How Biden’s best-laid plans for Iran and Saudi Arabia failed in his first month

“As the Democratic candidate, Biden promised a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal. He then aimed to leverage that negotiation to curb other aspects of Tehran’s aggressive behavior — like its growing ballistic missile program — in follow-on chats.

But in the Oval Office, the president has found the Islamic Republic resistant to diplomacy — but willing to have proxies launch rockets at Americans in the Middle East. That led Biden to authorize a retaliatory strike in Syria against those militants, hoping that would deter future attacks while keeping the door open for talks.

And on the campaign trail, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, vowing to make it “pay the price” for human rights violations, including the grisly 2018 murder of dissident, US resident, and columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Though he released an unclassified intelligence report on Friday directly blaming Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing, Biden declined to punish the nation’s de facto ruler outright. Instead of authorizing sanctions, a travel ban, or an asset freeze, the president created the “Khashoggi ban,” which imposes visa restrictions on people who try to silence dissidents abroad. It’s unclear if that includes heads of state, however.

That action — combined with the end of US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen and a freeze on weapons sales — was meant to “recalibrate,” not “rupture” US-Saudi relations, Biden administration officials say. A major consideration was that MBS, as the crown prince is known, may soon officially run the country, so targeting him personally could doom future relations between Washington and Riyadh.”

Trump left behind a sanctions minefield for Biden

“The 2015 Iran deal came together after years of U.S. and international sanctions battered the Islamic Republic’s economy and internal political shifts made an agreement more viable. The deal, which seven countries negotiated, lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on its nuclear program.

However, the nuclear deal left in place numerous other U.S. sanctions on Iran, such as those related to the Islamist regime’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and its human rights abuses. Many of the U.S. sanctions are especially powerful because they apply to non-American entities who would otherwise want to do business with Iran.

Trump took office complaining that the nuclear agreement was too narrowly focused and that its provisions didn’t last long enough. He withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 — then reimposed the nuclear-related sanctions while also piling on new sanctions on other fronts, such as ones targeting the Iranian regime’s corruption or its backing of terrorist activity. Overall, the sanctions have badly hit Iran’s economy, which also has been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the U.S. departure, Iran, too, has taken steps that have put it out of compliance with the agreement, including enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. Iranian leaders say they’ll return to compliance with the deal once the United States lifts its sanctions — ideally returning to the 2016 status, they say. But Biden has indicated he wants Iran to return to compliance first before he’ll lift sanctions.”

“People who worked in the Trump administration say the new president shouldn’t lift any of the sanctions because the nuclear deal isn’t worth reviving. Rather, they argue that the Trump team handed Biden a gift by placing Iran’s Islamist regime under such intense pressure.

“Don’t let up,” said Len Khodorkovsky, a former senior State Department adviser on Iran policy. “The only way to get positive movement out of Iran is to increase pressure.”

The deal’s supporters, however, point out that Trump’s strategy failed to push Iran into talks for a more stringent agreement. Nor has Tehran stopped other behavior that has upset the U.S. and its allies, such as backing militias outside its borders; it’s also closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon today than it was when the U.S. was in the deal.”

“Former U.S. officials say it’s possible that Biden’s final decisions will result in a mixed picture: Non-nuclear sanctions with a solid legal basis will stay on, while other sanctions – such as some that appear intended to wreck the nuclear deal – will likely be removed.

The Biden team might also take an incremental approach: Offer some limited sanctions relief in exchange for initial actions on Iran’s part to roll back its recent nuclear advances as a first step toward a full return to the agreement by both countries.

There is pressure to move quickly. For one thing, Iran’s presidential election, set for June, could usher into power a hardline government opposed to the nuclear deal.

But when asked for comment, a State Department official indicated the process of returning to the agreement will take longer than many advocates might wish.

“Iran is a long way from returning to compliance, and there are many steps in the process we will need to evaluate,” the official said in a written statement. “Our first order of business will be consulting with Congress and our allies on the path forward.””

Iran expands nuclear program amid heightened tensions with the US

“The new 20 percent enrichment target was set by Iran’s parliament last month in response to the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Fakhrizadeh was killed near Tehran on November 27, 2020, in an ambush that Iran has blamed on Israel.

And the same new law that mandates 20 percent enrichment also raises the imminent specter of international nuclear inspectors being expelled from the country: According to the New York Times, Iran has set “a two-month deadline for oil and banking sanctions against Iran to be lifted before inspectors are barred.” Currently, the IAEA says it has “inspectors present in Iran on a 24/7 basis and they have regular access to Fordow.””

“In November 2020, Iran began operating advanced centrifuges at another underground nuclear facility, Natanz, and its nuclear stockpile stood at more than 12 times the limit imposed by the JCPOA.

US President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on January 20, has indicated that he hopes to rejoin and revive the JCPOA, which was negotiated while he was serving as vice president to President Barack Obama. Some observers see Iran’s enrichment efforts as a way of building negotiating leverage, but it remains to be seen whether recent strides in Iran’s nuclear program could complicate things.”

SOURCES: Nuclear Power. Good idea or bad idea?

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COVID-19 Demonstrates the Need To Change Nuclear Weapon Launch Authority

“While Congress or military leaders are involved in any other decision to use of military force, the president can legally order a nuclear strike on his own. “Congress doesn’t have any role in this at the moment,” says Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology. “They’re not expected to be consulted.”

