Are We Afraid Yet?

The Big Debate today is over how long it will take for Iran to have the bomb.

Years, say analysts quoted in the New York Times.

Western nuclear analysts said yesterday that Tehran lacked the skills, materials and equipment to make good on its immediate nuclear ambitions, even as a senior Iranian official said Iran would defy international pressure and rapidly expand its ability to enrich uranium for fuel.

The official, Muhammad Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, said Iran would push quickly to put 54,000 centrifuges on line — a vast increase from the 164 the Iranians said Tuesday that they had used to enrich uranium to levels that could fuel a nuclear reactor.

Still, nuclear analysts called the claims exaggerated. They said nothing had changed to alter current estimates of when Iran might be able to make a single nuclear weapon, assuming that is its ultimate goal. The United States government has put that at 5 to 10 years, and some analysts have said it could come as late as 2020.

Andy Grotto at Think Progress explains:

Iran enriched the uranium using a cascade of 164 centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas at supersonic speed. This process extracts U-235—usable in power reactors and nuclear weapons—from the gas. The enriched uranium that Iran produced cannot be used in a nuclear weapon because it contains just 3.5% U-235, whereas a nuclear weapon typically requires highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that contains more than 90% U-235. Assuming Iran has perfect luck with the centrifuge, it would need to operate this cascade continually for more than five years to produce enough HEU (15-20 kg, roughly the size of a basketball) for a crude nuclear bomb.

To acquire a credible nuclear weapons capability, Iran’s next step is to use this successful experiment as the basis for building a 3,000 centrifuge cascade at Natanz, as Iran has frequently claimed it would do. In theory, such a facility would be capable of producing enough HEU for 2-3 bombs a year. Building such a facility, however, is far more difficult and demanding than operating the 164 centrifuge cascade.

Even if everything goes right, such a facility would not be fully operational until 2009 at the earliest. This is still too soon for comfort, but it does leave significant time for some hard-nosed diplomacy.

Even some rightie bloggers admit that Iran isn’t likely to have the bomb next week. This guy, for example, quotes a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School who said 2009 was the earliest possible date for the mullahs to build an atomic weapon.

And talking about 3,000 or 54,000 centrifuges makes the pre-Iraq invasion hysteria over the aluminum tubes and rumors that Saddam Hussein was trying to build a centrifuge seem all the more rinky-dink, doesn’t it?

Still, there is much talk of cascades and centrifuges on the Blogosphere today. My understanding is that building a whole lot of centrifuges and getting them to work together properly to make weapons-grade material is devilishly difficult and expensive — easier said than done — and also requires vast amounts of uranium and energy. Although I guess an oil nation has that last part licked.

Bottom line — no matter what anybody says, we shouldn’t have to bomb Iran this year. There seems to be general consensus on that point.

At the Washington Post, David Ignatius writes,

The emerging confrontation between the United States and Iran is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion,” argues Graham Allison, the Harvard University professor who wrote the classic study of President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 showdown with the Soviet Union that narrowly averted nuclear war. If anything, that analogy understates the potential risks here.

That doesn’t sound good.

Allison argues that Bush’s dilemma is similar to the one that confronted Kennedy in 1962. His advisers are telling him that he may face a stark choice — either to acquiesce in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a dangerous adversary, or risk war to stop that nuclear fait accompli. Hard-liners warned JFK that alternative courses of action would only delay the inevitable day of reckoning, and Bush is probably hearing similar advice now.

Kennedy’s genius was to reject the Cuba options proposed by his advisers, hawk and dove alike, and choose his own peculiar outside-the-box strategy. He issued a deadline but privately delayed it; he answered a first, flexible message from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev but not a second unyielding one; he said he would never take U.S. missiles out of Turkey, as the Soviets were demanding, and then secretly did precisely that. Disaster was avoided because Khrushchev believed Kennedy was willing to risk war — but wanted to avoid it.

But, um, Kennedy isn’t the guy plotting the course any more. And Bush and Cheney put together don’t have half the smarts that collected in JFK’s toe jam.

