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Cirincione Outlines 'Deals' to Get North Korea and Iran to Forego Nuclear Weapons

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Joseph Cirincione
June 6, 2005

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Joseph Cirincione, the director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that he has been “encouraged” by reported steps by the United States and North Korea toward resolving the dispute over Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program. The way forward, he says, is to fashion an agreement under which North Korea starts to dismantle its nuclear-arms program in return for the simultaneous start of U.S. political and economic incentives. “You can’t expect the North Koreans to completely disarm based on a vague promise that the United States will then recognize them and begin to change the relationship,” he says. “There’s too much animosity, there’s too much mistrust in this relationship. You’ve got to give a little to get a little.”

On Iran, he says that the United States, working with the European Union (EU), should propose a plan that allows Tehran to have nuclear power plants powered by Iranian uranium but bars the development of weapons-grade materials.

Cirincione was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on June 6, 2005.

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There have been developments recently regarding Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs. Which country should have the higher priority, North Korea or Iran?

It’s tough. Both of these are urgent, but North Korea is the more so. North Korea has plutonium, Iran doesn’t. North Korea’s program is proceeding to accumulate more bomb material; Iran is still years away from such a capability. Just on that threat assessment, North Korea’s the crisis that should be front and center at this point.

There are some signs in the press, not confirmed officially, of some delicate probing going on between North Korea and the United States, although as yet no formal talks. What do you make of that?

I’ve been encouraged by these tiny steps that we’ve taken recently. For example, the [May 13] United States meeting with the North Koreans up at the United Nations and the laudatory words coming out of Pyongyang about President Bush’s respectful—in their view—reference [at his May 31 news conference to “Mr.” Kim Jong-Il, rather than the “tyrant” Kim Jong-Il. I think there are some indications that North Korea may be willing to come back to the bargaining table. I have also been encouraged by reports in the press that senior State Department officials want to improve the negotiating offer that the United States would present to North Korea. Many of us believe that it’s still possible to make a deal with North Korea. And one of the major problems has been the inflexibility of the U.S. position.

What would be the outlines of a deal?

The goal is exactly what the administration said it should be: the complete, verifiable, irreversible, dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program. The issue is how you get to that end point. The current U.S. position that was presented to the North Koreans in June 2004 is, “You do that, and then we’ll talk about economic incentives and security guarantees.” The North Koreans want to see a little sequencing of their freezing the program, then starting to dismantle it, mixed in with the beginning of economic incentives and the beginning of security assurances. That kind of approach seems to me the only one that can work. You can’t expect the North Koreans to completely disarm based on a vague promise that the United States will then recognize them and begin to change the relationship. There’s too much animosity, there’s too much mistrust in this relationship. You’ve got to give a little to get a little.

What would be the first steps you would take if you were making policy?

I would be doing what Assistant Secretary [of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher R.] Hill is reported to want: To improve the negotiating offer. To offer the North Koreans—preferably in one-on-one talks—a clear path forward, of how they can, one: freeze their program; two: expect in return that there would be some economic incentives coming primarily from South Korea and China; and, three: open their facilities to inspectors again and lay out a plan for dismantling their program in return for a U.S. statement, such as President Bush has made in the past but a bit more formal this time, that the United States has no hostile intentions toward North Korea.

And then we begin in earnest. We begin the dismantlement of the North Korean program, and at every step of the way there are positive incentives for the North Koreans to continue that. But it does not end. They don’t get the ultimate pay-off of a peace treaty, for example, or diplomatic recognition by the United States, until we are completely satisfied that that program has been shut down and destroyed or moved out of the country.

In other words, a sort of “road map” for North Korea, like the Middle Eastern peace plan.

Exactly. Show the North Koreans in concrete detail how their situation will improve and the security of their regime will be enhanced by giving up their nuclear weapons, rather than by maintaining them. Now, let me just point out the No.1 problem with that: There’s a deep divide in the administration over whether you want to solve the nuclear issue or remove the regime. For some in the administration, the whole point is to overthrow the regime. There are many issues that some in the administration have with North Korea; nuclear weapons is only one of them. And that runs into direct conflict with the goal of ending the nuclear program.

