Iran, ‘Nuclear Breakout’, and Hope for the Future: An Interview With Jacqueline Shire

Originally published here.

Jacqueline Shire of ISIS

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Jacqueline Shire, a Senior Analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, where she researches Iran’s nuclear program as well as proliferation issues involving other countries. Her background in nuclear weapons issues is extensive:

She spent eight years in the State Department’s Bureau of Political Military Affairs working on defense trade, proliferation and weapons of mass destruction. Her assignments included tours of duty at the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, and at the U.N.’s Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. At the State Department she helped develop initiatives to address the proliferation risks posed by weapons scientists of the former Soviet Union, and for the disposition of surplus weapons plutonium. She was a member of the U.S. delegation negotiating with North Korea for two rounds of discussions in 1993.

My questions are in boldface; her answers follow. For background on Iran’s nuclear program, please refer to this post.

The London Times, which tends to lean hawkish, on August 3rd reported that, and this is a quote, Iran “has perfected the technology to create and detonate a nuclear warhead,” and basically they’re waiting for Khamenei to give the word to go ahead and produce a bomb. Their sources – whatever their sources are – say that Iran completed a program to weaponize uranium in 2003. But, a few days later, the Washington Post reported that the Federation of American Scientists [FAS] via the Freedom of Information Act, got hold of a State Department report saying that Iran needs four more years to produce weapons-grade uranium. What is the story here?

It’s good that your bringing this up because this is a really important thing to sort through.

On the London Times story, about “had the ability to make a bomb”, these are sort of two separate things [London Times story versus Washington Post]. The London [Times] story, hawkish and overstated and sort of hyperventilating, is really specifically about the allegation that Iran had an actual weaponization effort that was ended in 2003.

… I work with David Albright who isn’t strongly of this view, but acknowleges that this is one possibility, that the reason that Iran suspended its weaponization R & D effort in 2003 is… the United States had invaded Iraq and was breathing down [Iran's] neck and maybe it was a new day and it was going to be a new world the next morning, but also possibly because their scientists had kind of learned what they needed to learn. Iran had acquired a fair amount of information from the A.Q. Khan network and it’s possible – you know, one reading of why they suddenly suspended [it] in 2003 is, as I said, war with Iraq, but because maybe the scientists decided “okay, we know what we know, we don’t really need to go any further right now, pending a decision to weaponize, which is down the road, we could get caught, it could cause all kinds of problems, let’s just table this effort for now.” We don’t know what actually happened, but that’s one school of thought. So the [London Times] article that you cite kind of takes that kernel of an idea and spins it into something else.

So that’s the [London Times] story on weaponization. Now, the FOIA request that FAS got raises another really important issue, and a lot of people have… totally misread this. INR [State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research] has the view which is expressed in the National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 and re-stated in the Global Threat Assessment in 2009, that Iran ended its weaponization effort in 2003… INR believes that for a variety of reasons, Iran will not have the means to produce enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a bomb until mid-this decade (or 2013).

The reason for that is that they believe Iran would not use the facility at Natanz to produce HEU, that they would pursue a covert program – that they would do it in secret. So if you build a secret enrichment facility you need more equipment, you need a location, you need time, and INR concludes, for reasons that kind of escape me, that it would take Iran a long time to build this covert enrichment facility.

So that’s the source of the INR 2013 conclusion. But people are misreading that and saying “oh Iran doesn’t have [nuclear breakout capacity]“. If Iran decided to break out today, using the LEU [low-enriched uranium] that it produced at Natanz, it technically has the means to do that. So INR is kind of taking it a step further.

From what I read in your work, I had interpreted that they could break out sooner than what INR said.

It just depends on what your assumptions are about breakout. If your assumptions are they would build a covert facility, then maybe INR has a point, although I don’t really see why it would take them quite as long as INR says, but people make these assessments and that’s what INR has concluded. But that’s the essential assumption behind the 2013 estimate, that Iran would not use the Natanz LEU.

In your assessment, and this is the question that everybody has… how long do you think it would be before they have a bomb?

It just all depends on – you know, it’s a political decision that Iran has to make. Based on the information that we have right now, Iran has not decided to make a bomb. If Iran decided today to make a bomb, it would just depend on [if it could] acquire some fissile material on the black market… it’s unlikely, you know, that Iran could acquire plutonium or HEU on the black market, but if it did, then it could build a bomb very – relatively soon. If it wanted to use its own nuclear material, without anyone knowing about it, it would need a couple of years to acquire that material.

