“Cautious Progress in Iran” Adam L. Silverman

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held its first scheduled inspections of Iran’s recently disclosed nuclear facility at Qom.  This is a sign of cautious progress in regards to Iran’s nuclear energy program, as well as dealings with the US and other concerned actors.  While many have indicated that its clear that the Obama Administration’s diplomacy has achieved more in one day of negotiations than was achieved by the belligerent posturing of the previous eight years[1], things are clearly not so easily resolved.  For instance, COL (ret) Lang recently wrote that the internal Iranian deliberations over shipping nuclear material to Russia for processing into fuel and storage seem to have bogged down and while that is troubling,[2] there are a few Iranian realities that I think bear keeping in mind.  While a top ten list of things that most Americans do not know about Iran has recently been published by Professor Cole[3], I think that three items need to be focused on.

1)    Mahmud Ahmedinijad has very little power or authority.  Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinijad, given to making hyperbolic, grandiose, and often belligerently disturbing statements has almost no power or authority.  While it is true that he is closely tied to elements of the Islamic Revolution because of his participation in that event, he is, for all intents and purposes, the mayor of Tehran.  The real power in Iran lies with Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali al Khameini and his fellow clerics.  Essentially Iran has two governmental systems: the real one led and controlled by the clerics that is non-representative and non-democratic and an essentially pretend system of semi-liberal democracy that allows for the election of a president and a parliamentary body.  It is semi-liberal because the elected executive and legislative branches have no real ability to effect change, who can and can not run is controlled by the religious authorities, and these authorities also control law enforcement, the courts, and the military.  As a result of this reality, it is necessary to essentially ignore Ahmedinijad’s antics and pay close attention to what is going in the shadows behind him; actions and activities led by the religious authorities and controlled by Ayatullah Khameini.

2)    The 2009 Elections Demonstrated the Cracks in the Rule of the Clerics.  The badly handled elections and post-election demonstrations have shown that the divisions among the clerics that originally existed at the time of the Islamic Revolution have not gone away.  While the late Ayatullah Khomeini’s version of Velyati al Fiqh, rule according to Islamic Jurisprudence, or more accurately Velyati al Ulama, rule according to the Islamic Clerics, ultimately carried the day in 1979, there were competing versions that were less extreme.  While none of the competing variants could be called liberal, in the classic use of the term, several of them were much more moderate in comparison to Ayatullah Khomeini’s undertaking.  This summer’s election was in some ways really about whether to continue solidly on the reactionary path that is the result of Ayatullah Khomeini’s version of Velyati al Fiqh, or adjust to what would still be a very conservative and controlling form of government, but one which would be more moderate and accommodating by comparison.  It is quite likely that the delay in the decision over sending nuclear material to Russia is partially the result of debate between different factions of the clerical elite who hold different views on the nature of how the Islamic Revolution should move forward.

3)    This Second Nuclear Facility was Built at Qom for a Reason.  Qom was not chosen at random for the site of this second Iranian nuclear enrichment facility.  Qom houses the most important Twelver Shia academy and center of learning in Iran and it is second in importance only to Najaf in Iraq.  It is important to remember that when Ayatullah Khomeini was exiled by the Shah he went from Qom to the centers of Shia learning at Najaf and described this with colorful language that what was buried at Qom had burrowed down and now reemerged in Najaf.  Qom was chosen as a site for a strategic reason: attacking it will likely cause damage to the religious academy and shrines at Qom, which would in turn mobilize every Twelver Shia in Iran, Iraq, the Gulf States, and Levant against the US and its interests and objectives – not just in the Middle East, but everywhere.  It is also likely to rally other Shia – the Seveners and the Fivers, as well as many Sunnis to the Iranian cause.  The longstanding, and largely unrealistic, fear that Iran will export its Islamic Revolution becomes more plausible if Qom is targeted.

