Wednesday, February 24, 2010

China Sends Iran Back to the IAEA

I have an article up at Asia Times entitled China fine-tunes its Iran strategy.

I read the Chinese tea leaves (People’s Daily and Global Times) to come to the conclusion that China wishes to avoid a UN Security Council vote on Iran sanctions. Beijing fears that any UN vote, with a Chinese yea vote or abstention, or even with a nay vote, will serve as the politically enabling factor for harsh national sanctions that the US and key EU countries are teeing up.

I’m afraid that after Copenhagen, his travails in the U.S. Congress and, most importantly because of his strategy of leaving China as the last sanctions domino to fall (instead of giving Beijing face and reassurance by engaging it first and foremost), President Obama is suffering a credibility and mojo deficit in the eyes of the Chinese, and they will be extremely skeptical of any assurances that he can provide Beijing the opportunity to exert a moderating influence on any post-UNSCR rush to national sanctions.

So I concluded that China would recommend to Iran to try to keep this matter bottled up in the IAEA, despite the replacement of the Iran-friendly ElBaradei with the West-tilting new DG, Yukiya Amano.

I supported this inference with Iranian and Chinese reporting of conciliatory Iranian moves toward the IAEA, and declarations of loyal fealty to the NPT.

Today, there was further evidence of an Iranian charm offensive, in the form of a formal letter to the IAEA re-opening the matter of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).

The TRR swap is apparently the great lost opportunity of US-Iran nuclear diplomacy.

To a certain extent, the conventional narrative concerning the TRR swap (Iran would ship its 3.5% U235 Low Enriched Uranium to Russia for further enrichment and receive fuel plates for the TRR in return) appears to be correct.

Iran, by not making an open and positive response to the offer when it was officially tendered in October, blew it.

However, I’m of the suspicion that Iran had plenty of help.

The swap was grew out of a request by Iran in June 2009 for help from the IAEA in obtaining new fuel plates for the TRR, an elderly reactor originally provided by the US to the Shah that still produces medical isotopes in Tehran. The Obama administration was brought into the deal, the response from Iran (presumably representing President Ahmadinejad’s views) was positive, and apparently a great deal of open-hand-not-closed-fist excitement ensued in the White House.

However, it would seem largely because of French and Israeli resistance (which, given France’s desire to assert itself in the Levant as a serious power at Iran’s expense, may be one and the same thing), the trust-building measure turned into an adversarial disablement proposal.

According to an authentic-looking internal French government document that was leaked and posted on the Arms Control Wonk website, the French insisted in September that the EU’s “freeze-for freeze” mechanism (a demand, detested by Tehran, that Iran suspend all enrichment work in return for a suspension of sanctions) be part of the deal; that no less than 1200 kg of LEU in a single shipment be involved; and the deal had to be accepted and the LEU had to come out by the end of 2009 before any plates went in.

And, according to the West, it would take about a year to grunt out the 264 pounds of fuel plates (which would be fabricated in France after the Russians enriched the LEU to 19.75%), an assertion that the Iranians found highly dubious.

The way the whole thing played out made Ahmadinejad look like a chump.

Instead of a friendly, historic exchange with the United States (apparently, rapprochement with the United States is not a matter of serious dispute in Iranian circles; the only question is, which political grouping will get to take the credit and reap the rewards), he was supposed to publicly knuckle under to the West in an adversarial process, give up most of his LEU immediately and without negotiation in exchange for nothing, and wait and hope his plates (and political windfall) showed up a year later.

Like I said, Ahmadinejad blew it, but it looks like he had lots of outside and inside help.

If you look at the situation and drew the conclusion that some parties were determined to make sure that Ahmadinejad was deprived of his “Nixon Goes to China” moment with the Great Satan, well, we’re on the same page.

The current Iranian approach to the IAEA on the TRR has been rejected by the United States and we may very well be looking at nothing more than diplomatic kabuki as both sides gird themselves for the struggle to decide whether the Iranian issue is addressed by a UNSC resolution.

That the Obama administration has given up on its noble aim to engage with Iran is indicated by the rather inexplicable decision to acquiesce to Israel’s assumption of a high profile role as sanctions cheerleader to the EU, Russia, and even China.

Israel is, of course, not a member of the NPT or IAEA , allegedly maintains an undeclared and highly destabilizing arsenal of 200+ nuclear warheads, and proliferated in a major way to the South African apartheid regime.

Not exactly the poster child for the NPT and IAEA.

Which may be another reason why the Chinese would tell the Iranians to push the IAEA angle.

The United States might have a compelling reason to dig a grave for the Teheran Research Reactor swap.

Opponents of the deal—call them cynics, cooler heads, Iran-haters, or, perhaps professional paranoiacs—could seize on the problem that the uranium in the fuel plates that Iran got back would be significantly enriched—from 3.5% up to 19.75%--and apparently in a form that could, without much ado, be used as feedstock for enrichment to weapons grade (80%).

According to Arms Control Wonk, the plates in the Tehran Research Reactor are simply sintered U3O8, and Iran already has the chemistry and processing know-how to needed to turn that kind of plate into feedstock for weapons-grade enrichment.

And, at 19.75% enrichment, the West would have already done most of Iran’s enrichment work for it.

Jeffrey Lewis of AWC, offered a useful analogy along these lines: imagine a box filled with 100 tennis balls, of which four are red (U235)and the rest white (U238). To upgrade the red balls to 20% of the total, you have to throw away 80 tennis balls for a ratio of 4 red to 16 white. To get to 80% red balls, you just have to throw away another 15 balls to get your final ratio of 4:1.

The West would be throwing away 80 of the tennis balls on Tehran’s behalf, and apparently it’s relatively trivial for Iran to take care of the remaining 15.

So the wonderful and thrilling humanitarian gesture of providing new fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor could be construed, and probably was construed, by Iran’s legion of informed critics, as a potential acceleration of Iran’s weaponization program.


ACW’s Geoffrey Forden proposed that the plates be fabricated as a uranium-beryllium compound, based on the idea that separating out beryllium is a difficult and novel technical task and Iran would have to expend time, money, and conspicuous effort to develop new technology and processes in order to extract the uranium from the fuel plates for the dreaded weaponization breakout.

Unfortunately, just as careful cooks don’t lightly substitute margarine for butter in their recipes, responsible and careful operators of nuclear reactors apparently don’t toss in a brand new type of fuel plate without furrowed brows and lots of technical and safety hand-wringing.

It would be understandable if the Iranians wondered if the US was going to assist Iran with a crash-reengineering and retrofit of the Tehran reactor for the uranium beryllium fuel—and take responsibility if things didn’t go right—and looked at this kind of hocus-pocus with a jaundiced eye.

