While Cirincione, an expert on nuclear issues, does not think Iran has yet made the decision to make nuclear weapons, he does think Iran wants to have the ability to do so in the future if circumstances demand.
"I don’t believe that Iran has a dedicated nuclear weapons program at this point, although they most likely did conduct some weapons-related research over the past eighteen years," he says. "It’s more likely that Iran has undertaken a determined effort to acquire all the technologies that would be required for a nuclear weapon without crossing that threshold yet. And the reason is simple: They have years to go before they can perfect the technologies necessary for producing either enriched uranium for fuel rods or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. It isn’t in their interest to have a program under way that, if discovered, could provide the basis for either sanctions or military actions."
Cirincione was interviewed on January 4, 2006, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.
Iran has announced it’s going to go ahead with its nuclear program again after a delay of several months. It’s coming simultaneously with a growing apprehension in the West about Iran’s overall policies and whether Iran is planning to develop a nuclear weapons program, not just a peaceful program that it claims to be doing. How do you see the situation now?
The Iranian government seems to have concluded that its extended negotiations with Europe are pointless and that it can slowly resume its enrichment program without suffering either UN sanctions or U.S. military strikes. It’s not quite full speed ahead; it’s more like a steady acceleration of the nuclear program. Iran is proceeding very carefully here. It’s trying to avoid a direct confrontation and has adopted "salami tactics" -- that is, Iranian officials move an inch at a time towards resumption of the program and each inch, they say, doesn’t violate any treaties or commitments. Each step in and of itself is not related to any weapons work and each time they’re testing to see whether the Europeans will back down, either by allowing their work to proceed or by failing to take any action, and each time they successfully implement one of these steps—for example, the uranium conversion they restarted last year, turning uranium ore into uranium gas—they’re emboldened to go a step further.
When we had our last interview about Iran, I think it was in June of 2005, you discussed at some length the fact that there was a kind of rivalry between the United States and Iran for the support of the European Union (EU) negotiators—from Britain, France, and Germany. Since then, of course, there’s been an election in Iran and the new president has made a number of bellicose-sounding statements, particularly toward Israel and the United States, which have gotten the Europeans very angry at Iran. Is it likely this time the Iranians may be misjudging the EU attitude and that the United States may have won the battle for EU support?
Yes. I think the Iranians are listening a little too much to their own propaganda. They insist that everything they’re doing is peaceful and they’re right under international treaties. But they may be underestimating the powerful impact that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speeches have had in Europe and the United States. Ahmadinejad has now successfully established himself as a dangerous demagogue.
This is a man that many European capitals now feel they cannot trust. It’s really a devastating setback for Iranian foreign policy aims. There was, last year, a contest between Tehran and Washington as to who could "win over" the Europeans to their side, and frankly, it looked like Tehran was doing a better job than Washington. But two things happened. One, Washington adjusted its own tactics, supporting the EU negotiations and softening its rhetoric towards Iran, and the elections in Iran brought to power a hard-line conservative. There was some hope that Ahmadinejad could be the equivalent of a Nixon going to China. That is, only a hard-line conservative would have the authority to broker a deal with the Europeans. But that hope was quickly dashed by a series of increasingly bizarre statements by the new president. The statements and the actions of Iran in restarting previously suspended nuclear work have hardened European opinion against Iran, increased the resolve of the Europeans to implement what they said they would do, that is to bring Iran before the Security Council for sanctions. We will probably see this crisis erupt in full form in January, perhaps at the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] Board of Governors meeting in mid-January, or perhaps in resolutions introduced directly to the Security Council.
There was a report the other day in the Guardian, a British newspaper, quoting from what it says is a lengthy intelligence report by a "European" government that I would suspect, given the Guardian’s origins, is probably British. It says very strongly that Iran is determined to have a nuclear weapons program even though Iran denies this. Do you think Iran is looking to develop a nuclear weapons program?
I think that report almost certainly is a British document; there was a previous report back in October 2005 about a seventeen-page report from MI-6 that seems to be remarkably similar to this 55-page document now being circulated. I don’t believe that Iran has a dedicated nuclear weapons program at this point, although they most likely did conduct some weapons-related research over the past eighteen years.
It’s more likely that Iran has undertaken a determined effort to acquire all the technologies that would be required for a nuclear weapon without crossing that threshold yet. And the reason is simple: They have years to go before they can perfect the technologies necessary for producing either enriched uranium for fuel rods or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. It isn’t in their interest to have a program under way that, if discovered, could provide the basis for either sanctions or military actions. Their strategy, I believe, is more cunning than that. They’re following more of a Japan model, of acquiring the technology peacefully for the production of nuclear fuel. If successful, that would put them in a position sometime in the next decade of going over to production of nuclear weapons material if they then decided it was necessary.
