Robert Joseph served as the United States Special Envoy for Nuclear Non-proliferation, with ambassadorial rank. Prior to this post, Joseph was the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, a position he held until January 24, 2007. Joseph is known for being instrumental in creating the Proliferation Security Initiative and as the architect of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. He was also the US chief negotiator to Libya in 2003 who convinced the Libyans to give up their WMD programs. He is now a senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy and professor at Missouri State University.
You have given extensive testimony before American elected officials about the Iranian nuclear deal and its effects. What are some of the main points you made?
I testified last summer three times, before committees of the House and Senate on the Iran agreement, in opposition to the Iran agreement. Each time I pointed out a number of flaws that I believe will have a pronounced effect on the prospects for further proliferation in the region. One principal flaw of the agreement is permitting Iran to regain a large-scale nuclear infrastructure, which, if you’re viewing from the perspective of Saudi Arabia or other regional powers, provides Iran the capacity both for breakout — if they choose to cheat at monitored facilities – or for sneak out — where they would cheat at suspect sites.
And, as you know, the agreement is fundamentally flawed in the verification context as it prohibits the IAEA from inspecting sites that Iran’s leaders have said are out of bounds – military sites or national security sites that they designate as off-limits. It’s at these sites that you have a history of suspected weaponization activities according to the IAEA November 2011 report and subsequent reports.
Then you have this bogus notion of moving the breakout time from what Secretary Kerry said was 2-3 months to 12 months, which I think is an absolute illusion — because we are not likely to know when Iran would make the decision to go for a nuclear weapon — and we don’t know what the baseline is. That is, we don’t know the point from which they are starting their sprint to a bomb because Iran was allowed to successfully stonewall the IAEA investigation of potential or possible military activities that the agency suspected Iran to have conducted.
The fact that ballistic missiles were not covered is also a basic flaw, one that we now see playing out today. Iran continues to test ballistic missiles, including at a range that would make sense only for the delivery of a nuclear weapon. And the sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities have been lessened and are being phased out. The latest Security Council resolution is much weaker, and in fact does not legally prohibit Iran from conducting these activities.
Then you have the so-called signing bonus, billions of dollars – $100, $150 billion and counting —that the regime is now gaining access to as a result of the agreement. It is using this money to fund its missile program, its nuclear program, terrorist activities, and subversion of regional states such as the governments of Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Bahrain. Iran has once again filled its war chest, and is now using this monetary bonanza to expand its influence, presence — look at Iran’s influence and military presence in Syria, for example. The nuclear agreement has been used by Iran as a green light for pursuing very aggressively its agenda. And the notion that you’d have snap-back sanctions is also illusory. It’s simply not the case.
As you look at how events have unfolded since last July, you’ll see that Iran is moving forward with research and development of new-generation centrifuges. Much more than the first generation models. While it is certainly better that Iran today is spinning 5-6,000 centrifuges, and not 19,000. But these are first-generation centrifuges. And don’t forget that Iran has not dismantled a single centrifuge. They have simply placed the extra machines in storage which they can access at will. Iran set a red line of not dismantling anything with their centrifuge program, and in fact they didn’t.
In terms of Iran’s missile program, they’re continuing to test ballistic missiles. The US protested, but there’s very little legal ground to stand on now that the US has supported the adoption of the new Security Council resolution. Instead of re-imposing effective sanctions for their missile activities, the Obama Administration is doing everything it can to appease Iran through the relief of sanctions – all to protect what the President considers to be the legacy achievement of the JCPOA. This will likely include access to US dollar transactions. Perhaps these will be offshore but nonetheless Tehran will have access to the U.S. financial system. Importantly, the sanctions that are being lifted were imposed not only because of Iran’s nuclear activities — but also in response to its missile program, its support for terrorism, in response to its horrendous human rights record. This is one of the most authoritarian repressive regimes in the world today. And yet we’re relieving sanctions across the board.
In light of your expertise on nuclear non-proliferation issues, please assess the implications of the JCPOA with respect to the cause of preventing other countries from developing or intensifying their own nuclear programs.
