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Tilting at Windmills

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February 26, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

A DEAL WITH IRAN?....Hmmm. Iran says it has reached an agreement to allow its uranium enrichment to be done on Russian soil:

"Regarding this joint venture, we have reached a basic agreement," said Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the country's nuclear chief....

"There are different parts that need to be discussed," he said, according to Russian news agencies. "These are not just related to forming a company, there are other elements. There are political issues and the proposal should be seen as a package."

He went on to say that Iran has "set a precondition," which he declined to specify. Russian analysts following the talks said Iran wants security guarantees that it would not be attacked by the United States.

There's no telling how real this is or what the "political issues" actually are, but if it turns out to have genuine substance it will force the United States to make a choice: what, if anything, are we willing to give up in return for credible guarantees that Iran is not developing a nuclear bomb?

As it happens, there's probably no set of guarantees that would be acceptable to both sides. But what if there were? If the international community were able to defy the odds and get Iranian agreement to an inspection regime that was strict and verifiable and that didn't involve Israeli disarmament as one of its "preconditions" would we be willing to sign some kind of security/nonagression treaty with Iran? Or would the Bush administration quickly concoct an intricate set of nonnegotiable stumbling blocks related to Iraq/Syria/Hezbollah/etc. that torpedoed the whole thing?

I'm just chatting out loud here since there's not really enough substance in the news reports to come to any firm conclusions. Feel free to chime in in comments.

Kevin Drum 6:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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Comments

Whatever Bush decides is fine with me, he has shown again and again that his judgement is impeccable.

Posted by: Al on February 26, 2006 at 6:18 PM | PERMALINK

The US and Israel, both insistent on their right to build, test, and deploy nuclear weapons, have zero moral authority to tell Iran what not to do. So they should be happy with any concession Iran decides to make.

Posted by: Hellsgate on February 26, 2006 at 6:19 PM | PERMALINK

Will the Bush administration concoct stumbling blocks to torpedo the possible deal? There are several issues relevant here. One, is the possibility of the Iran Bourse opening this March as planned--with its subsequent promise to sell its oil for Euros, not dollars, and two, the power it gives to Russia as the country who controls or at least singularily monitors the uranium enrichment.

Posted by: aRuss on February 26, 2006 at 6:21 PM | PERMALINK

That looks like very good news. The Russian negotiators, at least, sound (in translation) moderately confident that an agreement can be achieved, which means the Iranian "precondition" is probably not a showstopper.

One hopes that the Iranians understand that American (and Israeli) crazy-talk about a nuclear-program-destroying assault is in fact a very real risk, and that the rumours about a planned Iranian test in April (using materials supplied by NK, according to the rumours) are completely unfounded.

Posted by: Bill Arnold on February 26, 2006 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

I always wondered why the Russian deal is so valuable. If Iran wanted to refine its own Uranium only for power plants we would need to inspect their facilities so they don't produce bomb grade material. With Russian U we still have to inspect the same places. Both involve getting Iran to open up to prove they are not making U for bombs.

My guess is that we will want them to dismantle their other facilities and they will balk at that even if they do allow inspections.

I'm just talking out loud too.

Posted by: Carl on February 26, 2006 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

Getting the uranium to reactor grade (~5%) constitutes the vast majority of the enrichment process. This could be converted to bomb grade material very quickly if Iran had a change of heart. This deal makes it easier for Iran to get the bomb, not harder.

Posted by: Jacob on February 26, 2006 at 6:31 PM | PERMALINK

Re upthread comments, the question is not, is this (putative potential) deal the ideal situation for us; rather it is, does the deal improve the current situation? By that criterion, almost any deal that gives a big power a hand in Iran's program is a good thing. Russia has a lot more to lose from instability in Iran (which, ahem, is right next to some of the most troubled parts of the FSU, and to whom a lot of restive Islamic minorities in Russia and the FSU look for financial, political, and religious leadership) than the US does, the usual alarmist rhetoric about nukes and crazy mullahs notwithstanding.