The reality of dealing with Iran and its nuclear ambitions is difficult, even more so than just acknowledging these three often unmentioned realities.  While the cracks in the experiment that is the Islamic Revolution have been clearly showing for several months now, the US and its allies need to tread very carefully in dealing with Iran.  The location of the nuclear facilities, as well as the subterranean and hardened nature of their construction, makes a successful attack on them very difficult.  Moreover, while positively encouraging the more moderate Iranian political, social, and religious movements is a good thing, anything seen as meddling in Iranian politics, let alone a military attack on Iran, will mobilize Iranians around their national identity and lead to an increase of anti-American, anti-Western, and reactionarily isolationist sentiment.  Given that there are not any really good military options for dealing with Iran that will not make our endeavors in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere much more difficult, the approach of cautious diplomacy is the best course of action to take.  The key isn’t to do something radical and drag Iran and Iranians kicking and screaming to where we want them to be all at once, rather it is to encourage them to move themselves to that point and to show them it is in their best interest to end their semi-isolation.  If military options become the priority the Iran problem set will become insoluble; once you attack Iran you can not unattack them.  This is the real lesson of Iraq: once you drop the bombs and start fighting there is no way to successfully unwind events if you do not achieve the results you were seeking.

Adam l. Silverman

Adam L. Silverman, PhD was the Field Social Scientist and Team Lead for Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 (HTT IZ6) assigned to the 2BCT/1AD in 2008.  Upon his redeployment from Iraq he served as the Strategic Communication Advisor for the US Army's Human Terrain System.  The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the 2BCT/1AD, HTT IZ6, the US Army Human Terrain System, or the US Army."  

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21 Responses to “Cautious Progress in Iran” Adam L. Silverman

  1. Balint Somkuti says:

    The fine art of the subtle moves in diplomacy seems to be forgtotten in the west. Maybe it is time to learn from the russians and the iranians both big fans of chess.

  2. Andy says:

    Mr. Silverman,
    I disagree with your third item above. The facility is near Qom, not in Qom. It’s located in a remote area about 20 miles north of the city. That distance is great enough that there is really no chance of damaging the academy or any religious shrines in the event of an attack. So, I seriously doubt the site was chosen for strategic reasons.
    Also, it looks like Iran has rejected the negotiated plan and made a counter-offer, one that appears to be a non-starter for west. Hard to say where negotiations will go from here.

  3. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Mr. Silverman’s statement: “…drag Iran and Iranians kicking and screaming to where we want them to be..” is factually wrong. The power to do what he describes does not exist in the international arena.
    Do not give reasons to Iranians for leaving both NPT as well as IAEA.

  4. J says:

    The Persians ‘invented’ the game of chess.

  5. JohnH says:

    The statement that the Iranian nuclear facility is “built at Qom” is highly misleading. It is actually located about 20 miles from Qom. This essentially negates Cole’s assertion that “attacking it will likely cause damage to the religious academy and shrines,” at Qom thereby mobilizing every Twelver Shia.” Yes, Iranian propaganda would claim that Qom was attacked, but they can hardly keep the religious community–safe and sound–from communicating with their faithful, thereby revealing the propaganda claims to be false.
    I respect Cole and am disappointed is his misinformation.

  6. And both Iranians and Russians dealing with “Court” politics in which those hoping to survive have to be highly skilled.
    With respect to Item 1 in the list and attribution to Juan Cole, stating flatly that those with access to MSM have no power is an incorrect judgement. The Media is often the Message! Even the Clerics understand that fact of modern life.

  7. YT says:

    Re: “Given that there are not any really good military options for dealing with Iran that will not make our endeavors in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere much more difficult, the approach of cautious diplomacy is the best course of action to take.”
    I’m left wonderin’ which side seems to be more in a position of zugzwang, the iranians or the israelis & their American cohorts? Enlighten me, gentlemen.

