New York Subways at the Sixth Seal (Revelation 6)

How vulnerable are NYC’s underwater subway tunnels to flooding?

Ashley Fetters

New York City is full of peculiar phenomena—rickety fire escapes; 100-year-old subway tunnelsair conditioners propped perilously into window frames—that can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest city denizen. But should they? Every month, writer Ashley Fetters will be exploring—and debunking—these New York-specific fears, letting you know what you should actually worry about, and what anxieties you can simply let slip away.

The 25-minute subway commute from Crown Heights to the Financial District on the 2/3 line is, in my experience, a surprisingly peaceful start to the workday—save for one 3,100-foot stretch between the Clark Street and Wall Street stations, where for three minutes I sit wondering what the probability is that I will soon die a torturous, claustrophobic drowning death right here in this subway car.

The Clark Street Tunnel, opened in 1916, is one of approximately a dozen tunnels that escort MTA passengers from one borough to the next underwater—and just about all of them, with the exception of the 1989 addition of the 63rd Street F train tunnel, were constructed between 1900 and 1936.

Each day, thousands of New Yorkers venture across the East River and back again through these tubes buried deep in the riverbed, some of which are nearing or even past their 100th birthdays. Are they wrong to ponder their own mortality while picturing one of these watery catacombs suddenly springing a leak?

Mostly yes, they are, says Michael Horodniceanu, the former president of MTA Capital Construction and current principal of Urban Advisory Group. First, it’s important to remember that the subway tunnel is built under the riverbed, not just in the river—so what immediately surrounds the tunnel isn’t water but some 25 feet of soil. “There’s a lot of dirt on top of it,” Horodniceanu says. “It’s well into the bed of the bottom of the channel.”

And second, as Angus Kress Gillespie, author of Crossing Under the Hudson: The Story of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, points out, New York’s underwater subway tunnels are designed to withstand some leaking. And withstand it they do: Pumps placed below the floor of the tunnel, he says, are always running, always diverting water seepage into the sewers. (Horodniceanu says the amount of water these pumps divert into the sewer system each day numbers in the thousands of gallons.)

Additionally, MTA crews routinely repair the grouting and caulking, and often inject a substance into the walls that creates a waterproof membrane outside the tunnel—which keeps water out of the tunnel and relieves any water pressure acting on its walls. New tunnels, Horodniceanu points out, are even built with an outside waterproofing membrane that works like an umbrella: Water goes around it, it falls to the sides, and then it gets channeled into a pumping station and pumped out.

Of course, the classic New York nightmare scenario isn’t just a cute little trickle finding its way in. The anxiety daydream usually involves something sinister, or seismic. The good news, however, is that while an earthquake or explosion would indeed be bad for many reasons, it likely wouldn’t result in the frantic flooding horror scene that plays out in some commuters’ imaginations.

Horodniceanu assures me that tunnels built more recently are “built to withstand a seismic event.” The older tunnels, however—like, um, the Clark Street Tunnel—“were not seismically retrofitted, let me put it that way,” Horodniceanu says. “But the way they were built is in such a way that I do not believe an earthquake would affect them.” They aren’t deep enough in the ground, anyway, he says, to be too intensely affected by a seismic event. (The MTA did not respond to a request for comment.)

One of the only real threats to tunnel infrastructure, Horodniceanu adds, is extreme weather. Hurricane Sandy, for example, caused flooding in the tunnels, which “created problems with the infrastructure.” He continues, “The tunnels have to be rebuilt as a result of saltwater corroding the infrastructure.”

Still, he points out, hurricanes don’t exactly happen with no warning. So while Hurricane Sandy did cause major trauma to the tunnels, train traffic could be stopped with ample time to keep passengers out of harm’s way. In 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed all the MTA’s mass transit services to shut down at 7 p.m. the night before Hurricane Sandy was expected to hit New York City.

And Gillespie, for his part, doubts even an explosion would result in sudden, dangerous flooding. A subway tunnel is not a closed system, he points out; it’s like a pipe that’s open at both ends. “The force of a blast would go forwards and backwards out the exit,” he says.

