Thursday, April 13, 2006

You Can't Play Poker With A Haggler

HARRY THE HAGGLER: Haggle properly. This isn't worth nineteen.
BRIAN: Well, you just said it was worth twenty.
HARRY THE HAGGLER: Ohh, dear. Ohh, dear. Come on. Haggle.
BRIAN: Huh. All right. I'll give you ten.
HARRY THE HAGGLER: That's more like it. Ten?! Are you trying to insult me?! Me, with a poor dying grandmother?! Ten?!
BRIAN: All right. I'll give you eleven.
HARRY THE HAGGLER: Now you're gettin' it. Eleven?! Did I hear you right?! Eleven?! This cost me twelve. You want to ruin me?!
BRIAN: Ohh, tell me what to say. Please!
HARRY THE HAGGLER: Offer me fourteen.
BRIAN: I'll give you fourteen.
HARRY THE HAGGLER: He's offering me fourteen for this!
BRIAN: Fifteen!
HARRY THE HAGGLER: Seventeen. My last word. I won't take a penny less, or strike me dead.
BRIAN: Sixteen.
HARRY THE HAGGLER: Done. Nice to do business with you.

Monty Python's Life of Brian, Scene 14.


The BIG news this week is is that Iran has announced that it has closed the nuclear fuel cycle, successfully enriching uranium to 3.5% using a 164 centrifuge "cascade". It now intends, according to statements, to move to 3,000 and then 50,000 centifuges - which is enough to keep one power station in fuel. All this in the face of a UN Security Council request to cease all enrichment.

Doing so will be harder than saying so though. Iran is thought to have only enough components for around 1,500 centrifuges and it is uncertain whether they can build the rest themselves and if not who would sell them the rest. Pakistan must be the inside favorite for the task, especially given their recent nuclear blackmail over the US/India nuke deal. Would Pakistan risk America's wrath in this way? Well, it isn't too many months since the Pakistani foreign minister said that his nation would attack anyone who attacked their Islamic brethren in Iran.

Even should Iran manage it's 50,000 centrifuge cascade - a huge technical undertaking an order of magnitude greater than a mere 164 unit cascade - they would have another huge hurdle (in time and technical expertise involved) in making that cascade produce fuel enriched to the 80% or more required for a weapon. Solve all that and Iran could churn out enough 80% enriched uranium for a bomb in 27-75 days according to experts. Then they would have to actually learn the practicality, rather than theory, of assembling such a weapon small enough for a missle then mating it to said missile in a nosecone they haven't developed or tested yet. The current neocon panic-mongering of a nuclear bomb within days is sheer nonsense.

"They're hyping it," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, a private group that monitors the Iranian nuclear program. Anthony H. Cordesman and Khalid R. al-Rodhan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington called the new Iranian claims "little more than vacuous political posturing" meant to promote Iranian nationalism and a global sense of atomic inevitability.

The nuclear experts said Iran's claim yesterday that it would mass-produce 54,000 centrifuges echoed boasts that it made years ago. Even so, they noted, the Islamic state still lacked the parts and materials to make droves of the highly complex machines, which can spin uranium into fuel rich enough for use in nuclear reactors or atom bombs.

It took Tehran 21 years of planning and 7 years of sporadic experiments, mostly in secret, to reach its current ability to link 164 spinning centrifuges in what nuclear experts call a cascade. Now, the analysts said, Tehran has to achieve not only consistent results around the clock for many months and years but even higher degrees of precision and mass production. It is as if Iran, having mastered a difficult musical instrument, now faces the challenge of making thousands of them and creating a very large orchestra that always plays in tune and in unison.
That is, of course, if they actually want a nuke - and it is by no means certain they do. The Grand Ayatollah, the true ruler of the nation whoever the President may be at the time, says it's immoral by Islamic law. He tends to get his way. And I think it is important to remember here that enriching fuel for power is a right every nation has under the NPT. Read that again, slowly. Those countries asking Iran to stop all enrichment activities are doing so beyond the bounds of the non-proliferation protocols. They have no legal standing for doing so.

These same great world powers have not threatened to attack Pakistan, India or Israel nor asked them to cease all enrichment activities - yet none of those nations signed the NPT and all developed their cascades, their fuel cycles and their nuclear weapons in utter secrecy. Israel still won't admit it has nukes. Whereas Iran is monitored by IAEA inspectors - and even if you yield that the IAEA inspectors haven't been given full access and have found Iran unhelpful, none of the illegal nuclear states I mentioned earlier has allowed a single inspector into any plant. Those same great powers also have a far from squeaky clean record on nuclear secrecy themselves, which teaches the rest of the globe some wicked lessons on getting and keeping weapons of mass distruction. America even gave Iran its first nuclear reactor...a deal Dick Cheney personally shoved through. There is a massive double standard at play, so what is the justification for it?

