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Iran and Nuclear Proliferation: Update with Joseph Cirincione

Apr 16, 2014

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, discusses the status and prospects for the ongoing P5+1 talks in Vienna on Iran's nuclear program, and the importance of successful negotiations for the global nuclear nonproliferation agenda.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

I'm glad to welcome back to the Council today a very special guest, Joseph Cirincione. Joseph Cirincione is president of the Ploughshares Fund, a 30-plus-year-old public foundation that has given out over the years over $100 million to what Joe has described as people with the best ideas for how to reduce nuclear threats.

Before that, he worked for nine years in the U.S. House of Representatives on the professional staff of the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Government Operations, and also with basically the hall of fame of all the Washington think tanks involved in nonproliferation, the Stimson Center, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Center for American Progress.

He is most recently the author of a book, Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late. [Editor's note: Check out Cirincione's 2013 Carnegie talk on this book.]

Certainly an arresting title, Joe. Welcome to the Carnegie Council.

JOE CIRINCIONE: Thank you very much, David. It's a pleasure to be with you.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Joe, it seems odd to say that Iran, to some extent, has been off the front pages recently, because, of course, for 40-odd years it has been a cause célèbre in our security and nonproliferation thinking. But, of course, events in Ukraine and elsewhere have skewed things a little bit.

Back in November, a preliminary agreement, called the Joint Plan of Action, was worked out between the P5+1, the permanent five of the UN Security Council plus Germany, on Iran's nuclear program. Of course, talks have been going on, relatively quietly but, one hopes, to some degree successfully. Can you give us your sort of updated thinking on how things stand in the P5+1 talks?

JOE CIRINCIONE: Sure. There are a lot of nuclear threats out there, ranging from nuclear terrorism to South Asia to questions about the security of our own nuclear arsenal. But in a survey conducted by ReThink Media for us last year, we found that 70 percent of all the stories about nuclear weapons are about Iran. Iran is certainly a challenge, but I wouldn't put it at the top of our list of challenges. But it dominates the public discussion of nuclear weapons issues and it dominates people's perceptions of the threat.

So it's actually a very good thing that for the last month or so Iran has been not only off the front pages, but largely out of the newspapers. This has given the negotiators from the P5+1 states—the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany—the time they need to actually do their work, to actually do the hard work of bargaining with Iran over how to constrain that country's nuclear program.

They've been at it steadily since last September, when the talks started in earnest. They reached an interim agreement in November that was finally implemented on January 20. That interim agreement, called the Joint Plan of Action, set a deadline of July 20 to reach a final agreement.

About a month ago, we had a meeting in Washington with Iran experts, and it was the nearly uniform view that the negotiators could not reach that deadline, that it would be too far, too soon, to be able to negotiate a deal. That has completely turned around in the last 30 days. Most of the experts I consult with believe that we will reach a July 20 deal. The U.S. negotiators just a week ago said they expected to reach one. They announced last week that they would begin drafting the agreement in May.

We are now meeting nearly constantly, either at the diplomatic level, which occurs once every three or four weeks—we just concluded a session last week—or at the expert level, where there are almost daily contacts with the experts working out some of the technical details in the agreement.

I would say right now the outside experts are cautiously optimistic that the negotiators will reach a final agreement. This is a remarkable turnaround from even two years ago, where the question people were asking was when were we going to attack Iran, not what the terms of the final agreement would be.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Having said that, Joe, you mentioned, I think, at the meeting that you just referred to—you said, and I quote, "All the nations involved in these negotiations want the deal. The chances are quite good that they'll be able to hammer one out."

Having said that, is it not true that there is some pushback on both sides of the equation, as it were, particularly in Iran and the U.S. from hardliners, who may not see it necessarily as in their interest to see this deal come through? Obviously President Rouhani of Iran, while popularly elected, has had some pushback in Tehran. Then there's been some attention paid recently to the Menendez-Kirk bill that seems to be a little bit preemptive, shall we say, in assuming that Iran may not comply and is even talking about sanctions.

Surely this can't be helpful to the president on this side of the bargaining table.

JOE CIRINCIONE: There are a dozen external factors that could intervene to torpedo a deal, including escalation of the crisis in Ukraine. Even though it has nothing directly to do with Iran, a major international confrontation with Russia, who is one of the negotiating partners, could disrupt the entire Iran timetable, even sink a deal. Israel could start assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists again. The Revolutionary Guard could pick a fight with U.S. forces in the region.

