As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Threats Before Diplomacy?

The White House is actually making threats to Iran on the eve of negotiations, and I would characterize these threats as somewhat empty.

The Obama administration is laying plans to cut Iran's economic links to the rest of the world if talks this week over the country's nuclear ambitions founder, according to officials and outside experts familiar with the plans.

While officials stress that they hope Iran will agree to open its nuclear program to inspection, they are prepared by year's end to make it increasingly difficult for Iranian companies to ship goods around the world. The administration is targeting, in particular, the insurance and reinsurance companies that underwrite the risk of such transactions.

Officials are also looking at ways to keep goods from reaching Iran by targeting companies that get around trading restrictions by sending shipments there through third parties in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Hong Kong; and other trading hubs.

The administration has limited options in unilaterally targeting Iran, largely because it wants to avoid measures so severe that they would undermine consensus among countries pressing the Iranian government. A military strike is also increasingly unpalatable because, officials said, it probably would only briefly delay any attempt by Iran to produce a nuclear weapon.

As I noted yesterday, Iraq would presumably be able to provide Iran with lots of goods smuggled across the border, which would hurt efforts to isolate them economically. I don't think China would play entirely straight with this either. In addition, hanging a threat like this over negotiations like a cloud seems to poison those talks.

Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald actually made some points on the teevee this morning that you don't normally see, seeking to tamp down some of the generated hysteria about their nuclear ambitions.

Greenwald bats aside the silliness of hyping the fear over random statements from Ahmadinejad or missile tests (who makes more threats or tests more missiles, Iran or their counterparts like Israel?), and correctly notes that the Iranians have not violated anything under the Nonproliferation Treaty yet, having announced the existence of the facility at Qom before actually enriching uranium there. Iran is vowing to allow IAEA inspectors into the facility, which would comply with any order to "come clean" and end the potential for Qom to be used as a weapons production plant.

Scott Ritter makes some good points as well.

Beware politically motivated hype. While on the surface, Obama's dramatic intervention seemed sound, the devil is always in the details. The "rules" Iran is accused of breaking are not vague, but rather spelled out in clear terms. In accordance with Article 42 of Iran's Safeguards Agreement, and Code 3.1 of the General Part of the Subsidiary Arrangements (also known as the "additional protocol") to that agreement, Iran is obliged to inform the IAEA of any decision to construct a facility which would house operational centrifuges, and to provide preliminary design information about that facility, even if nuclear material had not been introduced. This would initiate a process of complementary access and design verification inspections by the IAEA [...]

In March 2007, Iran suspended the implementation of the modified text of Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements General Part concerning the early provisions of design information. As such, Iran was reverting back to its legally-binding requirements of the original safeguards agreement, which did not require early declaration of nuclear-capable facilities prior to the introduction of nuclear material.

While this action is understandably vexing for the IAEA and those member states who are desirous of full transparency on the part of Iran, one cannot speak in absolute terms about Iran violating its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. So when Obama announced that "Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow", he is technically and legally wrong.

I think the problem is more with the Nonproliferation Treaty. As Matt Yglesias notes, the Qom plant almost certainly was designed as either a weapons production facility or a really inefficient facility for nuclear energy. But the NPT has no enforcement for preventing facilities that appear to be a weapons plant, and Greenwald is right that Iran met their treaty obligations to this point. The treaty itself needs to be tweaked to give less latitude over time for potential proliferation, given the standard of ending nuclear weapons on this planet. As Ritter says:

Calls for "crippling" sanctions on Iran by Obama and Brown are certainly not the most productive policy options available to these two world leaders. Both have indicated a desire to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Iran's action, in declaring the existence of the Qom facility, has created a window of opportunity for doing just that, and should be fully exploited within the framework of IAEA negotiations and inspections, and not more bluster and threats form the leaders of the western world.

Regardless, if Iran's plant is now under the inspection umbrella, then its threat is absolutely no different now than it was before we learned about this plant, and therefore the possibility of sanctions or even military action seems a bit much at this point, especially on the eve of talks. Let's have some discretion.

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