So the subway-train version of that terrifying Holland Tunnel flood scene in Sylvester Stallone’s Daylight is … unrealistic, right?

“Yeah,” Gillespie laughs. “Yeah. It is.”

Got a weird New York anxiety that you want explored? E-mail tips@curbed.com, and we may include it in a future column.

Situation Escalates with Pakistan in Kashmir (Daniel 8 )

India Kashmir

India vs Pakistan: Pakistan fires on Indian forces in Kashmir for second time in two days

PAKISTAN’S army has once again opened fire on Indian positions along the Line of Control which separates the two countries in disputed Kashmir, New Delhi has claimed, with tensions between the two old rivals once once threatening to boil over into all-out war.

India Pakistan: Imran Khan issues warning about Kashmir

 

Kashmir is a major flashpoint in relations between the two countries, and almost triggered a disastrous conflict last February as a result of a tit-for-tat exchange following a terror attack which resulted in the deaths of 44 Indian paramilitary policemen. A defence spokesman accused ’s army of yesterday firing on forward Indian posts along the Line of Control in the  district for the second consecutive day.

There was no report of any casualties as a result of either incident, the spokesman said.

Pakistan jet

A Pakistan jet in action over Kashmir (Image: GETTY)

Narendra Modi

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Image: GETTY)

The dispute over the region is long and complex, and tensions were raised still further last year whenIndia’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the BJP Party, revoked the autonomous status of Kashmirand neighbouring Jammu by rescinding articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, prompting strong condemnation from Islamabad.

An analysis written by geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor Worldview and published on the National Interest website in January stated: “By fulfilling its campaign promise to revoke the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP took a major step toward advancing the territorial unity of India, though at the cost of undermining talks aimed at normalising relations with Pakistan.“But Indian-controlled Kashmir is still experiencing internet cutoffs; detentions, such as that of three former chief ministers of the former state; and restrictions on free movement.

Poonch

A picture of a previous raid in Poonch (Image: GETTY)

“Until its security problems are resolved and normalcy returns, the investment and migration from elsewhere in India that Modi wants to foster in Indian-controlled Kashmir will not substantially materialise.

“In the meantime, the dispute over the region will continue to loom over Indian-Pakistani relations.”

There have also been suggestions in recent weeks that Mr Modi may be considering a wholesale invasion of Kashmir.

Imran Khan

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan (Image: GETTY)

Speaking to Express.co.uk last month, Frank O’Donnell, a South Asia expert at the US Naval War College, speaking in his personal capacity, said: “If there is another significant Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack against Indian forces or within Indian territory, there may be another India-Pakistan exchange of hostilities similar to the Pulwama-Balakot crisis of February-March 2019.

“This was in itself a dangerous episode, in terms of the level and speed of conflict escalation between two nuclear-armed rivals.

“However, it is unlikely that such Indian military operations would extend to attempting to seize Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

 

“It is uncertain that India possesses the military capability to break a conventional stalemate with Pakistan along the Line of Control.

“Even if it did, attempting to hold this territory would likely lead to major conventional war, further successive terrorist attacks upon Indian forces and territory, and discussions within Pakistan about its nuclear threshold.”

Mr O’Donnell added: “Moreover, it would bring Indian forces into direct contact with the Chinese security personnel and civilian workers who are in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on infrastructure projects.

India Pakistan

Jammu and Kashmir and disputed regions in the north of India (Image: GETTY)

“Their presence, and potential harm by Indian forces, could have a tripwire effect in motivating Chinese military intervention against India.

“There is therefore little political or strategic upside for India to attempt seizure of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and the more likely course of action would resemble that of the Balakot air strikes – as dangerous as these were in itself.”

UN Puts Pressure on the Iranian Nuclear Horn

UN nuclear watchdog asks Iran to ‘immediately’ cooperate

AFP

VIENNA: The head of the UN’s atomic watchdog on Monday urged Iran to “cooperate immediately and fully” with a landmark nuclear agreement with world powers that is hanging by a thread.

The agency called on Iran to provide access to two locations, and said Tehran had failed to engage “in substantive discussions” to clarify the agency’s questions, said Grossi.