Unitary presidential control of nuclear weapons dates from the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and the practice has been cemented over time. This is partly a product of the general shift toward a stronger executive, and partly just an issue of timing: If the missiles are coming, you can’t call up Congress.”

“”The system we have is very much a product of the 1940s, with some modifications in the 1950s and the 1960s,” Wellerstein says. “And we don’t live in the 1940s, ’50s, or ’60s. So I think we should feel free to question whether the system we have now is the ideal system for our present day.””

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Approves First Domestic Small Commercial Reactor

“The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week approved a design application for the first domestic small commercial nuclear reactor. These types of reactors are smaller, simpler, cheaper, and feature more advanced safety systems than traditional reactor designs. It has the potential to generate enough electricity to power more than 50,000 homes.

The reactor design was submitted by NuScale Power, an Oregon company that plans to build at least a dozen small reactors by 2030 at a site in eastern Idaho. NuScale has received $288 million from the Department of Energy for the development of modular nuclear reactors, but a complex regulatory system for nuclear power means there’s a long way to go before construction can begin.

Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems—a consortium of 46 public utilities in six western states that plans to work with NuScale on the small reactor project— is now required to submit a combined construction and operating license application, and must complete an environmental analysis in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. Utah Associated spokesman LaVarr Webb told the Associated Press that he estimates these applications will likely take two years to prepare.”

“NuScale submitted its 12,000-page application to the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2017 and has responded to more than 1,500 formal requests from the commission for more information. There’s a reason that NuScale’s design is the first that the NRC has approved since 2014.

While NuScale is moving forward, NRC regulations seem to be discouraging innovation. Carrie Fosaaen, a licensing specialist at NuScale, told Science Magazine that the NRC regulations, strictly interpreted, would push NuScale towards just building a miniature version of a conventional reactor—rather than being able to incorporate the design improvements that make NuScale’s design safer than conventional reactors.

As more states shift away from generating electricity from fossil fuels, nuclear power should be part of the mix. California’s rolling blackouts show how an increased focus on renewable energy comes with a problematic lack of durability for the power grid. The sun and wind do not care about the demand for electricity. Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine, or there is no wind. Nuclear power, however, produces a consistent amount of electricity that can be dialed up or down to meet demand.”

China may double its nuclear arsenal in just 10 years. Don’t panic.

“A new Pentagon report predicts China will double its number of nuclear warheads over the next 10 years. That certainly sounds scary, but the assessment actually offers a broadly reassuring message: Despite these expected advances, the US will remain the far stronger nuclear force well into the future.”

““Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile — currently estimated to be in the low 200s — is projected to at least double in size as China expands and modernizes its nuclear forces,” the report says.”

““The US nuclear stockpile numbers about 3,800 [active] warheads. That’s almost 20 times as many as China has now and 10 times what China is projected to build over the next decade,””

““China probably has enough nuclear materials to at least double its warhead stockpile without new fissile material production,” the report reads. In other words, Beijing couldn’t more than double its arsenal unless it produced more plutonium to build bombs, an effort the world — including the US — would detect pretty easily. “That would be expensive, slow, and visible,” said James Acton, the co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s nuclear program.”

“None of this should lead to complacency in the Pentagon. As Acton told me, China still has enough warheads, and long-range missiles to place them on, “to destroy the US as a functioning society.” And other government reports make clear China’s military prowess could match America’s in just 30 years. It’s why experts think it’s a good idea for the US to seriously engage in China in arms control talks, among other things, as a way to blunt an arms race.
“The important thing to keep in mind is that China can afford a much larger nuclear force than it has now,” said Middlebury’s Lewis.”

An expert’s case for nuclear power

“Nuclear power provides about 10 percent of the world’s electricity and despite the growth of renewable power in recent years continues to be the world’s largest source of zero-carbon electricity.”

“The biggest problem with nuclear power is not safety but financial cost, specifically the huge up-front expenses associated with building safe reactors. Better regulatory policy could make it easier to reuse the same reactor designs (as in South Korea), but a promising nuclear future is based on innovation and new reactor designs.”

Power to the people: Bernie calls for federal takeover of electricity production

“Energy analysts, however, caution that Sanders’s 2030 plan would require a federal infrastructure investment not seen since the construction of the interstate highway system. To get close to Sanders’ 100 percent clean energy goal by 2030, researchers estimate the U.S. would need to add about 800 GW of wind and solar resources — about 25 times the amount the federal government expects to be built this year — along with ample amounts of battery storage and transmission. The Sanders camp forecasts that would cost about $2 trillion.

“Our best year for solar and wind — we’d have to multiply that by three and then sustain it for the next decade,” said Sonia Aggarwal, vice president at the analysis firm Energy Innovation, which advises world governments on their climate targets.

While turning the power grid over to 100 percent renewables presents significant technical difficulties, the clean energy deployment is “not out of the question,” Aggarwal said. However, Sanders’ plan to shut down nuclear power plants will make it “much more difficult.” The nation’s 60 nuclear plants generated more than half of U.S. carbon-free energy last year, but the Sanders campaign says it will phase them out by denying extensions of their operating licenses when they expire.

Many of those nuclear plants have licenses that expire after 2030, but Sanders expects the cheaper solar and wind power to drive most them into retirement. The stability those reactors provide to the power grid would be hard to replace with the variable output of the renewables, said Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at the University of California Santa Barbara.”