Shadow Government

The Obama administration is naively betting Iran won't be a problem

There was plenty of foreign policy fodder for Republicans in last night's Vice Presidential debate, particularly Vice President Biden's claims that the administration was unaware of requests for additional security in Benghazi. In terms of understanding policy differences between the candidates, however, the most significant (and so far largely unreported) moment, came in the exchange on Iran. In response to Chairman Ryan's point that Iran had made enormous progress enriching uranium under this administration, Biden said, "the Israelis and the United States -- our military and intelligence communities are absolutely the same exact place in terms of how close -- how close the Iranians are to getting a nuclear weapon. They are a good way away." 

Explaining why he was reassured about the Iranian timeline, Biden continued: 

"When my friend talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know we'll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk -- what are they talking about? ... We will not allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon. What Bibi held up there was when they get to the point where they can enrich uranium enough to put into a weapon, they don't have a weapon to put it into.  Let's all calm down a little bit here."

Biden, in other words, didn't contest Ryan's argument about Iran's rapidly growing enrichment capabilities, but said in essence that progress on enrichment was beside the point because Iran does not today have a nuclear device.

There are numerous problems with the vice president's comments, and they raise significant cause for concern about current U.S. strategy for ending Iran's nuclear weapons program.

To begin with, there is no dispute among nuclear experts that the most complicated challenge in developing a nuclear weapon is the production of fissile material, not the process of developing the nuclear device itself. Enrichment is, as experts like to say, the "long pole in the tent." With sufficient weapons grade fuel, the Iranians would already be at the threshold of nuclear breakthrough. In fact, in 2009 the IAEA assessed that as early as 2004, Iran had developed the know-how to build a crude nuclear device that could be delivered by aircraft or ship.

Biden's focus on the development of the device itself, rather than the manufacture of weapons grade duel, suggests that the administration redline in Iran ("we'll stop them from getting a bomb") wouldn't kick in until Iran is on our 5 yard line.

Second, the vice president revealed a worrying overconfidence in the intelligence community's ability to detect nuclear weaponization activities, which are easily concealed. As most intelligence professionals will tell you, they aren't infallible; getting accurate intelligence on a nation's most closely guarded secrets and interpreting it correctly are notoriously difficult tasks. 

Although the Vice President cited Israeli agreement with his point, the Israelis have steadfastly taken the opposite view. As PM Netanyahu said in his U.N. speech:

"For a country like Iran, it takes many, many years to enrich uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem in very big industrial plants. Those Iranian plants are visible and they're still vulnerable.

In contrast, Iran could produce the nuclear detonator -- the fuse -- in a lot less time, maybe under a year, maybe only a few months.

The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop, especially in Iran. That's a country that's bigger than France, Germany, Italy, and Britain combined.

The same is true for the small facility in which they could assemble a warhead or a nuclear device that could be placed in a container ship. Chances are you won't find that facility either.

So in fact the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb."

In fact, German, French, UK, and Israeli intelligence believe that the U.S. intelligence community is already missing evidence of Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weaponization capabilities, a point bolstered by the 2011 safeguards report on Iran from the IAEA in which detailed evidence is available here.

Biden's statement -- assuming it reflects the thinking of the administration broadly -- reveals a great deal about the administration's approach to Iran, none of it reassuring. It explains why the administration has been dismissive of Israeli concerns. It may also partly explain administration ambivalence about Congressional sanctions; if there is no urgency to the threat, there is a less compelling case in the administration's view for robust sanctions against foreign companies. And it tells us that the Obama administration may be naively betting U.S. and Israeli security on the assumption that our intelligence community has perfect insight into activities in Iran.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Shadow Government

Wait, we're at war?

Last night Martha Raddatz broke the media's code of silence and revealed to the American people that there is a country called Afghanistan, that American troops are there, and that we are at war. This shocking betrayal of omerta temporarily ruffled the presidential race as it forced Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to acknowledge these heretofore unspoken realities. In the epic two-year race for president, the candidates -- no, their seconds -- were forced to spend an entire ten minutes talking about it. How did they fare?

Ryan gave one of the clearest and most thoughtful comments on Afghanistan that I've heard from any American politician from either party in years (admittedly, that is a low bar). He made clear that the Romney/Ryan ticket is committed to a successful transition to Afghan leadership. It is remarkable for its moderation; for the fact that Ryan thinks and speaks in whole, complete sentences; and for its acknowledgment of the importance of finishing the job. It is worth quoting at length (Politico has a transcript).

We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten. We want to make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give Al Qaida a safe haven. We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition...What we don't want to do is lose the gains we've gotten. Now, we've disagreed from time to time on a few issues. We would have more likely taken into accounts the recommendations from our commanders, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, on troop levels throughout this year's fighting season. We've been skeptical about negotiations with the Taliban, especially while they're shooting at us. But we want to see the 2014 transition be successful, and that means we want to make sure our commanders have what they need to make sure that it is successful so that this does not once again become a launching pad for terrorists.

By contrast, Joe Biden said:

But we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period. And in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now, all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's.

Biden appeared to go rogue on foreign policy. The position he outlined last night -- a complete withdrawal of all troops by 2014 -- is not the Obama administration's position, at least not its public position. President Obama has committed to an enduring international military presence beyond 2014. At the very least, it will include continued training for the Afghan army and police and an American counterterrorism capability. At the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this year, ISAF's Declaration on Afghanistan promised NATO support to Afghanistan "up to 2014 and beyond," and promised to establish "a new training, advising and assistance mission." In the new U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed in May 2012, Afghanistan agreed to "provide U.S. forces continued access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014, and beyond as may be agreed...for the purposes of combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates."

The post-2014 mission could easily require more than 20,000 - 25,000 troops to remain in Afghanistan. Because media outlets regularly report 2014 as a "withdrawal" deadline instead of a transition deadline, it will take Americans by surprise that this is already U.S. policy. In the absence of any decisions to the contrary, bureaucratic inertia will leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan well beyond 2014. Biden is either unaware of this, or unwilling to acknowledge it. And (hat tip to The Cable), he also misstated the administration's view on the war's basic purpose and goals.

Biden's comments give credence to conservatives' fears that the Obama administration is being disingenuous about its true policy; that it has no real plans to leave a stay-behind force in Afghanistan after 2014 and is only lip-synching the responsible rhetoric to keep things calm while they hasten to withdraw. That's essentially what they did on Iraq. Ryan could have highlighted the botched efforts to get a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq and the deteriorating security there as a result, and warned the same thing may happen in Afghanistan if Obama/Biden is left in charge for another four years. He didn't, but the Romney campaign could take up that critique in coming days. If you liked Afghanistan before 2001, or if you think Iraq today is a good model for post-2014 Afghanistan, then you'll love what a second Obama term will bring us.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages