I would like to be able to say that all the signs we’ve seen this last month about planning for war with Iran was just that – updating target lists, tweaking schedules and so forth. I’m sure the Pentagon does this all the time to many different plans to defend or attack. It’s why they’re in business and we shouldn’t expect anything less. But normally, such activity does not mean that we are about to carry out those plans.
But I don’t think the French Foreign Minister would say something like this unless the president has given ample warning to our EU allies that something was up:
The world should “prepare for war” with Iran, the French foreign minister has said, significantly escalating tensions over the country’s nuclear programme.
Bernard Kouchner said that while “we must negotiate right to the end” with Iran, if Teheran possessed an atomic weapon it would represent “a real danger for the whole world”.
The world should “prepare for the worst… which is war”, he said.
His comments came after Washington reminded Teheran that “all options were on the table” in confronting its nuclear policy, which many officials in the West believe has the ultimate aim of arming a nuclear warhead, despite Iran’s claim that it is for civilian purposes.
Jacques Chirac blew hot and cold on confronting Iran but ultimately came down exactly where Sarkozy’s government is now; no nukes for the mullahs. Whether that means that the French would support the kind of preemptive strike the Bush Administration appears to be planning, we cannot say.
Preemptive it would have to be. There is absolutely no way of us knowing when or if the Iranians will have overcome the immense technological problems in getting their centrifuge system to produce enriched uranium on an industrial scale. They may be months away as I write this if you believe Iranian President Ahmadinejad:
In a report submitted in late August 2007 to the to the IAEA Council of Governors, IAEA Director-General Muhammad El-Baredei stated that as of August 19, 2007, Iran had 1,968 centrifuges at the Natanz facility, into which UF6 gas had been injected. However, in early September, 2007, Ahmadinejad stated: “When we opened [the UCF] at Isfahan, they [i.e. the West, headed by the U.S.] threatened military action [against us]. But now, we are operating over 3,000 centrifuges, and every week [another] new [centrifuge] system is installed… They have not managed to do anything against [our] united and steadfast nation.”(6) He added, “They thought they could, via each of the sanctions resolutions that they issued, make the Iranian nation withdraw â€“ but after each resolution, the Iranian nation showed additional progress [in its nuclear] program.”(7)
A “new centrifuge system” comprises 164 individual centrifuge machines. I believe Ahmadinejad is wildly exaggerating here when he boasts of having 3,000 machines up and running. And there is zero evidence that Iran has been able to use these centrifuges in a cascade – dumping the UH6 gas into succeeding centrifuges further enriching it. Even if they have partially succeeded in operating a cascade, the likelihood of them being able to use all their centrifuges to continuously enrich enough uranium to make a bomb is extremely slight.
According to experts I respect – arms control professionals who harbor no illusions about the world or our enemies – Iran is still 18-24 months from having a workable bomb. Allow me to commit a horrid blog faux pas and reprint an entire post from Dr. Jeffery Lewis’s Arms Control Wonk blog:
We know that Iran operated 8 cascades between 18 April- 19 August. That is seventeen weeks, 119 days or 2856 hours.
Eight cascades, fed 70 grams of hex per hour, should have consumed 1,600 kg of hex.
Assume the four additional cascades began operating on May 13 (about 14 weeks). The additional four cascades should have consumed another 650 kg, for a grand total of 2,250 kilograms.
Instead, Iran consumed 690 kilograms of hex during that period, for an operating efficiency of about 30 percent.
Thatâ€™s very low.
What is very odd that is that 260 of those kilograms were consumed between 15 April-22 May.
As a result, all twelve cascades consumed only 430 kilograms in the not quite 13 weeks that followed. Twelve cascades, over the course of 89 days or 2136 hours, should consume almost 1800 kg of hex. That means Iranâ€™s centrifuges operated close to one-quarter of their efficiency, a substantial decrease from the relatively continuous operation between 15 April â€“ 22 May (about half their maximum feed).
Are the Iranians husbanding that Chinese hex?
Do the centrifuges with indigenously produced components not work right?
Is Iran holding back for political reasons?
Clearly, Iran is having problems with its nuclear program. It is a third world country without much in the way of educational, scientific, or technical infrastructure and have relied for years on other scientists and technicians – mostly from Pakistan – to make any progress at all on enriching uranium in any great quantities.
