Friday, April 24, 2015

Iran vs. America in Yemen and the Gulf

With the tensions in Yemen increasing and Iran and the US backing different sides, it was only a matter of time before the two found themselves at odds. While the US has not participated in the bombing, according to the Saudi news organization Al-Arabiya, they've participated in aerial refueling and other methods of logistical support (including rescuing 2 Saudi pilots whose plane either malfunctioned or was shot down). Several days ago it was reported that an Iranian convoy bearing weapons intended for the Houthi rebels was en route to Yemen. The United States redeployed naval assets and it appears as though the convoy (which includes armed ships) has reversed course and is headed back towards Iran.

The United States has a qualitative advantage militarily and in my estimation these events are a perfect example of this. Iran knows that their naval forces cannot possibly win a conventional battle with the United States, and even approaching the fleet is a dangerous escalation. The situation is quite different than that in Syria for a variety of reasons. While Iran has no trouble sending paramilitary fighters, arms and logistical support to Syria and Hezbollah in Syria, it is much more difficult to send so much through such a busy waterway at a time when the world's attention on focused on Yemen.

There is a not so fine line between supporting guerrilla forces and engaging a military might on its own terms. Iran has always worked asymmetrically (e.g. in Bahrain) and while they are habitual braggarts (Iran's military posturing) their actions tend to be closer to this than brinksmanship. The results here are unsurprising, and underscore the priorities of the two sides; the US wants to preserve hegemony, and while Iran lacks the power to directly confront the US, there are others ways it hopes to use to get around this in its quest for regional supremacy and international recognition.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Iran Deal Framework Thoughts

While the framework of the Iran nuclear deal is by no means "perfectly reassuring" (Iran won't abandon all nuclear enrichment and R&D, and probably won't join the Convention on Nuclear Safety), there are many very good clauses included, that hawks and doves alike should be pleased about.

Key points from the JCPOA:

  • Centrifuges reduced to 6104, with 5060 able to enrich uranium and all of them are IR-1, Iran's first generation and least capable centrifuge
  • A major reduction (97%) in Iran's LEU (low-enriched uranium). While it remains unclear how exactly this will happen, it is believed that this will be due to a mixture of dilution and shipping extra stocks out of country (probably to Russia)
  • All excess centrifuges will be put into IAEA monitored storage
  • Fordow will be converted and heavily restricted from nuclear activities for 15 years
  • Iran's later generations of centrifuges will not be used for 10 years
  • IAEA will have 'regular' access to all of Iran's nuclear facilities (including Natanz and what will be a formerly nuclear site, Fordow)
  • IAEA will have access to the supply chain and will also have access to and surveillance of uranium mines and mills for 25 years
  • Iran will sign the Additional Protocol of the NPT
  • Arak will be redesigned, and made incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium and its core will be either destroyed or taken out of country
  • Iran will receive sanctions relief IFF it abides by the terms (IAEA will address enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD, and transparency)
  • IAEA has to VERIFY Iran has taken the right steps before sanctions are removed 
  • US Sanctions on Iran for human rights, terrorism, and ballistic missiles remain in place

A common refrain from hawks is that Iran has refused to address PMD (possible military dimensions), and has worked on developing its ballistic missile program. These concerns are valid. They've also worried about IAEA access to sensitive sites, and centrifuge R&D.

There are clauses in the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) which address all of these. If this is in fact accurate, the deal looks to be quite good.

There are a few drawbacks included, such as the continuation of enrichment at Natanz, though limiting the enrichment to a relatively low number of first generation centrifuges strictly limits Iran's enrichment capabilities. Jeffrey Lewis wrote here about the type of centrifuges used and how the number of total centrifuges operational is less important than how modern the centrifuges are.

Another possible downside to the JCPOA is the removal of sanctions. It remains unclear exactly under what circumstances the sanctions would be removed, how they would be removed, and if the conditions of removal are violated, how and how quickly the sanctions would be reimplemented. It seems as though only nuclear related sanctions are to be removed, which leaves quite a few sanctions left over.

One of the key components in the JCPOA is that the IAEA has to VERIFY and CONFIRM. Previously the IAEA has been unable to do this, so for this to be the case, Iran has to give MORE than it has in the past. This is a clear victory for the West. Also understated is the access to the supply chain granted under the JCPOA. If Iran were to secretly stash some nuclear materials and create a new nuclear site it would be much easier to take from an earlier stage in the process rather than from a facility that is already monitored by the IAEA.

Overall the deal looks very good for the West, though it is still not signed and completed so terms may change. If this framework is in fact accurate, Iran has conceded a lot (with the exception of Natanz which in my opinion looks like this is what the P5+1 'gave up' in exchange for other concessions). It is quite telling that the conservative editor of Iran's Kayhan newspaper Shariatmadari said Iranian nuclear negotiators: "We've given them a horse with saddle and received back its corpse."
If the most anti-American factions of the Iranian elite are upset with the deal thinking they gave up too much, then it is a good deal for the West.