Jeffrey LewisAtoms For Peace, Baby

Some genius created a pair of extraordinarily funny videos mocking the IAEA “super inspectors.”

You may be muttering “But you think the IAEA is much maligned and Iran probably did have a nuclear weapons program! How can you find this funny?”

Well, sometimes the line between laughter and tears isn’t so clear.

I have to admit, the author is far more sympathetic to the Iranians than I am.  There is no fair comparison with what happened in Iraq.  I do believe that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program at the time Natanz was outed, a program that Iran “halted” (a difficult word) sometime in 2003. I generally think this shows that Iran is sensitive to pressure  and observe that, when pressure decreases, Tehran tends to engage in “salami slicing” to strengthen its position. I still believe that as much blame as the Bush Administration deserves for mishandling the Tehran’s nuclear program, it was Tehran that miscalculated in August 2005 by breaking the seals at Isfahan — in effect, slicing off too big a piece of salami — resulting in tit-for-tat behavior that left Iran referred to the Security Council and enriching uranium.

Being clear-eyed about Iranian tactics doesn’t mean taking all this personally.  After all, states are not persons. In Iran’s position, I would recommend doing exactly the same thing. The goal for US policy is to find incentives that encourage Tehran to do something different.

The Obama Administration hasn’t been committed to solving this problem owing to a sense of fatalism and a bit of political timidity. Early on, Administration officials expressed neither hope for a negotiated solution nor stomach for a military one.  Instead, they seemed to emphasize avoiding any steps that might “legitimize” enrichment by Iran. The Administration seemed perfectly satisfied to make the Iranians look bad. The low point in this charade was the Zombie Fuel Swap, which I still believe was a cynical effort by the Administration to “teach” Brazil and Turkey that Iran could not be trusted. (And, I might add, one that backfired when Brazil and Turkey secured precisely the deal outlined by the Administration, forcing the White House to pull the rug out from under Brasilia and Ankara.)

This policy minimizes the political and diplomatic costs on a day-to-day basis, but will ultimately result in the worst possible outcome. This is essentially the foreign policy equivalent of the Facebook group called “Bibi don’t start a war with Iran until after Madonna’s show on May 29.”  Say what you will about the Material Girl’s fans, at least they want to delay the inevitable for a good reason.

Both Tehran and Washington, to say nothing of our friends in Israel, seem to be hardening their positions, pushing us mindlessly toward some sort of military confrontation that leaves Iran isolated but in possession of nuclear weapons.

Avoiding this outcome would require that someone provide Tehran with a way out that doesn’t involve possession of a nuclear weapon — that’s why I generally supported the much maligned “Action Plan,” thought the Zombie Fuel Swap was a dumb idea that we should accept anyway, and am not nearly so enamored of efforts to delay Iran through sabotage or assassinations. I wouldn’t object to the use of force to buy a year or two if only someone had a plan for what to do with time purchased at such a dear cost. But if this is going to be like “mowing the grass” — count me out.

I suppose it is possible that the Obama Administration will put this all together at the last moment, averting a military confrontation as all parties recognize their interest in showing some restraint.  The Clinton Administration stumbled right up to a war with North Korea in 1994, before hammering out a perfectly serviceable freeze in the form of the Agreed Framework. The prospect of hanging does tend to focus the mind.

But even the Agreed Framework merely bought time that was ultimately squandered by both parties.  And, whoever is most to blame for its collapse, An Agreed Framework for Iran is hardly the sort of thing that sounds appealing to most people.

So, permit me the gallows humor.  Atoms for Peace, Baby.


  1. krepon (History)

    Remember when Hillary Clinton promised “crippling sanctions” on Iran? Everybody snickered. Won’t happen. Well, it’s happening.

    It will be very hard for the Obama administration to propose a deal prior to the election. It will be harder for Tehran to agree to it. El Supremo in the DPRK could strike a deal quickly in 1994. It took five months for the Iranian leadership to send a fricking letter to Lady Ashton.

  2. rwendland (History)

    Enjoyed the videos muchly.

    But re the Agreed Framework, I wonder if KEDO’s first director, Stephen Bosworth, would agree with your word “ultimately” before “squandered”, having reported that “The Agreed Framework was a political orphan within two weeks after its signature”.

    Would it be reasonable for the non-U.S. folks take-away from the sad Agreed Framework tale to be: don’t cut a deal (incentives) with the U.S. before a major election and have confidence it will get implemented? If Tehran proceeds slowly, could this be a contributory cause? Of course, loud drums of war could trump that view, just as with the Agreed Framework.

    NB Would the U.S. have really bombed the Yongbyon 5MWe reactor in 1994, contrary to the spirit of Geneva Conventions Protocol I.56, had there not been the prospect of a terrible North-South war in consequence, as Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter seems to suggest:

    “We designed a strike of conventional precision munitions on Yongbyon, which we were very confident would destroy the reactor, entomb the plutonium and that we could mount such a strike and carry it out without causing the reactor to create a Chernobyl-like radiological plume downwind … You could do it with tactical aircraft, you could do it with strategic aircraft, and you could do it with cruise missiles.”

