said

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.

My blog post from that time quoted additional skepticism from the NIE.

Arms Control Wonk has been complaining about the panicked reporting on Iran’s technical achievements for some time.

The different apparent messages from Gates and Mullen certainly suggest that the administration is not trying to sell an Iran war to the American public. Or, if they are, they’re not as good at it as the Bush people were.


An “act of war”

Examine these two policy-related statements and see if you can spot the nuclear illogic in one of these positions.

First, this is Iran’s statement after its missile tests, as reported by The Scotsman:

“The first US shot on Iran would set the United States’ vital interests in the world on fire,” said Ali Shirazi, a mid-ranking cleric who is Khamenei’s representative to the naval forces of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards. “Tel Aviv and the US fleet in the Persian Gulf would be targets that would be set on fire in Iran’s crushing response,” he said.

Next, the US position, according to an AP writer:

In late June, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, who was then the commander of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, said any attempt by Iran to seal off the Strait of Hormuz would be viewed as an act of war.

Did you spot the problem?

Yes, an Iranian attack on the Strait of Hormuz would be an act of war — but the Iranian position seems to be that war would already have started after a US attack on its nuclear program.

I heard this same sequence on TV this morning, so don’t think I’m just pasting together two different stories.

In this case, I could blame the media for taking a US quote from June and using it out of context this week. However, it appears that Vice Admiral Cosgriff was considering virtually the same scenario when he offered his threat:

An Iranian newspaper reported over the weekend that one of the country’s generals said Iran would take control of the key oil passageway in the Gulf if it were provoked.

Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, told journalists in Bahrain on Monday that “any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz is an act of war” and said the U.S. would not allow it.

Surely Cosgriff understands the concept of retaliation, so this rhetoric must be intended to stir political support for American hectoring.


Blog note: North Korean sanctions

Bush just lifted sanctions on North Korea. Some conservatives claim that Democrats will now need to eat crow about his foreign policies. Some also claim that the North Korean policy shouldn’t be extrapolated to Iran, because Kim Jong Il is “rational” and “wants to survive” (unlike those nutty Iranians).

1) This is a triumph for the Bush Administration–and for Georgetown’s own Victor Cha–but Democrats don’t have to eat any crow; Bush succeeded by adopting the policy we’d urged all along. Of course, if he’d done it sooner, we might not have had a nuclear-armed North Korea, but that takes us into difficult counterfactual domain–and is even a bit unfair, because it doesn’t seem likely that North Korea had any working nuclear weapons.

Now, conservative bloggers, pundits, and politicians have long spun this as some sort of vindication of the Bush policy; they think that the Clinton administration appeased North Korea but that the Bush administration showed the necessary strength to “force” the North Koreans into negotiations. But this betrays a complete misunderstanding of the relevant history. Far from “appeasing” North Korea, the US was on the brink of bombing North Korea before they signed onto the Agreed Framework.

In 2002, the Bush administration confronted the North Koreans with evidence that they were enriching Uranium. We then went through years of a very similar pattern of threats and counter-threats. Then the Bush administration decided, in a policy reversal, that it was time to engage:

He [Victor Cha] arrived at the White House with a reputation as an advocate for a tough approach to negotiations with North Korea — what he called “hawk engagement” — but in the end he drafted the crucial memo that helped persuade President Bush earlier this year to allow U.S. negotiators to meet for bilateral talks with their North Korean counterparts in Berlin [emph. added].

The approach all but shattered the taboo on substantive bilateral negotiations that Bush had imposed since the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions erupted nearly five years ago. North Korea requested the meeting after refusing substantive talks at six-nation negotiations in December. (Pyongyang proposed Geneva as a venue, but that is where a Clinton-era agreement scorned by Bush was negotiated, so Berlin was chosen.)

Cha caught Bush’s eye by arguing in his memo that it is time to test North Korea’s intentions — seeking an agreement with specific actions and a limited time frame. North Korea ultimately agreed to shut down its nuclear reactor in 60 days if the United States ended a banking inquiry, but North Korea has now missed the deadline by more than two weeks.

