Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Why Iran Backed Out of a Nuclear Deal

November 3, 2009

Yesterday, the New York Times published an illuminating news analysis article by Michael Slackman in which he discusses domestic politics in Iran and its relations to the nuclear issue 

Last month, Iran tentatively agreed to a deal with the West and Russia over its nuclear program but then backed away from it before anything was signed.  The deal would require Iran to ship most of its uranium out of the country for it be enriched and then returned to the Islamic Republic for use in a research reactor.  The measure was designed to ease Western concerns that Iran will use its stockpile of uranium to build nuclear weapons, and it would do so by preventing Iran from enriching its uranium to weapons-grade levels.  The Islamic Republic denies that it seeks to acquire the Bomb.

Mr. Slackman argues that reformists and traditional conservatives oppose the nuclear deal because Mr. Ahmadinejad supports it.  He says that they are trying to turn public opinion against him for their own political advantage.

Mr. Slackman offers some interesting insights, but he seems to underestimate the degree to which many Iranian leaders believe that maintaining the capability of building nuclear weapons is critical for Iran’s national security.  It may be true that some public figures see political benefits in undermining the Iranian president, who won the last presidential election amid widespread complaints of voting fraud, but Iranian security concerns and perceptions of national interests should not be discounted.

The Upcoming P5+1 Talks

September 30, 2009

Last week, the leaders of the US, France and Britain publicly revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been informed about the existence of a uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qum in Iran.  This revelation came just days before the planned P5+1 talks between the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Iran about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, which will take place tomorrow in Geneva.  On his blog, Marc Lynch speculated about why the existence of the site was recently disclosed (

Mr. Lynch argues that the revelation strengthens the bargaining position of the P5.  But the disclosure will not likely be a significant game-changer.  The European powers were already convinced of the need to compel Iran to allow intrusive IAEA inspections, and they apparently are still more concerned about the Iranian nuclear program than the US. 

Meanwhile, the new information will merely reinforce Israeli fears that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons.  This fact gives the Iranians leverage because the US wants to quickly reach a deal with Iran to ward off a threatened Israeli military strike that could have disastrous consequences for the US and the Middle East region.

Despite the disclosure of the Qum facility, the Russians and the Chinese will still likely veto any harsh economic sanctions against Iran because the two countries have strategic relationships with the Islamic Republic, especially when it comes to energy. 

Any deal between Iran and the West will probably entail an Iranian agreement to report the location of all of its nuclear facilities and allow IAEA inspectors to closely monitor them.  In return, other powers will acknowledge Iran’s right to maintain a peaceful nuclear program and give the country economic benefits.  In addition, the US may reestablish diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic for the first time in 30 years.

Whether such an agreement will be reached at the upcoming meeting is uncertain.  And even if a deal is made, the Iranians could still pursue a secret nuclear weapons program, especially if they believe it serves their vital national interests.

The P5+1 negotiations might bear fruit and head off an international crisis.  But the exposure of the Qum site will probably not play a major role in such a development.

The Russian Doomsday Device

September 23, 2009

In the classic Cold War film Dr. Strangelove,   the Soviet ambassador to the US is informed that a mentally unbalanced American Air Force General has launched a limited nuclear attack against his country.  The ambassador then informs the president and his national security team that the Soviet Union has a “doomsday device” that will automatically launch a full-scale retaliatory attack against the US if a single Bomb detonates over Russian soil.

It is appears that this fictional retaliation machine is much closer to reality than most people thought.  According to an article published yesterday on (, the Russians actually built a doomsday device during the 1980s and it is still operational.

One of the most interesting things in the article was the claim that the device was largely intended to prevent Soviet leaders from feeling compelled to launch a preemptive strike or a rash counterattack if they were informed that an American nuclear attack was imminent or already underway.  With the doomsday device in place, Russian authorities could rest assured that a counterattack would take place if the Kremlin and other government headquarters were wiped out by the US, and they could therefore wait to see if warnings (from radar or other sources) of an attack were accurate or false before launching their missiles.

