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Regime Change Redux? Reading Tom Friedman in Sao Paulo

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Sao Paulo - New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is on the warpath. Not only against his "Great Satan" of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but also against Brazil's President Lula and Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan, because they had the temerity to succeed in negotiating an agreement with Iran to try to de-escalate the confrontation between the United States and Iran over Iran's nuclear program without the subsequent approval of Washington. [Apparently Brazil and Turkey had White House approval to try - a week before the effort, but it seems that they did not have White House approval to succeed.]

Friedman claims that a May 17 picture of Iran's president joining Lula and Erdogan "with raised arms" after their signing of a "putative deal" to defuse the crisis over Iran's "nuclear weapons program" [does the New York Times do fact-checking on Friedman?] was "about as ugly as it gets."

If it's literally true that that picture was "as ugly as it gets," then presumably that would imply that it was at least as ugly - if not more ugly - than, for example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, an invasion which was clearly illegal under the U.N. Charter, as former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan affirmed in 2004, an invasion which likely resulted in the deaths of more than a million Iraqis - and an invasion which Tom Friedman supported, as he explained to Charlie Rose in May 2003:

I think it was unquestionably worth doing, Charlie. I think that, looking back, I now certainly feel I understand more what the war was about . . . . What we needed to do was go over to that part of the world, I'm afraid, and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. . . .

And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: which part of this sentence do you understand? You don't think we care about our open society? . . . . Well, Suck. On. This. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.

We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth.

And the comparison of that "ugly" picture to Tom Friedman's "ugly" support of the "ugly" U.S. invasion of Iraq is highly germane in considering Tom Friedman's piece, because if Tom Friedman's rant on Iran were to have a significant influence on the opinions of U.S. policymakers and the U.S. public - sadly, a far from unlikely scenario - the practical consequence would be to significantly increase the likelihood of a future U.S. military confrontation with Iran, as I explain below.

The first 400 words of Friedman's 850-word piece are devoted to erasing the story of the successful effort by Brazil and Turkey to reach an agreement on Iran's nuclear program - an agreement "nearly identical" to that proposed by the Obama Administration, AP noted in an initial account the day it was announced - by replacing it with a story in which Brazil and Turkey "coddled" a "dictator," thereby "selling out" Iranian "democrats."

But the question on the table, as Friedman surely knows perfectly well, is whether 1) the agreement reached by Brazil and Turkey is a basis for further Western diplomatic engagement with Iran on concerns about its nuclear program, or 2) whether the agreement, despite being similar to that proposed a few months ago by the Obama Administration, is useless and should be ignored, and instead the U.S. should push for further sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council and elsewhere, a path which - if recent experience is any guide - could very likely lead to war.

Was it "coddling dictators" when the Obama Administration proposed and supported the fuel swap deal with Iran in October? Is it "coddling dictators" when the U.S. engages in diplomacy with China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Israel? Why would it be "coddling dictators" only to engage in diplomacy with Iran, and only when someone does it successfully without U.S. approval of the result?

Was it "ugly" when the CIA overthrew Iranian democracy in 1953, punishing Iran for nationalizing its oil wealth? If Tom Friedman has any opinion on this question - highly relevant, surely, to U.S. efforts to promote "regime change" in Iran 50 years later - I have been unable so far to locate it.

Indeed, after his opening 400 word rant on "democracy" and "dictatorship," Friedman concedes that if the U.S. got everything it could want on the nuclear file, the question of "democracy" would have been irrelevant:

"Sure, had Brazil and Turkey actually persuaded the Iranians to verifiably end their whole suspected nuclear weapons program, America would have endorsed it. But that is not what happened."

So, since Friedman finally concedes that "democracy" is not the issue after all, let's consider his subsequent attack on whether the deal is what it claims to be: a credible effort to de-escalate the conflict over Iran's nuclear program.

To begin with, note his "straw" rhetorical standard: if Brazil and Turkey had persuaded Iran to "to verifiably end their whole suspected nuclear weapons program," that would be sufficient. But since no-one claims that the "nearly identical" deal proposed by the Obama Administration in October would have compelled Iran to "to verifiably end their whole suspected nuclear weapons program," that's an absurd and dishonest standard. If the new deal would be similar to the old deal - indeed, if the U.S. endorsed the provisions of the deal, a week before it was achieved - then to dismiss it is rank hypocrisy and dishonesty.

As Reuters - but not the New York Times - reported, before President Lula's recent trip to Iran, President Obama sent President Lula a letter.

In a letter to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva two weeks ago, U.S. president Barack Obama said an Iranian uranium shipment abroad would generate confidence.

"From our point of view, a decision by Iran to send 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium abroad, would generate confidence and reduce regional tensions by cutting Iran's stockpile," Obama said, according to excerpts from the letter translated into Portuguese and seen by Reuters.

[UPDATE: Commenter Tomas Rosa Bueno has posted a link with a facsimile of the original letter from Obama to Lula. UPDATE: Here is the link to Thursday's Folha article which published the letter in Portuguese, which matches the English text at the link posted by Tomas. UPDATE:: Former Bush NSC staffers Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett say the letter shows US is being dishonest in saying the deal is not sufficient. UPDATE:: Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post gives the "White House" response: the April 20 letter was "out of date"!]

Now Friedman writes:

Under the May 17 deal, it has supposedly agreed to send some 2,640 pounds from its stockpile to Turkey for conversion into the type of nuclear fuel needed to power Tehran's medical reactor - a fuel that cannot be used for a bomb. But that would still leave Iran with a roughly 2,200-pound uranium stockpile, which it still refuses to put under international inspection and is free to augment and continue to reprocess to the higher levels needed for a bomb. Experts say it would only take months for Iran to again amass sufficient quantity for a nuclear weapon.