2) The attempt to draw a distinction with Iran isn’t ludicrous–but the attempt to draw a distinction along these particular lines certainly is.

3) Both previous points beg for someone to search through just what, exactly, such people and their fellow travelers were saying about offering similar concessions to North Korea when the Bush administration opposed doing so (or just to search for commentary on Kerry’s proposal to engage in bilateral talks, for that matter), and what they were saying about Kim Jong Il’s “rationality” when he was part of the axis of evil. Literally:

Abe wants to put pressure on Beijing with this announcement, not Pyongyang. Kim is too irrational to care about Tokyo [emph. added]; he has his eyes fixed on Washington. Hu Jintao operates on a more rational basis, however, and he will have a choice between propping up the North Korean nutcase or losing trillions of dollars to an arms race on which he had not counted. Japan wants Jintao to understand just how expensive Kim Jong-Il will become in the next few months and years unless Beijing puts a leash on their boy.


The taboo

Political Scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt received a lot of heat for their recent work about the power of the Israeli lobby inside the United States.

Mearsheimer and Walt raised issues that are rarely discussed in the United States. Indeed. some describe this topic as “the third rail” of US foreign policy debate.

Now that the power of “the Lobby” has been made part of the US public debate, Israel’s nuclear weapons program should also be scrutinized more publicly. Ordinarily, that subject is taboo.

Lew Butler (who used to chair the Ploughshares Fund) explained in an op-ed in the SF Chronicle, November 30, 2007:

Estimates are that there are probably as many as 200 [nuclear weapons] in the Israeli arsenal, including thermonuclear (hydrogen) ones.

What is surprising is that there is almost never any public discussion in the United States, and certainly none in the White House or the Congress, about these weapons.

…Clearly, the Bush administration is not going to talk publicly about our understanding, if any, with Israel about its nuclear weapons. And no member of Congress is rushing to get into a subject as politically delicate as this one. That leaves it to those of us in private life to begin the debate, for the sake of the United States and Israel.

Part of the reason nobody wants to talk about Israeli nuclear weapons is that any debate would quickly reveal American hypocrisy. How can the US put pressure on Iran or North Korea about their proliferation if it turns a blind eye to Israel?

The unspoken basis for U.S. policy about Israel’s nukes seems to be that we don’t want our enemies to have such weapons but we don’t worry as much if our friends, like Israel, Pakistan and India, have them.

However, the lack of debate about Israel’s arsenal occasionally causes US political leaders to make careless and immoral threats. Hillary Clinton’s recent warning that she would “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel led me to note the following in comments:

I don’t know why Israel’s nuclear force isn’t sufficient to deter Iran’s. Estimates suggest that it has 100s of deliverable weapons, some in the form of accurate cruise missiles on relatively invulnerable submarines.

Butler asks a set of related questions

Is there any understanding between Israel and the United States, its principal source of military aid, about their use? If so, does the understanding cover “no first use,” similar to the policy advocated in the United States at the height of the Cold War? What would the United States do if Israel were ever under an attack that might lead it to a nuclear response? Has the United States ever talked with Israel about its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? For Israel, are the weapons more of a danger to its security than a defense?

I see no reason to avoid public debate about these issues.

An honest discussion about Israel’s arsenal might lead the US to adopt policies that would reduce its hypocrisy. For example, achieving genuine nonproliferation in the Middle East might require Israel to abandon its reliance upon nuclear weapons. Alternatively, perhaps the US and the regional states could embrace some kind of mutual deterrence based on Iran maintaining a secure second strike force. Iran does not currently have a nuclear-armed ally willing to extend deterrence on its behalf.

How would the US respond if Russia announced that it would obliterate Israel if it used nuclear weapons against Iran?

Note: Cross-posted at my blog.


If only it was on You-Tube….

Yet another page in the continuing saga of the Secret Raid on they Syrian Reactor that maybe never was….

As many loyal Duck readers know, I’ve been following this story with fascination since it broke. To recap: Israel bombs a “site” in Syria, Syria says nothing, 3rd hand reports indicate a North Korean nuclear reactor was the target, nobody talks.

