Tightening the screws on Pakistan

Four immediate steps

The Pakistani military-jihadi complex has, as expected, gone on a war footing. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has pledged a “matching response” to Indian surgical strikes, “in no time”. The Pakistan Air Force was scrambled to fly sorties over major cities, scaring ordinary people. And the Jamaat-ud-Dawa organised a major pow-wow of religious parties—which included Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf—and issued a ten-point charter, which among other things called for India to be declared an enemy, and US & NATO’s supply route to be closed. As the Economist put it, it’s a heartwarming show of unity.

While all this might have whipped up passions among the Pakistani people (and distracted them from the economic crisis) , it must be frustrating for General Kayani to observe that no one outside Pakistan is quite taking the threat of an India-Pakistan war seriously. That’s because Indian strategists have realised that denying the Pakistani military-jihadi complex the war they desire is triumph by default. The Pakistani armed forces should be most welcome to burn what little fuel reserves they have (linkthanks RKG), or can afford, flying pointless sorties over their cities, moving tanks and heavy artillery around the country and suchlike. There are two risks: first, where General Kayani’s ability to control the proceedings falls short of the passion of his uniformed and non-uniformed troops. Second, where the frustrated Pakistani military leadership starts the war itself. These risks itself indicate that General Kayani’s moves are devoid of strategic wisdom. In either case, it is India that will have control over the escalation.

Yet, there are people and organisations in Pakistan—suddenly oblivious to the wretch their country has become—who believe that getting away with a terrorist attack without punishment demonstrates an “upper hand”. Since the support for jihadi terrorism comes from these sorts, it is necessary to disabuse them of this notion. For that reason, India must act, visibly and forcefully.

First, India must ensure that the Pakistan remains in the international doghouse until it does what is immediately necessary—the arrest and expatriation of jihadi leaders and the complete shutdown of the jihadi organisations. How? Well, it must use its “restraint” to get the United States and Pakistan’s international donors to hold back aid tranches until Pakistan produces the necessary results.

Second, India should use the opportunity to abandon some silly projects that were pursued in the name of the ‘peace process’—for instance, the Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline. One this simian is off its back, India should pursue a deal to purchase the gas in the form of LNG. It should be easier to seal this agreement now that energy prices have fallen from their historic highs.

Third, international arms suppliers and their governments must be warned that selling arms to Pakistan will make it more difficult for them to penetrate the Indian market.

And finally, as we have been long arguing, India must engage the jihadi enemy not along its own frontiers, but in Afghanistan. India must support the military “surge” in Afghanistan that the US has planned. It could, for instance, arrange and secure the alternative supply route through the Iranian ports of Chahbahar and Bandar Abbas, and overland into Afghanistan. That’ll give the Americans the flexibility they need to secure co-operation from General Kayani.

Should America squeeze its own companies to squeeze Iran?

Even if it can be done, forcing foreign oil firms to not sell gasoline to Iran will hurt the US economy

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Orde F Kittrie argues that the incoming Obama administration must exploit Iran’s “economic Achilles’ heel”—the fact that it has to import refined gasoline—to persuade it to negotiate over its nuclear programme. Since Iran imports gasoline from five firms “four of them European: the Swiss firm Vitol; the Swiss/Dutch firm Trafigura; the French firm Total; British Petroleum; and one Indian company, Reliance Industries”, he calls upon the Obama administration to insist that the Swiss, Dutch, French, British and Indian governments stop gasoline sales to Iran from their countries’ companies. (linkthanks Harsh Gupta)

In addition, he suggests that the US could act on its own:

Consider India’s Reliance Industries which, according to International Oil Daily, “reemerged as a major supplier of gasoline to Iran” in July after taking a break for several months. It “delivered three cargoes of gasoline totaling around 100,000 tons to Iran’s Mideast Gulf port of Bandar Abbas from its giant Jamnagar refinery in India’s western province of Gujarat.” Reliance reportedly “entered into a new arrangement with National Iranian Oil Co. (NIOC) under which it will supply around . . . three 35,000-ton cargoes a month, from its giant Jamnagar refinery.” One hundred thousand tons represents some 10% of Iran’s total monthly gasoline needs.

