Joseph Cirincione is the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit global security foundation dedicated to reducing nuclear stockpiles and stopping emerging nuclear powers. He is also a member of Secretary of State John Kerry’s International Security Advisory Board. The Washington Spectator interviewed Cirincione at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado, on April 10. —L.D.
WS: How do you address critics of this Iran agreement?
JC: There are three fundamental problems with the criticism of this accord. One is that critics don’t have a better alternative. Letting Iran continue unrestrained with a nuclear program, or going to war, is not really a solution to the problem.
Two, they fundamentally mischaracterize the agreement. You see it repeatedly. This agreement rolls back Iran’s program. Locks it up. And puts in place the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated for an agreement of this type. It’s not portrayed that way by the critics, but those are the facts.
“This agreement rolls back Iran’s nuclear program. Locks it up. And it puts in place the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated for an agreement of this type. It’s not portrayed that way by critics, but those are the facts.”
Third, I believe many critics mistake the next steps here and want to take them all at once. The agreement is not dealing with Iran’s support for terrorism. It doesn’t deal with the ballistic-missile program. Or its human-rights situation. Which is true. But to deal with those problems you’ve got to take care of the nuclear issue first. Then you can continue discussions with Iran around the other behaviors we disagree with.
WS: What is your take on the technical details of the agreement?
JC: Going into these talks, we had three objectives. One was to cut off Iran’s pathway to the bomb. Two was to put in place a verification system so we could catch them if they cheat. And three was to keep together the global coalition that would allow us to snap back sanctions should we catch them cheating.
This agreement does all of that. The reason this agreement has won such overwhelming support from national-security professionals and nuclear-policy professionals is that it goes far beyond what anybody thought was going to be achieved.
It is a dramatic reduction in Iran’s current capability. They have to cut their centrifuges by two-thirds. They have to cut their supply of uranium gas that goes into the centrifuges by an astonishing 97 percent. So it cuts off their uranium path to the bomb. They’ve agreed to completely reconfigure the reactor they were building that would have produced enough plutonium for two bombs every year. They are taking the existing core out. They are reconfiguring it. They are destroying or shipping out of the country the old core. This new reactor will operate, but it won’t be able to produce more than one-eighth of what it was going to produce. Oh, and by the way, when the fuel is done from that reactor, it is going to be shipped out of the country and Iran is prohibited from ever, ever, building a reprocessing facility that would allow it to extract the plutonium.
So right away they have cut off the uranium and plutonium. In other words, this agreement will ensure that for at least 15 years, Iran cannot build a nuclear bomb. And the other aspects of it go 20, 25 years. And some of the other terms of the agreement—for example the inspection regime and the prohibition from doing any work on nuclear weapons—last forever.
This is a very strong agreement.
WS: Is this a model for negotiation with other countries?
JC: Well, fortunately, there isn’t another country that we need to negotiate this with. People talk about Iran and North Korea. But the truth is there are no [other] countries like Iran and North Korea. There is only Iran and North Korea, no other countries with dedicated programs that could be used to build nuclear weapons. North Korea has already detonated three nuclear devices, but its program is contained. If we can stop Iran’s nuclear program and roll it back, you then have the possibility of applying this to the one other country, North Korea, where it could be seen as a model. You’ve shown North Korea that you can negotiate with the United States and other world powers, and come to an agreement that doesn’t involve the change of your regime. This is a model.
It also inhibits other countries from trying to acquire these technologies. Who wants to go through this amount of pain and isolation you’ve seen Iran and North Korea go through?
WS: What do you expect in the Senate?
JC: There are three circles of opposition. One is people who are genuinely concerned about some of these provisions. The second, and larger group, is the political group. And that’s what you see in the Senate today. People who don’t want to give a Democratic president anything. If Obama came forward with a cure for cancer, they would oppose it.
The third group, and this is what you see outside the Senate, is the ideological opposition. People who object, for whom this is anathema, because it doesn’t change the Iranian regime. And the whole point of raising the nuclear issue for them wasn’t to stop the nuclear program. It was to stop the regime. For them, it is the equivalent of what Paul Wolfowitz said WMD was back in 2003. It was the one thing we could all agree on. It was the rationale for going forward. But inside the Senate, it is fiercely political and, I think, you are likely to see the Republican Party try to kill this deal almost exclusively on political grounds.
The good news: I don’t think they are going to succeed. Because [Republican opposition] has pushed Democrats who are concerned about the deal away from the opposition.
The president is going to get this deal.