Countdown to the Iranian bomb

A top proliferation expert says the real danger isn't a nuclear attack by Iran, but a Middle East arms race.

Published January 26, 2006 11:41AM (EST)

Since Iran defied international regulators and broke the seals on its nuclear research sites earlier this month, world leaders have once again been sounding the alarm over the country's nuclear intentions and capabilities. But while the debate over diplomacy vs. the "military option" is plenty familiar, the Bush administration has put the United States in a bad position to deal with Tehran's hard-line government, says a top expert on nuclear weapons.

Joseph Cirincione, director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says that the failure to find alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has damaged U.S. credibility -- at a time when nuclear terrorism is the gravest threat facing the U.S. and its allies. "The world is now filled with Doubting Thomases," he says. "I doubt very much if even the United Kingdom would take military actions based solely on the word of the president of the United States."

Beyond the Iraq war, Cirincione says, the problem is that the U.S. and other countries with nuclear arsenals, including Israel, have continued to make nuclear weapons the currency of great power and status. This makes them highly desirable -- even necessary -- from the perspective of countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt.

But if Iran has the potential to set off a nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East, Cirincione believes that a military option to stop the mullahs really is no option at all: "Even an airstrike against a soft target like the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan would inflame Muslim anger, rally the Iranian public around an otherwise unpopular government and jeopardize further the U.S. position in Iraq," he says. "We are in a much weaker position today to deal with Iran because of the mistakes of the Iraq war."

Cirincione spoke to Salon by phone from his office in Washington.

Is the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons any greater today than it was in the last few years?

There's a real threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons, but it's not an immediate threat. All this talk of a "point of no return" or Iran being in a position within months to have a nuclear weapon is nonsense. There is a broad expert consensus, including the U.S. intelligence community, that Iran is five to 10 years away from the ability to enrich uranium for fuel or bombs. Even that estimate assumes that Iran goes full speed ahead and does not encounter any of the technical problems that plague such programs.

The danger is that if Iran is not stopped, the entire nonproliferation regime will be weakened, and with it, the U.N. system. This is a test for the U.N. Security council and this is what will develop over the next few months around two issues: One, can we convince Iran to open up their program so that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors can go to all the facilities in question and determine for themselves whether Iran is engaged in any weapons-related research? And two, while we're negotiating those transparency agreements, will Iran stop any further work on enrichment?

If we fail on those two, if Iran proceeds with its program, and if the U.N. Security Council does not take action that effectively stops Iran, then regionally, other countries are going to start weighing their nuclear options. Iran's neighbors are going to have to assume -- no matter what Iran says -- that Iran is pursuing this technology for the purpose of making weapons. They are going to feel pressure to try and match those programs. The second thing that happens is that the perception will spread that the treaties and arrangements that we've erected over the last 50 years have failed completely, and the regional crisis in the Gulf will ripple out to the rest of the world. Other countries that have a technical ability to make nuclear weapons may consider whether they want to do it as well.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Newsweek this month that even after three years of intensive investigation in Iran, he is "not yet in a position to make a judgment on the peaceful nature of the [nuclear] program." Is there good reason to suspect that Iran's nuclear projects are not in the name of scientific research?

If my wife suddenly found out that for the last 18 years, every Monday night I've been having dinner with another woman, it wouldn't matter how much proof I provided that all we did was have dinner. She would suspect that I was cheating, that I was up to some other purpose. That's the position Iran is in. For 18 years they've been conducting nuclear activity in secret. They insist that it was purely for peaceful purposes; very few people believe them.

I believe that Iran most likely engaged in some weapons-related research over these past few years. I don't believe that they have a dedicated weapons research program now. They are not racing for the bomb the way Iraq did or Israel did. I think their strategy is much more cunning. They want to legally acquire all the technologies that would put them in the position some 5 or 10 years hence to build a nuclear weapon, should they decide to do so, and under the nonproliferation treaties, countries are allowed to do this.

The big problem with the administration's strategy on Iran is, No. 1, it assumes that Iran has a secret weapons program that they're going to expose and therefore gain international support for strong action against Iran, up to, and including, military action. And 2) it believes that it can solve the proliferation problem one country at a time. It believes that there's good proliferation and bad proliferation, and that we know who the bad proliferators are, "So let's go take 'em out." Well, you can't do it that way. Iraq shows the problems of that approach and now Iran is showing the problems in a different way. You will never convince Iran that they can't have enrichment facilities if other countries are allowed to.

What are the likely consequences if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons?