I suppose, when this chapter in the endless history of the US-Iran nuclear dispute is penned, we’ll find out if the issue of the potential proliferation risk of the new fuel plates was covered ahead of time during the excited White House confabs over Iran’s offer, or came up later as one of those classic “Ms. Titanic-meet-Mr. Iceberg” oh sh*t moments.

If the latter was the case 1) Ahmadinejad would have been suspected of setting a perfidious trap and 2) the White House would backpedaled away from the deal at light speed to avoid appearing to be Iran’s dupe and 3) thrown up a bunch of roadblocks in order to reduce the perceived proliferation and political danger.

In any case, with the help of the revelation of a secret Iranian enrichment facility near Qom (known by Western intelligence for over three years, but somehow not revealed until the eve of the formal conference between Iran and the West on the swap at the beginning of October 2009 and necessitating a critical report by the IAEA in the last month of ElBaradei’s term; bad luck, Mr. Ahmadinejad!), the Tehran Research Reactor deal became a theater for heightened suspicions of Iran’s proliferation intentions and not the confidence-building diplomatic exercise it was originally intended to be.

And the inevitable outcome of suspicion is, apparently, sanctions.

Funny ‘bout that.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Kyoto Treaty Is Dead…

…As Soon as the United States Can Figure Out How to Kill It

Read all about it in my article at Asia Focus.

The Kyoto climate change treaty (actually the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC) has a few flaws:

1. It assigns legally binding emissions caps only to 40 nations in the developed world.
2. No binding caps were assigned to developing world powerhouses such as China, India, and Brazil.
3. The United States never ratified the treaty.

The EU and Japan have nobly met their obligations, even as the United States, China, and India continue to dump greenhouse gases in the air and atmospheric temperatures increase.

During the Bush administration, there was no question about who was wearing the black hat.

In 2001, the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer presided over this exchange:

Q: Is one of the problems with this, and the entire energy field, American lifestyles? Does the President believe that, given the amount of energy Americans consume per capita, how much it exceeds any other citizen in any other country in the world, does the President believe we need to correct our lifestyles to address the energy problem?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.

With the election of President Obama and his announcement that green economics would form the core of his agenda, the black hat quickly and efficiently slid over to China’s head.

One way forward might have been for the United States to ratify Kyoto, perhaps conditioned on China and India agreeing to legal caps.

However, the accepted wisdom apparently was that the U.S. Congress would never ratify Kyoto, so the Obama administration planned on scrapping Kyoto and replacing it with a new treaty.

That strategy involved passing domestic cap-and-trade legislation in 2009 and going to Copenhagen with the moral, economic, and diplomatic clout to lead the world (and predictably unhappy China and India) toward a new climate change regime.

Trouble is, President Obama had teed up cap-and-trade after health care. By November 2009 the U.S. acknowledged it would be going to Copenhagen without national legislation.

In other words, the United States was going as just another big polluter like China and India.

The only difference was that China and India were anxious to preserve the advantageous Kyoto Treaty, which also provided the only legally-binding agreement to combat climate change…

…while the Obama administration wanted to scrap Kyoto, but could not deliver a keystone American legal commitment necessary for a successor system.

Instead of admitting its climate-change shortcomings, the Obama administration decided, for whatever domestic or international reasons, to present the illusion of American leadership and orchestrated a firestorm of criticism of China's climate-change intransigence.

The main takeaway for China was that Washington wanted to gut the Kyoto Treaty unilaterally with the help of its buddies in the EU without putting anything in its place…

…while shifting the blame to China for blocking an agreement that was, actually, no agreement.

Much ugliness ensued, both at Copenhagen and afterwards, as the U.S. and EU countries embarked on a massive flame war against China in an effort to keep the climate-change villain frame firmly on Beijing.

The Chinese gave as good as they got, forming the BASIC bloc* (Brazil, India, and China, with South Africa contributing its reversed initials for much-needed African-continent cred and acronym assistance) of big developing-world emitters, which looks likely to bedevil the Obama administration's climate change maneuvers for the foreseeable future.

The longed-for international united front against climate change is pretty much a shambles, which would seem to fit into a U.S. narrative of Kyoto is broke and has to be replaced, not fixed.

However, with the developing world dismayed by the West's machinations at Copenhagen, and with cap-and-trade off President Obama's domestic political agenda, the United States seems a long way from gaining enough moral and political altitude to be able to scrap Kyoto in the face of determined Chinese and Indian opposition.

I document the atrocities in an article I have up at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, entitled The Copenhagen Challenge: China, India, Brazil and South Africa at the Barricades.

Eric Johnston of Japan Times kindly contributed an afterword addressing the possibility of the Obama administration turning to Japan—together with the EU, the unheralded good guy living up to Kyoto obligations and spending real money and effort trying to save the planet—to take a leadership role in the run-up to the next climate change set-to in Mexico City.

*In case you are wondering, why BASIC, why not BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), the answer is that the USSR is an Annex 1 (developed world) signatory. Its caps--calculated on the emissions of the evil empire at its smoke-belching climax--are ridiculously high. Russia is making some nice coin selling carbon offsets and is as uninterested as China and India in seeing the Kyoto boat rocked.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

USAMRIID, Anthrax, and the National Security Mindset

The FBI has stamped “case closed” on the Amerithrax file—another one of those terrifying episodes of random violence perpetrated against Americans that, apparently because it was perpetrated by a conservative American, is not terrorism.

When Dr. Bruce Ivins, the designated perp in this drama, was first publicly fingered, I wrote a post on the national security panic-mongering practiced by AMRIID vs. public health approach of the Centers for Disease Control to biological threats.

And in the eco-spirit of recycling, I’m repeating it here. You can go to the original post to follow the links.

Friday, May 15, 2009

“I Want to See Dustin Hoffman Bleed Out of His Nipples”

Biodefense’s USAMRIID Problem

Biohazards bring out the weird in people.

Especially people from USAMRIID—the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.

The quote about Dustin Hoffman comes from Tales from Development Hell (Titan Books, London: 2003), a book by David Hughes that recounts the tortured path that movie projects can take from sure-fire properties to triumph, failure, or terminal residence in the soul-sapping limbo of…development hell.

One of the more entertaining chapters concerns the frantic race between Fox and Warner Brothers to make the first Ebola virus thriller.

Fox had prestige and science on its side, having purchased the rights to Crisis in the Hot Zone, the lauded non-fiction account by the New Yorker’s Richard Preston of a successful effort to contain an Ebola outbreak in a monkey house in Virginia. The producers also obtained the cooperation of the key scientific protagonists in the story—scientists Nancy Jaax and Karl Johnson.

Howwever, Fox’s Tiffany Ebola project, The Hot Zone, never got made. It lost out to the flashy cubic zirconia of Warner Brothers’ Outbreak, a by-the-numbers biothriller directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Dustin Hoffman.

