Jeffrey LewisEmerging Powers and Nuclear Politics

Megan Garcia has penned a great little essay on “emerging powers” in nuclear politics in general, and Brazil in particular.  Let me also plug her monograph, Global Swing States and the Non-Proliferation Order.

The subject is super important — one of the big ideas lurking in the back of my head concerns how the nonproliferation regime adjusts to the spread of manufacturing technologies.  Americans like to list all the stuff that newly industrialized countries like Brazil must do to fully embrace nonproliferation, such as signing and ratifying the Additional Protocol.  What Americans don’t like talking about is what we have to do in exchange — accepting that Brazil’s participation confers the right to help draft the rules.  That’s probably the main reason I remain appalled at how the Obama Administration handled the May 2010 Zombie Fuel Swap with Iran.

Anyway, that’s my blog post.  Megan’s post puts Brazil’s embrace of nonproliferation in some historical context, closing with a look at where the country’s domestic politics are today:

There has been a lot of buzz lately about what you might call ‘rising powers’ or ‘emerging powers’ or ‘the countries that seem to know how to have a lot of fun and also eat excellent food.’  Let me draw your mind from Turkish meze and Indian samosas to the role these countries are playing in nuclear politics.

Take Brazil, for example.

Although it’s slowed over the pew few years, Brazil’s economic growth is still giving China a run for its money (literally). The average rent for an apartment in Rio is somewhere around $2,000 a month, for goodness sake. And, to the chagrin of their neighbors, Brazilian leaders have had their eye on the coveted Global Leader moniker for quite some time; first via Lula’s fiery presence on the world stage and now with Rousseff’s quiet determination to keep economic development on course.

Brazil’s engagement with the global nuclear regime has been a complex one. Initially, Brazilian leaders didn’t want to join the Non Proliferation Treaty, and viewed it as discriminatory because it forced less developed nations into accepting permanent technological disadvantage. In the 1950’s Brazil negotiated with West Germany to buy three centrifuges but the U.S. and British occupation authorities blocked the deal. Under the Filho Administration in the 1950’s the U.S. normalized relations and sent research reactors to Brazil under the Atoms for Peace program.

Between 1964 and 1985 Brazil was governed by a military dictatorship that both acquired its own nuclear technology capacity and relied on technological assistance from the United States because of energy shortages and the 1973 oil shocks. Because the U.S. was unwilling to transfer the nuclear fuel cycle in its entirely to Brazil, the Brazilian government secretly negotiated with West Germany for nuclear power reactors, uranium processing facilities, conversion, enrichment and reprocessing technology. By the time the military regime ended in 1985 Brazil’s Navy had an indigenous program to develop a naval reactor, the Army was developing a large graphite-moderated reactor to create weapons usable plutonium and the Air Force had a program to develop laser enrichment and breeder reactors.

With the fall of the military regime and the emergence of democratic governance in Brazil, the country has emphasized the peaceful nature of its nuclear activities. Its 1988 constitution bans any use of nuclear weapons—a major step for a country that had been developing the capabilities that would allow it to develop a weapon if it chose to. Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello also sealed Brazil’s underground atomic test site in 1990, in part to improve relations with the U.S. (He snuck that move in before being impeached.) And in 1998 Brazil completed its accession to the NPT, despite heated internal debate about whether acceding to a treaty that many experts believed to be inherently unfair was worth becoming integrated into the global nonproliferation regime. (The internationalists won that argument.) Brazil also ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1998.

Brazil has been a stalwart champion of generating regional solutions to nuclear security problems. In 1991, after years of seeing each other as nuclear rivals, Brazil and Argentina created the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) to monitor each other’s nuclear activities and facilities and ensure that they were exclusively for peaceful use. While the IAEA and established powers believe that IAEA inspections go further than ABACC inspections, Brazil maintains that the system provides the highest guarantee of nuclear safeguards.

Which brings us back to today and Dilma Rousseff’s presidency. The question among many of the Brazilian colleagues I’ve spoken to is whether and how Brazil will engage on nuclear issues in the future, both directly with the P5 and in forums like the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

The best thinking that I’d heard from those inside and outside the Brazilian government is that Lula and the Brazilian governing elite learned a lesson from the deal Lula and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan tried to make with Iran in May 2010. In essence, Lula and Erdogan stuck their necks out to encourage Iran to agree to a fuel swap proposal that they thought was backed by the P5.  The permanent members reacted coldly to the deal negotiated by Brazil and Turkey, catching them off guard. Lula and Erdogan expected their role as mediators to be heralded and instead they got a public lashing. Heavily criticized by the Brazilian domestic press, Lula was lambasted at home as a pawn of the major powers.

