Iran: Nuclear Pursuits

Joseph Cirincione
Director for Nonproliferation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Wednesday, May 11, 2005; 2:00 PM

Iran's intentions to pursue nuclear technology are forcing the U.S. and the E.U. to plan negotiations for nonproliferation. Last November, Iran suspended nuclear activity under considerable international pressure, but their nuclear pursuits have clearly been reinstated.

Joseph Cirincione , director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that the U.S. needs to start putting options out on the table. What are these options? He was online to discuss the possible ways to deal with a nuclear Iran.

A transcript follows.


Lakeland, Fl.: A couple of months ago in a not-widely-reported speech, Scott Ritter said that he had been told by someone in the current administration that President Bush has already signed off on plans to bomb nuclear facilities in Iran, probably in June. I assume that you've also heard this rumor. Do you think there is any truth to this? What have you heard?

Joseph Cirincione: There are lots of rumors in Washington. In Janaury, many people were convinced that the administration had made up its mind to bomb the Iranian facilities. Now, the common wisdom is that they have seen the immense problems such actions would cause and have backed off such plans...if they existed in the first place. My own belief is that there are factions within the administration pushing both sides of the policy and there is no clear administration strategy for what to do. it is, as one observer called it, a policy of no carrots and no sticks.



Alexandria, Va.: The Iranians are sticking hard to their stand at the EU-3 talks that, while they can agree to additional international inspections and safeguards, there is no way that they will cease all uranium enrichment activities. But that is a minimum requirement for the U.S. government. Is there any compromise here on either side?

Joseph Cirincione: The Iranians are tough and skilled negotiators. Their position is that the EU negotiations must end with a recognition of Iran's "right" to enrich uranium. It is not clear if this is a firm position that they, therefore, must end with the resumption of actual enrichment. After the Iranian presidential elections in June, the new president will have more flexibility in these negotiations. it may be possible to strike a deal that recognizes Iran's rights, but in which Iran agrees to indefinitely suspend enrichment.


Washington, D.C.: Your op-ed was quite specific to Iran. But could similar mentality be applied to North Korea?

Joseph Cirincione: Yes. With both Iran and North Korea, there are no good military options. North Korea has one million troops on the South Korean border and 10,000 artillery tubes and rockets within range of the South Korean capital. Any strike on Northern nuclear facilities risks a devastating conventional war. I believe it is still possible to negotiate a deal with North Korea, but it is getting harder as we lose time and the north advances in capabilities it may be less and less willing to give up.


Ann Arbor, Mi.: In Washington, can you give us a run-down of the big players who are pushing for negotiations and those who are suggesting a military option?

Joseph Cirincione: Basically, the view that seems to dominate in the administration is that of the so-called neo-conservatives. Their strategy is to push for regime change, not negotiations. Many of those who pushed for war with Iraq believed that this would send a signal to Iran and North Korea that they should abandon their programs, or face the consequences. Unfortunately, they got a different message: both sped up their programs. Those favoring negotiations tend to be the pragmatists in Congress and in the State Department. I don't want to get into a listing of names, but I believe if Secretary Colin Powell had been allowed to follow his policy of continuing the negotiations the Clinton administration had started with North Korea, we would not have a North Korean nuclear or missile program to worry about today.


Washington, D.C.: In terms of international pressure, what worked in November that won't work now?

Joseph Cirincione: I am not sure exactly what you mean, but if you are referring to the EU pressure in November that got Iran to suspend its program, then the answer is that we (the United States) have to match the economic incentives that Europe can provide the Iranians, with security assurances that only we can provide. That is, we have to recognize that the Iraq model of overthrowing a regime will not work, but the Libyan model of changing a regime's behavior might. There is no guarantee, of course. Hard-liners in Tehran can kill a deal, just as hard-liners in Washington can. But the judicious combination of force and diplomacy could work to walk Iran back from a nuclear precipice.


Washington, D.C.: As the world begins to look for more energy alternatives (such as nuclear power), do you think we will see potential proliferation hazards?

Joseph Cirincione: Many people that I respect believe that nuclear power is essential for our future energy needs. If that is true, then the industry must solve two big problems. One, waste. We still, after almost 60 years, do not know what to do with the massive and dangerous radioactive waste that comes out of nuclear power plants. That has got to factor into any calculation of energy or climate benefits.

Two, bomb-making potential. The problem is not the reactor. It is what goes into the reactor and what comes out. The same plants that can enrich uranium to low levels for fuel rods, can enrich uranium to high levels for bombs. The same plants that can reprocess the spent fuel rods (extracting their plutonium, uranium and waste products)for disposal can also reprocess the rods to make plutonium for bombs. This is the essence of the Iran problem. We can live with an Iran with nuclear power reactors, we cannot accept an Iran with the plants to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. This would put them "a screwdriver's turn" away from bomb-making capability. We need to create a new international regime that prevents any new country from building such facilities and puts the existing facilities under international safeguards.

For more on this, see the Carnegie study, Universal Compliance. You can download it from our web site at:


Washington, D.C.: Thank you so much for your salient and analytically sound work. I would like to know if you could comment on North Korea and Iran with regard to the NPT RevCon: if consensus is not reached there, what are the possible linkages to proliferation there, and what would be the effects in terms of time? Finally, would it be possible for a new Administration starting in 2009 to reverse the diplomatic course taken over President Bush's two terms? Thanks again and all the best.