Now that the AQ Khan black market network has been smashed, Iran has been pretty much on its own these last few years. The progress they have made has been uneven at best. Every time Ahmadinejad brags about some new milestone in the Iranian program, it has proven to be unrealistic or an outright lie. The Iranian president is apparently not above using the nuclear program for domestic political purposes as evidenced by his remarks, translated here by MEMRI, before a Rev Guard gathering:
On several occasions, Ahmadinejad stressed that Iran would continue developing its nuclear program regardless of the sanctions. He noted that the sanctions were having no impact on progress in “the irreversible path of the nuclearization of the Iranian nation”(3) and denied Western reports of a slowdown in Iran’s nuclear enrichment. Ahmadinejad further promised to place Iran’s nuclear technology “at the service of those who are determined to confront the bullying powers and aggressors [i.e., the Western countries, headed by the U.S.]...”(4) In a recent conference of Revolutionary Guards commanders, he also stated that “some violent powers [i.e., the West, headed by the U.S.] are now officially declaring that they want to cooperate with the Iranian nation, and that they acknowledge Iran’s [status] as a regional power. However, they must know that Iran is a global power.”(5)
This, of course, is the monumental problem that Iraq poses. How much stock do we put into his boasts to “place Iran’s” nuclear technology in the hands of terrorists? Can we even afford to ignore a threat like that?
This is Dick Cheney’s “1% Doctrine” come calling in the flesh. If there is a 1% chance that such a boast would ever be realized, shouldn’t we act pre-emptively? It is a question we better start asking ourselves and debating. And if not a 1% chance, where do we draw the line? At what point does it become foolhardy not to take Iranian threats like this seriously?
And even though Ahmadinejad is still just the President and his views do not necessarily reflect those of his boss, Supreme Leader Khamenei, Iran has never seen a president with such a strong independent powerbase inside the country. Despite the fact that Bush may be more popular among the Iranian people than Ahmadinejad (just kidding), he has the unwavering support of some very powerful, very conservative elements in the clergy and especially in the IRG where he was a commander of the Qods force back in the day.
If this weren’t enough of a worry, we also have to be concerned that this is not a rational person we would be dealing with. All Iranian leaders have been walled off from the rest of the world for so long, their worldviews skewed by the Koran and by a self-imposed isolation, that it becomes extraordinarily difficult not to look at statements like this and wonder if Ahmadinejad isn’t an unreasoning religious fanatic:
“[The day] of these aggressors… who are oppressing and controlling the nations, is now coming to an end. Those who [seek to] distract the people with a materialistic philosophy of one kind or another, and who pursue materialism, have brought humanity nothing but despair and deception… The time of the righteous rulers will come, and the most righteous [of rulers, [i.e., the Hidden Imam], will form a government and thereby instate the monotheism of Abraham [throughout the world]. That day is not far away…
“Our enemies naturally feel threatened by the call to [believe in] the Mahdi, for they do not want people to thinks about justice. But our reply to them is that the era of the aggressive [powers] has come to an end. We believe that it is time for the righteous to rule, and for humanity to be properly [re]born out of love, knowledge and spirituality.”(14)
His pronouncements regarding the Mahdi may also be for domestic political consumption. But in this, we have independent observers who have remarked about Ahmadinejad’s apparent seriousness when talking about the 12th Imam:
At the International Seminar on the Doctrine of Mahdism, held in Iran September 6-7, 2006 during the celebrations for the Mahdiâ€™s birthday, and attended by representatives of various countries, Ahmadinejad emphasized the universal and active nature of Mahdism and called on the West to accept it: â€œToday mankind is proceeding towards the truth. Today the happiness of mankind depends on proceeding towards the truth. Today we invite everyone to proceed towards the truth, since [the truth] is the only way… This celebration [of the Mahdiâ€™s birthday] is not only for Muslims but for the entire world. The Mahdi belongs to all of mankind…
â€œThe Hidden Imam has no tangible presence among us, but he is always [here], and we must prepare the ground for his speedy appearance… Some claim that during his occultation, his [nobility] is suspended, but that is not true… On the contrary, we must rush towards him and hasten to prepare the ground for his appearance. [He will not appear] if we sit idly. Mankind must hurry towards the Hidden Imam in order to reach him. A person who [actively hastens the coming of the Imam] is different from one who does not… Today, mankind is proceeding rapidly towards perfection, truth, justice, love, peace and compassion, and this is possible only under the rule of the perfect man [i.e. the Hidden Imam]...â€ 
We have no clue whether this is all for show or whether he truly believes in these messianic principles. And if he believes that the appearance of the 12th Imam can be hastened by actively creating the conditions for his return that have been prophesied, what does that mean for policy makers here and elsewhere in the west? At the very least, this possible obsession with the 12th Imam could be coloring Ahmadinejad’s everyday decision making process:
Ahmadinejad went on to explain: “At some meetings, I told these friends that I was an engineer, and that I had analyzed the problems and presented proof, [and thus] I told them that the enemies do not have the courage to launch a war against us. Some doubted my words, but I presented them with two [pieces of] evidence. First, I told them, I am an engineer, I am deliberate, I make tables and write and examine hypotheses for hours. I present proof and put together plans based on it, and that is how I proceed. They [the U.S.] cannot pose a problem to Iran. They are stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have problems there, and lack the ability [to act against Iran]. As further proof, I told them that I believe in the word of God. God said that those who act properly will triumph. Iran’s Leader [Ali Khamenei] and the Iranian nation are steadfast in, attentive to, and agree with the word of God…” (9)
For those who believe that Ahmadinejad would never attack the United States or the west because he knows the consequences, it might help to reread the above paragraph. This is classic miscalculation of an opponent – the same reason that Saddam continued to fire on our aircraft and boast about driving us from Iraqi soil. He never thought we’d go all the way and overthrow him. He was wrong.
