Jeffrey LewisSamore, Fitzpatrick on Iran

Yesterday, we had a pretty full room and Voice of America’s Persian TV service to hear Gary Samore talk about “Countering a Nuclear-Armed Iran”. The audio for the event is online.

Gary was pretty pessimistic about the current course of negotiations. He made a pretty strong case for suspension as the basis of negotiations, although I am prepared to be extremely flexible on what it means for Iran to “suspend” its activities.

More Technical Details on Iran’s Program

Gary’s old shop, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, has released a Strategic Comment which details the technical status of Iran’s enrichment programs.

The author, who I understand is Mark Fitzpatrick, makes two claims that deepen our understanding of Iran’s technical problems:

1 The issue of impurities in Iran’s domestically produced hex will only damage the centrifuges over several years of operation, posing less problems for enriching uranium for a bomb program than for fuel.

The domestic UF6 is contaminated to some extent with other heavy metals present in the uranium ore but, according to officials who have seen the sampling data, this does not present a problem for the time being. The contamination, which is not as significant as had been reported earlier, will degrade centrifuge operations over time, reducing their lifespan to a third of the normal ten years. However, if commercial production is not Iran’s intention, this would not matter.

2 Iran may solved some manufacturing bottlenecks through the importation of maraging steel and ring magnets:

Western intelligence agencies had earlier assessed that limitations in some key raw materials and the difficulty of producing certain sophisticated components presented bottlenecks in Iran’s centrifuge programme. Iran may not be able to produce the maraging steel necessary for producing certain centrifuge parts. IAEA officials now believe, however, that Iran has managed to import enough maraging steel (including from the UK in the 1990s) for its centrifuge purposes. Similarly, although Iran may not be able to produce its own ring magnets, it was able to import a sizeable quantity through an Asian intermediary before export controls were tightened. Whether Iran can also produce the delicate bottom bearings on which centrifuges spin is also unknown.

One sentence that I believe will cause the author some trouble is the claim that “would not be surprising to learn that Iran has a pilot P-2 plant.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Iran conducted P-2 research at an undeclared facility, but I would be surprised if it was on a scale similar to the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz, which holds up to 1,000 centrifuges.

Anyway, the whole item, entitled Nuclear Iran — How Close Is It?, is worth a read, even if it is a bit depressing on the subject of how much progress Iran has made.


  1. Binh (History)

    Dumb question about this: <i>The issue of impurities in Iran’s domestically produced hex will only damage the centrifuges over several years of operation, posing less problems for enriching uranium for a bomb program than for fuel.</i>

    This is true because a crash-course bomb-building program would take a lot less than several years, right?

  2. hass (History)

    And like I predicted, not a sentence about Iran’s compromise offers that for example including giving up plutonium reprocessing.

    Sssshhhhh! We’re not supposed to talk about that! The only choices are war/sanctions or a nuclear-armed Iran! We can’t wait for the mushroom cloud! etc etc

  3. arnold evans

    “He made a pretty strong case for suspension as the basis of negotiations, although I am prepared to be extremely flexible on what it means for Iran to “suspend” its activities.”

    The best case for suspension as a basis for negotiations is that after suspension there is nothing left to negotiate. And that’s good if the west has nothing to offer in exchange for “suspension” which really means Iran indefinitely giving up enrichment, making Iranian enrichment subject to a western veto.

    My understanding, which I’m sure is shared with Iran, is that if Iran suspends enrichment, some enrichment-related sanctions will end, bringing Iran to where it was in 2005 and Iran will be allowed to enter negotiations about further incentives.

    Negotiations would be of the form, if Iran stops supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, recognizes Israel and adopts a foreign policy like that of the Shah’s, Iran will get close to but not quite the economic cooperation the Shah got.

    The thing is that Iran was willing to adopt the Shah’s foreign policy, it could get talks with the US today, regardless of enrichment. The Shah’s foreign policy was profoundly unpopular with the Iranian people and Iran’s opposition to Israel has support among Iran’s populace of around 80%.

    In other words, offering talks for a suspension of enrichment is the same as offering exactly nothing for a suspension of enrichment.

    I’m slightly puzzled about why the west has not gone public with a specific offer to Iran, that might cause dissension among Iranians. For example offering most favored nation trading with Iran, or at least offering a specific price or discount for the light water reactors that are envisioned. Then if Iran’s leaders reject it they can go to Iran’s people and say the government is turning down an offer that would result in this price for electricity or this amount of new jobs.

    The answer has to be that the west is afraid that if it makes a good specific deal, Iran will accept it and from there come to be a dominant economic power in the region, which is just as bad from a western or Israeli perspective as Iran being a dominant military power.

    So Iran is likely sure that there really is no carrot. Which is why the west insists on suspension before any specific offer is ever made.

  4. arnold evans

    Watching the presentation on youtube, several things strike me.

    1 – This guy uses “nuclear weapon” and “nuclear weapon option” also “nuclear armed” and having a “nuclear weapon capability” interchangeably. Outside of the US foreign policy establishment, they really are very different concepts. Different in the same way “sexually active” is different from “pregnant”. I think this is what Hass describes as groupthink. Being in a community that has trained itself to conflate the terms until I have doubts that he is aware of when he goes from one term to the other.

