New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Iran Ain’t Japan

With nuclear proliferation having taken no break for the winter holidays or for New Year’s celebrations, the Middle East is echoing with the ugly sounds of Iranian saber-rattling – and U.S. counter-rattling – in the wake of the unprecedentedly strong warning about Iran’s nuclear weapons program issued in November 2011 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Facing the prospect of new economic sanctions for his country’s continued defiance of its nonproliferation obligations, the commander of the Iranian Navy blustered on December 28, 2011, that closing the Straits of Hormuz would be “easier than drinking a glass of water,” and promised that “not a drop” of oil would flow through that passage if more sanctions were imposed.  Iranian naval forces duly conducted a series of exercises and missile test-firings around the New Year.

Seemingly in response, President Barack Obama signed into law a new bill imposing sanctions on Iran’s central bank, though he undercut the message of resolute toughness Congress aimed to send by this legislation when he took issue with some of the new law’s provisions and declared that he would treat its sanctions provisions as “nonbinding.”   Waffling notably less, however, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff subsequently declared that in the event of an Iranian closure of the Straits of Hormuz, “we can defeat that” – and that American forces would “take action and reopen” the Straits.

This close-the-straits drama, however, was really a sideshow, for the real game – and the issue that is driving sanctions, about which Iran has finally begun to become concerned – is the continuing progress of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  Press coverage has focused on the declaration last weekend by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that if Iran tries to build a nuclear weapon “they’re going to get stopped.”  Beneath this seeming toughness, however, the Obama Administration seems to be troublingly confused or ambivalent, undermining its own diplomacy and encouraging those who are determined to whitewash Iran’s nuclear ambitions and prevent the development of effective responses.

Here’s more of what Panetta told CBS News on Sunday:

Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.”

To my eye, this is problematic for two reasons – the first suggesting a slackness of analytical acuity on the part of the Obama Administration that is likely to have baleful results not just in Iran but for the nonproliferation regime as a whole, and the second suggesting a failure of judgment in coping with the Iranian nuclear crisis itself.

I.          Obama Administration Analytical Confusions

The analytical failure is suggested by the first part of Panetta’s comment: that Iran is not “trying to develop a nuclear weapon” and is only “trying to develop a nuclear capability.”  If all the Secretary meant was that we do not believe Iran is actually assembling nuclear weapons yet, but that it is working hard to develop the capabilities that would let it finally take this step, I could agree: the information publicly available supports such a conclusion.  (Earlier comments made by Panetta, in mid-December, suggest that he had in mind only an Iranian decision actually to assemble a device, though his quoted phrasing was still imprecise.).  But if this is the case, Panetta picked a miserable way to express himself on Sunday, and one that is already having unfortunate consequences.

Why do I say this?  Because even if the final step of assembly remains some time off, Iran clearly is indeed “trying to develop” a nuclear weapon, and has been since it first began secretly to acquire enrichment and reprocessing technology in the mid-1980s.  Secretary Panetta’s ill-conceived phrasing, however, makes it sound like the administration doubts the weapons-development purpose that seems to have animated Iran’s nuclear effort over this entire period.  Being more inclined to think the Obama Administration feckless than fraudulent in any kind of sophisticated way, and being painfully aware of the large and growing volume of information that indeed does point to Iran’s nuclear weapons intentions, I think it unlikely that the Obama team actually entertains any such doubts.

Nevertheless, Panetta’s choice of words here dovetails disturbingly well with the Obama Administration’s July 2010 report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (a.k.a. the “Noncompliance Report”), prepared on behalf of the administration by the State Department.  There, the Obama Administration began to squirm away from the previous U.S. finding (in 2005) of Iranian noncompliance with Article II of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – that is, from the conclusion that Iran is, in the words of the NPT, attempting to “manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”  In the 2010 Noncompliance Report, the Obama Administration did not repudiate that earlier finding, but it didn’t reaffirm it either.  Rather, in a classic equivocation, it merely noted that “[t]he United States found in the 2005 [Noncompliance] Report that Iran violated Article II of the NPT,” and that “the issues underlying that finding remain unresolved.