In light of Obama’s earlier encouragement of Turkey and Brazil’s role in discussions with Iran, Lula and other Brazilian policymakers publicly and privately fumed when the permanent members of the UNSC disavowed the deal, saying things like, “the traditional centers of power will not share gladly their privileged status.” In the end, the UNSC adopted new sanctions against Iran, effectively taking the agreement negotiated by Brazil and Turkey off the table.  The deal — and the subsequent Brazilian and Turkish decision to vote against UNSC sanctions — sent ripples through the established powers. Brazil and Turkey seemed to demonstrate that they could have an occasional seat at the negotiating table.  Whether they want the seat given what happened in 2010 remains unclear.

Dilma is a much less public president than Lula was. She’s more of a Meryl Streep to Lula’s Charlie Sheen. Rousseff is more focused on domestic economic policy than public diplomacy. This seems to be in part because Brazil’s economic growth has slowed, and in part because of her background in energy and economic issues. With Rousseff’s less public persona than Lula, her penchant for focusing on Brazil’s economy, and the specter of the Iran fuel swap deal lurking in the background, it’s unlikely that she will attempt to mediate between problematic countries like Iran and nuclear weapons states. Whether Brazilian diplomats will mediate in a much less public fashion has yet to be determined.


  1. has (History)

    I’d just like to point out a fact about those “fastest growing countries” — of all the BRIC nations, China had the greatest improvement in their Human Development Index for the last 30 years: 70%.

    Brazil’s HDI improvement was: 40%

    Iran’s HDI improvement in that same time period: 67%. Iran’ achieved “Highly Developed” status around 2000.

    In fact Iran’s rate of development was faster than all of the other BRICs and almost matched China, despite the years of wars and sanctions.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      It’s a pity Iran is about to piss away all that progress.

    • Alex (History)

      Care to elaborate Jeffrey?

      “About to piss away all that progress”, I thought it was the p5 that shot down the Brazil-Turkey proposal…..

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Well, I was opposed to the invasion of Iraq and I am extremely leery of using force against Iran, but one would have to be a fool not to see where this situation is headed absent some dramatic change by all parties involved.

      North Korea is probably the best outcome Iran is headed toward, with Libya or Syria the worst.

    • Magpie (History)

      How To Not Get Yerself Saddamised*
      A guide for tinpot dictators in three easy steps

      1. Get within sprint distance of nuclear weapons. Make sure everyone knows you’re in sprint distance, but deny that you’ll do it. If everyone keeps cool, stay right there forever.

      2. If your many enemies act threatening enough, or generate enough instability in your country that you can realistically see a short drop and a sharp stop in your future, finish that sprint and call it a patriotic thingamabob. Now, anyone who, for example, provides weapons and support to your nascent insurgency is an idiot. Point that out! Take the opportunity to look stern and patriarchal and a stander-upon-the-highground. We want only peace, after all.

      3. If said idiots do actually invade, or provide enough support to the insurgency to get a full scale rebellion, make sure some random nutball gets a nuke in all the confusion and uses it to take out, oh, say, a fair chunk of Tel Aviv or Rhiyadh. Loudly proclaim that it was the reckless actions of your enemies that lead to the instability that allowed such a terrible tragedy to happen (just like you’ve been warning!), and hey everyone let’s just all calm down now and make sure nothing like this ever happens again, cue crocodile tears.

      The great thing about step 3 is that it’ll never happen. Hell, step 2 will probably never happen once step 1 is done, and assuming folk aren’t idjits. ‘Course, sometimes elections make idjits of us all…

      Does anyone think the Syrian rebels would have gotten as much support if Syria had been sitting on any nukes? Hell no. Iran, if they’re as smart as I think they are, don’t need to push things any further than they have. The progression past point 1 isn’t really needed as long as the rest is implied, and if Bibi keeps taking his meds.

      I really don’t think they’re aiming for regional nuclear-arms-race – why would they? The field is looking great for them, why level it like that? No, they’re after Saddamisation Insurance – and they’ve already got it. Now they just need to wait for everyone to get over their disappointment. Regime change is so much fun! But sometimes you just have to take your bat and your ball and go home.

      *Yeah, I like that word too, even with non-Americanian infidel spelling.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Magpie, I don’t see here a sure-fire formula for saving the hides of Iran’s dictators.

      1.”Get within sprint distance of nuclear weapons… stay right there forever.” Sounds like a formula for economic sanctions forever, until your economy stagnates so badly you can’t stay in power. Better formula, unlike Saddam, provide clear evidence through transparency that you don’t, won’t, and can’t make a fast sprint to the Bomb.

      2. “finish that sprint… Now, anyone who provides weapons and support to your nascent insurgency is an idiot.” Atom bombs are not useful against rioters in Tehran, regardless of whether supported by enemies or not. This assumes you actually finish the sprint before your enemies finish you, far from clear.

