Co-Founder, Co-Chair, and Strategic Advisor
Interview with Sen. Sam Nunn, July 24, 2015
Listen to the audio
Interviewers: President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry continued their push for Congress to approve a new nuclear deal with Iran. The Republicans including both of Georgia’s U.S. Senators are expressing either serious doubts or outright opposition to it, and Israel’s government has called it an historic mistake.
But with one side saying this deal will block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, and the other side saying it will make it easier for Tehran to get one, how can the rest of us possibly understand what’s in the agreement?
Former Georgia Democratic U.S. Senator Sam Nunn has been watching nuclear weapons dangers around the world for years. With Ted Turner he co-founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative where he is the CEO. Senator Nunn joins us in our studios it’s great to have you welcome back to WABE.
Sam Nunn: Thank you Denis, delighted.
Interviewer: Let’s start with where Iran’s nuclear program is now. We’ll try to get a little primer here. Does it have the materials currently to make nuclear weapons and if it does, how close is it to actually putting a weapon together?
SN: I think our intelligence community–based on the last information I have, this is not classified information but parts of it would be–estimates that a month or two months would be required to take their existing enriched material to the level that would be required to make a bomb. One to two months is a very short period of time, so one of the goals of this set of discussions and agreement is to stretch that time so that they could not achieve a real weapon within one to two months, but to go to at least a year. Of course, we’d like for it to be 5 years or 10 years or 20 years, but that’s what we’re dealing with here.
I think it’s also important to know the way they are measuring this is exactly as you said, Denis—it’s the amount of the material. There’s another dimension of making a weapon. You’ve got to put the material in a bomb; you got to do all of that and that’s a whole other intelligence track. It does have its own set of implications, but it’s a lot harder to get to that or to know what’s happening. It’s much easier to verify the material.
Interviewer: If you’re the country with the material it’s one thing to have what you might say the guts of the bomb, but it’s quite another to put the whole thing together, so that it would actually work, but how would this deal in terms of what the administration is saying, how would this deal stretch the time out that Iran would need to make a bomb to actually assemble one?
SN: It would do it by a number of measures, including getting a substantial number of centrifuges out of commission. Those centrifuges are where you take natural uranium and process it to enriched uranium. The hard part about all of this and not just Iran, but the whole world of proliferation is that the same technology by which you make absolutely legitimate material for a nuclear power plant or for nuclear medicine is the same technology that can produce a nuclear weapon. Therein lies the huge loophole in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which regulates this whole thing, and it’s been one of most effective treaties, but that technology and knowledge is all important. Once you have the ability to enrich to a low level then you have the ability to take it to a higher level and make a bomb. Countries around the world–and we sometimes disagree with this–but they interpret the Nonproliferation Treaty as giving all countries the sovereign right to have that technology for peaceful nuclear purposes. When countries take advantage of that, like Iran has and like North Korea has, then you’ve got yourself a huge dilemma. In the broader picture, we’re going to have to put all enrichment under some type of international supervision, if we’re going to live in this world over the next 20, 30 years.
Interviewer: So the key to this in slowing Iran down would be take the centrifuges out of commission and then that would make it tougher for them to use the material they already have to make the bomb. Is that oversimplifying?
SN: No but it would increase the time by which they would have to put together another effort to make the material to get a bomb. They also have got certain material that has been enriched up to the 20 percent level. The 3 or 4 or 5 percent is what you enrich for a civil power plant, that’s low enriched uranium. Twenty percent is for some forms of nuclear medicine. Sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety percent is in that range is what you make a bomb out of like a Hiroshima bomb. So it’s a matter of how much you enrich.
Interviewer: Now you say that all global enrichment should be monitored by some kind of central organization. How feasible is something like that?
SN: Well the nuclear powers, including the United States, would not probably be in favor of that at this moment, but I think over the long haul we have to put everybody that’s enriching under some type of international camera and international inspection. The same thing with reprocessing. Reprocessing is taking spent fuel, and basically it takes a huge plant to do it but re-processing that fuel in a way that produces weapon-grade material, that’s called plutonium. What’s called on the centrifuge output is highly enriched uranium, so those are the two ways you make a nuclear weapon. My organization has worked for 14 years to try to try to prevent catastrophic terrorism, which is one of the things I worked on in the Senate with Senator Lugar. We have focused on nuclear material because getting all weapons-usable nuclear material under security and getting rid of as much of it as possible is absolutely indispensible to protecting our country and to preventing catastrophic terrorism.
Interviewer: And if you are just now tuning in, we’re speaking with former Georgia Democratic U.S. Senator Sam Nunn. He is co-founder and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and we’re talking about the nuclear deal with Iran and the agreement gives that country 24 days notice before inspectors could check suspected violations. Opponents have said that would make it easy for Iran to get away with cheating, and today on NBC as we heard Secretary Kerry argued, you can’t hide enriched nuclear material because of the radiation. But what kind of other opportunities, I guess you could say, would such a window give for Iran to get away with something that’s under the table.