  3. joshua (History)

    Per rwendland’s observation, it appears that the Agreed Framework was doubly orphaned, since Kim Il Sung died before it was finalized — a fateful development, going by the account discussed here:

    Per Michael’s observation, it appears in hindsight that the three magic ingredients of the Agreed Framework were Kim Il Sung, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter. Right now, one wonders if the equivalent of any of these figures can be found.

  4. Dan Joyner (History)

    Very good post, Jeffrey. Its situations like this that convince me that feminist strands of IR theory have alot of explanatory power. It is so clearly possible for all interested parties to the Iran nuclear crisis to reach an agreed settlement that saves everyone’s face and produces an acceptable, if not beloved, outcome for everyone. But egos and lines in the sand drawn by the great big men in charge of the various parties are preventing this from happening. Its a tragedy, really. I liked Mark Hibbs’ post on Engaging Iran the other day, when he said that everyone basically knows how the whole thing has to turn out in the end, but pride and positioning and politics just wont allow it to happen. Its much like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Everyone basically knows what the contours of the final status agreement will be, and have known for years. But again, egos and politics wont allow it to happen. Tragic.

  5. b (History)

    Khamenei yesterday reconfirmed his Fatwa against nuclear weapons:

    On numerous occasions, the Iranian people and government officials have announced that they do not seek to develop nuclear weapons and that nuclear weapons have no place among the needs of the nation and the military system of the country. We believe that using nuclear weapons is haraam and prohibited and that it is everybody’s duty to make efforts to protect humanity against this great disaster. We believe that besides nuclear weapons, other types of weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons also pose a serious threat to humanity.

  6. Daniel (History)

    Good point on ‘day-to-day basis.’ Will the next post be on what to do in between grass-clippings (if that is what happens)?
    I didn’t exactly know how to take a hard line in my last post – everyone seems so dead set against any form of strike . Although, when I discussed it with my conservative professor yesterday he actually went as far as to say we should ‘send in special ops’ to clean the facilities up after a strike (yikes). @doctrine_man found a good post that says possibly years worth of military pressure is necessary here:

  7. Nick (History)

    It is going to be a great year when attacking a sovereign nation member of NPT by another NPT member, mind you on safeguarded sites, is compared with cutting grass!

    Hmmm? I wonder what was used to justify this kind of rational 6 decades ago? If we are going to believe that any kind of surgical strikes is going to spare civilian deaths, then we don’t have a very realistic view of what such an attack my result, becasue of lack of accuracy and equipemnt malfunction.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Sometimes metaphors are necessary to convey new concepts. For years, I argued that the benefits of military action were very short-term and then looked in vain for any sign, however, dim of recognition. Then David Aaron Miller came along with “mowing the grass” and suddenly people could see that this would become a tedious chore that must be repeated over and over again.

      A close friend of mine always argues with me about presentational issues. He believes that each sentence should be written as a German philosopher might — 100 percent of the essential details presented, even if the listener can only process 10 percent of the dense and intimidating text. I tend to view the proper relationship between detail and presentation as outcome-oriented. If the listener understands fifty percent of eighty percent of the important details, I think that’s a more successful dialogue.

  8. Arch (History)

    Sorry to cut and paste, but here’s my comment today’s Ignatius: archjr
    12:37 PM EST
    I think this is wishful thinking, nothing Mr. Ignatius usually engages in, for the reasons outlaid by Ray Takeyh: I would be interested in a conversation between these two respected analysts.

    If the defining history for the leaders in Tehran is the Iran-Iraq war, the rumbling on the airwaves about a punitive military action will be galvanizing, not something to prompt a change in Iran’s strategic outlook, and the role of nuclear weapons or the ability to make them.

  9. Arch (History)

    And without a “grand bargain” we will be “mowing the grass” for some time to come. It is still instructive to look at Iran’s response, over time, to the ministrations of the IAEA and the international community after the initial disclosures, which occurred when I was in Vienna. At the beginning, Iranian diplomats were clueless. The appointment of Salehi to Vienna was exactly the right move, but they still didn’t understand the nuances viv-a-vis the AP and other items of contention. But they learned, and Salehi was a part of that, which presumably part of why he is the Foreign Minister at the moment. Urbane and serious and friendly, Salehi succeeded in putting the whole “Western” complaint into a stall – see “salami tactics” and the temporary acceptance of the AP. I really believe that Salehi has been thrust to the front of something he doesn’t really agree with, but he is a very good diplomat, and a “good soldier,” who understands the technical, legal, and political situation he finds himself in very well. Apropos Ray Takeyh’s article, the issue now is not whether, but when. Too little attention has been given to the MENWFZ conference, which will probably come to nothing, which conclusion should not allow the US to go into that armadillo-like stance in order to protect Israel. There are plenty of opportunities at the conference to score political points, which are real and unsurprising, and that should ventilate the issues a bit more, along with the usual bullshit, committee-driven set-pieces. But we are all scratching around for diplomatic solutions instead of bombing. Let’s keep on using every opportunity we have.