      3. “If said idiots do actually invade, or provide enough support to the insurgency to get a full scale rebellion, make sure some random nutball gets a nuke in all the confusion and uses it to take out, oh, say, a fair chunk of Tel Aviv or Rhiyadh.” Giving a nuke to a nutball means losing control. A nuke is much more valuable as a controlled threat, not as an uncontrolled fait accompli. Step 3 is also idiotic because you forgot to mention step 4:

      4. Israel and/or U.S. take out numerous targets in Iran. Follow-up conventional war makes 100% sure the Iranian theocracy sees its final day very soon. Better to take your risks from rebels than to seal your doom for sure.

      5. “they’re after Saddamisation Insurance – and they’ve already got it.” No. Iran is in no serious danger of invasion or attack from U.S. or Israel if they step back from nukes and prove it. There is no insurance provided from step 1, simply provocation for sanctions and maybe war if Israel or U.S. thinks (perhaps mistakenly) that Iran is moving too close to step 2.

    • Magpie (History)

      Dude. The idea is that if you have nuclear weapons, no-one can afford to destabilise you.

      You don’t use nukes on the rioters – you don’t need to. What you do need, though, is for other states to NOT give the rioters enough weapons to become a rebellion. You need it to be in everyone else’s interests for you to be stable and in control.

      You wouldn’t give an insurance nuke to a random nut. The threat is either that some nutty sub-faction may genuinely gain control of, and use, a weapon, or simply that you will use your own people and claim it was a nut. Again, look at Syria. If a chemical weapon comes flying out of rebel-controlled territory into Israel, won’t the Syrian government (whatever the suspicions of the rest of the world) have very plausible deniability, and even something of a moral high-ground, given the external actors who contributed to the required instability? Wouldn’t they be pretty much safe from retaliation?

      If they’d hade nukes, do you think everyone would have been throwing weapons at the rebels? Do you think Assad would be looking so precarious right now? No, because absolutely everyone – friends, enemies, neighbours, everyone – would have a strong interest in keeping long-term rational actors in control of the nukes.

      Iran, sticking to domestically produced LEU, holding on to cascades, is sprint-capable. Obfuscate the stocks just enough for people to be unsure if you’ve actually done it, and it’s about as good as having a weapon. Done.

      Now it’s just a matter of working through the process for everyone to calm down. Are Pakistan or India under crippling sanctions? Nope. Can the Iranians expect everyone to maintain this level of action? Nope. Does the Iranian regime value the sanction-vulnerable domestic economy over their own survival, anyway? Nope.

      So, with their own power (and hence lives) relatively secure from foreign interference with (at least) the implied threat of a potential weapon, now it’s just a matter of getting out of the current angst-swamp as advantageously as possible.

      Keep in mind, the main culprit for destabilisation in Iran is the KSA – but there are plenty of players with an interest. You can’t tell me that the Iranians have been watching Syria and Egypt and Libya without a little gulp of their own. Or that they watched Iran and Afghanistan get curb-stomped for fairly dubious reasons without a tinge of concern. They DO have quite realistic threats in the medium term. An implied nuke will go some way to mitigating some of that.

      …and an airstrike would probably be politically good for the Iranian leadership. *That’s* not the sort of threat they’re worrying about.

      First rule of tinpot dictators: stay in power. Everything else is secondary.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Every case is different, so I won’t try to explain every case you cite. I will simply say for Iran today, regime survival with the least amount of risk requires stepping away from the nuclear brink and demonstrating to the world that Iran has genuinely stepped away. The U.S. is in no mood to invade or attack Iran for casual reasons and Iran knows it.

      The hypothesis that the U.S. might significantly arm various rebels is still hypothetical, not a short-term threat. In any case, an Iran in good standing, because it had stepped away from the nuclear brink, would have no trouble buying arms from abroad to shoot the rebels.

      The notion that outsiders would refuse to destabilize a regime simply because it has nukes stretches the credulity of “deterrence” to its very limits. If the regime itself is perceived as nutty and potentially dangerous, and if the rebels being armed are perceived as rational and moderate, what is the rationale for outsiders to ensure the “stability” of a nutty regime?

      Nukes may deter invasion, but right now for Iran that is not a serious threat — unless Iran chooses to cross the nuclear threshold. Hence, the low-risk strategy for regime survival for Iran today is to step away from the nuclear threshold. Refusal to do this only demonstrates the regime’s nuttiness and/or dysfunction, not its rationality.

    • Rene (History)

      Jonah, I have a hard time understanding your last sentence. For one, Iran is not close to the nuclear threshold to step away from it. Obama recently said, and Bibi concurred, that it would take Iran about a year to build a nuclear weapon if they decide to do so–and they would be caught two weeks into it. Clapper said something similar recently in his report to Congress. How can Iran’s position be considered close to the threshold? In fact, they’re cautious enough to keep their 20% stockpile below 200 kgs, i.e. less than is required for a single bomb.