Grossi said the IAEA had raised questions “related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities at three locations that have not been declared by Iran”.

He added that the lack of access to two of the three sites and Iran’s failure to engage in talks was “adversely affecting the agency’s ability … to provide credible assurance of the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran”.

An IAEA report last week revealed that Tehran refused the agency access in January to the two sites.

Diplomats say these are related to Iran’s alleged military nuclear projects in the 2000s, and not its current activities.

But the renewed focus on Iran’s historic programme could add to current tensions.

Iran’s UN ambassador in

Vienna

,

Kazem Gharib Abadi

, said last week that Tehran had no obligation to grant IAEA access to sites if it deems the requests to be based on “fabricated information”, accusing the US and Israel of trying to “exert pressure on the agency”.

Israel has claimed that its intelligence services have new information on the alleged previous nuclear weapons programme in Iran.

A second IAEA report last week outlined Iran’s continued breaches of the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord, but did not report any restrictions in access to nuclear facilities.

Speaking at a quarterly meeting of IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors, Grossi said “to date, the agency has not observed any changes to Iran’s implementation of its nuclear-related commitments” since January when Tehran announced it would cease all obligations.

The 2015 accord — offering Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear activities — has been faltering since the US withdrew from it in 2018 and re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iran.

This has prompted Tehran to progressively abandon the accord’s restrictions since last year.

Other parties to the deal — China, Britain, Germany, France and Russia — have been meeting with Tehran to try to save the accord.

Militants outside the Temple Walls target Israel with party balloons bearing bombs

Gaza militants target Israel with party balloons bearing bombs

Masked Palestinians prepare to attach a gas canister to a bunch of balloons on Feb. 10 before releasing them near Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp, along the Israel-Gaza border fence. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

NETIVOT, Israel — The moment Merav Hania’s daughter stopped loving kindergarten came when a cluster of colorful orbs floated toward her playground during recess.

“Balloons!” said a pleased young Emma, her mother recalled. But another child, one who had heard the warnings from local police, knew better: “That’s a bomb!”

In recent months, hundreds of booby-trapped balloons — sometimes bearing the messages “I Love You” and “Happy Birthday” along with small improvised explosives dangling by a string — have descended on this and other communities downwind of the nearby Gaza Strip, according to Israeli police.

Israel targets Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Syria after Palestinian militants fire rockets for second day

Most land in open countryside, and none has yet caused injury or death, something a local police commander described as a miracle bound to give way to a tragedy. Residents know the balloons are not as dangerous as the rockets long fired by militant groups in Gaza that send whole neighborhoods scrambling for bomb shelters. Israel’s military regularly unleashes powerful bombardments on Gaza in reprisal for those rockets.

Still, the escalation of this drifting menace — one of the ways in which militants in Gaza keep up a low-intensity armed resistance to Israel’s 14-year blockade of the Palestinian enclave — has taxed police departments, disrupted daily life and taken a psychological toll on those who live within reach of the Gaza breeze.

“They are terror balloons. There is no other name,” said Chai Fahima, head of the police bomb-disposal squad for this district just east of Gaza, where each landing can close streets and send families running for cover. “Their purpose is to terrify. But if it explodes near a person, near a child, it can kill.”

At Emma’s playground, teachers rushed the children inside, where they sheltered as a police robot detonated the small object strung to the sagging inflatables. Emma, who heard the blast, stayed home for two days and hasn’t been at ease at school since, her mother said.

Our children have learned to be scared of balloons,” said Hania, who owns a party-supply store full of helium-filled hearts and stars. “It’s crazy standing here saying that, but that’s the life we live now.”

The explosive-laden balloons are the latest iteration of war-fighting in the decades-old conflict. A previous low-tech aerial assault took the form of flaming kites, which burned thousands of acres of Israeli farmland and nature reserves. They were launched after Israeli military snipers shot Palestinians protesting at Gaza’s border with Israel.

