Tag Archives: Iran

Pathways to the Bomb

A contact in the Pentagon asked for a cheat sheet on nuclear technology. Putting something together that is technically correct and concise, while introducing all the policy-relevant terminology is a challenge. Matthias, John, any suggestions/corrections?

There are two “pathways” to the bomb: uranium enrichment and plutonium.

Diagram from: http://www.isisnucleariran.org/sites/weapons-fuel-cycle/

1. Uranium enrichment
Natural uranium is plentiful in nature, but to be weaponized it must be converted into a form that can be used to sustain a nuclear chain reaction, the physical process that releases energy. This 15 minute video from the 1950’s is my favorite explanation of nuclear fission: A is for Atom

Natural uranium is made up almost entirely of two isotopes, one of which is the slightest bit heavier than the other. Only the lighter isotope, U-235, is useful for sustaining a chain reaction. Fortunately, at least from a nonproliferation perspective, natural uranium is 99.3% U-238, so in order to be weapons usable it must be “enriched” to separate out the desirable U-235 from the undesirable U-238–or fed into a Heavy Water Reactor, which I will come back to when I explain the plutonium pathway.

The process of enrichment is mechanical. Natural uranium in its gaseous form (UF6) is fed into a centrifuge:

Image from: http://fissilematerials.org/library/ipfmreport06.pdf

Because U-235 is lighter than U-238, when you spin UF6 the heavier U-238 flies toward the outside wall and collects in the bottom of the centrifuge. The “depleted” stream of U-238 can then be funneled out. The enriched uranium, U-235 along with the remaining U-238, is siphoned off and into another centrifuge. The process is repeated thousands and thousands of times until the desired level of enrichment is achieved.

At first the enrichment process goes very slowly. Getting from the .7% U-235 found in natural uranium to 3-4.5%–the minimum amount necessary to fuel a light water reactor–requires 70% of the time and effort it would take to produce weapons-grade material (90% U-235). By the time uranium is enriched to 20% U-235, you are already 85-90% of the way there. This is why the cut-off for what counts as low enriched uranium (LEU) is set just below 20%. There are no reactors that require more than 20% enrichment and if you go any higher you basically already have what you need to create a bomb. (Jeffrey Lewis has a nice post about this on Arms Control Wonk.)

So, to summarize:
Natural Uranium = .7% U-235
Low Enriched Uranium = < 20% U-235
High Enriched Uranium = 20-90% U-235 (90% of the way to weapons grade)
Weapons Grade Uranium = >90% U-235

2. Plutonium
Plutonium, in theory, could appear in nature. However, in practice, it must be generated through a nuclear chain reaction. All nuclear reactors produce plutonium, but there are many kinds of reactors and some are better for plutonium production than others. If a country wants to build a nuclear explosive device without having to enrich uranium, it can use a heavy water reactor. Unlike light water reactors, which are cooled with regular old H2O, heavy water reactors are cooled with water that has an extra isotope of hydrogen (D20), which enables natural uranium to sustain a nuclear chain reaction. The plutonium necessary for a bomb can then be separated out from the spent fuel. This is what North Korea did.

Iran has uranium enrichment facilities, a heavy water research reactor and another under construction, and light water reactors for training purposes and energy production. For more information than you will possibly need on Iran’s nuclear sites visit ISIS’s page on Nuclear Iran.

Self-licking ice cream cone?


The big news coming out of the current talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Almaty, Khazakstan is that the parties have agreed to…talk. CBS News reports that “Technical experts for each side will meet in Istanbul in mid-March to discuss the world powers’ offer and the high-level diplomats will re-convene again April 5 in Almaty.” According to what Steven Erlanger reported for the New York Times prior to the conclusion of the meetings yesterday, this outcome is what Western diplomats were identifying as a success. I guess if you set the bar low enough, success is all but guaranteed. In all seriousness, while continuing diplomatic engagement is definitely preferable to other alternatives, a quick look back at a summary of the June 2012 meeting held in Moscow (like this one from the Arms Control Association) made me wonder if I was experiencing déjà vu. Even the pictures out are eerily similar:

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton meets with Iran's Chief Negotiator Saeed Jalili in Moscow

Personally, I prefer Jalili in a gray suit. The softer color compliments his salt and pepper hair and lends him a distinguished air. The penguin suit is too severe.


