The Shoot-Down Heard 'Round the World

The 1983 downing of KAL-007 accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union. Could MH17 be a tipping point for Putin's Russia?

The tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, probably destroyed by a missile on July 17 while it overflew the restive region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, evokes memories of the 1983 shoot-down of flight KAL-007.

On Sept. 1 of that year, a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 en route from New York to Seoul strayed off course into Soviet airspace. A Sukhoi Su-15 interceptor fighter jet downed it off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, killing all 269 passengers and crew aboard. As the world reacted with disbelief and indignation (except for the Chinese, who abstained in the U.N. vote to condemn the USSR), Moscow issued conflicting denials, claiming first that the Soviets had tried to "assist" the plane to a nearby airfield, and then that they had fired warning shots with tracer shells along the flight path.*

It was not until a week later that Moscow admitted the plane had been shot down -- but blamed the pilots of the "spy plane" who, they said, knew they were flying over forbidden territory and did not heed the signals of the Soviet interceptors. Some of these claims were later exposed as lies: The world now knows, for instance, that the plane received no warning before the Soviets fired on it. But the Soviet belief that the plane was on a spy mission was probably genuine -- "beyond any doubt," according to the December 1983 KGB/Defense Ministry report sent to the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, though it is possible that the KGB and the military deliberately misled the leadership to avoid taking responsibility.

The KAL-007 shoot-down dealt a heavy blow to the Soviet Union's international image. "It was an act of barbarism," U.S. President Ronald Reagan declared, "born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations." His view was widely shared outside the Soviet bloc. Demonstrations erupted in South Korea and Japan: Protestors carried placards denouncing "massacre by cold-blooded Russians," and burned Soviet flags.

The Soviets' clumsy and callous handling of the salvage operation further inflamed passions: They barred foreign search vessels from the crash area, and stripped the Japanese patrol boat Tsugaru of weapons before allowing it into the Soviet port of Nevelsk to pick up piles of shoes and random clothing items recovered from the search. In the meantime, wreckage and mangled body parts washed up on the beaches of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Shocked relatives, assembled on ferry boats in the Sea of Japan, called out the names of their lost loved ones -- as they are doing today in Amsterdam, where MH17 originated, and in Kuala Lumpur, its intended destination.

The months between the shoot-down and Andropov's death in February 1984 saw the worst tensions in Soviet relations with the West since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The ailing, incapable Soviet leadership, overcome with paranoia and a sense of doom, feared that Washington would launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the USSR. The deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe in the fall of 1983 meant that the Soviets were literally five minutes away from nuclear obliteration. Soviet intelligence was tasked to look out for signs of impending nuclear attack. Moscow's fears were amplified after the November 1983 NATO exercise Able Archer, which imitated a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union and which Moscow briefly misinterpreted as a real attack. Only the cool nerves of the Soviet command center officers saved the world from a potentially apocalyptic catastrophe.

In retrospect, the KAL-007 downing was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. Coming after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and tightening Western sanctions in the wake of the December 1981 declaration of martial law in Poland, this senseless atrocity highlighted the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet system and deepened Moscow's international isolation. It was largely to overcome this isolation, lessen the dangers of accidental war, and recover his country's prestige on the global stage that Mikhail Gorbachev set out to change the underlying principles of Soviet foreign policy, leading to broad rapprochement with the United States, withdrawal from Europe, and the end of Soviet Communism itself.

The shoot-down of the Malaysia Airlines plane puts Vladimir Putin in a situation comparable to that of his role model, Andropov. Like in the early 1980s, Russia today faces international isolation and Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine. There is a widening gap between Moscow and the West in terms of understanding the other side's perspective and likely actions. And in some ways, things might even be worse for Putin. In the early 1980s, the Soviet public was generally unaware of the deep crisis in East-West relations. Today, Russia's public opinion has been inflamed by a torrent of vicious anti-Western propaganda amid rising nationalism, which severely constraints Putin's ability to maneuver.

