On throwing shoes at President Bush

The sole might have been size 10. But the man who wore it was size zero.

The uncouth Iraqi journalist who threw shoes at President Bush during a press conference in Baghdad last week is now being lionised in many Islamic countries. (The Taliban have announced that they will intercede to secure his release from Iraqi authorities.) Of course, those who dislike Mr Bush have been smirking too. These people don’t realise that by throwing those two shoes Muntazir al-Zaidi paid the highest compliment to Mr Bush—he proved that regardless of the political chaos in their country, the Iraqis have freedom.

No one would have dared to try this under Saddam Hussein’s regime. At any rate, as Offstumped tweeted (through a telepathic intercept) no one would have gotten away alive and unhurt.

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.

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. )

Dear Sir, Would you like to purchase a Bomb?

What would you do if A Q Khan wrote to you?

Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, told a German newspaper that he rebuffed a Pakistani offer to sell him nuclear technology in 2001. Like Saddam Hussein before him, he too suspected a ‘sting’ operation.

Q:Does Syria have contacts to atomic engineers of Pakistan?

Assad: Actual was it like that: At the beginning of of 2001 brought someone a letter of a certain Khan (the father of the atom bomb of Pakistan; Note). We did not know whether the letter was genuine or a falsification of the Israelis, who into a trap wanted to lure us. We rejected anyhow. We were not interested to have nuclear weapons or a nuclear reactor. We never met Khan.[Die Presse/Translation by Babelfish]

A Q Khan’s offer, then, lacked credibility. That begs the question: how credible, in turn, is Assad’s denial of an interest in nuclear weapons?

From the archives: If it’s Monday, it must be Tripoli. If it’s Tuesday, it must be Cairo.