Robert Joseph Goes Nuclear

Former State official: Obama softline policy toward Iran, North Korea creates a more dangerous world


The State Department’s former top weapons proliferation official said recently that the Obama administration’s failure to threaten military force against Iran had helped advance the covert nuclear arms program there.

Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control during the George W. Bush administration, also said in a speech that the administration’s push to engage Iran and North Korea, and to eliminate all nuclear arms, has increased global threats to U.S. security.

Joseph challenged President Obama’s statement that his administration inherited a policy toward Iran “in tatters” and said the current conciliatory approach had failed to stem Tehran’s drive for a nuclear bomb.

“Despite multiple claims that the sanctions are working, the scope and the pace of Iran’s nuclear program are expanding and accelerating,” Joseph said at a breakfast meeting May 9.

Iran operated about 4,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium at a plant near Natanz at the end of 2008. Three years later, the IAEA reported that Iran’s enrichment capacity in Natanz doubled to more than 8,000 centrifuges, he said.

Joseph, an adviser to presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said the two main themes of administration efforts to stop the flow of nuclear and other arms has been “an unshakable faith in engagement” with Tehran and Pyongyang and a global push for eliminating all nuclear weapons.

“My bottom line is that both of these themes have actually undermined our ability to stop proliferation, and in fact may produce the opposite effects of those intended, a more proliferated and more unstable and dangerous world,” Joseph said.

On Iran, Joseph said Tehran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium increased five-fold from about 1,000 kilograms in early 2009 to over 5,000 kilograms today.

Additionally, the formerly covert underground nuclear plant is producing 20-percent enriched uranium, which is closer to what is needed for producing weapons.

“As for weaponization, the past two IAEA reports have emphasized disturbing and in some cases recent activities that the agency’s inspectors on the ground believe are, in their words, ‘strong indicators of possible weapons development,’” Joseph said.

The work on nuclear arms includes evidence of neutron initiatives, triggering systems, and implosion experiments.

“The administration can continue to claim that Iran halted its weapons work in 2003 to 2004, but it cannot deny the existence of evidence to the contrary,” Joseph, now with the National Institute for Public Policy, said. ”On this question, the IAEA is far to the right of the administration. But hey, who is not to the right of this administration?”

A White House spokesman had no immediate comment on Joseph’s remarks.

Obama’s policy of offering an “open hand” to the ruling mullahs in Iran prevented the imposition of effective sanctions on the regime for three years, in order not to upset the chances for bilateral talks, Joseph said.

“But placing engagement at the center of our Iran policy not only failed to achieve the hoped-for results, it has proven to be very costly,” he said. “Iran’s leaders have played us like a fiddle. The on-again, off-again negotiations which continue today have only bought time for Tehran to continue its nuclear program.”

Only after the International Atomic Energy Agency presented what its director called “alarming evidence” of Iran’s nuclear arms work did the Obama administration change course and adopt the Bush administration approach of using sanctions.

As a result, the Obama administration squandered three years on a policy representing “the triumph of hope over experience,” in the words of Samuel Johnson on second marriages, Joseph said.

New sanctions against Iran are set to be imposed in the coming weeks. Joseph said that if the sanctions had been imposed sooner, “it would have had a greater effect.”

“But today, although sanctions are causing economic pain, there is no evidence to suggest that the nuclear program is being slowed,” he said.

Joseph said that despite the Obama administration’s claim that all options against Iran are being considered, the administration has not threatened the use of force, noting that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates went so far as to say using force against Tehran would be “insane.”

“The irony is that the best means to improve the prospects for a peaceful diplomatic settlement is to make it clear to Tehran that force is a credible option,” Joseph said. “There is no reason to believe that the regime would ever abandon the nuclear program, with one possible exception. And that is that it believed force would be used against it.”

He noted that was the case with Libya in 2003 when the regime of Muammar Qaddafi gave up its covert nuclear program.

“Because we’re now at this crossroads, I believe we must consider the benefits, costs, and risks of using force; not an invasion or large-scale bombing of cities and industrial plants, but attacks to destroy the known facilities, or at least the main known facilities, of the program,” Joseph said.

Deciding not to use force and following the president’s current policies would be tantamount to accepting a nuclear-armed Iran, and a policy of nuclear containment or deterrence of Iran is “fraught with risks,” he said.

It is assumed that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would produce substantial costs, including counter strikes by Iran with missiles and the use of terrorism.

On North Korea, Joseph said the administration’s 2009 policy of “strategic patience” with Pyongyang ignored the isolated state’s nuclear program and produced predictable results.

North Korea “revealed a modern enrichment facility after years of denial,” he said, noting the regime’s underground nuclear tests, multiple missile launches, and escalation of tensions with military provocations.

The administration then gave in to North Korea and bribed the regime with 265,000 tons of wheat as part of a food aid program designed to coax negotiators back to the nuclear arms talks.

“The charade quickly fell apart with the failed rocket launch, a testament to the fecklessness of engagement without pressure on these types of regimes,” Joseph said.

Rogue states such as Iran and North Korea are not seeking Cold War-style deterrence against the United States, Joseph said. Instead they seek a limited capability to hold a small number of cities “hostage” to the threat of a nuclear attack.

“If they can do that, then the whole calculus sort of changes in their region,” he said.

On the idea of “global zero” nuclear arms reductions, Joseph said the Obama administration’s efforts to denuclearize has made the return of traditional arms control the centerpiece of a U.S. non-proliferation policy that he compared to the Ban the Bomb movement of the 1960s.

“While a nuclear free world may be a laudable vision, it doesn’t fit today’s circumstances, and it doesn’t work to counter the real-world challenges that our nation faces, whether from state proliferators or from the threat of nuclear terrorism or potentially from future peer competitors,” Joseph said.

The administration has reduced the role of nuclear deterrence in U.S. strategy, placing it behind countering nuclear terrorism and reducing the role of nuclear arms in security doctrine, he said.

“I would argue that it’s based on policies of unilateral disarmament founded on ideology, rather than on the realities and the dangers of the world as it exists today, all in the name of the president’s Prague vision,” Joseph said, referring to Obama’s 2009 speech calling for an end to all nuclear arms in the world.

Joseph also criticized the 2010 New START arms treaty with Russia as a “unilateral” U.S. disarmament pact because the treaty cuts only U.S. nuclear arms.

“Moscow has stated that its warhead and launcher levels will actually go up under the treaty,” Joseph said. “In fact, the treaty limits are now described by Russian leaders as setting a new goal for the expansion of Russian forces. So much for the White House fact sheet that suggests that Russian forces will be reduced by a third. It’s simply not true.”

Joseph said the administration’s jettisoning of a missile defense interceptor site in Europe that could protect the U.S. homeland was a concession to Moscow for the START treaty. However, the “reset” with Moscow has failed, as shown by the statements of a Russian general two weeks ago who threatened preemptive attacks on NATO missile defense sites in Europe.

Obama’s comment in Seoul recently to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he will be more flexible on missile defense talks after the November elections highlights “the broader ideological context of the anti-nuclear agenda of the administration,” Joseph said.

“Unlike in Libya and Syria and elsewhere, where the administration is leading from behind, in the pursuit of a nuclear free world, it’s leading from the front,” he said. “The problem is no one else is following. And the consequences are likely, in my view, to be more proliferation, more instability, as the U.S. is challenged by both adversaries and friends alike for a lack of capability and a lack of resolve.”

The speech was made before a breakfast meeting of the National Defense Industrial Association, Air Force Association, and Reserve Officers Association.