Scandal threatens South Korea nuclear-export ambitions

Koreanuclear

A scandal threatens to hamper South Korea's efforts to sell its nuclear technology around the globe as it shuts down several of its own nuclear reactors to investigate how some of their parts were approved.

South Korean officials recently discovered that safety certificates for some of their reactors' parts had been forged. The subsequent closures could put the country at risk of power shortages this winter.

Government authorities have stressed that the parts in question are “ordinary” pieces,  such as fuses and power switches, that aren't directly tied to reactor safety, the publicly funded news agency Yonhap reported Monday. The shutdown has nonetheless cast an unflattering light on the industry as South Korea tries to make its name abroad.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in nearby Japan, “they’re trying to create an image of quality and safety,” said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Any issue with quality assurance certificates should be seen as a big black eye for their efforts.”

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Cuban missile crisis myth constrains today's diplomatic standoffs

Kennedys and Khrushchevs
This post has been corrected.

Fifty years after the superpowers were poised to annihilate each other over nuclear missiles sent to Cuba, the myth prevails that President Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to back down by threatening to unleash nuclear war.

It took three decades after October 1962, when the world hovered on the brink of a cataclysm, before  documents were declassified that disclosed the back-channel diplomacy and compromise that led to peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. But even today, hard-liners cling to the narrative that taking a tough, inflexible stance with adversaries is the path to diplomatic triumph.

GlobalFocusThat misguided interpretation hampers diplomacy today, say veterans of the perilous Cold War standoff and the historians who study it. The notion that threatening military action can force an opponent's surrender has created dangerously unrealistic expectations, they say, in high-stakes conflicts like the U.S.-led challenge of Iran's purported quest to build nuclear weapons.

Kennedy didn't stare down Khrushchev with vows to bomb Cuban missile sites, although that was the tactic pushed by his military advisors, recently revealed history of the crisis shows. The president sent his brother, then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, to secretly negotiate with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. In the strictest of confidence, RFK offered withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey and a promise not to invade vulnerable Cuba in exchange for the Kremlin pulling out the nuclear arms it had deployed to Fidel Castro's island.

"The secrecy that accompanied the resolution of the most dangerous crisis in foreign policy history has distorted the whole process of conflict resolution and diplomacy," said Peter Kornbluh, Cuba analyst for the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "The takeaway from the crisis was that might makes right and that you can force your opponents to back down with a strong, forceful stance."

Documents released sporadically over the last 20 years show that the crisis was resolved through compromise, not coercion, said Kornbluh, who has spent decades pushing for declassification of U.S.-Cuba history documents related to the crisis. Some 2,700 pages from RFK's private papers were released by the National Archives and Kennedy Library just last week.

R. Nicholas Burns, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service now teaching diplomacy at Harvard's Kennedy School, sees applications for the Iran dispute from the real story of the missile crisis resolution.

The fundamental breakthrough in the confrontation occurred "because Kennedy finally decided, against the wishes of most of his advisors, that rather than risk nuclear war he was going to make a compromise with Khrushchev," Burns said. He pointed to the confidential offer to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Europe, a turning point still "not well understood -- people think Khrushchev backed down."

In the real world, Burns said, "it is exceedingly rare that we get everything we want in an international discussion. To get something of value, you have to give up something."

Burns sees the outlines of a negotiated agreement with Iran that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon, a plan he believes would be acceptable to Democrats and Republicans once the presidential election is over and the campaign rhetoric that rejects compromise dies down. In exchange for Iran's submitting its nuclear facilities to regular international inspections, Burns said, U.S. and other Western leaders could recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium to the levels needed in civilian arenas, such as energy production and medicine.

Lessons learned in the U.S.-led wars against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan also argue for exhausting every diplomatic option before engaging in armed conflict, Burns said.

"Sometimes it's necessary to use military force -- I'm not a pacifist," said the retired diplomat, who was an undersecretary of State for political affairs under President George W. Bush. "But more often than not, you have to put your faith in diplomacy. We have the time and space to negotiate with Iran."

Differentiating between national interests and those of allies is an even more important lesson gleaned from the missile crisis, said Robert Pastor, an American University professor of international relations and former National Security Council official in the Carter administration.

"Fidel Castro actually urged Khrushchev to attack the United States because he felt American imperialism would try to destroy both Cuba and the socialist world," said Pastor, who credits Khrushchev with wisely rejecting Castro's adventurism in favor of peace. Pastor sees a similar danger of Israel provoking war with Iran, confronting Washington with the need to decide between trying to restrain Israel or fighting a new Middle East war.

Sergei N. Khrushchev, the late premier's son who is now a U.S. citizen and international affairs analyst at Brown University, has been campaigning for a correction of the Cuban missile history at anniversary events this week.