This week yet another bit of key information leaked out. Turns out, they had a video! The Video is said to show North Koreans inside the Syrian site with all the tell-tale signs of a nuclear reactor.

Syria, of course, denies the whole thing.

Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha yesterday angrily denounced the U.S. and Israeli assertions. “If they show a video, remember that the U.S. went to the U.N. Security Council and displayed evidence and images about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I hope the American people will not be as gullible this time around,” he said.

Which is exactly what he should say, and a stark reminder of the ripple effect that Iraq will continue to have in all US diplomatic efforts for quite some time.

Why do we learn of this now?

Nuclear weapons analysts and U.S. officials predicted that CIA Director Michael V. Hayden’s planned disclosures to Capitol Hill could complicate U.S. efforts to improve relations with North Korea as a way to stop its nuclear weapons program. They come as factions inside the administration and in Congress have been battling over the merits of a nuclear-related deal with North Korea….

The timing of the congressional briefing is nonetheless awkward for the Bush administration’s diplomatic initiative to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and permanently disable the reactor at Yongbyon. The CIA’s hand was forced, officials said, because influential lawmakers had threatened to cut off funding for the U.S. diplomatic effort unless they received a full account of what the administration knew.

Also, the terms of a tentative U.S.-North Korean deal require that North Korean officials acknowledge U.S. evidence about its help with the Syrian program, and so the disclosures to Congress are meant to preempt what North Korea may eventually say.

Coincidence? Sure.


Nuclear umbrella

Last week, in the much-maligned Democratic debate in Pennsylvania, Senator Hillary Clinton said that she would greatly expand the US nuclear umbrella in the Middle East:

Well, in fact, George [Stephanopoulos], I think that we should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel. Of course I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States, but I would do the same with other countries in the region.

You know, we are at a very dangerous point with Iran. The Bush policy has failed. Iran has not been deterred. They continue to try to not only obtain the fissile material for nuclear weapons but they are intent upon and using their efforts to intimidate the region and to have their way when it comes to the support of terrorism in Lebanon and elsewhere.

…we’ve got to deter other countries from feeling that they have to acquire nuclear weapons. You can’t go to the Saudis or the Kuwaitis or UAE and others who have a legitimate concern about Iran and say: Well, don’t acquire these weapons to defend yourself unless you’re also willing to say we will provide a deterrent backup and we will let the Iranians know that, yes, an attack on Israel would trigger massive retaliation, but so would an attack on those countries that are willing to go under this security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear ambitions.

I was very surprised to hear about this statement — and puzzled that it did not lead to a followup question.

Obama’s line on this was somewhat more ambiguous — but still remarkable:

I will take no options off the table when it comes to preventing them [Iran] from using nuclear weapons or obtaining nuclear weapons, and that would include any threats directed at Israel or any of our allies in the region.

The questioner and the candidates seem to have forgotten that the latest NIE (2007) says Iran abandoned its nuclear program in 2003.

Where’s the media frenzy about this topic? It is potentially a hell of a lot more important than some of the personal stuff and verbal gaffes that have dominated the campaign in recent weeks.


Strike in the Dark

For the past 5 months, I’ve been following the strange story of Israel’s bombing of a mysterious site in Syria. In this month’s New Yorker, Seymour Hersh has an excellent look into the subject. Hersh takes a round-up of the major media stories of the event, analyzing how they advance the narrative of the episode, and adds some first-rate reporting from Israel, Syria, and Washington. While his article sheds new and important light on the subject, at its core, it remains a mystery:

Morton Abramowitz, a former Assistant Secretary of State for intelligence and research, told me that he was astonished by the lack of response. “Anytime you bomb another state, that’s a big deal,” he said. “But where’s the outcry, particularly from the concerned states and the U.N.? Something’s amiss.”

Israel could, of course, have damning evidence that it refuses to disclose. But there are serious and unexamined contradictions in the various published accounts of the September 6th bombing.

Hersh reviews the assertions–some questionable, some reasonable–that it was a nuclear site and leaves the distinct impression that at best, this was highly educated guessing. The Israeli officials he interviewed insisted that “something” was there, but offer no more. Even if one is willing to concede that the target was questionable in its nuclear status, the central mystery remains:

If the Israelis’ target in Syria was not a nuclear site, why didn’t the Syrians respond more forcefully? Syria complained at the United Nations but did little to press the issue. And, if the site wasn’t a partially built reactor, what was it?

