Obama and a Nuclear Iran

Obama has articulated what a lot of people have been thinking for some time on the illogic of the US position vis à vis Iran's clear ambition for nuclear technology:

LONDON -- President Barack Obama reiterated that Iran may have some right to nuclear energy - provided it takes steps to prove its aspirations are peaceful.

In a BBC interview broadcast Tuesday, Obama also restated plans to pursue direct diplomacy with Tehran to encourage it to set aside any ambitions for nuclear weapons it might harbor.

Iran has insisted its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity. But the U.S. and other Western governments accuse Tehran of seeking atomic weapons.

"Without going into specifics, what I do believe is that Iran has legitimate energy concerns, legitimate aspirations. On the other hand, the international community has a very real interest in preventing a nuclear arms race in the region," Obama said.

The comments echo remarks Obama made in Prague last month in which he said his administration would "support Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections" if Iran proves it is no longer a nuclear threat.

Nancy Zuckerbrod - Obama says Iran's energy concerns legitimate Washington Post (AP) 2 Jun 2009

This somewhat startling admission, contrary to the domestic media narrative, makes excellent sense and is aligned with growing conventional wisdom within the foreign policy establishment on the futility of portraying Iran's nuclear programme as an act of aggression in itself.  The Israelis must not be very pleased, on the other hand Europeans, increasingly seeking access to abundant Iranian reserves to meet their natural gas needs in coming decades, are no doubt relieved.  The speech in Prague was intended for a largely European audience.

Assuming Iran renews it's participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and accepts International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections there is little the US or Israel can do under international law to prevent them from developing a peaceful nuclear capability under Article IV of the NPT:

The treaty recognizes the inalienable right of sovereign states to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but restricts this right for NPT parties to be exercised "in conformity with Articles I and II" (the basic nonproliferation obligations that constitute the "first pillar" of the Treaty). As the commercially popular light water reactor nuclear power station uses enriched uranium fuel, it follows that states must be able either to enrich uranium or purchase it on an international market.

NPT Third pillar: peaceful use of nuclear energy Wikipedia

The tenor of House Minority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va) remarks that this policy is "dangerous" and "misguided" set the tone for this debate in domestic terms:

"I strongly disagree with President Obama's dangerous suggestion that Iran may have some right to nuclear energy." said Cantor in a statement provided to the Huffington Post. "Iran forfeited any right to nuclear energy when it made the decision to illicitly enrich uranium to levels that can be used for nuclear weapons."

Cantor: Obama Mid-East Policy "Dangerous" And "Misguided" Huffington Post 2 Jun 09

Under international law Cantor is clearly mistaken, though Iran now has 'pariah' status it is likely that it would be accepted back to the NPT, with considerable relief, by the international community.  Obama is making a courageous stand domestically but not internationally, many of our allies have been reluctant to impose severe sanctions on Iran and alarmed at the aggressive rhetoric of the previous administration.

It should be pointed out that Iran has always insisted that their pursuit of uranium enrichment technology is for peaceful purposes, whether we believe them or not, and Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khamenei has gone on the record with a fatwa against nuclear weapons, which is pretty strong stuff for an Islamic theocracy:

A religious decree (fatwa) by Iran's supreme leader has even greater force in preventing the country from producing nuclear weapons than do treaties signed by Tehran, top nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani was quoted by the IRNA news agency Tuesday as saying.

"It is much more important for us to abide by this decree than the articles of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its additional protocol," Rowhani said in a meeting with Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller on Monday.

According to Rowhani, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's fatwa forbids the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons.

Fatwa restrains Iran more on nuclear weapons than treaty: negotiator Agence France-Presse 12 Apr 2005

Clearly we require more.  But as Obama's diplomatic engagement with Iran takes shape it appears to consider accepting Iran's civilian pursuit of nuclear capability within the context of the NPT and IAEA inspections.  Whether the US public is prepared for this outcome after years of alarmist rhetoric on Iran remains to be seen.  Sometimes articulating the obvious seems an act of political courage.

Two more things are clear, Obama's timetable for "a good-faith effort to resolve differences" with Iran is based on the earliest estimates of when a nuclear weapon might be developed by them rather than any concession to Netanyahu.  And the Obama administration is apparently indifferent to Ahmadinejad's electoral fortunes as the timing of this concilliatory message will likely strengthen Mahmoud's position on foreign policy, an issue which has become a focus of the Iranian elections to be held on 12 June.