"Khrushchev didn’t like Kennedy any more than President Obama likes [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," he said in an interview. "But he realized you have to speak to them anyway if you want to resolve problems. We say we will never negotiate with our enemies, only with our friends. But that's not negotiating, that's having a party."

For the record, 8:35 a.m. Oct. 17: This post originally said the RFK papers made public this week were posted on the nongovernmental National Security Archive website. They were released by the National Archives and Kennedy Library.

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Photo: Caroline Kennedy, daughter of late President John F. Kennedy, shows her mother's original copy of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to Sergei Khrushchev, son of late Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, next to a photograph of their fathers at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston at a commemoration Sunday of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. Credit: Michael Dwyer / Associated Press

 


Sanctions, currency chaos igniting unrest in outcast Iran

An Iranian shopper pays a fruit seller with 50,000-rial banknotes
Soaring prices at Tehran's cavernous Grand Bazaar have ignited violence this week as money traders and vendors clashed with riot police over the plummeting value of the Iranian currency, which is being gutted by international sanctions and mismanagement by the Islamic regime.

GlobalFocusWhat for most Iranians has been an abstract political dispute between their leaders and Western countries concerned about Tehran's nuclear ambitions has suddenly hit them in their wallets and pushed them to lash out. The rial has lost 80% of its value against the U.S. dollar in the last year, a decline accelerated by tightened U.S. and European Union sanctions now depriving the regime of half the hard currency it was earning from oil exports.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed the deepening economic chaos on foreign enemies, contending there is "no economic justification" for the public scramble to dump rials in favor of dollars, euros and gold. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also struck a defiant pose, reasserting Tehran's right to enrich uranium and vowing that Iranians "will never surrender to pressure."

But Iranian exiles and scholars see the angry outbursts in the marketplace as a sign that ordinary Iranians are finally fed up with a regime that has brought them isolation, insecurity and eroding living standards. They see a population, resentful of a crackdown on dissent three years ago, now edging toward rebellion.

The unrest also demonstrates that the U.S. policy of letting sanctions and diplomacy undermine popular support for the regime is having the desired effect, confronting Tehran with its gravest challenge since Islamic clerics came to power in a  1979 revolution, the experts say.

The street value of the rial has dropped by half in the last two months and plunged 18% on Monday alone. The unofficial exchange rate for the dollar -- more than 35,000 before back-alley trading halted -- is almost three times the official rate of 12,260. But that subsidized exchange rate is available only from state banks to a limited and shrinking number of key importers.

Money traders stopped selling dollars Tuesday, confused over how to price the swiftly deteriorating rial. Some vendors closed their shops in protest of the government's failure to intervene and prop up the currency; others boosted prices beyond what many shoppers can or will pay.  

Before harsher sanctions kicked in three months ago, Iran's government had been using a sizable share of its $100-billion annual oil earnings to subsidize dollar-denominated food and consumer goods, to keep prices stable and placate the population, said Abbas Milani, a Tehran-born academic who directs Iranian studies at Stanford University.

Milani said he suspects the government was initially using the economic downturn brought on by the sanctions to put an end to the costly dollar subsidies. But he now concludes that the regime has been forced to let the rial tumble because it has run out of the hard currency needed to stop the slide.

Riot police block Tehran's Grand Bazaar"We're not talking about a billion dollars or 2 billion to stabilize a currency that has gone down so far. The government would have to find enormous sums of money to pour in, and if they had it they would have done it by now," Milani said.

"I don't think the regime can survive this one," he said, unless Khamenei does the unthinkable and meets Western demands that Iran cease enriching uranium beyond levels needed for civilian nuclear programs.

Tehran officials recently told the International Monetary Fund that they had $50 billion on hand, enough to see Iran through the sanctions bite for at least four or five months, Milani said. He calculates that the regime should have saved about $300 billion in a rainy-day fund over the last eight years. That no intervention in the currency crisis has been forthcoming tells him that much of the oil windfall has been squandered or siphoned off into private accounts of the Revolutionary Guards and government leaders.

"Social and political cohesion in Iran will be deeply disturbed by this economic crisis," predicted Alireza Nader, senior policy analyst on Iran for Rand Corp. "And it's not just the economic crisis -- you saw Iranians take to the streets in 2009 for a number of reasons, and those tensions have been simmering below the surface. We see them coming up now."

Nader pointed out that protesters at the bazaar this week have shouted denunciation of the regime's politics as well as soaring inflation. Shouts of "Leave Syria alone and think about us!" could be heard in clandestinely shot video footage of the angry crowds, he said.

 The Iranian government has been the sole regional supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his brutal suppression of a rebellion now in its 19th month.

"Eventually this is going to put enormous pressure on the Iranian government to concede on a number of issues, not just the nuclear programs but domestic political issues as well," Nader said. "It's already gotten to the point where people's livelihoods are at stake and they're not going to tolerate that situation. We can definitely expect to see more unrest in the coming months."