(The 2010 Report also tries, rather misleadingly, to suggest that in the 2005 edition, the United States had only accused Iran of “violat[ing] the ‘seeking or receiving any assistance provision of Article II” by getting help on is weapons program from the A.Q. Khan network and others.  In fact, the 2005 Noncompliance Report also identifies Iran as pursuing “an effort to manufacture nuclear weapons,”  which implicates the other prong of Article II.  The Obama Administration’s 2010 recharacterization, therefore, has the effect of seeming to tie Iran only to a past violation, rather than an ongoing one, conveniently letting Tehran off the hook today and helping Washington evade responsibility for actually having to address the current crisis more clearly or resolutely.  That’s obviously relevant to the “manufacture” issue discussed below, and it speaks volumes about how the Obama State Department approaches NPT issues, but let’s leave that aside for now.)

In any event, there is already an Obama Administration track record of evasion and revisionism on Iranian NPT noncompliance issues, and now Panetta says Iran is not “trying to develop a nuclear weapon”?  Perhaps, then, this is not a coincidence after all, though the explanation is not a simple one.  If only it were true that Iran really isn’t interested in developing nuclear weapons, and hasn’t methodically built up its nuclear infrastructure for this very purpose.  Unfortunately, however, the publicly-available evidence does not bear out such a rosy conclusion, and it says less about Iran than about the confusion and carelessness of the current U.S. administration that both the IAEA and France now seem more willing publicly to accuse Tehran of the obvious than does Team Obama.

Under any common-sense interpretation, of course, Iran has been engaged in “trying to develop” nuclear weapons for some time.  The IAEA’s November 2011 report on safeguards compliance there does a good job of summarizing things, recounting a range of suspect activities strongly pointing toward weapons intent – including some things that do not have “dual-use” applications but are, instead, as the IAEA pointedly notes, “specific to nuclear weapons.”  (The reader can see my quick summary of notable items through this hyperlink, or can read the entire IAEA report in PDF form here.)  And even the Obama Administration admits that there is “credible evidence that Iran has both received nuclear weapons designs and worked indigenously on its own design.”

So what on earth is going on with Panetta’s comments that Iran is not “trying to develop nuclear weapons,” and with the State Department’s evasions in the July 2010 Noncompliance Report?  Here’s my theory.  These pronouncements, I think, are only intelligible – absent a conclusion of sheer stupidity, which I am loath to reach – if one assumes the Obama Administration adheres to a crabbed and sterile understanding of what it means to be “trying to develop nuclear weapons.”

As the earlier, more forthright 2005 Noncompliance Report explained – in text that the Obama Administration characteristically felt unable to repudiate in 2010 but lacked the moral courage either to endorse or even to acknowledge – the idea of “manufacturing” a nuclear weapon for purposes of the NPT’s Article II is not susceptible to a “simple, clear, ‘bright-line’ rule” of interpretation:

In explaining the term ‘manufacture’ to the U.S. Senate in connection with the NPT ratification process, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency [ACDA] Director William Foster stated that it was not possible to ‘formulate a comprehensive definition or interpretation [of Article II noncompliance],’ and he doubted the efficacy of such efforts ‘unrelated to specific fact situations.’ Accordingly, compliance assessments are highly contextual, and no single, comprehensive definition, unrelated to specific factual situations, would be useful. However, the United States has explicitly stated that the prohibition against the ‘manufacture’ of a nuclear weapon, as well as against seeking or receiving any assistance in this regard, reaches more than simply the final assembly of such a device. In addition, Director Foster advised the Senate that ‘facts indicating that the purpose of a particular activity was the acquisition of a nuclear explosive device would tend to show noncompliance.’  Thus ... an important factor in Article II compliance analysis is the purpose of a particular activity.

This is a very common-sense approach – for although doing so requires the exercise of judgment, and it can of course be tricky, as an evidentiary matter, to assess “purpose” in such circumstances, purpose analysis is really quite unavoidable.  Otherwise one ends up in the rather silly position of concluding that bomb-making only becomes bomb-making at the point of final assembly – for instance, when one is screwing the casing together at the end of an assembly line.  I don’t think any serious person could really maintain this, and ACDA Director Foster made quite clear before the NPT’s ratification that this wasn’t the standard, but it is at least possible to imagine the Obama Administration trying to escape responsibility for showing moral seriousness in the Iran nuclear crisis by revisiting the legal standard in favor of some kind of “final assembly” definition of “manufacture.”  From such a stilted view that the project’s purpose doesn’t really matter – and that the only thing that counts occurs at the last nanosecond, when one actually takes possession of a working device – it might perhaps be felt to be only one small (il)logical step to Panetta’s seeming conclusion that one not yet possessing nuclear weapons is not “trying to develop” them.

