Iran, Syria and Shaping the Rules of the Road for the Second Nuclear Age


2013-11-10 by Robbin Laird

We have focused frequently on what Paul Bracken has called the Second Nuclear Age.

Put succinctly, the rules are being made with every crisis involving the smaller nuclear powers or aspirational nuclear powers.

These powers are not deterred by the old rules of the Cold War nuclear game and the question boils down to what will deter these new powers from acquiring or using nuclear weapons?

Earlier this year, the North Korean crisis laid down some rules of the road going forward.

Ed Timperlake and I argued earlier that Secretary Hagel faced his first real test with the challenges from North Korea:

How will the Obama Administration shape the rules of engagement in the Second Nuclear Age? History has shown American intelligence about capability and intentions of North Korea is murky at best and often wrong.

On Aug. 24, 1998, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton, a very decent and honest man, wrote a letter to Sen. Jim Inhofe stating that there we would have at least a three-year warning of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile threat, such as the Taepo Dong-2.

Unfortunately, on Aug. 31, 1998, a three-stage North Korean missile was launched over Japan and splashed down much closer to America than anyone liked.

So much for the three-year window! Even though the launch might have been a three-stage Taepo Dong-1, the distinction did not matter to Japan or our fellow citizens in Alaska and Hawaii.

The deploying of new missile defenses is one part of Hagel’s approach. But the shaping function requires more than this.

We need to put in play new combat capabilities the U.S. has deployed –including the “Cold War” weapon, the F-22. An exercise last year highlighted some of its capabilities.

This would be a time to remind the North Koreans of how effective an integrated force structure approach can be.

In the continuing process of shaping Western policy in the Second Nuclear Age, Iran is seeking to cut a deal with the West to end the crisis of their efforts to become a nuclear power.

These efforts are directly connected with the incomplete Syrian crisis.

Earlier, the Administration declared that the Syrians were using weapons of mass destruction, namely chemical weapons, against their own people and that this would not be tolerated.  A military strike was declared to be on offer; then it was put on hold to discuss with the Congress; and then a proposed deal to remove these weapons was put in place with the Russians as key players in the removal of these weapons.

The only problem is that removal has not yet happened; and the initial deal has not come close to being implemented.

According to a November 7th CNN report:

While the inspection progresses, the United States is looking at new classified intelligence suggesting that Syria might not fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile, CNN has learned.

The intelligence is not definitive, but “there are various threads of information that would shake our confidence,” one U.S. official said. “They have done things recently that suggest Syria is not ready to get rid of all their chemical weapons.”

CNN has spoken to several U.S. officials with access to the latest intelligence on Syria, who confirmed the information. All declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the data. U.S. intelligence agencies, the Defense Department, the State Department and White House are all reviewing the information.

The new Iranian leadership has used this time to promote the concept of making  a deal with the West to get rid of sanctions in return from some sort of arrangement to deal with their nuclear materials.

The problem is that in the hazy world of not yet completed control of Syrian WMD, what kind of confidence can one have about the implementation of any Iranian deal?

The trick is not simply concluding a “deal” but rather putting in place a process which ensures that Iran not only complies but does not rapidly break out in a future crisis to claim credibly the possession of nuclear weapons able to affect regional security.

In an exclusive interview on Breaking Defense, the Iranian foreign minister highlighted the interest of the current Iranian leadership in a deal. And as Michael Adler noted in the interview:

A previous agreement, a fuel swap agreed in Geneva in October 2009 , foundered when opponents to then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad torpedoed the deal once it had been brought back to Iran for final approval. Zarif is here negotiating on behalf of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who has the support of the real power in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei.

But the mandate from the Supreme Leader for striking a deal is believed to be short, perhaps only a few months as there is strong hardline opposition in Iran to compromising on the nuclear program under pressure from the United States.

Of course, the issue can be rather simply put: if there is such paper thin support for an agreement within Iran, what sort of agreement would it taken to ensure that the Iranians simply do not break out of an agreement rapidly down the road?

Put another way, with the Syrians and Russians playing the chemical removal game, are we going to face at the same time the nuclear weapons shell game from Iran?

And is this basically laying down a key aspect of the way ahead in the Second Nuclear Age, namely, using diplomacy to remove pressure in the current situation in order to expand options for breakout when needed to shape outcomes in future crises?

The talks this weekend have not yet lead to a breakthrough and part of the reason why was articulated by the Iranian President:

Iran’s president Hassan Rohani said on Sunday that its “rights to enrichment” of uranium were “red lines” that would not be crossed and that the Islamic Republic had acted rationally and tactfully during nuclear negotiations, Iranian media reported.

“We have said to the negotiating sides that we will not answer to any threat, sanction, humiliation or discrimination. The Islamic Republic has not and will not bow its head to threats from any authority,” he said during a speech at the National Assembly, Iran’s ISNA news agency said.

“For us there are red lines that cannot be crossed. National interests are our red lines that include our rights under the framework of international regulations and (uranium) enrichment in Iran,” he said.

With the ambiguous handling of the so-called military option against Syria, is a military option against Iran credible?

Certainly, the current Israeli government is concerned that it is not.

That feeling may have intensified in recent days in Israeli government circles as a result of what seems to be an American effort to undercut its own pledge to keep the military option “on the table” in its dealings with Iran. A US “senior official” told reporters in Geneva that a military attack on Iran “would not end, in our view, Iran’s nuclear program. It would set it back, but it would not end it.”

In internal discussions, Administration figures have also said that even if there was a US attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, the sides would still have to return to the negotiating table to work out a the same kind of deal that they are discussing now.

And any agreement must have very clear inspection of the sort that Iran has rejected repeatedly in the past.

The means to ensure compliance are even more important than reaching an agreement, notably when the credibility of a response to breaking out of an agreement in a crisis is the key point of shaping an effect response to the Second Nuclear Age.

Put bluntly, the West needs to have two combined capabilities in dealing with a Second Nuclear Age power: conventional and or nuclear means to destroy the nuclear force of a Second Nuclear Age power or an agreement with intrusive inspections which can clearly indicate any intelligence signals that the Second Nuclear Age power is preparing to break out of any agreement to deny itself having nuclear weapons.

Anything short of this is simply an agreement in self-denial by the West, not a step towards greater global stability.

This means that ensuring at least the destruction phase of the Syrian crisis is actually done and verified is a crucial element of any credible strategy to deal with Iran.

Pushing a premature agreement without a significant implementation of credible and intrusive controls would be perhaps useful to Iran, but not to the West.