If it wanted to create a North Korea – style international incident overnight and freak everyone out, you know, make Israel consider scrambling its fighter jets, it could announce that it’s withdrawing from the NPT and expelling IAEA inspectors, and within a matter of months it could take the LEU that it has stored at Natanz and enrich it further… it just depends on the route that Iran chooses to take.

It could be anywhere from a couple of months if it somehow acquires some fissile material, to a couple of years if it decides it has to make its own fissile material using a covert facility to somewhere in between if it goes the North Korea route and pulls out of the NPT and diverts its LEU. It just depends on the scenario.

How do you think the recent [Iranian] election may have affected their nuclear goals? I saw an article that said that it’s influenced them to the point that they would put it off, though one viewpoint might be “well no it seems like the election is favoring hardliners who would want to accelerate the program.”

Joe Cirincione suggested in the Huffington Post that this is good news for those of us who want to see Iran come to the table and negotiate because [Iran is] craving international legitimacy and it needs to show the world that it can be a “normal” country in good faith, so maybe this is going to be good news. I don’t know for sure – it’s just a little too soon to tell. You know, a couple of things are clear. The Ahmadinejad administration has almost no legitimacy. It’s fighting for its survival… I think he’s having trouble forming a cabinet. So there’s all kinds of just basic legitimacy questions that he’s dealing with. How that affects the nuclear talks is really, I think at this time, hard to say. Maybe Iran will, in that quest for legitimacy, decide to get serious. I just don’t know.

The other thing I was thinking about – it was sometime last month that Secretary of State Clinton talked about extending the nuclear umbrella to the Middle East.

Well, she talked about extending an umbrella, but she didn’t specify a nuclear umbrella. But people asked the question- and some people said, well, of course she’s talking about a nuclear umbrella. Some people said, “um, well, really? Hm, I don’t know,”

A defensive umbrella, then?

Right, a defensive umbrella. It would be shocking to me if we would extend our nuclear deterrent in that direction… President Obama has been elected on the premise that we’re going to downgrade the value of nuclear weapons in our defense policy. He has committed himself to really take real concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament. That does not mean finding new and more interesting ways to use nuclear weapons.

That leads to my next question: of course, Israel has a nuclear program, everybody knows they have it, I guess Olmert sort of slipped a few years agoand said they had one. Do you think that works as a deterrent toward Iran testing a [nuclear] device?

I think Israel’s nuclear deterrent does nothing to make it safer. Israel’s nuclear deterrent [arsenal] hasn’t stopped suicide bombers, it hasn’t facilitated peace with the Palestinians, it hasn’t solved issues related to the occupied territories, it really hasn’t enhanced sort of the day-to-day security of Israeli citizens. That’s the first thing.

Iran is a smart country that has survived for thousands of years. It begs credulity to me me to believe that its leadership sincerely believes it has a great deal to be gained security-wise from exploding a nuclear device. It could only lead to exacerbated relations with its Arab neighbors, more economic sanctions and isolation, nothing good – I have to believe that the Iranian leadership understands clearly that nothing good would come from it exploding a nuclear weapon in a test.

I agree with that completely. In fact I’ve heard that from other people as well. Recently, I interviewed Lt. Gen. Gard, who basically said Ahmadinejad isn’t this crazy guy that everybody says he is, that we have more to worry about from nuclear terrorism than from Iran doing something stupid with a nuclear device.

Right. That having been said, though, Iran could have other motives for nuclear ambiguity. Like, you know, Israel has nuclear ambiguity? Iran may have concluded that its security is enhanced by having people not know exactly what its capabilities are, and maybe they think that that’s – there’s something to be gained from that. I happen to think they’re wrong…  but that gets back to the original point, which is that Iran, today, at this moment in time, has not made the decision to have a nuclear capability in a very overt, determined way, like North Korea.

My next question would be – and again, I’ve read the fabulous report that you and David Albright wrote together, the “Nuclear Iran: Not Inevitable” [pdf]. So, can you tell me, just, you know, in a nice summary, from that report, and up to date as of today, how you feel we could deal with Iran, what you think a good solution would be at this point – your roadmap.