The problem is not that Iran is going to attack the U.S., Israel or any U.S. ally with a nuclear weapon -- deterrence is alive and well. Tehran understands that any such action would be regime suicide. We have ample conventional forces to respond -- it wouldn't even have to be a nuclear response. Rather, the danger is what happens in the region. If countries come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons are regionally and globally the currency of great-power status, then they're going to decide that, sooner or later, if they want to be a great power they've got to have these nuclear weapons.

We've got this policy of picking and choosing bad guys. We think it's OK if India proliferates because they're our friend, but it's not OK if Iran proliferates because they're our foe. That's an inherently unstable policy. First, it's a double standard that's very hard to enforce in the rest of the world, and second, the good guys and bad guys keep changing.

Iran controls 10 percent of the world's oil supplies. What would the consequences be if they were to withhold their supplies?

Oil would spike to over $100 a barrel. It would throw the Western economies into crisis. The mullahs know this -- everyone knows this. That's one of the big reasons there is no military option with Iran. It's got to be diplomats, not F-15s that solve this crisis.

Though wouldn't such an embargo also throw Iran itself into a painful, unsustainable economic situation?

Yes, I would not expect that Iran could withhold its oil for very long. But it might not take long to achieve the desired results. If this issue remains as popular as it currently is with the [Iranian] public, the country might be willing to undertake some severe hardships. Everyone remembers when former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said, We will eat grass if we have to, in order to get a nuclear weapon. If the Iranian leadership is successful in portraying this as a matter of national pride and survival, it could unite the Iranian people around this issue. That's why it has to be handled so carefully. All of our actions have to be focused on isolating the regime.

Last week President Jacques Chirac suggested that using nuclear weapons would be a possible response to a state-backed terrorist attack against France. Why did he make this statement and what kind of message does it send to the international community?

He made it primarily for European reasons. It's part of his effort to assert greater European independence from the United States. He believes that France's nuclear force could be part of a European nuclear force within the context of the European Union. It's also part of the historic French tradition of trying to retain at least part of its former global stature. I don't think he intended his comments to play into the Iranian debate. They were immediately picked up by the Iranian leaders and thrown back in the West's face. The Iranian leaders said, in effect, "You're telling us that we shouldn't even do nuclear weapons research, and here you are saying that nuclear weapons are essential to your national security. If you need them, why don't we?"

What do you make of Senator Hillary Clinton's recent criticism that the Bush administration has chosen to "downplay" the Iran threat and "outsource" negotiations, and that U.N. sanctions should be called for immediately?

Senator Clinton is trying to replicate the success of former Senator John Kennedy, who attacked then-Vice President Nixon from the right during the 1960s campaign. He accused the Eisenhower-Nixon administration of not doing enough to protect American national security. Senator Clinton is looking for similar issues and she may have found one here: While the administration was obsessed with Iraq, both North Korea and Iran advanced their programs. Their policies have made it much more difficult to stop these programs than they would have been in 2001 or 2003. The administration has missed real opportunities to end these programs over the last few years.

We've been in Iraq for almost three years now. Is America, or the Middle East, any safer today?

No, we are worse off than before the Iraq invasion, by every measure. Terrorist incidents are up, more Americans have been killed. Hatred for the U.S. has grown. Recruits are streaming into radical Islamic organizations and schools. The Iraq war has been a complete, unmitigated disaster for the U.S. It has made us less secure. The only good news here is that there's a growing sentiment in the military, the administration, and among the public that we have to get out of Iraq as soon as we can. The withdrawal has already begun -- we're just debating the timetable now.

Where do you see the war heading a year from now?

I think a year from now a large percent of U.S. combat forces will be withdrawn and the Iraq security situation will not be measurably improved. We're going to leave anyway.

What is the biggest threat facing the U.S. today?

The threat of nuclear terrorism. While I believe it's likely that we'll see another terrorist strike against the U.S., the worst possibility is that it might be a nuclear terrorist [attack]. The risk is low, but the consequence is so high that you've got to treat that as your most dangerous threat.

Fortunately we have programs in place that could almost completely eliminate that threat by securing and eliminating the materials for nuclear weapons. Terrorists can't make enriched uranium or plutonium -- these require large factories and advanced technologies that are beyond their capabilities. We know where most of the uranium and enriched uranium is in the world. We have programs that are increasing security and eliminating some of this excess material. The problem is it's a very low priority.

This year we will only spend a billion dollars on those efforts, vs. $300 billion for the Iraq war [and greater war on terrorism]. You've got to reorganize your priorities and focus your policies around preventing your greatest risks. Today, and for the rest of this decade, the greatest threat is nuclear terrorism.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iran Iraq Middle East Nuclear Weapons