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Iran: Will They…?

Iran: Will They…?

First, of course, I have no idea. Second, who is/are “they” and what is “will”? A brief review on the eve of the next round of negotiations in Moscow.

The cast:

  • Iran
  • Israel
  • The US
  • The P5+G and the IAEA

(Some) Supporting players:

  • The crowd
  • The Fourth Estate
  • The think tanks
  • The US Congress

Will they capitulate in some way, to some degree, to pressure from outside agency (especially the P5+G, or, nominally, the IAEA)? Will they rattle the saber a bit more (perhaps a Shahab missile test, or the disclosure of another secret development site a la Fordow–i.e. the site near Qom)? This would have an enormous and stifling impact on negotiators. But it would be difficult; they’ve invested a lot in these sites. In a sense, even Fordow would have been assorted decoy in this situation.What credible threat can they make regarding the Strait of Hormuz? Or, to what extent are threats all you need?

BTW, Ahmadinejad is “retiring from politics” after completion of his term.

Don’t forget about Hezbollah in Mexico (as far as retaliation goes – could they attack the US directly in some way)? To cover my bases, here’s press from “the right” and “the left”It’s a real possibility, but things would have to have gone pretty far. Then again, clearly “things going pretty far” is an unfortunate reality. There was a time, for instance, when a nuclear-armed North Korea was “intolerable”… and yet, unfortunately, here we are.

Will they strike independently? And, if they do, to what extent would such action be separable from that of the US? And, if so, what (this should go without saying, but this is not Osirak or Al Kibar)?

Ehud Barak has implied that returning to an enrichment ceiling of 3.5% migh be sufficient:

Oh, there… there’s no need for a fatwa if they stop enriching for 20%, if they start bringing it out of the country to a friendly mutually agreed state, the 20% enriched uranium, and 3.5% enriched uranium beyond a few hundred kilograms which is not enough for a single device…”


Were Israel to strike Iran, how separable would that action/the decisions that lead to it be from the US? Even if ideas of conspiracy between two countries were unfounded, it would be difficult to convince the Iranians that the case was otherwise – especially as communication channels would narrow in such a situation. And even if after the fact, how might US interests get engaged? In such a situation what degree of support from the US might be expected or forthcoming? A 2009 Brookings exercise simulated a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, and the results might be informative:

But, the U.S. team did pledge the United States to Israel’s defense, and early on undertook numerous moves in support of that promise— deploying Patriot batteries and AEGIS warships to Israel, and installing new command and control systems to “net” the U.S. and Israeli air defense teams together.

P5+G and the IAEA
(the permanent members of the UNSC–not to be facile, but incidentally, the P5 were the ones who already had nukes–and Germany): What will they demand as part of a “negotiation”? That work at Fordow be suspended? Heightened access to/scrutiny of Fordow? Well these might be practical, other options, such as a complete suspension of any enrichment, would be unrealistic.

Also incidentally, it’s “+G” because Germany was part of the E3–back when the US wouldn’t talk to them.

The Crowd
Intrade is an interesting marker of what the crowd is thinking… Here’s what they thought about and overt Israeli or US attack by December 2011.

And now, here is what the by the end of June looks like:

The Fourth Estate
I don’t have much to say here, except to highlight the unique role Jeffrey Goldberg’s articles have played through the last several years. 2010. 2012.

Then there’s the latest Foreign Affairs issue with Kenneth Waltz’s cover article, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb”.

The Think Tanks
CNAS thinks a strike would be a bad idea.
CFR on where the “red lines” are or should be now.

The US Congress 
Perhaps I’m out of gas; unfortunately I don’t feel like writing about Congress at the moment. [/pun]

How did we find out about these “secret” sites?
At no time in the last 15 years has any disclosure of the existence of Iranian enrichment facilities been their choice; in 2002 the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) “outed” the existence of the original enrichment facilities at Natanz (I use the scare quotes because, while this might constitute a public disclosure, there is little question that the intelligence community had awareness of this program). Iran disclosed the existence of the Fordow facility (this is the facility you’ll often hear of as buried deep within a mountain near the city of Qom) to the IAEA in 2009, but this was only after they become aware that elements of the Intelligence Community were already aware of it.
For more information on what Iranian enrichment to 20% would mean in practice, see this ISIS article.

