When asked, "would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?" then-candidate for President Barack Obama replied, "I would."
That answer is little noted, nor long remembered. Yet the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs have only grown. Since President Obama took office, North Korea has conducted two more nuclear tests, the latest on the eve of the State of the Union speech, after having admitted a long-suspected clandestine uranium enrichment program in 2010. Meanwhile, Iran has more than quintupled its stocks of enriched uranium, more than doubled its enrichment capacity, and enriched to levels much closer to weapons grade. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently rejected direct talks with the United States, again slapping the hand the President offered in his first inaugural speech.
Moreover, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that the two threats may be converging: "The Iranians are also pursuing uranium enrichment, and one senior American official said two weeks ago that 'it's very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.'" Should this extraordinary statement prove to be more than speculation, it would be a serious escalation of the proliferation threat.
What then did the president say about these matters in last night's State of the Union Speech? Not much:
"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."
"Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."
What the president did not say is that efforts to isolate North Korea are failing. The North's trade with China has more than tripled in recent years, and Chinese investment is mushrooming. So long as Beijing remains intent on shielding its ally from the consequences of nuclear brinksmanship, efforts to isolate Pyongyang will fail.
Similarly, while Iran has suffered tough and growing economic sanctions, they have not slowed Tehran's nuclear program, which is expanding and accelerating.
In the face of these threats, especially Pyongyang's latest provocation, the president apparently chose not to outline details of his reported plans for deeper cuts to the American nuclear arsenal. The apparent paradox would have been too great.
Indeed, the State of the Union Speech focused on domestic policy, with national security issues raised in the last quarter of the speech. While high unemployment and sluggish economic growth understandably remain the principle concerns of most Americans, the Administration can no longer apply "strategic patience" to the threats from Iran and North Korea. Patience is becoming neglect and neglecting them will only make them worse.
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Incredibly, territorial disputes between China and its neighbors over uninhabited islands threaten to become a flashpoint threatening peace in East Asia. While tensions have since cooled a bit, the Economist recently warned that "China and Japan are sliding towards war." Last August, large, angry, and violent protests broke out in dozens of Chinese cities against a decision by the Japanese government to buy several of the disputed islands (called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China) from a Japanese private citizen. Again this month, China sortied aircraft and ships near the islands, and Japan scrambled fighters in response.
Moreover, this is not China's only maritime territorial dispute. In the South China Sea, China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam pursue conflicting claims among the uninhabited shoals, islets, and atolls comprising Scarborough Shoal and the Paracel and Spratly Islands (including Mishief Reef). This is not a bloodless issue. In 1988, more than 70 Vietnamese sailors died in a naval clash with China near Johnson South Reef. Since then, China and the ASEAN states issued a 2002 joint declaration pledging not to use force to resolve their disputes and to avoid actions that would escalate them. However, no progress has been made toward settling the underlying disagreements, and the declaration was violated almost immediately.
Because of the United States's bilateral defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines, we could be drawn into a conflict we do not seek. Moreover, we have an enormous stake in continued economic growth and prosperity in East Asia, which depends on peace.
What is behind the strong passions surrounding groups of uninhibited rocks whose total land mass is less than five square miles? Fishing rights are at stake -- and a cod war is not unprecedented -- but it would hardly seem worth the risk between states whose annual trade stands at three quarters of a trillion dollars.
Oil and gas wealth is a stronger motivation. No one yet knows the extent of the resources buried beneath the East and South China Seas (in part because their ownership remains in dispute), but if Europe's North Sea serves as a fair precedent, they could be worth trillions of dollars.
Finally, nationalism compounds the problem. Unlike Europe, in East Asia, the wounds of World War II remain unhealed. Diplomatic rows or even riots are periodically caused by disputes over history text books or visits by politicians to shrines for dead military leaders. Hence, the explosive anger last autumn causing protestors to attack Japanese cars and sushi restaurants, although they were owned by fellow Chinese citizens.
How to head off a potentially catastrophic confrontation? Five ideas will help.