Posted by: bleh on February 26, 2006 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

Thank God we have experts like Condi, keeping Russia in check while we hunt down and kill terrorists...

...oh.

Posted by: The Hague on February 26, 2006 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK

There is zero evidence that Bush ever wants a deal when something is embedded in his head (ass?) as a goal.

Bu$hCo doesn't do deals, doesn't manage by policy (just whims and corporate giveaways), and certainly doesn't believe in inspections by the IAEA.

The main benefit of a Russia-Iran deal is that neither Russia and China (and probably the EU too) won't give sanction to Bush's bomb and invade mania. That could restrain Bush, some.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR on February 26, 2006 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK

Bushtard and the Israel-first crowd in Washington will find a way to scuttle this. They wont allow anyone to take away our excuse for massive troop deployments in the region.

Posted by: jman on February 26, 2006 at 7:01 PM | PERMALINK

"Whatever Bush decides is fine with me, he has shown again and again that his judgement is impeccable."

Examples please.

Posted by: nutty little nut nut on February 26, 2006 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

Wait a minute. Is this the same Russia that was staying mum while the US and Europe were raising hell, then out of nowhere raised its own concerns?

This is reading like that old con, Two Brothers and a Stranger. It is in Russia's strategic interest to have at least one Middle East heavyweight in its corner, with all tha's going on there. Saudi Arabia and (for now) Iraq are with the West, generally speaking. So when the third heavy starts pulling a power play, Russia's got to back them.

Now you can't just up and say "give the theocratic whackjobs their nukes." So they raise a bullcrap objection, work out an agreement favorable to Russian energy groups, and the Iranians still get their plutonium. The US, the stranger, can't raise an objection, because it looks like a back-down. In the international powerplay, the brothers' positions are both strengthened (Iran gets to be the boy with the bomb in the Middle East, Russia gets an energy industry boost and Iran's pecker in its pocket) while the stranger gets hosed (the West gets to say, um, yeah, that's cool).

I'm sorry, I sincerely have my doubts Russia's concern was not manufactured, or that this move by them was meant to ease the long-term concerns of France, Britain, Germany and the US.

Posted by: dunno on February 26, 2006 at 7:14 PM | PERMALINK

I know! Let's trust the Iranians to adhere to their promises. Baghdad Bob, anyone?

And let's use this opportunity to get angry at the "real" bad guys in the Bush Administration.

Yearrrrgghhhh!

Posted by: Birkel on February 26, 2006 at 7:20 PM | PERMALINK

Should we make any agreement not to attack Iran that does not also 100% eliminate their support for Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, take them off the board in Iraq and Lebanon, and also prevent them from assisting Syria or any other country we choose to attack?

I think obviously not... otherwise we give Iran all the benefits they would have gotten for developing nukes without making them spend the money and take the risks.

Posted by: Michael Friedman on February 26, 2006 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

My guess would be the Hamas victory has openned up a whole new set of possibilities for Iran, so perhaps it's best to tone down the nuclear confrontation for new. Can always pick up where they left off later.

Also, it appears that Sadr is making progress in developing an alliance with the Sunni Islamists in Iraq. So again, don't press the beast too hard right now.

Posted by: Mark Zimmerman on February 26, 2006 at 8:19 PM | PERMALINK

Jacob,
Getting the uranium to reactor grade (~5%) constitutes the vast majority of the enrichment process. This could be converted to bomb grade material very quickly if Iran had a change of heart. This deal makes it easier for Iran to get the bomb, not harder.
Is this really true? Is it really easier to enrich from 5 percent to 85 percent (17X enrichment) than it is to enrich from 0.5 percent uranium 235 to 5 percent (10X enrichment)?

