Washington and Tehran Insist on Playing with Fire

Alex Cacioppo — Contributing Editor — @ BylineBeat

(Brooklyn, New York) Mitt Romney is on record saying that bombing the Islamic Republic would not be as awful as a nuclear Islamic Republic. It remains to be seen whether this proves hyperbole or policy, but the stakes are exorbitantly high: just the other week, another Washington think tank published its projections on the Iranian nuclear program. Meanwhile, sanctions appear to have fomented revolts in the streets of Tehran as its currency, the rial, has precipitously fallen.

This is not the Cuban missile crisis, yet the atmosphere is tense enough. No one is going to benefit from what is blithely referred to as the military option, which Nobel Peace Prize-winner President Obama has repeatedly said will never be taken off the diplomatic table. Threatening war as diplomacy is another matter, but Iran’s refusal to be forthcoming with atomic inspectors has only escalated the crisis.

At the Virginia Military Institute last week, Romney pointedly said that he “will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.” He continued, “For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions, not just words, that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated.” What he intends to do that has not already been done, aside from bombing, is unclear.

Freelance investigative reporter Gareth Porter believes there is plenty of space for a diplomatic defusing of the conflict and that Iran is not racing along to build a bomb. “It’s probably true that the Iranians were bargaining [in the P5+1, or permanent five of the UN Security Council plus Russia, talks] very hard by putting their willingness to suspend entirely the 20% enrichment process,” he said, referring to the cut-off at which it becomes much easier to bring the fuel to weapon-grade. Porter adds,

What they were asking in return was a complete ending of the sanctions, which have been levied against Iran, including the most recent and most damaging set of sanctions, which are [targeted] against the oil exports sector and central bank.

Iran “is not ready to make a deal” with the P5+1. Porter continues that the Obama administration “has not been willing to bargain seriously at all either during 2012 and certainly it’s not going to happen” until after Nov. 6. “Obama’s position is the mirror opposite” of Khamenei’s. The IAEA itself, Porter adds, claims Iran “has diverted at least a third of the stockpile of the twenty percent enriched uranium to a powder for fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor.” Porter also points out that Bibi has by now “backed down” from his repeated threat to strike Iran pre-emptively.

One can infer that bombing Iran, then, is guaranteed to push Iran toward full weaponization, a process from which they are now said to be backing down in the face of crushing sanctions. Another inference is that the leadership in Tehran, though no doubt hostile to Washington as the other way around, is not irrational.

The Iranian plant at Fordow is a key concern for ISIS: “Iran’s current trajectory at Fordow is increasing the chance of a military confrontation, particularly given growing concern about the relatively short breakout time.” Later on we read, “Iran appears to be prioritizing the Fordow facility.”

ISIS continues that “Iran would risk having its nuclear facilities crippled by a military strike, meaning it may currently be deterred from such action.” The think tank omits entirely any mention of the cyberwar against the enrichment program and the effects of sanctions, which are already beginning to blow back in our faces — for example the cyberattacks on US banks, as the Wall St. Journal reported late last week.

Siobhan Gorman and Julian Barnes report that an entity called the Qassam Cyber Fighters “says it is retaliating for the anti-Islamic video made in America that has caused protests in Muslim countries. U.S. officials, however, say the hackers claim privately to be attacking U.S. financial institutions and energy companies in the Persian Gulf in response to crippling sanctions that have cut oil production in half and sent the Iranian currency tumbling.”

The brainchild of the program is, essentially, A.Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist. ISIS writes that the Iranians “likely received” his step-by-step procedure for creating a nuclear program. Nonetheless, ISIS has introduced a caveat, placed in a footnote on page 8 of the report: “Iran’s enrichment facilities are not ideally suited for producing WGU.”

Jay Solomon in the Wall Street Journal reported on Oct. 9 that nuclear experts affiliated with the think tank, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), have declared that Iran is two to four months away from generating enough fuel to have obtained what ISIS calls a “significant quantity” — that is, roughly 55 pounds — of weapon-grade uranium.

Solomon reports that the ISIS study “offered a faster timeline than [Benjamin] Netanyahu presented to the U.N. on Sept. 27 because of Tehran’s growing stockpile of higher-enriched uranium and its expanding numbers of centrifuge machines,” and that Ali Khamenei “has yet to make the political decision to acquire a nuclear bomb.” (He recently issued a fatwa ruling that possession of such weapons is “un-Islamic.”) Solomon continues,

ISIS bases its conclusions almost solely on information released by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA said in its most recent report in August that Tehran had doubled its capacity to produce 20% enriched uranium at its underground facility near the [Shi’ite] holy city of Qom. But the IAEA didn’t offer a timeline for when Iran might be able to produce weapons-grade fuel.

The relative paucity of credible information about what Iran is really up to is a serious impediment to resolving the impasse and may yet lead to a possible war in the near future. Time is still on our side, but the antagonists continue to play a dangerous game of chicken.