Photos: The European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Top: New York Times Bottom: Reuters

Trust and verify

Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Saeed Jalili (third R) was heading the Iranian negotiating delegation in the talks with the P5+1 in Baghdad.

Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Saeed Jalili (third R) was heading the Iranian negotiating delegation in the talks with the P5+1 in Baghdad.

…the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

IAEA Board Report, May, 25 2012

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room at the White House in 1987.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room at the White House in 1987.

We have listened to the wisdom in an old Russian maxim. And I’m sure you’re familiar with it, Mr. General Secretary, though my pronunciation may give you difficulty. The maxim is: Dovorey no provorey — trust, but verify.

The General Secretary. You repeat that at every meeting. [Laughter]

The President. I like it. [Laughter]”

Remarks on Signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, December 8, 1987

President Reagan made the phrase, “trust, but verify” practically synonymous with US-Soviet arms control. It’s also a phrase that has been adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which advertises itself as having “a proven track record of remaining true to the principle ‘trust but verify.’” “Trust, but verify” captures a certain common sense notion of the tension between exhibiting faith in someone else’s intentions, and the desire to make sure that your judgment is correct by checking to see that their deeds match their words. However, after spending this past week learning about international nuclear safeguards policy, I came to the conclusion that “trust and verify” would be a more principled basis on which to build confidence in nonproliferation.

The course, International Nuclear Safeguards Policy, was co-hosted by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In it experts from the IAEA and national labs covered the history and legal foundations of safeguards, and the technical aspects of the process through which IAEA inspectors verify that the material facts on the ground match the declaration of activities provided by officials of the country under inspection. Historically, the primary responsibility of IAEA inspectors has been to build confidence in the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) by accounting for declared nuclear material as it moves through the nuclear fuel cycle, and certifying that the declaration is correct. Through this process IAEA can provide de facto assurance that the country in question is not diverting any of the declared material from energy production to nuclear weapons programs. Known as Comprehensive Safeguards, these agreements are technically challenging to verify, but fairly straightforward.

What Comprehensive Safeguards do not—and cannot—do is certify beyond a doubt that there are no clandestine activities being carried out simultaneously. In other words, they cannot verify that a declaration is complete. So, if you think the point of safeguards is to prevent cheating, they will always fall short of expectations—as they did most recently with the revelation of Iran’s covert nuclear enrichment program, and most significantly in the case of Iraq’s illicit weapon program during the 1980s and early 90s. In both cases, the countries in question did not divert material from their declared nuclear activities, but rather created a parallel, clandestine program for enriching uranium from other sources.

After the discovery that Iraq had developed an illicit nuclear weapon program while maintaining the appearance of being in compliance with its NPT obligations, the IAEA asked states party to existing agreements to sign an Additional Protocol. The Addition Protocol expands the IAEA’s authority by granting inspectors access to all parts of a state’s nuclear fuel cycle, including access to undeclared facilities. Purportedly, this new authority “enable[s] the IAEA not only to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material but also to provide assurances as to the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a State.

Advocates of the Additional Protocol believe that it strengthens the IAEA, but there is another side to this story. Comprehensive Safeguards, as originally designed, essentially amount to an audit. They simply verify that a state’s declaration is an accurate description of the activities it contains, and states are presumed to be in compliance unless there is information to indicate otherwise. Audits create a sense of accountability, but they also give the state in question a mechanism with which to credibly demonstrate its own mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle. In this sense they are mutually beneficial. Under the Additional Protocol, in contrast, inspectors have gone from being auditors, to being detectives. The IAEA’s expanded authority means that inspectors can now seek access to undeclared facilities, including access based on third-party evidence. States under inspection have gone from being presumed innocent until proven guilty, to being assumed guilty until proven innocent. This places both the IAEA and the states under inspection in an untenable position.

In the long-term the Additional Protocol will undermine the credibility of the system. The problem is that the impartiality of the IAEA depends upon a scientifically rational process, yet the Additional Protocol does not respect the limits of that process. In setting out to “provide assurance as to the absence of undeclared nuclear materials” the IAEA is setting itself up to fail. Proving a non-event stumbles on an irresolvable epistemological problem because we can never know for sure that there isn’t something else the IAEA overlooked. As a result, it asks too much of the inspectors. Under the auditing function an inspector performs for traditional Comprehensive Safeguards agreements, she or he could say with certainty, “I can verify that under the bounded conditions of the declaration, the facts on the ground match the statement at hand.” Anything above and beyond that is left up to others to interpret. However, under the Additional Protocol, in the final instance, any honest inspector will be force to say, “All we can tell you is what we have found, anything else we cannot know for sure.” If they have not found any evidence of an illicit nuclear program, yet suspicions abound, this conclusion will always be unsatisfactory because it cannot help us distinguish between violators and non-violators. Yet, a stronger statement in either direction will inevitably appear politically motivated.

