Myanmar ‘delivers’ nuclear transparency

President Barack Obama tours the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

In the run-up to presidential visits aides look for achievements that can be announced, typically agreements on trade and the like. Called ‘deliverables’ in the diplomatic argot, they are often the currency of exchange for deciding on travel destinations.

So when it was announced that US President Barack Obama would include Burma in his mid-November trip to Southeast Asia, there were concerns and questions, including from Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, about whether Myanmar deserved the honour. What ‘deliverable’ would warrant bestowing a presidential visit on a country that had not yet fully emerged from its decades of authoritarianism and human-rights abuses?

But as it turned out, the quid pro quo for Obama’s visit was significant indeed. To the delight of the
non-proliferation community, Myanmar said it would accept the global standard for nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), known by the catchy name of the ‘Additional Protocol’.

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Obama and Ahmadinejad: Rhetoric at the UNGA

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly. Photo Credit: UN

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly. Photo Credit: UN Photo Library

By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs

To my eyes, President Obama’s red line looks quite … red.

In front of the UN General Assembly yesterday, the president said the following:

And make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That’s why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

This is not new from the US President; last spring he started explicitly rejecting the idea that the United States could rely on a regime of containment against an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. I’m not sure it is correct that a nuclear-armed Iran couldn’t be contained, but it is pretty clearly the policy of the United States not to take the chance.

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Taking MEK off ‘terrorist’ list is a gift to Iranian regime

MEk rally in Paris

Supporters at the MEK’s annual rally in Paris, 13 June 2012.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

On 21 September, the State Department indicated that the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK – People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran) will be de-listed from the US foreign terrorist organizations list.

The news caused outrage and anguish in many quarters, particularly among reform-minded Iranians at home and abroad. They rightly fear that the tacit US legitimizing of the group will be used by the regime to discredit the Green Movement and other opponents.  As one US-based Iranian put it, the decision ‘feeds directly into the regime’s narrative: that the US is backing the MEK to launch attacks against Iran and undermine the territorial integrity of the country. MEK affiliation will likely become even more of an excuse for the persecution of students and activists’.

I have to agree with the National Iranian American Council that the decision is a gift to the Iranian regime.

The MEK is a quasi-cultish group that emerged in pre-revolution Iran with a curious blend of Islamist and Marxist ideological motives and an inclination towards violent tactics.  Their bombing and assassinations were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians and six Americans. It was the latter acts in the 1970s that earned their 1997 addition to the terrorist list.

The MEK is despised by most Iranians for having supported Saddam Hussein in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. The day the news was announced, Bahman Kalbasi, an Iranian journalist at the BBC, published a tweet commenting that ‘perhaps the only popularity contest the government of Iran can win is when its alternative is MEK’.

While many MEK members are exiled in Europe, several thousand have operated until recently from a self-sustaining camp outside Baghdad. Because they are dedicated to the removal of the current regime in Iran, the MEK have won friends in many Western capitals. In 2009, after years of lobbying, the Council of the European Union de-designated the MEK as a terrorist group.  But the group’s most prominent supporters are in Washington, where prominent politicians from across the political spectrum have waged a well-oiled campaign to promote de-listing.

Notwithstanding its deadly history, the MEK has done some good deeds.  Its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, was the vehicle through which Israeli intelligence in 2002 exposed previously hidden Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak.  Despite the MEK’s low level of support in Iran it is also seen by some right-wingers as a means for inducing regime change in Tehran.  But some of the MEK’s high-profile advocates have also been motivated by more personal considerations.  At least one former politician has been under investigation for the lavish fees he received for supporting the MEK cause.

Critics credit the lobbying effort with having swayed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make the de-listing decision.  Indeed the pre-election timing of the decision does suggest a political motivation. But there are other factors she had to take into account.