First thing is to embark on a dialog with Iran without any preconditions about suspending enrichment. That was the big Bush administration condition, and that was really a waste of time, and it’s a great thing that the Obama administration is seeing past that. So the first thing is to sit down face-to-face.

The second thing is to really try to probe on a more fundamental level: what are the security concerns that are motivating Iran’s decision to put in place the full nuclear fuel cycle, and by extension, a nuclear capability. Does it feel like its neighborhood isn’t very safe because Israel has nuclear weapons? This is all sort of tied up in larger issues about how the US takes steps forward to abolish nuclear weapons, and a big precondition, the big looming elephant in the room that has to be dealt with is what’s called the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone issue, which is all wrapped up in a host of other smaller issues, but basically getting Israel’s Arab neighbors to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and its need for security.

So if you can sort of probe at these issues, if you could persuade Israel to joint the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Iran to come clean with the IAEA about its activities, I mean this is kind of the larger thing that would be great to get at. But that’s a little pie in the sky for right now. That’s a little too far down the road. There are a bunch of intermediate steps that talks with Iran could serve, and one of them is to open the door to very small, kind of baby steps, small confidence-building measures, like it would be great if we could persuade Israel to commit not to produce any more fissile material. Or, to open the door a little bit to some transparency in these areas. If you can make some small baby steps in these areas, then you might be able to go to Iran credibly and say “We understand that there are a bunch of concerns in your neighborhood, so as a good faith gesture, how about you commit to supporting no reprocessing and enrichment in the Middle East, which  means that countries who want to have nuclear power programs (and there’s a whole separate argument about does it make any sense for Iran to have nuclear power programs) – set that aside and say “Iran, you have the right to do whatever you want…” So Iran’s got the right to nuclear power, if that’s what it chooses to use. So you say “If this is what you want, let’s recognize that enrichment and reprocessing is not making everyone comfortable and sleep well at night, so let’s find a way to get you your nuclear power without enrichment”, and that leads you to discussions about internationalizing the fuel cycle. So that’s sort of the – and actually, if you go back to the EU proposals that were tabled with Iran in June of 2006 and again in June of 2008, the kernels for these discussions are in those two proposals. And they’re really quite excellent. I mean, Iran dismissed them both, but I think that they do provide the basis for a discussion.

I was actually going to ask you about that. Why do you think Iran dismissed them [those proposals]? We’re offering -

Yes, offering state-of-the-art light water reactor technology. Why? I don’t know, I’m not Iran, but I imagine a couple of things. I’m not a student of Iran, but it does occur to me that the history of the last 30, almost 40 years, post-revolution, Iran has –  there have been successive [US] administrations that have come into office saying, sort of resolved to do things differently with Iran. To kind of, you know, let the past be the past, kind of move forward. And they’ve failed. You know, I mean, Clinton, Bush, it hasn’t worked out with Iran. I’d like to say that “oh, the fault is with the United States”, but sometimes I’m just not so sure.

That’s what I was going to say. It takes two to tango in this case, and the US has offered to “hit the reset button”, so to speak -

Exactly. The Nowruz [statement from Obama] was huge, as was his speech in Cairo. I mean, the US has definitely extended itself.

I think that one way to put it is that Iran, for domestic political reasons, Iran has not yet embraced an opportunity to sit across the table from the United States and discuss these issues. And that gets at things that I’m not a close enough student of. But… I think it’s hard for Iran to kind of come to the table to sit across from the United States as it is for the United States to do it in some ways.

I think that before relations can be normalized, I think that things like that have to be dealt with. I’d like to say it’s all the United States’ fault that Iran doesn’t want to come to the table, but I have this sneaking suspicion that they have a problem with diplomacy with the United States.

After the Bush administration, it’s easy to want to blame the US for everything, but in this case, it’s different. It’s such a hard issue to write about, and talk about. It’s not black and white, and for once it’s not totally our fault. It’s not nearly as simple as people want to make it, unfortunately.