What really undermined the Soviet position in 1983 were the regime's blatant lies and unwillingness to cooperate in an international investigation. Putin's record in this respect is far from reassuring. Memorably, his presidency started with deception in the August 2000 sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine, which Moscow initially blamed on NATO while refusing foreign help in rescuing the crew. Putin then lashed out at a then-still-free Russian media for criticizing the government response and infuriated grieving families with his comment on the fate of the submarine: "It sank," he said with a callous smirk.

At a time when Russia's relations with the West are at their lowest point since 1983, it is not surprising that Putin blamed the Ukrainian authorities for the disaster. The Russian media, in an attempt to shift the onus from Russia-sponsored separatists, has aired stories claiming that the Ukrainian air force downed the Malaysian airliner. While Ukraine's responsibility cannot be discounted pending investigation, Putin is making a big mistake by pre-emptively pointing the finger at Kiev. By refusing to acknowledge the possibility that the pro-Russian militias may be responsible for the disaster, the Russian president risks losing moral ground by becoming an apologist and an accomplice to the crime.

If the investigation reveals that the separatists were responsible, only unequivocal denunciation of the perpetrators will save Putin from moral bankruptcy. Yet doing so will mean a drastic reversal for Russia's support for the separatists, a prospect too painful for the Kremlin to contemplate. Accustomed to deception and disinformation, Putin evidently hopes to muddle through this latest setback. But this will only lead to a deeper crisis in Russia's relations with the West. Memories have not faded yet of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and certainly not of the 1983 war scare. There were no catastrophes then -- but this third time the world could be unlucky.

On the other hand, this tragedy -- like the downing of KAL-007 -- could serve as a turning point for Russia's foreign policy, a point of departure on the road of reconciliation and rapprochement with the West. Just as for Gorbachev, the opportunity is there for Putin to take.

*Correction, July 19, 2014:  In 1983 the Soviets originally claimed that they fired warning shots with tracer shells before shooting down flight KAL-007. An earlier version of this article did not mention the tracer shells. 



Iran's Highly Enriched Bargaining Chip

Why the United States can't budge on allowing Iran to build more centrifuges.

As talks over Iran's disputed nuclear program enter the home stretch, Tehran has placed a major obstacle in the way of a diplomatic solution: insistence on an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program. On July 15 in Vienna, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif acknowledged that significant gaps remained between the parties. It now seems almost certain that negotiations will have to be extended for several weeks or months beyond the original July 20 deadline to conclude a comprehensive agreement. But putting extra time on the clock won't make much difference unless Iran is willing to make real concessions on the enrichment issue.

On July 7, in a major speech in Tehran, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate "decider" on the nuclear issue, declared that Iran has an "absolute need" of 190,000 "separative work units" (SWUs) for its nuclear program. This highly technical term represents a measure of the productive capacity of Iranian centrifuges, the cylindrical machines used to enrich uranium to fuel nuclear reactors -- or, potentially, nuclear bombs. Iran currently operates around 10,000 first-generation "IR-1" centrifuges, has installed another 8,000 IR-1s, and has installed but is not yet operating 1,000 more advanced "IR-2m" models. When the efficiency of these machines is calculated, Khamenei's stated goal for Iran's program would represent a ten- to twentyfold increase in Iran's current enrichment capacity.

A program that large could theoretically provide an indigenous supply of fuel for nuclear power plants, Tehran's stated intention. But it could also allow Iran to rapidly "break out," racing to produce bomb-grade uranium so quickly that the international community couldn't stop it. 

For the United States and the five other world powers (Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany) known collectively as the P5+1, Iran's apparent bottom line is a showstopper. Until Iran restores international confidence in its nuclear intentions, the P5+1 justifiably sees an industrial-sized enrichment capacity as incompatible with the goal of ongoing talks to ensure Iran's program remains solely for peaceful purposes. For that reason, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and its negotiating partners are demanding at least a two-thirds reduction in Iran's current enrichment capacity. Even Russia and China, the P5+1 members traditionally most sympathetic to Iran, have told Iranian negotiators that their position on enrichment capacity is untenable.

