Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | August 1, 2009

A Goldilocks Policy on Iran

A brief summary in response to excellent posts by Jonathan Tobin at Commentary and C.K. MacLeod at the Zombie Contentions blog.

Here’s where we stand, policy-wise, on Iran’s nuclear program.  Obama has set a deadline of this fall — September/October — for Iran to respond to his offer of negotiations without preconditions.

Iran anticipates fueling the reactor at Bushehr on or about the timeframe of this deadline.  IAEA, Iran, and Russia — Iran’s patron in grooming and fueling the reactor — all agree on this timeline, according to media announcements and IAEA documentation easily available online.

As discussed at exhaustive length at Contentions and my own blog, the fueling of Bushehr is a watershed event, in that once it has happened, Israel cannot strike the reactor from the air –with disabling force — without releasing radioactive contaminants.  In terms of historical parallels, the Bushehr reactor holds a place with key similarities to that of the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, which the Israelis struck just before it was to be fueled in 1981.

The reactor itself is not the heart of a nuclear weapons program.  The facilities as Esfahan and Natanz are the critical nodes in that sense.  But the reactor is the facility that can’t reasonably be struck from the air once it has been fueled or taken critical.

Obama may not have gone into his posture understanding all this, but he has hundreds of people working for him, at State, DOD, and the NSC, who do understand it.  The US government understands full well what it is doing.  It is setting a deadline that, at least putatively, ties Israel’s hands (and ours, if anyone still thinks we need them tied), and will allow Iran to achieve the biggest possible political triumph in 2009.

Getting the reactor at Bushehr fueled and online is such a triumph.  In the most important sense, it makes Iran’s nuclear program politically a fait accompli.  The reactor’s operation will obfuscate the political debate to the benefit of an Iranian weapons program, because objectively, a light-water reactor is the least-efficient element of a weapons program.  Those who don’t want to see Iran’s weapons program can point out that the reactor is not a major element of it anyway.

But it is the hardest of any nuclear-related facility to disable, if you want to disable it with any longer-term effectiveness.  (You can make anything stop working for 24 hours or a week, by hitting subsystems.  But to disable a reactor for 6 months or longer you need to interfere with the reaction itself, and that means disabling the core.)

I guarantee you, if Iran gets Bushehr online by the end of this year, the political discussion in the West will be about how an LWR is not a major component of a weapons program anyway, and all Iran has done is put a peaceful power-generating reactor in operation.  Because of the refocusing of the argument after this watershed event, 90% of the remaining will to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon will leach out of the Western media, and the halls of government.

Israel will have to ignore the political marker of the U.S. deadline if she wants to prevent the reactor from being fueled.  This is a tough decision from any standpoint.  Technically, it’s still possible to strike Natanz, Esfahan, and the heavy-water (plutonium) reactor being built at Arak — the latter a much more efficient source of weapons-grade material than the LWR at Bushehr — even while leaving the Bushehr reactor in operation.

But politically, the West’s acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran will be essentially confirmed if Iran is allowed to bring the Bushehr reactor online.  Obama looks almost certain to allow that to happen.  There is nothing in his articulated policy that would stop it.  The timing of his deadline is too convenient for the fueling of the Bushehr reactor to come off as accidental.

Bringing Bushehr online is, politically and technically, the perfect next step for Iran, and Obama’s deadline is timed to give the Iranians the maximum opportunity to take it.  But it’s also like Mama Bear’s bed, in Goldilocks’ evaluation:  neither too soon so soon as to prevent Iran from fueling the reactor, nor too late for it to so late that it could not constrain Israel.  Israel knows as well as we do when the reactor is supposed to be fueled; a deadline later in the year would too obviously be too late to interdict Iran’s timeline for Bushehr.  A deadline that splits the political pressures down the middle is a deadline designed to ensure inaction.  We can call it “Petunia,” instead of “appeasement,” but what we can’t call it is a policy designed to prevent Iran from advancing a nuclear weapons program.

(Cross-posted at Zombie Contentions.)

Updates (for clarity, based on feedback) in strikeouts and bold.


  1. I feel that this is a wonderful argument, indisputably embodying Right and Truth.

  2. Readers, I am appending here an exchange from Zombie Contentions (the one that prompted the edits in the original post), in case the comments help clarify the point being made:

    Reader Peter Shalen said:

    “‘But it’s also like Mama Bear’s bed, in Goldilocks’ evaluation: neither too soon to prevent Iran from fueling the reactor, nor too late for it to constrain Israel.’