Hughes quotes an interview with Entertainment Weekly, in which Preston poured scorn on Outbreak:

“It just wasn’t scary. You have scabs that look like Gummi bears. The blood was put on with an eyedropper. In a real [Ebola attack], the men bleed out of their nipples. I would have liked to see Hoffman bleed out of his nipples.”

However, judging from Hughes’ account, Warner Brothers got the movie-making business right and Fox got it wrong. And what Fox got wrong was excessive loyalty to Preston’s book.

Outbreak, an efficient and compelling science fact/fiction thriller with gory and involving scenes of an exploding epidemic, martial law, and desperate scientific detective work that saves humanity, opened in 1995 and pulled in a more than respectable $187 million at the global box office.

The Hot Zone, a fictionalized docudrama that would have featured scenes of scientists earnestly centrifuging blood samples with coathangers and climaxed with the offscreen massacre of a warehouse full of monkeys, lacked the compelling narrative and dramatic core necessary to satisfy the finicky talent actually making the picture.

Ridley Scott was going to direct; he had his ideas and his screenwriters. Robert Redford was going to star; he had his ideas and his screenwriter. Scott and Redford couldn’t get on the same page. And everybody was too invested in respecting Preston’s book to take the momentous and perhaps necessary step of throwing it out the window and punching up the script with some gratuitous nipple-bleeding action.

So The Hot Zone never got made.

But it lives on, both in development hell and in the pages of Hughes’ book.

Hughes’ book also includes this interesting quote from The Hot Zone’s screenwriter, James Hart:

“I went to USAMRIID, and to a person, the biggest problem—and I want to make sure this is said right—the biggest problem they had with the Ebola outbreak at the monkey house was the fact that no human being died. If one human being had died, it would have moved their cause for prevention and preparation for these kinds of outbreaks forward in the government’s mind…So what they wished had happened—and it’s a horrible thing to say – was that a person had died of Ebola brought over here by monkeys, so it would give them the strength and ‘go juice’ to go get government funding…”[emphasis in original]

Possibly this plaintive lament has an eerie resonance for China Matter’s informed and discerning readers.

Can’t pin it down? Let me help.

"I think a lot of good has come from it," he told ABCNEWS. "From a biological or a medical standpoint, we've now five people who have died, but we've put about $6 billion in our [2003] budget into defending against bioterrorism."

That was David Franz, the former bioweapons commander at USAMRIID’s Fort Detrick, speaking in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks—which he devoted considerable effort to trying to pin on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Of course, subsequent investigations showed that the most likely source for the spores was Franz’s own lab, in which some of the world’s deadlier substances were manipulated both by dedicated scientists and an unknown number of careless technicians, racists, and psychologically unbalanced individuals, apparently including at least one person who thought that the best way to protect America was to selectively kill off a few Americans.

The DoJ’s October 31, 2007 request for a search warrant on Dr. Bruce Ivins, the USAMRIID scientists who was officially tagged as the Amerithrax perpetrator after his suicide, makes for interesting reading. Hey, did you know the FBI thinks it can link a piece of Scotch tape to the roll it came from?

I suppose it could be argued that the deceased Ivins was smeared as a convenient fall guy for an investigation that had dragged on inconclusively for seven years.

But I don’t think that the U.S. government would be eager to build its case as the steward of the world’s most dangerous microbes by fabricating allegations that one of its key bioweapons researchers stayed on the job for years despite evidence that he was absolutely nuts--or that he took his work home to punish the perceived American enemies of his staunchly pro-life Catholic/national-security Republican worldview.

According to Ivins’ own e-mails cited in the warrant, he was already undergoing psychiatric counseling in 2000 and the diagnosis pointed to a “paranoid personality disorder”.

"I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind. It's hard enough sometimes controlling my behavior. When I'm being eaten alive inside, I always try to put on a good front here at work and at home, so I don't spread the pestilence. . . .I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there's nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs."

Things did not get better after 9/11.

September 26, 2001, "Of the people in my [counseling] "group," everyone but me is in the depression/sadness/flight mode for stress. I'm really the only scary one in the group. ... my reaction to the WTC/Pentagon events is far different. Of course, I don't talk about how I really feel with them - it would just make them worse. Seeing how differently I reacted than they did to the recent events makes me ratify [sic] think about myself a lot."

Ivins shared a poem with a friend in December 2001:

I'm a little dream-self, short and stout.
I'm the other half of Bruce - when he lets me out.
When I get all steamed up, I don't pout.
I push Bruce aside, them I'm Free to run about!

Hickory dickory Doc - Doc Bruce ran up the clock.
But something then happened in very strange rhythm.
His other self went and exchanged places with him.
So now, please guess who
Is conversing with you.
Hickory dickory Doc!

Bruce and this other guy, sitting by some trees,
Exchanging personalities.
It's like having two in one.
Actually it's rather fun!"

One does wonder why it took almost six years to get a warrant to search this guy’s house.

Bruce Ivins sure served up the wrong kind of scary for a biodefense lab hoping to hype its budget.

To date, the anthrax attacks that apparently emanated from Fort Detrick represent the only proven case of anti-American bioterrorism.

In fact, one might argue that the best way to protect Americans might be to close down Fort Detrick instead of funding it.

It looks like the U.S. government has done the next best thing—funneling that multi-billion dollar bioterrorism bonanza into the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ biodefense programs and resources at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while shunting the dysfunctional and demoralized USAMRIID to the sidelines.

The insular culture of USAMRIID seems diametrically opposite of the mindset needed to manage biohazards in a free society.

People with long memories might recall a pre-9/11 outbreak of an disease that claimed multiple human victims in the United States: the hantavirus episode that killed forty five largely Navajo inhabitants of Four Corners, New Mexico in 1993-95.

New Mexico HPS hantavirus had an impressive mortality rate of 50%, Furthermore, it’s delivered just like USAMRIID’s favorite boogeyman—weapons-grade anthrax.

HPS is transmitted as a microscopic and highly infectious pulmonary aerosol, albeit generated prosaically from the urine and feces of infected rodents, not engineered in military laboratories by delusional scientists with too much time on their hands.

However, this lethal incident didn’t serve as USAMRIID’s ticket to the institutional and budgetary bigtime.

HPS attacked anonymous victims in one of the poorest and most remote parts of the United States, not the movers and shakers in Washington or the media types who chronicled them.

And it wasn’t bioterrorism.

So the CDC handled it.

Perhaps because hyping a biohazard is antithetical to the CDC’s basic mission of keeping the lid on and preventing public panic, its response to HPS provides an interesting contrast to USAMRIID’s near palpable PR desperation:

The CDC on Four Corners:

Taking a calculated risk, researchers decided not to wear protective clothing or masks during the trapping process [to capture and identify the rodent vectors]. "We didn't want to go in wearing respirators, scaring...everybody," John Sarisky, an Indian Health Service environmental disease specialist said.

