My interview with Joseph Cirincione- Nuclear expert, President of PloughShares Fund and Advisor to U.S State Dept.

(Interview originally in Monthly Access, AIIA

Joseph Cirincione is President of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He is the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons and Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats. He is a member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s International Security Advisory Board, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the World Economic Forum Global Council on Catastrophic Risks.

Cirincione 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. He previously served as Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress and Director for Nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  He teaches at the Graduate School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

You appeared on CBS a few days ago and you spoke about the possibility of an Israeli attack within three months, before Iran enters the so called “Zone of Immunity” as Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has stated. What do you think the possibility of such an attack is and can you really put a number on it?

You can put numbers on anything. The odds makers at Las Vegas who put their money where their estimates are, place the odds of an attack on Iran at 50/50 currently. That’s pretty high. These are people who are waging money on their estimate. They’re not just speculating for fun. So the question is why? Why is the risk of war with Iran so high? It’s not because Iran is close to a bomb; they’re not.

Predictions about the end of the world have only a slightly worse track record than predictions about Iran getting a nuclear bomb. Every year, for the last twenty years, some fool has been saying that Iran is going to get a bomb within six months or a year. You hear people talking about that now, but it’s not true. The best intelligence, according to the US intelligence community and our top military officials, concludes that Iran has not yet decided to make a bomb. If Iran did decide to make a bomb and went all out, it would take them about six months to a year to make the material for one bomb the highly enriched uranium. It would take them another six months or so to fashion that into a crude devise, and it would take them another year or two to be able to fashion that into a warhead to put on a missile for delivery. They are somewhere between eighteen months and three years from having a weapon that could be delivered by missile, and at least a year, maybe three, from having any kind of weapon at all if they decide to do so.

Since we have very good intelligence on their centrifuge facilities, including UN inspectors in the facilities, we would see them doing this. They would have to kick out inspectors, convert the centrifuges to enriched uranium to 90% from the current 3 to 20% that they use, –the enriched uranium of 3% and 20% is for fuel rods, but you have to enrich it to 90% for a weapon– and we would have ample time to make decisions about anything we wanted to do to stop them.

It’s not the Iranian program that’s driving this push for war, it’s really Israel, more specifically, some politicians in Israel, including the Prime Minister, who are saying that Iran must be stopped and they must be stopped now. They say that Israel can’t afford to wait, can’t afford to take the risk. It’s Israel’s view of the threat that’s driving the push for war right now.

If Prime Minister Netanyahu makes a decision to launch a strike, do you think he will consult Washington prior to such an attack? Will he request additional military assistance, given that it would be a very complex operation and Washington has a superior air force capacity? Would the U.S. be able to handle the operation much more efficiently than Israel would ever be able to?

I don’t know, I honestly don’t know. U.S. Officials are trying to convince Israel not to go to war. Israeli leaders don’t seem to be willing to listen to the U.S. advice. It’s a very worrisome situation. Despite the fact that the U.S. gives Israel US$3 billion a year and defends Israel in the U.N. Security Council and forums around the world, Israel’s current leadership seems to believe that they can decide to start a war with Iran and that the U.S. will be forced to go along. It’s not clear whether the U.S. would, in fact, come to Israel’s aid. The U.S. has not intervened in Israel’s other wars. It didn’t help Israel in the war with Lebanon or the bombardments of Gaza or even in the 1967 or 1973 wars. The risk is that Israel attacks, Iran responds, and that response includes attacks on U.S. forces, which would force the U.S. to respond and get involved in the war. If the Iranian response did not include attacks against U.S. forces, it’s not clear whether the U.S. would jump in. The US military does not want a war with Iran, and if we came in, it’d be a much bigger, much more involved war than if Israel and Iran exchanged airstrikes.

What lessons do you think we can learn from the Iraq experience? That was obviously a blunder on U.S. supremacy and a major political embarrassment for the coalition. The U.S. and the U.K, in particular, are witnessing many of the same trends. With regard to IAEA inspectors are we not giving them enough time to give an independent report that will confirm whether Iran has a nuclear program underway or not?

It’s not quite the same. I think the IAEA, the board of the governors, and the U.S. are in close agreement on this. There is strong evidence that Iran has engaged in activity in the past. The IAEA doesn’t know whether Iran is engaging in such activities currently, and the U.S. intelligence is in agreement. Iran did engage in these activities in the past, and we can’t be certain that they’re not doing it now. However, both the IAEA and the U.S. intelligence agree that the Iranian program is not currently a weapons program. I think I would put it and many experts would put it as: Iran is engaging in a hedging exercise. It is acquiring the capability to produce a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so at some point in the future.

Some people call this the “Japan Strategy.” Japan has the ability to make a nuclear weapon within six months to two years. That’s a hedge. Iran, for its own security reasons, may decide that it doesn’t want to cross the nuclear threshold, that the hedge works just fine for it, that its security goes down if it acquires a nuclear device. For example; if its regional rivals could get nuclear weapons, it would face heavier sanctions, isolation, it would lose influence in the region. Its economy would be crippled. It’s a very dismal scenario for Iran should it actually test or build a nuclear weapon.

So, what happened in Iraq? The executive branch manipulated the intelligence to present a worst case situation, that ,in fact, many officials in the intelligence community did not support. Because The Bush Administration wanted to go to war with Iraq in order to overthrow Saddam Hussein, they used the nuclear weapons issue as justification for war. We’re seeing some of that play out here. But not by the U.S. Administration. U.S. military officials do not want to go to war with Iran. They do not want a fourth war in the Middle East for many of reasons; not the least of which is that it wouldn’t stop an Iranian program. It would accelerate it.