The debate in Washington is not over yet, is it?

For the past five years, the U.S. posture toward both North Korea and Iran has been paralyzed by a deep divide in the administration between those for whom the fundamental goal is the overthrow of the North Korean and Iranian regimes and those who fundamentally want to resolve the nuclear issues with those countries and are willing to provide guarantees for the continued existence of those governments. It’s the clash between the declared strategy of the administration that solving proliferation problems means eliminating regimes and the more pragmatic solution that proved itself in the case of Libya—that you can eliminate the problem by changing regime behavior, not necessarily changing the regime. [In December 2003, Libya announced it would end it weapons-of-mass production programs.]

Who are the spokesmen for these different viewpoints? Is it now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice carrying the State Department’s flag against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld?

Yes. In the first administration, it was clearly Vice President [Dick]Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld on the one hand, versus Secretary of State Colin Powell. Condoleezza Rice was expected to side more with the Cheney-Rumsfeld position in this term. I think that, in part, was why she was put in the position of secretary of state, but she seems to be at least moderating her views or listening to the counsel of those around her in trying to come up with actual solutions to these problems as opposed to posturing, however politically satisfying those postures may be.

Washington has clearly changed its policies on Iran to support the European negotiations aimed at persuading Tehran to give up its nuclear program.

The United States and Iran are in a contest to see who can isolate the other. And the prize is the European Union. Whoever wins the EU, wins the game. So Iran, through these negotiations, is trying to convince the EU to come to some sort of compromise with it that can leave the United States on the outside. The United States, seeing this, has moved to soften its stance on negotiations. The administration wants to make sure that it does not seem to be the catalyst for the failure of negotiations, even though many in the administration believe they will fail. It wants the EU on the U.S. side to bring Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions [if Iran refuses to halt permanently its uranium-enrichment program]. The main problem is, no one really sees what a winning scenario is once you get to the United Nations Security Council, nor is there a viable military option with Iran. So increasingly, however erratically, the whole ball game has come down to these EU–Iran negotiations and what kind of deal may be possible there.

The Iranians have extended their deadline for a further response from the EU until well after the June 17 presidential election. How significant is this election?

It’s absolutely essential to realize that the nuclear issue is an intense domestic issue inside Iran. There are factions vying for control inside the Iranian government, and they use the nuclear issue to win popular support and to criticize their opponents. After the June elections, whoever wins, conservative or reformist, will be in a much stronger position to show some flexibility in these negotiations.

Because the United States is militarily bogged down in Iraq, it’s hard to envision any kind of military action toward either North Korea or Iran.

I’d say all we have is tough posture with these countries. You hear a lot of vague threats coming out of U.S. officials toward both these countries, but it’s very hard to imagine the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Bush administration uniting around an actual military strike on either one of these countries. As you play these scenarios out, whether it’s in war games or in just thinking about it for more than five minutes, a military action in both cases could end up very negatively for the United States.

It’s more likely to harm us than to harm the other country. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was supposed to send a message to both Iran and North Korea that there are consequences for continuing their programs. When Undersecretary of State John Bolton was asked what the lessons of the Iraq war were for Iran and North Korea, he said, “Get in line.” But, in fact, that has backfired. Both Iran and North Korea accelerated their programs after the Iraq war, and we’ve become so bogged down in Iraq that we don’t really have the capability or ability to even make a credible threat militarily against Iran.

Interestingly, Iran’s strategic situation as a result of the U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq has actually improved. Although there are a couple of hundred thousand U.S. troops in that region, Iran’s principal enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, have been removed from action and the Shiite people, the majority Muslim sect represented by the government of Iran, are in a much stronger political position in the region then they have been for a millennium. So there’s actually a lot of incentive for Iran to come to some compromise on this nuclear issue, in order to allow this unique and historic political moment to develop and solidify.

Can you envisage a deal with Iran as you did with North Korea?