First, all states must recognize that no single state can impose a solution, and every state exercises effective veto over exploitation of energy resources. A deep water oil rig can cost up to $600 million, yet can be sunk by a $20 million patrol boat. No commercial oil company, investor, or insurer would risk such a costly and vulnerable piece of equipment in a contested region where hostilities might erupt. Thus, East Asian nations effectively have a choice between continuing to wrangle over natural resources with no production, or reaching an agreement to divide the resources and jointly benefit from them.
Second, all states in the region would do well to bear in mind that despite occasional nationalistic rhetoric, this is an economic question. These barren islands are not like the West Bank or the Balkans, where centuries of human history and intermingled populations complicate the division of land. No country's national heritage is at stake in this question -- only economic benefits that cannot be exploited in the absence of an agreement. Therefore, all governments would do well to tone down their rhetoric about national rights and core interests in discussing the disputed maritime territories. Inflaming nationalist tendencies among citizens will make solving the problem more difficult, not less so.
Third, the disputants should accept that these matters cannot be settled solely by legal arguments or in court. Claims and counterclaims, along with contradictory old maps and sea charts, abound. Asserting that one interpretation of proper title to a territory is "indisputable" is pointless when other nations claim an equally "indisputable" title. Disagreements among nation states -- except in narrowly defined areas in which they offer prior agreement to accept external dispute resolution, e.g. the World Trade Organization -- are political matters and must be resolved by diplomacy and agreement, though perhaps aided by legal tools.
Fourth, in contemplating ways to resolve this matter, the states involved should look to earlier precedents. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands used a combination of a ruling by the International Court of Justice and subsequent negotiations to resolve conflicting claims to North Sea continental shelf resources. The parties entered the negotiations realizing that no single state could claim the lion's share of the benefits, and that resolving the matter to allow oil exploration to move ahead was in all parties' interests.
Harvard Professor Richard N. Cooper, observes that the neutral zone shared by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia may also serve as a precedent for resolving the East Asia maritime territorial disputes. Without resolving their disputed border, the two countries agreed to share the wealth from oil produced in the zone, which was created in 1922. Today, over 650,000 barrels per day are pumped from the region to both countries' great benefit.
Fifth, the countries of East Asia should begin to heal the wounds of World War II. For example, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States could agree on principles to guide their interaction, including, among other things, peaceful resolution of territorial disputes and joint development and management of regional resources (such as fisheries), and follow up with separate annual meetings of foreign, economic, and defense ministers to implement them.
Military conflict over the maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas would be a senseless waste. China may see a tactical advantage in waiting to address these issues as its economic and military power grows, but allowing the disputes to fester risks the outbreak of war and squanders the opportunity to develop potentially rich natural resources. It also prevents nations in the region from working effectively together to solve other pressing problems. The bright prospects for peace and prosperity in East Asia should not be allowed to founder on Mischief Reef.
Last week, Ambassador Max M. Kampelman died in Washington. He was 92. In a city that honors bipartisanship but rarely achieves it, Ambassador Kampelman lived it. He was also able to bridge superficially contradictory ideas: pacifism and fighting the Nazis; labor rights and anti-communism; a willingness to negotiate with Moscow and a clear-eyed view of the Soviet threat. He happily worked for both Hubert Humphrey and Ronald Reagan. Most importantly, he did so while stubbornly adhering to important principles.
Amb. Kampelman served as the chief negotiator for the Nuclear and Space Talks with the Soviet Union, from 1985 to 1989, but his public service began during World War II. A pacifist, he registered for the draft as a conscientious objector and undertook "work of national importance under civilian control." In his case, this meant volunteering to participate in experiments using controlled starvation to understand how best to help released prisoners of war and concentration camp victims to recuperate from their ordeals. During the six month experiment, he went from about 160 pounds to slightly more than 100 pounds.
After World War II, Amb. Kampelman, who had already earned a law degree and worked as a labor lawyer, completed a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. He wrote his dissertation on "The Communist Party and the CIO: A Study in Power Politics." With equal strength, he advocated labor rights and opposed the attempted Communist take-over of American unions.