Tags: Barack Obama, IAEA, Iran, US Foreign Policy (all tags)



Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

Another very thoughtful and informative peace.  I would hope that Obama's shift will also strengthen the reform movement within Iran.  If we cease to play into the caricature of the great Satan, it loses purchase and the hardliners lose out.  There is already opposition to Ahmedinejad's nuclear stance in Iran.  This makes it seem less justified.  I assume that the hardliners will attempt to trumpet this as a victory.  We'll see which side benefits more.

by Strummerson 2009-06-02 05:12PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

Indeed we will.  On the face of it it seems to benefit Ahmadinejad, as I noted in the diary, but your insight suggests in the long run it could go either way, and likely favour moderation.

The big question is will Iran renew the NPT and accept IAEA inspections.  Past performance suggests not but that may have been merely a response to aggressive posturing by the US.  If, however, they have a bomb abuilding, well, the plot thickens.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-02 05:31PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

And who wouldn't yearn for thoughtful and informative peace.  Thanks for your kind words.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-02 05:35PM | 0 recs

How mortifying.  And here I am writing a dissertation in...wait for it...English.  Let's call it freudian, and thus significant as opposed to incompetent.

by Strummerson 2009-06-02 05:38PM | 0 recs
Re: peace/piece

Your Freudian slip is showing?  That's what I thought, nice to be among 'peaceniks,' though, I feel right at home.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-02 05:51PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

1) Iran peaked oil production in 1974. Its oil production has been in decline ever since.

2) The Nixon/Ford Administration (the process started under Nixon but ultimately it was the Ford Administration) that approved the sale of nuclear technology to the Shah.

The US has a nuclear deal pending with the United Arab Emirates. The French just concluded their agreement with the UAE. Iran has a right to pursue nuclear power. The question has always been whether Iran has a right to self-enrichment because then they can divert some to weapons.

by Charles Lemos 2009-06-02 07:06PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

Exactly.  And the 'self-enrichment' issue is not unique to Iran, it applies to all current and proposed NPT signatories.  According to Wikipedia:

As the commercially popular light water reactor nuclear power station uses enriched uranium fuel, it follows that states must be able either to enrich uranium or purchase it on an international market. Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has called the spread of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities the "Achilles' heel" of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. As of 2007 13 states have an enrichment capability. Because the availability of fissile material has long been considered the principal obstacle to, and "pacing element" for, a country's nuclear weapons development effort, it was declared a major emphasis of U.S. policy in 2004 to prevent the further spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing (aka "ENR") technology. Countries possessing ENR capabilities, it is feared, have what is in effect the option of using this capability to produce fissile material for weapons use on demand, thus giving them what has been termed a "virtual" nuclear weapons program. The degree to which NPT members have a "right" to ENR technology notwithstanding its potentially grave proliferation implications, therefore, is at the cutting edge of policy and legal debates surrounding the meaning of Article IV and its relation to Articles I, II, and III of the Treaty.

NPT Third pillar: peaceful use of nuclear energy Wikipedia

Whether this will affect negotiations with Iran remains to be seen.  I am supposing it will, given the Obama administration's committment to non-proliferation.  On the other hand it does rather seem a loophole in the NPT rather than a potential obstacle to Iran rejoining the NPT community.  It is hard to imagine Iran agreeing to limitations which don't apply uniformly, on the other hand the IAEA inspection regime is tailored to each individual participant and could be made exactingly rigorous in Iran's case.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-02 07:28PM | 0 recs
Gee whiz

7 comments?  That's embarrassing.  How many do we generate on arguing over who opposes Israeli settlements more strongly.  Here's a diary with something to learn and which lays out challenges to try and figure out strategic and policy implications and no one wants to play.


Keep them coming Shaun.  I/P ain't the beginning and the end of our foreign policy conundrums.  Thanks for your time and efforts.

by Strummerson 2009-06-03 05:29AM | 0 recs
Re: Gee whiz

Are there any Middle East nations who are publically adversive to Iran's nuclear program, except Israel and its proxy, the United States?

Iran has signed the Nonproliferation Treaty. Israel, after the US pushed it toward becoming a signatory to this treaty, refused to sign. Israel is known to have nuclear weapons, up to a hundred bombs, yet it still wants the world, especially the US to pretend that it doesn't have nuclear weapons. And it wants the world to believe that Iran should not have nuclear weapons.

