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On Iran, Most Roads Lead to Bad Places

A look at what could happen in the coming months

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Iran's foreign minister yesterday, flanked by the Iranian and Turkish flags.(Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

It feels like things involving Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program and the United States’ attempts to halt it are slowly but surely coming to a head. Yesterday’s to-do concerned a missive the Obama administration sent Iran’s leaders. An Iranian parliamentarian reported that President Obama sent a letter reiterating that the U.S. considers closing the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial energy shipping lane, a “red line,” but also offering the prospect of face-to-face talks. The administration disputed this report: the letter was merely a standard diplomatic communication—apparently there’s a difference—and it did not propose direct engagement. This follows several tense events, most notably the announcement earlier this month that a second facility capable of enriching uranium to 20 percent (which is considered highly enriched and weapons-usable) came online in a heavily fortified bunker near Qom—breaking a crucial Israeli red line.

So what’s next? Here’s a rough discussion of possible outcomes. It’s not good.

Toward the end of the month, there are in theory supposed to be multilateral nuclear talks in Turkey. Laura Rozen reports that the U.S. and its allies plan, as a confidence-building measure, to ask Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and to hand over its existing supply in exchange for no further U.N. Security Council resolutions (the hope being that China and Russia can be brought around at least to back this threat). If Iran agrees, it could be seen as a starting point toward more substantive negotiations and a more comprehensive resolution; if Iran rejects this deal, it will raise tensions, and could lead to military conflict.

Within two to three months, the new U.S. sanctions against companies that deal with the Central Bank of Iran (including to buy oil) are expected to make a real, further dent in Iran’s economic situation, primarily by convincing oil importers to seek alternative sources. Iranian enemies such as Saudi Arabia are gearing up to provide more of the black stuff, but this could provoke Iran into closing the Strait of Hormuz, which much Saudi oil is dependent upon, and this would likely lead to military conflict.

Similarly, the sanctions, which have already done real damage, including by causing Iran’s currency to fall to a record low, could make for desperate times in Iran. Kenneth Pollack has a provocative article noting that the severity of the latest sanctions could be too much: they may do such a number on world energy markets that they (and even lesser sanctions) become diplomatically unfeasible, and the sanctions would be lifted; they may make Iran feel like they must take some sort of retaliatory measure, including perhaps a terrorist attack against a U.S. interest somewhere (or even in the U.S.), which would all but force military conflict.

In late June, Obama will probably have to start actually enforcing the sanctions against companies that continue to do business with Iran—including companies in friendly nations. This could lead to a lifting of sanctions or, alternatively, a more urgent hard line, which runs the risk of leading to military conflict.

Aren’t we leaving someone out? … Oh, right. Defense Minister Barak insisted yesterday that Israeli is “very far off” from deciding whether to launch a military strike against Iran’s program. Of course, he also insisted that his country and the U.S. “respect one another’s freedom of decision.” The Israelis are unconvinced by optimistic U.S. projections of the sanctions’ effects. They could get antsy or just determine that one too many red lines have been crossed and launch a military strike.

So, basically, hope something good happens in Turkey next week.

White House Disputes Iran Report Saying Obama Letter Offered Direct Talks [Yahoo! The Envoy]
U.S. Expects Iran Sanctions to Bear Results Within Two Months [JTA]
Are We Sliding Toward War With Iran? [TNR]
Barak Says Israeli Decision on Iran Remains ‘Far Off’ [WP]
U.S. Rejects Israeli Assessment That Iran Sanctions Are Ineffective [Haaretz]
Earlier: Iran Foes Try To Coax China

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Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

If you are going to pontificate on or ponder the Iranian nuke program and why Israel has the red lines it has, it would be helpful to understand some of the basics of whys & what of uranium enrichment.

The two major isotopes (in addition to several other minor isotopes) of uranium are U238 which cannot be used for reactors or weapons but is the most abundant isotope in nature – and U235 which can and is used for reactors and weapons (plutonium can also be used but that is not now at issue).

Uranium ore contains about 0.7% U235. An electric power reactor requires 3.5%-5% U235; research / medical products reactors need up to ~19% U235. Fission-type atom bombs require 5-10 Kg of 90% to 95% U235. U235 enriched to 20% or greater can also be used for a “dirty bomb”, i.e., a conventional bomb that spreads nasty radioactive matter around a wide area.

Uranium enrichment starts with converting the metallic uranium (which is still 0.7% U235) to uranium hexafluoride – UF6 – a gas at the right temperature & pressure. The UF6 gas is then spun in high speed ultracentrifuges (120K-160K RPM) so that the lighter U235 UF6 separates from the heavier U238 UF6. To do this practically centrifuge cascades are used where the slightly enriched product of one centrifuge is fed into the next as its starting material. A cascade farm has several thousands of centrifuges.

Enriching from 0.7% to 20% is the hard part; you have to get the system to work and the enrichment is a factor of almost 30X. Going from 20% to 95% is easier since the system already works and the enrichment factor is less than 5X.

After enrichment the UF6 is converted back to uranium metal for making the bomb core.

Uranium enrichment is generally viewed as the longest & hardest step of making a bomb. The centrifuges are very finicky and UF6 gas is quite toxic.

This is why Iran successfully making 20% U235 in a protected facility is a major red line for Israel.

And should be for the USA as well.

J’lem / Efrata

Denver Dave says:

Paragraph 7 “Defense Minister Barak insisted yesterday that Israeli is “very far off””—— since you are a publication, try “insisted yesterday that ISRAEL is very far off”…

Quinterius says:

This article is utterly childish. After reading the statement,

“The U.S. and its allies plan … to ask Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and to hand over its existing supply in exchange for no further U.N. Security Council resolutions,”

I started laughing and stopped reading. It is like a thief comes to you and says, “give me all your money or I’ll hit you on the head and I’ll kill your mother and father too.”

In the first place, Russia and China have already said that they are not going to agree to any more sanctions in the UNSC. Secondly, who is the US to make any such stupid demand on Iran? Let the US and Israel give up their nuclear weapons first. Iran is certainly not going to stop its peaceful nuclear activities for these crazy entities. The US is the bull in the China shop in the international community.

Joshua says:


You obviously have a reading-comprehension problem. Look at Heshy’s comment. He said that nuclear reactors require only 3.5-5% U235 to produce power. That’s pretty much the limit for “peaceful nuclear activities”. 20% is the rate-limiting step if you want to build a bomb, and the only reason to achieve that concentration (besides the laughable reason of is if you want to do some sort of medical research with U235) IS to build a bomb. So, excuse me if I stop taking you seriously.

June is when Obama either wins or loses the election. If he lifts sanctions without any reciprocity from Iran, he will lose, and it won’t matter if the nominee is Gingrich or Romney.


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On Iran, Most Roads Lead to Bad Places

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