In Washington, after serving on Senator Humphrey's staff, Amb. Kampelman practiced law privately for over two decades. In 1980, Vice President Walter Mondale, an old friend, called and asked him to lead the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. President Reagan, who knew Amb. Kampelman from their membership in the Committee on Present Danger, asked him to stay after the 1980 election. In closing the successful Madrid talks, Amb. Kampelman issued a wary statement, highlighting the importance of Soviet compliance, rather than the mere achievement of a paper agreement.
In 1985, President Reagan called Amb. Kampelman and asked him to serve as the chief negotiator at renewed negotiations with the Soviet Union on nuclear arms and missile defenses. Amb. Kampelman personally oversaw the latter, in which the Soviets sought to smother and the United States sought to protect President Reagan's cherished Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). He succeeded in protecting SDI, while creating the space necessary to complete the 1987 INF Treaty, which banned all U.S. and Soviet missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometers, a signal achievement.
Max M. Kampelman served Republicans and Democrats. By peaceful means, he fought the monstrous evils of his age -- Nazism and Communism. He advanced the causes of freedom and peace. He stuck to his principles through trying times. His career is worth remembering and admiring.
According to the New York Times, the International Atomic Energy Agency is ready to report that the Iranian nuclear program continues to expand and to accelerate. Moreover, the Times notes Iran's emphasis on enriching uranium to 20 percent.
The 20 percent level is more than four times what is necessary for power reactor fuel. As I have noted before, according to Professor Graham Allison, also of Harvard, this is like a football team reaching the ten yard line, where nuclear weapons-usable material is in the end zone. Stocks of uranium enriched to 20 percent materially shorten the time it would take Iran to break out or sneak out of its Treaty obligations and produce a nuclear weapon.
Uranium enriched to 20 percent can also be used to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor for medical isotope production, and this Iran claims to be doing. But that explanation is inconsistent with Iran's research reactor fuel requirements. Iran has already enriched more than enough such material to supply its medical isotope production for many years, and its enrichment to the 20 percent level is not only continuing, it is accelerating, again according to the reported IAEA findings.
How did the Obama Administration react to this unsettling if unsurprising news? It insisted that there is still "time and space" for a diplomatic solution.
This is a self-defeating U.S. response. It effectively tells Tehran, "Go ahead, keep enriching uranium, you are nowhere near provoking anything other than more fruitless meetings." Of course, Tehran will use the "time and space" granted by the Obama Administration to increase its stocks of enriched uranium further and to expand further its production capacity.
The only rational explanation for such an extraordinary statement by the Administration is that the White House places a higher priority on restraining a possible Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities than it does on constraining Tehran's nuclear production capacity.Reassuring Tehran that it is in no danger fundamentally diminishes incentives on Iran to negotiate seriously, and thereby undermines the most important U.S. policy priority -- halting and reversing Tehran's capacity to make material for nuclear weapons.
The Iranian nuclear program presents a serious and hard problem. There is no easy solution, and no option that does not entail significant risk, including both diplomacy and military action. But the difficulties and the stakes make it all the more important to avoid unforced errors. A self-defeating policy will never succeed, and unfortunately in rushing to insist that there is still "time and space" for diplomacy, the administration has chosen one.
Earlier this week, Vice President Joseph Biden misspoke. Normally, this would not be news. But unlike using obscene language, or confusing which Supreme Court Justice administered his oath of office, or talking about the president's "big stick," this time it matters.
The vice president said:
"When we took office, let me remind you, there was virtually no international pressure on Iran. We were the problem. We were diplomatically isolated in the world, in the region, in Europe."
Beyond the obvious point that "we" were not the problem, that Iran's longstanding and repeated violations of its IAEA Safeguards Agreement, multiple IAEA Board of Governors Resolutions, and multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions were and are the problem, the vice president ignores history and distorts the present.
The United States was not isolated on Iran when the Obama administration took office. U.S. diplomacy had succeeded in passing, with Russian, Chinese, and European support, four United Nations Security Council Resolutions from 2006-2008, tightening the web of sanctions on Iran. Moreover, the Bush administration began innovative use of financial sanctions in cooperation with U.S. allies -- a policy the Obama administration has succeeded in continuing and expanding. Russia and China have always favored an incremental approach, so it is to be expected that over time, sanctions efforts would grow more forceful and the Obama administration has succeeded in making them so.