I think there are very significant proliferation consequences. I come at these issues from a non-proliferation perspective, and I see this agreement and the follow on-implementation — the further concessions being made — as encouraging more proliferation.
If I’m a Saudi national security advisor, I would be very concerned about Iran’s capability to acquire a nuclear weapon in a very short period of time and be able to deliver it by ballistic missile. And I’d give very serious consideration to having a nuclear weapons capability as a deterrent to Iran’s nuclear coercion and nuclear blackmail.
Other countries in the region may make the same calculation. Beyond the Gulf and the broader Mid-East, I think that potential proliferators will look at this agreement and say, we can have it all. We can have nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and get relief from sanctions. In fact, what we have seen recently goes well beyond sanctions relief. The U.S. is now reportedly assisting Iran’s nuclear program through the purchase of nuclear materials. From a nonproliferation point of view this is a total disaster.
North Korea’s behavior — both its pronouncements as well as its continuing nuclear and missile tests — need to be seen in this broader context. There’s simply no concern in Pyongyang that there will be significant consequences as a consequence of its proliferation activities. North Korea may be emboldened by the US and international response to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
What do you see as the impact on the credibility of the United States as a voice on nuclear weapons proliferation?
It’s not just the U.S. response to the Iran nuclear challenge. I think our allies in the Gulf, in Asia, and elsewhere are seriously questioning the credibility of the U.S. In the Gulf in particular, the fiasco with regard to the Syria CW red line did enormous harm to the reputation of the US as a reliable ally. The abandonment of Mubarak, the failure to act decisively in Syria, and the flawed Iran agreement sent a powerful message that the U.S. could not be relied on to fulfill its security guarantees, and this will have a profound effect on potential proliferation.
In your estimation, what steps will aspiring nuclear powers now take for their own programs in light of the “Iranian model”?
I think that a number of countries are likely to pursue the same type of “peaceful nuclear program” that Iran has pursued. In other words, they will seek to acquire the capability for quick breakout. What the JCPOA did was undercut decades of U.S. non-proliferation policy going back to the days of Jimmy Carter that discouraged friends, allies, and others from acquiring either reprocessing or enrichment capabilities. And we consistently engaged to discourage countries from this type of activity. Once we have given the stamp of approval to Iran to pursue enrichment, how can we with a straight face tell other countries, especially our friends, that they shouldn’t do this? Longstanding U.S. policy has been sacrificed for the sake of a legacy for the current president.
Which countries do you see as fitting into this category?
I think Saudi Arabia and the UAE are perhaps in this category. Outside of the Middle East, if you look at polls in South Korea for example, a majority of the respondents indicate that the South should have its own nuclear capability to deter North Korea. There are many examples of US friends and allies questioning our credibility. They don’t like to do it publicly but are not at all shy of doing it publicly.
In the Western hemisphere, there aren’t many urgent proliferation concerns. There are the longstanding issues associated with Brazil and Argentina, but neither country seems to be moving forward with a nuclear weapons program. Both were interested in the past, but because of the change in their own security relationship, they gave up their pursuit of nuclear weapons. That may change in the future for reasons of national security, or for the desire for prestige. Who knows what the future holds. But that’s not an issue on the front burner.
You were deeply involved in the process of disarming Libya’s weapons of mass destruction programs under Qadhafi. Is there a contrast worth drawing between the Libyan and Iranian experiences?
It is useful to contrast Iran with Libya. Clearly, Iran and Libya are not the same. There are many differences that need to be taken into account. But there are also a number of important lessons from the Libyan experience that we failed to apply with Iran. In Libya, we insisted on a strategic decision on the part of Qadhafi to abandon his weapons of mass destruction programs. We sent a ship over, on which we loaded hundreds of tons of nuclear equipment. Everything associated with centrifuges, all the conversion equipment, every component of the weapons program. It was a much larger and more advanced program than we believed. We took all that material out of Libya, including its longer range missiles. The contrast with Iran couldn’t be starker, where they said their missile force was non-negotiable, as was dismantling centrifuges. In both cases, and in other areas, Iran drew a red line and stuck by it. The P5+1 countries, led by the US caved with concession after concession.