Joseph Cirincione: The NPT conference is in serious trouble. We are two weeks into it and we are deadlocked, unable to agree on an agenda. There is a real danger that the conference could break up in acrimony at the end of this week. The U.S. sees the whole point of the conference as a chance to focus on the failure of North Korea and Iran to comply with their treaty obligations. Other states agree, but also believe that the U.S. and the other nuclear-weapon states are not complying with their obligations to move towards elimination of nuclear weapons. And they want to deal with the fuel cycle issues I raised above. In short, they want a balance between these three "pillars" of non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In my view, the administration is failing to provide the leadership we need to rescue this conference. The consequences of a failed conference could be devastating for us, weakening international consensus and depriving us of some the the key tools we need to solve the North Korea and Iran crises.


Dallas, Tex.: Is Libya following through with its promises?

Joseph Cirincione: Yes. Libya has given up it nuclear weapon and chemical weapon programs, lock, stock and barrel. They have done everything we have asked. President Bush now calls Libyan President Qadafi "a model."


Lexington, Ky.: Why does it appear that Washington is more concerned about Iran's nuclear proliferation than North Korea's?

Joseph Cirincione: Iran is more important to the geo-strategic objectives of this administration. This would be true of any administration, given Iran's oil and natural gas resources, its history and location. But Iran also figures prominently in the "transformation" plans of some in the administration. They want to remake the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. Iraq was just the beginning for them. In that sense, the nuclear issue with Iran is just the immediate issue; the point is to overthrow the regime, not to strike a deal that would legitimize it.


Washington, D.C.: In terms of negotiations with both rogue states (Iran and North Korea), do you think we rely too heavily on our allies for help? Does their role make a difference? In what ways?

Joseph Cirincione: no we are not relying too much on our allies. We are not coordinating enough with them, in fact.

The administration has done a great job in organizing our allies into the "six-party talks" on North Korea (U.S., Russia, South Korea, Japan, China and North Korea). The problem is that once we got the table set, we didn't have anything to put on it. There have not been real negotiations with North Korea. Our allies, especially South Korea, want us to actually strike a deal with the North. So does China. We have presented a take it or leave it deal to North Korea last year, but have refused to compromise on the sequencing of their dismantlement and our incentives. I believe we should take the advice of our allies and make a good faith effort to negotiate the complete dismantlement of North Korea's programs. It may not work, but at least we will have then convince our allies that the North will not deal and we must, together, take tougher actions.


Lexington, Ky.: Your answer makes perfect sense, but it still seems that proliferation from any nation could result in weapons in the wrong hands. NK could just as easily sell to Iran. Am I off on that?

Joseph Cirincione: Good point. The administration says that the greatest danger comes from terrorists, plus weapons of mass destruction, plus "outlaw states." At first this seems to make sense, but they got the math wrong.

If Osama bin Laden want a nuclear bomb, where does he go? Not Iran. They don't have one. Not Iraq. We know they didn't have one. He would go to where the weapons are: any state facility with weak security or bribable officials. The two biggest concerns have to be the weapon and nuclear material in Russia and Pakistan. But they are not alone, there are weapon-usable materials in civilian research reactors in over 40 countries. We have programs to secure them, but they are creeping along at a snail's pace.

So the correct equation is that the greatest danger is from terrorists, plus nuclear weapons, plus any state arsenal. That is why we must both prevent new nuclear-weapon states from emerging and reduce and eliminate existing state arsenals. Every bomb, every nuclear material stockpile is a potential terrorist target.


Washington, D.C.: Is economic strangulation an option for either nation (NK or Iran)?

Joseph Cirincione: Not really. This was Plan B. When the Iraq model backfired, the administration's policy towards North Korea became "Get China to do it." Just last week, officials tried to convince China to cut off its oil pipeline to the nation. China is not going to do this (and not for the reason's Tom Friedman claims in his piece in the New York Times today.) China does not want a nuclear North Korea, but even more it does not want an unstable nuclear North Korea. Both China and South Korea want to arrange a "soft landing" where this impoverished, isolated nation can we weaned off its military programs and brought into regional trade and normal relations. This strategy fundamentally clashes with the U.S. goal of regime removal. We are willing to live with the chaos of a regime collapse; North Korea's neighbors are not.

The same is true for Iran, in spades. If you don't like paying $2.50 a gallon for gas, then you don't want the chaos that an economic embargo of Iran could bring.


Alexandria, Va. : What are the carrots we are using for Iran?

Joseph Cirincione: The U.S. is offering to drop its opposition to Iran's application to the WTO (World Trade Organization) and to sell Iran spare parts for its civilian air fleet (mostly Boeing planes.) Now, I was in Iran in March and I flew on Iranian Air to Isfahan. As I looked out the window at the GE engines on the plane, I really wished that we had offered this incentive a few years ago!

Iranian officials have dismissed these U.S. "carrots" as an insult. This is a matter of security and respect, they say. They cannot be bought off like the Indians who sold Manhattan. It is less easy for them to ignore the EU incentives. The EU has linked all its trade and cooperation agreements (in the case of Iran, worth billions) to compliance with non-proliferation treaties. This is the big carrot..and one Iran desperately needs if it is to have any hope of reviving its troubled economy.


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