This dynamic is apparent in the failure of the most recent negotiations between the IAEA and Iran. According to the IAEA Board Report, released on May 25, “Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs [locations outside facilities where nuclear material is customarily used] declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement.” However, Iran refuses to implement its Additional Protocol and admit IAEA inspectors to undeclared sites. The IAEA is requesting access to Iran’s Parchin military complex, where it suspects that nuclear explosive tests were carried out. Iran, however, insists that these requests are politically motivated. Asked about Parchin, Iran’s IAEA ambassador, Ali Asghar Soltanieh was quoted as saying, “That is in fact one of the problems. The more you politicise an issue which was purely technical it creates an obstacle and damages the environment.”

For the sake of argument, let’s say Iran admits IAEA inspectors to Parchin and they find nothing, what would that prove? What kind of evidence would be sufficient to assure the IAEA and P5+1 that Iran does not have a clandestine nuclear program? How can you trust in a finding that by its very nature cannot be verified? In the case of Iraq, the US wasn’t satisfied until post-invasion inspections laid bare the entire country. If we continue down the same road, we are likely to end up with a similar outcome in Iran. This is an alternative for which the US government should be prepared. However, it is a less than desirable outcome for all parties involved.

If instead of basing safeguards policy on the principle of “trust, but verify,” we predicate it on the twin pillars of trust and verification, it changes the approach and, hopefully, the outcome. “Trust, but verify” poses trust and verification as alternatives to one another. That’s why Reagan liked the saying. It’s a funny way of saying you trust someone, while at the same time acknowledging that you don’t. “Trust and verify,” on the other hand, poses trust and verification as two complementary pillars, both of which are necessary for the functioning of effective safeguards. It also acknowledges the limitations of each pillar on its own.

The Additional Protocol has shifted the focus of safeguards policy from the more balanced approach of Comprehensive Safeguards, to an over-emphasis on verification. The principle of “trust and verify” would move the balance back toward a bounded approach to verification activities and an acknowledgement that IAEA inspections should be only one means of assessing the trustworthiness of nations and building confidence in the Nonproliferation Regime.

“Trust and verify” should also be the approach that the P5+1 brings to its round of talks with Iran scheduled for June 18-19 in Moscow. Both pillars will be necessary in order to stabilize the security dilemma in which all parties now find themselves. For Iran, this will mean agreeing to confidence building measures such as  additional inspections. Bolstering verification is necessary to compensate for the trust deficit Iran created by carrying out clandestine enrichment activities of questionable legality. However, Iran also has to be able to trust that there is an alternative to US invasion other than through the self-reliance offered by a domestic nuclear arsenal. Focusing exclusively on sanctions as a coercive mechanism is a good way to get Iran to the table, but creating credible security assurance will be the only way to close the deal.

What to do about Iran Part III: The case for a compelling alternative (or building the conceptual basis for why the US needs to make Iran ‘an offer it can’t refuse’)

As the November election approaches and no actionable alternative vision for Iran emerges, the cloud of resignation descending over the liberal elite in Washington is palpable. Will Obama choose to support the use of force simply because action is preferable to inaction in an election year? Or can the case be effectively made that we have already been down this route with Iraq? The short-term gratification of bombing Iran now will give the American population its quick fix, but it will not provide a long-term solution. But what other alternative is there?

The United States has a military solution for almost any international problem, and as we all know, if all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail. Looking at the shape of the public debate in the US about how to engage Iran, there are few concrete diplomatic proposals for resolving the current conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. However, there is a recurring discussion about whether to use preventive force now to deter—or at least delay—the development of Iran’s nuclear program by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, or rely on nuclear deterrence to contain Iran once it has successfully weaponized its nuclear program. In the mean time, the US is enhancing international economic sanctions against Iran—which may or may not be having an impact on Iran’s strategic calculus with regard to its nuclear program—and Iran has agreed to return to the negotiating table. Although there is no way to tell what lies behind Iran’s desire to engage again diplomatically with the P5+1, the willingness to resume talks nearly a year after the previous round collapsed presents the Obama administration with another opportunity to implement a powerful solution that conserves force and re-establishes America as a visionary world leader. However, in order for the US to make use of this opportunity, the Obama administration must to be prepared to articulate to itself, the American public, and the world a vision of what will work and why.