Not a lot. Asked to prove a negative - that Iran does NOT have a nuclear weapons program - the IAEA has failed to turn up any evidence of the converse, namely of secret nuclear weapons programs of any kind. Indeed, El Baradei is on record saying so and still says negotiation is the correct course. All evidence of an Iranian nuclear power program tracks back to either the Bush administration or a small group of organisations with a vested interest in regime change in Iran and a long-nurtured vendetta of blood against the current Iranian regime.

Thus we have nuclear bomb plans which were given to Iran by the CIA, nuclear missile nosecone plans that don't work on a laptop produced by the MeK - a group of ex-Saddam bullyboys led by a man who believes himself the next Muslim messiah who are so dangerous they are confined to a guarded camp in Iraq, a country where dangerous armed militias are not unusual - and Pakistani nuke plans that the Iranians themselves divulged to the IAEA but are still somehow supposed to prove they have a secret dastardly plan! Then we have the rumors that Iran already has nukes - such as the one from ex-journalist Ken Timmerman, a hawk who heads a group of secular Iranians for regime change but has close ties to Jewish neocons. Timmerman isn't above lying about what is printed in serious defense magazines in his lust to get his group a multi-billion dollar slice of the regime-change pie. The rush to war on the flimsiest of invented evidence is so strongly reminiscient of the rush to war with Iraq as to be like a bad hollywood remake of a classic horror flick.

So on one hand we have the Bush administration and its Western allies, egged on by a bunch of neocons who all have a dog or two in the fight and something to gain. On the other hand we have the current Iranian administration with its apocalyptic rhetoric of destroying Israel, "death to America", supposed superweapon tests and apparently hardline stance of "no retreat, no surrender". Where's the sense of diplomacy?

Well, Fariborz S. Fatemi, a former staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says there is none - from either side - calling the current round of charge and countercharge "schoolyard threats". His opinion is that:
The US must engage Iran in a real strategic dialogue leading to a regional alliance making all of the Middle East nuclear-free. The question is why it has not. The confrontation, intimidation and isolation of the past 26 years has gone nowhere.
And perhaps the reason they have gone nowhere is that, in both America and Iran, hardliners with a history of failure are using the boogeyman of the other to bolster an unpopular regime. Prof. Juan Cole certainly believes so:
What is really going on here is a ratcheting war of rhetoric. The Iranian hard liners are down to a popularity rating in Iran of about 15%. They are using their challenge to the Bush administration over their perfectly legal civilian nuclear energy research program as a way of enhancing their nationalist credentials in Iran.

Likewise, Bush is trying to shore up his base, which is desperately unhappy with the Iraq situation, by rattling sabres at Iran. Bush's poll numbers are so low, often in the mid-30s, that he must have lost part of his base to produce this result. Iran is a great deus ex machina for Bush. Rally around the flag yet again.
Which brings me back to the quote from Monty Python I began this post with. Please bear with me, because what I am about to say will seem very non-PC to a few but is borne out by my decades dealing with businessmen in the UK who grew up in India, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.

You see, you can't play poker with a haggler - there's a cultural disconnect. The prevalent negotiation method of the region, that of the bazaar, is exactly as Python's parody runs. You begin with an outrageous claim which you would defend unto the death if anyone called you a liar. You may well be one, but admitting it or suggesting it is a no-no. You then expect the other party to come up with something just as outrageous and from there you can honorably ignore what has just been said and work towards a middle by discrete steps of gradually less ridiculous positions. All of the Iranian government's claims and supposed tests of fraudulent superweapons fall into this paradigm.

Whereas an American plays poker. He sets out two positions, one hard and one soft, and challenges you to guess which is a bluff. Thus the Bush administration's two stances - we want to use diplomacy but are not ruling out violence...and are deliberately leaking this plan to nuke y'all to pressure your decision making. That brings with it the next obvious realization - you play a good bluff as if it were real and right through to the end. The White House isn't simply rattling the sabre to pressure Iran into a more accomodating negotiating position. Bush will indeed attack Iran, with tactical nukes, if the coming cultural railcrash isn't averted.

The White House (and their neocon coterie) insist on seeing Iranian hyperbole and calls for meetings to negotiate as a poker gambit from which there is no place to move to - Show your cards and take the consequences or fold. They expect Iran to fold. Meanwhile Iranians keep waiting for Bush to haggle, to say something along the lines of "Superweapons and 50,000 centrifuges? My grandmother would turn over in her grave! I'll let you have some knock-offs of Russian gear from last decade and maybe 1,500 centrifuges to keep a power plant going. Then I won't nuke ya". Without that, they will continue along their original declared track as if that was what they always wanted to do, even though it wasn't.

Both are waiting for something the other side doesn't even understand they need to do. It's a recipe for disaster.