The games people play and one has to be disappointed that Obama is willing to do so.

Nobody wants to see more nuclear weapons in the world, and the best approach to reducing nuclear weapons was Obama's invitation that the US and Russia reduce the numbers of their weapons. How about a plan to have a nuclear free Middle East? And that means everyone.

by MainStreet 2009-06-03 08:11AM | 0 recs
Re: Gee whiz

I've read several pieces indicating that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are privately concerned with Iran's nuclear program, but I cannot speak to their veracity.

Yes.  A nuclear free middle east sounds great.  And yes, it's time to stop playing "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" with Israel's nuclear arsenal.

But may I ask which of you, or which of your moods I am engaging with today?  If this is the one who resorts to labeling me a a "right wing proIsrael supporter" without "any brain material left" at any disagreement while hypocritically protesting ad hominem attacks aimed at "slaying the messenger," I'll refrain from further response until the more rational and civil MainStreet decides to re-emerge.

And please don't retreat behind some shabby "if you don't like it get of the blogs" justification.  I'm not in the mood for weasely bullshit and self-contradictory obfuscation today.

by Strummerson 2009-06-03 08:31AM | 0 recs
Re: Gee whiz

I'm sure the leaders are worried.  I don't know how much stock I put in the Shia vs. Sunni/Persian vs. Arab divide as a governing principle, but a nuclear armed Iran would be very powerful.  So I have to assume that that would be a concern to not-Iran.

I wonder about public sentiment though.

by Jess81 2009-06-03 08:58AM | 0 recs

I think Obama may have a good strategy here of isolating Ahmadinejad domestically.  Despite the crowing from the Right that his outstretched hand has been slapped down by Ahmadinejad, in actual fact Ahmadinejad's his opponents in the upcoming elections are criticizing him for being too hard-line.

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/ world/la-fg-iran-foreign31-2009may31,0,9 72854.story

by JJE 2009-06-03 05:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Good

That's very true, but does Obama's offer suggest Ahmadinejad's hard-line position has succeeded or failed?  I tend to agree with Strummerson above that it may help Ahmadinejad in the short-term but have a long-term influence toward the moderates.  We'll see, perhaps, on 12 June.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-03 02:27PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

I was under the impression that Iran's most significant source of energy was natural gas, not oil.  But either way, can someone explain to me why a country relatively rich in energy resources would want to pursue nuclear energy?  This doesn't go towards their right to do so, and I understand of course that any nuclear energy they produce would mean that much more they could sell in the global market, but reactors are incredibly expensive, so I don't know if I really do believe that they're only interested in producing energy.

The lesson of the past eight years has been "get a nuclear bomb and the U.S. can't touch you."  Plus it would enhance their prestige at a time when there's a pretty big power vacuum in the Arab world.  There's been one pretty much since Egypt signed the Camp David accords.

So I can easily think of reasons they'd want the bomb.  Nuclear energy is harder for me to understand.

by Jess81 2009-06-03 07:37AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

* meant to write 'muslim world'.  I know Persians are not Arabs.

by Jess81 2009-06-03 07:38AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

According to Charles' comment above, Iran's oil production peaked in 1974.

by Strummerson 2009-06-03 07:40AM | 0 recs
My understanding

is that Iran may have actually greatly overstated its oil reserves.


I also believe that even if Iran does have a lot of crude, it doesn't have much refinery capacity, and would have to make expensive investments to increase it.  Thus it can sell the crude but it isn't able to turn it into useable oil for domestic consumption.

by JJE 2009-06-03 08:29AM | 0 recs
Re: My understanding

But do you suppose that the equipment to make control fusion reaction is any cheaper?

by Jess81 2009-06-03 08:56AM | 0 recs
No idea

but building a bunch of refineries wouldn't be cheap.  Do you know if the barrier to building fusion reactors is more about expense or more about access to tech/nuclear materials?

by JJE 2009-06-03 12:22PM | 0 recs
Re: No idea

We're quite a ways off from a fusion reactor.  The game is still about fission, which is less efficient and creates all the vile waste than the theoretical alternative that people have been seeking for a generation.

by Strummerson 2009-06-03 12:49PM | 0 recs
I think

that must have been a typo.  Been a while since I was in the science game but cold fusion is just a pipe dream.

by JJE 2009-06-03 02:59PM | 0 recs
Re: I think

Yes but 'hot' fusion isn't and has been the Holy Grail of civilian nuclear physics research for fifty years.  It would potentially solve lots of our clean energy and resource concerns, unfortunately the containment problems are insurmountable with current technology.  Experimental fusion reactions consume more power than they are theoretically capable of producing.  Interestingly a very recent development may be promising:

A US weapons lab on Friday pulled back the curtain on a super laser with the power to burn as hot as a star.