One factor is the set of legal requirements for the terrorist listing.  To be designated, a foreign organization must be engaged in terrorist activity or have the intention to do so, and this activity ‘must threaten the security of US nationals or the national security of the United States.’  A case can be made that the MEK’s activities work against US foreign policy interests in that they undermine the cause of reformists in Iran.  But that’s a hard sell, given the primordial instinct that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend.

With regard to intent, the MEK renounced violence more than a decade ago.  MEK operatives reportedly were responsible, with Israeli backing, for a string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear engineers and scientists.  While these assassinations fit some descriptions of terrorism, they did not threaten US lives.  On the contrary, they were intended to slow nuclear weapons development.

Clinton also had to take into account the American political scene, in which Iran’s nuclear program plays a huge part as the spearhead of the Republican Party’s attacks on President Obama’s foreign policy stewardship.  Keeping MEK on the terrorism list would have been seen as a sop to Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, even if in reality the regime benefits from the de-listing.  Given Iran’s intransigence in the nuclear talks this summer, there was no mileage in either politics or policy for not de-listing. If talks this summer had encompassed serious negotiations, Clinton would not have made this decision.

Those who criticise the de-listing should thus spare some of their anger for the Iranian regime. Tehran’s refusal to limit its enrichment program or to accept the transparency demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency incurs many costs beyond non-economic expenditures.  In addition to choking sanctions, political isolation and the prospect of war, the regime’s policies have triggered legitimacy within the US for the group that is most vehemently set on regime overthrow. Unfortunately, it is the Iranian people who will again suffer.

Tehran’s nuclear balancing act

Tehran at sunrise, featuring the Miladi Tower.

Tehran at sunrise, featuring the Miladi Tower. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Afshin Rattansi

In an issue of the Security Times that coincided with the Cyber Security Summit in Bonn, Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, examined Iran’s nuclear balancing act.

There is no diplomatic solution for Iran’s nuclear ambitions yet, and while Iran has been somewhat hampered by sanctions and attacks designed to derail its nuclear program, it continues to enrich uranium. As the IAEA reported, Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile grew to nearly 7,000kg. Iran is still months away from being able to make a weapons, but ‘the problem is that the redline separating nuclear-capable from nuclear-armed will become less clear as Iran’s enrichment program makes further advances,’ writes Fitzpatrick.

Diplomatic talks by the EU3+3 have failed. Differing perceptions of the threat by Israel and the US may have delayed more decisive plans, but in this atmosphere of uncertainty,  an Israeli strike cannot be ruled out. For now, a military attack still seems like the worst option, as well as counterproductive – because it may only derail Iran’s progress by two to three years, and ultimately accelerate Iran’s ambitions for a weapon. But Iran should not push its luck. The US seems to be unwilling to join Israel in an attack now, but could very well change its position in the near future. If Western intelligence agencies begin to perceive more of a threat, they could strike – which could lead to war.

Read the full article.

Para-diplomacy with Iran and Russia

2012 Nuclear Security Summit Plenary Hall

2012 Nuclear Security Summit Plenary Hall. Copyright: IAEA Imagebank
Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

At a non-proliferation conference in Moscow on Friday, I questioned Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov about his interview with Interfax the previous day in which he claimed that Russia saw ‘no signs’ of a military dimension to Iran’s nuclear programme. Was this a misinterpretation, I asked. In English, ‘signs’ mean ‘indications’. Maybe he meant there was no proof?

There are plenty of indications, I added. The report by the IAEA last November included a 65-paragraph annex detailing the information the agency has assembled about Iranian nuclear activities of a ‘possible military dimension’. Most of the evidence concerned activities prior to 2004, but some suspicious activity took place after that time and possibly continues today. As I have put it elsewhere, surely the Russians are not blind to that evidence.

Answering in perfect English, Ryabkov doubled down on his insistence of ‘no signs, full stop’. Afterwards, two of my Russian friends privately shook their heads at this feigned ignorance. To put the best spin on it, I surmise that Ryabkov’s purpose was to dampen the heat that has been generated of late over the Iranian nuclear issue. But how far backwards is it seemly to bend in order to give Iran the benefit of the doubt?