But, of course, such a chain of reasoning isn’t reasonable at all.  It’s ridiculous.  Just as one does not start building – or “manufacturing,” much less “trying to develop” – an automobile only when one finally fits the engine into its chassis and bolts the wheels on, one clearly does not start work on nuclear weapons only when actually assembling them.  That point is merely the end stage of a long and complicated endeavor that in every historical example to date has taken years of purposeful development work; it is that process that constitutes “manufacturing,” and certainly “trying to develop,” nuclear weapons.

As an example of how silly the Obama Administration’s apparent legal-analytical standard would sound in a context in which politics were not skewing analysis in order to provide excuses for inaction, imagine the example of Henry Ford’s famous River Rouge automobile production facility near Dearborn, Michigan.  River Rouge produced nearly all the parts of the iconic Ford Model T, as part of an integrated process that began with making the very steel used in the car, which was produced on-site using massive ovens and a coke foundry.  Actual assembly of the vehicles, however, occurred at Ford’s plant at Highland Park.

Why is this relevant?  Well, judged by the standards of the surreal world of Obama’s Iran diplomacy, the River Rouge facility was not involved in “trying to develop” automobiles.  Had Henry Ford simply stopped before sending all those Model T parts to Highland Park, in fact, he wouldn’t have been involved in automobile manufacture at all: by Obama Administration logic, Ford would have been, at most, just “trying to develop an automobile capability.”  Such an argument, of course, is obviously errant nonsense, but where Iran’s nuclear weapons program is concerned, this approach seems now to be Obama policy.  It is a woeful standard to adopt, however, and one that responsible nations will surely rue.

To be sure, there is an important difference between having the capability to produce something and actually producing it.  This is why, in the nonproliferation context, the spread of [uranium] enrichment and [plutonium] reprocessing (a.k.a. ENR) technology – which gives possessors the easy technical option of nuclear weapons development – is bad, but actual weaponization is still worse.  This distinction, however, is often overplayed, either as an excuse for craven passivity in the face of ENR proliferation, as a rationalization for non-ENR states’ technological acquisitiveness, or simply as a cover for those really seeking the quasi-deterrent effect that can come from being able to weaponize on short notice.  In any event, the distinction between an innocent ENR possessor with wholly peaceful intentions and a malevolent state preparing for NPT “breakout” is a non-trivial one, even though neither may be said actually to possess nuclear weapons.  This is why the pre-Obama U.S. legal-analytical focus upon “purpose” is so important, and we forget this at our peril.

Already, in fact, Panetta’s comments are being taken in some quarters as confirmation that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program.  (Instead, you may recall, we are now told that it is just building a “nuclear capability,” whatever this means.)  This claim, in turn, feeds a baldly Iran-exculpatory narrative that has been carefully sculpted over the past few years by those who clearly do not share U.S. priorities with respect to stopping the proliferation of nuclear weaponry.

Even after the IAEA’s November 2011 report on Iran, for instance, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declared that Moscow had “verified data showing that there is … no proof of a military component in Iran’s nuclear program.”  Let’s leave aside the semantic and logical incoherence of claiming to have “verified data” that prove there is “no proof” of something.  The point of his comment lies in the shallow evasiveness of its demand for utterly conclusive “proof” – a standard that, not by coincidence, lets one claim genuinely to be concerned about a dangerous possibility while yet reposing in complete confidence that any need for action can always be put off pending at least a little more proof of its occurrence.

The Obama Administration is playing into this sorry theme, and undermining its own diplomatic efforts to mobilize international resistance to Iran’s nuclear push, by sending Panetta out to tell the television cameras that Iran is not “trying to develop nuclear weapons.”  It does little good to protest that what the Secretary meant was only that they aren’t actually building nuclear warheads yet, though even if this was his intention, administration officials haven’t had the brass to try to clarify things.  Like the foolish (or deliberately mischievous) phrasing of the unclassified “Key Judgments” in the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran – which seemed to suggest that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions merely because it temporarily suspended weaponization work before fissile material had become available from the uranium-production prong of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program (i.e., before those Iranian weaponeers had nuclear material to work with), and whose factual claim of a suspension in 2003 seems in any case now to have been disproven by the IAEA – it is difficult to walk things back after the self-inflicted wound of such analytical inanity.