      For another, I think sometimes we don’t see how nutty Western policy has become, and thereby accuse the other side of being nuts. Once upon a time, people attacked another country in defense, or if there was a present, immediate threat. Then there developed the notion of attacking a country because it’s developing WMD. Currently the idea is that you may attack Iran because it’s developing WMD capability. And we’re confident enough to say that if someone is developing sensitive, dual-use technology they’re nutty because how dare they risk our Old Testament-like dispensations. In other words, how nutty of them to not take us for the nuts we are.

      It doesn’t make any sense.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      One year away from the bomb is close enough to cause high anxiety in Israel and serious concern in the West, particularly when Iran has had (and likely still has) a weapons program. Caught within two weeks is an optimistic assessment of our intelligence capabilities, not shared by all. Temporary caution by Iran is useful to avoid war, but Iran has provided no binding assurances and refuses the transparency measures needed to dissipate everyone’s concerns. Hence, Iran is justifiably being sanctioned.

      I do not claim that Iran is right now close enough to justify war, nor do I claim that the West is a paragon of rationality. Indeed, because I do not view human beings as particularly rational, I cannot rule out worst case scenarios, such as Iran gets the bomb, uses it against Israel or others, and receives significant retaliation in return.

    • Rene (History)

      If being one year away is still close enough for Israeli leaders, then they should seek out a shrink and take some medication. They would die of angst if they were a non-nuclear state, I suppose.

      But I don’t think there’s a lot of anxiety there. I think Bibi is very smart: he’s pretending to be anxious because he wants the West to cripple Iran’s economy and thereby diminish its influence. I think that’s his real concern, not the non-existent Iranian nuke.

      Also, for all we know Iran is ready to be more transparent and accept the AP if sanctions are lifted. After all, the AP was in force until Iran’s case was referred to the UNSC. So I tend to think that the whole crisis is more about geopolitical considerations, not the nuclear program.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Assessing the true level of Bibi’s angst is a distraction from the main issue. A number of nations (including Russia and China) are concerned about the true nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Their only disagreement is what level of sanctions should be imposed on Iran, not whether there should be sanctions. It is Iran’s actions, not Israel’s actions, that have put Iran in this bad place.

      Sometimes in life it is necessary to choose the lesser of two evils. Refusing to implement the Additional Protocol (AP) is one of those trust-destroying actions that has lead to ever-increasing sanctions on Iran. If it is truly the case that Iran is not trying to build nuclear weapons, why not accept a few reasonable limitations on the nuclear program?

      Iran’s way out of the box is to rebuild trust. This may not be easy, but it can be done. If Iran chooses to rebuild trust, Israel cannot stop sanctions from being lifted.

    • Rene (History)

      Jonah, I don’t think Russia or China are concerned about Iran’s program. Russians have repeatedly said that there is no evidence that Iran is building nukes. I think a more plausible explanation of why they have supported some UN sanctions is that as a matter of principle they do prefer enrichment technology to remain limited (out of selfish concerns as well as long-term security goals related to proliferation). Not to mention that voting in favor of sanctions is also a chip they use in their own dealings with the U.S.

      Also, Iran’s refusal to implement the AP should be seen in its context. They had to do something after their case was referred to the UNSC. They needed to have some bargaining chips, and AP is currently one of them. They have repeatedly saidd that they’re willing to implement the AP and even transparency measures beyond the AP, on the condition that each step they take toward transparency leads to the lifting of some sanctions. This seems an eminently rational approach to me. To insist that Iran should first build trust and then wait for the goodwill of the EU and US Congress to lift sanctions is rather naive, IMHO.

      Just to be clear, I’m not claiming that Iran hasn’t done research on weaponization, etc. I simply don’t know. My point is that one can explain their actions without recourse to the allegation that they want to build nukes. And being a fan of Occam’s, I’m rather reluctant to change my view unless the weaponization allegation helps us to better explain Iran’s actions.

    • Magpie (History)

      “If it is truly the case that Iran is not trying to build nuclear weapons, why not accept a few reasonable limitations on the nuclear program?”

      ‘Zactly my point.

      They can already make nuclear weapons. All they need is to have installed some cascades nice and quite-like somewhere out of the way, and they could take 20% to weapons-grade in no-time flat, and there’s nothing anyone could do to stop them. They could have done it by now.

      So why oh why are they sitting in this in-between world? Because, I would submit, of the First Rule of Tinpot Dictators: hold on to power. There’s just enough threat to tell everyone to back off with their destabilisation efforts. It’s precisely calibrated.

      Consider the world since the Axis of Evil speech. Iraq – the softest member of the Axis – got face-slammed, despite having little to do with anything. On the other side of Iran, the US annexed Afghanistan as the world’s goatiest military base.

