The Autocrats' Learning Curve

How the fall of the Berlin Wall was the best thing that ever happened to the Chinese Communist Party.

This fall, the world will mark the 60th and 20th anniversaries of two of the biggest events in communism's history. And though both dates will be marked with jubilation, the anniversaries being celebrated could not be more different. On Oct. 1, massive festivities in Beijing will commemorate the founding of the People's Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) rise to power. Then, in early November, events will be held in Germany to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the obliteration of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.

This juncture makes for an interesting reflection on the perils of prediction. Growing up during the Cold War, it seemed to me as if the Berlin Wall and the divisions it symbolized might last forever. The CCP, however, looked doomed to die by the early 1990s, after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and June 4 massacre triggered a massive legitimacy crisis. Celebrating a 50th birthday in power looked like a pipe dream, let alone a 60th.

What turned the tides? It's impossible to pinpoint when, exactly, the CCP went from looking like it was on its last legs to looming as a global force majeure. But in fact, the mistaken predictions of my generation may have had much to do with it -- and with events in Berlin as well.

I learned why a decade ago, at a Budapest conference devoted to revisiting the end of the wall. After a presentation by a group of American print and broadcast journalists, including New York Times writers Flora Lewis and R.W. Apple Jr., Central European University historian István Rév made a comment that, to him, was off the cuff, but to many of us was stunningly profound. The journalists had expressed pride in how they had described and analyzed breaking news events 10 years earlier. But they lamented their failure to predict sooner the dramatic changes these protests would yield. They failed to foresee that the marches and rallies were not just newsworthy -- they were of great historical consequence.

Rév, however, thanked the journalists for their "failure" to predict; he and the countless others who had longed for change owed them a debt of gratitude for their lack of clairvoyance. Living under Communist Party rule, he said, taught people that taking actions deemed of "world historical importance" would end in bloodshed. In essence, if the world had believed the wall would come down, many ordinary citizens in communist-run parts of Europe would have stayed home, fearing that the governments of the Iron Curtain would act forcefully to crush their protests. What happened instead was that the world's disbelief in radical change emboldened the participants in the European upheaval of 1989. Ironically, the marches' perceived futility helped make the year's miracles possible.

That conference in Budapest led me to a different but complementary conclusion about prediction relating to China. Namely, one reason the CCP had endured was that, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union, its demise had seemed so inevitable.

China, unlike the Eastern European states, had early warning that its regime was about to fall; the entire world seemed to know it. That sense of urgency made Chinese leaders avid students of the Soviet Union's downfall. The CCP charged official think tanks with discovering the keys to maintaining a monopoly on power, while avoiding the fate of erstwhile counterparts in Budapest, Bucharest, Prague, and Moscow.

What did the Chinese researchers learn? First, that Europe's 1989 unrest was fueled by patriotism -- a desire to rid their countries of regimes imposed from outside. Protesters in Europe also had a potent mix of economic and political grievances. Those in charge had claimed that Marxist regimes could compete with capitalist ones in material terms, but the night-and-day contrast between the creature comforts available on the two sides of the wall revealed the hollowness of this boast. Finally, Eastern Europe's movements spread quickly because nearly everyone -- regardless of their class -- felt they were in the same boat. The only meaningful social divide was between a small privileged coterie of corrupt officials and the rest. And the rest was pretty much everyone.

It should be no surprise, then, that CCP leaders took steps to counter each of these lessons throughout the 1990s. They placed renewed emphasis on patriotic education, stressing the party's pre-1949 role in chasing out foreign invaders. As an antidote to a widespread sense of economic privation, a consumer revolution began, minimizing the contrast between the lifestyles enjoyed by the relatively well-off residents in booming mainland cities and their counterparts in capitalist Taiwan. Perhaps most importantly, China made itself less susceptible to the "Polish disease," a term for the cross-class mobilization associated with the Solidarity movement, coined originally in East Germany and eventually made popular in Beijing policy circles. The CCP oversaw an economic boom that created an urban social landscape far more diverse than that of dissident Poland -- and that of China itself when the Tiananmen protests won broad sympathy in 1989.

Of course, many other factors, including the actions of key individuals such as Mikhail Gorbachev in the Berlin Wall's case and Deng Xiaoping in China's case, need to be taken into account to fully explain history's unfolding as it did. Still, in preparing for this fall's anniversaries, the irony of prediction is worth remembering. One reason the Berlin Wall fell was because it once seemed so likely to endure. And one reason China's Communist Party has endured is that it once seemed so certain to fail.