After extensive research in Syria and elsewhere, the best he can offer is

Whatever was under construction, with North Korean help, it apparently had little to do with agriculture—or with nuclear reactors—but much to do with Syria’s defense posture, and its military relationship with North Korea. And that, perhaps, was enough to silence the Syrian government after the September 6th bombing.

Hersh raises the parallel of Kumchang-Ri, a North Korean site that the US suspected of housing a nuclear reactor. After considerable controversy, the US pressed the issue and cut a deal to inspect the site. The result? A big, empty hole in the ground. Might it be possible that Israeli intelligence analysts were simply wrong about the Syrian site? Perhaps, but if they were wrong, why didn’t Syria say anything? The theme that constantly came up among Israelis was the re-establishment of their deterrent. Following the failures of the IDF against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria (and possibly Iran) seemed to think that they had finally achieved an advantage over Israeli military might. This raid did, if anything, point out that Israel can still pack a very powerful punch.

That notion was echoed by the ambassador of an Israeli ally who is posted in Tel Aviv. “The truth is not important,” the ambassador told me. “Israel was able to restore its credibility as a deterrent. That is the whole thing. No one will know what the real story is.”


Syria covers up

The saga continues…

(Updated to included the photo, from Saturday’s Washington Post)

Back in October, Israeli jets bombed a mystery site in Syria. While it was clearly a major operation, the silence by all parties was remarkable, and heightened the mystery. Some claimed it was a terrorist arms shipment, some claimed it was a nuclear site, and others thought it was a practice-run / signal for Iran. But, with everyone remaining silent, the story slowly faded away.

The NYT is reporting that recently released satellite photos show that Syria is rebuilding a structure on the suspect site.

The puzzling site in Syria that Israeli jets bombed in September became more curious Friday with the release of a satellite photograph showing new construction there that resembles the site’s former main building.

Israel’s air attack was directed against what Israeli and American intelligence analysts judged to be a partly constructed nuclear reactor. The Syrians vigorously denied the atomic claim.

Before the attack, satellite imagery showed a tall, square building there measuring about 150 feet on a side.

After the attack, the Syrians wiped the area clean, with some analysis calling the speed of the cleanup a tacit admission of guilt. The barren site is on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, 90 miles north of the Iraqi border.

The image released Friday came from a private company, DigitalGlobe, in Longmont, Colo. It shows a tall, square building under construction that appears to closely resemble the original structure, with the exception that the roof is vaulted instead of flat. The photo was taken from space on Wednesday.

Several clues emerge here. First, the NYT seems rather confident in asserting the US / Israeli analysis that it was a nuclear site. This was hotly contested back in October, but is taken for granted here.

Second, the article goes on to report that the IAEA asked to inspect the sight, again indicating that there was some nuclear suspicion to clear up. Syria refused, and the rebuilding will make it more difficult to ever figure out what was there.

My question is—what’s the back story? An airstrike this big, nuclear proliferation in a country that was, once, “next” up on the axis of evil (and borders Iraq), and nothing happens?

Note to self: in 10 years or so, submit a FOIA on this and find out what the heck was going on.


Potentialities and possibilities

By now you’ve probably read about the new NIE saying that Iran almost certainly halted its nuclear weapons program some time in 2003. There are, of course, bound to be people who disagree with this assessment–after all, it is an “estimate”, which is another way of saying “our best guess”. Although the report indicates varying levels of confidence associated with each piece of the report, it’s not like we know for sure. Disagreeing with some parts of the report (or even the entire report) is a legitimate position.

However, I am disappointed that the New York Times would published an op-ed discounting the NIE that is just filled with screaming howlers. Such as:

And why, by the way, does Iran even want a nuclear energy program, when it is sitting on an enormous pool of oil that is now skyrocketing in value?

