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What’s worse than an Iranian bomb? An Iranian almost-bomb

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For all of their sharp disagreements over the particulars of foreign policy, everyone in Washington seems to agree on one thing — that the overarching objective of American policy toward Iran should be, as President Barack Obama frequently intones, to “prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.”

They’ve got it wrong. The primary objective of American policy must be a sweeping degradation of Iran’s nuclear industrial infrastructure, preferably by diplomatic means, even if the resolute pursuit of this goal provokes Iran into rashly attempting the construction of a bomb — indeed, especially if it does so.

Bear in mind that Iran hasn’t been rushing to build a bomb. Rather, it has been working steadily to increase its breakout capacity — the ability to successfully produce a nuclear weapon on short notice, if it made a mad dash to do so. According to the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has accumulated 7,154 kg of under-5% low-enriched uranium (LEU) and 196 kg of near-20% medium enriched uranium (MEU), altogether enough to build six or seven bombs if enriched further to weapons grade (i.e., about 90%). With over 18,000 centrifuges installed at the Natanz and Fordow facilities, Iran’s breakout time is currently four to six weeks — which is to say, that is how long it would take to produce a sufficient quantity of weapons grade uranium (WGU) for its first bomb, according to an October 24 report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), plus whatever extra time is needed to construct a serviceable explosive device.

Iran’s paramount goal is to inch as close as possible to the finish line without triggering a military response, then reach a permanent settlement with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) that preserves as much of its breakout capacity as possible in exchange for an end to sanctions that have hobbled its economy.

Achieving an internationally-legitimized nuclear threshold status has immense strategic advantages for the Islamic Republic, above and beyond the ability to rapidly weaponize at a few months’ notice: Fear of provoking Tehran to cross this final threshold likely will discourage the international community from slapping on future sanctions for sponsoring terrorism, bloody proxy interventions in the region (including Syria), human rights violations, and Iran’s various other rogue-state activities. And Iranian threshold status is just as bad as a bomb in instigating a regional nuclear arms race.

Phase one of this strategy had largely run its course by the time Iran began secretly negotiating with Obama administration officials in 2013, and Iran’s enrichment efforts had slowed considerably. Moving substantially closer to the nuclear goal line (e.g., by accumulating sufficient MEU to build a bomb without having to enrich LEU all the way up to weapons grade) would have resulted in even more damaging sanctions and risked provoking a war. The Iranians now are ready to stop pushing the envelope because they already are in the position they want.

The Joint Plan of Action (JPA) — the name of the November, 2013 accord that would temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program — effectively rewards Iran for doing something that was already in its interests. Slightly reducing enriched uranium stockpiles and accepting modestly expanded inspections to verify its “voluntary measures” (as Iranian obligations are described in the text) enable Tehran to park its nuclear progress, eliminate the perceived threat of an imminent breakout, and thereby immunize itself from the threat of Israeli attack while negotiation of a final status agreement drags on, all while enjoying limited sanctions relief and an upfront P5+1 promise to allow a “mutually defined enrichment program.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s frequent admonitions that, absent the JPA, Iran would “rush towards a nuclear weapon” are absurd. Iran won’t seriously consider a breakout unless or until its leaders are prepared to absorb Israeli, and possibly American, air strikes and live with a far more debilitating sanctions regime — or until one or both of these threats fade away. Thankfully, we’re not there yet.

But if a firm and unyielding international commitment to reduce Iran’s breakout capacity happens to increase the possibility of a breakout attempt in the short-term, so be it. We should all be so lucky if Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is foolhardy enough to launch a breakout prematurely and unite the world against his regime. Even if he manages to squeeze a weapon’s worth of fissile material out of what’s left of Iran’s smoldering enrichment facilities, I like the international community’s chances of ensuring that it is destroyed or relinquished once the ayatollahs have shown their true colors.