Posted by: Bill Arnold on February 26, 2006 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

Weren't we supposed to be in the process of helping the russians clean up and account for the nuclear mess they already had? I'm not sure that I get a fuzzy feeling knowing that the Russians may have even more processed nuclear fuel at their disposal to use... or lose.

Posted by: Bob Higgins on February 26, 2006 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

There is zero evidence that Bush ever wants a deal when something is embedded in his head (ass?) as a goal.

Bu$hCo doesn't do deals, doesn't manage by policy (just whims and corporate giveaways), and certainly doesn't believe in inspections by the IAEA.

The main benefit of a Russia-Iran deal is that neither Russia and China (and probably the EU too) won't give sanction to Bush's bomb and invade mania. That could restrain Bush, some.

You haven't been paying attention. The United States endorsed this Russian deal a long time ago. This is partly Condi's handiwork.

Posted by: Jeff on February 26, 2006 at 10:03 PM | PERMALINK

. So when the third heavy starts pulling a power play, Russia's got to back them.

Posted by: dunno on February 26, 2006 at 7:14 PM | PERMALINK

Balanced by the fact, Russia would rather have an ally without nukes, who then has to ask for nukes.
They didn't want to help China, remember?

Plus, remember Beslan. Muslim terror atrocity is not something new there.

Posted by: McA on February 26, 2006 at 10:39 PM | PERMALINK

Bill,

Two points
1) you don't need 85% for an A-bomb. The U.S. and russia like higher percentages for the sake of boosting yield and triggering thermonuclear explosions. 20% enrichment is sufficient.

2)My understanding is that even in the situation where you reach very high enrichment, by far the most time consuming step is to get from natural abundance to the 1% range. I know someone in the enrichment business, and this is something he told me. He couldn't explain as he does security, not physics.

Here's my guess:
I know that in the beginning, you probably end up having to throw out a tremendous amount of U235 because of the inefficiency of the enrichment process. If you recycle the old UF6, you will get diminishing returns as the U235 fraction goes down. Say you have 1024 samples you have to put through the centrifuge in step 1, keeping the richer half of the gas. step 2 you have 512, step three you have 256, etc. If you know your binary arithmetic, the first step actually takes as long as all the other steps combined. I'm guessing in practice, there is some recycling, so it's probably not that simple.

Posted by: jlyoder@uiuc.edu on February 26, 2006 at 10:59 PM | PERMALINK

Man, that fake Al who was first ... how lame.

Here's a thought. While arguing with my neocon father about how great a two-day strike on Iran would be, I pointed out that this would put both Iraq and northern Saudi Arabia out of control. This thrilled him, of course.

But it got me thinking. At that point, who would the most likely allies of America be in Iraq? Well, the Sunni insurgency, of course. They have experience in putting down pissed off Shi'ite crowds. It would be a classic case of Oceania always being at war with Eastasia and allied with Eurasia, then always at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia.

Posted by: Diamond LeGrande on February 26, 2006 at 11:26 PM | PERMALINK

We should find a way to make this deal happen, and on a separate note Israel needs to be reined in under the NPT. If we expect Iran to accept verifiable inspections, Israel should have to follow similar rules.

Posted by: Jimm on February 27, 2006 at 1:14 AM | PERMALINK

If the cost of "peace" is to allow them to continue to sponsor terrorism, that's not worth a damn.

What we should do instead is just make a simple declaration: Don't sponsor any attacks against us or our allies, and we won't attack you. Sponsor an attack on us or our allies, and we will.

It doesn't get any simpler than that.

Posted by: Adam Herman on February 27, 2006 at 3:36 AM | PERMALINK

Technical geekery follows.

Uranium nukes are big and heavy and can't be made much smaller without reducing the yield a lot. The purer the U-235 the better the yield -- the Little Boy bomb used on Hirosima weighed over four tonnes and produced a yield of about 15ktonnes. uranium nukes also can't be used to initiate hydrogen bombs, the real "bang-for-your-buck" every aspiring nuclear power aims for when a bomb weighing a tonne can yield 500 tonnes. For H-bombs you need plutonium and for that you need a reactor and reprocessing equipment (the sort of facility Saddam was aiming for in the 1980s). Iran has several reactors but no reprocessing facilities; all fuel rods used in the reactors are supplied by Western countries and reprocessed by them too.