    “J. E., I may be confused, because it’s been a long week, but I believe that when you wrote ‘too soon to prevent Iran from fueling the reactor’ you may have meant either ‘soon enough to prevent Iran from fueling the reactor’ or ‘too soon to permit Iran to fuel the reactor.’ I’m not quibbling about wording for the sake of doing so. It’s just that this paragraph seems extremely important to me and I want to make sure I’ve understood it.”

    My response to Peter S’s excellent query:

    “Peter S — I made some edits based on your comment, so the meaning would be entirely clear. I hope.

    “Let me put it this way:

    “If Obama’s deadline were any earlier, he would risk having to confront Iran over the fueling of Bushehr. While the confrontation itself is a risk, it’s equally true that if Iran were confronted, the reactor might not get fueled on schedule. Obama has timed his deadline so that doesn’t have to happen.

    “If Obama’s deadline were any later, it would be flashing-neon obvious that it falls after the reactor is expected to be fueled. The constraint on Israel to wait for Obama’s ‘process’ to work would be lessened, since the process manifestly would not even kick in until after the fueling at Bushehr. But timing the Obama deadline to coincide with the timeline for fueling the reactor is a master stroke, forcing Israel to disavow her faith in the process if she’s to prevent the reactor’s fueling — but also obscuring the truth that a coincident deadline is, in fact, too late. Politically, it leaves Israel having to make arguments and explanations, instead of simply pointing to an obvious disconnect in the timing of the deadline.

    “The timing of the fueling of Bushehr has been projected for September since at least January 2009. There is no way the Obama administration doesn’t realize how it’s hedging here, with its own deadline.”

  3. mikefoxtrot — fuster, you can phonetic alphabet, but you can’t hide.

  4. Dyer, I was entirely unaware that my attempts to comply with the Czar’s benevolent suggestion would turn up here.

  5. J.E.,
    Your argument that Bushehr will be invulnerable after it is fueled by virtue of the danger of releasing radioactive materials is fine under ordinary good neighbor peacetime conditions. But I think it falls apart if that reactor presents itself as part of what is believed to be an existential threat to any party capable of destroying it.

    Also, assuming that Iran has or will soon develop the enrichment capability to start producing bomb grade material from natural uranium the reactor is not an urgent target to any country wanting to pull Iran’s nuclear teeth, so it could be left for possible attack after a country had proved it’s seriousness by destroying the more urgent targets. In that event the danger of radioactive release in the event of an attack on the reactor would become a point of vulnerability for Iran’s government in negotiations with the attacker.

  6. Sully — I haven’t argued that Bushehr would be “invulnerable” once fueled, but that the decision to strike it with kinetic force from the air becomes a different order of political decision, because of the risk of radioactive contamination.

    You’ve articulated pretty much exactly the argument that will be made, I think, by those who would justify taking no action to prevent the reactor’s fueling. I haven’t ignored that argument, and indeed acknowledged it.

    Because of Israel’s history of attacking reactors, however, in Iraq and Syria, it will be considered a major triumph for Iran to fuel the Bushehr reactor and bring it online. In terms of political perceptions and momentum, I continue to predict, if the reactor does get fueled, that this event will be regarded as a major decision point, and one that indicates a decisive shift (by the US) away from preventing Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons.

    The timing of the Obama deadline is ideal for the purpose of making any action by Israel an outright divergence from the US “plan,” since that “plan” doesn’t kick in — and therefore can demonstrate no effectiveness or lack of it — in time to avert fueling of the reactor. Having some experience with the processing of issues of this magnitude in our federal agencies, I am firmly convinced that this cannot possibly be coincidental. Whatever deficiencies of knowledge or strategic appreciation Obama himself comes to this with, his national security players and their staffs all know exactly what’s going on.

    It looks to me like they — his National Security Advisor, his SecState, SecDef, his UN ambassador — are all willing to allow the fueling of Bushehr to, in a political sense, pop up close to us after flying under the public’s radar for months. My first-order deduction would be that they think publicity for the Bushehr timeline, right now, would bolster Israel’s case for taking action soon (especially with those dreaded Neocons), and would also throw into relief the significance of Obama’s deadline to Iran.

    There is, of course, the possibility — rather humorous — that Iran will moot this whole point by failing to meet her declared deadline for fueling the reactor. If I were Israel, I’d be thinking along the lines of covert sabotage, to encourage that failure.

  7. Some folks ,including those at Stratfor, suspect that the Israelis might already be real encouraging.

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