But is Ahmadinejad serious about his belief that the west will do nothing regardless of what they do with their nuclear program? Apparently so. On such miscalculations are wars made certain.
To sum up, we have an Administration determined to deal with Iran, arrogantly believing that no matter who their successor is, they won’t have the guts to do what is necessary to safeguard the country. Given the uselessness of diplomatic moves to date, it is clear to me that there is a clock – probably on Dick Cheney’s desk – that is ticking down toward zero hour.
And in Tehran, we have a messianic leader who dismisses any threat from the west and wants to put those who advocate rapprochement with the democracies in jail:
On another occasion, Ahmadinejad harshly condemned senior Iranian officials who had in recent months called for compromise with the West: “With regard to obtaining nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, unreliable individuals have spoken of compromising… No one would believe it if I mentioned the names of these individuals, who in several meetings spoke of the need for compromise, enumerating the enemy’s strong points, and [raising the possibility that the West could launch] an all-out war… We have experienced days when we were pressured from a hundred different directions from within [Iran] to withdraw [and halt uranium enrichment]... But I said that I was willing to guarantee them that it was impossible for [the U.S.] to launch a war against us…”(8)
A man who believes in the imminent return of the messiah and who thinks it is “impossible for the US to launch a war” against Iran?
This, along with the tunnel vision among our own leaders is a recipe for disaster.
Can Condi or Gates stop it? I think the answer is a qualified yes if they can engage the rest of the world in applying serious sanctions that dig deep into the Iranian economy. The faltering economy could bring to the fore in Iran the slightly less radical and more practical leadership of the faction led by former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who was recently elected head of the powerful Assembly of Experts and is probably dead set against war with the United States – for now. This is the faction that Ahmadinejad was talking about in the quote immediately above. They don’t want war with the US on very practical grounds. Unlike their engineer president, they have no illusions of what a couple of hundred B-51, B-2, and F-117 bombers can do to Iran not to mention another 300 or so carrier based aircraft in the Gulf. They are rightly terrified that their rickety economy could be destroyed if the US were to seriously go after Iranian infrastructure.
Can the “no war” factions in each government win the day? In order to avoid conflict, the Iranians are going to have to give substantially on their nuclear program – stringent inspections with strict international oversight on its facilities – while the United States will probably have to give some security assurances to the Iranians that we won’t agitate for regime change. You and I both know such assurances will not be forthcoming nor will the Iranians agree to such demands.
But there is still time to maneuver diplomatically. Not much time – perhaps less than a year – before Iran will probably be capable of slowly enriching uranium to weapons grade levels. Whether anything can be done to avoid war in the interim is anyone’s guess.
I should have included this profile of IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei in today’s NY Times if only because reading it – and more importantly, reading this post from Allah - shows the problems with getting the UN to do its job and help avoid war between the west and Iran.
Read especially Allah’s links to his posts from earlier this year when ElBaradei was shamelessly shilling for the mullahs, kowtowing to their wishes to banish an inspector who was doing too good of a job among other things. ElBaradei is the gatekeeper at the UN and would probably be the difference between war and peace in the long run.
Given his historic reluctance for confrontation, it is likely we will get the former.