Ignatius continues,

What worries me is that the relevant historical analogy may not be the 1962 war that didn’t happen, but World War I, which did. The march toward war in 1914 resulted from the tight interlocking of alliances, obligations, perceived threats and strategic miscalculations. The British historian Niall Ferguson argued in his book “The Pity of War” that Britain’s decision to enter World War I was a gross error of judgment that cost that nation its empire.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, makes a similar argument about Iran. “I think of war with Iran as the ending of America’s present role in the world,” he told me this week. “Iraq may have been a preview of that, but it’s still redeemable if we get out fast. In a war with Iran, we’ll get dragged down for 20 or 30 years. The world will condemn us. We will lose our position in the world.”

Howard Fineman at Newsweek:

For as long as I’ve known him, Bush has liked to muse aloud about his theory of “political capital.” His dad’s mistake, he told me more than once, was to have not spent the vast political capital he accumulated in 1991 as the “liberator of Kuwait”—a failure that led, in his son’s mind, to Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992.

After the attacks on 9/11, after the successful (and globally popular) obliteration of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and after the midterm congressional elections of 2002, President Bush was sitting in the White House with a colossal pile of military, diplomatic and political capital in front of him. And then he pushed the entire pile to the middle of the poker table and bet it all on his predetermined decision to invade Iraq. I said at the time and still believe that it was one of the most momentous decisions any president had ever made.

Now, and largely as a consequence, Bush finds himself bereft of political capital at precisely the moment when he (and the rest of the world) needs it most. To use his father’s terms (from his 1989 inaugural address), we have neither the will nor the wallet to take care of business in and with the bullies in Iran.

Somebody — it may have been Fineman — said on Countdown last night that we spent our military capital on the wrong I-country.

Fineman goes on to say that the President is boxed in politically because he’s lost credibility with too many voters. He’s boxed in militarily because Iran is, well, not Iraq —

Saddam Hussein was a bellicose character, but Iran has four times the population and several thousand more years of unified national identity. Iran also has big-league ballistic missiles capable of reaching, and ruining, lots of places in the Middle East region, including Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Iran also has millions of Shia allies in Iraq who would regard (and be asked to regard) an attack on Iran as an attack on Shia Islam. One retired general I checked in with (who asked to remain unidentified because he sometimes is called on for counsel by the administration) says that American troops in Iraq—who’ve been working in many ways with the Shiite majority there—would risk coming under attack by them, especially if there was any effort to redeploy them.

Bush is boxed in diplomatically because, frankly, he needs to be able to work with the UN and the IAEA, not shove them around, and Bush and the UN/IAEA have, um, some history. And he’s boxed in economically because starting another war in the Middle East would send oil prices even higher.

I want to go back to what Fineman said about Bush and political capital: His dad’s mistake, he told me more than once, was to have not spent the vast political capital he accumulated in 1991 as the “liberator of Kuwait”—a failure that led, in his son’s mind, to Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. What Bush never understood is that “political capital” has a limited shelf life whether you spend it or not. Eventually, people start to ask what have you done for me lately? The Bushies seemed to think the free ride they got from 9/11 would last forever; that they could do whatever they wanted for the next seven years. I think only now it’s starting to sink in that the 9/11 boost is over.

I’m also reminded of what Ezra Klein said — “This White House was predicated on the belief that policies didn’t matter, only politics did. That’s been disproven, they’ve found themselves unable to fight failure with photo-ops.” For Bushies, policy is just a continuation of politics by other means. Bush blew his “political capital” on political games instead of substance. And now he’s broke and we’re bleeped.

Judging by past performance, whatever the Bushies choose to do about Iran will be the wrong thing. It may be that the best we can hope for is that nobody starts a war before we can pry the Bushies out of the White House. At least Tehran shouldn’t be able to make a bomb before then.

13 thoughts on “Are We Afraid Yet?

  1. WWI began as Kaiser Wilhelm and hid generals were spoiling for a fight and did everything they could to get it and got an ‘incident’ of providence that furthered their aims( as Bush got 9/11). Wilhelm was a vainglorious member of a ruling family where he felt he had to prove himself and compete with the family- his case his cousin not his father. He purposely went to Norway on vacation to make it look like everything was fine in July 1914( after the assassination in June) while planning the invasion of a neutral country( Belgium) to get at his target France. Bush often reminds me of Wilhelm.

