After Moscow

June 20, 2012

Moscow talks on Iran’s nuclear program ended with “the most substantive discussion” to date, and agreement for more technical talks, but no breakthrough. The U.S. position remains strong, as economic and political pressure on Iran intensifies over the coming weeks. As the House Armed Services Committee holds a hearing  on “understanding the military options,” it’s worth bearing in mind the statements of current Pentagon officials, Bush Administration officials, and Israeli national security leaders that a military strike will not destroy the program and, as Bush administration CIA Director Michael Hayden has said, would “guarantee that which we are trying to prevent.”

No breakthrough, but no breakdown, in “most substantive discussion” to date. Laura Rozen of al Monitor describes the situation in Moscow: “After two grueling days of nuclear negotiations, diplomats from Iran and six world powers agreed on at least one thing: they were not yet ready to let the recently re-launched diplomatic process collapse. That prospect had loomed over the third round of Iran nuclear talks this year, as Iranian negotiators for the first time gave a detailed response to an international proposal asking it to halt enriching uranium to 20 percent of the isotope needed for nuclear explosions. But while Iran engaged in the most substantive discussion of its nuclear program to date, Western diplomats said, the discussions also revealed daunting gaps in the two sides’ positions and worldviews that made some diplomats question whether Iran was serious about the negotiations… While they achieved no breakthrough, negotiators from Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany agreed to continue talks on a lower political level. Nuclear experts from Iran and the P5+1 will hold technical meetings in Istanbul July 3, [EU foreign policy chief Catherine] Ashton said.” [al Monitor, 6/19/12]

U.S. position remains strong as long as international community is united — Iran is weakened and pressured. Earlier this year, Fareed Zakaria outlined the pressure facing Iran:  “Sanctions have pushed its economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting. Abroad, its closest ally and the regime of which it is almost the sole supporter — Syria — is itself crumbling. The Persian Gulf monarchies have banded together against Iran and shored up their relations with Washington… Saudi Arabia closed its largest-ever purchase of U.S. weaponry.”

Pressure ratchets up next week as the Center for American Progress’s Rudy deLeon, Brian Katulis and Peter Juul describe: “U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s Central Bank will go into effect on June 28, while an EU embargo on Iranian oil will start on July 1. The imminent imposition of this harsh set of international economic restrictions on Iran’s central financial institution and major export serves to heighten the pressure on the Iranian regime to strike a deal with the P5+1 addressing international concerns about its nuclear program” [Fareed Zakaria, 1/4/12. Rudy deLeon, Brian Katulis and Peter Juul, 5/25/12]

We have time:  Iran’s technical clock is ticking much slower than the political clock. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told 60 Minutes, “The consensus is that, if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon.” al Monitor’s Barbara Slavin writes: “Iran’s progress toward bomb capacity is not as fast as some have feared and there is ample time for more talking, according to David Albright, president and founder of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. Albright told an audience at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday [May 29] that ‘the technical clock is not ticking as fast’ as the ‘political clock.’ The latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on the Iranian nuclear program shows that Iran is still having trouble building more advanced centrifuges than the breakdown-prone P-1 centrifuge, which is based on a Dutch design from the 1970s that was passed to Iran by the Pakistani nuclear black market king A.Q. Khan. Iran also appears to be having difficulty getting materials for the P-1s.” [Leon Panetta, 6/10/12. Barbara Slavin, 5/29/12]

There is no shortcut; attacking will only push Iran towards getting a bomb. This is a bipartisan conclusion: senior officials say the Bush administration concluded that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would only make it harder to prevent Iran from going nuclear in the future. Bush administration Director of the CIA and NSA Gen. Michael Hayden told an audience earlier this year: “When we talked about this in the government, the consensus was that [attacking Iran] would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent — an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret.” And former Mossad chief Meir Dagan recently told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “In case of an attack, political pressure on the regime will disappear. If Israel will attack, there is no doubt in my mind that this will also provide them with the justification to go ahead and move quickly to nuclear weapons.”

Meanwhile, the costs would be very high. Former Pentagon Middle East hand Colin Kahl and his coauthors write in Foreign Policy, “The potential costs of an attack would be high. Iran would likely retaliate, using ballistic missiles, proxies, and terrorists to attack Israeli (and perhaps U.S.) targets, possibly leading to a wider war in the Levant. Attacks by Iranian-backed Shiite militants against U.S. diplomats in Iraq, or a surge in lethal assistance to insurgents fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan, could escalate U.S.-Iranian tensions. Miscalculation and confrontation with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz could send oil prices skyrocketing. And even in the absence of such escalation, a preventive military strike could rattle markets and push oil prices higher at a fragile time for the global economy. By contrast, the potential benefits of an attack are uncertain. Iran’s nuclear program is advanced, dispersed, redundant, and hardened.” [Michael Hayden via the Cable, 6/20/12. Meir Dagan via the Atlantic, 6/13/12. Colin Kahl, Matthew Irvine, and Melissa Dalton, 6/7/12]

What We’re Reading

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak remains in critical condition on life support in a Cairo army hospital.

Saudi Arabia named Salman bin Abdul-Aziz as its new crown prince.

At least 18 civilians were killed in Afghanistan as a suicide bomber attacked a coalition forces convoy.

The Pakistan People’s Party meets to choose a new prime minister after the Supreme Court disqualified Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from office.

Israeli air strikes killed a Palestinian militant and a 14-year-old boy on Wednesday as fighting across the border of the Gaza Strip entered a third day.

Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei says police have prevented him from leaving his Beijing studio to attend a court hearing.

Burmese president Thein Sein announced a “second wave of reforms” aimed at rolling back decades of state control over the country’s economy.

A new ruling coalition has been formed in Greece between the New Democracy, Pasok, and Democratic Left parties.

A man claiming links with al Qaeda took four hostages in a bank in Toulouse, France.

The Haitian government approved a new constitution allowing Haitians to hold dual nationality.

Commentary of the Day

Stephen A. Cook explores Hosni Mubarak’s legacy in Egypt.

John Norris argues that the Obama administration should put a larger emphasis on Africa.

Gordon Adams explains how our understanding of how much we spend on strategic nuclear forces is quite imprecise and the Pentagon has been underestimating that spending by almost 100 percent.

Andrew Weiss suggests that regardless of U.S. policies, Vladimir Putin may be willing to sacrifice the past several years of dramatic improvement in the U.S.-Russian relationship if it breathes new life and legitimacy into his rule.

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