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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Differences among friends

The New York Times has a summary of this week's 'outing' of the differences of opinion between the US and Israel regarding Iran's nuclear capabilities.
Mr. Obama’s top aides suspect that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s likely next prime minister, will not risk acting alone. It would undercut his relationship with his most important ally before that relationship really gets going. But that’s a guess.

And if Israel is bluffing, it’s probably not alone.

At the root of the problem of how to respond to Iran’s nuclear progress is the inscrutability of Iran itself. The Iranians hid their nuclear work from inspectors for 18 years, and last spring, in arguing against an Israeli attack, the Americans cited the probability that many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are still hidden. The Israelis had argued that an attack would set back the nuclear program by at least three years; the Americans responded that its effect might last as little as six months.

Iran has often exaggerated its capabilities in order to make the case that its enrichment program, which it claims is for power plants, is irreversible. But it has also refused to answer questions that international inspectors have raised about other work, which seems to point to an intention to use the enriched uranium for bombs.

If Iran wanted to ease jitters, it could do something very simple: turn its enriched uranium into reactor fuel.

“We’d hope they’d do it unilaterally, and maybe they will,” R. Scott Kemp, a nuclear expert at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, said in an interview. So far, though, Iran has foregone that step and keeps the door open to further enrich a growing uranium supply. How fast it can do that has also become grist for debate, even among nuclear experts.

Iran Watch, part of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, says the process would take only two or three months. By contrast, in a recent paper Mr. Kemp and his Princeton colleague Alexander Glaser put the figure between 9 and 36 months.

“In the race between an Iranian bomb and bombing Iran, we would win,” said Jeffrey G. Lewis, a nuclear specialist at the New America Foundation, a research group in Washington. “We would cave in the roof before they got a bomb’s worth of material.”

For its part, the American intelligence community has estimated that Iran might have enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb late this year, but it put the more likely date as sometime between next year and 2015.

Iranian milestone or not, Admiral Blair [pictured. CiJ] is sticking to those numbers.
The problem with this kind of interpretive dispute is that Israel has far more at stake than the United States. For Israel, an Iranian nuclear weapon is an existential threat in the short term. For the United States it may not even be one in the long term. As Paul Mirengoff pointed out earlier this week:
If I understand Blair's less than lucid explanation correctly, he is saying that Israel draws different conclusions than the U.S. from the same facts because they are more fearful of the consequences of Iran developing a nuclear bomb. Although Blair may be suggesting that Israel is paranoid, one could just as easily infer that the more sanguine U.S. view of Iran's progress and intentions stems from lack of deep concern about what it would mean for Iran to have a nuclear bomb.
Yup. Don't try to tell me that you know better than I do what hurts me.


At 9:32 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

The US has self-interested reasons to downplay Iran's nuclear threat. For Israel, Iran's nuclear ambition is a matter of national survival. That makes it a lot more than just a difference of view among friends.


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