Iran has no method of delivering a uranium nuke anywhere by missile or plane except by smuggling it somewhere, like in a container or by FedEx. At best uranium nukes could be used against an invading force, delivered by suicide bomber.

Whatever happens now Iran is a long way from having bomb-grade uranium. Any sort of enrichment line they build will produce very little material unless they build a massive line (at one point the US plant at Oak Ridge Tennessee was the largest single building in the world). At that point it becomes glaringly obvious what they're up to.

Posted by: Robert Sneddon on February 27, 2006 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

McA.
IF the Russians control the purse strings to the Iranian's uranium, they also control the Iranian's ability to weild their newfound influence. If Iran acts up in any way, they can cut off everything they've been giving the Iranians.

For decades, when a country has wanted nukes, they've gotten them, with or without help (Brazil, Israel, South Africa, and slowly North Korea). The only question for a country like Britain, the US, or Russia is how they situate themselves in regards to the new man at the table.

While Russia would prefer a bombless Iran, they know they can't always get what they want, and had better acknowledge the direction events are taking. Bomb or no bomb, a bought-off ally is better than an enemy.

Posted by: dunno on February 27, 2006 at 9:16 AM | PERMALINK

The whole idea that Iran getting nukes is a big deal is total bullshit to begin with.

Posted by: brewmn on February 27, 2006 at 10:44 AM | PERMALINK

What are the chances that any deal will favor the american people over american politicians?

Posted by: ferd on February 27, 2006 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

>This is reading like that old con, Two Brothers and a Stranger.

Bingo. Now, to get in the Con Artist Hall of Fame, they just need to find a way to get the West & Japan (and believe me, Russia is not part of the West) to actually subsidize this!!

I can see it - the Russians pretend to be incompetent even by their standards, the Iranians complain about how much better it would be if they just did it themselves, and we say "Oh no, you can't do that we'll throw a bunch of money at the Russians!!", the Russians create Enron-style fake offices of Quality And Manufacturing Improvement, send the money there, launder 50% back to Iran, and Iran reports that "things are much better".

BushCo and The Blair Witch are easily stupid enough to fall for this.

>The whole idea that Iran getting nukes is a big deal is total bullshit to begin with.

Yup, which is why it is so worthwile to them to run this con. What the hell are they going to do with an a-bomb? Seriously. Greed makes a good mark, but unreasoning fear is a pretty useful button too.

Posted by: doesn't matter on February 27, 2006 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

I am just curious to see what happened to "innocent until proven guilty"? According to IAEA there are no smoking guns. There are no proof that they are building a bomb. They had to hold their research in hidding because they were under sanctions. They wouldn't even be able to purchase what they have now had they notified anyone. In addition, according to IAEA, they are not obligated to announce anything until they are ready to feed in the gas. Therefore, I don't see that much wrong doing. Although they are surrounded by countries with nukes, at least they should have the right to have peacefull nuclear energy.
They have Israel and USA (Iraq) to the west, Russia to the noth, Pakistan and Indea to the East. Their whole southern countries are allies of the USA.
USA is asking others to negotiate with them while beating the drums of the war daily. Israel who has over 200 nukes without openning up its sites for inspection is constantly hinting that they they would attack them. They suspended their acitivity for 3 years and nothing happened as far as negotiations goes. Now what, stop again and again nothing will happen again. As long as US doesn't get involved in the negotiations, nothing will be accomplished. I think what they really want is the promise that they will not be attacked by US or Israel, but unfortunately that doesn't seem to be in the cards. Even if the deal with Russia falls through and works out, I am sure that US will find another excuse to take the Americans to war.

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