      Worried yet? If those two wars had gone swimmingly, nice and clean and out by Christmas, does anyone doubt Bush would have ratcheted things up on Iran?

      Then they fend off a half-a-rebellion in the last elections, strongly suspecting influence from the KSA, the US and Israel (whether that’s true or not, it’s their perception that counts). They’ve had assassinations and drone fly-overs. They’ve done the “CIA-catalysed regime change” game before. They’ve got reason to be paranoid.

      Then they see half-rebellions go to full on drag-em-out-and-shoot-em scales in Lybia, Egypt and Syria – all of those heavily influenced by outside powers.

      They also see the other member of the Axis (NK) being treated at arm’s length – why? Credible threat to Seoul and the possibility that they have working nukes.

      So what do you, as a member of the Iranian hierarchy, do to preserve your position and the integrity of your spinal column? How do you make people wary of supporting internal dissent against you? How do you stay at the top of the shifting heap?

      If they go all the way to nukes, they’re in trouble. But if they cave in and completely back off to where it’s not a threat, not possible, then everyone is free and clear to fund and even arm dissidents, or even (some years down the track, next time America elects a nutball) invade. These people aren’t in there for the next election. They’re in it for the long haul. The rest of their lives, and the lives of their kids and their supporters’ kids. They think long term.

      Long term, their “barely peaceful” nuclear program will become business-as-usual. Long term, their greatest risk comes from foreign efforts to destabilise them internally. Long term, their best bet for survival is to make that too risky for anyone to support.

      …and short term, being seen by a proud Persian population to back down to foreign powers is a great way to give internal dissent a big boost right at the same time you withdraw the threat that’s fending off external intervention. Not a good idea.

      In ten years, if they’re still enriching, still *not* going to weapons, but still maintaining that possibility, do you really think we’ll be able to maintain our level of rage? Of course not – they’ll point to ten years of an irregular, but peaceful, program.

      Long term, y’all. That’s where it’s at.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Magpie, You’ve come back to life (after 4 days…)

      Conceding the point that Iran’s rulers fear regime change, exactly how do nukes prevent regime change? I thought we laid to rest the Iranians “accidentally” allow Mr. NutBall to steal Iranian nuke and blow up Tel Aviv. Just to be sure, your thesis is that Iranian engineers are smart enough to build a bomb, but not smart enough to install GPS or PALs to make sure said bomb does not get lost or blown up without authority? The Israelis, forgiving folks that they are, fully understand, mistakes and design failures happen!

      Your newest thesis mentions invasion insurance (a more traditional type of “deterrence”). George W. III decides to invade Iran. Never mind that Americans are now wiser: If the troops invade Iran, they ain’t coming home by Christmas. If that knowledge alone is not sufficient to deter invasion, Iran will need more than a few nukes that only “maybe” exist to provide the necessary deterrence. That means Iran leaves the NPT, which is not the thesis you posit. So exactly how does this invasion deterrence work?

      Rene, Thank you for your further research to try to find the fatwa. Perhaps it will be published someday.

      In Iran’s case, I think the world is concerned about more than just enrichment technology, it is also about suspected weaponization research, Iran’s hostility toward Israel, the potential for breakdown of the NPT, and the potential for further proliferation in the Middle East — all combining to create a perfect storm. The world is concerned, not just U.S. and Israel.

      I indicated Iran needs to rebuild trust, but did not specify “how” to do this. In your remarks you specify two possible ways: 1) Negotiations to implement transparency measures in exchange for lifting of sanctions. This seems to be the current approach on both sides, but the parties still seem very far apart on the specifics and details. If the negotiations are as agonizingly slow as U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations, it could take years for Iran to get out of this box.

      2) You mention an alternative approach, though you call it naive. This might be called immediate transparency measures now, and wait for goodwill from the world. This approach might well work faster for Iran. The world has every incentive to lift sanctions, so long as the world can feel assured that the nuclear problem is resolved. After all, trade sanctions do hurt the world, even if they hurt Iran more.

    • Magpie (History)

      Do you genuinely beleive that in a country that has collapsed into civil war or rebellion can keep control over all of its nuclear weapons for a nice clean hand-over to a new regime?

      Gah, I give up. If you’re going to persist in misunderstanding the same argument no matter how many different ways I explain it, I don’t see much point continuing.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Magpie, Smile. I understand your argument. I just don’t agree with it.

      You seem to think nuclear deterrence works extraordinarily well (as do a number of people). I think nuclear deterrence works only weakly, and only a little bit (as do a number of other people).

      All national leaders are risk takers — See Cuban missile crisis, where both Kennedy and Khrushchev took great risks, even while staring into the nuclear abyss. Other men in the same shoes would likely have taken even greater risks. Nuclear weapons barely deter nuclear war, maybe deter direct invasion a little bit, but don’t deter conventional war in general and won’t deter regime change.