So there are lots of things that could disrupt a deal. And, as you say, David, there are hardliners in both Iran and the United States who don't want a deal, who are dead-set against any agreement of any kind, and they have means of torpedoing it.

One of those means was exercised by conservatives and others in the United States back in December, when Senator Menendez of New Jersey and Senator Kirk of Illinois introduced an Iran sanctions bill. Now, we have had many Iran sanctions bills in the past—in fact, introduced by Kirk and Menendez. When they introduced it, they had every reason to think that this one would pass, as their others had. Just two years ago, the Senate passed a bill 100-0. Three years ago, they passed one 96-0. What changed was that this year we had negotiations underway that were making progress, we had an administration opposed to the sanctions bill, who put their weight behind the wheel and lobbied strongly against it, and, for the first time, you had a coalition of outside groups, people who weighed in on the outside, to phone their senators, email them, sign petitions against the sanctions bill.

The reason was that the interim agreement that was reached explicitly said that while we're negotiating a final agreement, there shall not be any new sanctions. So a new sanctions bill, sanctions imposed by the United States, would have killed the agreement. In fact, that was the intent of Menendez and Kirk.

That bill was defeated. It never came to the floor. They tried to do a non-binding resolution in the House and the Senate. That was scuttled as well. That never came to the floor. They ended up with a letter sent by some senators and some representatives to the president.

I took all that as a sign, one, of people organizing for a deal—something that's different now, something that hasn't happened before, in which Ploughshares Fund plays a role—and number two, that the administration is determined to get this deal, and finally, three, that all our efforts together have created the political space that allows politicians to be in favor of a deal—that is, a deal that tests Iran's intention to curtail its nuclear program and to allow us to put in place monitoring systems that can assure us that, whatever Iran is doing, it's not racing to build a bomb.

All this bodes very well for a deal. But it's going to be a fight. The closer we get to a deal, the greater the opposition will be. And even if I'm right and we get a deal on July 20, late July or early August, then there's going to be a huge fight over whether to implement that deal. In some ways, that's when the struggle really will begin.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes. It's ironic when you say that the closer we get to a deal, the greater the pushback will be.

You mentioned Israel in passing, Joe. Clearly, this obviously plays into U.S. domestic politics. The relationship with Israel is, of course, very special, perhaps unique for the United States. Prime Minister Netanyahu gave an impassioned speech last year, as I recall, to Congress. Then, in a recent edition of The New York Review of Books, Jessica Matthews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, says this: "Those like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who insist that the only acceptable level is zero enrichment in Iran know, or should know, that they are using code for 'no deal would be acceptable.'"

Does this set off alarm bells for you? Or is this something that, really, we will get through?

JOE CIRINCIONE: I think Jessica's exactly right. Demanding zero enrichment is completely unrealistic. We could have gotten a deal like that perhaps in 2003, when Iran only had 100 or so centrifuges operating and when they wanted to negotiate, when they tabled an offer to discuss with the United States ending the agreement. Maybe we could have gotten it in 2005, when they had a few hundred more spinning. They might have been willing to settle for a test facility or so.

But that nuclear horse has been out of the barn for a very long time. There is no politician in Iran that could possibly agree to completely dismantling a nuclear structure that they have spent billions of dollars on, staked their national pride, and has become a cause célèbre for the body politic in Iran.

They have about 20,000 centrifuges now. About half of them, 10,000 centrifuges, are actually spinning uranium gas, enriching it to low levels for fuel. There's no way they are going to accept the complete dismantlement of that.

And Mr. Netanyahu knows that. He knows he's making a completely unrealistic demand.

He's right in one sense: That is the perfect deal. If they had no enrichment capability, then a monitoring system could be put in place that would give you great assurance that there was nothing going on. If you detected one centrifuge going, you could say, "Ha! They broke the agreement," and take action.

We're not going to get that. We have to have a more complicated agreement. And here's what we're going for now.

I believe, by the way, we have beaten back the zero option. Most people recognize that that's not going to happen.

The United States is talking in terms of an arrangement where we could limit the Iranian capability so much that if Iran decided to break the deal and make a sprint for a bomb, it would take them somewhere between six and twelve months to actually make enough material for one bomb. That's just enriched uranium, enough uranium to form the core of one bomb. The belief is that in that six to twelve months, we could then take action to prevent them from actually completing that task, one way or another—economic sanctions or perhaps military action.

