Escalation: Iran installs hardline Revolutionary Guard chief, says 3,000 centrifuges now in place

I’m not going to spend time running through the significance of the number 3,000, not after half a dozen posts on the subject in the past. I invite you to re-read this one and this one, in particular; basically, if you’ve got 3,000 running the way they’re supposed to, you can build a bomb in a year. Are Iran’s running the way they’re supposed to? According to Iranian stooge Mohammed ElBaradei, no:

The [IAEA] report released Thursday, a quarterly update of Iran’s nuclear activity, said the country was operating nearly 2,000 centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium, at its vast underground plant at Natanz, an increase of several hundred from three months ago. More than 650 additional centrifuges are being tested or are under construction, the agency said.

That number is far short of Iran’s projection that by now it would have 3,000 centrifuges up and running. The IAEA also reported that uranium being processed by the working centrifuges at Natanz was “well below the expected quantity for a facility of this design.” In addition, the agency said that uranium was enriched to a lower level than the Iranians had claimed.

These results have raised questions among private experts and officials at the atomic agency about whether Iran is facing technical difficulties or has made a political decision to curtail its nuclear operations. Low enriched uranium can fuel power reactors, and highly enriched uranium can fuel a bomb.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said his own calculations, based on the report’s data, suggested that Iran was operating its centrifuges at as little as 10 percent of their potential. “That’s very low — and we don’t know why,” he said.

Centrifuges have to operate continuously for months on end at optimum efficiency to enrich uranium to pure, bomb-grade strength. Like the article says, maybe they haven’t figured out how to do it yet or maybe they have but they’re holding back for the moment. Or, maybe this is a dog and pony show for the IAEA to convince them that the nuke program is far less advanced than it actually is while other centrifuges operate in some secret facility elsewhere. According to a lone U.S. intel expert named Alexis Debat, the Pentagon has already drawn up plans for a massive three-day air campaign to destroy not just the nuke facilities but large swaths of the Iranian military — a necessity given the certainty of Iranian military reprisals against U.S. troops across the border in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lost in the fine print at the end of the piece is Debat’s own stated belief that the U.S. isn’t going to attack if only because we’re already spread too thin and can’t afford to, but the Sunday Telegraph says Bush is taking it seriously enough to wargame the oil aftershocks with economic planners. The verdict: ugly but tolerable.

Computer modelling found that if Iran closed the Straits of Hormuz, it would nearly double the world price of oil, knock $161 billion off American GDP in a single quarter, cost one million jobs and slash disposable income by $260 billion a quarter.

The war gamers advocated deploying American oil reserves – good for 60 days – using military force to break the blockade (two US aircraft carrier groups and half of America’s 277 warships are already stationed close to Iran), opening up oil development in Alaska, and ending import tariffs on ethanol fuel. If the government also subsidised fuel for poorer Americans, the war-gamers concluded, it would mitigate the financial consequences of a conflict.

The Heritage report concludes: “The results were impressive. The policy recommendations eliminated virtually all of the negative outcomes from the blockade.”

Again: that’s purely the economic end. It doesn’t address Iranian military and paramilitary, i.e. terrorist, responses. It also doesn’t guarantee that a bombing run would accomplish its goal of knocking out Iran’s reactors. On the contrary, “the CIA, apparently, does not have enough intelligence to guarantee that the nuclear programme could be permanently crippled, and little way of knowing after the event how much time they have bought with a raid. International estimates of how long it would take Iran to get a bomb vary between a year and 10 years.” In fact, the CIA isn’t even sure that Iran has a bomb-making program in place. The fact that it’s the Telegraph, which has been notoriously hawkish on Iran, that’s relaying that information is worth noting.

As for the change in leadership at the top of the Revolutionary Guard, when the news broke I thought back to this story from during the British sailor hostage crisis about how the current commander, Safavi, allegedly backed down and urged Khamenei to release the sailors before things escalated further. With Bush threatening the Guard, Khamenei probably wants someone with more balls — a “wartime consigliere,” to borrow a phrase. Sounds like that’s right:

Iranian experts regarded Jaafari’s promotion as a victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Safavi was not seen to be tough enough in the face of mounting western pressure and argued the guards were not strong enough to repel a foreign attack.

His successor is known to be more bullish about the guards’ fighting ability, and has taken an active role in Iran’s clandestine activities in neighbouring Iraq. Earlier this year US forces almost captured Jaafari in Iraq. He escaped but the Americans seized five of his colleagues, all belonging to the Quds force of the guards…

Iranian sources said last night that the US moves against the Revolutionary Guards triggered the decision to remove Safavi…

The main reservations of the ultra-fundamentalists about Safavi were based on his opposition to the expansion of the Revolutionary Guards in economic sector of the country, his ties with reformist circles, and his efforts to coordinate the guards’ activities more closely with the generals of the regular army.

Note the boldfaced part. Longtime HA readers may recall the Independent crying about the U.S. attempt to nab Jafari at Irbil; now he’s the operational head of their state terror apparatus. Good work, boys.

Before another round of knee-jerk “BOMB NOW!” comments begins, take it from a hawk among hawks: it’s not a good idea. Not yet, anyway.