Forever Overhead
Courtesy of Google Earth, ISIS has helped us follow developments at a number of Iranian facilities, thanks to satellites and overhead imagery. For example, see here
and here.

All the ISIS reports on Iran are excellent. Find them here.

More Iranian nuke porn here.

What Would a Successful Negotiation Look Like?
What would a compromise acceptable to all the active parties look like?
Again, Ehud Barak has suggested that a reduced maximum enrichment level of 3.5% might do the trick…
Sayed Mousavian (a former member of the Iranian negotiation team) also suggests something akin to a reduction in enrichment levels as well as an elimination of the more highly enriched levels:

I think that Mousavian is correct that allowing Iran some enrichment activity is a necessary condition of a deal. Once that right is established, Mousavian thinks that Iran would agree to a “zero stockpile” of uranium enriched to the potentially dangerous 20 percent level. As an interim “confidence-building measure,” Iran would export its stockpile of 20 percent uranium beyond what it needs for domestic civilian use.

I’d be hard-pressed to put it more succinctly than Stephen Walt:

From a purely strategic point of view, this situation is pretty simple. Iran is not going to give up its right to enrich uranium. Period. If the West insists on a full suspension, there won’t be a deal. It’s that simple. At the same time, the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 would like to maximize the amount of time it would take Iran to “break out” and assemble a weapon. The best way to do that is to limit Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium to concentrations of less than 5 percent. If Iran insists on keeping a large supply of 20 percent enriched uranium on hand, we’ll walk too… Yet it is these two comparatively powerful and nuclear-armed nations are insisting that Iran cannot under any circumstances have its own nuclear weapons — which Iran has repeatedly said it does not seek — and Israel’s leaders are declaring that Iran must give up even the potential to acquire them. I have no trouble understanding why the P5+1 and Israel might prefer such a world, but what I don’t understand is why they think Iran will ever agree to it. I mean, I’d like to live in a world where anyone making more than a $1 million per year had to send me ten percent of their income, but it would be foolish for me to plan my life on that basis.

A Note on the NPT and the Additional Protocols
I’ve argued in the past that we shouldn’t sneeze at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) for, among other reasons, there are a few other ideas of this scale that you’d ever get that many people to sign on to (currently 189 signers – they’re used to be 190, which included North Korea, but they withdrew… However, even in this case, there are protocols under which they can/can’t withdraw). Unfortunately, the NNPT sets no limits on the degree of enrichment a party can undertake. Clearly, it’s not enough. That’s why there are the Additional Protocols. The Additional Protocols, among other things, allow for greater degree of scrutiny and snap inspections by IAEA inspectors.

The Guns of July
As some of you know, I’ve long been an advocate of the “Iran as rational actor” line. I was to some degree vindicated by the 2007 NIE:

Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.

At the moment, I’m fond of Kuperman’s formulation, “rational most–but not all–of the time”. But we’re entering serious “Guns of August” territory here.

Now I’m really out of gas. That’s the way it’ll stay for today. There are other Iran topics, but every time I list them something breaks the HTML–aforementioned “out of gas” state will keep them secret for now…

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Forever Overhead: Pakistan

Forever Overhead: Pakistan

Drones, reactors, floods, and Usama bin Laden’s Google Earth debut–and you don’t have to work for a covert agency to see (most of) them…

The official US position on drone strikes in Pakistan is that they are “cross-border”, i.e. launched from bases in Afghanistan. However, Google Earth images obtained in 2009 by Pakistan’s The News and The London Times clearly showed Predator drones at Shamsi airfield North of Quetta. Denials were more pointed after an unwitting “outing”/mistake by Senator Feinstein when she said at a hearing (also in 2009), “As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base”. Her office attempted to walk the utterance back as well.

The aircraft are of course no longer visible on Google Earth, though new structures have since appeared. Ogleearth has a fairly enjoyable speculation and wonderment-rich post on the provenance of the images.

New America Foundation maintains a marvelous visualization/Google Maps mashup of drone strikes on Pakistani territory, with all available supplemental data on location/combatant vs. civilian casualties, etc. 2004-present.