Just this week, we heard some Israeli political officials push back against that idea, push back against the idea of six months to twelve months being sufficient. This is the struggle you're going to have. How long does the fuse have to be? How much of a breakout notice do you need?

I, frankly, think that six months is plenty of time. We're talking about an arrangement where we limit their centrifuges, we limit their capability, we limit the amount of material they are allowed to keep, and we set up unprecedented inspections where we monitor every step of their facility. I believe that we could set up a monitoring system that could detect a breakout within weeks. Then that would give you plenty of time to mobilize the international forces you need to react to an Iranian agreement.

I've got to say—one last thing—I also think that this judgment about Iran sprinting to a bomb is misplaced. All the indications I see are that Iran wants to have the technical capability to possibly enrich material to bomb-grade, but has no intention right now of actually doing so, and may never want to build a bomb.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes, and, of course, the road along the way has been sort of littered with dire predictions that Iran will have a bomb in, fill in the blank, months, a year, a year and a half, and so on and so forth.

Joe, let me throw out a few provocative thoughts, if I may, for you to respond to.

Those who are perhaps less disposed to believe that Iran is pursuing a weapons program capability will cite, for example, Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], who said fairly recently, "So far Iran has not violated the NPT [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons."

Another former director of IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, said that he had not seen a shred of evidence that Iran was pursuing the bomb. "All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran."

Recently on a prior broadcast on Iran from our Security Bulletin, Professor Bill Beeman, whom we both know well, essentially said that Iran is being asked to prove a negative.

Is that a fair assessment?

JOE CIRINCIONE: Well, that's a fair assessment of what those people say. I believe that there's strong circumstantial evidence that Iran did have a bomb program. That is, in the past, primarily in the late 1980s, 1990s, they were doing research on weapons technology.

The evidence isn't clear. There's no smoking core, I guess, of that. But there's strong enough evidence that our intelligence services, U.S. intelligence services, believed they had a bomb program, and I believe they do and that the burden is on Iran to explain those past activities. That is, in fact, one of the elements of these negotiations, to clear up the history of what they call programs of possible military dimensions, PMD. This will be a tricky business that will probably take us several years.

The U.S. intelligence estimate is that in 2003 Iran stopped an organized bomb program and has not restarted it. U.S. intelligence officials assess that Iran has not decided whether to build a bomb and may never decide to do so, and that some combination of pressures and incentives can convince the Iranian leadership that they can meet their security, prestige, and regional goals through non-nuclear means.

That is exactly what I think. I think the U.S. intelligence assessment that was first made in 2007 and has been renewed every year since then is exactly right, that that's approximately where we're at.

I do not think Iran is in a sprint to build a bomb. I do not believe that they have a Manhattan-style program. I agree with the U.S. intelligence assessment that they haven't decided to do so.

I frankly think Iran is playing a much bigger game here. What they want is to reinstate Iran as a leading nation in the region and a nation that is part of the international system. President Rouhani said recently that he believes that within 30 years Iran could become the 10th largest economic power in the world. I believe that's true. Iran has got enormous potential. And that would be real power, not the illusory power that a nuclear weapon might represent to some.

I think, for the current Iranian leadership, there is a consensus that they are willing to put aside this nuclear program—freeze it, put it on hold, diminish its size, diminish its capability—in exchange for a relaxation of the sanctions, in exchange for a reintegration with the international economic system that would allow Iran to grow to be a powerful nation.

I think that that is exactly what frightens some of Iran's neighbors. I believe their opposition to these negotiations is based on wanting to stop Iran from emerging as a major power in the region and is not really about the fear that one or two nuclear weapons might represent for Iran. So there's an underlying dynamic here that we have to pay attention to.

DAVID SPEEDIE: One of the other issues that comes up occasionally is the question of Iran essentially being aboveboard in saying that it needs a domestic nuclear energy program.

Recently Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who is now a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton, wrote a pretty detailed piece that pointed out two things: First of all, Iran's population growth—and despite the fact that Iran is, of course, an oil- and natural gas-producing country, one of the leading oil- and natural gas-producing countries—there was a need for nuclear energy to supplement existing energy programs. He also pointed out in support of this that both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are not exactly—the Saudis especially—oil-poor, were also pursuing nuclear energy programs. [Editor's note: Check out David Speedie's 2012 talk with Ambassador Mousavian.]

