Leader of Anti-Proliferation Org Changes Tune on Preventing Iran Nukes

Altered position brings him more in line with Obama administration

Joseph Cirincione
Joseph Cirincione /
February 23, 2015

The leader of a prominent anti-proliferation organization that has spent millions touting the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran is under fire for seeking to rationalize a rumored administration collapse on a key condition of the nuclear negotiations after long advocating the opposite.

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund—which has funneled millions over the years to organizations pushing a soft line on Iran—appears to have changed his tune on the restrictions necessary to prevent a nuclear Iran since beginning work for the group in 2008.

Cirincione, a former top official at the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP), has pushed diplomacy with Iran in the press and has been a key ally in the White House’s battle to sell a hotly contested nuclear deal with Tehran.

However, critics allege that Cirincione is being disingenuous, citing comments he made over a 10-year span.

In 2005, Cirincione warned about the dangers of a nuclear Iran, urging that the Islamic Republic not be left "’a screwdriver's turn’" away from bomb-making capability."

Ten years later, Cirincione is mocking Republicans who have issued the same warnings about Tehran.

In a 2005 article for the Washington Post, Cirincione argued that if Iran is permitted to keep its nuclear power plants—as the Obama administration has proposed—that "this would put them ‘a screwdriver's turn’ away from bomb-making capability."

"The problem is not the reactor. It is what goes into the reactor and what comes out," Cirincione wrote when he was a member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The same plants that can enrich uranium to low levels for fuel rods, can enrich uranium to high levels for bombs. The same plants that can reprocess the spent fuel rods (extracting their plutonium, uranium, and waste products) for disposal can also reprocess the rods to make plutonium for bombs."

He continued:

This is the essence of the Iran problem. We can live with an Iran with nuclear power reactors, we cannot accept an Iran with the plants to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. This would put them ‘a screwdriver's turn’ away from bomb-making capability. We need to create a new international regime that prevents any new country from building such facilities and puts the existing facilities under international safeguards.

In the 10 years since publishing this article, Cirincione has altered his position to bring it more in line with what the Obama administration is proposing in negotiations—to permit Iran to retain the most controversial aspects of its nuclear infrastructure.

"Over the past two years, dozens of politicians and prognosticators have drawn various red lines that Iran should not cross lest it be ‘a screwdriver's turn away from having a nuclear weapon’ as Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) said last week," Cirincione wrote at Defense One late last week.

He went on to criticize the focus on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, the key component in a nuclear weapon. Under a likely deal, Iran would be permitted to keep the majority of this nuclear infrastructure.

Nuclear experts criticized Cirincione’s change of heart.

"Joseph Cirincione was right in 2005 when he said that we cannot leave Iran 'a screwdriver's turn' away from bomb-making capability," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). "He was correct when he said that 'we can live with an Iran with nuclear power reactors, we cannot accept an Iran with the plants to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.'"

"Now that he has changed his mind, Joe should explain why and whether he has any red lines left that if not met would render a nuclear deal unacceptable," Dubowitz said.

Cirincione did not respond to an email seeking clarification of his remarks.