Panetta’s recent comments are thus feeding a narrative, which the Russians – among others – have been assiduously promoting for years.  According to this storyline, Iran may well not be, as former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov put it in 2009,“planning to construct a weapon.”  Instead, Iran may simply aim to become “like Japan, which has nuclear readiness but does not have a bomb.

This “Iran is just Japan” narrative is a marvelously convenient one, and it is being duly echoed by Iran’s apologists in the contemporary blogosphere, for it offers what one might describe as an anti-American “twofer.”  First, it gives Iran a “fairness” argument against U.S.-led pressures on account of its nuclear program.  (How beastly of the United States to want to stop Iran from doing what it tolerates in others!  What have they got against Persians?)   Second, it opens the door for a false but no doubt gratifying “here we go again” story about purported U.S. duplicity, which Panetta’s remarks now seem to be feeding.  (Look, even the Americans admit that their claims about Iran’s “nuclear weapons program” have been lies!  Iran is not “trying to develop nuclear weapons” after all.)  The conclusion?  Iran’s development of an NPT “breakout” capability is both unobjectionable and entirely legal, U.S. diplomatic entreaties to pressure Iran should be rejected, and American leaders should not be trusted on nonproliferation issues.

The problem with this “Iran is Japan” story, however, is that it is disingenuous hooey, even on its own terms.  Iran, of course, isn’t remotely like Japan.  I don’t just mean by this that Japan is not ruled – as is Iran – by a belligerent, bigoted, and viciously undemocratic soi-disant revolutionary theocracy that is infused with creepily apocalyptic messianism and which threatens its neighbors and sponsors international terrorists – though this is both quite true and quite relevant in evaluating the merits of permitting Tehran to retain the nuclear weapons “option” given it by having a fissile material production capability.  I mean also that although Japan is well known as a nuclear “threshold state”  enjoying a “latent” or “virtual” weapons capability on account of the plutonium stocks accumulated through its civil nuclear power program, there is no evidence that indicates Tokyo is “trying to develop” a nuclear weapon – while there is much evidence that Tehran is.

Let’s perform another thought experiment.  Let us, entirely hypothetically, imagine what would happen if analogous information were revealed about Japan.  What would we think if, amidst some spasm of angry Japanese rhetoric about purported regional threats and the perfidies of its neighbors, it were revealed that Japan had been secretly developing a fissile material production capability, hiding it from the IAEA, and burying various portions of it in under thick cement bunkers and in tunnels dug into a mountain on a military base?  Suppose that it were also then revealed that Japan had received nuclear weapons designs from an illicit foreign weapons-proliferation network, built and tested components for an implosion device, received help from a former Soviet nuclear weapons scientist, experimented with neutron initiators and high-speed explosive detonator switches, had plans for an underground test tunnel, and begun engineering work on a new, strangely spherical payload for a ballistic missile?  And what if Japanese authorities were also stonewalling IAEA efforts to get more information about all these activities?

Would such hypothetical revelations alarm anyone?  Of course they would: the rest of Asia and the world would be positively apoplectic.  Everyone would conclude that Tokyo had a secret nuclear weapons development effort underway, and such circumstances would surely precipitate a major political and strategic crisis in East Asia.  How many diplomats and international observers would think these developments to be innocuous?  To ask such questions is to answer them – and to demonstrate both the absurdity of today’s swelling “Iran is Japan” narrative and the embarrassing hollowness of Leon Panetta’s comments to CBS News.  Shame on the Obama Administration for feeding this misleading rhetorical beast.

II.        And a Policy Collapse Too

My second complaint with Panetta’s comments – and I know this is already a long essay, so I’ll try to be brief – is that his remarks seem likely to precipitate a grave policy failure.  Clearly, the Obama Administration wishes to send two signals.  First, it wants to convey that Washington will continue to press sanctions against Iran as long as Tehran continues to reject the legally-binding suspension requirement set by the U.N. Security Council, to stonewall the IAEA, and to pursue its enrichment and reprocessing work.  Second, the administration wants to send the signal that if Iran actually builds the weapons it has clearly been preparing to build, this would be – as Panetta put it – an American “red line,” and the United States might well then attack. I do not meant to suggest that these are entirely inappropriate signals to send.  Make no mistake: an Iran with an on-demand nuclear weapons “option” would be terribly destabilizing, and an Iran with an extant nuclear arsenal would be worse.