Unfortunately, there are few conceptual tools available with which to build a strategically effective diplomatic vision. Right now there are excellent proposals from nuclear experts about what the technical substance of an agreement should entail, as well as diplomatic analyses of what is at stake politically for Iran. However, the analysis of how these technical proposals can and should be brought together with what is at stake politically in order to produce a long-term strategic vision is lacking. Unlike in the realm of military-strategic discourse where the concept of deterrence provides an overarching framework for a conversation about where and when to apply military force or hold it in reserve, there is no similar strategic logic driving a debate within the American national security establishment about various diplomatic solutions.

Developing conceptual tools is the first step towards having an intellectual infrastructure on which to draw when conflict arises. Without those resources, we are likely to return to what we know because policymakers have neither the time nor the patience to listen while concepts are built, nor should they. It simply takes too long to form a concept from a group of principles or ideas. The concept of deterrence was built and disseminated methodically over 50+ years through hundreds of briefings, thousands of conferences, millions of pages, and many lifetimes of intellectual work. It is now the intellectual tool available to us on short notice when we are called on to articulate three possible responses to Iran in one page or less—which brings us back to Maslow’s aphoristic hammer: If all you have is the concept of deterrence, every proliferation threat becomes a conversation about the relative merits of preventive force versus containment.

In order to build actionable diplomatic alternatives for the future, I propose that we fill the conceptual gap with deterrence’s misunderstood, and often overlooked, fraternal-twin: compellence. On the most basic level, deterrence and compellence are two sides of the same coin. Deterrence is about making sure the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits; compellence is about making sure the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs. While deterrence emphasizes what to avoid, compellence offers an alternative to embrace. When used effectively in tandem, deterrence and compellence make for “an offer that can’t be refused.”

Compellence as a strategic concept makes its debut appearance in Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence. My word choice is intentionally drawn from his lexicon, in spite of the fact that compellence is not a term that captured imaginations or migrated into idiomatic parlance. Even Schelling himself was dissatisfied with it, lamenting that we have no “obvious counterpart to ‘deterrence.’ He then runs through a list of possible alternatives including “coercion,” which he interprets as capturing what he wants to say, but he rejects it on the grounds that it does not exclude deterrence. Next he turns to “intimidation,” which “is insufficiently focused on the particular behavior desired,” and “compulsion,” which he deems “all right but its adjective is ‘compulsive,’ and that has come to carry a quite different meaning.” Finally, he concludes quite simply: “‘Compellence’ is the best I can do.”

My suspicion is that Schelling’s dissatisfaction stems as much from problems with the distinction itself as it does from word choice. Schelling wants to distinguish between types of threats, explaining that the “threat that compels rather than deters often requires that the punishment be administered until the other acts, rather than if he acts.” “Therefore,” he continues, “deterrence and compellence differ in a number of respects, most of them corresponding to something like the difference between statics and dynamics. Deterrence involves setting the stage…and waiting. The overt act is up to the opponent… Compellence, in contrast, usually involves initiating an action…that can cease, or become harmless, only if the opponent responds.” In other words, deterrence is about erecting a barrier. It is the social analog to a moat with a wall and cannons. Thanks to Glenn Snyder and his book Deterrence and Defense, we have terminology for this analogy: deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial. You can defend against attack either by threatening unacceptable punishment in return, or by building defensive barriers that appear too difficult to overcome. Compellence in this schema is the analog to offense. It is the ability to not simply defend, but to fight an enemy back until she gives up or surrenders.

The problem with Schelling’s interpretation comes from the fact that, while seemingly clear in theory, the distinction breaks down in practice. Schelling tries to explain that “to deter continuance of something the opponent is already doing—harassment, overflight, blockade, occupation of some island or territory, electronic disturbance, subversive activity, holding prisoners, or whatever it may be—has some of the character of a compellent threat.” The mental image Schelling’s version of this distinction produces is of a body at rest. Deterrence in its simplest form keeps that body at rest. Compellence, from this perspective, meets the body at rest and applies additional force to create motion. The problem comes when the body is already in motion. Is it deterrence or compellence that brings a body to rest?