More disturbing is the isolation from reality implied by the vice president's remarks. Touting the success of the administration's Iran policy, he went on to say, "today it is starkly, starkly different." Well, yes, the situation is starkly different. In 2009, Iran had about 4,000 centrifuges enriching uranium; today, its production capacity is more than double that. Iran's declared stocks of low enriched uranium are five times what they they were in 2009. Two years ago, Iran began enriching to the much higher level of 20 percent, and can do so in a new, deep, underground facility near Qom.
Despite sanctions, Iran's nuclear program is expanding and accelerating. Iran is to blame for that, not the United States, but whatever can be said for the administration's policy on Iran, it is not halting the nuclear program.
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The announcement that North Korea has agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests and to freeze uranium enrichment at Yongbyon is welcome news, but it is far from a solution to the entire nuclear problem. Even if the agreement holds, and so many have failed, it apparently ignores a likely covert North Korean uranium enrichment program.
Pyongyang expelled U.S. observers working at the Yongbyon nuclear site in March 2009, and two months later the North's second nuclear test shook the Korean Peninsula. By November 2010, i.e. within about 20 months, North Korea built and revealed to former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Sigfried Hecker a modern uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon, with perhaps as many as 2,000 centrifuges. This effectively ended years of debate within U.S. policy circles as to whether or not North Korea had been cheating on an earlier commitment not to enrich uranium.
It is virtually inconceivable that North Korea could have constructed such a facility so quickly without transferring equipment or drawing upon experience from another uranium enrichment plant built elsewhere. But such a facility has never been disclosed, and the latest agreement apparently does nothing to reveal or halt it. Thus, while perhaps a constructive step, absent further disclosures and actions, there is no reason to believe that the latest agreement has halted North Korea's nuclear weapons production program.
The Obama administration says it won't pay North Korea for the same horse twice. That is sound policy. This nag isn't worth paying much for even once.
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What does last Friday's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran's nuclear program tell us? The inescapable conclusion is: international efforts to prevent Tehran from drawing closer to a nuclear weapons capability are failing. Iran has shortened considerably the distance it must travel to construct a nuclear weapon, and the pace of its program is accelerating.
First, the facts according to the IAEA: Iran continues to build both stocks of low-enriched uranium, and new production capacity. Moreover, Iran is producing uranium enriched to about 3.5 percent, which it has been doing since 2006, and to almost 20 percent, which it has done for about a year. Stocks of the former stand at almost six tons; and of the latter, at about 220 lbs. (after subtracting a small amount reportedly fabricated into research reactor fuel), both in the form of UF6. Monthly outputs of both enrichment levels are at all time highs, and Iranian engineers are apparently adding new production capacity to Natanz and the newer deep underground facility at Fordow.
If further enriched to weapons grade, depending on the amount of processing waste, the material Iran now has on hand could be enough for several nuclear weapons. The move to enrichment at almost 20 percent U-235 is particularly troubling. Graham Allison has likened it to moving from the 30 to the 10-yard line in a football game-and, of course, the 10-yard line is inside what gridiron experts call the red zone, because it is so hard to prevent a team from scoring once there. Should Iran decide to break out or sneak out of its treaty obligations and build a nuclear weapon, the timelines would be shortened accordingly. Under present trends, by the end of the year, Iran will amass 5-600 lbs. of material enriched to almost 20 percent -- more than enough for a nuclear weapon if further enriched to weapons grade. Estimates of how long it would take Iran to do so are hotly contested, but range from 2-6 months (NPEC and ISIS).
The IAEA also reported that its latest efforts to resolve issues with Iran, including two recent trips to Tehran, met with no joy. Iran continued to refuse inspectors access to Parchin, a military complex suspected of nuclear activities. The Agency and Iranian officials failed to reach agreement on procedures to resolve outstanding discrepancies and issues that raise the possibility of "a military dimension" to Iran's nuclear programs. Iranian negotiators simply dismissed the Agency's detailed November 2011 report on indicators of a nuclear explosive program, including specific allegations regarding program management, procurement activities, material acquisition, components for an explosive device, detonator development, experiments, tests, and modeling, and work to integrate a device into a missile delivery vehicle, including on fuzing, arming, and firing. In short, the inspectors concluded that their efforts to seek cooperation from Iran had failed.