I feel utterly confident in completing the elided phrase as “scaring the shit out of everybody”.

Compare and contrast with James Hart, sympathetically explaining the Hollywood/biowar synergies of the The Hot Zone gang:

All they [USAMRIID] wanted to do was scare the shit out of the public, so they’d have some more juice to go back to Congress and get more funding…

There’s an interesting contrast between how a public health organization—relying on transparency to achieve a relationship of trust with the public in order to manage an outbreak—and a bioweapons outfit—thriving on secrecy, threatened by exposure, and eager to exploit an outbreak in order to seize control of a situation and extend its budgetary and executive reach—handle a crisis.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Iran, China, and the Natural Gas Game

I have an article up at Asia Times on Iran’s natural gas diplomacy entitled Iran aims for an energy breakout. Iran is having good success in enticing Chinese and Indian energy companies to take blocks (known as “phases”) of the offshore South Pars gas fields.

Just as Secretary Clinton was jawboning the Saudis to give China energy assurances in return for Beijing's OK on sanctions, China National Petroleum Corporation reportedly finalized its $4 billion+ deal to develop South Pars Phase 11 and will begin exploratory drilling in March.

Iran is finding less success in getting a natural gas pipeline built to its east—the long-gestating Iran-Pakistan-India a.k.a. IPI or “Peace” pipeline--despite the fact that, from an economic point of view, the project is an absolute slam dunk.

India has effectively scuttled the project, citing security and transit cost concerns, but the real reason is probably its acquiescence to the United States’ implacable determination to deny Iran the economic, security, and diplomatic leverage a pipeline would provide.

Iran and Pakistan are trying to pull the project together themselves, and hope to sign the final agreement in Ankara by March 8.

However, Pakistan is flat on its back fiscally and financially and the United States has its boot rather firmly on Islamabad’s windpipe. Islamabad and Tehran have issued invitations to Beijing to get involved and replace India, but I don’t think the economic and geopolitical benefits are there for China.

As a result, Pakistan and India are being forced to go the liquefied natural gas by ocean shipment route (from Qatar) instead of getting less expensive natural gas by pipeline (from Iran).

Not a huge deal for prospering, coal-rich, and diversified India, but Pakistan is in the middle of a severe, structural energy crisis and it desperately needs Iranian gas.

To give China Matters readers an idea of the dimension of the problem, here’s a clip from AFP—which doesn’t mention the structural issue of the declining Pakistani domestic gas production, or the fact that Pakistan relies on gas for 50% of its energy needs—and an excerpt from my Asia Times article describing the importance of the pipeline and the U.S. diplomatic pressure and, possibly, financial engineering, being used to block it:

From AFP:

Since late December, Pakistanis have been suffering at least six hours a day without power, as a lack of rain to run hydro power plants exacerbates a long-running power shortage.

In rural areas and poorer city neighbourhoods, blackouts can last for most of the day.

Pakistan is only able to produce about 80 per cent of the electricity it needs, officials from the main power regulatory authority the Pakistan Electric Power Company (PEPCO) say.

From Asia Times:

Pakistan's desperation has also impelled it, albeit cautiously and equivocally, to defy the US on the issue of dealing with Iran.

Pakistan, without significant oil and coal reserves, relies on natural gas for 50% of its energy needs - one of the highest levels of natural gas dependency in the world. The deterioration of domestic gas production has translated directly into power shortages. Today, Pakistan faces a daily shortfall of one billion cubic feet, 20% of demand.

Pakistan's energy authority has signed contracts for Qatar LNG (and a storage and regasification facility at Karachi) that will take care of about half of the shortfall. The balance plus some extra for growth - about 750 million cubic feet per day - could be supplied by the pipeline from Iran.

However, Islamabad is not in a strong position to resist American pressure and finance its $1 billion section of the pipeline on its own.

High import costs and weak exports have combined to drain Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves; it is relying on an injection of more than $10 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to sustain its position.

As it struggles through the global recession and domestic security and economic difficulties, Pakistan is also dependent on aid orchestrated by the US in order to patch over its government deficit - now over 5% of gross domestic product - and so keep the IMF happy.

For whatever reason, aid has been slow in coming.

A January filing with the IMF revealed that, of the $2 billion generously pledged by "Friends of Democratic Pakistan" in April 2009, exactly zero had been disbursed and only $100 million was expected by the end of the fiscal year in March 2010.

At the end of January, President Asif Ali Zardari also raised the issue of $1.3 billion in arrears in "Coalition Support Funds", the US subsidy covering Pakistan's war on terror-related expenditure, with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

As Pakistan's energy minister promised that the much-delayed final signing would take place in Turkey before March 8, it became clear that the US was quite willing to play hardball over Pakistan's energy shortage.

Dawn reported that, according to sources, "another reason for the delay was that [the] Pakistani government had been unable to allocate proper financing for this project and the US was not willing to give financial assistance in this regard".

Meanwhile, Asian News International reported: "According to sources, US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, during his meeting with Petroleum Minister Syed Naveed Qamar, said Islamabad would have to abandon its pipeline accord with Tehran in order to qualify for extensive American energy assistance, especially for importing Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and electricity.

"Insiders said that in case Pakistan cancels its plan of importing gas from Iran through pipeline, the US would help Islamabad import electricity from Tajikistan through Afghanistan's Wakhan corridor."

For Pakistan to try to defy the United States on its pet issue of Iran, Pakistan must be pretty desperate. That’s something that American policymakers should be thinking about as they push Pakistan to the wall on the IP pipeline.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Russia and Iran’s Afghan Heroin Nightmare

I have an article up in the Counterpunch print edition about the impact of Afghan opium production on Iran and Russia.

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The colossal spike in Afghan opium production has had a direct and deleterious influence on Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian stans that lie on the smuggling routes to Europe.

Addiction rates have increased by as much as 100% since 2001, creating a major public health burden, particularly in Russia. Well-armed and financed gangs kill, corrupt, and erode social order throughout the region.

Both Iran and Russia have mounted massive efforts to interdict the flow of Afghan drugs. Iran has spent almost a billion dollars militarizing its eastern border and has had over a thousand border guards die in engagements with drug smugglers.

Russia considers heroin-related mortality an important factor in its demographic crisis. President Medvedev has declared illegal drugs Russia’s “national disaster” and is even considering drug tests for schoolchildren in order to get a handle on the problem.

Both countries bitterly reproach the United States for its dismal and equivocal efforts to control the drug trade. The United States has clearly tolerated and perhaps even expedited the Afghan opium industry since so many of its allies inside Afghanistan deal drugs.