In contrast, I argue that the difference between deterrence and compellence is not in terms of how active a threat is, but rather is in the nature of the action itself. Whereas deterrence is about manipulating fear, compellence is about manipulating desire. Deterrence is divisive. It is the ability to convince someone to refrain from violating your borders. Compellence, on the other hand, is the ability to convince someone to give you what you want. Whereas deterrence is about ensuring that the costs of an action outweigh the benefits, compellence is about ensuring that the benefits of an action outweigh the costs. In contrast to Schelling’s idea of compellence as imposing greater and greater costs until your opponent chooses to submit, what I am proposing is an idea of leading someone to an action through making that action either the only viable alternative or just too good to pass up.

It is very difficult to make your opponent submit through force because you are manipulating only one end of the equation. The most effective diplomatic strategies manipulate both. Take, for instance, a bank heist. The bank robber uses force to deter the occupants of the bank from leaving. If they try to leave, she will kill them. Explicit in that statement is the manipulation of fear; implicit is the manipulation of a compelling desire to live. This is why the robber also says to the bank manager, “If you give me the money, I will let you walk out of here alive.” That’s the compelling alternative. If the robber were more sophisticated, the heist could be done in ways that co-opted the desire of the manager in the first place—for money, power, or prestige—and would have required less force.

The distinction is captured by the proverbial story of the wind and the sun. The wind bets the sun that he can remove a passing traveler’s coat. The wind blows harder and harder, colder and colder, trying to blow the coat off, but only succeeds in convincing the traveler to pull her coat closer and tighter. When it’s the sun’s turn, she shines warmly down on the traveler. Perspiring, the traveler stops and simply removes his coat.

We have a tendency to use the verbs “force” and “compel” interchangeably in American culture. We also use the nouns “force” and “power” as if they were synonyms, but all of these terms are distinct. Force is but one means to an end. Power is an end in itself. We tend to conflate them through the practice of nuclear deterrence, which is about the manipulation of superior force in pursuit of power. Deterrence has a natural affinity to force because deterrence is about punishment. In contrast, compellence is not about force; it’s about power. Compellence is about drive, desire, and hunger. They key to compellence is to know what your opponent wants (or wants to avoid) and manipulate it to your own ends.

Acknowledging that the ultimate weapon exerts this effeminized form of power is what makes the punch line from this New Yorker cartoon so funny:

From www.newyorker.com

From www.newyorker.com

This cartoon captures something about the power countries like Iran experience by attracting international attention through their pursuit of the bomb.

Schelling’s analysis of deterrence and compellence does include the notion of positive incentives in his analysis through the idea that both require assurances to be effective. He argues that your opponent must have a reason to believe that whatever pain and suffering you are inflicting (or further threat thereof) will cease in the event of compliance. In contract, I am arguing that assurances are not a component of deterrence. They are a component of compellence.

The point here is that deterrence and compellence always operate in tandem. If you are not managing both, one is being done to you. While the USSR was deterring the US, the US was simultaneously compelling the USSR to maintain an unsustainable arms race, and vice versa. Someone is always doing the deterring and someone is always doing the compelling. You cannot have one without the other. Unless you preserve your own ability to walk away from a relationship at will, you are experiencing the costs and benefits of being on both ends of a compelling struggle for power.

At this point in time, Iran is not convinced that the benefits of complying with the NPT outweigh the costs it pays in terms of the status it gives up. Bombing Iran into temporary submission is not likely to change that calculus, but rather to compel Iran to pursue its goal of constructing a robust nuclear program because the benefits of achieving the status of a nuclear weapon state are just too good to pass up. Continuing down the path of blowing harder by ratcheting up sanctions is unlikely to produce the desired result of Iran giving up its enrichment without offering a compelling alternative.

The problem with the current situation between the US and Iran is that Iran is undeterred and enjoying all the power by compelling the US to take action. The more force the US has to use in order to deter Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the less powerful the US is (think of the parent who says, “don’t make me take off my belt” versus the parent who can ask a child to do something and the child willingly complies).

This, of course, is a dangerous game. It could end very badly for Iran, but so far Iran has managed to maintain the upper hand, and it will continue to do so even in the event that the US decides to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Finding a solution to the conflict with Iran needs to be about more than deterrence. The solution needs to be more complex than a line in the sand that the Iranians are told not to cross. Deterrence is something that the US does very well, but there are limitations to a strategy that equates power with the threat and/or use of force. It is appropriate for the US to prepare its deterrent strategy, but deterrence alone will not bring about a solution. A solution will come from the ability to combine deterrence with a positive diplomatic vision in which the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs. In other words, the Obama administration needs to make Iran ‘an offer it can’t refuse.’