Our study shows that the 244 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including 31 in 2011, from 2004 to the present have killed approximately between 1,493 and 2,379 individuals, of whom around 1,200 to 1,908 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. Thus, the true non-militant fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 20 percent. In 2010, it was more like five percent. [As of May 27, 2011]

The Nuclear Program
Newsweek recently reported on discoveries made by examining commercially-obtained imagery of the Khushab site. The images show construction (circa April 2011) of a fourth reactor for plutonium production (via reprocessing).

Not only does this represent expansion of the program itself, but also points to yet another track for the production of nuclear material. Heretofore (really, circa 10-15 years ago) the putatively prodigious output of Pakistan’s production had been based on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) created in the enrichment process stolen, mastered, refined and in addition sold (sometimes in “turnkey” fashion including not just plans and the like but access to networks of businessmen who could illicitly provide the makings of similar programs)–thanks to the strikingly James Bond-bad guy-like A.Q. Khan–to a rogue’s gallery of countries including North Korea, Iran (where the P-1 became the Ir-1), and Libya (which, fortunately, “came clean” and sent its centrifuges to Tennessee, where good use is apparently being made of them–I imagine at more than one point in the last month or so the Colonel has been wondering if his short-lived return from pariah status was worth it).

Now, Pakistan’s diversification from just HEU into plutonium isn’t news, but again, the high points here are the pace of expansion and, the ostensibly public nature of the imagery and discovery (though seriously, one has to wonder how closely they were led to acquire imagery at this particular time from this particular site, and by whom).

I’m not going to belabor the plausibility and nuances of the “nightmare scenario” of loose (or acquisition-abetted) nukes at this point, but I will link to Sanger/Broad’s NYT article about US efforts to assist Pakistan in securing their arsenal, going so far as to offer assistance in developing PALs (Permissive Action Links–basically, as close as you will get to the real-life version of what are colloquially referred to as “launch codes” in popular culture). One interesting International Law nuance here is the question of whether giving PALs (or even assisting in the development of the technology) to a NPT non-signatory is a violation of our obligations under article 1 of said treaty.

Darn it, I was looking to some more canonical source, but the Wikipedia entry on PALs is pretty good.

Courtesy of NASA we have some astonishing imagery which brings home the scope of destruction of the 2010 flooding in the districts around the Indus River. Despite being a “show, don’t tell” advocate, the stats are hard to resist.

  • Approximately 1800 killed, BUT ~20 MILLION impacted
  • 1.5M displaced
  • 1.89M homes destroyed
  • An estimated $500 million crop damage (and of course let’s remember that you needn’t be anywhere near the vicinity of the flooding to be impacted by the absence of the food derived from those crops)
  • 5.3M jobs lost or attenuated, total economic impact estimated $43B; Pakistan’s GDP dropped or will bottom out 6-9% lower (obviously, taking us well into negative growth)

One unfortunately strategic beneficiary might be the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, AKA “The Pakistani Taliban”), as they were able to provide assistance where the government couldn’t; this affords them a source of legitimacy they don’t normally pursue, more in the manner of Hizbullah in Southern Lebanon (which provides civil services there in absence–sometimes ensuring it–of the government; this is why you may sometimes hear Southern Lebanon referred to as “a state within a state”). As a result we have “inverse counterinsurgency” and a can count a strengthened TTP as one result of the floods. Also, government forces were distracted from their counter-TTP efforts by the floods.

Usama bin Laden Makes the Google Earth Scene
Some will remember a prior Contours of Catastrophe post musing about the familiarity of the outline of bin Laden’s compound. Well, the entrenchment of the shape and relevance of Google Earth continues apace–per geography.pk:

A milestone, all thanks to Bin Laden’s death perhaps that Google has “pre-announced” satellite imagery update for first time ever. This imagery update as expected includes the updated imagery for Abbottabad town of Pakistan that has gained attentions in recent days.