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What Else Is Iran Hiding?

Why the Qom plant could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Finding himself caught in a sudden media storm while in New York last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to defend his government's construction of a second centrifuge facility, buried inside a mountain near the city of Qom.

Unfortunately, the Qom facility might not be the end of the story. A centrifuge plant needs feedstock, uranium hexafluoride -- a material derived from refined uranium ore and produced at a conversion plant. Iran would probably not risk trying to divert feedstock from its declared conversion plant at Esfahan, which is under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran could therefore have also set up a clandestine conversion facility, or have succeeded in procuring the material illicitly.

Moreover, the evidence that the new facility is part of a military program is compelling. According to unclassified U.S. government talking points, the clandestine facility near Qom is "intended to hold approximately 3,000 centrifuges" of an unknown type. In 2007, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, then head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said that Iran's target was to have 50,000 centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility. This number was needed to make "meaningful amounts of nuclear fuel" for one or two commercial-scale power plants to generate electricity.

Thus, by Iran's own admission, the Qom facility is too small for civilian purposes. It is not, however, too small to produce meaningful amounts of highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapons program.

U.S. intelligence also describes the facility as being "located in an underground tunnel complex on the grounds of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Base" unknown to all but the most senior AEOI officials. Links between a supposedly civilian facility and a military organization always worry IAEA inspectors, and they should worry us too. Iran's core obligation to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it says it fully upholds, is to ensure that all its nuclear activities are exclusively for peaceful purposes -- building an underground nuclear facility on a military base certainly raises questions about Iranian intentions. Finally, because it was a clandestine plant, the Qom facility was clearly much more suited to military ends than the facility at Natanz, which is subject to IAEA monitoring.

Although the military purpose of the Qom facility is compelling, Ahmadinejad's legal arguments are not. "According to the IAEA rules, countries must inform the agency six months ahead of the gas injection in their uranium enrichment plants," he said last week. "We have done it 18 months ahead and this should be appreciated, not condemned."

But Ahmadinejad got the IAEA rules wrong. At issue is a seemingly obscure but crucially important provision known as "Code 3.1". This is contained within Iran's "subsidiary arrangements," the detailed legal agreement with the IAEA specifying the nuts and bolts of safeguards.

In February 2003, Iran became the last state with significant nuclear activities to adopt the revised version of Code 3.1, requiring it to notify the IAEA of new nuclear facilities as soon as the decision to build one is made. This agreement entered into force through the standard procedure of an exchange of letters between Iran and the IAEA.

Ahmadinejad's claim is based on the old version of Code 3.1, which does indeed require states to report new facilities to the agency "normally no later than 180 days before the facility is scheduled to receive nuclear material for the first time." He invoked the old version because in March 2007 Iran announced that it would no longer be bound by the new version. But it takes two parties to terminate an agreement -- and the IAEA has never accepted Iran's 2007 decision. (The IAEA has continued to insist in vain that Iran reconsider its decision, making it difficult for the agency to carry out its task of designing safeguards for Iran's new nuclear facilities.)

Iran has tried to justify its unilateral abrogation of the modified Code 3.1 by saying that it has not been ratified by the Majlis, the country's parliament. However, Iran -- like every other state that deals with the IAEA -- modifies its subsidiary arrangements without parliamentary ratification. It is not tenable for Iran to claim that some parts of the subsidiary arrangements require ratification whereas others do not.

Moreover, according to the U.S. intelligence community, Iran started building its facility near Qom some time before March 2007, while it claimed to be bound to the new Code 3.1. If the IAEA verifies this sequence of events, then Iran's position will be even more indefensible than it currently is.

Tehran's decision to allow the IAEA to inspect the Qom facility, though welcome, is not enough. Iran now needs to cooperate fully and proactively with the IAEA. It needs to answer all of the IAEA's questions so that inspectors are able to understand as much as possible about the new facility, Iran's centrifuge production capabilities, and the probable military dimension to its program. Inspectors also need to be able to uncover any other clandestine facilities that might be out there.

The events of the last few days might conceivably be what's needed to spark Iranian cooperation. Iran feels able to defy the IAEA and the U.N. Security Council because the veto-wielding members of the Security Council do not have a unified position. The revelation of the Qom facility -- hidden from the international community and not declared to the IAEA as required -- demonstrates that, contrary to its protestations, Iran is not complying with its international obligations and that its nuclear program does have a military dimension. It could give Britain, France, and the United States exactly the lever they need to build a consensus that the Security Council's demands can go unheeded no longer.