Is that a valid claim on Iran's part, do you believe, given those other situations?

JOE CIRINCIONE: Many of the countries in the region are exploring nuclear power options. Iran has the only nuclear power reactor in all the Middle East, the reactor at Bushehr. They have plans to build two to three more. They claim they have plans to build 20.

You can make a rationale for this. The Iranians say, "Why should we burn our oil and gas, our major exports, when we can sell it? We should be building the power plants of the future. The West keeps telling us that nuclear power is an essential part of future energy needs. We should have these future energy needs as well."

But, frankly, it doesn't make much economic sense. There are other sources of energy that Iran could pursue and that these other countries could pursue as well, including thermal, wind, and, most importantly, sun, which is starting to make great strides in the Middle East, solar power.

But even if you buy the idea that they need to have two, three, a dozen reactors, they do not need to build factories to make their own fuel. Most countries that have reactors don't make their own fuel. They buy it from the seven or eight countries that already make the fuel, in part because it's economic to do so. It's cheaper to buy the fuel from the countries that have supplied your reactor than to build it yourself. In fact, the reactor at Bushehr does exactly that. Russia supplies the fuel. It will be burned in the reactor. When it's used up, Russia will take it back for disposal. It saves you the problems of waste disposal. It's cheaper to do it that way. It doesn't make any economic sense to build your own enrichment facility until you have somewhere around 15 reactors. Iran started building its enrichment facility before it had its first reactor operating. That's a big reason why we are suspicious of the Iranian program.

I think what we're trying to do now is walk them back from this, provide them with what diplomats like to call these days an off-ramp. This program built up its own momentum. It started at the appearance of hostility, both with Iraq and then, later, tensions with the United States. Now there's a chance to peacefully resolve these differences. Let's give them a way to back away from this program—at least test the notion that, as they say, they only want a program for peaceful purposes and have no intention of building a bomb. I think that's worth investing the diplomatic time and energy.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I want to get on to a couple of broader questions on the whole nonproliferation issue. But let me just throw out a couple of names of people who will become increasingly familiar to us and important over the coming weeks and months: Mr. Araghchi who is the lead negotiator for Iran, and Mr. Aboutalebi, who is the designate UN representative of Iran and who's causing some controversy over his apparent role in the 1979 hostage crisis.

Do you have thoughts or comments on these two individuals? Obviously they both have pretty pivotal roles.

JOE CIRINCIONE: Iran's proposed ambassador to the United Nations apparently played a relatively minor role in the hostage crisis. He was in his early 20s. He served as a translator on several occasions. Since then he has gone on to a distinguished diplomatic career, including representing Iran before the European Union, Italy, Belgium, other countries. I don't think the mistakes committed almost 40 years ago should be held against him at this point. We should be beyond that.

Unfortunately, this is an example of petty politics disrupting the national security goals of the United States. Resolutions denying him a visa passed the House of Representatives unanimously, passed the Senate unanimously. I mean, it's really a sad commentary that politicians feel that they have to toss this bone to the dogs and take their stand.

In the end, I don't think this will disrupt the Iran negotiations, but it certainly doesn't help.

We have a very large strategic agenda with Iran that begins with this nuclear program. Last September, I had dinner with President Rouhani in New York when he came for the United Nations. It was a group of about 30 of us. It was off the record, but he said things in that meeting that he has said publicly, so I feel all right quoting one of his comments.

He was asked, why don't we negotiate all the issues between the United States and Iran all at once—relations with Israel, the role of the support for Hamas and Hezbollah, relations with the Sunni Arabs. He said that the U.S.-Iran relationship was very complex and the table could not bear the weight of all these issues at once, that we had to start with one step and build confidence so that we could take the next two steps and so on and so on, and both sides had agreed to start with the nuclear.

We did not know at the time what we now know, that there had been secret negotiations between the two sides in the months preceding this, even before the P5+1 negotiations started up again. It's clear that both sides see the nuclear as the first step in forging a new relationship with each other. If we can solve this nuclear program, it is the gateway issue through which other issues can be resolved, including domestic issues like human rights in Iran, including the relationship with Israel, the support for Hamas and Hezbollah. But you can't get to any of those issues unless you resolve the nuclear issue.

But if you can, you start opening up a path for some strategic cooperation between the United States and Iran.

