Saturday, March 25, 2006

More than 50 %?

In Istanbul I caused a minor stir by saying that I estimated that the risks of both a disintegration of Iraq and a military confrontation with Iran is now somewhat above 50 %.

It’s was not a welcome message – and I would be the first to agree that it is a most unwelcome situation.

But it is always important to be able to look the facts straight in the eye.

Wherever I have discussed the issue in the last weeks – Washington or Moscow – there is profound gloom. Details in assessment can vary, but remarkably little does when it comes to the core of the argument.

There is no disagreement that the Iranians are pursuing a nuclear program which is designed to give them the option of getting also nuclear weapon.

Whether there is a weapons program or not is to a large extent a matter of definition – the program that is there is dual-use in every single part. But it does not seem to have passed the point where elements of it can for certain be described as only military in nature.

That they also want to pursue civilian nuclear power is clear. And in spite of what is sometimes said, there is a logic in this. The country’s vast oil and gas reserves will be used primarily for exports in order to gain hard currency, while domestic uranium could eventually by a useful source of power for the nation itself.

But the quest for a weapons option has deep roots back to the days of the Shah. The program was in fact slowed down after the Khomeini revolution. It’s in recent years it has been given new priority and new resources.

It is undoubtedly linked to the regimes since of insecurity in a world in which it feels itself surrounded by American power. But one should not overlook the fact that it seems to have broad support even among those fiercely opposed to the regime.

Whether diplomacy can convince the regime that it should abstain from pursuing those elements of its programmed deemed unacceptable to an outside world deeply suspicious of its motives is still an open question.

There seems to be numerous talks going on. But there are very few signs of them having any hope of bringing a resolution. Indeed, whoever of insight I ask sinks down into deep pessimism about the prospects for a political solution.

Washington as well as Moscow is determined to prevent Iran from mastering the technology of the centrifuges necessary to enrich uranium. To build and operate one of these centrifuges is a highly complex undertaking, but once one has learnt to build and successfully run one, it’s only a matter of time and scale until one can assemble the perhaps 50 000 necessary for a full production facility.

That’s why the red line laid down by the European trio doing the negotiations has been that enrichment –even on the research scale – should not be permitted. Research could well mean learning to build and run the centrifuges.

And that’s exactly what seems to have happened.

There are now reports that Iran has built a small facility with a small cascade of 164 centrifuges. If true, that points at faster progress than also most intelligence agencies had believed.

A new sense of alarm can clearly be felt around the issue. The question now tops the list of issues of any more important trans-Atlantic political consultation.

Buying time in order to continue to explore the political option is certainly still the by far best policy. Every effort must be done to try to get at least parts of the Iranian leadership off the course towards catastrophe that they are on.

They might think that they have strong cards in any confrontation. That’s also true to a certain extent. But over time there is no reason whatsoever that it is their country that will pay the heaviest price in any long-term confrontation.

The price others will have to pay might also be very substantial, but that does not alter the eventual outcome.

But with the Iranians pushing ahead, and if the new information can be seen as correct and later on verified by the IAEA, it is more likely to be a matter of months rather than years until the issue is brought to its head.

Senator John McCain says that the only thing worse than a military strike is Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. That seems to be the view of many places.

Thus, I stand by my assessment.

And it most certainly add to my general worries about a deteriorating geostrategic situation and deepening worries about developments in the entire area between Jerusalem and Jalalabad.