Friday, August 28, 2009

Nuclear drive a casualty of Iran's turmoil Experts say Tehran is unlikely to speed up its program (L.A. Times),0,4625620.story
Nuclear drive a casualty of Iran's turmoil

Experts say Tehran is unlikely to speed up its program, giving the U.S. and its allies more time to work with.

Commentary by William O. Beeman: Iran's nuclear program has served as an excuse for launching an attack on the Islamic Republic since 2003. It is clear that Iran is far away from mastering the fuel cycle that would allow it to create fuel for generation of energy. Iran's attackers use weasel-words like "nuclear weapons development capacity" to make the program seem vastly more threatening than it is. In fact, there is no evidence whatever that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. This does not stop politicians in the United States, Israel and elsewhere from presenting Iranian nuclear weapons development as a fait accompli. As Borzou Daragahi points out, there would be many bumps in the road before Iran could come close to developing a weapon, if such a program actually existed, and the current political turmoil sets the clock back even farther. In the meantime, Pakistan becomes less and less stable every day, and Pakistan has nuclear bombs ready to launch. No one in Washington or Tel Aviv seems to care.

By Borzou Daragahi

August 28, 2009

Reporting from Beirut

Iran's political crisis could prevent the nation from making any swift move to ratchet up its nuclear program, said analysts and officials, giving President Obama and Western allies more time to grapple with the issue.

The chaos over the disputed reelection of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brings into question who calls the shots in Tehran, and what any deal with the Islamic Republic involving its nuclear program would look like.

The Obama administration, concerned that Tehran is seeking to amass the materials needed to manufacture nuclear weapons, set an informal deadline of September for Iran to respond positively to an offer to discuss the matter rather than risk new economic sanctions.

"The infighting in Tehran has sent up a smoke screen that further confuses the picture from the outside, and the picture was plenty opaque to begin with," said a U.S. official in Washington who is involved in formulating nuclear policy and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Tehran has long insisted that its nuclear research program is meant solely to provide electricity for its growing population. Its production of reactor-grade uranium has become a source of national pride, the atomic symbol emblazoned on the back of Iran's 50,000-rial bills.

But most Western arms-control experts believe Iran is trying to achieve the ability to quickly manufacture a nuclear bomb. And Iran continues to defy United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding that it stop producing the enriched uranium, material that, if further refined, could be turned into the fissile material for a bomb.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, is set to take up its latest quarterly status report on Iran's nuclear program in early September.

In recent weeks, Iran granted IAEA inspectors access to a heavy-water reactor and parts of the country's enrichment facility after previously barring them. The move suggests an effort by Tehran to ease pressure on itself and on its most likely supporters at the Security Council -- Russia and China -- before any new talks on sanctions.

Although Iranian scientists have continued to enrich low-grade uranium during the nation's political crisis, news agencies have reported that Tehran has not taken steps to increase its processing capacity during the last quarter. Experts say that may have more to do with technical quirks than political decisions.

For now, most Iran watchers agree that Tehran will not only be unable to respond positively to the Obama administration's offer of talks, but also is in too much political disarray to make the major decisions necessary to build a nuclear weapon. Such steps would include further enriching its uranium supply to weapons grade, or constructing controversial new facilities for speeding up the process.

"The nuclear dossier has been stalled and is in a stagnant position, with no back or forth moves," said Ahmad Shirzad, an Iranian nuclear scientist and political analyst. "The recent events in Iran put all important decision-making in limbo. The postelection events have not completely unfolded, and Mr. Ahmadinejad has not come to a conclusion what to do."

Iran's 20-year foray into nuclear technology has long benefited from a broad consensus among the nation's political elites, or at least acquiescence by foes of the program. Important institutions such as the Expediency Council, led by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; the presidency; the Supreme National Security Council and parliament, along with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have played a role in the program's creation and sustenance.

Conservative Ahmadinejad likes to take credit for Iran's recent nuclear progress. But Tehran actually relaunched its dormant program under the 1980s premiership of his primary rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and the first breakthroughs on enrichment came during the presidency of Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

"Nuclear policy has not changed regardless of the domestic problems, as the nuclear policy, like any other strategic policy, was predetermined more than two decades ago," said Ali Khorram, a former Iranian diplomat based in Tehran.