Don't get me wrong. We're never going to be BFFs [best friends forever]. We're never going to be allies. We have fundamentally different ideologies regarding these two countries. But we do have overlapping strategic needs in the region. We both have a need to stabilize Afghanistan. We both have a need to stabilize Iraq. We both have a need to tamp down the Sunni-Shia rift that is rippling through the region. We both have a need to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing Syria as a base of operations. Those are areas where we could cooperate.

The nuclear deal could be the beginning of that kind of strategic cooperation. It could change the geopolitics of the region. It could change the geopolitics of the world.

This is a big deal. We can't allow petty domestic politics or the interests of one or two other nations to disrupt this historic opportunity.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well-put, Joe. I also heard President Rouhani in New York last fall. I was struck by how at ease he was, not in any sort of inappropriate way, but compared with his predecessor; that this was not only a person with whom one could do business, as the saying goes, but who was earnest about doing business. I think it may get down to the fact that he spent some time in my hometown of Glasgow, Scotland, which is a fairly rough place. If you can survive Glasgow, you know you can take on such things as the nuclear negotiations.

Joe, I ought to have mentioned also at the beginning that you're a member of Secretary of State Kerry's International Security Advisory Board. I was struck by something that came around last week that I'm sure you're aware of from the Council for a Livable World in Washington, a petition urging adding funding for nonproliferation programs and indicating that, in spite of the president's stated commitment to nonproliferation, perhaps there are cuts in the offing for the nonproliferation program.

As someone who has basically toiled in this vineyard for decades, what's behind this?

JOE CIRINCIONE: Five years ago, President Obama launched an effort to transform U.S. and global nuclear policy with his speech in Prague, in April 2009. It was a visionary and very pragmatic approach. He put his shoulder to the wheel and he made tremendous progress in those first two years.

But after he passed the New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] in December 2010, they were exhausted. This was a lot harder than they thought it was going to be. The staff said to me, "I never want to see another arms control agreement again." They turned their attention to other pressing issues. That's understandable.

But they never went back to the nuclear policy agenda in any concerted way. It never again had the president's attention the way it did in those first two years. He left it to his staff, and I believe they have let him down. The progress has ground to a halt and we're now going in reverse.

But the weapons programs have not ground to a halt. The weapons programs are working their way through the Pentagon, through the Congress, and there are enormous amounts of money involved. The reason is that we're at this point where our existing systems—the bombers, the subs, the missiles—are reaching the end of their operational life and they have to be replaced. The people in charge of that program are doing what we have instructed them to do—maintain this force and make sure we're able to carry out our military missions. So they are ordering replacement forces—a new sub, a new bomber, a new missile. These contracts are now pushing their way through the Congress.

Nobody has told them to stop. Nobody has told them to stand down. So as a result, you have this procurement policy gap. The purchase of new weapons is racing ahead of the president's policy. In a climate where the overall defense budget is shrinking, the money has to come from somewhere, and staff and the bureaucrats in the White House and in the Pentagon are making the choice that some of that money is going to come from nonproliferation programs that don't make much money, don't have a big profit margin, don't involve big contractors. So they are raiding the nonproliferation programs to pay for new warheads. There's a direct correlation between the cuts in the nonproliferation programs and the increase in new warhead programs for the nuclear laboratories.

It's really an unfair fight. It's the labs versus the Department of State, and the labs win.

That, unfortunately, is what's going on. There's still time for the president to rescue this program. There's still time for him to turn back to this issue. I believe that if he concludes an agreement with Iran, that in and of itself will be a huge breakthrough that could revive the president's overall nuclear agenda and could create the space that would allow him to then make cuts to the weapons program that he has been reluctant to do, for political reasons.

All of this could unfold in the second half of this year, but more likely in 2015 and 2016. But it won't happen by itself. It requires the constant attention of experts, of foundations, of the public. There have to be experts and publics pointing out the benefits of this, demanding this new policy, and creating the political will inside the administration to take this course and the political space in the public that allows them to do it.

That's the challenge we all face. President Obama says often, "I can't do this by myself," and he's right. We all have a role to play here.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Amen. Joe, the Carnegie Ethics Studio has quite a reach. We have reason to believe that people listen. We hope that someone has been listening to you.

Joe Cirincione is the president of the Ploughshares Fund. He has been our guest on today's Security Bulletin.

Joe, thank you so much for joining us. We look forward to welcoming you back at some point.

JOE CIRINCIONE: It's always a pleasure, David. Thank you very much.

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