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Blood for No Oil

Blood for No Oil

Actually, this post doesn’t have anything–directly–to do with the title, I just always wanted to use it. James Howard Kunstler used it as a joke referring to the oft-lofted anti-war poster, pointing at the time (probably 2003) to the immediate huge drop in Iraqi oil production at the beginning of the war, which I might add took years to come even close to where it had been. Those who know me know references to US policy in the Middle East being “all about oil” is nails->chalkboard for me (it’s not entirely unfounded, just a better beginning to a conversation than the ending it’s often treated as). So…

US Oil Production and Consumption
The US produces a lot of petroleum, actually (we’re the world’s 3rd-largest producer at 11%; we export about 2 million barrels/day), but we consume even more. About 51% (2009) of US consumption comes from foreign sources (18.8 million barrels/day in 2009). EIA projections have that coming down to 45% in 2035. By the way, some refining processes actually increase the volume of refined output (a not inconsiderable amount–1 Mbpd in 2007)–the increased volume is actually counted as domestic production regardless of where the crude came from!

Where US Oil Comes From (and Where it Doesn’t)
About 1/2 of our imported oil comes from the Western Hemisphere (i.e., not the Middle East–about 17% comes from the Persian Gulf). The top five sources for US oil (the middle three do switch positions from year to year):

  • Canada (21% gross)
  • Mexico (10% gross)
  • Venezuela (9% gross)
  • Saudi Arabia (9% gross)
  • Nigeria (7% gross)

What “Sweet, Light Crude” Means
“Lightness” refers to the American Petroleum Institute’s measure of the gravity of crude relative to that of water.  The scale goes from light to heavy; most grades fall between 10-70 “degrees”, though Canada’s oil sands output is very heavy, ~8 degrees.

“Sweetness” refers to the sulfur content of the crude; <5% sulfur is considered “sweet”, anything more is considered “sour”.

Where Oil Prices Come From
West Texas Intermediate is the main benchmark for oil coming into the US. It’s sourced in Texas and mainly consumed internally. Its price is usually about $1-2 lower than the price of Brent Crude.

When you hear reports about the price of a barrel of oil, it probably is referring to the price of Brent Crude. Brent is the main global benchmark; lower- and higher-quality crudes may be “pegged” to the price of Brent. It’s sourced mainly in the North Sea, and consumed largely by Europe. There a a few “flavors” of Brent:

  • Brent Sweet Light Crude
  • Oseburg
  • Ekofisk
  • Forties

Dubai Crude is another benchmark, particularly for the sale of oil going to Asia. This is sourced in Dubai (and Oman), and exported/refined externally.

There’s also the OPEC Reference Basket–this is a weighted average from ~11 sources. A more nuanced way of managing oil prices (beyond brute-force supply variation) is controlling the output from one source relative to the others.

Those are the main benchmark grades. You can get an idea of the variability of grades (which vary from field to field–sometimes widely) by looking at this chart of sources and grades.

Iran Heavy is pegged to Brent. Because of its lower quality, it usually sells about $6 less than Brent. I mention this because we talk a lot about Iran’s oil production (they are the world’s 5th-largest producer), and the geopolitical implications, especially in light of the UN sanctions.

Iran actually suffers a bit–even when oil prices rise–not just because of the sanctions, but because the crude is heavy and sour, and thus more expensive to refine (and can’t be processed in as many refineries). Refineries are expensive to build and maintain, and not as flexible in processing various grades as you might think. They export much of their crude, and even for internal consumption end up importing gasoline.

Iran had actually been “hoarding” crude in 10-28 Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) for several years. No one says exactly why, but it’s a lot of oil they’re storing–a big VLCC can hold about 2 Million barrels. They’re also very expensive to maintain, insure, and rent. I last speculated with a friend on why that was in 2008, wondering about efforts to constrain world supply and benefit financially, but they’re still there (though I don’t mean to overstate–there is some movement out of Iran, but they are always storing). And there are more of them.

Beijing Lu International Freight Forwarders Limited

Despite the sanctions, a lot goes to China, and one might assume that they benefit from tightening (but not ceased) supply from Libya. And Europe, too:

But since Iranian sanctions were tightened, the biggest trade for NITC’s tankers have involved shipments of Iranian crude for NIOC to Ain Sukhna. From there, crude is pumped to the Sidi Kerir terminal on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, where it is blended with other Middle East crudes. From Sidi Kerir, crude is sold to traders based in the Mediterranean, with the biggest volumes going to Italy, Spain and to Turkey.

And Iran recently reduced its domestic subsidies for gasoline, provoking some violence, a huge spike in gas prices (obviously), apparently showing signs of bite from the sanctions.

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