The Jamnagar refinery is heavily supported by U.S. taxpayer dollars. In May 2007, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a government agency that assists in financing the export of U.S. goods and services, announced a $500 million loan guarantee to help finance expansion of the Jamnagar refinery. On Aug. 28, 2008, Ex-Im announced a new $400 million long-term loan guarantee for Reliance, including additional financing of work at the Jamnagar refinery. [WSJ]

It is unclear if Mr Kittrie is proposing that the US government purchase all that gasoline from Reliance at a premium over market prices, so as to deny the Iranians that gasoline. As for financing arrangements by the US Export-Import bank, what Mr Kittrie does not realise or forgets to mention, is that they exist because Reliance is purchasing goods and services from US suppliers. Withholding loan guarantees will be counterproductive to US commercial interests—for European and Japanese suppliers will be too keen to replace their American competitors, and their respective Ex-Im banks will supply the requisite loan guarantees. In any case, Reliance is unlikely to have too much of a difficulty in securing such guarantees, even in today’s financial markets.

Whatever the merits of the proposal to squeeze Iran through a policy of gasoline denial, Mr Kittrie’s proposal will hurt the US economy. Now, why would Mr Obama want to do that…when the US economy is already in the doldrums?

A Q Khan, China and the truth

Bidirectional proliferation

Please don’t yawn. Savour the details. The Centrifugist revealed his side of the story to Simon Henderson. The latter’s article in The Sunday Times should put paid to the “Khan’s was a rogue operation” farce. It also tells the story of how China and Pakistan helped each other in nuclear technology.

(Khan’s) team was also the recipient of a gift from China of a design for an atomic bomb and enough highly enriched uranium for two devices, after Beijing decided to back Khan to jump-start Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. I remember being told about China’s nuclear generosity by an outraged British official in the 1980s. I later asked what Beijing had received in return. It was an enrichment plant.

The plant is at Hanzhong in central China. C-130 Hercules transports of the Pakistan air force made more than 100 flights to China carrying centrifuge equipment. Beijing needed the plant, not for bombs but to fuel its nuclear power plants. Centrifuge technology is good for both levels of enrichment, hence the current concern that Iran’s nascent plant at Natanz has a military purpose. China could not make the Pakistan-supplied centrifuges work properly, so replaced them with Russian centrifuges. What happened to the Pakistani centrifuges? A good question. They were not returned to Pakistan. Could they have ended up in Iran?

…Musharraf said Khan had shipped examples of centrifuges to North Korea. Correct, but with the connivance and at the instruction of the Pakistan military. [Times]

(linkthanks: the indefatigable Swami Iyer)

Russia and NATO’s Afghan supply routes

Time for the West to mend fences with Iran’s neighbours

It’s unclear if US and NATO policy-makers are looking at maps of Afghanistan and its surroundings. How do they think they are going to supply their troops in landlocked Afghanistan? The supply lines through Pakistan are coming under increasing attack by Taliban militants. Bad relations with Iran mean that a route from the Persian Gulf transiting Iran is out of bounds. And now, an escalation in tensions with Russia could mean that yet another route is under threat.

It is unlikely that the US and NATO can afford to lose these supply routes, not least in the face of a resurgent Taliban.

Western strategists should pull out their maps. Even as they prevent relations with Russia from deteriorating any further, they would do well to begin engaging Iran. [See lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement]

Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement (2)

The geopolitical implications of the new route to Central Asia

Commenting on India-US relations after the UPA government won the vote of confidence last week, Nikolas Gvosdev contends that Iran will remain as the key stumbling block for improved bilateral relations. Well, it doesn’t have to be.