Given the Grand Canyon-sized chasm between these competing demands, it's no wonder that nuclear diplomacy is teetering on the brink of failure. Despite days of intense negotiations in Vienna, Kerry and Zarif were unable to bridge this divide. Unless a workable compromise on enrichment can be found soon, the talks will likely fall into the abyss and the prospect of reaching a peaceful solution to the decades-old nuclear crisis will fade. 

There are only three possible explanations for Iran's expansive enrichment demands. They range from unconvincing to deeply troubling.

The first possible explanation is that Iran truly believes that it needs such a large productive capacity for its civilian nuclear program. Under the interim nuclear accord struck between Iran and the P5+1 last November, the parties acknowledged that any final agreement would "involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with [Iran's] practical needs." Iran needs enriched uranium to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes, and potentially its Arak research reactor. But Iran already has sufficient enriched uranium for the TRR, and the P5+1's proposal to allow Iran to operate a few thousand IR-1 centrifuges, or their equivalent in more advanced machines, is pegged to meet the needs for the Arak reactor if it is modified to run on low-enriched fuel. 

But Iran does not define its practical needs solely in terms of research reactors. Echoing Khamenei's remarks, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, recently asserted that Iran needs 190,000 SWUs of uranium enrichment capacity "to produce the required annual fuel for the Bushehr plant," the country's lone nuclear power plant. And if Iran commissions additional nuclear power plants, as intended in the decades ahead, Salehi said, "we will need more SWU [capacity]."

These rationalizations for industrial-scale enrichment are difficult to sustain. In the case of the Russian-built Bushehr plant, Moscow is committed to providing fuel for the reactor through 2021 -- and is willing to renew the supply contract for life. Iran claims, however, that a history of repeated supply disruptions -- dating back to its experience with the multinational Eurodif enrichment consortium in the 1970s -- means it cannot rely on foreigners. But Russia has consistently delivered fuel for Bushehr, and outside experts have pointed out that keeping a rolling stock of several years' worth of foreign-supplied fuel inside Iran, under strict safeguards, could easily address concerns about future disruption. Moreover, even if Iran wanted to produce the necessary fuel assemblies for Bushehr, it lacks both the intellectual property and the technical expertise to do so.

Iran's case is somewhat stronger for future power plants. But this requirement remains purely hypothetical and, in any event, will not materialize for at least a decade -- that is, most likely after the expiration of a time-limited final nuclear deal. If, at that point, Iran cannot secure cheap, reliable fuel from abroad, it will be able to expand its domestic fuel-production capacity. But future contingencies are not a convincing justification for doing so now. 

A second possible explanation for Iran's enrichment stance is national pride. The country's nuclear program has cost at least $100 billion in lost oil revenue and foreign investment, and the regime has invested a tremendous amount of domestic legitimacy in defending it in the face of international pressure. The nuclear program has become a potent symbol of Iran's technological prowess -- an underappreciated motivation in a country that sees itself as one of the world's great scientific nations -- and the regime's revolutionary "resistance" to the West. 

Indeed, it was the pragmatic recognition that a diplomatic deal was impossible unless Iran was given a face-saving way out that rightly led the Obama administration to acquiesce to a limited Iranian enrichment program last year -- a significant and politically risky concession to a long-standing Iranian demand. Now the onus is on Iran to make the next move. In an interview with the New York Times on July 14, Zarif suggested that Iran may be willing to forgo further expansion of its program for a few years, perhaps suggesting some emerging flexibility. But simply freezing Iran's enrichment capacity in place is not sufficient to allay international concerns -- the program will have to be meaningfully rolled back.

Doing so may require the Iranian regime to swallow a bit of its pride. If Tehran is open to compromise, however, there remain creative ways to frame necessary concessions as consistent with Iran's stated interests and asserted nuclear rights. 