Since the disputed June election, Iran's feuding factions have been preoccupied with political infighting. Rafsanjani skipped Ahmadinejad's inauguration and the president skipped a session of the Expediency Council. At a ceremony honoring the new judiciary chief, who is a conservative rival to Ahmadinejad, the president arrived an hour late and left in haste after delivering a blistering speech calling on the jurist to go after those he termed elitists, alluding to Rafsanjani.

Within Iran's treacherous domestic political arena, any sign of weakness, or of bowing to the West, either by slowing Tehran's missile program or suspending the production of reactor-grade uranium, could be used by rivals to pounce, political analysts say. Therefore, it is likely that the current program, in which reactor-grade nuclear material is processed by at least 5,000 spinning centrifuges, will keep moving forward at its current pace.

"The nuclear program is a touchstone issue for the entire government," said the U.S. official. "No one on either side of the current controversy is going to risk his credibility by even suggesting a change in posture or a substantive pause."

Iran's political hard-liners have made dramatic moves during previous periods of domestic discord. Such measures as stoning women or questioning the Holocaust provoked an international reaction that unified squabbling domestic factions and silenced critics.

But because of the extent of the current political feuding and the stakes involved, experts say, it is unlikely that Tehran will make a dramatic move toward constructing a nuclear weapon.

"It will be hard to get an approval by all concerned," said Jalil Roshandel, an Iran expert at East Carolina University.

Moreover, he said, continued public support of Ahmadinejad's nuclear policies is no longer a given.

"Public opinion is divided, dispersed or, at best, indifferent," he said.

A "breakout" move on the nuclear issue risks not only public scorn, but also tighter sanctions, an embargo on sales of refined petroleum to Tehran or even armed conflict.

Iran's rulers may not want to risk testing the loyalty of an already volatile and angry populace..

"We must remember that the nuclear program is a means to an end," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert based in Tel Aviv. "Khamenei would not sacrifice his regime over it."

Anger over Ahmadinejad's domestic policies has already emboldened figures close to the opposition to speak out more forcefully against his approach on the nuclear issue.

"The Iranian authorities should know what they should expect if they do not enter the negotiations seriously and do not adhere to the repeated resolutions of the Security Council on the suspension of the uranium enrichment program," warned a commentary in the reformist newspaper Mardom Salari.

Internal paralysis, international isolation and stagnant oil prices, analysts say, could work dramatically in the West's favor, giving Tehran the incentive to make a quick deal with the West in order to concentrate on shoring up domestic stability and its faltering economy.

"So far, since the election, Iran seems to be a bit more flexible than before," said Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at Durham University in Britain.

"Given the current political climate at home, it makes sense to try to contain the nuclear crisis for as long as possible."

But some warn that any deal with Iran's current government would strengthen its legitimacy, betraying an election protest movement that has captured the world's imagination and challenged decades-old ideas about Iran's political realities.

"The Iranian people will never forget if Western liberalism and the international community abandons the Iranian nation's struggle for freedom," said Reza Kaviani, a Tehran-based analyst and opposition supporter.

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

With Each New Assessment, Iran's Nuclear Clock Is Reset Politics Plays a Role in How Intelligence Is Interpreted --(Jewish Daily Forward)

With Each New Assessment, Iran's Nuclear Clock Is Reset
Politics Plays a Role in How Intelligence Is Interpreted

By Gal Beckerman

Published August 19, 2009, issue of August 28, 2009.

Commentary by William O. Beeman: There is no evidence whatever that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Yet American and Israeli politicians have continually made political hay by claiming that there is one, and that production of an Iranian nuclear bomb is "one year away." This has been going on every year since the early 1990's. Additionally, the Mujaheddin-e Khalk (MEK or MKO), a U.S.-certified terrorist group dedicated to the overthrow of Iran's government continues to curry favor with the west by supplying dubious information about Iran's nuclear intentions. This masquerade needs to be exposed. In the article below from the Jewish Daily Forward, Gal Beckerman points out the chicanery in these claims, and the venal motives of those who make them.

The senior Israeli official's tone was dire. In only a few years, the Iranians would be ready to launch a nuclear bomb. He minced no words. "If Iran is not interrupted in this program by some foreign power, it will have the device in more or less five years."