In 2009, the U.S. formally abandoned the opium eradication goals to which it had previously paid lip service, in order to avoid alienating Afghan farmers. The focus, it insisted, would switch to opium traffickers, though one would expect that the list of approved targets excludes useful government officials, vital warlords, and potential “good Taliban” that the U.S. is attempting to lure into the Kabul government.

The U.S. has largely ignored Russia and Iran’s difficulties, raising the suspicion that the U.S. might view the exploding drug problems in these hostile states as a major and perhaps even intended benefit of the laissez-faire approach to opium production inside Afghanistan.

One also gets the impression that some ideologues are happy to take a “blame the victim”/”survival of the fittest” route and regard the heroin problem as a gigantic, nation-wide stress test whose primary significance and utility is to reveal the weaknesses of authoritarian regimes.

One issue I didn’t go into in the article is the role of prohibition in exacerbating the problem.

Opium gets a bad rap, particularly because of its link to the Opium Wars in 19th century and its exploitation as a medium of Western economic and military penetration into China.

However, Frank Dikotter, of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS), argued in his 2003 paper, 'Patient Zero': China and the Myth of the 'Opium Plague', that opium use itself did not create immense social problems in China.

Before the development of our current arsenal of medicines, opiates were recognized as a most effective analgesic, a sovereign treatment for diarrhea (Imodium hails from the same pharmacological roots) and a useful palliative for the agonies of malarial fever, an endemic problem in southern China.

When the British brought Indian opium to China in large quantities in the 19th century, it was combined with another imported drug—tobacco—into an efficient delivery system employing a lot of pleasing paraphernalia like fancy pipes, and became a recreational drug for the upper class. As opium became cheaper, its use spread to less affluent users.

Despite the explosive growth of opium consumption—it was claimed that 90% of the population of Fujian province used opium-- the easy availability of opium does not seem to have created a nation of drug fiends.

Dikotter writes:

Opium houses, contrary to the myth of the opium den as a dark and depraved trap in which the opium lamp threw a feeble light on the gaping mouths of dazed addicts, were respectable sites of male sociability where moderate amounts of opium could be shared together with tea, fruit, sweets, snacks and food. In a culture of restraint, opium was an ideal social lubricant…

Iran’s centuries-old tradition of recreational and medicinal opium use is quite similar to China’s. Opium use was tolerated in high and low classes and opium paraphernalia appeared as dowry gifts at marriage time.

Imperial China’s decision to go to war against opium—and hype the damage it inflicted on the nation’s morals and social fabric--probably involved issues of sovereignty, social control, and economics more than public health.

Indeed, Chinese governments suppressed opium at least three times, primarily for political reasons: during the 19th century, in an effort to buttress imperial control against Western and domestic threats; in the early 20th century, as part of the new republic’s drive to claim membership in the family of nations; and by the Communists asserting their absolute dominance of China’s social space after their victory in 1949.

It might be noted, by the way, that the Chinese experience has occasionally demonstrated perverse incentives to prohibition.

Profits from the sale of morphine manufactured in Japanese-run plants in occupied China to drug traffickers—inflated by the high price obtainable for a banned product—was allegedly an important source of income for the Japanese authorities.

During the same period, Chiang Kai-shek relied on the muscle of the Green Gang—fueled to a significant extent by the profitable trade in illegal narcotics—to consolidate the KMT’s control over Shanghai.

For both contemporary Russia and Iran, anti-drug crusades provide a useful enemy that permits the state to present itself as the public’s protector against addiction, immorality, and crime.

Russia is using anti-drug rhetoric to carve out a new regional security role for itself in Central Asia as it tries to deal with NATO excluding Moscow and selfishly hogging the terrorism threat franchise in Afghanistan. Citing the ravages of Afghan heroin on the health and security of Russia and the stans, Moscow is using anti-drug cooperation as a vehicle to inject doctrine, institutions and, it hopes, border guards and troops, into the ex-Soviet republics of its “near beyond”.

Iran’s anti-drug campaign buttresses the legitimacy of the theocratic government as a protector of Islamic morals, and allows the regime to burnish its international reputation as a responsible actor.

Prohibition provides the state with certain opportunities, but also brings new problems.

Reading the Western literature on drug addiction, one realizes that managing an illicit drug problem is a major challenge even for a prosperous and open society and is probably well beyond the capabilities of economically and politically shaky states like Russia and Iran.

There is one aspect of the drug issue that has been demonstrated time and again to the point it can’t be questioned: opium prohibition breeds heroin addiction.

When opium production and use is driven under ground, traffickers and users switch to the more concentrated and easier to conceal forms of morphine and heroin.

It happened in China in the 1930s and has happened spectacularly in Afghanistan, where it is estimated that 70% of opiates now leave the country as heroin.

Heroin addiction, by itself, is not necessarily the end of the world.

There are apparently worse things in the world than to be addicted to heroin, if it is legal, inexpensive, sanitary, and readily obtainable.

Illicit heroin is another matter.

In addition to generating more profits per shipment and more corruption, crime, and violence than the equivalent volume of opium, illicit heroin brings a major public health issue that is a major contribution to mortality: needle sharing.

Dirty needles have been a problem long before the emergence of AIDS and Hepatitis C

According to Dikotter, shared needles were a major vector for syphilis, lung disease, and nephritis in the 1930s in China:

Wu Liande, a medical expert based in Harbin during his fight against a plague epidemic, also observed how thousands of morphine victims died every year of neglect, starvation and septicemia caused by dirty needles. In the cities of Harbin, Changchun and elsewhere in Manchuria the public health services had to bury hundreds of bodies found by the road with injection marks.

It would appear that legalization of opium and heroin may not be the social and public health catastrophe we have been led to expect.

On the other hand, the financial and human costs of opiate prohibition are immense.

It is sobering (!) to think that our political leaders orchestrate the movement of tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of armed men and women around the world—and absorb the loss of thousands of lives to addiction and violence—while enriching narcotics traffickers to the tune of over $200 billion every year in a largely ineffective attempt to suppress the trade of 6000 tons of plant sap produced in one of the poorest and most remote nations on earth.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Wedge Too Far?

Via Laura Rozen, more talk of Hillary Clinton jawboning Saudi Arabia to assure Chinese energy supplies if a) China votes for Iran sanctions and b) Iran’s petroleum exports to China are disrupted as a result.

China, of course, considers itself a great power with its own energy allies in the Middle East, not an awkward teenager who needs mom’s Chevron card to gas up the sin wagon.

Anyway, if Iran oil goes off the market, every producer in the world, including Saudi Arabia, will be pumping like crazy to take advantage of the higher prices.

So I wonder if this highly and unnecessary publicized offer is just another wedge, designed to force China either to betray its alliance with Iran or insult the Saudis by spurning their generosity.

Beyond that issue, I see a problem: according to Rozen's sources, the Security Council resolution will not involve onerous and extensive sanctions. Russia, despite its current desire to curry favor with the United States on Iran, will apparently see to that.