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Photo: An Iranian shopper on Wednesday pays a fruit seller at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran with 50,000-rial banknotes. The sanctions-battered Iranian currency has lost 80% of its value in the last year, spurring inflation and social unrest. Credit: Abedin Taherkenareh / European Pressphoto Agency

Insert: Riot police block an approach to the Grand Bazaar on Wednesday after arresting money traders and dousing fires lighted in protest of the falling rial currency. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency


Almost all EU nuclear reactors need safety upgrades, report says

Nuclearsafety

Bringing all of the 145 nuclear reactors in the European Union up to safety standards could cost as much as $32 billion, says a European Commission report released Thursday.

Sobered by the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year in Japan that forced more than 160,000 people to evacuate, European leaders agreed last year to subject their nuclear reactors to added tests to gauge how well they would withstand earthquakes, floods, airplane crashes and other disasters.

Almost all of the nuclear reactors need some kind of improvements to ensure safety, nuclear safety reviewers found, though none are so dire that they need to be closed. Five nuclear reactors allowed operators less than an hour to restore safety functions if electrical power was totally lost, the report warns.

The report also faults European Union countries for inconsistency in how they assessed threats to their nuclear reactors, with some countries failing to use International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines for earthquake safety. It urges the EU to set guidelines for protecting nuclear reactors in natural disasters.

More than half of the nuclear reactors did not have emergency equipment stored in a protected place from which it could easily be retrieved, the report said. Eight of 10 reactors need to install or improve instruments to alert plant operators to possible earthquakes.

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'Bibi's Bomb': Netanyahu uses a picture to make his point

Netanyahubomb

For weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the United States to draw a clear “red line” to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Today, Netanyahu showed them how.

Literally.

Warning the United Nations General Assembly that the world must act quickly to halt Iran, Netanyahu brandished a red marker and drew his own clear red line atop a drawing of a bomb.

By the middle of next year, Netanyahu argued, Iran could have enough enriched uranium to make a weapon within “a few months, possibly a few weeks.” His red line landed just below the “final stage” on the diagram.

The gambit grabbed as much attention as his dire message: The image of Netanyahu drawing that “red line” was irresistible to the media after photo after dull photo of suited diplomats at the U.N. If cartoonish, it was unforgettable. If simplistic, it was easily grasped. Some saw it as a brilliant stroke of political stagecraft.

“Bibi's use of that chart was one of the most effective, gripping uses of a chart I've ever seen. Is the world listening??” former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted.

In a rarity for the sober world of international diplomacy, “Bibi’s bomb” went viral, as Internet users competed to get in the best quips.

But illustrating the tense and serious issue with a cartoon fell flat with others watching the speech. Some said that the act made Netanyahu himself look cartoonish, an image that didn’t spell out the threat so much as conjure up animated villains.

“It is precisely because Iran's nuclear program is such a threat to Israel that turning to cartoon bombs to explain the issue is a lousy idea,” tweeted Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent with the Atlantic.

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U.S.-led sanctions having impact in Iran, Israeli report says

Israel says sanctions having impact in Iran

JERUSALEM -- While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed for the United States to take a harder line to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, an Israeli government report says existing measures have had an impact inside Iran, a less pessimistic take on the results of U.S.-led sanctions.

An internal review by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, reported Thursday by Haaretz newspaper, found that resentment and frustration is building among the Iranian public.

The review found that Iranians are blaming their government for rising prices on bread, meat and electricity, caused by Western sanctions against Iran’s oil industry and central bank.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said this week the rising pressure was threatening to destabilize the Iranian regime. “There is more and more domestic resentment there," he said. “The Iranian leadership is also feeling this and is therefore escalating its rhetoric.”

Others inside Netanyahu's Likud Party agree the international pressure and U.S. threats to take military action against Iran are working to intimidate the regime.

“The good news is that they haven’t broken out to build a weapon yet," said Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, adding that he did not believe the Iranian government would do so because “they understand what it means.”

Meanwhile, Israeli citizens remain anxious about a possible regional war that some fear could result from an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program. A Tel Aviv University survey this week found that half of Israelis fear for their nation's existence if war with Iran were to break out.

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-- Edmund Sanders

Photo: A visitor looks at portraits of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the exhibition "Faces of Power" by Greek photographer Platon Antoniou in Cologne, Germany. Credit: Martin Meissner / Associated Press


Iran president: Israel short-lived in region, will be eliminated

Iran's Ahmadinejad at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Monday that Israel is only a short lived presence among the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and would eventually be “eliminated.”

Speaking to a group of journalists in New York ahead of this week’s United Nations General Assembly session, Ahmadinejad said Israel has existed “during a historical phase” to create “minimal disturbances that come into the picture and then are eliminated.”

Israel has been in the Middle East for only 60 to 70 years “with the support and force of the Westerners,” and Iran has existed for 10,000 years, he said.