The year this apocalyptic prediction was made: 1995.

As we all know, Israel survived the year 2000. Iran did not get the bomb. And earlier this month, it was revealed that the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research's latest estimate has pushed that dreaded date back to 2013, when it posits that Iran will finally be able to produce highly enriched uranium, a key ingredient in any nuclear weapon.

Then again, the State Department could be as wrong as that Israeli official back in 1995. To listen to the drumbeat emanating from Tel Aviv, the Iranians are much, much closer. In March, Amos Yadlin, the head of Israeli military intelligence, announced that Iran had "crossed the technological threshold." In only a year, they would be equipped with what they need to build some kind of crude nuclear device.

It's hard to know how to make sense of all these divergent estimates. Though they have become more numerous and more conflicting since the beginning of this year, analyses of Iran's nuclear capabilities have always been a matter of broad interpretation. From the moment that Iran announced in the mid-1980s its intention to launch a nuclear program, intelligence agencies in Israel and the United States - which analysts agree both look at the same raw data - have set and reset the nuclear clock over and over again.

Israeli intelligence, in particular, has announced a "point of no return" almost every year, a continually unfulfilled prediction that some say erodes the credibility of its analysts.

What some see as the fine point of when exactly Iran gets the bomb is not inconsequential. The time frame for both diplomacy and a military response that would have serious ramifications hinge on this question. It is for this reason, a wide range of independent observers agree, that politics has played the most central role in how intelligence on Iran and its nuclear program is interpreted and packaged for the public.

"Clearly the fact that some of these assessments seem to change rather rapidly has fueled the suspicion that much of it is actually politically motivated," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.

The problem, according to Parsi and others, is that the elements that make up any assessment of Iran's actual progress can be read differently.

From a technical standpoint, there are a series of steps on the path toward making a bomb, each of which can be interpreted as the menacing "threshold." Beginning with building large quantities of centrifuges to producing low-enriched uranium and then more highly enriched weapons-grade uranium to finally having a device to launch a bomb, the red lights could start flashing at any point.

By all accounts, Iran has managed to produce low-enriched uranium, possibly enough to make a crude bomb. Low-level enrichment for civilian nuclear uses is legal under international law. But based on its incomplete answers to the International Atomic Energy Agency, world leaders, neighboring countries and many security analysts are deeply concerned that this is not all Iran has in mind. The question of Iranian nuclear weapons development remains murky. According to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, Iran stopped all work on a nuclear weapons program in 2003. But this piece of intelligence is also disputed.

"This is one of these cases that where you stand determines to a large extent what is your assessment," said Shlomo Brom, a former Brigadier General in the Israeli Army and now senior research fellow and director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "If you are at the possible receiving end of this thing - and that is the feeling of most Israelis - then you don't want to take chances. You look at the worst possible scenario. It's only if you're in an institute somewhere in the Western world then you can make sober analysis and make predictions based on the more probable assumptions."

Further underlining the degree to which politics plays a role in these predictions is the long history of unrealized Armageddon scenarios - and it is not Israeli intelligence alone that has sounded the alarms.

In 1992, Robert Gates, then director of the CIA, pointedly upended conventional thinking about Iran's nuclear progress when he gave a much shorter time span for attainment of the bomb. "Is it a problem today?" he asked at the time, "probably not. But three, four, five years from now it could be a serious problem."

Another rash of predictions arrived in 1995. When Israeli government officials were quoted in American newspapers talking about a five-year timeline, officials with the Clinton administration quickly countered with qualifications and their own counter predictions. The small conflict led to a meeting in Jerusalem between William Perry, the defense secretary and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. They emerged from their discussions to announce that they were in agreement - Iran would get the bomb in seven to 15 years (next year, that is, at the latest).

Much of the speculation about Iran throughout the 1990s had to do with the possibility that its nuclear program was being boosted with outside help, from Russian loose nukes to technical help from North Korea. At least one of these outside elements did evade American intelligence, the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan who is known to have aided the Iranians in advancing their program at least twice, in the late 1980s and mid 1990s.

This unknown variable of outside help also allowed for a wide range of timelines.