What you have here is some people, some political factions in Israel and the United States, who want to overthrow the Iranian regime and are using the nuclear program as the justification. They want to eliminate that regime for lots of reasons.  In that sense, we’re seeing certain political figures use the playbook from the Iraq war again. This time they don’t have the U.S. military or the Administration on their side, which makes it a lot harder to do.

One of the things that the former Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in 2010 was that such a strike on those facilities would only set its program back by 1-3 years, and it would only be a temporary fix. Do you agree with Robert Gates assessment if Washington or Israel launched a strike?

I do agree with him. He’s talking about a U.S. strike, which would be massive. It would involve many more capable weapons than Israel could use. An Israeli strike would harm the facilities, particularly the Iranian conversion facility at Isfahan and some of the facilities at Natanz, but the day after the strikes ended, Iran would evaluate what sites had the least damage, and they would be rushing new equipment into those sites, most likely digging tunnels even deeper into the mountains around Qom. It would become a point of national pride to rebuild those facilities as quickly as possible, and to declare that they now had no choice but to develop a weapon. Iran, under those circumstances, might be able to get a weapon very quickly. So an Israeli strike would most likely produce the very outcome they’re trying to prevent.

What are your thoughts about Matthew Kroenig’s statements that the best time to attack Iran is now? He argues in a paper in Foreign Affairs that the Obama Administration’s policy of tightening sanctions has been ineffective and that the only viable policy left for Washington to do is to bomb Iran. Is this not a far-fetched argument that is really crying more for attention rather than a well thought-out policy recommendation? Do you agree?

The article in response to Matthew Kroenig’s from his former boss, Colin H. Kahl, was devastating to Kroenig’s argument. Kroenig’s article does not stand up to any serious scrutiny but it’s the kind of political arguments that are being made that overestimate Iran’s current capability, underestimate the consequences of war and present in one flawed concept, the worst case for Iran with the bomb and the best case for a military strike to stop it. It really is a terrible analysis.

In recent days, we’ve seen a slight embrace of talks, of some sort of cooperation from Iran’s side, trying to welcome the International community to talk. What are the chances now if Washington takes this seriously? And, is it possible to convince Netanyahu as well, to bring Iran to the negotiating table and try to work out a diplomatic solution to this rather launching a full out war?

As the President has said, “All options are on the table.” We want to stop Iran from getting a bomb, but the best way to do that is diplomatically; to convince Iran that it is in its own interests not to build the bomb. No country has ever been coerced into giving up its nuclear weapons program or nuclear weapons, but lots of countries have been convinced to do so. We know how to do this. We at least have to try to do this with Iran. The diplomatic option has not been given enough of a chance. The U.S. is not talking to Iran right now and hasn’t talked to Iran for over a year. There’s absolutely no communication with Iran right now. Before Iran’s program continues even further and way before we contemplate using military strikes to stop it, you owe it to the country and the people who would give their lives in a war to seriously attempt a diplomatic solution. We haven’t done so. This administration hasn’t done so. The President said in his inaugural address that he was extending a hand of friendship to Iran. That showed a willingness to do diplomacy, but that’s not diplomacy. That’s not actually engaging in negotiation. Diplomacy is hard work. It’s frustrating. It’s persistent. It’s continuous. I understand the frustration of some of these officials in this administration when Iran did not respond to that offer, and I understand why they might be frustrated and disillusioned, but that’s not the same as saying we tried diplomacy and it didn’t work. We didn’t try. We just said we wanted to try.

If Obama’s administration somehow convinced Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, at least in the short term, for real talks, and to abide by the NPT wholeheartedly, allowing IAEA inspectors access to all of its sites, even those that are undeclared, on a political side, how will Obama convince Congress to eliminate a lot of these sanctions that have been applied on Iran, especially the harsh sanctions that have been applied in the last year? For example, Iran’s restricted access to the international financial capital to the world market. How will he convince Republicans, in an election year, who control the lower house to take such actions in a show of good faith?

I don’t know. Putting sanctions on is easy, but taking them off is hard. The best case scenario is that the U.S. promises Iran that it will delay implementation of new sanctions. That’s the concession the U.S. makes for Iran’s concessions by saying, “halt the enrichment of your Uranium above 5%.” The key thing you want right here is to extend the break out time. If Iran continues to enrich uranium at 20%, it will build up a stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), that it could quickly, in a matter of a few months, convert to bomb grade uranium. You want to stop them from getting a large stockpile of 20% Uranium. That is a real confidence building measure, that’s a concession Iran could make.

Here’s the deal- Iran stops enrichment of Uranium to 20% and the U.S. and the great powers agree to supply Iran with 20% enriched Uranium for fuel rods for its research reactor. Iran agrees to more intrusive inspections of its facilities so we can be assured there are no secret facilities; in exchange, some of the sanctions are lifted. You could see the Europeans lifting some of those sanctions, buying oil from Iran again, for example, or lifting some of the travel curbs. It’s harder for the U.S. to lift those sanctions, but you can see those sanctions being lifted in the course of several years if relations with Iran overall improve, if these confidence building steps form the basis for a more comprehensive deal. The President has the authority to waive sanctions under certain security conditions, the U.S. has power to stop pushing for new sanctions and the U.S. has the power to get its allies to lift sanctions. There are ways to do this short of going through the long process of getting congress to lift these sanctions.