Israel blocks West Bank exports as trade tensions rise, along with towers of unsold produce

Outside the police station in nearby Ofakim, Fahima laid out some of the 15 to 20 inflatables that land in the district or are reported flying over it every day. Among them was a crumpled unicorn, a flaccid bunch of red birthday balloons and a plastic bag that had been inflated and fitted with a payload.

“Some are decoys, and some are designed to kill,” Fahima said.

People have been trained by police warnings, and even a children’s poem written by the Israeli military, to be wary of balloons and any boxes, books or soccer balls they may drop.

Of the balloons reported each day, about a third carry explosives of some kind, Fahima said, from small homemade packets to powerful munitions. Pulling out his phone, he showed a photo of a rocket-propelled grenade head his team had defused a day earlier.

A number of the balloons bear crude, smoldering fuses, some meant to detonate a charge, others meant to burn through a cord and release an explosive payload, bombardier-style.

Fahima unfolded a blue paper featuring Hebrew and Arabic script. “Zionist, you have no place in the country of Palestine,” read one of the notes commonly found attached to the inflatables or their cargo. “We will send you to your death.”

The aerial onslaught, including rockets and balloons, emerged as a political issue in the run-up to the March 2 general election, Israel’s third in less than a year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals, including former army chief Benny Gantz, hammered the current government’s handling of the threats facing communities close to Gaza.

“The people who send these want us to live in fear,” said Tzahi Cohen, commander of the Netivot police district.

Cross-border salvos resume between Israel and Islamic Jihad in second day of Gaza clashes

One of the militants who send the balloons is a 30-year-old Gaza man who spoke on the condition he be identified only as Abu Malek. Sitting in a sparse house in Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp — in a living room lined with sleeping pads, a wood fire casting flickering shadows on two Palestinian flags — he played down the danger posed by the hundreds of balloons for which he takes credit.

“We are not intending to kill children,” he said. “From our experience, it has never hurt a child on the other side. Our aim is to break this siege.”

He says he is part of a loose cell of young men launching balloons, one of at least 10 groups he said he knows of. Although he said his cell is not linked to any of the militant factions operating in Gaza, most political observers say the cells take orders from these groups, primarily Hamas, which governs Gaza.

Abu Malek said he scrounges the items needed for the inflatables. When proper balloons are in short supply, he uses sheets of taped plastic, rubber gloves or, as a last resort, bouquets of inflated condoms.

“Balloons are best — they go farther,” he said. Given the prevailing winds off the Mediterranean, a balloon released from a rooftop in Bureij can fly over Gaza to the nearby towns, or across Israel’s Negev desert. Israeli police report finding the devices at the Dead Sea, 50 miles away.

Abu Malek said explosives are easy to make or buy, even military munitions. “Anything is possible to obtain,” he said.

Militants have been injured assembling the bombs, he said, but he considers it worth the risk to maintain pressure on Israel in the pursuit of freedom for Gaza. Analysts say the aerial assault is an experiment born of poverty and has been surprisingly effective in the face of Israel’s overwhelming military advantage.

Behind the scenes, Hamas has been negotiating a deal with Israel to ease life in the enclave, including reported agreements to widen the offshore zone where Gazans can fish and to increase the number of Gazans permitted to work inside Israel.

Death toll rises as Gaza militants fire hundreds of rockets into Israel, which responds with airstrikes

Hamas has largely halted rocket attacks as the talks have progressed, although another group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, launched a recent fusillade. But the balloons have continued to soar.

Launching balloons “is a way for them to go to their base and say they did not give up the fighting that is at the core of their existence,” said Shimrit Meir, a Palestinian affairs analyst and columnist for the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. “This is how they feel dialogue should be conducted, not just in some hotel rooms in Cairo, but on the battlefield.”

Taher Nounou, an adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, said militants were newly motivated by “rage” over President Trump’s recently released Middle East peace plan. But while Hamas officials have denied they have control over those sending the armed inflatables, Nounou predicted the skies over Israel would clear when Israel fulfills its recent reported promises.

“The balloons didn’t kill anybody,” said Nounou. “But if we see commitment from them, there will be no need for balloons.”