Throughout the last decade, the warnings have become more dire at the same time that it has become harder to see into what David Albright, a physicist who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, called "the black box of Iran's decision making." This further unknown - what Iranian leaders intend - is one more fluid element that gives both the skeptics and alarmists an opportunity to project their own thinking and come up with independent predictions.

Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, for one, views Iran's leadership as "a messianic apocalyptic cult" who will not be deterred by Israel's own nuclear weapons capability. "When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran," he told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in May.

In contrast, Anthony Cordesman, a widely respected Middle East strategic analyst who has worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations, and Abdullah Toukan, an adviser to the late King Hussein of Jordan, present an Iran that is a rational, if hostile, actor, influenced by concrete geopolitical perceptions of its own. These include "unfriendly neighbors surrounding them, including nuclear tipped Pakistan" just to Iran's east; the "grave threat to its security" that Iran sees in America's military presence in Iraq immediately to its west and the presence of the American Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf waters lapping its south, the two men wrote in a recent study. This is seen also in the context of what was, until recently, America's declared policy of "regime change," they note. Finally, say Cordesman and Toukan, Iran's fear of "Israeli intentions to destabilize Iran and attack its nuclear facilities," drive it to develop its capabilities all the more.

"The Israelis always like to posit that Iran is one year away," Albright said. "There is an honesty to these assessments because they do have technical analysts in Israel who are looking very closely. They could be talking about a certain number of centrifuges built, a certain type of covert facility, various other things, but it's always one year away."

Many American analysts think these Israeli nightmare scenarios are distracting from what might be the most plausible explanation of Iran's intentions.

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. He believes that Iran has been slowly engaged since the 1970s in building a peaceful civilian nuclear program that has what he called "surge capacity" of 18 months. That is the amount of time it would take for Iran to boost low-enriched uranium for power plants and other non-military uses to highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium and deploy this as an atomic bomb, Sick said.

According to Sick, this interpretation is shared by many other analysts and backed up by statements from those who began the program under the Shah in the 1970s. But others warn that Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon capability secretly that it could deploy much more quickly.

Either way would mean that Iran is seeking a kind of nuclear ambiguity. It wants to be threatening without actually publicly introducing another nuclear weapon into the Middle East - a clear turning point likely only to set off a race by its neighbors to obtain nuclear weapons of their own. It is a position not dissimilar from the one now held by Israel, which still does not publicly disclose that it has the bomb.

Asked why this more nuanced scenario - one that would do nothing to assuage or discredit Israeli fears - is not more widely discussed, Sick answered, "It doesn't sell newspapers."

Contact Gal Beckerman at

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Nexus of Politics and Terror (Keith Olberman)

Last night (Friday, August 21, 2009) on his MSNBC program, Countdown, Keith Olberman re-ran his now famous video documentation of White House scandals and crises throughout the Bush administration, showing decisively that every time the President’s credibility was in question, the Bush admininistration immediately issued a phony or questionable terror alert. This is something every American of every political persuasion needs to see. It shows a truly venal and disingenuous administration willing to frighten an unsuspecting public with utterly false evidence of danger in order to boost its own political fortunes. That Tom Ridge should now verify what Olberman so clearly demonstrated is not surprising. We should be roundly ashamed as a nation that we allowed these monsters to hold sway over our sensibilities for so long. If there is “gut hatred” of Bush, it is well deserved. He violated us just as surely as Bernard Madoff violated his unsuspecting investors.

Go to: and select #3 The Nexus of Politics and Terror to see Olberman's devastating analysis, or view below:

— William O. Beeman

Thursday, August 06, 2009

William O. Beeman--The Propaganda Value of a Detained Journalist (New America Media)

The Propaganda Value of a Detained Journalist

New America Media, News Analysis,
William O. Beeman,
Posted: Aug 06, 2009

Editor’s Note: New America Media correspondent Shane Bauer is one of three Americans presumed to be detained by the Iranian government near the Iran-Iraq border last. Commentator William O. Beeman writes that their situation raises profound political questions.

“In the wrong place at the wrong time” is an apt description for three Americans currently being detained in Iran. They will likely be released, but not before Iranian authorities have wrung maximal publicity over their situation, painting them as Western intelligence operatives. The process could take months.