Someone should send poor Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin back to freshman year, so they can take Economics 101 and learn about “opportunity cost”. The main argument that is generally made against the interpretation of a civilian purpose for Iran’s nuclear program is that the economics don’t make sense. Although generating costs for nuclear power are very low, the capital costs are extremely high. The cost of electricity generated with fossil fuels (generally, by the way, natural gas, not oil, though Iran does have substantial natural gas reserves), on the other hand, is driven largely by the cost of fuel, since fossil fuel plants are comparatively cheap to build. Thus, as the cost of fossil fuels goes up (natural gas contracts generally track the price of oil), nuclear power makes more and more economic sense. Whatever Iran doesn’t burn in their generating plants can be sold on the world market for higher and higher prices. If you understand this basic economic fact, it starts to become very plausible that Iran’s nuclear program is best understood as a successful bet on rising energy prices.

The authors of this piece also argue that Tehran’s uranium-enrichment program can’t possibly have a civilian purpose because “all of Iran’s needs for enriched uranium for its energy programs are covered by a contract with Russia.” Here again they get the facts plain wrong. Although Russia and Iran did sign a deal to supply the Bushehr reactor with Russian-produced fuel rods, construction on the Bushehr plant and delivery of the fuel has been long delayed by a dispute between the two parties over payment. Russia claims that Iran is behind on its bills and is declining to deliver the fuel. It is unclear when this dispute will be resolved and when the Bushehr plant will go into operation. Under these circumstances, especially given Russia’s growing interest in using its energy wealth to extend its sphere of influence, it is more than plausible that Iran would continue to develop domestic enrichment capabilities in order to avoid becoming dependent on Russia to maintain its electrical generating capacity.

By no means am I arguing that these factors cited above are proof that Iran’s program is entirely civilian in nature. And surely the Iranians are aware of the usefulness of a civilian program in developing nuclear expertise that could be put to military use at some point in the future. However, Lincy and Milhollin are wrong on so many counts when they claim that military purpose is the only possible explanation.

Note: Edited very slightly for style.

Image Source: https://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/bsp/hi/image_maps/06/1137000000/1137424560/img/iran_nuclear1_416.gif


NIE open thread

I’m curious what our readers make of the newly declassified part of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE): “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities” [pdf]. In particular, its claim that:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.

It continues:

B. We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.

I received a link to the New York Times story earlier today with the subject heading “this needs to be the first thing you read.” I’ll say.

Daniel Drezner, as usual, asks a provocative question or three and links to Kevin Drum’s thoughts on the subject.

I don’t have a great deal to add at this point, so I’m hoping for a good discussion in comments.


Iran, the IAEA and the US

Once again, I was recently contacted by an Iranian journalist for Fars News Agency.

Kia Kojouri asked 2 questions, which I have slightly reworded:

1. While IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei says that there is no evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons, the US and Frence are claiming that Iran seeks nuclear weapons. They have not presented any documentation for their claims. What do you think about that?

2. The IAEA declares that outstanding issues between Iran and the IAEA will be solved during the next few weeks. What’s your assessment about that?

This is my reply:

1. El Baradei says that Iran likely cannot build nuclear arms for 3 to 8 years, even if it is secretly seeking them. Indeed, the IAEA leader plainly admits that because of this basic fact, he is trying to tone down the hostile rhetoric against Iran so as to reduce the risk of war and allow ongoing diplomacy to work. El Baradei and others acknowledge that many questions about Iran’s nuclear program remain unanswered.

Then again, after the IAEA reported its worries about Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council in 2006, that body twice imposed sanctions on Iran. El Baradei has previously told interviewers that coercive levers can help promote diplomatic success. Thus, the US and France are highlighting threats that do not currently worry El Baradei, but they may make his job easier by keeping the pressure on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA’s diplomatic efforts.

2. A number of IAEA officials have praised Iran for its diplomatic cooperation. At some point, however, the UN Security Council’s chief concern has to be addressed. If the UNSC views Iran’s enrichment program as a threat to international peace and security, then the diplomacy has to yield both technical and political results. Any IAEA deal that allows Iran to continue its enrichment program seems likely to displease various western states.