A realist re-appraisal of the geopolitics of Central Asia will indicate that the United States and India are among those who lack good access to the region. China and Russia have an upper hand as they not only have borders with Central Asian states, but have extended their influence over gateways to the region. Once the Iran-Afghanistan corridor becomes operational, India will have an opportunity to improve its access to Central Asia. As Dr Gvosdev points out, the United States could benefit too:

There are even some positives for the US—a new trade route that provides an alternative to Central Asia’s continuing dependence on Russian export routes; a new alternative to China; another “brick” in the stabilization of Afghanistan by opening up trade and providing fees. [The Washington Realist]

Now, access to Central Asia is only one element of in US calculations: but if American policymakers understand that thirty years is long enough a time to be miffed, they will find that better relations with Iran not only solves many of their problems, but also that this has become necessary. The Bush administration’s recent decision to send a diplomat to join the Europe-Iran talks in Geneva and Barack Obama’s willingness to break the ice with Iran are therefore steps in the right direction.

At the very least, to the extent Iran is a ‘stumbling block’, a US-Iran rapprochement is in India’s interests (see previous post). This will require proactive diplomacy on India’s part. But it won’t be difficult to generate domestic support for such a project. And why, it’ll take wind out of the sails of those who are against better relations with the United States.

The road that India built

…in Afghanistan

Zaranj-Delaram Map

The 218-km road connecting Delaram (on the Kandahar-Herat highway) to Zaranj, on the border with Iran has been completed (via Swami Iyer). The strategic importance of this road—as news reports never fail to mention—is to provide landlocked Afghanistan an alternative access to the sea, allowing it to break free from Pakistan’s traditional stranglehold.

Since this route passes through several hundred kilometres of Iranian territory before connecting to Chabahar on the Persian Gulf, it remains to be seen if Iran will prove to be a better neighbour than Pakistan. From a purely economic standpoint though, Afghanistan should benefit from the competition between the two routes.

There is a lot of hope pinned on this alternative route. For Afghanistan, this is an opportunity to regain better access to the Indian market that it lost in 1947. For India, it is an opportunity to regain better access to Central Asia that it too lost in 1947. To the extent that Pakistan remains wedded to its traditional strategic rent-seeking behaviour it is likely to attempt to foil these plans. And as the attack on the Indian embassy has shown, it remains wedded to old tactics as much as it is to old strategies.

This being so, it is strange that the India should be considering withdrawing four companies (around 400 personnel) of the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police currently deployed in Afghanistan. There is a case for a robust Indian military presence in Afghanistan; with force levels carefully calibrated, on the one hand to secure Indian interests, and on the other, to avoid being seen by the local population as an ‘occupying’ force. Reducing India’s military presence at a critical phase in Afghanistan’s counter-insurgency war is uncalled for at this stage.

Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement

India should signal its willingness to play mediator between the two antagonists

It is heartening to see that K Subrahmanyam believes that India could offer to become a mediator between the United States and Iran.

The North Koreans used a nuclear test and nuclear weapon making effort successfully to deter threats of externally induced forcible regime change to persuade the US to negotiate directly and to obtain much-needed aid. Iran is in a somewhat analogous situation with US threatening regime change and military action. In the case of North Korea, China acted as a successful intermediary. There does not appear to be an intermediary to facilitate an Iran-West dialogue which can lead to the resolution of the issue. In a sense, India is in a position to play that role. China made it clear that it did not favour North Korean nuclear weapons and that did not prevent China playing the mediatory role. In this case, one cannot be confident whether such an offer will be acceptable to Iran and the US. But India does not lose anything in making that offer. [IE]

This is the question I asked Stephen Cohen recently:

Q: Is it possible for India to play a bridging role between America and Iran, much like the role played by Pakistan between China and America?