  2. Now first let me say I like Irans leader about as much as I like ours, and I personally think we should put both of the jack asses in a cage and make them fight until only one remains..then we force the winner to hunt with cheney..Problem solved.

    Since , however, no one ever likes my solutions, I guess we are forced to consider reality..The reality is both of these leaders are NUTS..that is a threat to the entire world.The people are the problem, not the weapons.

    I have nothing to fear from an Iran armed with nukes, unless our cocky little prick leader runs his damn mouth and makes Iran feel like they have to use them.

    I may not make friends saying this, but the rest of the world has no choice but to have nukes, because it is the only thing Bush respects.Any nation who is weak is like prey for the bushies and the only way the rest of the world can be assured of being free from our despot leaders is to have the nuke.

    Our government is equal to street thugs, plain and simple.If your cornered by thugs and you show a knife,, they will laugh at you while they rob you,, but if you have , say , a ak-47, the boys will pee on themselves as they run away.Street thugs(like bushies) prey on the weak.

    Iran getting a nuke in 3 years or 5 years or 10 years,, or “16 days” , as I read on some rightie site last night, is only a threat to us if we are doing something or planning on doing something to them.Russia still has the nuke,, are we terrified JUST because they have it? Putin is a piece of crap(I guess george missed that looking into his eyes) and I don’t trust him any further then I could throw him, but I don’t think we need to bomb russia. Many countries have the nuke,, and I don’t trust any of the leaders of the countries that have them…like pakistan.

    People seem to be sold on the idea that anyone who’s country gets the nuke and tries to protect their country must be attacked,, and I wonder how we got here?When are people going to wake up and realize other nations have the same rights to arm themselves as we do?Other nations governments have as much right to be screw ups as our leader does and if we have nukes , any other country who wants them should be able to have them too to protect themselves from us..

    It doesn’t bother me that my neighbors have guns and enough ammo to take out everyone on the block.The only reason it would bother me would be if I intended to invade their home….this country needs to take a page from MY play book and mind their own damn bussiness.If you are at peace with your neighbors , you have nothing to fear from them being armed.

  3. Best bet is that they will try to provoke a confrontation with Iran. After Iraq they could not possibly sell the American people on the idea of another war…

  4. #2, justme, thanks for writing as you did. I like your play book’s dosages of common sense and logic.

    If Bush succeeds in getting us entangled in warring actions with Iran, it will start from a childish political fantasy [please, subjects, adore me again …I love playing king!] but will end, because of suddenly unaffordable oil prices, in sharp economic decline in all segments of America except [of course]in the military-industrial complex.

    My prayer is, “Dear God, please assist George W. Bush and the neo-cons to grow beyone their infantile fantasies and excitement about wars America and the rest of the world needs relief from the damage they have already done and will continue to do unless they receive Your powerful intervention and help to reach a level of wisdom. Amen”

  5. Thank you to Donna and Just me, I was about to go on a very profane rant, you girls defused me.
    The only perceived threat from Iran is Israel, if Bush and Condi want to fight another war for the Israelis, let ’em send their spawn, since Condi doesn’t have any, let her “saddle up”.
    That retired General Fineman spoke of needs to grow some balls and go public.Many “retired” generals are speaking out. This is great, but why so late? afraid of loosing pensions?
    Patriots aren’t afraid of loosing pensions when the republic is sinking.

  6. …Bush has liked to muse aloud about his theory of “political capital.” His dad’s mistake, he told me more than once, was to have not spent the vast political capital he accumulated in 1991 as the “liberator of Kuwait”—a failure that led, in his son’s mind, to Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992.

    An erroneous conclusion IMO. His dad’s failure was that he didn’t effectively explain to the American people why he left Saddam intact. Had he taken out Saddam, we’d be in the mess we’re in today, and he, unlike his son, was too smart for that. He failed to explain to me why this was necessary – in 2006 I understand by his son’s example. His immature son, Bush Jr drew the wrong conclusion.

    Agree with justme. You got it right about street thugs and the psychology of dealing with them.