The Iranian nuclear issue is assessed in detail in the newly published IISS Strategic Survey 2012. At the book launch this Thursday, I will be ready to offer an update on the latest diplomatic peregrinations, the state of Iran’s programme and the guessing game over Israel’s intentions. Will they or won’t they prematurely – and fatally – take military action? Sneak preview: probably not this year, but don’t bet the farm on peace prevailing next year. As we note at the end of the Iran section of Strategic Survey 2012: ‘No matter who won the US presidential election, the Iranian nuclear issue looked likely to reach a crisis stage in the coming year.’

At the Moscow conference, Ryabkov said Iran needs to cooperate more with the IAEA to remove doubt about their actions. He added that as difficult as the talks with Iran may be, ‘some talks are better than no talks’ and that for the first time Iran was discussing core issues. Russia had proposed a step-by-step plan that in the end would meet Iran’s demand for the lifting of sanctions and recognition of an Iranian right to enrichment. The sequencing is important, he added, and is one of the areas of disagreement with Iran.

In a luncheon address at the conference, Mustafa Dolatyar, Director General of Iran’s Institute for Political and International Studies, confirmed that Iran wanted these concessions up front. The soft-spoken diplomat/professor couched these demands in honeyed terms of good faith, respect for each other’s choices and transparency on the desired end game. As I see it though, agreement on the outcome should be the result of negotiations, not a precondition for meaningful talks.

Dolatyar also spoke about what he claimed to be America’s missed opportunities over the years at responding in kind to Iran’s offers of flexibility. Goodness knows there were too many such missed opportunities on all sides. His focus on America, though, was irritating to the representatives of other countries that share Washington’s concerns.

During the ensuing Q & A, rather than offer a point-by-point rebuttal of his accusations about past US actions, I asked a simple question about the present: Why does Iran refuse to meet bilaterally with the US and to respond to President Barack Obama’s offer of engagement? Since Iran is so focused on America’s position, would it not be good to sit down together? His answer – that talking together is not useful without a set agenda – left me unsatisfied. I have to agree with Ryabkov on this one, that talking is better than not talking.

Iran’s nuclear programme: situation not yet hopeless

Senior Iranian leaders at the 16th Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran

As predicted, the latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has contributed to a push in Israel and parts of the US for preventive military action. Since May, Iran has installed more than a thousand new centrifuges in the underground facility at Fordow, doubling the number there since the last IAEA report in May.

In a pre-emptive move of their own, White House officials gave their own spin to the latest developments several days before the IAEA released the report. While not underplaying their concern over Iran’s continued defiance, the Obama team noted that the new numbers are not a ‘game changer’. The new centrifuges are not (yet) being used for enrichment and the stockpile of 20% enriched uranium has not grown since May because half of it has been converted to an oxide form for use in fuel plates.

The danger posed by Iran’s nuclear programme is heightening incrementally: the numbers grow arithmetically, not by orders of magnitude. Mark Fitzpatrick, in a new article for Al-Monitor questions the wisdom of a war over a 10% increase in centrifuges. A proportionate response would be to increase the sanctions pressure on Iran, which has so far not made good use of diplomacy.

Read the full article at Al-Monitor

Myanmar comes in from the nuclear cold (almost)

Myanmar Defence Minister Hla Min made headlines yesterday with his announcement that the country had abandoned all nuclear activity and suspended military cooperation with North Korea.

‘This is a good news story’ Mark Fitzpatrick, the Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, told Alexander Nicoll, and he sketched out the background to international concern about possible nuclear proliferation in the country. However, he also cautioned that the General’s comment that was no need for the IAEA to visit Myanmar as there was nothing to inspect was ‘the wrong answer.’

IISS Strategic Dossier: Preventing Nuclear Dangers in Southeast Asia and Australasia


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