Sunday, January 13, 2008

Back In The Red Zone

There's a trifecta of stories today featuring Iran. Any one of them would strike me as pretty alarming. But the three together seems like a very clear indication that we've entered something of a critical moment in this long-simmering stand-off.

For starters, IAEA chief Mohamed ELBaradei wrapped up his visit to Tehran where he met with President Ahmadinejad, but also with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who rarely meets with heads of multi-lateral organizations. The significance of the talks boils down to two principle announcements. First, while reaffirming their defiance of American pressure, the Iranians have agreed to fill in the missing elements of the history of their covert nuclear procurement program within the coming month. Second, they've also revealed a program to develop sophisticated centrifuges capable of a must faster uranium enrichment capacity. Both announcements are very bad news.

The first is troubling because it will almost certainly be spun as evidence of Iran's increased cooperation with the IAEA and therefore reason for reducing the urgency of diplomatic pressure on Tehran. But this is misleading, because Iran has already demonstrated its willingness to clarify the history of its procurement program. Where it has proven less cooperative is in allowing unannounced and intrusive access to all of its nuclear program's sites to IAEA inspectors (the so-called Additional Protocol). This intrusive inspection regime is the real safeguard against military applications of the nuclear program, and yesterday's talks produced no concrete progress on that score.

What's more, the revelation of a cutting-edge centrifuge development program is sure to set off red flags in Washington and Jerusalem, for two reasons. First, if successful, it would greatly reduce the amount of time necessary to enrich the needed uranium for military use. And second, the work is being carried out in an installation to which Iran has denied access to IAEA inspectors, reinforcing fears that Tehran is basically using cooperation on known components of its program to shield progress in unknown components.

In other news out of Iraq, the Sunday Times of London reports that the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, secretly visited the Green Zone last month to press Tehran's demands that the fate of Iranian diplomats (read: Revolutionary Guard agents) detained by US forces be included on the agenda of upcoming US-Iran ambassadorial talks on the Iraq security situation. The story's wording leaves ambiguous whether the General, who is on Washington's "most wanted" list, met with American or Iraqi officials while in Baghdad.

The visit, if true, would seem to increase the significance of both the recent naval incidents reported in the Strait of Hormuz, as well as a statement made by Gen. Petraeus to the effect that there's been an increase this month in the use of bombs typically credited to Iranian agents in Iraq. One possibility is that the US is using trumped up claims to ratchet up its rhetoric towards Tehran. But another is that the Revolutionary Guards are raising the heat with provocative gestures designed to demonstrate just how much damage they can do to American interests should they not get their "diplomats" released.

In effect, Iran has doubled down on its posture vis-a-vis the US: no concessions on the nuclear front and a very aggressive position in Iraq and the Strait of Hormuz. What makes it so alarming is that it demonstrates not only a willingness to play with fire, but also a refusal to provide any face-saving position for the US, which will have to weigh its response very carefully. I'd been wondering about the Pentagon's decision to go public with the naval incidents last week, and now I think I understand why they did. In the past, publicly pointing the finger at Tehran, for instance in Iraq, seems to have gotten results, indicating that Tehran was concerned about protecting its image. We'll soon see whether the same approach works, post-NIE.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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