Here’s what I think a deal on Iran would look like: Among the talk of various compromises that could be possible with Iran, there is one that shows the most promise. That would be an agreement that allows Iran to go ahead with its nuclear power program—that is, building reactors—but stops it from getting the full fuel cycle—that is, the ability to enrich uranium. The one way to do that is to allow the Iranians to do part of the enrichment cycle, but not the actual enrichment itself.

You can imagine a deal that allows Iran to go ahead with taking uranium from its mines and processing it at the Isfahan facility, turning the uranium into gas. The Iranians would ship that uranium hexafluoride [gas] to Russia. The Russians would convert it into fuel rods and ship it back to the [Russian-built] reactor at Bushehr. The Iranians could claim that they were now using uranium from Iran to power Iranian reactors. The Europeans would claim that they stopped Iran short of doing the enrichment process itself that would give them the ability to make nuclear weapons. Interestingly enough, President Bush seems to have hinted at that kind of compromise at his recent press conference, where he said we had to stop Iran from enriching uranium to the point where they could make nuclear weapons. If that was a purposeful phrase and not just accidental, then it may indicate some thinking within the administration of how to compromise with Iran so that we come up with a win-win situation here where both sides are able to claim victory.

The Russians have a deal with Iran to supply fuel rods?

They have a deal to supply the fuel rods for Bushehr. This sort of arrangement would feed in Iranian uranium into Russian production and send the completed fuel rods back to Iran. And that might be enough to satisfy what has become a truly nationalistic issue in Iran: that Iran has self-sufficiency in its nuclear program.

Has this proposal been broached with the Iranians?

There are rumors of just such a compromise, it may be one of the topics that European negotiators will be bringing to Washington when they come to consult with their American colleagues, before tabling such a proposal with the Iranians in July.

Last month, there was a month-long review conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This conference takes place every five years; this time, there’s a general conclusion that it was another failure. Is that true, and why?

The Treaty Review Conference was a disaster. It was a major missed opportunity for the United States to advance either the agenda of the Bush administration or the broader agenda against the spread of nuclear weapons. It was demoralizing for almost all the officials who were involved, the top nonproliferation officials from around the world.

It did little to improve the image of the United States with many of the countries around the world and set it back in some instances. Specifically, the United States went in there with two agenda items. One was to defend the United States against any new calls to speed up its nuclear disarmament, and, second, to try to focus attention on the failure of Iran and North Korea to comply with their treaty negotiations. The first objective trumped the second.

While many of the countries shared the U.S.’s concerns over Iran and North Korea, they had an equal concern that the nuclear-weapons states were not moving to eliminate their nuclear weapons and thus making it much more difficult to convince other countries not to try to get such weapons for themselves. The United States did succeed in blocking any substantive discussion of the disarmament issues, but in so doing it ruined any substantive advances in the nonproliferation agenda. In same ways, the United States was in an unholy alliance with Iran, which was busy at its end of the conference stopping any substantive discussion of the Iranian nuclear program.

These two countries, with the help of Egypt, whose performance at this conference was inexplicably counterproductive, succeeded in putting a lot of sticks in the spokes of the conference wheel. It never really got going. As a result, we’ve missed this once-every-five-year opportunity to not only reaffirm the importance of a nonproliferation regime, but adapt it and advance it to the current crises we face.

Let me just give you one example. The United States had a lot of solid proposals that it presented at this conference—as did other countries. One example was a proposal on how to make it much more difficult for countries to withdraw from the treaty. But the proposal couldn’t get any traction because the United States was blocking discussion of the agenda items that other countries wanted. We are talking about our allies, such as Australia and Canada, even Great Britain and France—the other nuclear nations that are our close allies. They were all willing to talk about mutual steps on the part of the nuclear-weapons states to accelerate their disarmament and on the parts of the other states to toughen up the nonproliferation regime. But because the United States wasn’t willing to compromise at all, because it went in with this basic attitude of “You’re either with us or against us,” because it felt that in the end it was better for the conference to crash and burn than for the United States to take on disarmament obligations, none of the U.S. agenda was able to advance. It ended up being almost a completely wasted 30 days in New York.