The Antichrist stakes his claim to power

Sadder and Sadr

Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s most volatile cleric, stakes his claim to power

But plenty of obstacles lie in his path

Middle East and Africa

Jan 30th 2020 edition

Jan 30th 2020

The henchmen of Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s most capricious—and perhaps most powerful—cleric, not only participated in the anti-government protests that have rocked Baghdad and other cities for months, they defended them. Others who joined the demonstrations stood a good chance of being frisked by Mr Sadr’s men, who looked out for troublemakers. Together with the mainly Shia crowds they demanded a new political system, one not dominated by a small elite, and a fairer distribution of the country’s oil wealth.

But on January 25th Mr Sadr ordered his followers to withdraw, blaming the hostile behaviour of the protesters towards his men. A crackdown on the protesters who remained appeared imminent. Over 600 people have been killed since the unrest began in October. As expected, the police cleared the streets in some cities. The protesters, though, have not gone home. There are more now.

With Sadr throwing his weight behind the establishment, Iraq’s battle lines are clearly defined. The politicians and clerics who champion Shia political Islam, and who are backed by Iran, face protesters calling for a secular, non-sectarian government free of Iranian influence. The result is stalemate and stagnation. Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the prime minister, resigned last year, but he carries on as a caretaker (unconstitutionally, say some). The ruling parties have mulled many possible successors. Each name elicits guffaws from the crowds in the street.

Sadr hopes to fill the post with a loyalist. Ever since America toppled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the cleric has sought power. He styles himself a local hero who endured American sanctions and Saddam, while other elites lived the high life abroad. That has given him clout on the street, which he occasionally cashes in for a seat at the table. In 2016 he led a large rabble that occupied parliament. Last year the political bloc that he leads, called Sairoun, won the most seats in parliamentary elections.

Sadr is also eyeing two other important positions. The commander of the Popular Mobilisation Force (pmf), Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, was killed in the American drone strike on Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s top commander, on January 3rd. The pmf co-ordinates Iraq’s powerful Shia armed groups; Mr Sadr would like to control it. He has been meeting pmf commanders. Last month he made a show of his strength by recalling his Mahdi Army.

But the post he most covets is head of Iraq’s clergy. Currently Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a respected 89-year-old, sits atop the clerical establishment. Sadr, half his age, has had a go at him before. The Mahdi Army seized the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Mr Sistani, in 2004—until America’s army forced it out. Today followers of Mr Sadr predict he could mount a theological challenge. Though just a hujjat al-islam, or junior cleric, he has spent over a decade in the cloisters of Qom, Iran’s clerical capital, improving his scholastic credentials and ties with Iran’s rulers.

Sadr may hope to become Iraq’s version of a supreme leader. But it will be a bumpy ride to the top. Some in his ranks seethe at his betrayal of the protesters. Sheikh Asaad al-Nasari, a close associate, declared he would remain on the street. The protesters, for their part, detect disarray in the governing ranks. They sound emboldened. “Without Suleimani the militias are sheep without a shepherd,” says Faiq al-Sheikh Ali, a liberal parliamentarian who claims to be the protesters’ choice for prime minister. He wants American forces to stay in Iraq to keep Iran out.

Both sides hope to exhaust the other, but they might end up exhausting ordinary Iraqis. Business is grinding to a halt. With oil prices low, the budget deficit is widening. Fears are mounting about the government’s ability to pay salaries. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump threatens to seize Iraq’s foreign assets and impose sanctions if the government persists with its request for American troops to leave. He has allowed Iraq to bypass American sanctions on Iran and buy its gas and electricity. The waiver expires in mid-February. It might not be renewed, particularly if militias continue to lob rockets at America’s embassy in Baghdad, as they did on January 26th. Iraq is desperate for some calm. But continued unrest is more likely. ■

The Big Threat Is Iranian Nukes, Not The Coronavirus

The Big Iran Threat Is Nukes, Not Coronavirus

A Q&A with Iran expert Michael Rubin on the latest scary news about Tehran’s push for weapons of mass destruction.

Tobin Harshaw

March 8, 2020, 6:00 AM MDT

Politics & Policy

It’s still their revolution.

