Taking the Standoff Between Iran and the US in the Gulf as a Controlled Experiment

The escalating crisis in the Persian Gulf between Iran and the United States and its allies is about as close as one can get to a controlled experiment in international relations. On the hand the crisis promises to tell us something about the credibility of Europe and the relative decline of US power. On the other about the role of nuclear weapons in international relations.

Today’s news is dominated by Iran’s announcement that it will breach a cap on its stock of low enriched uranium (3.67% U235) in 10 days. According to the annex of the JCPOA Iran cannot exceed a *stockpile* limit of 300kg LEU for 10 years after the ratification of the deal. Technically, exceeding the 300kg LEU stockpile limit is a JCPOA violation however the immediate effects on non-proliferation are limited as 300kg of LEU enriched to 3.67% doesn’t represent a credible breakout scenario. Iran’s nuclear activities prior to the JCPOA coming into force gave it a stockpile of 7154kg of LEU. In February 2013 Iran had 15800 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow.

A breakout scenario involving IR-1 centrifuges would consist of a four step progressive enrichment programme involving about 5000 centrifuges, some estimates go as high (PDF) as 5832. According to the latest (31 May 2019) IAEA report on verification and safeguards implementation in Iran the Iranians have 5060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and 1044 at Fordow. That’s in accord with the JCPOA provisions on enrichment. The IAEA reports that UF-6 feedstock has not been fed into the centrifuges at Fordow under the lifetime of the agreement.

The 5060 figure represents the standard estimate for a one year breakout scenario employing a feedstock of natural uranium in the form of uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6). “Breakout scenario” refers to the production of one nuclear weapon from a declared enrichment plant after Iran “breaks out” from its NPT obligations. That figure of 5060 IR-1 centrifuges, assuming a feedstock of 1053kg of UF-6 enriched to 3.67% U235 (the amount needed as feedstock to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons grade uranium assuming standard estimates for a Significant Quantity nb not the same as an advanced weapon design), comes to a three month breakout scenario. A 1.6 month breakout scenario requires about 9000 IR-1 centrifuges again assuming a feedstock of 1053kg of LEU.

The near term implications of Iran’s announcement that it would exceed the 300kg limit for nuclear weapons proliferation are therefore limited. But the thing to watch for isn’t breakout scenarios, it never has been in my view, but rather news regarding Iran’s advanced centrifuges, especially the IR-6, that have a significantly greater separative capacity than the IR-1. Because of this it might be possible for Iran, in a situation where the Additional Protocol to the model IAEA safeguards agreement is no longer in force (the Additional Protocol in the Iran case came with the JCPOA), for Iran to attempt to build a clandestine enrichment plant requiring fewer centrifuges, less energy input, and so thereby a smaller footprint. Remember that North Korea’s Kangson enrichment plant was the first dedicated fissile material production plant for weapons purposes to go undetected prior to its going operational (2003). The Kangson enrichment plant should be called the Bolton enrichment plant as it was the scuttling of the Agreed Framework, to no small degree because of the actions of the hard line neoconservatives in the Bush administration prominent among whom was John Bolton, that gave Pyongyang a strategic incentive to construct Kangson (Bolton).

Don’t forget the Arak research reactor, which Iran recently stated might return to its original design specifications which was ideal for producing weapons grade plutonium. Arak, however, represents an easy target for US air power.

The danger with Iran is that we could end up getting ourselves a possible third or fourth Bolton enrichment plant (depending upon how many Boltons North Korea has). According to the latest IAEA report on Iran and the JCPOA the Iranians have installed 33 IR-6 advanced centrifuges. They have feed 10 of these with UF-6 gas. Western diplomats have set a definite redline here. Namely, it is reported that western diplomats have said if Iran feeds UF-6 gas in all 33 of its IR-6 centrifuges then it would have crossed a red line. The consequences of Iran’s doing so are not clear, but military action is certainly one option that is always spoken of as being on the table. The enacting of that option would almost certainly lead to a Bolton or two or three.

The weekend, of course, was dominated by the attack on two commercial ships in the Persian Gulf, which the United States has attributed to Iran and the Pentagon has provided what it regards as evidence establishing this charge. I don’t want to go into the minutiae of that as many have, looking for a smoking gun pointing to US malfeasance. The evidence presented by the Pentagon to me seems prima facie plausible. My fellow comrades on the Left, I think, are making a mistake when they engage in the minutiae of open source intelligence analysis on this point. Firstly, because most aren’t OSINT experts. The internet has this tendency to encourage people to think they are OSINT experts after surfing the web for an hour. OSINT analysis is a highly technical skill requiring real dedication to master and, furthermore, access to specialised equipment. I’m not an OSINT expert but I have over the years developed a knack for knowing what analysis others have developed that is good and which is shit.  Secondly, and more importantly in my view, concentrating on video analysis misses the forest for the trees. The current situation in the Gulf is a direct consequence of Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA, the escalating graduated economic and financial sanctions it has places on Iran and secondary parties, and the beefing up of military firepower in the region. These actions are designed to back Iran into a corner, and Iranian counteractions such as the possible Iranian weekend attacks on Gulf shipping, are welcomed by Trump-Bolton-Pompeo. They’re welcomed because they make it easier for Washington to marshal an international coalition supportive of its escalating confrontation with Iran. They’re welcomed because they provide propaganda points at home justifying the confrontation with Iran, important given the growing opposition to war in general among the American public.