But five years from now, if the JPA forms the basis of a permanent accord, all bets are off. The nightmare scenario isn’t that the Iranians rush to weaponize; it is that they are allowed to perch on or near the precipice of doing so until a day when the sanctions are lifted and Western desire for Iranian co-operation in Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories is at a premium.

So enough talk about preventing Iran from building a bomb, a phrase that too easily conjures to mind hypothetical scenarios in which Tehran accepts an enrichment freeze and omniscient inspections regime, while keeping most of its present nuclear infrastructure intact. Averting the construction of a nuke, at the expense of doing little to roll back the threat of a nuclear Iran, virtually guarantees that the mullahs will eventually cross the finish line in force.

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Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.

The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.

The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.

“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.

The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.

Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.

The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.

A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.

The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.

The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.

“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.

The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.

The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.

Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.

In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.

Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”

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The Iran Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Will there be war with Iran?  Will there not be war with Iran?  The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there.  The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered.  Imagine the mess if it was blown up.

There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive.  The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber.  If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense.  It is what Iran has done.  Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided. 

As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force:  some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target.  Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses.  In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system.  It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400.  Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s.  The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally.  The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Iran has friends in Europe also.  Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal.  She is mustering the major European powers.  Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome.  President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture.  In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job.  In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.

So there we have it.  Nobody wants war with Iran.  Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.

Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war.  Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission.  It won’t.  The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton.  He wants war.  A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off. 

In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans.  The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Iran’s game just started

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By announcing that Iran will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water, the Islamic Republic now sends a firm and clear message to the west, exactly one year after U.S. president, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with Iran. 

At this point, it seems that Iran has made a wise decision. Over the last year, the European troika has not only done anything to revive the nuclear deal or bring any kind of benefit to the Iranian nation, but they have actually backed up U.S. by developing new plans to undermine Iran’s “missile work”, and diminish its “power in the region” as well as its “nuclear technology”.  

As stated in clauses 26 and 36 of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if the other side fails to meet its obligations, Iran is entitled to partially or completely end its commitments as well. So, Iran’s recent decision could be analyzed both on legal and strategic terms. 
However, it seems that the strategic aspects of Iran’s decision are even more important than its legal aspects. This decision is strategically important because it stops Washington and European troika to carry out their anti-Iran scheme, a dangerous scheme that they actually started devising when Trump took the office in 2017.  

At the time, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president played a major part in carrying out the west scheme. A scheme based on enforcing Iran to keep its “nuclear promises” and stay committed to a “distorted nuclear deal” while “U.S. had abandoned the deal”, and at the same time, trying to “diminish Iran’s power in the region” and “reduce its missile activities”. 

All other actions of Europeans toward Iran were also simply targeted at carrying out this major plan, including how they constantly changed their strategies toward Tehran, and how Germany, U.K. and France intentionally delayed in launching the alternative trade mechanism (Instex) with Iran.  

Now, Iran’s decision to keep its Uranium and heavy water is definitely in compliance with JCPOA, and more importantly, it will seriously undermine the “American-European” joint plan against Iran. This also explains why French government was so distressed by Iran’s new nuclear strategy and had such a quick reaction, considering that Emmanuel Macron, the French president and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister both have had important roles in carrying out the American-European anti-Iran scheme. 

At any rate, what is clear now is that the game has just started! And the Iranian political system and specially the foreign ministry have a great mission to run this game wisely.  

In following days, the European troika might want to force Iran into changing its decision by threats such as reviving the European Union sanctions against Iran or even taking Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (so that Trump administration can meddle in Iran’s affairs). But, it is time for Iran political system to be adamant in its decision.  

The Iranian Foreign Ministry should clearly ask the Europeans to choose one of these options, either Iran will “further reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal” or the Europeans should do something practical to “protect the rights of Iranian nation”. 

It is also necessary that the Iranian political system reveals the American-European joint anti-Iran scheme to the people so that the true nature of Europeans is showed to Iranians. In that case, Europe and specially the European troika will completely lose their reputation.    

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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