      Sure, if Iran had nukes, that may deter invasion, but won’t prevent invasion if Iran insists on acting dangerously towards its neighbors. If Iran had nukes, we would be very concerned about civil disorder, but that does not mean we would support the government in power or refuse to arm the rebels (if there were rebels we had sufficient reason to support). In my opinion, of course.

  2. BK (History)

    “It’s a pity Iran is about to piss away all that progress.”

    Don’t worry Dr. Lewis. Iranians are resourceful people; they eventually will piss away all bullying that is targeting their security and sovereign rights.

    Best regards

  3. Erik (History)

    I’m certainly not the expert that others on this site are but I think that the main problem with the Tky/Bra deal in 2010 was that it went off of old uranium transfer numbers. It was, as stated above, based off of a P5+1 (mustn’t forget Germany) negotiated deal that Iran refused previously. Then Bra/Tky come in and negotiate what is basically the same deal but months later, while the centrifuges have been spinning all the while. Certainly big power/UN politics had some place in this but I still believe that if it had been a ‘good’ deal (ie similar to the percentage transfers offered to Iran previously), Iran wouldn’t have been able to use it as the diplomatic chip they attempted to in the Summer of 2010. Just my two cents though…

  4. Julio (History)

    Who’s “Filho”, in the “Filho administration” cited? “Filho” means “Junior”. I have no idea who’s the president you were referring to.

    • Megan (History)

      Julio, the blog should have read ‘under the Cafe Filho Administration.’

  5. Nick (History)

    It has become clear by comments from Tel Aviv and Tehran in the past 24 hours, that Khamenei will not abrogate enrichment, Obama may agree to a Mickey Mouse small program when AP+ has been accepted, and Netanyahu wants no enrichment what so ever. Therefore, the parties are so far apart that there is little chance of success.

    My take on the failure of 2010 agreement is that since the exchange amount was contributing a smaller percentage of the total LEU in Iran as compared to the original 2009 plan, because of the continued enrichment in Natanz, it was not as appealing to the West anymore.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I would be more cynical. The Administration never expected Iran to agree to the “Zombie Fuel Swap.” It was a route to persuade Brazil and Turkey to support sanctions that backfired when Iran said “yes.”

      The agreement was poorly designed, but that reflected the lack of attention the Obama Administration paid to the details, not the incompetence of the Brazilians or the Turks.

    • Alex (History)

      For Iran, a perfect outcome would be the removal of all sanctions, friendly relations with it’s neighbours and a booming economy coupled with it retaining it’s current political influence in the region.

      Now taking a step back, we must ask our selves… What must Iran do to achieve this…..

      hmmmmmm, I’m starting to think that even if khamenei literally turned around and ceased enrichment and other nuclear activities (however unlikely), I think it would be safe to say some how the goal posts would be moved again, some new excuses will come up, human rights, strategical issues etc that will prevent the removal of sanctions or the attempt to isolate it politically and economically..

      Which is what I keep asking myself, realistically what must Iran’s leaders decide to do to achieve those earlier outcomes?

    • Rene (History)

      I sometimes wonder what’s at stake when we talk about geostrategic considerations and interests. I mean, at the end of the way I don’t think what Iran wants is very different from what the US sees as a viable future. The replacement of Arab monarchies with Islamist democracies (which is really going to happen if the US pushes for democratization in the region; cf. Egypt). The formation of a Palestinian state. Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan stabilized. Lebanon remaining unoccupied. I don’t see how Iran and the US would disagree on these issues.

      Sometimes I think most of the fuss is about who’s being recognized as the boss. Iran is adamant that there should be regional solutions and that no one (i.e. the US) from the outside should be the boss (with the implication that Iran be recognized as the model for resisting Western domination), but the US wants to be recognized as the boss. Is it really worth all the trouble and money and pain and insecurity to fight over this?

      p.s. Yes, I know about Syria. But even there, I don’t think elections would lead to a secular government. And I don’t think Iran would have been against an Islamic Republic there, if things had evolved differently (like they did in Egypt). I don’t believe Iran is very adamant about Shi’ism (not that Assad is much of a Shi’i); they’re perfectly happy to cuddle the Sunni Turkey and are wooing the Sunni Egypt.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I do worry that some world leaders impose a geopolitical lens over what might be very pragmatic calculations of interest. The notion of “regional hegemony” for instance strikes me as a distraction from the real interests at stake.

      Having said that, there are specific states in the Middle East in which the Iranians appear to be willing to use force by proxy to influence. One of the important aspects of the 2003 deal — whether one believes it was real or not — was that it included commitments by Iran to stop material support for millitant Palestinia and Lebanese groups, as well as commitment to the two-state solution that would result in recognition of Israel.