He also dismissed Israel’s warnings that it was close to unleashing an air attack on Iran to destroy the nuclear complex that Israel and many other countries believe is seeking to develop nuclear bomb-making capability.

“Fundamentally, we do not take seriously the threats of the Israelis,” Ahmadinejad said, according to the Reuters news agency. “We have at our disposal all the means to defend ourselves.”

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World of woe, little hope of relief, await U.N. General Assembly

General Assembly session on Syria in August
When 120 world leaders and their entourages gather at the United Nations this week, the woes of the world will be onstage in all their tragic detail: a civil war in Syria, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, reignited ethnic conflicts in Africa and uphill battles against poverty and global warming.

GlobalFocusWhat is likely to be in short supply at the General Assembly are fresh ideas for resolving the kaleidoscope of crises afflicting the planet. The U.N. Security Council has been hamstrung by internal conflicts among its permanent members in devising effective intervention in the Syrian bloodletting, and a colossal conference on sustainable development hosted by the world body three months ago was widely viewed as unproductive.

The Middle East and its myriad security challenges are expected to dominate the marathon of speeches beginning Tuesday, especially against the backdrop of worldwide Muslim outrage over an amateur video made by U.S.-based Christian zealots depicting the Prophet Muhammad as vile and sadistic.

Violent protests over the 14-minute film clip flared earlier this month after a version of "The Innocence of Muslims" was dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube. Conservative Islamists, some backed by Al Qaeda-aligned holy warriors, have attacked U.S. and other Western embassies and businesses across the Islamic crescent spanning the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. In the worst of the violence on Sept. 11, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed along with three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi. On Friday, the Muslim sabbath, enraged demonstrators clashed with police in Pakistan, killing at least 18 people.

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Iranian official suggests 'saboteurs' in U.N. nuclear agency

AbbasiTEHRAN -- The Iranian nuclear agency chief said explosive blasts cut off power to an underground nuclear facility in August, publicly making suggestions of sabotage before the country headed into a meeting with world powers over its disputed nuclear program.

Fereydoon Abbasi told a meeting of the United Nations atomic watchdog agency Monday in Vienna that power lines from the city of Qom to the Fordow nuclear complex had been cut using explosives on Aug. 17. The same happened to its Natanz facility, the official said without giving the date.

The Iranian nuclear chief went on to say that “terrorists and saboteurs” may have infiltrated the U.N. agency to make decisions covertly. Inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)  had asked to visit the facility a day after the explosions, he said.

"Doesn't this inspection have any connection to the detonation?" Abbasi was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students News Agency, implying that inspectors were seeking to assess the resulting damage after the attack.

Though Abbasi did not accuse anyone in particular, Iran has blamed Israel and the United States for the assassinations of its nuclear scientists and computer viruses targeting its atomic facilities in the past.

When asked by reporters in Vienna to elaborate on the alleged explosions targeting Fordow, the Iranian nuclear agency chief said the attempted act of sabotage was stopped "using backup batteries and diesel generators," preventing disruption of centrifuges used to enrich uranium, the Associated Press reported.

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Iranians shut out of 'World of Warcraft'; U.S. rules cited

Worldofwarcraft

TEHRAN -- Iranians have scaled back as their economy is squeezed by Western sanctions, scrimping on meat and cutting down on small luxuries.

But now those pressures have intruded on a world that once seemed safe from geopolitical wrangling:  an online fantasy realm of goblins, dragons and warlocks enjoyed by more than 9 million paying subscribers around the world.

Sanctions by the United States, it seems, have hit "World of Warcraft."

Iranian gamers took to the "World of Warcraft" message board this week, complaining that they had been shut out of the online game. “Well, as if life of an Iranian couldn't get worse, the Battle.net became completely inaccessible as of today,” one "World of Warcraft" fan wrote in frustration.

Another lamented, “Well we had a good run, Goodbye cruel world ...”

Some speculated that the Iranian government must have shut them down, concerned that the game glorified mythology and violence. But a gaming company employee replied this week that U.S. sanctions were to blame for Iranians getting booted after paying for the game.

Blizzard Entertainment, the U.S. company behind the popular game, “tightened up its procedures to ensure compliance with these laws, and players connecting from the affected nations are restricted from access,” one of its employees explained in an online message to gamers.

The same rules stopped Blizzard from offering refunds, the employee wrote. “We apologize for any inconvenience this causes and will happily lift these restrictions as soon as U.S. law allows.”

The U.S. Treasury Department said it hadn't asked Blizzard to block the game and referred questions about the decision to the company. It said that Blizzard could seek government permission to get Iranians back into online warfare.

“Clearly the focus of our sanctions is not on video games,” U.S. Treasury spokesman John Sullivan said. “We would consider a license request from Blizzard Entertainment should they choose to apply for one.”

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