    Donna, yours is a positive prayer, but my prayer is less about getting the adolescents in power to grow up, as it is for those of us who want a peaceful world, the responsible adults on this spaceship Earth, to get our act together and put forth a viable alternative. Until we do, and can do it effectively, we’ll always be the kickball for the selfishly immature boys and girls on the right, and their thuggish view will rule. What you focus on, grows, and I prefer to use my focus to get about the business of envisioning and creating a better world, to supplant the one created by the people who brought us GW Bush.

  7. Many “retired” generals are speaking out. This is great, but why so late? afraid of loosing pensions?

    erinyes, the Constitution imposes civilian control on the military via both the executive and legislative branches. Military brass have this drilled into them from the moment they begin their training to become officers. To have so many speaking out now against the the civilian leadership is extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented.

  8. I understand this, but what ALL Americans must now realize, is our republic is in great peril. These former generals will keep their pensions.They could have spoken up and stood up to Rumsfeld the bully and saved the lives of a quarter million humans which have been squandered since Shock and Awe.
    One would expect military leaders to know right from wrong, the oath they take upon entering the military requires this, it is the bulwark against a tyranical regime taking control, and it appears to have failed.
    I hope the generals are reading this, it’s time to make things right.
    It is both extraorinary and unprecidented that they are speaking out, but way overdue ( except for Zinni and Shinseki, who spoke out long ago and were ostracized for it.)Thanks for your comment, MP.

  9. I believe the real problem here is the Bush regime’s whole war on terror-rhetoric and sense of insecurity past 9/11. That makes the administration act like a hegemon in a unipolar power game, while the world today is a multi-polar one;

    1) Any US confrontation with the Mullahs will only strengthen them, or throw the nations into a war which will turn the world stability, economy and US power into disarray. Iran’s only asset is the oil, the religious Iran cannot survive for long without external help – or an external enemy.
    2) The solution to this crisis lies in Beijing and Moscow. They both oppose sanctions as they depend on Iran as a strategic oil-partner (other oil nations are in America’s pocket for the moment, willingly or unwillingly). They need to understand how much rather they would be leading the world with the US rather than allowing for moslem fanatics to get nuclear weapons.

    International unity among the dominant powers is needed for a stable world order in these times of nuclear proliferation (preferrably without entirely sacrifising human rights/democracy). While sanctions/isolation has not always had immediate effect, I strongly believe they are the world’s best bet at present. Iran is not an exceedingly well-run country, the population is not extremely happy and the regime is one of the world’s most irrational ones. I can’t see why the Islamic state could not go the way of Apartheid South Africa, if the US/Bush regime could just go back to being a sensible, long-term actor with realistic goals, rather than a neocon war-machine.

  10. Iran has about 180 centrifuges. It needs 54,000 of them, according to CNN, to build a bomb. Can they do that tomorrow? It think not.
    Mr. Preznit, centrifuges aren’t salad spinners that you can buy at WalMart. They’re not trying to break up peanut M&M’s in a taumborine for their uranium. It will take time to build or buy what they need.
    I know you need another “Codpiece or bullhorn” moment to raise your numbers, but why not just go on vacation? The worst thing that can happen to us is that a few more planes hit a few buildings. I’ll take that over what you’re capable of doing.
    Go… Rest…. You’re getting sleepy… sleepy… sleeeeeeepy… You too, Dick, Condi, Rummy… sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeepy…

  11. PS: Why is it that every morning when I wake up I hope that there’s been a military coup?

  12. #10, Your mention of Iran needing time to build or buy those centerfuges raises a question that’s running around a little. Maybe the outing of Valerie Plame wasn’t just to discredit her husband, but to also discredit her. Tracking sales and proliferation of hardware like centerfuges was her area of expertise. The PNAC crowd had to get her out of the way. And by the way, where would one go to buy thousands of centerfuges???

  13. I’d try WalMart first, followed by Williams-Sonoma or Crate and Barrel, but if you want to cut out the middleman and save a few bucks, go straight to the president of the World Bank or Wing Dao Jang.Be advised, Wing is a bit behind schedule as several South American countries got their orders in first, and Wolfowitz is way too creepy to do business with.( He’ll want to lick your hair care implements)…
    A little Easter humor to go with a rabbit dinner.

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