One is the use of time. Khamenei's declaration last week on the "absolute need" of 190,000 SWUs for Iran's program included an important caveat: "Perhaps this is not a need this year or in two years or five years." It is conceivable, therefore, that Iran could agree to scale back its program -- limiting both the number of IR-1 centrifuges and its stockpile of low-enriched uranium -- to meet its very modest near-term needs for research reactors. Then, it could grow the program again after a lengthy period of confidence-building (probably a decade or so), when fuel requirements for new nuclear plants actually materialize. A final nuclear agreement could specify these arrangements based on a fixed period of time or on a set of clear conditions related to the availability of foreign supplies of fuel -- or some combination of both. Either way, nothing in the agreement's terms would invalidate Iran's stated requirement to eventually be self-sufficient in the nuclear realm.

Another possible face-saving solution would showcase Iran's technological advances -- playing into the regime's narrative that its nuclear advances are proof of the country's scientific prowess. Iran could "voluntarily choose to retire" all of its "inefficient and obsolete" IR-1 machines, replacing them in the short term with a much smaller number of more efficient second-generation IR-2M centrifuges. A final nuclear deal could also allow Iran to continue pursuing research and development on more-advanced centrifuges, under strict safeguards and with the obligation not to install or operate them for the period of the agreement. Assuming that the number of installed and operating IR-2Ms was relatively small, and research and development was appropriately regulated, this could potentially lower Iran's current enrichment capacity for the period of the agreement -- addressing the P5+1's concerns -- while still allowing the regime to claim that it won international recognition of the nation's scientific achievements. Then, after the expiration of the agreement, Iran could deploy its new technology to meet emergent domestic needs. 

So if Iran's goals are indeed to pursue an exclusively peaceful civilian nuclear program, there are ways out of the current impasse. But, of course, there is a third explanation for Tehran's insistence on a large-scale enrichment program: It wants a civilian cover story for the pursuit of nuclear weapons, or at least the capability to rapidly produce them.

Iran's leaders assert they desire no such thing. In 2005, Khamenei issued a binding fatwa -- or religious edict -- against the development, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons. And just this past weekend on NBC's Meet the Press, Zarif said, "I will commit to everything and anything that would provide credible assurances for the international community that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons, because we are not. We don't see any benefit in Iran developing a nuclear weapon."

But, after years of repeated violations of its safeguards obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran's demand for industrial-scale enrichment makes it hard to take these pledges at face value. With tens of thousands of operating centrifuges, Iran could reduce its theoretical breakout time to produce weapons-grade uranium from a few months, where it currently stands, to a few weeks -- so fast that it might be impossible to detect or prevent. Iran largely dismisses breakout concerns, and a number of outside analysts have recently challenged the utility of the concept. But even critics of using breakout capacity as a measure of a "good deal" tend to concede that leaving Iran only a few weeks away from bomb-grade material is a risky proposition.

Equally troubling is that the same infrastructure that could enable a rapid dash to weapons-grade uranium at known enrichment sites could also facilitate a nuclear "sneak-out" at secret ones. A limited enrichment program can be effectively monitored. But the larger Iran's accepted enrichment infrastructure, the easier it would be for Iran to divert small amounts of enriched material or sensitive technology to covert sites. Transparency and rigorous international inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities -- which Iran appears more willing to accept -- can mitigate, but not eliminate, this risk if Iran is allowed to maintain tens of thousands of centrifuges.

In short, unless Iran agrees to rein in its enrichment program, it will be impossible for the country to reassure the international community of the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program. And that means it will be impossible to get a deal that resolves the nuclear crisis. Even if talks are extended beyond the looming July 20 deadline, the moment for thin rationalizations and excessive revolutionary pride has passed. If Iran's leaders mean what they say about their nuclear intentions, now is the time to prove it. 

JIM BOURG/AFP/Getty Images