Report: Iran's nuclear program a shambles?

Didn’t get around to this one this weekend, partly because I’m bored with Iran stories and partly because the “debate,” such as it is, has assumed the same Rorschach properties as Iraq. If you’re a hawk, you’ll dismiss the following as propaganda cooked up by Eurodoves to buy more time for negotiations. If you’re a dove, mangia.

Despite Iran being presented as an urgent threat to nuclear non-proliferation and regional and world peace – in particular by an increasingly bellicose Israel and its closest ally, the US – a number of Western diplomats and technical experts close to the Iranian programme have told The Observer it is archaic, prone to breakdown and lacks the materials for industrial-scale production…

The centrifuges were supposed to have been installed almost a year ago and many experts are extremely doubtful that Iran has yet mastered the skills to install and run it. Instead, they argue, the ‘installation’ will more probably be about propaganda than reality…

Instead, say experts, the break-up of the nuclear smuggling organisation of the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadheer Khan has massively set back an Iran heavily dependent on his network.

Another good one from the weekend was the New York Times Magazine’s meandering look at the power struggle in Tehran. Lots of red meat about the murderous fascist wackjob cleric with whom Ahmadinejad is presently allied, possibly because he shares his beliefs, possibly as a marriage of convenience. Only in the Islamic Republic could one benefit politically from being aligned with someone who winks at suggestions that he’s had his opponents killed. The ironic zenith:

[I]t is a puzzle that has vexed political analysts since the president took office in August 2005, bringing with him a faction that was largely new to the post-revolutionary political scene. Composed partly of military and paramilitary elements, partly of extremist clerics like Mesbah-Yazdi and partly of inexperienced new conservative politicians, those in Ahmadinejad’s faction are often called “neoconservatives.”

Tee hee! Here’s the important part, a Catch-22 that leaves Iran with no good options except perhaps to provoke a massive attack from the west, thereby giving the regime the popular support it needs to take tough action economically:

The Iranian economy has been mismanaged at least since the revolution, and to fix it would require measures no populist would be willing to take. Under Ahmadinejad, inflation has risen; foreign investors have scorned Iranian markets, fearing political upheaval or foreign invasion; the Iranian stock market has plummeted; Iranian capital has fled to Dubai. Voters I talked to pointed to the prices of ordinary foodstuffs when they wanted to explain their negative feelings about the government. According to Iranian news sources, from January to late August 2006 the prices of fruits and vegetables in urban areas rose by 20 percent. A month later, during Ramadan, the price of fruit reportedly doubled while that of chicken rose 10 percent in mere days. Housing prices in Tehran have reached a record high. Unemployment is still widespread. And Ahmadinejad’s approval rating, as calculated by the official state television station, had dipped to 35 percent in October.

Iran is not a poor country. It is highly urbanized and modern, with a sizable middle class. Oil revenues, which Iran has in abundance, should be channeling plenty of hard currency into the state’s coffers, and in fact the economy’s overall rate of growth is healthy and rising. But as Parvin Alizadeh, an economist at London Metropolitan University, explained to me, what ultimately matters is how the state spends its influx of wealth. The Iranian government has tried to create jobs swiftly and pacify the people by spending the oil money on new government-run projects. But these projects are not only overmanned and inefficient, like much of the country’s bloated and technologically backward public sector; they also increase the demand for consumer goods and services, driving up inflation.

Ahmadinejad has continued this trend. He has generated considerable personal good will in poorer communities, but hardly anyone I asked could honestly say that their lives had gotten better during his presidency. He fought to lower interest rates, which drove up lending, leading to inflation and capital flight. The government cannot risk infuriating the public with the austerity measures that would be required in order to solve its deep-rooted economic problems. But as long as its short-term fixes continue to fail, the government will go on being unpopular. The last two presidents have lost their constituencies over this issue. And so officials seek to distract people from their economic woes with ideological posturing and anti-Western rhetoric. Not only has this lost its cachet with much of the Iranian public, it also serves to compound Iran’s economic problems by blackening its image abroad. “Iran has not sorted out its basic problem, which is to be accepted in the international community as a respectable government,” Alizadeh said. “Investors do not take it seriously. This is a political crisis, not an economic crisis.”

Sounds like they need a revolution of the proletariat. In the meantime, they’re going to dump money and materiel into Iraq and see if they can’t rob that country blind, presumably with the help, or at least acquiescence, of the Shiite government. Maliki and his ministers are already derided as “Persians” by Iraqi Sunnis; to welcome an Iranian bank in Baghdad is to practically accept the label.

How’d you like to be a security guard at First National of Iran in Baghdad?

Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad outlined an ambitious plan on Sunday to greatly expand its economic and military ties with Iraq — including an Iranian national bank branch in the heart of the capital — just as the Bush administration has been warning the Iranians to stop meddling in Iraqi affairs…

The ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, said Iran was prepared to offer Iraq government forces training, equipment and advisers for what he called “the security fight.” In the economic area, Mr. Qumi said, Iran was ready to assume major responsibility for Iraq reconstruction

Other elements of new economic cooperation, he said, include plans for Iranian shipments of kerosene and electricity to Iraq and a new agricultural cooperative involving both countries.

He would not provide specifics on Iran’s offer of military assistance to Iraq, but said it included increased border patrols and a proposed new “joint security committee.”

Bush is planning to go public this week with intel about Iranian involvement in Iraq. They’re vetting what they have right now to make sure it doesn’t expose their spooks in the field or embarrass any of their allies. Exit question: what are the odds, do you suppose, that that intel will also end up Rorschachized?