      Whether one thinks the 2003 deal was real or not, those are the _sort_ of commitments that would be necessary. Until then, we have a reasonable problem of defense with regard to Iran. That some people would use this as an excuse for regime change is undeniable, so I find that I need to walk a line between taking seriously the real threats the Iranians pose without becoming a hack for the MEK. And I do worry that a nuclear-armed Iran might be more willing to engage in proxy terror.

      We have an additional problem, which is that the Iranians seems to regard our general support for civil society as a mortal threat to their regime. Some of that is our problem, given our current and historical enthusiasm for regime change. But some of that is their own domestic political insecurity.

      As with North Korea, we would like to avoid a war — but taking the positive step of endorsing the sort of government that, were it imposed on us we would resist by force of arms, is always a tough one.

    • Rene (History)

      Fair enough, Jeffrey. But it’s important to note that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah (nor Iran as their backer) is interested in direct confrontation with Israel. I think this is very important. Iran’s support for these popular groups is supposed to give them some sort of deterrence against Israel, not offensive capabilities. I think if Iran were hell bent on harming Israel, they could do more. And I think their restraint is ought to be counted for something when one thinks about possibilities for rapproachment.

      Take the recent votes on Palestinian statehood, for example. Iran has always rejected Israel and advocated a one-state solution, in which there is no distinction between Jews and Arabs. But when it came to voting in the UN for Palestinian observer-statehood, they were practical enough to vote ‘yes’. And I think if things moved toward a viable two-state solution–regrettably they’re not–Iranians wouldn’t try to derail it.

  6. Martin (History)

    “I am extremely leery of using force against Iran, but one would have to be a fool not to see where this situation is headed absent some dramatic change by all parties involved.”

    Hi Jeffrey,

    I’m currently studying French in Paris and it turns out that the French have a word that is half way between “need” and “want”. I’m told we don’t have the same word in English but I need/want you to elaborate on the above quotation. I have to say that taking the stability/instability paradox into account and ignoring the present climate in defence economics, I was really really beginning to believe that this was off the table. I thought that it had been shot down by the mility/intelligence community in the US and later, their counterparts in Israel. In the past few years when there were bouts of speculation about a possible strike, the positions of the chief bloggers on ACW seemed to be that a strike was unlikely.

    I had begun to view talk of “all options” and need for diplomatic sequencing as tiresome bluff. No?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The North Korea scenario is one with no direct military action, but is still pretty destructive to Iran.

    • Rene (History)

      Jeffrey, I don’t see how Iran can take the North Korean path. They have no WMD deterrence right now, so I don’t see how they could move toward weaponization without facing airstrikes. Or do you think Israel is bluffing?

      Also, considering the religious dimension of Iran’s political system, I think it’d be a serious loss of credibility if Iran were to build nukes. The fatwa is not a joking matter; if the leader’s explicit religious decree counts for nothing, then what type of ‘Islamic’ Republic would they be in the eyes of their Muslim population?

      Or do you think the UNSC is willing to punish Iran for 20% enrichment as much as they’re punishing the Norks for weapons?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I have seen no evidence that the Iranian fatwa against nuclear weapons is real. Certainly, one cannot find a text of the alleged fatwa using the usual Internet search procedures. Experts in the D.C. area claim they cannot find any such fatwa on the Supreme Leader’s website, or anywhere else for that matter. Much obliged if you (or anyone else) can find an authoritative link.

    • Rene (History)

      I did a preliminary search and couldn’t find the fatwa itself on his website. I think he gave it back in 2003, so maybe it’s buried somewhere. Anyhow, he’s repeated his stance several times in public speeches and in his meetings with foreign presidents/prime ministers (e.g. Erdogan), and here’s his message to the “Disarmament and Non-proliferation Conference” (perhaps an Iranian-organized conference), in which he takes the U.S. and other powers (including Israel) to task for producing and storing and, in the case of the U.S., using nukes, and ends in this note:

      “We believe that in addition to nuclear weapons, other types of weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons are also a serious threat against humanity. The Iranian nation, which is itself a victim of chemical weapons deployment, senses the danger of producing and storing these types of weapons more than other nations, and is ready to use its entire means toward countering [such weapons.

      We deem the application of these weapons to be forbidden [haram], and we deem it the duty of everyone to try to protect mankind from this great calamity.”

      Also, here’s the collection of articles elaborating on his view, on his website:

    • Rene (History)

      Oops, I forgot to give the link to the text I translated:

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Thank you for your research. The above links are in Farsi, but I trust your translation and I have seen similar anti-nuclear remarks by Khamenei in English.

      My understanding is that a fatwa is supposed to be a legal opinion or ruling issued by an Islamic scholar. A mere statement of opinion, even in a religious sermon, would not ordinarily be regarded as a fatwa.

