IRAN: TEHRAN'S NUCLEAR PROGRAM COULD CREATE IMMEDIATE CRISIS FOR OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
Kamal Nazer Yasin 12/11/08
Iran is going to pose an immediate headache for Barack Obama's incoming presidential administration. Fresh estimates indicate that Tehran may be able to make a nuclear weapon in 2009.
New information that has come to light in recent weeks has caused experts to readjust their thinking on Iran's nuclear capabilities. On November 25, Iran's nuclear chief, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, revealed that the Islamic Republic has 5,000 centrifuges operating. While it is not easy to verify the authenticity of the claim, it is clear that Iran has entered an important phase of its long-contentious nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In his last report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors on November 19, the agency's secretary general, Mohammad AlBaradei, stated that as of November 7, Iran had produced 630 kilogram of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU). This suggests Iran is producing an average of 2.2 kilograms of LEU per day. According to nuclear experts, it would take between 700 and 1,700 kilograms of LEU to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a single crude nuclear weapon. This means, technically speaking, Iran could potentially test a nuclear device in as soon as six months. This conclusion is spelled out in a recent report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) [To view the complete report in PDF format, click here].
Jacqueline Shire, one of the authors of the ISIS report, told the EurasiaNet that given the technical difficulties that Iran has had recently, the six-month mark "seems rather unlikely," although not completely out of reach. She puts her own estimate at a year to two years.
During the presidential campaign, Obama signaled a willingness to engage Iran in ways that the outgoing Bush administration shunned. But in recent weeks, as the Obama administration has taken shape, the president-elect has sent signals that he is willing to get tough, if need be. He has characterized Iran's nuclear program as a "grave threat" and has refused to rule out the use of force as an American policy option. The president-elect has also called on Iran to suspend enrichment activities, action that Tehran categorically refuses to take. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On December 7, Obama repeated his intention to engage Iran, offering both incentives and possible punishments to secure Tehran's cooperation. Top Iranian leaders brushed off the comment, with a former president, Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani deriding Obama for supposedly mimicking departing US President George W. Bush.
Obama's top adviser on Iran is reportedly former Clinton administration Middle East expert, Dennis Ross, who liberal Democrats are assailing for having neo-conservative tendencies. Some insiders in Washington's incoming foreign policy team see Ross as having the most influence over the shaping of the new administration's approach to Tehran's nuclear program. Even if Ross' influence is not as extensive as portrayed, other leading members of Obama's national security team -- including Hillary Clinton, the likely secretary of state, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates - are no doves when it comes to Iran.
The first clues as to the Obama administration's Iran policy-- should Tehran refuse to cease enrichment-- emerged in a surprisingly hardline report published in October by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) in Washington, DC. The report called for implementation of a series of escalating measures designed to coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear ambitions. The punitive measures include; a halt to fuel imports, sanctions on oil exports, followed by tightening sanctions and military encirclement.
While such a scenario seems to come straight out of the Bush/Cheney playbook, it is important to note that Ross, Obama's advisor, was a prominent member of the BPC and has officially endorsed the report.
Another Obama advisor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the EurasiaNet that in the event that Iran refuses to cease its enrichment, a forced confrontation is "the only possible scenario." At the same time, the advisor didn't specify the form or shape of such a confrontation, leaving open the possibility that it would not include armed action.
While there would seem to be little room for maneuver to prevent some sort of confrontation, both Iranian and US experts believe the two countries will make some moves to explore conciliation, once Obama assumes power in January. Both sides are eager to court international opinion. Thus, neither wants to be seen as aggressive or intransigent. Ultimately, however, experts at present cannot envision a scenario under which a suitable compromise over Iran's enrichment activities can be reached.
US officials insist on suspension of enrichment activities, while Iran's entire political leadership from the Supreme Leader down to lower-level officials have repeatedly stressed the fact that they would not give up their hard-won nuclear program-- including the right to enrich uranium-- under any circumstances.
"Only a huge package of concessions from the United States and its allies would allow Iran's leaders to give it [enrichment] up without losing face," said a veteran Iranian journalist to EurasiaNet recently. So far, no one in Iran's decision-making apparatus has spelled out clearly what the specifics of this "huge package" would have to include, even if the incoming Obama administration felt inclined to opt for an incentive-laden diplomatic approach.
It is hard to know just what decision-makers in Tehran are thinking on the nuclear issue these days. The tightly controlled Iranian press is stonily silent on the matter, and politicians are similarly reluctant to publicly discuss the topic.
There are some exceptions, though. For example, Ali Shamkhani, a former defense minister in the reformist Khatami administration, was quoted by the ISNA press agency as saying on November 27 that incentives offered thus far by the United States and its allies -- he mentioned specifically "technology, relations, money and prestige" - are insufficient, considering the point at which Iran now finds itself in its nuclear program. He went on to express concern that the departure of Bush from the White House would put Iran at a disadvantage when it came to waging an international public relations battle with Washington.
"Obama's rhetoric is different, while his objectives remain the same," Shamkhani said, going on to caution that "Iran must not allow Obama to win the rhetorical and the diplomatic wars."
Some experts believe that, at a minimum, Iran would insist on security guarantees, political normalization, major economic incentives and recognition of its regional status in exchange for a suspension of its enrichment activities. Such an extensive wish list is unlikely to be accepted by Washington.
Adding to the complexity of the nuclear issue is the global economic crisis. In Iran, falling energy prices have exacerbated domestic economic difficulties while heightening the anxieties of the political leadership. Perhaps the most significant indicator that the Iranian government is feeling tremendous pressure is the fact that starting December 5, Special Forces troops, dressed in camouflage attire, started directing traffic at intersections throughout Tehran. The last time there was such a military presence on the streets of the Iranian capital was back during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Wayne White, a former top intelligence expert at the US State Department, believes that US and European strategists are going to have to overhaul policy toward Iran. "Although practically never discussed, because Tehran almost certainly will not significantly back off on enrichment, Obama will be the one who must finally decide whether the US 'military option' is on or off the table. If Obama wisely does not do so [opt for military confrontation], all involved need top adopt an entirely new approach to Iran."
Editor's Note: Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.
Posted December 11, 2008 © Eurasianet