Disruption of Iran’s energy exports will come if and when the EU and the United States decide to go for “crippling sanctions”, as Israel demands. The theory is that a unanimous Security Council resolution would be the politically enabling event that could trigger EU and US sanctions.

Raising the issue of China’s energy supplies in the case it is cut off from Iran sends a rather clear signal that “crippling sanctions” beyond those expected from the Security Council are on the table. And China will have zero leverage on the nature of sanctions once the U.S. gets past the Security Council.

I don’t think China is going to believe any assurances from Hillary Clinton that, if China votes for sanctions, nothing too bad will happen to Tehran after Iran sanctions become a plaything for the implacably hostile U.S. Congress.

If China voted for Security Council sanctions and then had to stand by helplessly as the EU and U.S. (and a healthy collection of warships in the Persian Gulf) shut down Iranian oil exports, China’s interests, self-esteem, and international perceptions of its role as a reliable ally and regional force would suffer.

So the “Saudis will give you oil” line may be counterproductive when it comes to getting a Chinese aye vote in the Security Council.

Judging from the Chinese papers and blogs, resentment over China getting caught in the middle of the U.S.-Iran scrap is universal, mixed with grudging awareness that China got stuck there because the Russians apparently decided to side with the U.S. on sanctions.

There’s some thought that the Russian move was inspired both by Moscow’s need for a ratcheting down of U.S. missile defense and NATO expansion plans, and by a desire to put China in its place.

One columnist voiced hopes for China to step up as the essential middleman, persuading Iran to back off on 20% enrichment, and thereby cracking the anti-Iran united front and asserting China’s relevance in the Middle East in one fell swoop.

China faces an array of bad choices and unlikely options, and renewed challenges in translating its economic and military heft into geopolitical influence.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Rollback: Is the Obama Administration Going Zero Sum on China?

A wise man—I believe it was Auric Goldfinger—once said:

Once is circumstance. Twice is happenstance. Third time it’s enemy action.

As China absorbs a sustained crotch-kicking from the United States on the issue of its impending Security Council vote on Iran sanctions, it appears to be pondering the fact that this is the third time in less than two months that China has found itself on the losing side of a diplomatic initiative by the United States.

First, at the Copenhagen climate summit, Beijing apparently came prepared to negotiate on the issue of emissions monitoring and verification, but was blindsided by the U.S. strategy of publicly demanding an undefined level of “transparency” as the price of the billions of climate adaptation aid dangled before the small and vulnerable countries that China claimed to be representing.

Second, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jumped into the Google controversy with both feet, calling for China to conduct a “transparent”—hey, there’s that word again!—investigation.

Now, the United States is publicly calling upon China to look beyond its narrow, short-term interests (i.e. good relations with Iran and access to its oil) in favor of the long-term interests of the region (Persian Gulf ringed with pro-U.S. regimes graciously shipping oil to China).

In each case, China is being presented with a fait accompli in which it is being asked to sacrifice its own interests for the sake of U.S. priorities—zero sum instead of win-win, in game theory parlance.

And in each case, either by accident or design the Obama administration has seized upon a hot button issue that has formed a wedge between China and a vulnerable constituency: developing countries at Copenhagen, the international business community on Google, and the Arab states on Iran.

In fact, with only a little glimmer of paranoia, China would be justified to see the Obama administration’s geopolitics as a conscious exercise to roll back the easy gains in Africa, the Middle East, and with business-hungry entities and states around the world during the blundering Bush years.

It seems clear to me that China feels that way and, on the issue of Iran, has fired a clear shot across the bow of the United States.

Instead of discretely and confidently soft-pedaling the issue of America’s demands on China, Beijing has gone public with its dismay.

For instance, courtesy of Danwei, here’s the front page of Global Times, with the gigantic headline, The United States and Europe are Compelling China to Sanction Iran:

Normally, China is careful to advertise that nobody can force China to do anything.

In this case, I think it’s a signal to the United States that China is looking for a gesture that the Obama administration is not discarding the principle of win-win negotiations among equals when dealing with Beijing.

I wonder if they’ll get it.

I cover the issue in an article for Asia Times entitled, China feels U.S.-Iran fallout.

As to whether the Obama administration has a conscious and consistent strategy of rollback against China, my opinion is mixed.

On the one hand, I wonder if the Obama administration is capable of such sustained, Machiavellian cunning. If it had deployed a sophisticated multi-issue wedge campaign against the U.S. Republicans, the Democrats would have health care reform in their pockets by now and be looking at legislative domination in 2010.

On the other hand, the Iran issue looks a little too manufactured to represent a genuine crisis that just happened to buzzsaw China. And it’s not the first time China has found itself on the wrong side of a U.S. wedge issue.

The current sanctions campaign against Iran brings the Obama administration a host of domestic and regional political benefits, including an opportunity to wedge Syria away from Iran and Hamas.

As to the actual danger of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear assets, the punditocracy usually likes to invoke the IDF attack on Saddam’s Osiraq facility, usually accompanied by fluttering eyelids, moistening loins, and the trembling phrase “destroyed in 100 seconds”.

Iran’s nuclear program is a different kettle of fish, not only because Israeli planes would need explicit approval from the U.S. forces in Iraq or Saudi Arabia for overflight.

At the time of Israel’s attack on Syria’s “box in the desert” in 2007—seen as a project to demonstrate the feasibility of a devastating attack on Iran—I looked at some of the tactical issues involved.

The Israeli air force is undoubtedly working continuously to improve its long-range threat, but Iran is still a long ways away and there are quite a few targets to bomb.

Here's what I wrote in 2007. If anybody has an updated or more informed take, feel free to weigh in. If you follow the link to the original posts, you'll find links for some of the information and quotes.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Mystery of the Dropped Fuel Tanks

I had vowed to give up blogging on Middle Eastern affairs.

However, an e-mail from a reader concerning the Israeli raid on a purported North-Korea-linked military facility in Syria enticed me to wander off the Asian affairs res once again.

FYI, the combat radius of an F-15 in deep strike mode is 1800km
The distance to the Syrian target is ~ 700 km.

No need for drop tanks........

Hmmm. Too interesting to pass up.

The Internet is a treasure trove for armchair commanders and aviation and weapons enthusiasts. Industrious googling yielded the following information:

During the raid, some Israeli aircraft jettisoned two external fuel tanks up by the Turkish border.

The tanks were from an F-15I fighter bomber , called the “Ra’am” or “Thunder”, itself the Israeli variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle.

In agreement with my correspondent, the Observer states the Ra’am is:

...the newest generation of Israeli long-range bomber, which has a combat range of over 2,000km when equipped with the drop tanks.

But I think the Observer (and perhaps *gasp* a loyal reader) got it wrong. Either they confused cruising range with combat range, or confused the current F15I with its previous incarnations (for instance the F15C does have a combat radius of 2000 km).