But leaving aside the nagging question of how just believable such a “red line” actually is in the wake of years of diplomatic willingness to offer Iran multiple “last chances” to change course – and Iran’s willingness repeatedly to sprint across every line that has yet been drawn, with only fairly minor consequences – setting the redline at the completion of weaponization sounds more attractive than it is.  This is true, moreover, not just because an emboldened Iran with a no-notice “breakout” option would unsettle things in an already volatile region to a far greater extent than many observers like to admit.

To begin with, setting the redline at final assembly ties a critical decision for statecraft – the choice of whether or not to go to war – to the most fleetingly insubstantial of indicia.  Given what has already been reported, it seems that Iran’s weaponization work has already been underway for some years: Tehran has apparently been studying warhead designs, doing engineering work for mounting its warheads, testing various weapon components, and enriching uranium to a point from which it would be a quick and easy sprint – e.g., in the centrifuge cascades in the deep tunnels of the Fordow facility near Qom, which was reported this week to have begun enriching uranium to the 20 percent level – to the possession of weapons-grade material.  According to Leon Panetta, none of this is “trying to develop nuclear weapons,” however, so as we have seen, what he would seem to have in mind is instead only some final act of bolting the various sub-components together.  That final step is now our redline.

Yet this is surely an almost impossibly hard intelligence target.  There was a time when both U.S. and Israeli leaders spoke of the importance of denying Iran the ability to set all its weaponization ducks in a row in exactly this fashion.  The Israelis for a while even spoke of a “point of no return,” at which time – by varying interpretations – Iran’s progress would have gotten to the point where no more outside assistance was needed, or that the program’s now-functioning elements could be irretrievably dispersed and concealed, or something to that effect.

But after having failed really to insist upon any such previous redlines, Washington now seems to be conceding all this, in favor of a new, half-baked “final assembly” standard.  If it is not a “red line” for Iran to develop, test, and perhaps even pre-produce all the necessary components, then the Obama Administration is essentially signaling that it would be acceptable – or at least not truly unacceptable – for Iran to adopt the posture that Pakistan and India both took for a number of years before their nuclear tests in 1998: pre-producing nuclear weapons components and keeping them ready for quick, last-moment assembly and upload onto their delivery systems.  What sort of notice, if any, could we really expect to get of such a final step in Iran?  How wise is it effectively to promise U.S. military inaction except at the basically-too-late point that our spies get lucky enough to see just-assembled weapons being hoisted atop missiles?  (And what, by the way, about an Iran that chose to pursue what some might call the “Israeli option” of nuclear “opacity” – that is, of covert, or at least non-announced, assembly and deployment? )

In short, the Obama Administration’s announced “red line” is likely to be almost impossibly hard to administer, and requires from us intelligence-based warning that we would probably only be lucky to obtain before such point Iran itself wished us to have it.  Panetta almost pointedly did not proclaim the U.S. redline to be anything that we might have at least a fighting chance of detecting.  The American redline it would seem, is not Iranian enrichment above 20 percent U235 (i.e., going beyond any rationalizable reactor utility en route to optimal weapons grade), nor our receipt of information suggesting any further development, testing, or production of weapons components, nor reporting indicating final preparation of the requisite delivery systems.  It is apparently now to be merely at the point of Iran “developing” nuclear weapons – which Team Obama has signaled that it defines robotically as just meaning final assembly.  This is most unwise; such a point will surely be desperately hard to detect, and it would be, by then, all but too late in any event.

And what makes this especially problematic is that U.S. officials, Leon Panetta now apparently foremost among them, have been practically encouraging everyone to buy into the action-preclusive narrative of needing incontrovertible “proof” that the redline has been crossed before any drastic steps can be taken.  After all, despite all the available information about Iranian weaponization work – much of which, ironically, was presumably supplied to the IAEA by the U.S. Government – Panetta and his boss apparently do not regard it as indicating that Iran is “trying to develop nuclear weapons.”  In the odd mental world of the Obama Administration, all this weaponization work only means that Iran is seeking a “nuclear capability,” and this isn’t enough to be truly problematic.

Obama’s Iran redline is thus one that seems almost designed not to appear to have been violated until it is too late to do much of anything about it.  Sergei Ryabkov would be proud, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will surely be delighted.  If the Obama Administration is not willing to back itself out of this mess by clarifying their way to a more sensible standard, however, Obama’s Republican rivals should waste no time in offering a more principled, resolute, defensible, and coherent alternative.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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