Source: AFP via Getty Images

Because it’s all anyone wants to talk about right now, we’ll start with coronavirus. Admittedly, the videos of body bags on the floor of a hospital in Qoms, Iran, are unsettling, even if we aren’t certain of the causes of death. That the country has confirmed more than 100 deaths from coronavirus (including a top aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) yet reports fewer than 5,000 cases total is evidence of incompetent public health services, a government coverup or really terrible math.  Travel is being cut off between cities; prisons are being emptied; the health minister is urging people not to use paper money; and hoarding face masks might get you the death penalty.

But the really scary news out of Iran last week involved the regime’s fitful yet determined pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. First, Iran has violated the 2015 nuclear deal by tripling its stockpile of low-enriched uranium over three months, and now probably has enough to make a single bomb. This was perhaps unsurprising, given that President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in 2018 and European efforts to keep it alive are on life support. The second report was that the regime has been stonewalling International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from sites to which they were guaranteed access under the deal, and where they suspect nuclear-related activities took place in the mid-2000s. That was was more surprising — although not so much to the skeptics who opposed the nuclear pact in the first place and insisted Tehran had never come clean on the history of its weapons program.

Michael Rubin has for years been a leading voice in that faction. Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School and was an adviser to the Pentagon on Iran and Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. Here is a lightly edited excerpt of an exchange we had on Friday:

Tobin Harshaw: Why is Iran’s stonewalling over the past such a concern? How does this fit into the broader patterns unearthed by Israeli intelligence in 2018?

Michael Rubin: First, it’s necessary for inspectors to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s to ensure that all materials are accounted for. This is no easy feat: When South Africa gave up its covert nuclear program in 1991, the IAEA wanted to account for all materials dating back more than two decades, and even with a fully compliant government, it took 19 years to give South Africa a clean bill of health.

One of the biggest concerns critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action had was about whether Iran really came clean with regard to the so-called possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. These were chronicled in an annex to an IAEA report in November 2011 and listed all the concerns about Iranian nuclear activities that did not fit with a civilian energy program. These included such things as detonator development, mathematical modeling and neutron initiators. While it can be hard to hide uranium enrichment facilities because they are so large (although Iran succeeded in doing so previously), a lot of the weapons-related work can occur in relatively small areas and would likely be at military bases. If inspectors showed up at an enrichment facility and were denied, there could still be trace evidence weeks later. If they are denied at other facilities working on possible military dimensions, however, the facilities could be completely cleaned before the standoff is diplomatically resolved.

TH:  The recent buildup of enriched uranium reported this week is more understandable, given the U.S. pullout from the 2015 deal. Are you concerned about a “breakout” attempt to try to build a bomb, or is the bigger threat the long-term goal of a full nuclear arsenal that would really alter the Middle East balance of power?

MR: No one can afford to be complacent, but I do not foresee a breakout attempt in the near term. Rather, Iranian leaders would try to develop as much of a bomb program as they could without crossing that line in order to keep their strategic options open.

Even if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon down the road, I don’t think they are suicidal. Rather, the nightmare scenario is that the regime might become terminally ill. If there is a spark in Iran that leads to mass protests such as those of 1999, 2001, 2009 and in recent years, but the security forces join in and turn on the regime, the situation could become very dangerous. Custody of any nuclear weapon would likely be with a specially-vetted unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If they see the government collapsing around them — think Romania 1989 or Libya 2011 — then it is conceivable that they could use their nuclear weapon against enemies near or far knowing that their regime is dead anyway. In such a case, traditional deterrence breaks down. After all, who would retaliate against a country that already had regime change?

TH: Are the setbacks Iran has recently suffered — the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the Israeli bombings of its forces and proxies in Syria, popular unrest and low turnout in February’s election, the coronavirus outbreak — reasons Iran might actually put more emphasis into a nuclear program?