The timing for this event could not be more inopportune. Iran is on high emotional alert. It is flush with righteous indignation and paranoia vis-à-vis Western nations. It has undergone a contentious election where opponents of President Ahmadinejad were accused of collaboration with Western powers. Understanding the current state of mind in Iran is crucial to predicting the fate of the three travelers.

Certainly people all over the world in wilderness areas make inadvertent trips across international borders without incident. The Iraqi Kurdistan border, where journalists and adventurers Shane Bauer, Sara Shourd and Joshua Fattal entered Iran on July 31 is unmarked. The three seem to have been innocent, if a little naïve. They left an indisposed companion, Shon Meckfessel, and their belongings behind in their hotel room in the town of Sulaimaniyah. They reportedly had no extensive gear on their persons, suggesting they were on a short day trip.

However, the border itself is one of the prime difficulties in their case. Its remoteness has made it a prime area for illicit traffic in both directions. Smugglers operate freely across the border. Iranians escaping to the West have used it freely. More importantly, however, the United States and Israel have been suspected of infiltrating operatives into Iran through this area.

Iran has arrested a number of “suspicious” individuals over the past few years. They are universally accused of spying and of complicity in trying to foment a “velvet” revolution, similar to those underwritten by the Bush administration throughout the former Soviet Union. Celebrated incarcerations of individuals like Woodrow Wilson Center administrator Haleh Esfandiari, journalist Roxana Saberi and photojournalist Iason Athanasiadis (also known as Jason Fowdon) were also based on accusations of spying.

Predictably then, Bauer, Shourd and Fattal have also been labeled as spies. Past precedent in these earlier cases suggests what will occur for the detainees. First, they are likely to receive humane treatment. Being Americans they have attracted extensive international attention. Iranian officials have been careful to make sure that their international “guests” are treated well. Past detainees report that they were comfortably housed, well fed and allowed outside reading material and contacts.

Second, the Americans will likely be released, as others in their situation have been, after extensive investigation.

Third, they will be used to make political points by Iranian authorities—both for internal and for international consumption.

Iran will insist that their detention is legal, since every nation has the right to defend its borders. Even the most die-hard American opponents of Iranian policy will not be able to counter this assertion.

However, it is predictable that there will be accusations that the hikers never crossed the border, and that Iran grabbed them illegally. They may be labeled as “hostages” in the U.S. media.

Iran will also try to get the three detainees to admit and apologize for their actions, preferably on television. There will be attempts to make them admit that they were engaged in spying as a condition of their release. This will serve a number of purposes. First, it will bolster the image of “Iran under siege” from the West, shoring up the credentials of conservative leaders. Second, it will serve to taint the opposition to the current leadership. Attempts will be made to tie these three to presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Iran may also try to use these three as bargaining chips in ongoing negotiations with the United States over a variety of matters of controversy including relief from economic sanctions and relaxation of criticism of Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Finally, Iranian authorities will likely pardon them, commute an imposed sentence, or allow them to leave the country on bail pending trial as a show of generosity.

The saddest part of cases like this is that the fact that the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran makes negotiations next to impossible. Either Washington must rely on the Swiss embassy (which represents U.S. affairs in Tehran), or resort to public pleas and threats. This gives the United States very little leverage. Extraordinary measures, such as former President Bill Clinton’s trip to North Korea to secure the release of journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, would probably work with Iran, but would trigger huge, hostile reactions from the Republican Party who would claim that the Obama administration was unduly “dignifying” the Iranian regime.

One long-shot might be to appeal to Syria to intervene for the detainees' release. Shane Bauer had been reporting from Syria prior to this incident and had established his bona fides as a serious reporter there. Iran is not influenced by many outside nations, but they still retain close ties to Damascus. The United States has also been warming to Syria recently, so this mediation might conceivably help shorten the detention.

Sadly, we can foresee future incidents of this sort from time to time until U.S.-Iranian affairs stabilize. It is not necessary for the United States to approve of the actions of a nation like Iran to seek regularized diplomatic relations. This case proves clearly why the communication opened through stable diplomatic channels is so essential in today’s international community.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He has conducted research in Iran for more than 40 years. His latest book is, 'The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other' (Chicago, 2008).