The Israelis have said recently—at least the head of Mossad—that Iran could have a nuclear weapons capability very soon. Is he accurate?
If [Mossad Chief] Meir Dagan has any technical basis for that judgment, he should share it with the rest of the world. Israel has a history of exaggerating when Iran would get a nuclear weapon. For years, they’ve been predicting that a weapon or a weapons capability was a few months or a year away. They made similar claims in the mid-nineties and in 2000. I believe that Mossad is making the same methodological error with Iran that they made with Iraq. That is, in the absence of firm evidence, they are making a worst-case assumption. The only way you could get to Dagan’s conclusion is by assuming that Iran has a still-hidden weapons facility that was far more advanced than anything that we know of, or any facility that the IAEA inspectors have looked at. That’s the only way to justify a claim that Iran would, in a matter of months, be in an irreversible position to go ahead and make a nuclear weapon if they wanted.
We now know much more about Iran’s nuclear program than we did three years ago when these secret facilities were first revealed. We’ve had three years of inspections now. The program is sophisticated but still at a relatively early stage. They have not, for example, mastered the techniques of turning uranium into uranium gas, the uranium hexafluoride that’s necessary feed stock for the centrifuges. Nor do they have enough centrifuges to enrich the uranium either for fuel rods or for weapons, nor have they gotten the test cascade of centrifuges that they’ve assembled to work properly. They still have a long way to go.
One of the problems for Iran is that if they provoke a crisis now, if the Europeans just give up on Iran, impose sanctions either through the United Nations or through the EU, then Iran is going to be cut off from the main area of nuclear technology that’s still available to it. It will take a lot longer to develop its indigenous capabilities that way. I think what Iran is hoping for is still to find some way to back the Europeans down, to get access to the enrichment technologies that it requires and to find some sort of compromise on its terms, not on the Europeans’ terms. In other words, they might look at the Russian proposal—the compromise proposal that Russia has tabled [that would send Iranian uranium to Russia for production and Moscow would send completed fuel rods back to Iran]—but they would want that to be a much more favorable proposal for them than it is now.
When we talked in June, you mentioned the Russian proposal that was beginning to be talked about. Since then, it has become more formalized. In this case, the actual enrichment work would be done in Russia, right?
What is it that the Iranians would want instead of that?
Well, they’ve said that they want the enrichment to be done in Iran as well. What the Iranians want is to have access to the technologies they need to continue their enrichment program going, and to do that enrichment work in Tehran, at least partially in Tehran. So the Russian proposal is a compromise that would do all the enrichment work in Russia and perhaps give Iranians access to Russian enrichment technology there. That’s not a bad deal from Iran’s point of view, but they want more. They want the establishment of a facility in Tehran as well. That is completely unacceptable. No European government could agree to that at this point.
Until now the thought has been that if the United States and the EU went to the UN Security Council, they couldn’t get anything passed because Russia and/or China would block it. Do you think that’s still the case?
Well, part of the European and to some extent the U.S. effort over the last few months has been aimed at convincing Russia and China that Iran is blocking the compromise, not them. And so the Europeans have backed this Russian proposal hoping that either the Russian proposal would work or the Russians in their own negotiations with the Iranians would come to agree with Europeans and thus support referring Iran to the Security Council. That’s not a bad strategy; the problem is that Russia has a lot of money on the table with Iran, both in construction of the existing Bushehr [nuclear] facility, further nuclear reactors that Iran would like to build, the provision of fuel for those reactors, at least for the next five years, and possible missile-related development programs. Moreover, Russia’s own leadership has hardened its line over the past year or so. It’s not at all clear which way Russia is going to tip.
So we’ll only know when there’s actually a piece of paper on the table.
Yes. It’s still up in the air. I don’t think anybody knows at this point.
And of course if it’s vetoed, that will be a tremendous victory for Iran, right?
It will be, but if Iran gets brought to the Security Council, it’s going to be seen as a severe loss of prestige. Iran will become branded as a pariah nation. And this is something that the Iranians don’t want: one, because they don’t see themselves that way, and two, they fear that it will complicate all their other foreign relations. If they then in addition get sanctions voted against them, that is the worst possibility of all.
But it may be that under this new hard-line regime, Iran is willing to take those risks, in part because this plays well domestically. The government is not popular, the economy is miserable, the new president has failed to deliver on any of his economic reform promises made during the campaign. Under such a circumstance, it’s always useful for a leader to "wag the dog," to help create an image of themselves as being the resolute warrior who will defend Iran from threats real and imagined. But the risk for Ahmadinejad is that if this backfires, he’s seen as the one creating these international problems, not solving them.