Right. And I mean, my going-in position is, as a liberal progressive… it’s funny how Iran has kind of divided the non-proliferation community. The non-proliferation community doesn’t like proliferation anywhere. It doesn’t like it in Brazil, it doesn’t like it in Iran, it doesn’t like it in the United States. And here, you know, you run headlong into some Iran types who want to emphasize that there is a double standard for Israel and other countries in the region, which there is, and that’s the problem. There’s a double standard also with India: the US-India nuclear deal totally makes it difficult to argue that Iran shouldn’t have the full fuel cycle. India’s not a member of the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty].

This leads into a question about the nonproliferation issue. It’s a question from a friend of mine, and we can generalize it from North Korea. Here’s his question:

“The fact that North Korea, with its severe isolation, import restrictions and poverty, can create a nuclear weapon would suggest that almost any nation (or group) is capable of the same. Is there any real hope of restricting the spread of nuclear weaons by either military or economic force?  Is there any prospect of some new international agreement that might provide incentives that would be more effective in controlling this spread?”

I think that’s a really good question, and here’s my answer to that question.

Of the – 189 states that are parties of the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT], five of those countries are the declared nuclear weapons states, so that leaves 184 that are non-nuclear weapons states, they’ve taken a pledge, a solemn vow, like they’re getting married, they will not acquire nuclear weapons. There’s one defector from that treaty – that’s North Korea. There’s another “kind of, might be” defector – that’s Iran. Then there’s a bunch of states that were defectors and then came back in under the tent: South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, had their moments back in the 1970s. Other countries – Libya – had nuclear programs to varying degrees – got a little question mark about Syria. But basically, under the tent, there have been very few defectors. Then, outside the tent, you’ve just got three countries left: India, Pakistan, and Israel. So, in a way, I kind of think that’s not so bad!

When you put it that way, it sounds a little less hopeless than “The NPT is dead,” which is what I’ve tended to think.

No, no, don’t think the NPT is dead! The NPT lives! I was just reading Richard Butler’s book Fatal Choice, and he makes this argument about how the NPT is really an extension of the UN charter, and the UN charter of course is the most widely adhered-to multilateral treaty in the world. The NPT is right after that. There’s just like a couple of countries that don’t adhere to the NPT that are part of the UN charter: India, Pakistan, Israel, and maybe a handful of island states we don’t even know. But for the most part, I think the system – the Iran case demonstrates that the system is working imperfectly, but look, the system is working.

The IAEA detected some anomalies – actually it was a dissident group that brought to the attention of the world in August 2002 some satellite imagery showing nuclear facilities, IAEA investigates… I mean, it would have been great if the IAEA had found that information out on its own, but it didn’t. But the truth outed anyway, and the [UN] security council came together and met. You know you can also argue that in the case of North Korea, the system worked. Maybe imperfectly, but… you know, I was just reading the chronology of the last year-and-a-half on North Korea. It’s just back-and-forth, back-and-forth, of attempts to kind of bring North Korea along. North Korea, I think, is the true outlier. It truly kind of defies categorization. Iran is not an outlier. India and Pakistan are not outliers.

Another thing to show that the NPT is not dead is that Israel, India, and Pakistan all are members of the IAEA even though they are not members of the NPT. So that means that not all of their nuclear facilities are safeguarded, but some of them are.  Is that perfect? No. Would it be great if they weren’t producing fissile material for weapons? Yes. But each country has a legal document outlining a relationship between the IAEA and some of its research reactors or civilian nuclear programs. So that’s an important thing, and I think that that demonstrates that the treaty isn’t completely ineffective.

The whole A.Q. Khan narrative causes us to wring our hands and say “Oh God, the genie’s out of the bottle!” But look at the case of Libya. Libya, from the Khan network, bought all of these centrifuges. They never actually unpacked them and set them up. They were missing key components. They didn’t really have the infrastructure in place to really go out and start operating these centrifuges. Iran, which got a head start with the Khan network, has had to do Khan network plus: they had to dedicate HUGE resources, money, time, engineering, and they’ve had a sort of dogged, determined feel for what they’re doing. It’s pretty much unmatched, anywhere except for North Korea, but North Korea did the plutonium route to a bomb. So you know, it’s not a lot of countries that want to do that, to make everybody mad at them, dedicate the money, the time, [acquire material] on the black market, I mean it’s really not an easy thing to do. So there are lots of barriers.

I would just tell your friend that we should be concerned about it but shouldn’t give up on it, because that treaty is working better than almost any other treaty.

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