Shadow Government

The latest on Iran's nuclear program

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.

SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

2013: Withdrawal or Transition?

Ambiguity has surrounded the various deadlines that President Obama laid out for the war in Afghanistan since he took office.  In 2009, he said that U.S. troops would begin to come home in 2011.  In 2011, he said the U.S. and its international partners would transition to Afghan lead by 2014.  Now, he says the U.S. will end its combat role next year.  The shifting goalposts obscure a crucial issue:  are these deadlines for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, or for transitioning to Afghan leadership with continued U.S. and NATO assistance?  The difference will probably determine the outcome of the war.

Obama said in his June 2011 speech about the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan that "Our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead.  Our mission will change from combat to support.  By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security."  Recently, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the U.S. is moving up the deadline to 2013.

ISAF similarly announced in 2010 that "We reaffirm our support for President Karzai's objective for the Afghan National Security Forces to lead and conduct security operations in all provinces by the end of 2014."  Yet ISAF went on to say that "the Alliance's commitment to Afghanistan will endure beyond ISAF's current mission."

So the United States and NATO will continue to "support" the Afghans with an unspecified long-term "commitment" after the transition.  Is "support" understood to mean the continued presence of U.S. and NATO military trainers and contractors embedded with the Afghan army?  Some reports suggest the NATO Training Mission is planning to substantially decrease its supporting personnel and activities as soon as next year.  Given the current plan to transition the lead combat role to Afghan security forces such a plan appears not only confusing, as the Afghan forces will require more support than ever as their responsibility increases, but dangerous.

The administration's shifting positions surely reflect deliberate ambiguity to maximize policymakers' wiggle room, a disagreement among senior policymakers, or both.  They sound like a call for withdrawal, but they allow the U.S. and NATO to keep a small number of troops in country for training and logistical support if necessary.  And it will be: keeping some international forces deployed in Afghanistan beyond 2014 is almost certainly necessary to keep the Afghan Army viable, consolidate the gains of the last two years, and maintain a robust counterterrorism capability in the region.

The problem is that almost everybody believes that 2014 is a withdrawal deadline.  For example, the New York Times, in reporting Panetta's remarks, said that the current U.S. and NATO plan calls for "withdrawing all combat troops by the end of 2014."  But the Department of Defense said in a subsequent news release, clarifying Panetta's comments, that "Barack Obama has made clear that U.S. troops will have an enduring presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 -- in counterterrorism and ‘train, advise and assist' roles, for example."  If it were so clear, a clarifying press release would be unnecessary.

The problem is that even if the Times and other media outlets are getting the story wrong, the public believes their inaccurate version because the Obama administration is giving mixed signals.  In December Ambassador Croker said about the 2014 deadline, "I don't know what we're going to be doing in 2014."  If America's Ambassador to Afghanistan does not even know whether or not American troops are withdrawing, it is safe to say that the administration does not have a policy.

Meanwhile, the widespread expectation that U.S. forces will completely withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014 could become politically impossible to resist.  Iraq is an instructive precedent.  The 2011 deadline in Iraq was never meant to be a deadline for complete withdrawal.  U.S. and Iraqi policymakers understood that 2011 was to be a transition during which the status of U.S. forces would be normalized and a long-term foundation laid for continued U.S. and NATO training assistance.  Misperception, political pressure, and public opinion in both the United States and Iraq complicated negotiations, making it easier for Obama and Maliki to walk away from the whole thing. 

Obama is risking a similar dynamic in Afghanistan.  He may win a few points with his political base for appearing to move towards a complete withdrawal in 2014, but virtually no one outside of the anti-war left believes a complete withdrawal on a set timetable would be helpful for the Afghans, the Pakistanis, or the United States.  Obama himself has repeatedly stressed the need for a responsible withdrawal.  The war is only now entering its culminating phase and the ultimate outcome, for good or ill, will probably be decided by the choices, battles, and negotiations of the next two years more than the previous ten.  It is a poor time to indulge in politically-expedient ambiguity.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images