2,640 pounds is 1,200 kilograms (to use the units that everyone else is using.) So, in attacking this provision of the deal (that is, the amount of LEU transferred), Friedman is attacking a provision that was explicitly endorsed by President Obama a week before the deal was signed - although, to be fair, you wouldn't know that if you were relying on the New York Times for your information.

Friedman claims that Iran refuses to put its (low-enriched) uranium stockpile under IAEA inspection, but this assertion is verifiably false - and the New York Times should publish a correction.

From the International Atomic Energy Agency's February 18, 2010 report:

The nuclear material at FEP [i.e. the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz] (including the feed, product and tails), as well as all installed cascades and the feed and withdrawal stations, are subject to Agency containment and surveillance.

Indeed, as International Herald Tribune/New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote, in a column supporting the fuel swap and criticizing the Obama Administration for summarily dismissing it:

Speaking of facts, I must get a little technical here. Iran has been producing, under International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, LEU (enriched to about 5 percent)."

Since the process is under IAEA inspection, it's fundamentally untrue to claim that Iran is "free to augment and continue to reprocess to the higher levels needed for a bomb." Since this material is under supervision, either 1) the IAEA would know that Iran was doing this, and therefore the world would know, or 2) Iran would have to remove the material from IAEA supervision in order to do this, and the world would know that it had done so.

Finally, it is profoundly misleading to claim that "experts say it would only take months for Iran to again amass sufficient quantity for a nuclear weapon." Plausibly, in months of enriching, Iran could amass enough low-enriched uranium so that this quanity of uranium - if the uranium were enriched further to weapons-grade - would be sufficient for a nuclear weapon. But if it is not enriched further, then no amount of low-enriched uranium can produce a nuclear weapon. The misleading suggestion of Friedman's sentence is that within months Iran would have enough enriched uranium to be in a position to produce a nuclear weapon, but so long as that LEU is under international inspection, it is useless for a nuclear weapon, and how long it might take Iran to produce a weapon if it were to remove the LEU from IAEA inspection - a flagrant defiance that would clearly unite the world against it - is another question entirely.

Friedman then claims that "what this deal really does" is "weaken the global coalition to pressure Iran to open its nuclear facilities to U.N. inspectors." Again, this is a profoundly misleading claim, because Iran's facilities are already open to UN inspectors - not as completely open as those inspectors would like, but sufficiently open for them to make statements like:

The nuclear material at FEP [the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz](including the feed, product and tails), as well as all installed cascades and the feed and withdrawal stations, are subject to Agency containment and surveillance.

Friedman erases this important fact completely with his assertion.

Finally - and crucially - Friedman argues that the only solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear program is regime change. If Iran had a government we liked, we wouldn't have to worry about its nuclear program; and so long as Iran has a government we don't like, we'll always have to worry.

Here, Friedman is in effect supporting a U.S. or Israeli or U.S./Israeli war with Iran (any distinction between these three events is euphemism; in the eyes of the world, it's all the same.) And anyone who supports Friedman's argument, in the current political context, is a de facto supporter of war.

And the reason is this. Anyone who is following this issue knows that the Israeli government and the U.S. Congress (at the risk of appearing redundant) have sought to establish a short timetable for dealing with the dispute over Iran's nuclear program - a timetable on the order of magnitude of Friedman's alarmism about Iran's nuclear capacity - a timetable more like "months" than "years." There is not much realistic prospect that Iran will have a government that Tom Friedman likes - short of an extremely unlikely massive external intervention - in that short timetable.

If you concede the short timetable - which Friedman does not contest, and appears to endorse - then the choices are diplomacy with the present government or war (a blockade regime of "crippling sanctions," if it could be achieved, would be tantamount to war, both because a blockade is literally an act of war and because Iran would be virtually certain to respond to a blockade - or anything tantamount to a blockade - with similarly aggressive acts that would be very likely to escalate.)

The fact that diplomacy with Iran means diplomacy with the present government of Iran, is an essential point which should be obvious, but isn't, apparently. Many people would like us to believe that the so-called "Green Movement" in Iran has, in some sense, divorced from the practical realities of international relations, a stronger claim to represent Iran than the present Iranian government. This is mainly wishful thinking; little evidence that would be accepted by a disinterested observer has been presented to support this claim, and plenty of evidence supports the opposite claim.

But whatever one thinks about these claims and counter-claims is immaterial to the issue at hand, because the "Green Movement" does not control the Iranian government, there is no realistic prospect that it will control the Iranian government in the forseeable future, and the United States of America has neither the moral right nor the physical capacity to dictate who shall govern Iran. If the United States has a problem with Iran, it has to deal with the present Iranian government, just as when the U.S. has a problem with China, it has to deal with the present Chinese government, not some self-selected group of Chinese dissidents. President Obama articulated this basic reality eloquently during his election campaign; it's a shame that his Administration is now apparently largely reverting to the policy of the Bush Administration which Obama the candidate so eloquently criticized.

If you don't want war, but you don't want to deal with the present Iranian government, then the only realistic alternative is "long-term-containment." But if that's really your choice, as opposed to a dishonest support of military confrontation, then you have to oppose the claim that the house is on fire. You have to concede that the situation months from now, if there is no deal, will be an objectively unremarkable extrapolation of the status quo which dishonest people with tremendous media access and powerful friends will claim to be a disaster requiring a dangerous escalation of confrontation: more sanctions, more Iranian enrichment, and a bigger Iranian stockpile of low-enriched uranium than exists today.

It's far from obvious why a bigger Iranian stockpile of low-enriched uranium than exists today is a clear and present danger to humanity, but those that claim that it is have a responsibility to explain to the rest of us why they are so adamant in dismissing the only realistic option on the table for doing something about it.