What to do about Iran Part II: Recapitulation and a new refrain…

Debates in the realm of US nuclear politics conform to a familiar pattern, especially in the academic realm. On the one hand, deterrence pessimists believe that US nuclear force posture must be built on the assumption that deterrence will fail. In order to be credible, a deterrent threat must be backed by a fully operational plan to fight and win a nuclear war. This leads to the operational concepts of nuclear superiority, flexible response, and damage limitation. On the other hand, deterrence optimists believe that everyone loses in the event of a nuclear war. To that end, optimists believe US nuclear force posture should presume that fighting and winning a nuclear war is not an option. To them, the sole purpose of the US nuclear deterrent should be to threaten massive retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack. By limiting the size and composition of its nuclear arsenal, the US reduces the possible pathways to nuclear war. At the same time, if done right, eliminating other options can have the effect of locking the US into massive retaliation as a last resort, increasing the credibility of a retaliatory threat. Deterrence optimism leads to relatively small arsenals that meet a minimum threshold of a secure second-strike capability. The goal is not nuclear superiority, but rather strategic stability through arms control.

In the previous post, I argued that the current debate over whether or not it is time for the US to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities maps nicely onto the old deterrence pessimist/optimist framework.  Explicit arguments that recommend conventional bombing in order to avoid—or at least forestall—a nuclear-armed Iran are implicitly based on the pessimists’ assumptions about deterrence. From this point of view, the alternatives boil down to a choice between a conventional conflict now and living in a constant state of preparation for nuclear war later. Therefore, attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is “the least bad option.” In contrast, the argument against conventional bombing is based on the optimists’ assumption that containing a nuclear-armed Iran would work. Thus, the debate boils down to an implicit disagreement over the interpretation of deterrence theory.

Viewing problems of proliferation through the framework of deterrence provides us no resources through which to assess or recommend diplomatic solutions. If the only questions to which deterrence theory provides us answers lie in the realm of “the diplomacy of violence,” our conversation will be severely limited. In contrast, a theory of nuclear fetishism creates intellectual tools to analyze why various diplomatic agreements might, or might not, work. It widens our aperture by explaining how nuclear weapons function as a currency of power. Thus, we are able to focus our attention on what the technical substance of a negotiated settlement should (or should not) contain in order to resolve the underlying political conflict. (I’ve written about the relationship between the substance and purpose of arms control and nonproliferation agreements at length in a previous post).

Currently, two different communities of experts are addressing questions of what a negotiated settlement would look like. A community of nuclear policy experts is writing primarily about what the technical substance of an agreement would need to entail, while a second community of diplomatic experts is writing about political factors at work. Bringing together these two different perspectives on this crisis, one from nuclear expert Matt Bunn and the other from Ambassadors William H. Luers and Thomas R. Pickering, gives us some building blocks with which to begin putting the pieces of a solution in place (although articulating a unified proposal will have to be work for another day).

Bunn explains what is realistic and possible in the realm of nuclear technology, and Luers and Pickering explain what it is at stake politically. In both cases the suggestions begin with answer the following three questions: “What do they want, what do we want, and what do we both want?” According to Bunn, the formal agreement would include:

  • The P5+1 agrees to allow some operational centrifuges in Iran.
  • Iran agrees to limit enrichment to 2-8 centrifuge cascades (other centrifuges in place, but not operating).
  • All centrifuge operations, R&D, manufacture (also other sensitive nuclear operations) are shifted to international ownership with a 24/7 international staff.
  • Iran agrees to the Additional Protocol and broad transparency measures.
  • The P5+1 implements an incentives package (trade, nuclear assistance, etc.).
  • Bilateral and multilateral dialogues are established to address other issues over time – including recognition and an end to sanctions if these other issues are successfully addressed.
  • The United States pledges not to attack Iran and not to attempt to overthrow the regime as long as (a) Iran complies with its nuclear obligations, (b) Iran does not commit or sponsor aggression or terrorist attacks against others.

