Q&A With Joseph Cirincione, Part 1
Interviewed by Amal Varghese
Joseph Cirincione is President of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. In part 1 of this interview with MA, he talks about the prospect of Israeli strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the current US position on Iran’s nuclear developments.
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 is the author of hundreds of articles on nuclear weapons issues, the producer of two DVDs, a frequent commentator in the media, and he appeared in the films, Countdown to Zero and Why We Fight. 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 has held positions at the Henry L. Stimson Center, the U.S. Information Agency and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 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.