A:I don’t think so. It is largely our problem, a psychological one to be more specific, that goes back to 70s and the hostage crisis. Too many Americans are still wrapped up in that. We have an obsession and we cannot get rid of it. So it is hard for India to play that kind of role. By the way, there are other countries that want to play that role also.

Indian is caught between all kinds of contesting powers. I am not sure if India wants to play any role at all. I know one Indian diplomat who has said that India is better off not being a permanent member in UN Security Council. If it were a permanent member, then it would have to take a position on every issue. Historically, India is best off by not taking positions, given its fragile domestic politics and the loss of a foreign policy consensus. There is room for creative Indian diplomacy on Iran, but they have to take Pakistan along. I think India ought to go with Pakistan to the US and say ‘look we understand your concerns about Iran but pipeline is more important to us’. [Pragati Issue 15 | June 2008]

The hurdles Dr Cohen refers to might be collapsing. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, has signaled his willingness to engage Iran’s top leadership directly. Even if he doesn’t make it to the White House, the fact that he is advocating such a stance indicates that those psychological barriers are coming down.

Second, as Mr Subrahmanyam’s op-ed suggests, India might not only be willing to play this role, but it might be one where India’s geopolitical interests and the diktats of its domestic politics are in some alignment.

Other countries might well want to play the role, but not all of those have the requisite capability to even attempt such a thing.

The main resistance to a US-Iran rapprochement will come from Pakistan, China and to some extent, from Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is unlikely to prefer another of its Western neighbours to be on good terms with the United States, and China would like nothing better than for the US to be tied down in as many Middle Eastern knots as possible. So it is unlikely that India can ‘take Pakistan along’ on this one.

To the extent that a US-Iran rapprochement will diminish its influence in the region (and strengthen the Shia arc), Saudi Arabia will be against the plan. But Saudi Arabia is unlikely to want a nuclear Iran or indeed see another war in its neighbourhood. Also, winning Russia’s support will be key.

But this is a diplomatic project that is worth India’s effort.

Putting an uppity Centrifugist in his place

He was involved in nuclear proliferation, apparently

You will be forgiven for yawning. David Albright is going to release a report—he’s already leaked it to the media, ensuring that the report makes a splash—that points out that A Q Khan might have sold advanced nuclear warhead designs, in addition to those old Chinese designs that go wrapped in Islamabad tailor’s shopping bags. Now it would have been exciting if Dr Albright actually had evidence of someone actually having bought the new design, because it is not news to most people that North Korean Nodongs and Iranian Shahab-IIIs can be modified to carry the advanced warhead. But Dr Albright does not have such evidence.

Dr Albright’s report is based on digital blueprints found on the Tinners’ computers in Switzerland in 2006. It is being suggested that it was the hard copies of these blueprints that the Swiss government destroyed recently, allegedly at the behest of the United States (specifically, the CIA). The Swiss government destroyed 30,000 pages of evidence—lest it fall into the wrong hands—but, as it turns out, after the horse had bolted: there are other copies of the blueprint. But of course.

Other than explaining the Swiss government’s action, why release such a report now, two years after the blueprints came to light? Well, it should put the squeeze back on Pakistan, which has not only rehabilitated Dr Khan, but whose ruling politicians are even toying with the idea of making him president. Dr Khan recanted his 2004 televised confession recently. He also availed the opportunity to insure himself by stating that he did everything with authorisation, thereby blowing the canard that his was a rogue operation. Dr Albright’s report should dampen the Pakistani government’s enthusiasm to lionise Dr Khan all over again.

There is also the Iranian angle. But it is difficult to see how these revelations will help in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme.

All said, Dr Albright’s report adds to the edifice of cynicism that surrounds how the United States has handled the business of Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation, right from the very start. If it looked the other way when Pakistan was buying and selling materials in the black market, it is now using that knowledge for coercive diplomacy.

Update: The Arms Control Wonk has a technical analysis; Albright’s paper is now out

When will Iran have its Bomb?