And according to Luers and Pickering, politically an agreement would meet the following needs:

“Iran wants recognition of its revolution; an accepted role in its region; a nuclear program; the departure of the United States from the Middle East; and the lifting of sanctions. The United States wants Iran not to have nuclear weapons; security for Israel; a democratic evolution of Arab countries; the end of terrorism; and world access to the region’s oil and gas. Both Iran and the United States want stability in the region — particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of terrorism from Al Qaeda and the Taliban; the reincorporation of Iran into the international community; and no war.”

Taking these two analyses of the conflict as a starting point, the question we are left with is how they interact to create a viable solution.

What to do about Iran Part I: New lyrics, same old tune…

Timed to coincide with the growing tension between the United States and Iran, the most recent print edition of Foreign Affairs arrived last week with Georgetown professor, Matthew Kroenig’s name next to the headline “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option” In response to the question, “should the United States attack Iran and attempt to eliminate its nuclear facilities?” Kroenig answers yes, given the option between a conventional conflict and the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, the choice is clear; The U.S. should set back and potentially eliminate the Iranian nuclear program by bombing a yellowcake-conversion plant, a heavy-water reactor, centrifuge-manufacturing sites, and, of course, the contested uranium enrichment facilities is preferable to the alternative.

Kroenig is part of a new generation of “thought leaders” on issues of nuclear security being funded by the Stanton Foundation. Inaugurated in 2010, the Stanton Fellowship program was created in response to a perception that there are many new challenges in the field of nuclear security, but not many young scholars with new ideas on how to confront those challenges. So far Stanton has been successful at supporting people who are willing to put themselves out there in the contemporary foreign policy debate. In fact, another Stanton Fellow currently at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, Alexandre Debs, co-authored a rebuttal of Kroenig’s argument. In it Debs argues that attacking Iran is not “the least bad option” because Kroenig’s skepticism about containing a nuclear-armed Iran is unwarranted.

Yet, being part of a rising generation of scholars does not necessarily mean that these young men have come up with new ideas. All they have done so far is apply their forefather’s ideological framework to the current political environment. As currently framed this debate about Iran reproduces a predictable Cold War-era ideological split between deterrence pessimists and deterrence optimists.

Kroenig occupies the role of deterrence pessimist. This is an intellectual tradition with roots reaching back two generations to the work of Herman Kahn. Often vilified and derided, Kahn is famous for arguing that nuclear war was survivable and set out to prove it through a macabre mathematical analysis of who and what would survive an all-out nuclear war. Kahn’s intellectual project, like the work of all deterrence pessimists, was motivated by the belief that U.S. nuclear security strategy should be designed with the expectation that nuclear deterrence will fail. This belief leads to two operational doctrines. The first is escalation dominance; the idea that the United States should always be able to up the nuclear ante, one step at a time, responding proportionally to any attack and terminating any conflict through the threat of more to come. The second is damage limitation; the idea that the United States should always work to minimize its casualties. Kroenig’s support of escalation dominance is well known in Washington. In a recent article he argues “nuclear superior states are more likely to win nuclear crises because they are willing to run a greater risk of nuclear war in a crisis than their nuclear inferior opponents.” Also consistent with the deterrence pessimist position is Kroenig’s skepticism about the ability to contain a nuclear Iran and a desire to stop the threat before it starts.

On the other side of the aisle are the deterrence optimists, the most famous of whom is Nobel Laureate, Thomas Schelling. This school of thought advocates accepting the irrationality of nuclear war and the fact of mutual vulnerability. It does not advocate nuclear superiority, but rather seeks a condition of strategy stability. Debs’ rebuttal takes up the position of deterrence optimist as evidenced by the fact that he finds Kroenig’s skepticism about a nuclear-armed Iran unwarranted, and focuses on the success of containing a nuclear North Korea.

The only way to step meaningfully outside of this Cold-War era framework is to move away from placing the use of force in the foreground and start asking a different kind of question. The question shouldn’t be about whether or not to bomb Iran, but about what place the use of force has vis-a-vis U.S. leadership in a changing international environment. More immediately, it should be about next steps towards diplomatic solutions to the conflict over the Iranian nuclear program. Thus far, the best example of a contribution to this debate that refuses to accept Kroenig’s framing and offers and alternative is from Bill Keller of the New York Times. Instead Keller offers a parody of Kroenig’s argument in his op-ed “Bomb-Bomb-Bomb, Bomb-Bomb-Iran.” For those of you who like to get in the weeds, he also looks seriously at the elements of a nonproliferation strategy that focuses on the technical aspects of both uranium-enrichment technology and the politics of negotiations in an election year on his blog.