If these are the facts, what then are their implications?
First, Iran's attempts to cloak its nuclear program in the mantle of peaceful activities are daily growing more threadbare. Abraded by facts and logic, large holes are opening in Iran's case that it is merely pursuing legitimate programs. Tehran is willing to suffer potentially devastating economic sanctions and to risk a military confrontation for an enrichment program of marginal economic value and that violates repeated United Nations Security Council resolutions. Iran contends that it needs to enrich to 3.5 percent to fuel the Bushehr power reactor and to almost 20 percent to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. However, alternative sources of fuel are available for both reactors. Russia has pledged a ten year supply of fuel for Bushehr and in 2009 negotiators reached what they thought was a deal to fuel the research reactor, only to have it scuttled in Tehran. Iran also contends that it is enriching uranium to fuel future planned-but un-built-power reactors; risible this, no one buys gasoline before buying a car, or coal for a power plant before constructing it. Furthermore, Iran's stock of 20 percent enriched uranium is growing disproportionate to any plausible peaceful purpose; it is already about equal to the amount of research reactor fuel Iran consumed over the past two decades.
Second, Tehran's response to stepped-up sanctions and other pressure has been to accelerate the pace of its nuclear activities. Sanctions may have cut Iran's GDP, unleashed inflation, and created friction on trade with Iran, but they are failing miserably at slowing uranium enrichment.
Third, Tehran's stonewalling of the latest IAEA efforts to resolve outstanding issues offers little reason to believe that a negotiated solution may be possible. Some contend that Western negotiators merely need to cut through confusion, internal Iranian divisions, or suspicions in Tehran but, repeated attempts to negotiate by very different diplomats and governments, extending back nearly a decade, have done little or nothing to halt Iran's steady progress toward the ability to construct a nuclear weapon.
Iran's nuclear program presents an immense challenge with no obvious solution. Iranian intentions-if not their progress on uranium enrichment-remain unclear to the West. The only certainties are that the problem will grow a great deal more difficult and dangerous should Tehran obtain a nuclear weapon, and it is making steady progress toward that point.
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Over the past five years, five scientists and engineers associated with Iran's nuclear program have died violent deaths, and one survived a bombing attack. The latest incident took place last week. While news reports of such attacks are incomplete, and perhaps inaccurate, there is little doubt that someone has mounted an assassination campaign against Tehran's nuclear scientific community. I've reviewed the history of attacks on scientists involved in nuclear programs, detailed reasons why a state might undertake such a campaign, and assessed the odds of its success in the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Very likely, an existential imperative is driving the attempts to kill Iranian nuclear scientists; a group or a state feels that its very existence is threatened by the Iranian nuclear program, and is willing to undertake significant risks for a payoff that may well be quite limited, even by its own lights. Delaying a nuclear weapons program might be possible through such attacks, but stopping one is not. It is difficult to imagine a state with a scientific and industrial base large enough to sustain a nuclear weapons program, but so small that killing a few individuals would cripple the effort. Moreover, without detailed and intimate knowledge of such a program (which is very hard to come by and might be put to better use in other ways), it is impossible to know whom to target.
On the other side of the ledger, the assassination campaign has reportedly already increased Iran's operational security, may well limit visibility into Iran's illicit nuclear activities, and could provoke retaliation. Moreover, the head of Iran's nuclear program, himself a target of an attack, bitterly demanded that the International Atomic Energy Agency deny complicity in the violence in a speech to the Agency's General Conference-not auspicious for access by international inspectors.
Given the limited probable payoffs and the significant likely costs, an assassination campaign can only be interpreted as an act of desperation, driven by an Iranian nuclear program that has now operated for years in violation of International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and United Nations Security Council resolutions. Acts of desperation are often an ominous sign that things will soon get worse.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.