  8. Sidney O. Smith III says:

    Imo, the Iranians knew exactly what they were doing locating the nuclear facility 20 or so miles from Qom.
    Qom is the closest city, so the symbolic association between the nuclear facility and Qom is now made throughout the Muslim world and the West. Such an association is a fait accompli.
    If Israel attacks, then the world media will describe the attack as one on the nuclear facility at Qom, which will unify and enrage the Muslim world.
    However, while the world, particular Muslims, will see it as an attack on Qom, the religious structures will not be damaged. So, if an attack occurs, the entire Muslim world is now unified and the religious shrines and academy remain intact. Moreover, Qom now becomes the focal point of the entire world.
    Strategically clever, perhaps.

  9. b says:

    Andy wrote: “it looks like Iran has rejected the negotiated plan and made a counter-offer, one that appears to be a non-starter for west.”
    That is pure dumb propaganda.
    Iran had agreed on the fuel (19.75%) for fuel (3.5%) exchange deal “in principle” and the terms of when to exchange what were not agreed upon in the first meeting.
    The CNN headline then was: Iran accepts draft nuke deal ‘in principle’.
    Now the negotiations are going on about the not yet agreed upon exchange terms as the should do.
    To say Iran “rejected the negotiated plan” is intentional misinformation i.e. propaganda.
    Andy, who pays you to write such stuff?

  10. Jose says:

    Excellent analysis by Dr. Silverman, because it appears the Iranians have us in check in this situation.
    To all, the Iranians could under the cover of an attack blow-up anything they want and blame it on the “Great Satan” or the “Little Satan”.

  11. par4 says:

    I advise everyone to think of the price of OIL.

  12. Cloned Poster says:

    Qom houses the most important Twelver Shia academy and center of learning in Iran and it is second in importance only to Najaf in Iraq.
    Didn’t the USofA blow the shit out of Najaf in the pursuit of Al Sadr.

  13. N. M. Salamon says:

    I advise everybody to think of the Saudi/Kuwaiti oil ports in case planes fly over Saudi Arabia/ Kuwait, be they Israeli/ or USA, or not stopped by USA

  14. Andy says:

    It’s one thing to point out a mistake. It’s quite another to accuse someone you don’t know of intentionally spreading falsehoods and propaganda for payment. Why you would make such assumptions instead of considering the alternative that I was wrong is anyone’s guess. I’ve been reading and commenting here for a couple of years now, Col. Lang has my CV and knows I’m not a provocateur. In light of that history and in the interest of good manners, it would be nice if you didn’t make assumptions about my intentions or make baseless and slanderous accusations.
    Regardless, you are either incorrect or completely misunderstood what I wrote. There was a draft agreement which was not simply an “agreement of principles” but a complete proposal that included technical details and a timeline for the fuel transfer:

    Under the draft agreement ElBaradei put forward during two and a half days of negotiations, 1,200kg of Iranian low enriched uranium (LEU) would be sent to Russia before the end of the year for further enrichment and then to France for fabrication into fuel for use in Tehran’s research reactor, which makes medical isotopes.

    Dozens of other outlets reported the same thing. We know that the reported details the of the plan are accurate because Iranian state media and others quoted Iranian politicians disagreeing with the specific provisions of the agreement.
    Iran did make clear that the draft agreement was just that – a draft since it represented a compromise proposal. Iran considered the agreement solid enough to send it to Tehran to see if the leadership would approve it as a final agreement. Iran ultimately rejected it. There is nothing factually inaccurate about that or what I said earlier.

  15. curious says:

    man, this nuke bickering is getting ridic. I am imagining a scene where somebody’s mother finally barge into IAEA conference room and yell “You two sit. and put down that uranium containers. You gonna poke somebody’s eyes out with that. And nobody is going anywhere until this is settled, and no dessert tonite for you two.”
    first thing first. I don’t understand what is the goal of Obama-zarkozy. The entire planet expect zarkozy to weasel out and confiscate the uranium. And all Iran and Russia have to do is making sure that happens to win a giant diplomatic position. (eg. Iran can certainly whisper to Russia: “psst, I am sending you only 30% of the gas amount, the rest is depleted. Then later call out france they are lying and cheating out of the deal when they figure out the uranium is missing. Who in the planet is going to believe france if they say they are missing some uranium? everybody just assumes they are running zionist scam to confiscate Iranian uranium.” Seriously, it takes Russia and France to do 20% blend? WTF?
    second. The assumption that Iran cannot build uranium reprocessing plant to redo and reprocess the 20% uranium metal is fairly dubius. All Iran has to do is make IAEA declaration that they will build a fuel reprocessing plant in case France cheat on uranium concentration and introduce impurity to damage the use of uranium metal. (Or Iran can simply say, we are going to open uranium reprocessing business. ya’ll can eff off. It’s all legit.)
    I am sure Iran can get this done before end of the year. It’s a small processing plant.
    then what?
    Aside from that, somebody in Tehran oil exchange office is laughing and making boatload of money speculating on oil price by way of insider trading. It’s the most lucrative uranium deal known to man for sure.
    Compact reaction cell for homogenizing and down-blanding highly enriched uranium metal
    Homogenization of the highly enriched uranium can be simultaneously achieved during the conversion of the uranium metal to uranium hydride using the reaction cell of the present invention. The present invention exploits the high reactivity of hydrogen with metallic uranium. The reaction:
    U 3/2H2 (g)→UH3
    is extremely vigorous at 250° C. A heating means 9 capable of heating the contents of the reaction chamber to at least 225° C. is incorporated into the reaction cell in order to initiate this vigorous reaction. Hydrogen gas is supplied from tank 17. If the reaction is attempted at greater than 250° C., then the reverse reaction is dominant. At temperatures significantly less than 250° C. the reaction kinetics are slow. It is thus preferred to operate at about 250° C., and in no case less than 225° C.
    In order to convert the uranium metal to uranium hydride, hydrogen gas is introduced upwardly into the lower portion 4 at low pressure (1-10 psi above the pressure in the reaction chamber). During the conversion of uranium metal to uranium hydride, the metal undergoes a volume expansion of approximately 75% upon forming UH3. As a result of this sudden increase in volume, the metal lattice is severely strained wherein the hydrided solid separates itself into small particles of UH3. Hence, through the conversion of uranium metal to uranium hydride, the large pieces of highly enriched uranium metal in the cell are rapidly and effectively converted into significantly smaller pieces of uranium hydride.

  16. Sidney O. Smith III says:

    Honestly, the Iranians are the most adept people in the world in flipping Israeli (and neocon America) aggression to their advantage.
    The Iranian decision to place the nuclear facility 20 miles outside of Qom is one great chess move, to stay with the analogy tossed around this thread.
    High risk, for sure. But it works on so many levels when you think it through. Under so many different scenarios, the advantage lies with the Iranians. Destroy the religious shrines and academy (the Najaf approach, which ultimately led to an Iranian leaning Iraq) or not. Either way, Shia Islam becomes the focus of the world and the act of Israeli aggression is seen as a religious attack on Muslim civilization.
    Ultimately, the location of this nuclear facility appears to increase the probability that the conclusions of the 07 NIE are correct. It is a Potemkin Village approach designed to draw out Israeli aggression and then flip it to the Iranian advantage, one of which is to prove Shia Islam a stronger moral force than Zionism. I see no advantage gained to the Iranians at this time in having a nuclear weapons program.
    Dr. Helms goes into great detail describing the historical split between Sunni and Shia Islam. After reading her McNair paper, it seems to me there is only one thing that could increase the odds of Sunni and Shia Muslims fighting side by side. Israeli (and neocon America) aggression that violates international law. Such aggression, particularly if it goes nuclear, may lead to the most significant historical developments in Islam since the original Sunni- Shia divergence.

  17. R Whitman says:

    The science and engineering described in the patent seem sound. Do you know of any of these reaction cells in actual operation. If not, what is being used for blanding?