MR: Yes. All that is true, but I’d argue simple demography is as important, even though it’s not a sexy subject. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Islamic Revolution of 1979, he promoted huge families — a mother, a father and seven children. Economists warned him that Iran couldn’t take the baby boom coupled with the disruption of war and revolution. He used to wave them off, quipping, “We didn’t have a revolution over the price of a watermelon” — until he began to fear in the late 1980s that Iran could. He then encouraged smaller families — a mother, a father and a child. Long story short, Iran’s birthrate is only about half of what it was in the 1980s. Put another way, during the war of the 1980s, Iran had a quantitative military edge over Iraq. Iraq had better equipment, but Iran had a seemingly endless supply of 14- and 15-year-olds which it could send sweeping across minefields. Today, with an aging population and a different demographic profile than many Arab states that have youth bulges, Iranian leaders seek a qualitative military edge in order to make up for in technology what they no longer can in sheer numbers.

TH: You were a leading critic of the 2015 nuclear deal, and said Trump was “absolutely right” to pull the plug on it. This latest news goes some way to justify your opinions. But beyond a general “maximum pressure” campaign, can anything be done specifically to hamper the nuclear program?

MR: To be clear, I thought Trump went about things the wrong way. There wasn’t a great amount of international pressure to maximize intrusive inspections to show the deal was a success. I think Trump would have been better off increasing demands for inspections to see if Iran would then be the one to walk away. Iranian cheating or not, it would be foolish to suggest the U.S. hasn’t suffered reputational damage from the way Trump went about things.

Beyond that, however, there is no magic formula. Where I think the Obama administration went wrong and what I do think proponents of diplomacy with Iran need to be careful about, however, is just what a stranglehold the Revolutionary Guards have over the economy. Investment in the civilian economy was a deliberate strategy on their part after the end of the Iran-Iraq War in order to develop an independent cash flow so they would not be dependent on the whims of parliament. Loosely speaking, to understand the role of the Revolutionary Guards in the Iranian economy today, picture the Army Corps of Engineers merged with Bechtel, Halliburton, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Exxon, Dell, Citibank and Walmart, and then using its military might to suppress any competitors. Because of this grip on the economy, any sanctions relief or trade with Iran benefits the Revolutionary Guards disproportionately and can actually better expedite its covert programs.

TH: Looking at Iran’s nefarious activities in general, is there any chance to get Europe back on board for bigger sanctions?

MR: This isn’t as much of a problem as people think. First, we were down this path before during the Bill Clinton administration with regard to some of his executive orders and the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. European leaders and diplomats complain about extraterritorial sanctions being applied to their companies, but European business leaders will acknowledge that they are accountable to their shareholders rather than politicians. They simply are not going to risk a multibillion dollar fine that could impact their bottom line.

This was the behind-the-scenes reason why Trump designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group last year. It means any European company doing business with an Iranian firm with links to the Revolutionary Guards would open itself to liability should victims of terrorism sue it. The risk was simply too great to bear, even if European companies resented the U.S. position.

TH: Is Trump serious about renegotiating a better deal? Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both say they would re-enter the nuclear pact. Is that realistic?

MR: It’s not realistic to re-enter the JCPOA simply because of the sunset clauses in the agreement, allowing Iran to resume the program. The Iranians would not agree to resume the status quo ante when many of the nuclear controls were otherwise due to expire during the next U.S. presidential term.

With regard to the Trump administration, I don’t think there is consensus as to the primary goal of “maximum pressure.” Some hardliners want regime change. I suspect Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in this camp. Others simply want to force Iran to the table for new talks. I believe Trump himself is in this latter camp. The Iranians are loathe to give him the photo-op, however, especially if they believe it might help his electoral prospects or if they do not believe Trump has thought beyond that photo-op.

TH:  Finally, if there is just no turning the mullahs away from their nuclear dreams, what should the U.S. do on other fronts?

MR: First, it’s important to recognize that regime change is coming to Iran and it won’t have anything to do with the U.S. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is 80 years old, has acknowledged having had cancer, and is partially paralyzed from a 1981 assassination attempt. A lot of the old guard have died, and speculation is rampant in Iran about who or what might come next. The question then becomes whether it’s only necessary to delay a program until a new leader emerges who, from the Western standpoint, might be more reasonable. That said, I’m not optimistic that the problem will simply die with Khamenei.