Watch out for the Big Bad Row

The IAEA submitted its latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme to its board of governors on 26th May. (via V Anantha Nageswaran). The report points out that Iran has been operating its assembly of 3000 IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant with greater efficiency and is in the process of adding another similar assembly. It is experimenting with advanced centrifuge designs (modified Pakistani P2 designs, replacing maraging steel rotors with carbon fibre composite ones), although these remain employed in the pilot stage.

The IAEA report finds Iran guilty of both procedural violations (reporting installations post facto, rather than in advance) as well as for not providing satisfactory accounts of alleged weapons development activities (preparing an underground shafts for testing, testing detonators and warhead designs, and modifying the Shahab-3 ballistic missile to carry a nuclear warhead). [See Arms Control Wonk‘s post]

So what does this tell us about the all important question: when will Iran have a bomb ready?

Assuming that Iran does not have other secret nuclear plants well hidden from the public eye, the reasonable assumption is that Iran will use the Natanz facilities to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) that will go into its bomb. According to Jeffrey Lewis’ handy calculator, Iran will need between 156 to 293 days to produce enough HEU for a bomb. If it gets the second assembly of 3000 centrifuges operating, that period will be halved, to about 78-147 days. As Dr Lewis’s calculations show, the time to produce sufficient HEU gets shorter if more centrifuges become operational, or their efficiency improves.

In addition to having sufficient quantities of HEU, Iran must also have a functioning weapons design—again thanks to Pakistan and A Q Khan, that should not be too difficult.

But Iran’s centrifuges are not yet producing HEU. The IAEA is keeping watch over the nuclear material and the centrifuge cascades in the Natanz facility. It is likely to know if and when the Iranian authorities decide to go into the bomb mode. A possible indicator of this happening is when Iran and the IAEA have the Big Bad Row. Depending on how many centrifuges Iran has working then, we can estimate the time it will take to produce and assemble a bomb. That could be anywhere between 78 days (if the second assembly is operational) to 293 days (if only the existing one is operational). If you are looking for a ready reckoner: you can assume that Iran has the bomb three months from the Big Bad Row.

(Some Europeans are going to look silly when that happens. So will the some Americans. But other events—both ugly ones and not-at-all-ugly ones—might well spare them from the embarrassment. )

Sunday Levity: An Iranian crore and other numbers

Do the differences count?

It turns out that the Iranians used the word crore in their old numbering system. But to denote 500,000. Was this the result of Iranians being shortchanged by a shifty Indian trader several centuries ago? We don’t know, but it turns out that the Iranians stopped using the term a few decades ago. (They finally realised they’ve been had?)

The Swahili speaking Africans still use the word laki to denote 100,000, a legacy of historical trading relations between India and East Africa.

Two more interesting asides about numbers. Shinji Takasugi has a wonderful site comparing the complexities of numbering systems of various cultures.

According to him, the simplest is Tongan, where you would say “4” “2” (fa ua) for the number that is the answer to life, the universe and everything. The most complex is Huli, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea (a country the size of a small Indian state, but with perhaps as much linguistic diversity as the whole of India). In the quindecimal (base-15 system) you’d have to say “the answer is ngui ki, ngui tebone-gonaga hombearia“, that is “(15 × 2) + (12 object of the 3rd 15)”. Mr Takasugi deems Hindi as the fourth most complex. That’s a little questionable, because though the names are slightly irregular, the pattern is not too hard to discern. The answer, as you know, is bayalees.

The Balkan-Romanis (popularly known as the Gypsies) count their numbers as jekh (yake), duj, trin, štar (char), panc (panch), šov (chov), eftá, oxtó, enjá, deš (dach) and biš (for 20). The answer according to them is saránda-te-duj. The Gypsies, being the impatient sort, must have left India after six, and made up the rest as they went along. [That doesn’t explain why they got des and bis, but this is a Sunday Levity post. It need not make sense]