Friday, September 25, 2009

What Did the President Know?

President Obama, along with the leaders of Britain and France, are demanding that Iran "fulfill its obligations under international law, or face the risk of harsh, new sanctions. This, after the U.S. reported that the Iranian government has built a second uranium enrichment plant, which could produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The second facility, located near the city of Qom, has been under construction for several years, according to U.S. officials who spoke with the Washington Post. Experts believe the plant could be operational in several months, giving Iran another option for producing enriched uranium for its nuclear program.

Speaking at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Mr. Obama blasted Tehran's activities:

"Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow," Obama said, detailing how the facility near Qom had been under construction for years without being disclosed, as required, to the International Atomic Energy Agency. "International law is not an empty promise."

The new Iranian plant, the country's second uranium enrichment facility, is believed by U.S. officials to be part of a broad effort by Iran's leadership to pursue the ability to build nuclear weapons. Iran has repeatedly denied having any such goal, insisting that its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity. U.S. officials said they believe the Qom plant is not yet operational but is intended to produce highly enriched uranium -- suitable for nuclear weapons -- and will be capable within months of producing enough material for at least one bomb per year.

In response, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was (predictably) defiant:

"If I were [President] Obama's adviser, I would definitely advise him to refrain making this statement because it is definitely a mistake," Ahmadinejad told Time magazine Friday in an interview in New York that took place even as Obama was publicly revealing the plant's existence. "It would definitively be a mistake."

Ahmadinejad dismissed the accusations from Obama and the other leaders.

"This does not mean we must inform Mr. Obama's administration of every facility that we have," he told Time. It "simply adds to the list of issues [over] which the United States owes the Iranian nation an apology. . . . Rest assured that this will be the case. We do everything transparently."

Put another way, it's very clear that Mr. Ahmadinejad isn't worried about international law, or the threat of more sanctions--assuming the U.N. can actually agree on new measures, and Russia or China don't veto them. The Iranian leader views the latest western statement as nothing more than an empty promise.

And sadly, he's right. Look at the second paragraph in the Post's dispatch, paraphrasing Mr. Obama's words. Western intelligence agencies have apparently known about the facility for several years and monitored construction activity at the site. Both the plant--and its intended purpose--were recognized by intelligence officials and the elected leaders they serve.

We can understand why the facility's existence was never acknowledged (until now). Intelligence sources and methods need to be protected, and it probably took a little time for imagery analysts to confirm the plant's function. Contrary to popular perceptions, key nuclear activities--including uranium enrichment--can be concealed in nondescript buildings, including warehouses. Such facilities don't always provide definitive signs of nuclear activities, although similarities to other plants (such as the complex at Natanz) or hardened construction may have aroused suspicions. There is also reason the believe that Iranian opposition groups may have tipped western intelligence about the Qom plant, just as they early reporting on the Natanz facility.

Still, if it made sense for the U.S. (and its allies) to keep Qom an intelligence secret, we're puzzled by the diplomatic and political reactions to that discovery. Despite indications that Iran was building a second enrichment plant, Washington maintained its support of diplomatic activities aimed at achieving some sort of resolution on the nuclear issue. This process began during the Bush Administration, which encouraged the EU-3 talks with Tehran. Years of negotiations between Britain, France, Germany and Iran yielded no progress, unless you count Tehran's continued progress towards a nuclear weapons capability.

And the diplomatic overtures have continued under Mr. Obama. In fact, Six Party talks on Iran's nuclear program are scheduled to begin in a matter of days. So far, there is no indication that the President--or his partners--are prepared to cancel those negotiations, despite today's revelation. Earlier in his administration, President Obama said he would give Iran "until the end of the year" to choose its course on the nuclear issue.

Disclosure of the Qom facility suggests that Tehran selected its course long ago. That reality begs some rather inconvenient questions, for the current and previous occupant of the White House. Exactly when did we discover the Qom complex, determine its function and elect to persist with pointless diplomatic efforts? The answers to those questions would be instructive, since they illustrate the folly of our policy toward Iran and its nuclear program.

No wonder Ahmadinejad appears so unconcerned.


deth said...

I heard this story reported on BBC this morning when the story first broke, and they spoke of an anonymous Pentagon official who stated 'this nuclear facility isn't news to us'.

Yet, I have not heard such a claim repeated. I think someone spoke out of school and was brought into line. They want to feign surprise to protect their sources.

As a layman myself, the fact Iran has a few facilities to do their nuke work is of no surprise to me. Why would it shock anyone else?

Has John Bolton started frothing yet?

Themav1977 said...

There's an article in Politico that the admin wanted to sit on this for a while so they could use it as leverage in future talks with Iran.
I think the admin is in way over it's head.

Aerospook said...

Way over their head is a massive understatement.....This one of the two biggest foreign policy threats existing today. I cannot find any serious talent or experience in the current administration's team that would go beyond the "let's talk to them some more and appease them"......

tfhr said...

It's not so much "What did the President know?", but what he still doesn't know.

Our ability to know and predict the true intentions of a dangerous, theocratic regime with apocalyptic fantasies like Iran's is just about nil. Our lack of HUMINT within Iran and amongst supporters of the Ayatollah took us by complete surprise 30 years ago. I seriously doubt that we've improved enough in the interim to afford ourselves the kind of leeway we continue to believe we have when dealing with Iran.

Campaign rhetoric about sitting across the negotiating table from madmen with nuclear ambitions may make foreign policy and national security experts like Katie Couric all squishy and breathless but it isn't a strategy and not worth the effort if the other side has no intention of limiting it's own ability to project power regionally or beyond.

Maybe the question to ask is really two-fold: When will the President learn and what will it cost us?