This may sound fluffy, especially coming from a conservative, but I really do think the U.S. has neglected soft power. The key to any positive change in Iran is to fracture and temper the Revolutionary Guards. There are a number of nonviolent, soft-power strategies we could take in order to diminish their stranglehold. Supporting independent trade unions would be one. Every dollar the Revolutionary Guards have to spend on workers’ back wages or to improve working conditions is one dollar they can’t invest in a centrifuge or missile. I find it ironic that American progressives and European greens are willing to support organized labor everywhere except Iran.

When I studied in Iran, I was struck by how much dissension there was among Iranian military veterans who feel forgotten by their government. In response, I would send hospital ships to Dubai and offer Iranian veterans free medical care. Either they take it up, which would be a huge propaganda coup, or the government would prevent them, which would sow further dissension within the ranks. It is also essential to provide Iranians with the means to bypass the internet and communications blackouts that have become frequent as the government worries about its own stability.

There are other things we could do. Frankly, while partisans can re-litigate the past, I think this would be a more productive conversation in which both progressives and conservatives could try to find common ground. As a nation, we are far more effective when we focus on defeating our adversaries rather than each other.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:

Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:

Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

The History of the Iranian Nuclear Horn (and Obama)

Iran’s secret nuclear past is now coming into focus

In 2018, Israel had publicized the findings of a raid near Tehran that included blueprints, videos & other documents that detailed Iran’s past nuclear weapons program.

Eli Lake5 March, 2020 1:45 pm IST

Visitors look at a missile display at a military museum in Tehran, Iran | Ali Mohammadi | Bloomberg File Photo

Five years ago, as the U.S. was hammering out the final details of the Iran nuclear deal, negotiators relented on a key demand: Iran would not have to account for the possible military dimensions of its past nuclear activities. This bargain was enshrined in a December 2015 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, which closed the longstanding investigation into Iran’s nuclear program.

Now it appears that investigation is reopened. Bloomberg News is reporting that the agency has rebuked Iran for stonewalling inspectors with new questions about Iran’s past nuclear-weapon work. The agency says that Iran now possesses 1,021 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, up from 372 kilograms last fall.

This news is disturbing but not unexpected. The Iranian regime had announced that it was turning on its cascades of centrifuges last year during heightened tensions with the U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and six months later began ratcheting up the secondary sanctions on Iran’s oil sector that the 2015 bargain had lifted.

The bigger news is about Iran’s past nuclear program. A report from the agency to member states says that Iran “has not provided access to the agency to two locations,” according to Reuters, nor has it “engaged in substantive discussions to clarify agency questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities.”

All of this reads like a replay of the standoffs between Iran and the international community in the 2000s, when weapons inspectors tried to gain access to military installations and other sites. A key difference is that, this time around, the IAEA has a roadmap of Iran’s past nuclear weapons work.

In 2018, Israel publicized the findings of a daring raid into a warehouse outside of Tehran that included blueprints, videos and other documents that detailed Iran’s past nuclear weapons program. The Israelis have shared the intelligence with the U.S. as well as the IAEA.

Everything the Israelis found in the nuclear archives prior to 2004 shows Iran had a full- fledged nuclear weapons program,” says Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The regime was making progress and “sought to hide and disguise parts of the program from the world.”

These are uncomfortable facts for proponents of the 2015 nuclear deal. President Barack Obama’s former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, for example, is focusing instead on Iran’s tripled uranium stockpile, blaming Trump’s decision to exit the deal for Iran’s recent breakout.

That’s an easy story to tell. But the IAEA’s renewed questions about Iran’s past work on building a nuclear weapons muddy the narrative. Why did the Obama administration give Iran a pass for its history of deception and defiance of the IAEA? If Iran truly had given up its ambitions to build a weapon, why would it take such pains to preserve its plans and blueprints in a warehouse?

These are important questions both for Trump, who has said he hopes to renegotiate a better nuclear deal, and for Democratic presidential candidates, who have pledged to re-enter the old one. Whoever wins the election in November, he should make sure the next nuclear deal with Iran requires the regime to fully account for its secret nuclear history. -Bloomberg