    2 – He says that a consensus is forming that Iran will end up with domestic enrichment. Umm. If Condoleeza Rice was to say that Iran would accept whatever safeguards Samore says would be necessary and this “crisis” such as it is would be over. But sanctions actually are the point. The US has found an issue that Iran won’t back down on that it can use to get other countries to join the sanctions the US had been imposing unilaterally since the revolution, and that really is the point of this exercise.

    3 – He says Russia’s view is that once Iran answers the questions, it is entitled to nuclear technology like everyone else, but he says Russia agrees with the US that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. Russia is not part of the US establishment that has turned “nuclear armed” and “nuclear capable” into the same term and Samore’s failure to see the contradiction comes from the blurring of terms that Samore has accepted.

    4 – I’ve never seen this point made but Israel cannot attack Iran without flying over US controlled airspace. It is just not possible so the US has a veto over an Israeli attack, and everyone in the region knows it. So regardless of how dire Israel perceives the situation, the most it can do is ask the US for permission to attack, and if that permission is denied, Israel has to wait. Samore, like most US commentators on this issue seems to view Israel as more distinct from the US than it is in practical terms when it comes to bombing or threatening to bomb Iran.

    5 – Samore says that for the Europeans, the aim of the sanctions was to separate Rafsanjani from Ahmadinejad. How silly is that? To split the two, the West would have to make a demand that Rafsanjani might accept that Ahmadinejad might not accept. The demand for a suspension of enrichment is rejected equally by both. How could sanctions for failing to suspend create a split? Samore is speaking of it as if it makes sense. He must realize that makes no sense.

    6 – Answering a question about carrots, Samore says that Iran knows what incentives are on offer but does not want what is on offer. My 11:44 post explains my belief that the Iranian perception is that literally nothing is on offer. If the Iranian perception is wrong, and sanctions are not the whole point of the exercise, then putting a specific deal on the table, as opposed to an offer for talks, would be productive.

    7 – The strong case Samore makes for suspension as a basis for negotations is “negotiations without a suspension wouldn’t work, from North Korea we know that unless the program is suspended the West would have very little leverage.” That’s not a strong case unless you are already convinced. In North Korea’s case would a requirement for a verified suspension before negotiations have gotten a verified suspension or would it have just prevented negotiations? North Korea would be poorer, with more people starving but with more nuclear devices today if an Iranian strategy had been followed.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Actually, Gary doesn’t use “nuclear weapon” and “nuclear weapon option” interchangeably. But he did speak almost exclusively about a nuclear weapons option, saying he didn’t know if Iran had made a decision to seek a nuclear weapon.

  6. hass

    He does however conflate a civilian, IAEA-monitored enrichment program that is economically justifiable and was started with the encouragement and support of the US and European states, with a nuclear weapons “option” – which is still just as deliberately misleading. According to the IAEA there are currently 40 states that have the “capability” or “option” to build nukes (or whatever other deliberately ambiguous term you want to use to cpver up the fact that no actual evidence of a nuclear weapons program exists.)

  7. Arnold Evans

    I’m not going to watch the speech again to find the exact moments where he switches from nuclear capable to nuclear armed.

    From memory, he starts that Iran wants a nuclear weapons option and the US does not want Iran to have a nuclear weapons option.

    But he doesn’t point out reasons that a nuclear weapons option is unpalatable, he points out reasons why an Iranian nuclear weapon is unpalatable.

    His scenario of Israel seeing Iran mobilizing a nuclear force and preemptively striking it is not a scenario about a nuclear option.

    If Iran was to be bombed would it be to prevent Iran from getting a weapons option or to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? Gary certainly doesn’t draw a clear distinction between the two. He says both over course of the presentation, if not interchangeably then he never explains if or how they aren’t interchangeable.

    Somewhat relatedly, on the question of don’t nations have the right to enrich uranium. He concedes that they do, but that Iran doesn’t want that, Iran wants a nuclear option.

    There is no such thing as domestic enrichment that does not confer a nuclear option, at least according to US policy. If that was not true, then Iran would accept a domestic enrichment program that does not confer such an option. The US official position is that such a program is impossible.

    But Gary does, very weakly and quickly, tie a nuclear option to an actual nuclear weapon. It verges on comical.

    He says that if Iran has a nuclear option, Iran will be under tremendous pressure to build a weapon. But he says this may not be immediate. Over some amount of time that he isn’t sure of, he is certain Iran would build a weapon if it has the option.

    What about Gary’s own arguments that a weapon would not be useful for Iran? He says Iran makes those same arguments and is very clever and wily.

    So the reasons everyone knows that Iran would not have use for an actual weapon are correct. Iran knows them. Iran says them. But still, and it can only be called faith, Gary believes Iran would feel tremendous pressure to build a weapon.

    The reasons Iran would not actually build a weapon, even though they are true, and even though Iran knows them, are just Iran being very clever – but they don’t shake Gary’s faith that Iran would necessarily build weapons.

    If any two concepts have ever been used interchangably, the concepts of Iran having an nuclear option and Iran having a nuclear weapon are used interchangeably in this presentation.

    He does provide what I consider a weak defense for such use, but he certainly presents them as the same thing.