Ask The Expert: Facing Iran

Cirincione outlines the need for an updated nonproliferation agreement and major changes to the hazardous Bush administration approach.

This article is reprinted from Campus, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress.

On top of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear nonproliferation—specifically, the case of Iran—will be a major challenge for the new Congress and secretary of defense. Before the Nov. 7 elections, Campus Progress sat down with Joe Cirincione, a proliferation expert who serves as Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. We asked him to fill us in on the challenges and the options posed by Iran’s nuclear program for world security and the United States. He outlined the need for an updated nonproliferation agreement and major changes in the hazardous and failed Bush administration approach.

Campus Progress: Let’s start at the beginning. Where is Iran’s nuclear program today? What’s the timeline you’re looking at in terms of them building an offensive nuclear weapons capability?

Joe Cirincione: Iran for many years has had a nuclear program that they claim is peaceful. They say it’s aimed at only creating the ability to build nuclear reactors, building plants that can make the fuel for those reactors, and building plants that can reprocess the fuel coming out of those reactors. All that is legal under international treaties. The problem is that the same plants that can enrich uranium to low levels for fuel rods can enrich uranium to high levels for nuclear bombs. The same plants that can process those fuel rods for storage and disposition, can also process those fuel rods to take plutonium out and use that for nuclear weapons.

So the core of the problem is, do you trust Iran? Do you think that these factories and facilities they are building are only for peaceful use? Most countries don’t. And the reason is that for almost 15 years Iran kept parts of its program secret. They say they did it so they wouldn’t be attacked by the United States or Israel. But it sure looks like the parts they kept secret were aimed more at weapons research than at nuclear reactor research.

So the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) encourages countries to forgo nuclear weapons and develop peaceful nuclear energy. But as you just said, it allows them to get awfully close to a point where they can switch over. Is that a fundamental problem with the NPT that needs to be addressed?

It is. There’s a basic problem with the treaty. Its basic deal is that it allows, in fact encourages, countries to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes as long as they promise not to use that technology for non-peaceful purposes. But this has now allowed several countries to get right up to the brink of nuclear weapons capability. They not only build the reactors: They build the fuel factories, they build the reprocessing factories, and they are literally a screw-driver’s turn from nuclear weapons technology. This is the situation Japan is in, for example. And Iran uses this and says, we just want to be like Japan. You trust them don’t you? Why don’t you trust us?

What this means is that you can’t solve this problem country by country. You have to create a structure where not just Iran, but no country is allowed to get these enrichment capabilities.

If we take it as given that the United States wants as few people as possible to have nuclear weapons, what are the options for policymakers to do that? What are possible ways to prevent proliferation?

Okay, let me give you a little background answer to that. You know, for 50 years Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, have worked together to build this interlocking system of treaties, export control regimes, and bilateral agreements that have slowed, if not altogether stopped, the spread of these weapons. In 1960 President Kennedy was worried that if we didn’t do something, there would be 15, 20, or 25 nuclear countries. But we did something. We designed and implemented the Non-Proliferation Treaty; we put all these other arrangements in place. As a result, there are only nine nuclear weapons states today, with North Korea being the ninth. That’s nine too many, but it’s a lot better than 20 or 25.

When the Bush administration came in, they rejected this whole approach. They wanted to replace negotiations with forced regime change. They said the problem isn’t the weapons, it’s bad guys with the weapons. So they were going to go off and knock off the bad guys. First Iraq, then Iran, and then we get to North Korea. It was okay for our friends like Israel, India, or Pakistan to have nuclear weapons, but it’s not okay for our foes. Who was going to decide? We were. We would pick the good guys and let them have the weapons; we would punish the bad guys.

The problem with that is obviously this is a very expensive and failed strategy. The mess we made in Iraq is just part of the problem. In the last five years Iran and North Korea have made more process in their programs than they made in the last 10. The other problem is that the good guys and bad guys keep changing. Iran used to be a good guy. We sold Iran their first nuclear reactor in the 1960s and ’70s. Approved by, by the way, then White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, then an official in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Paul Wolfowitz, and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. All the guys who are now advising the president on what to do helped create this problem in the first place.

So Iran, you know, a country who’s a good guy, acquires these capabilities, its government changes and suddenly they’re a bad guy. Pakistan is a good guy now, but what happens if President Musharraf is assassinated? There were two assassination attempts against him in 2004. What happens if he goes? Who gets control of the 30 or 50 nuclear weapons that Pakistan has? There are Islamic fundamentalist groups and armed Islamic militant groups operating in the country. Who gets the nukes? That’s the risk of their strategy.

That’s why you have to go back to the focus on the weapons themselves. And get our own arsenals down. We have 10,000 nuclear weapons; we don’t need anything like that. Get the Russian arsenal down; they have 16,000 weapons. We’ve got to get those under control, reduce and eliminate them to the lowest extent possible, and convince other countries to reduce their arsenals. And then you’re in a much better position to argue to other countries that you shouldn’t be acquiring them either. As long as other countries see that we’re all in this together, that we’re all marching down that non-nuclear road, you’re much more likely to get compliance, to get agreement, and to protect the country.

Given what you said about the Bush Doctrine, and Iraq being the first manifestation of that policy, do you agree with analysts, including former generals, who are saying now that it appears that the Bush administration is preparing for war with Iran?

I do. I am very worried that there is at least a faction in the government that wants to attack Iran. It believes that it is a continuation of the policy that began with the invasion of Iraq. The reason we invaded Iraq wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction. As Paul Wolfowitz said, that was just the reason everyone could agree on. It was to begin this process of radical regime change throughout the region. Iran is next on that list.

In the near term, with the administration we’ve got, what should progressives’ response be to these dual concerns: Iran getting nuclear weapons or the Bush administration attacking them?

The way I approach this is to put all the options on the table and start eliminating the ones that won’t work. The very first one to go off the table for me is the military option. There is not a good military option against Iran. A strike against Iran would not only not destroy the program, it would probably accelerate it as well as inflaming Muslim anger around the world, giving Iran the opportunity to conduct military operations against the U.S. and its allies in the region, probably closing the Straits of Hormuz, sending the price of oil screaming past $100 a barrel—price of gasoline hits $4 or $5 a gallon— and perhaps sending global economies into recession.

For all those reasons I think the military option is off the table. The option I go back to is making a deal with Iran that limits its nuclear program and limits its other regional ambitions, and begins to involve both the government and the Iranian people in a fundamentally new relationship with the West and with the region. In the end, we’re going to have to change the regime in Iran. The trick is that we can’t do that, only the Iranian people can do that.

This is the great weakness of Iran: Its government is extremely unpopular. The Iranian people, themselves, want to get rid of their government. We’re not talking about Iran having a bomb this year or even this decade. They’re a good five, probably 10 years away from that capability. So we’ve got time to let this diplomatic strategy work, we’ve got time to try to crack open this country and allow the Iranian people to make the changes themselves.

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