The National Ignition Facility's main purpose is to serve as a tool for gauging the reliability and safety of the US nuclear weapons arsenal but scientists say it could deliver breakthroughs in safe fusion power.

US lab debuts super laser Breitbart (AFP) 30 May 09

The technology remains unproven and the investment would be enormous but the potential for essentially fuelless, clean power generation is very attractive.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-03 03:19PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

Well, that's a good point.  Iran has the world's second largest proven oil and gas reserves and an abysmal record on energy wastage.  It is estimated that something like 19% of electricity generated in Iran is lost in transmission due to technical problems.  Demand in Iran is increasing at a rate of 6% annually, probably due to subsidised oil and gas for domestic consumers.  The Bushehr nuclear generating facility is expected to go on-line soon but will meet only a small fraction of Iran's demand.

Theoretically there seems no compelling reason why Iran needs nuclear generating capacity, but it is consistent with a broad investment in oil, gas and hydroelectric plants.  Iran is wasteful in it's consumption and recovery rates from existing oil and gas reserves, largely due to sub-standard technology, although it is quite capable of building gas-fired turbines and plants.  I guess the underlying issue is whether Iran's nuclear programme seeks to position them as a 'breakout' nuclear power, which is quite possible.  But the same applies to other existing NPT signatories and doesn't seem to concern us in the case of the UAE, for example.  

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-03 02:13PM | 0 recs
Atoms for peace

That was the moniker given to a program that predated the particular NPT clause you are referring to.  Under that clause, the countries with nuclear technology were supposed to help countries without nuclear technology in setting up peaceful nuclear reactors.  In exchange, the recipients of that aid were supposed to refrain from weaponizing.

This program was abused and subverted quite a few times...by Israel (who got help from the US), and by India (which had Canadian help).  Perhaps even by Britain (although, in that case, the subversion was probably desired).

Given this historical record, and the strong (and, in my opinion, justified) Iranian motivation to have a nuclear deterrent, I can understand why the big powers are skiddish about Iranian claims of peaceful intentions.

The solution is to address Iran's strategic concerns.  Acknowledging their right to peaceful nuclear technology is a big step in that direction.

by Ravi Verma 2009-06-03 09:29AM | 0 recs
Re: Atoms for peace

I tend to agree, although acknowledging Iran's motivation for a nuclear deterrent takes the discussion well beyond what Obama is suggesting.  As you once noted Iran's dreadful experience in the Iran-Iraq war would be all the motivation they need.

The issue is to what concentration is Iran enriching uranium?  If they are enriching beyond 20% it's pretty clear they are embarked on a nuclear weapons programme which, given their ballistic missile capability, would make them a nuclear power.  Expect to see stringent restrictions on Iran's enrichment activity in any agreement which may be proposed.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-03 02:24PM | 0 recs
Re: Atoms for peace

I agree that Pres. Obama cannot publicly acknowledge Iranian concerns right now...too much too soon!

However, he can (and I suspect that he is...or that he is prepared to) privately acknowledge their concerns.

Both Iran and US have plenty of blame, and any rapproachment must include a calibrated measure of acknowledgment of the one's guilt.

by Ravi Verma 2009-06-03 02:35PM | 0 recs
Re: Atoms for peace

Very true, but acknowledging weaponisation is political dynamite, if you'll excuse the phrase.  I think what is going on is a bit subtler, Obama reckons, correctly, that other powers like Russia and the reluctant Europeans, not to mention China, are not entirely comfortable with a nuclear capable Iran either.  By removing the obstacle of the US insistence on halts to their programme, which is above and beyond the NPT, a broader international consensus will be found on just exactly where to draw the line with Iran, which I suspect will genuinely seek to restrict the enrichment concentrations Iran can legally achieve.  This holds the Iranians to their word or exposes them as a weaponising power, a necessary next step in restricting their nuclear capability.  I don't for a moment presume that Obama has made the choice to accept Iran as a nuclear power without a diplomatic fight.  He is just trying to get everyone on the same page.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-03 02:43PM | 0 recs
Re: Latest on Iran

It's April Fool's Day. How foolish this Iran saga has been, since if anyone knows the limitations of nuclear weapons as deterents, it is Iran. How do they know? Because they have never attacked Israel. But that's not the point either. Iran never indicated an intention of doing so.