Indeed, the world may well be on the road to conflict if the IAEA fails to halt the Iranian enrichment program. At that point, the US and a “coalition of the willing” (or perhaps Israel) might take hostile action even without explicit UNSC authorization. Potentially, it is a very dangerous situation.

I certainly hope that Iran and the IAEA can reach a deal that satisfies all the major concerned parties.


Clear Images Produce a Cloudy Picture

This week new information emerged in the ongoing mystery as to what Israel bombed in Syria several months ago—much anticipated satellite imagery of the suspect site. These pictures below, originally printed in the NY Times, are commercial imagery, analyzed by David Albright at the Institute for Science and International Security (pdf of his report here). They show the critical before and after pictures—before the strike and just recently.* The smoking gun?

Sort of. Its clear that something was there, and, interestingly, its clear that Syria doesn’t want to discuss it—they’ve apparently already cleaned the site, plowing over whatever they had initially build. As the NYT reported:

“It’s clearly very suspicious,” said Joseph Cirincione, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The Syrians were up to something that they clearly didn’t want the world to know about.”

Mr. Cirincione said the photographic evidence “tilts toward a nuclear program,”

but of course, no one can be certain. There are some buildings, they layout of the before pictures bears some of the signs of a nuclear site, but we can’t see into the buildings and have no idea what went on there. The images, Albright told the NYT, are “consistent with being a North Korean reactor design.” But consistent is not certain.

Syria’s action—totally dismantling whatever was there—only serves to fuel the suspicion. Its clear they don’t want to discuss the specifics of the incident, it certainly suggests they have something to hide, and encourages speculation that they want this incident to just go away.

Thus the mystery grows. William Arkin of Early Warning sees three possibilities:

1. Israel actually did bomb a nascent Syrian nuclear program. The photos suggest as much. He is suspicious:

But, it’s hard to believe that Syria, possibly with the help of North Korea, is stupid enough to think it could build a nuclear reactor and get away with it.

2. Israel thought it bombed a nuclear site, but acted on faulty intelligence and erred.

3. It’s a red herring, ‘cover’ for something else. But what?

I’m inclined to side with the possible nuclear site for a couple of reasons. First, this attack was a serious risk. Tensions between Israel and Syria had been rising recently. In authorizing this mission, Israel certainly had to appreciate the risk that Syria could and might retaliate—either directly across the border in the Golan or through Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Either would be costly for Israel and could easily risk war. So, I don’t think that this was an action Israel undertook lightly. They clearly thought that there was something extremely serious in Syria. The stakes are just a bit too high for them to have undertaken this for much less. Second, Syria clearly has something to hide. This situation is ripe for exploitation domestically and across the so-called “Arab Street.” They did offer a few faint protests, but where is the outcry? Where is the Syrian propaganda? The ‘cleaning’ of the site furthers this idea—Syria knows that this would be observable from overhead photography, and they cleaned the site rather thoroughly and quickly. Third, where’s the outrage? None of the other Arab states have said a thing. At one point in time, any Israeli attack on an Arab state would produce instant denunciations. Here? Nothing. Apparently some of Syria’s supposed friends aren’t all that upset. The only country to have said anything? North Korea. Finally, the US has been suspiciously quiet. Former Administration officials have intimated that it was a nuclear site and that North Korea might be involved. Its clear top US officials knew all about this strike and they have been unusually quiet about the whole thing. No confirmations, no denials.

How confident am I of this? Maybe a 4 out of 10.

Still, the only thing on which there is a clear consensus is that something significant happened about which there are more questions than answers.

Arms Control Wonk:

In short, we don’t know what the site was, what (or who) survived the strike, and where it is now.

Syria Comment:

There are many too many unanswered questions.


Until we see evidence that Israel bombed something, it’s fair to assume that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

Stay tuned until we get the next peek behind the scenes.

*On a side note, this imagery, in and of itself, I think is nothing short of amazing. Here you have what used to be the most precious intelligence gathering capability, limited to only a few space-faring states, now a commercial technology that anyone can use. While these images aren’t as high-quality as the best US spy satellites, they are pretty darn good and available to anyone who cares to buy them and learn the art of photo interpretation.

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