The F-15E is a completely different animal from previous F-15s, which were sleek interceptors, designed “without a pound for the ground” i.e. no air to ground armament, for those days of air-to-air combat with the parfait knights of the Soviet bloc.

The F-15E is a big, fat hog of a plane, sometimes nicknamed the Flying Tennis Court, or Rodan for its resemblance to the ungainly but murderous superpterodactyl featured in the Godzilla movies.

It’s meant to carry big bombs and missiles to blow up stuff on the ground and the people standing in it or next to it, and fight its way out if necessary.

So it’s got bigger engines and less range than previous F15s.

According to the data I dug up, the F-15E has a combat radius—the distance it can be expected to fly for a mission assuming high speed, fuel-consuming maneuvers--of 790 miles (see here and here ).

To achieve this radius, it needs its internal fuel plus external fuel.

Internal fuel capacity is 5,952 kg.

External fuel consists of two components:

Conforming fuel tanks or CFTs with a total capacity of 4500 kg. They are integral parts of the plane—one report I read said the plane isn’t really designed to fly without them—and can’t be jettisoned.

Then there’s another 5500 kg in conventional external fuel tanks—the kind that were dropped during the mission.

With a fistful of caveats, the combat radius for an F-15I without the external fuel tanks would be around 500+ miles.

Distance from the Hatzerim airbase (home of the F-15I-equipped 69th Squadron) near Beersheba to Dayr az Zawr: 420 miles.

So you might think that the conventional external fuel tanks weren’t needed for this particular mission, and the only reason to carry them was for road-testing prior to some Iran-related hanky-panky.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

If the Israelis really did bomb Dayr az Zawr, it’s unclear why they went barnstorming up to the Turkish border a hundred miles away.

But they certainly did go, and to fly that kind of mission including a flyby of the Turkish border, I think they would need the external fuel tanks.

Maybe the Turkey excursion was to test some fancy new electronic countermeasures equipment mounted on another plane, called “Suter”, to disrupt Russian air defense hardware recently supplied to Syria—and Iran, for Israel’s benefit and our own.

Aviation Week put out the story courtesy of “U.S. officials”:

A Kuwaiti newspaper wrote that "Russian experts are studying why the two state-of-the art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli jets entering Syrian territory. Iran reportedly has asked the same question, since it is buying the same systems and might have paid for the Syrian acquisitions."

We got a certain amount of military chest-thumping about how cool this new gear is, but these planes only jettison their fuel tanks if they’ve been engaged and need extra speed and mobility, which leads one to believe it couldn’t have worked too great.

As to Israeli insistence that they’ll take out Iran if we can’t get off our collective rears, I found this analysis interesting and persuasive.

It argues that the Israeli air force simply doesn’t have the horses to haul the armament needed to make a terminal dent in the hardened and dispersed Iranian facilities on a 1200-mile mission—remember, more fuel means fewer weapons carried--unless the U.S. either assists in the refueling of the Israeli planes or allows them to stage the assault U.S. from bases in Iraq.

And maybe not even then.

Bottom line:

Theoretically, the Israelis could do this, but at great risk of failure. If they decide to attack Natanz, they will have to inflict sufficient damage the first time - they probably will not be able to mount follow-on strikes at other facilities.

When all the analyses are done, there is only one military capable of the sustained widespread air operations required to eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons research program - the United States.

So it looks like the Israelis could start something—but it would be up to Uncle Sam to finish the job.

I take this as support for my thesis that a key data point for Israel from the Syria raid was the nature of the U.S. support it did—or did not—elicit, and what that would mean for Israel if it conducted a dramatic but less than conclusive raid on Natanz with the hope that the U.S. could be dragged into the campaign.

So: War with Iran—it’s up to us. Don’t know whether that’s reassuring or disturbing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

China States Its Case on Iran

Iran may have hoped that China would step into the nuclear dispute on its side, perhaps by agreeing to serve as middleman for the fuel exchange. It looks like they'll be disappointed.

But today Beijing also sent the message that U.S.-Chinese relations would suffer another blow from an aggressive Western push on Iran coupled with a demand that China knuckle under and support sanctions.

The lead editorial in Global Times--the international affairs organ of People’s Daily and therefore an indication of the attitude of the Chinese leadership-- made the point that China resents being “taken hostage” by either side in the Iran crisis.

It sends some heat Iran’s way (though it will be clear from the remarks of China’s ex-ambassador to Iran quoted below, China believes that Iran is open to concessions), but the main object of criticism is the United States.

It is clear that China has decided to take the whole American “you gotta sanction Iran” approach as another episode (following the disastrous falling-out at Copenhagen) in which the United States is happy to employ wedge issues against China, not only to advance its immediate goals, but to isolate China and reduce its standing as a global power.

If the United States continues to take a hard line on China joining Iran sanctions, instead of backing off and continuing negotiations, China will take it as a conscious, hostile act against China.

The editorial’s first point is a reiteration of China’s position that the situation should be resolved through negotiations.

Then, the op-ed criticized the intractability of both parties, with considerable criticism for Iran, apparently in an effort to be even-handed:

When the survival of a nation’s political authority hangs in the balance, any government would possibly decide to stick out its chest and confront the danger. Only with patience, patience, and more patience can both sides obtain the necessary trust. It isn’t through firing off ballistic missiles, raising the level of uranium enrichment, or using the threat of strong sanctions, all at the slightest provocation, and causing the level of anger and suspicion to escalate.

Now, China complains about being caught in the middle (use of the loaded term “lowering its head” i.e. submitting, raising images of the humiliating "kow-tow", instead of the more neutral “support their side” is an indication that China wants the issue to be that China itself isn’t being properly respected):

Neverhtless, both the West and Iran are unheeding at this time. They both believe that only if they are unyielding, then the other side will back off at the end. This unenlightened attitude even extends to their attitude toward China. Both sides believe, all that’s needed is to put pressure on China, then China will, without considering its own interests…lower its head to them…This thinking is unrealistic.

Concerning China’s interests, it states that it has a right to protect its economic interests with Iran. On the U.S. side of the scale, the editorial makes the interesting statement that:

“China has always consistently supported the idea of the balance of interest of the great powers in regional issues.”

I’m not sure what this means. But it probably refers to China’s acknowledgment that the West, like China, has a right to meddle in the oil-rich Middle East, as long as one side doesn’t try to exclude or ignore the other. In other words, the West has a right to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue as long as they don't form a bloc excluding China.

In any case, here’s the warning:

Both sides should be clear: the party that tries to press China the hardest is the party most likely to be met with China’s refusal.

The coda:

Both Iran and the West should make concessions. The final punctuation point in the Iran issue is absolutely not which way China votes at the UN… Both sides should be clear that the dilemma for China is how to bring the two parties together.