This entire episode has been nothing more than a distraction from the West Bank colonization, which has been getting too much attention these last few years, and now especially, with Likud in power, and Obama demanding that settlement building stop.

COncern is now a waste of time.

Lieberman: Israel has no plans to attack Iran

Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said on Wednesday his government has no plans to attack Iran.

"Israel is not planning to bomb Iran," Lieberman told reporters in Moscow. The foreign minister is currently in Moscow for talks with Russian leaders.

The new Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has placed the Iranian nuclear program at the top of his agenda.

Netanyahu views the prospect of Iran attaining a nuclear military capability as an existential threat to Israel, thus raising fears worldwide that Jerusalem will resort to military action to halt or delay the Islamic regime's plans.

"We do not have a need" to carry out attacks on Iran, he said. "Israel is a strong country and we can defend ourselves."

http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1090 115.html

by MainStreet 2009-06-03 11:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Latest on Iran

Interesting, though, that Lieberman is given the job of walking back the aggressive rhetoric in Moscow while Barak was briefing the US in Washington.  Ironically Russia supplied the modern air defence system that Israel would be confronting in an attack on Iran and has been most vocal in dissuading the West from an attack.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-03 03:56PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

Iran never left the NPT and India never signed it

by rocky 2009-06-03 11:33AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

Quite true, Iran signed the NPT in 1968 and ratified it two years later.  The phrase 'renews it's participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty' was intended to acknowledge Iran's non-compliance and the unratified 'Additional Protocol':

On December 18, 2003, Iran voluntarily signed, but did not ratify or bring into force, an Additional Protocol that allows IAEA inspectors access to individuals, documentation relating to procurement, dual-use equipment, certain military-owned workshops, and research and development locations. Iran agreed voluntarily to implement the Additional Protocol provisionally, however when the IAEA reported Iran's non-compliance to the United Nations Security Council on February 4, 2006 Iran withdrew from its voluntary adherence to the Additional Protocol.

Iran and weapons of mass destruction Wikipedia

I didn't mean to give the impression that Iran had formally withdrawn from the NPT, sorry.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-03 01:12PM | 0 recs
Iran wants the nuke because it believes that

it would serve as a deterrent to its enemies. There is a long history of serious articles covering this aspect.

http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/1202/p04s0 1-wome.html

by louisprandtl 2009-06-03 07:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Iran wants the nuke because it believes that

Which begs the question of who are Iran's enemies?  If the answer is us than I'm suggesting that's a failure of diplomacy spanning decades.  If Israel that seems a politically motivated invention of hard-liners in both nations.  If it's regional powers like Pakistan, and formerly Iraq, whom they fought a devastating and protracted war with in recent memory, they may have a point.

My position is that a weaponised Iran is bad news but that by coaxing them back into NPT compiance and IAEA inspections the options for preventing that are considerably expanded and reinforced.  Not many nations are queueing up to join the US and Israel in threats of unilateral military action.  Whereas even Russia must be uncomfortable with a nuclear capable Iran on their doorstep and basically astride their emerging sphere of energy influence in the Caspian Basin.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-03 08:05PM | 0 recs
I think you named most of them, excepting Egypt

and Saudi Arabia maybe..

by louisprandtl 2009-06-03 08:35PM | 0 recs

Darn, mistakely posted my response below.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-03 08:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and a Nuclear Iran

In the context of regional power, maybe, but as a threat requiring a nuclear deterrent I don't see them as significant, unless Saudi became a nuclear power which they could afford but seems out of bounds for them at the moment.  Ironically Russia probably represents a more genuine long-term threat to Iran than anyone, with the possible exception of an Islamist theocratic Pakistan which seems increasingly less likely with each passing day.

And let's not overlook Iran's discomfort with the Taliban autocracy in Afghanistan at the time.  In a Sunni dominated region my guess is the Iranians feel a bit isolated at times.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-06-03 08:52PM | 0 recs


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