  18. b says:

    @andy – well – maybe your comment wasn’t propaganda just uninformed?
    There is no such thing as an “draft agreement”. There may be a draft FOR an agreement that will be discussed and modified until it hopefully ends up as an agreement.
    But France and Russia, both part of the deal according to the draft, have serious reliability issues when seen from the Iranian perspective. They have no reason to trust either of them.
    Rather than take the NYT’s Sanger manipulation as truth read mark Pyriz and the like and you will understand that Iran is serious and has neither reason nor intend to blow a deal when it is offered with a fair mind.
    Iran: One Cool Nuclear Negotiator

  19. curious says:

    . Do you know of any of these reaction cells in actual operation. If not, what is being used for blanding?
    Posted by: R Whitman | 31 October 2009 at 10:34 AM
    You are making it way more complicated than what it is. The patent essentially says “bake a chunk of uranium at 225C under 1mPa vacuum and run stream of pure hydrogen through it to get Uranium hydrate.” (ie, you can change uranium metal to gas and inject the gas into the purification cycle again. Down blend or up blend…whatever.)
    If you look at the owner of the patent, it’s US gov. Essentially it’s to protect domestic Uranium supplier from flood of cheap Soviet weapon grade uranium (Down blending it). Lawyers can hunt anybody who downgrade/reprocess uranium. (via this patent, it’s de facto illegal.)
    The patent above really is illegal/can’t exist because basically it’s patenting scientific fact. Temperature, pressure, and reaction condition (The rest is just mambo jumbo cover terminology like “reaction cell” (any vacuum chamber can be called ‘reaction cell’. Your mom’s pressure cooker is a ‘reaction cell’)
    So for eg. to set up the experiment above, all you have to do is order a vacuum chamber, vacuum pump, a heater, and large supply of pure hydrogen. (eg. basic material science lab tools. You can call physic/material science engineering dept. next door. and have it set up before lunch.)
    Here, you can build it yourself if you feel like it. List of second hand vacuum chambers and ultra high vacuum pump.
    Buy used ultra high vacuum pump here
    ..the hardest part of this experiment:
    – getting a chunk of uranium metal (go to Iraq and collect that depleted uranium shell)
    – convincing your mom you can use her credit card to buy a vacuum chamber set up. heh…

  20. Andy says:

    You believe there is no such thing as a draft agreement? Such agreements are quite common in international relations.
    Perceptions of French and Russian reliability are certainly true and are certainly one likely reason Iran ultimately rejected the agreement. I’m not sure how pointing out what Iran did – which was reject the agreement – is either uninformed or propaganda considering I was well aware of Iran’s mistrust.
    Finally, I read Pyruz and many others on Iran and read widely on a variety of other topics. You are, again, making false assumptions about what I read and my “take” on this subject and what my depth of knowledge is. Please quit making such wrong assumptions about what you think I believe/know. If you want my opinion, all you have to do is ask for it.

  21. Sidney O. Smith III says:

    In a recent article at Haaretz, the courageous American Hillary Mann Leverett further explains the rationale behind the Cheney Wurmser option from 07 and clearly proves that an Israeli led “limited” attack will threatened US security interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and worldwide. Here is Ms. Leverett:
    “Iran will not distinguish between an ‘Israeli’ attack and a ‘U.S.’ attack in calculating its response. If attacked by Israel, Iran will respond against both Israeli and American interests. Iran has many levers for targeting U.S. interests in the region, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Pentagon has complained about Iranian support for attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, if one considers how much damage the Iranians could do to U.S. interests in both Iraq and Afghanistan, one would have to conclude that Tehran has actually been rather restrained in these arenas. An Israeli military strike would almost certainly end that restraint,” she says.
    The Israeli-Muslim conflict falls into a three step pattern, and it fits perfectly here. Step one, an Israeli limited attack. Step two, a Muslim response. Step three, massive retaliation. The only variation on the theme in the Iranian scenario is that step three involves a US response. Cheney admitted to such in 07 where the purpose of step one, in the Iranian scenario, was engender a response that would inflict harm on US soldiers, so as to force a massive retaliation. I find it a bit odd that the US VP wanted to see USM soldiers killed and maimed to promote a regional, if not global, war, but no one seemed to take notice.

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