      Unless Khamenei posts or publishes a text of an actual fatwa and says, in effect, “This is my fatwa, this is my whole fatwa, this is nothing but my fatwa,” we have no idea whether the fatwa exists or what it actually says. For those of us who are suspicious, the fatwa itself may contain important loopholes or qualifications, or even say the exact opposite of what he publicly proclaims.

      I agree, Khamenei has made numerous anti-nuclear remarks. My concern is that I don’t see an actual fatwa that you or I or anyone else can read. Iranian officials proclaim that Khamenei has issued an anti-nuclear fatwa, but no such fatwa appears to be available for public inspection.

    • Rene (History)

      Yes, I agree that one has to see the actual, full text before reaching final conclusions. Salehi, Iran’s Foreign Minister, has said they’re going to “register” the fatwa at the U.N. I don’t know what that means, but I guess that would divulge the precise text.

      The references I’ve seen here and there, like a conference in the Qom seminary about the fatwa and its jurisprudential bases, talk about the prohibition of “producing and using” nukes and other WMD:

      But … I don’t think the fatwa is going to change much. I mean, being an Islamicist, I take a fatwa seriously. But intelligence/security communities tend to be as suspicious as they can, so a declaration by Iran (or any other adversary/rival) isn’t going to make people worry less.

  7. Ataune (History)


    The North Korea scenario cannot fit the aim of the US in the case of Iran.

    Iran is on top of a plateau with 77 million populations with large reserves of gas and petroleum overlooking 7 land neighbors and 8 maritime neighbors. The southern flank is under the watch through one of the most strategic straights in the globe. Turkey is the gate to the Western world while Iran play the same role for Turkey and the Asian countries; Iraq is a friendly step between the Arab world and the Iranian plateau; Pakistan is the buffer with the Indian world; and Afghanistan and Turkmenistan are bi-directional channels to the Asian continent; Russia is in the North lurking for its warm sea passage.

    North Korea on the other hand is a relic of the cold war possessing, at least for now, no big strategic value by itself. it can be isolated and put in hibernation for a long time without any substantial benefit to loose. The same cannot be said and done with Iran.

    The international relations being as they are today, any of those worlds in contact through/with Iranian sphere will constantly extract the prize from the US and Europe for the hardship and loss of business they are enduring. These small jabs will not make the US stronger, it will gradually but surely erode its prestige and influence. For the US to have an optimal influence in the Middle-East there is either a durable and lasting boot in the ground kind of solution, which the current administration is fleeing from – and justifiably so if we take in account the financial situation and recent history; or, reaching a common understanding with the most strategic state in the region. Between those two alternatives all other scenarios sound untenable. The current situation looks to me unfavorable for both the US and Iran with the former, the bigger power therefore having lot more to loose, being in the worst spot.

  8. Renata (History)


    I hope you keep writing. This was really good!

    Just would like to point out that Lula recently compared himself to Lincoln and complained about being frequently criticised by the media. So, he might not take it too well the Charlie Sheen bit.,na-cut-lula-se-compara-a-lincoln-e-critica-adversarios,1002227,0.htm

  9. ara barsamian (History)

    You’re looking to Iran for confidence building measures? For what? What will they get out of this? Ridiculous offers of importing gold?

    Eventually Iran will possess nuclear weapons, and sooner if they have a hidden facility taking the 20% Uranium and pushing it to 80 to 85%.

    They will need enough HEU for 3 weapons, or about 50kg (15 kg ea plus machining losses). I am pretty sure that they have credible designs and done “cold testing” with ordinary Uranium, the only thing missing being the HEU pit.
    If they do a demo test a la DPRK, this will send a message not to mess with them.

    Then what?

    Besides, Israel will need to use nukes if they want to take out Fordow..and besides everything going to hell in the ME, Obama won’t have the balls to do anything about it…certainly not boots on the ground after Irak and Afghanistan…so get used to living with a nuclear Iran.

  10. Broward (History)

    Question from the peanut gallery.

    Doesn’t the increase in regional instability brought on by the Arab spring as well as the continued impact of Iraq and Afghanistan in general, and the reduction in influnece of Hezbollah due to the Syrian situation in particular, change the formula for Iranian security and political stability? With Assad busied by the opposition in Syria, Hezbollah loses their main power broker and link to Iran. The majority of Republican Guard and others who would have originially gone to assist Hezbollah in their planning and organization for any Israeli incurssion from the north are now assisting Syria. This eliminates the threat of Hezbollah and Syria providing additional assistance against Israel should something happen. Wouldn’t this in itself change the formula and make the development of a viable nuclear weapon (or perception of) more important to Iran? The Syrian situation and fear of chem/bio weapons becoming available may force Turkey and Israel to move past the animosity from the ferry incident and could lead to a warming of their relationship.

    Basically, is the current state of Syria and its regional impact becoming a prime driver in the formula that Iranian leaders use to determine the level of importance placed on their nuclear program?