    BTW, I wonder, in terms of delay, what a military strike option will accomplish that a cyber-attack cannot. If we’re only talking about a year or two.

  10. Virtualnomad (History)

    I’d rather be a wonker than a genius. Here’s to the wonks:

  11. jeannick (History)

    On the breaking of the seals by the Iranians in 2005
    I remember quite well that the Iranians suspended their enrichment program as a ” goodwill step ”
    The west would present a counter proposal on lifting existing sanctions, lifting of assets seizure and other embargoes.
    Time ticked by and the response was still being debated
    it became obvious that the U.S. were waiting for the Iranian elections thinking Rafasjani would get back to power and be more accommodating.
    Ahmadinejad got elected , the West proposal came soon after , the U.S. gave nothing at all the only thing the Europeans had to offer was some waffle about geopolitic bright hopes ,
    like for their cooperation in getting the hostages out of Lebanon , the Iranians felt that they gave and got nothing for it , their only means of pressure was to restart enriching
    Prez Obama started with gushing good will , Teheran answers was , let’s see .
    they saw all right , an U.S. imposed embargo on medical grade isotope , this with the silent acquiescence of the IAEA , breaching the letter and spirit of its own treaty

    That gave Teheran the moral high ground to step up to 20% grade ,a fateful level
    Washington response was to offer a swap so ridiculous , it’s a a wonder anyone could take it seriously .
    a pretty reasonable proposal by Turkey and Brazil was
    rejected with fury
    a campaign of sabotage , kidnapping and assassination certainly did not intimidate anyone , if anything it steeled the Iranians resolve , putting the whole situation in the context of murderous bad faith ,
    either the White house Iranian policy is made by idiots or there is a deliberate policy of long standing to push Iran to war.

    Now it’s a replay of the Opera “Saddam and the inspectors”
    the answers couldn’t be clearer
    The supreme leader Ayatollah Kameini’s conference to nuclear workers , with the photographs of the murdered scientists behind him ,
    putting his foot down and refusing any collaboration
    outside the strict confine of the NPT text
    for all I know there is no explicit enrichment upper limit mentioned in the text .

    Obviously Teheran policy now is that all this never ending saber rattling is a poker bluff.
    they raise knowing that Washington has a busted flush

    Now , what will be the U.S. move ?
    it’s election time and sanity is pretty scarce

    • hass (History)

      The decision to restart enrichment in Iran pre-dated Ahmadinejad’s election, though it is often blamed on AN. Iran agreed to what was only to be a 6 month suspension of enrichment, that the EU dragged out for 2.5 years because they couldn’t get the US aboard and so they EU were simply looking for a face-saving way out of the deal (by blaming Iran for “violating” the VOLUNTARY agreement) Remember, before the Iranians agreed to negotiate with the EU, they make it crystal clear that they would NOT accept any demand for permanent suspension of enrichment. The EU-3 entered into negotiations with that clearly understood. They then breached the deal by demanding the IRan suspend enrichment, as the US had demanded “not a single spinning centrifuge” in Iran.

    • Mohammad (History)


      Ahmadinejad was elected (in June 2005) before the end of suspension of fuel cycle activities, but the suspension ended in the Khatami administration (if I’m not mistaken, just one week) before Ahmadinejad took office in July 2005. Khamenei has publicly said that he asked for the end of suspension under the same administration which agreed to and undertook the suspension.

  12. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The videos remind me of the smear/slime job that was done on IAEA and UNSCOM inspectors by the Bush administration in 2002-3.

    The longer the campaign to justify a war goes on the more it seems like the same lies from the same guys.

    I realize that at least Iran DOES have a nuclear program, does possess chemical weapons, and may be working towards a breakout capability.

    Still, the same sort of innuendo, slime, and hyperbole coming from the same sources as pimped the utter lies about Iraq WMD is disturbing.

  13. Hass (History)

    Its kinda funny to say that Iran has been “hardening position” when Iran suspended enrichment for close to three years and has since then allowed far more inspections than required by the NPT, and how you’re completely overlooking that it is the US side that insists on depriving Iran of a sovereign right to enrich their own uranium to power their own reactors.

    And FYI the IAEA never endorsed the view that there was a nuclear weapons program in Iran in 2003. When the IAEA was accused (by Israel mainly) of “covering up” for Iran on that point by supposedly “censoring” information in its report, the IAEA issued a clear statement on this point:

    **With respect to a recent media report, the IAEA reiterates that it has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon programme in Iran.**

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