It could even be possible that US actions are designed to elicit harsh Iranian actions on precisely those grounds. The Reagan and Bush the Patrician administrations, for example, in the 1980s backed Nicaragua into a corner when they were waging a terror war against the Sandinista’s. The goal was to turn Nicaragua into a Soviet client so justifying its actions given what the US political class called “the Vietnam syndrome” (ordinary folk not liking war, basically). When Nicaragua was compelled to purchase a small number of fighter aircraft, MIGs, from the only source available to it this led to veritable euphoria. One can imagine Trump-Bolton-Pompeo greeting the news of an Iranian attack on Gulf shipping on the weekend with similar euphoria.

It is the fact of escalating tensions, and Trump’s responsibility for them, that should be the focus of Left analysis and action not the minutiae of video analysis. Indeed, that analysis presupposes the view that if Iran did attack the two vessels in the Gulf then it is responsible for the situation in the Gulf. There’s an interesting historical precedent here. In 1987 Iraq, when Bolton and co regarded Saddam Hussein as a moderate who is improving, attacked the USS Stark killing 37 US sailors in the Gulf President Reagan blamed Iran not Iraq. His reasoning was that, allegedly, Iran was responsible for the “Tanker War.” In fact, the Tanker War, like the Iran-Iraq war itself, was started by Iraq. But if you apply the reasoning used regarding the USS Stark, that the state responsible for the overall situation in the Gulf bears ultimate responsibility, then according to Ronald Reagan it is Donald Trump that is fundamentally responsible for the Iranians attacks in the Gulf.

One might say that the USS Stark attack was an accident whereas the weekend attacks were deliberate. However, there is evidence suggesting that the attack on the Stark was deliberate just as there is evidence to suggest that the only other time a state attacked a US naval vessel and got away with it, the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, was also deliberate. We should recall that the Tanker War ended when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft killing all on board. Controversy remains about whether that act was an accident or deliberate, yet it is beyond doubt that Bush the Patrician refused to apologise for it and the two top officers of the vessel received medals for their “meritorious service” in the Gulf. It was after that shooting down that Ayatollah Khomeini agreed to the “poisoned chalice” that ended the war the moderate who is improving started. The occurrence of similar incidents in the current standoff involving civil, commercial or military assets cannot be excluded.

The US strategy is to create instability in order to create stability, whereby stability is meant what we say goes. Iran is the most significant state in the Middle East that refuses to adhere reflexively to US demands, and which falls outside of the regional framework of power with Washington as the recognised and undisputed hegemon. What we saw on the weekend, whatever its provenance, is a direct consequence of a policy the very objective of which is the sowing of instability. Analysis and action needs to be directed here.

Which brings us back to our experiments. The first concerns the credibility of Europe. The Europeans have promised Tehran that they would provide economic and financial relief to compensate for US sanctions. Thus far the Europeans have promised more than what they have delivered. The Iranian financial press reports that France, Germany and the UK have announced that they will soon deliver the first instalment on the INSTEX programme, a Special Purpose Vehicle facilitating non-dollar dominated trade with Iran. A big problem with the US sanctions is the secondary boycotts on firms doing business with Iran. If the Europeans fail to meet their commitments, or provide real tangible relief for Iran, it will tell us something important about the subordinate role that Europe plays in world affairs and the continued relevance of the US as the world’s preponderant power despite all the talk of relative decline. Recall the point about Washington regarding the Middle East as a region where it must maintain hegemony and where that status needs to be duly recognised by other states. Washington will do its best to undermine European policy, whatever it proves to be. This dynamic is something well worth watching, and you can beat that the chancelleries of the world are watching this little controlled experiment carefully. I suspect that Europe will subordinate itself to US power, even at the expense of its own credibility.

The Iranian announcement that it will exceed its holding of LEU beyond 300kg in 10 days should be seen in this context, as a measure designed to put pressure on the Europeans to deliver their end of the bargain. The US ambassador to the IAEA at the latest Board meeting made an interesting statement not without relevance here; “Attempting to generate negotiating leverage 1 kg of uranium at a time will not bring sanctions relief.” We shall see.

The second controlled experiment arises with a comparison to North Korea. It is clear, especially after the death of Kim Jong-il, that the North Koreans calculated that the way to guarantee the security of the state and to gain leverage with the United States is to present Washington with a credible nuclear deterrent. The Iranians went the other way, striking a deal with Washington short of the development of a declared nuclear deterrent. The North Koreans themselves made that bet in earlier times most notably with the Agreed Framework. The Iranians, it has been widely reported, have developed a strategy of waiting out the Trump administration. The North Koreans continue to invest in their nuclear deterrent, even while engaged with denuclearisation talks with Trump. But if history records that Tehran adopted the wrong strategy whereas Pyongyang adopted the right one then the demonstrated salience of nuclear weapons in international relations is greater than many have given them credit for.

That too, sadly, would be something that wouldn’t go unrecognised in the chancelleries of the world.

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