The irony of it is, although we were negotiating from strength, we agreed to an outcome that I believe is a disaster from a non-proliferation perspective. It is an agreement that will encourage proliferation. Sanctions were working. The economy was tanking, further undermining the legitimacy of the Iranian regime. It has long been my view that repressive, authoritarian regimes like Iran are most concerned about their own people, above all other threats. Think of Ceacescu in Romania. It was the concern that their own people would rise up because of the near-bankrupt economy that brought them them back to the negotiating table. But instead of keeping the pressure on, we relieved the pressure at the negotiating table. And the Iranians proved to be much better negotiators than those across the table from them. We wanted an agreement desperately. The Iranians got everything they wanted, for a few cosmetic concessions. We violated every one of our principles in terms of the outcome we established for the negotiations. We did not end their program or constrain ballistic missiles. Remember the discussion of “anytime anywhere.” We failed to effective verification or meaningful snapback sanctions. We failed to get Iran to “moderate its behavior” with this agreement. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Iran has become even more aggressive and more capable as a result of this agreement.
What are the most realistic policy options available to the next President of the United States with respect to Iran?
Looking ahead to the next presidency, if we do insist on strict adherence to the terms of the agreement, there will be a path forward for abrogating this agreement based on Iran’s behavior. Cheating is in the DNA of Iran’s leaders. And if we are serious about enforcement, we will call them on it, and that will lead to the unravelling of this agreement. Iran will cheat . Just one example, while ballistic missiles aren’t covered, how can one pursue a long range missile capability whose only usefulness is carrying a nuclear weapon? That would be stupid on part of Iran’s leaders, and they’re not stupid people.
The only solution to the Iran nuclear challenge is regime change. Regime change has to come from within. We can’t impose regime change on Iran. But we can certainly support the opposition forces – those who support a democratic and non-nuclear Iran. We can re-impose US sanctions and push to impose UN sanctions. It will take time and effort, but it can and should be done, and that would have the effect of further undermining the legitimacy of the Ayatollah regime in Tehran. We don’t need to be provocative but we need to be strong and we need to back up our words and support our friends. We need to have a fully capable military presence in the region to assure allies and defend our interests in an area of vital importance to our nation’s security. Iran’s leaders need to know that there will be severe consequences for their behavior, something that’s absolutely missing from their calculations today. They are being rewarded for bad behavior. Secretary Kerry has made clear to Iran’s leaders that when they demand something, he will find a way to give it to them.
What do you see as the “Obama legacy” in terms of American foreign policy?
President Obama will go down in history as the man who failed to stop Iran’s nuclear program and contributed to more proliferation in the region and possibly a breakdown of the entire NPT regime — exactly opposite of the priority that he established for his administration.
Should America’s traditional Arab allies wish to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs, what American policies would you judge to be appropriate?
To avoid further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, we need to be perceived as credible in terms of supporting our friends and allies. We need to provide them the assurance that their and our security are indivisible, and that they can rely on the US, including our military capabilities. We need to support the activities of the IAEA rather than undercut them. The nuclear agreement with Iran has corrupted the IAEA, as evidenced by the Agency giving a pass to Iran on its past weaponization activities. I think the IAEA has become complicit in that whitewash. We need to be seen as a country that once again says what we mean and mean what we say.
We need to defend our friends, we need to dissuade and deter our adversaries. But if other countries are determined to move forward to build nuclear weapons, we will have a more proliferated world. If a country like North Korea can acquire a relatively large and growing nuclear arsenal, any country can do it.
Look at Pakistan. We periodically sanctioned Pakistan, particularly at times in which Pakistan was not important in our national security calculations. With the war on terror, and even before that with the soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we needed Pakistan a lot more. There was a sense of acquiescing. When Pakistan demonstrated it had a nuclear weapons capability, we again sanctioned it. But with 9-11, we acquiesced. Our response to future proliferation will depend on the circumstances and on the country.