The article does not mention exactly how the doomsday device could be shut off if Russian leaders thought doing so was necessary.  One major problem with an automatic device, which the film addresses, is that it does not give policymakers flexibility in terms of their response to an event.

I highly recommend Dr. Strangelove to those who have not seen it.  They will appreciate the article even more after they have watched the movie.

Obama Announces New Missile Defense Plan

September 17, 2009

Today, President Obama announced that his administration will not pursue the missile defense plan of the George W. Bush administration, but it will develop a different one.  The old plan was to base an advanced radar system in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland.  The new plan is to deploy S-3 interceptor missiles at sea and eventually on land, most likely in Turkey and Southern Europe.  The new system is designed to defend against medium-range ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.  The old one was designed to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially reach the US.  

The Bush system was intended to thwart a missile attack from Iran, and the new one has the same purpose.  Intelligence officials believe that Iran is much closer to developing medium-range missiles, and therefore those weapons currently pose the greatest threat.  Intelligence officials also believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge which the Iranian government denies, and this assumption has created a sense of urgency among American policymakers to deploy a missile defense system as soon as possible.  The first deployment of the S-3s will likely be completed by the end of 2011, with additional deployments of more advanced technology to follow.  This first deployment will occur seven years before the Bush system was to become operational.

The new system was the brainchild of Dean Wilkening, a Stanford University physicist.  Mr. Wilkening argued that basing radars and interceptor missiles closer to the Middle East made more sense than placing them in Central Europe given the nature of the Iranian threat.

The alteration of the missile defense plan could have several positive consequences.  One is that it could help improve American relations with Russia, a country that had vehemently opposed the deployment of a missile defense system close to its borders.  It could also help dissuade Israel from launching a preemptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, an act which could have devastating consequences for the region and the US, because the new system could at least theoretically defend Israel from a medium-range Iranian missile attack.  On a related note, the system could also potentially defend Arab countries, a fact that might convince them that they do not need to possess nuclear weapons to deter Iran.

A possible downside to the change is that Poland and the Czech Republic might feel like the US is less committed to their defense.  The administration has denied that that is the case, and reminded other nations that under the NATO charter the US is required to defend its alliance allies from any external attack. 

One way to alleviate Czech and Polish concerns would be to permanently station American troops in those countries.  Such a symbolic deployment would almost certainly convince America’s Central European allies that the US would defend them against an attack launched by Russia or another power, because any American administration would certainly not refrain from rushing to the defense of its military forces in response to an act of aggression that threatened them.

Surprising Statistics

September 10, 2009

A recent public opinion poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States yielded surprising results.  According to the Transatlantic Trends survey, the US is now more popular in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe.  Sixty-three percent of Western Europeans have a favorable view of the US, compared with just over 50 percent of Eastern Europeans.  This is a massive shift from the George W. Bush presidency, when public opinion about America was much lower in Western Europe.

The change is largely attributable to President Obama’s replacement of President Bush (President Obama’s approval rating is 77 points higher in France than President Bush’s was) , who alienated Western Europeans by invading Iraq and adopting a more unilateral foreign policy (President Bush’s Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, dismissively referred to Western Europe as “old Europe”).  President Obama was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, and he is perceived as being more concerned about Western European views and more inclined toward multilateralism and engagement with other powers.

But it is surprising that the US is more popular in Western Europe than Eastern Europe given that the Eastern European members of NATO are more reliant on America to protect them from a resurgent Russia, a country that has historically dominated the region.  Last year, Russia invaded Georgia and in recent years has used its energy policy to meddle in the internal affairs of Ukraine.

However, just because the US is more popular in Western Europe does not mean that Western European nations are more inclined to support American policies.  Although Western members of NATO have made significant contributions in Afghanistan, the war effort is very unpopular in Western Europe and there are strong indications that governments there are looking to withdraw their troops.  In addition, US-supported NATO expansion is a much more popular idea in the East than it is in the West.  Although America and Western Europe share historical ties and values, governments and peoples will generally support policies that they perceive to be in their national interest, and when those perceptions differ the US should expect its Western allies to go their own way despite how favorably Western Europeans view America and Americans.