Recently in Western public opinion, there has been a call to use the Iran issue to isolate China. This is extremely superficial…China is a big country and its interests must be respected. China’s dilemma must be sympathized with. China’s proposal opposing sanctions must be understood. The big powers must cooperate and negotiate on the Iran issue. The American negotiator, Barshevsky, once said: To achieve an agreement, all parties have to benefit. Otherwise, in agreement can’t be achieved through intimidation; and if somehow an agreement comes about, it can’t be implemented. The great power discussions on Iran should take her words into account.

The final shot across the bow:

China is a great country. If anyone seeks to compel her, to injure her, they will certainly pay the price.

Message to the Obama administration: don't try to force China to kow-tow on sanctions. Instead, continue with negotiations.

As to China’s take on Iran’s position (and culpability for the stand-off), People’s Daily visited China’s ex-ambassador to Iran, Hua Liming.

Here’s what the article said:

Ambassador Hua told the paper that the main purpose of Iran’s declaration of its intention to purify its uranium to near 20% was to put pressure on the West and particularly the United States.

Only a week before, Achminejad had…stated that Iran was prepared to accept the UN nuclear fuel exchange agreement…indicating that Iran still hoped to reach an agreement with the IAEA, but that the exchange terms had to be beneficial to Iran.

Previously, the IAEA proposal called for Iran to ship its fuel to Russia, where it would be refined to 20%. Afterwards, the fuel would be shipped to France and fabricated into fuel rods. This span of time would be 12 months. Iran clearly was worried about the 12-month limit and had expressed a hope that the time be reduced to four to five months. However, the Western countries refused. Under these circumstances, Iran adopted a relatively unyielding attitude in order to put pressure on the West, hoping to preserve Iran’s nuclear development plan and avoid Western sanctions.

Ambassador Hua stated, “Unyielding” only is one side of the coin…the other side, “Concessions”, still exists. Iran has already indicated its attitude that it will accept the IAEA plan. In general, Iran still hopes for nuclear negotiations and would not lightly close the door to negotiations.

The article concludes with the observation that the Western countries are awaiting the outcome of the February 11 demonstrations to determine how weakened the government will be.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Iran Turns to China in Nuclear Standoff

Update: According to Haaretz:

Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday Iran was now prepared to send low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad before getting reactor fuel back. Before, Tehran insisted on small swaps on its own soil.

That would defeat the draft plan's purpose of reducing Iran's total LEU reserve below the quantity required to set off an atomic bomb, if it were refined to high purity.

As noted below, China is perhaps the only major power that Iran could rely upon to conduct an offshore swap. Wonder if China will rise to the bait. CH 2/09/10

Original post:

During a February 9, 2009 press briefing, a spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs praised China’s ever more important role on the world stage.

He also stated, according to Phoenix TV’s correspondent on the scene:

If China was willing, Iran could consider conducting the nuclear fuel exchange through China.

The nuclear fuel exchange refers to a proposed confidence-building deal between Iran and the West that has basically turned into a confidence-demolition deal.

The IAEA proposed that Iran ship most of its declared low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for enrichment to 20%; then the Russians would ship the fuel to France for fabrication into rods and return the rods to Iran so it could make medical isotopes in its Tehran Research Reactor.

Theory was that Iran would get out of the uranium enrichment business and the world could find something else to worry about.

However, U.S. engagement with Iran, like so many other nice things the Obama administration had planned, went off the tracks, thanks in part to the large anti-government demonstrations following last year’s dubious presidential election in Iran.

Understandably, the Iranians worried that, if they sent their uranium overseas to Russia (which has started to side with the U.S. on Iran issues) and France, they might never get it back, and they reportedly proposed some deal that would involve incremental exchanges of enriched material for their LEU.

The result was a lot of huffing and puffing from the West about Iranian bad faith and a concerted drive for new Iran sanctions.

China is the only member of the P5 (Security Council + Germany) clearly resistant to new sanctions.

The Iran offer can be seen as 1) an effort to get China involved on its side 2) a recognition that China is the one party that would reliably return their uranium.

The offer didn’t come up in China’s MOFA Feb. 9 presser. On the Iran issue, the Chinese spokesperson stated:

We hope and support that the concerned parties can achieve a unanimity of views on the IAEA’s draft agreement for supply of fuel to the Teheran Research Reactor. This would contribute to the favorable resolution of the Iran nuclear question.

The Chinese, like the rest of the world, are probably waiting to see if the Iranian government can keep the lid on the demonstrations everybody’s hyping for February 11.

If the Iranian government works its authoritarian magic on the demonstrators, I believe China will maintain its current position of negotiations and no sanctions. If the wheels come off and Iran heads for a period of serious political instability, China will simply keep its head down until the clear winner emerges.

China Matters tries to resist the urge to engage in fine de siecle woolgathering, but to me the Iran kafuffle represents the further poodleizing of France and Germany. Ever since the Suez crisis in 1956 the UK has recognized that its only hope of punching above its weight in world affairs was to cleave to the United States more closely and sincerely than any other power.

Now Germany and France see lining up with the US on Iran as a way to assert their claim to an outsized share of world political and moral leadership.

Problem for Merkel and Sarkozy is, it was one thing to line up with the US, the world’s dominant military and economic power at the height of the Cold War. It’s a different thing to for fading Western powers to try to ignore the shift of economic and military gravity away from the North Atlantic with an anti-Iran rave-up.

It seems to me that the lesson that China and India will draw from the Iranian uranium farce is that the world’s business is not being run properly by a politically stymied superpower abetted by second-rate Europowers struggling for relevance.

Coincidentally, the Guardian weighed in on Europe’s bleak prospects on February 8:

Since EU leaders last met in Brussels before Christmas, the mood has soured. For the Europeans who claimed for two years to be leading the world on climate change, the global warming summit in Copenhagen was the gamechanger, a moment when the global balance of power tilted and relegated the EU to the second division.

"What we saw in Copenhagen is that Europe does not count," Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, told a conference of Brussels thinktanks.

"For good or for ill," a senior European official told the Guardian, "the message that Copenhagen sent is that Europe is not at the table. The fact of the matter is that Europe's leaders were taking a coffee and [Barack] Obama visited them at the coffee break. But he negotiated with others."

The Europeans are struggling to recover from that blow.

For the past 18 months, the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, has been warning that Europe faces being sidelined in a "G2" world run by the US and China unless the EU steps up.

Miliband's worst fears materialised when Obama held his press conference at the end of Copenhagen and deleted Europe from the script.

"If the G2 world was approaching, suddenly there it was," said the diplomat. "A seminal and symbolic moment."

Perhaps pledging to be the US’s BFF on Iran is not going to extract Europe from its geopolitical cul de sac.