SN: Well, you prefer to have a shorter period of time. The question is whether the intelligence community feels within that period of time, 2 or 3 weeks, getting in there after that period of time they would be able to see a footprint and be able with reasonable degree of certainty to understand what was going on. If cheating is going on, they will have to go into enforcement. So verification and enforcement are all important, and we’ll have to defer to the experts on that.
But I think it would be good to sort of back up and say what we’re trying to achieve here because sometimes we get so involved in the details, we lose sight of what we’re really trying to achieve. What we’re really trying to achieve is basically preventing the Iranians from getting a bomb. The question is whether this agreement makes it less likely or more likely. In other words, if you don’t have an agreement, is it more likely they would get a bomb over the next 10 or 15 years or maybe 2 or 3 years, or will this agreement set that effort back? I think that when you read all of it–not withstanding that it’s far from a perfect document–it’s pretty clear that the answer to that is: It’s going to be a lot harder for the Iranians to get a nuclear bomb over the next 10 or 15 years.
There’s another dimension that comes into this debate, but it’s not part of the goal of the discussions. Maybe it should have been, but that would have depended not just on us but on Russia and China and all of our allies who have participated in the economic embargo which brought Iran to the table; people forget this is not all the U.S. The other dimension is the Iranian behavior, there’s no question that Iranian behavior in the region is destabilizing, whether it’s Syria, or whether it’s Hezbollah, an organization we branded as terrorist, whether it’s Hamas, whether it’s in Yemen, but this negotiation was not aimed at that behavior. These debates are getting very much mixed between those goals because if we had aimed at for instance, Syrian behavior, or Iran, or Hezbollah or Hamas, we would not have had Russia participate, and probably would not have had much enthusiasm for the oil embargo that our European allies have put on.
So we have to parse this a little bit and say what was the agreement aimed toward, what the negotiations aimed toward, what was the U.N. resolutions aimed toward and what was the economic embargo, which has been very effective, aimed toward. It was to prevent them from getting a bomb, and this agreement does makes it much more difficult–you wouldn’t say impossible–but makes it extremely difficult for them to achieve that goal of getting a bomb over the next 10 or 15 years. In my view, it’s crucial that we basically keep Iran from having a bomb because if they do then other countries in the region are going to feel they need one and that would make the whole area even more dangerous than it is right now, so that’s what we have to keep in mind.
I would have liked for the agreement to have covered the Iranian behavior, but it never was aimed at that. The U.N. resolutions and this kind of framework started in the previous administration under President George W. Bush, so we’ve had two administrations with the aim of basically having these negotiations and having the embargo aimed at that one primary goal of keeping them from getting a bomb. Now we have to deal with the behavior problem also. That’s part of America’s foreign policy but that’s another channel with probably a different group of allies.
Interviewer: Quickly, while this slows down kind of a nuclear Iran do you think it’s inevitable that one day we will see it?
SN: Well, it’s hard to forecast. I believe in the next 10 or 15 years if this agreement goes through it’s going to be extremely unlikely that Iran will have a nuclear weapon. Now what they do in 10 or 15 years, we’re buying time with this. When you get right down to it, we’re buying time. We’re not getting an insurance policy that they will never have a weapon because what the CIA said seven, eight, 10 years ago that any country that is as large as Iran with the kind of technical knowledge they have and if they’re talking about it and they’re really determined, given the knowledge they already have in Iran and the scientist they have, they can get a nuclear weapon. This agreement does not change that. It does not keep them from getting a nuclear weapon in the long term. It just makes it extremely difficult and extremely unlikely in the next 10 or 15 years, and when you’re betting on time you’re betting that the Iranian society will change and that’s a big bet.
But the young people in Iran now have a totally different attitude in many cases, a much different attitude from the older generation, and they’re much less enchanted by the leadership of the religious groups. They’re much less inclined towards the theocracy and that is the hope for the future because the Iranian behavior has to change as well as them not getting the bomb. It’s not one or the other. We have to have both, but that involves other determinations in other parts of U.S. foreign policy, which we have to be very vigorous about. For instance, I think we have to have more clarity in terms of our policy toward Syria. We have to make sure that when we draw red lines that those lines are adhered to or we take action. There are other things we need to do assure our allies to make sure is that our allies including Israel, including the Arab nations there that are afraid of Iran, but that is not going to be handled in this negotiation.
Then you have to ask yourself the question, “If we turn this agreement down what happens?” So there are two sets of risks here. One is the risk associated with the agreement. The other set of risks is what happens if this is turned down by the Congress.
Interviewer: And the agreement runs out after 15 years as we’ve been talking about and you say this buys us time. Opponents worry that in that time because we’re all lifting sanctions and Iran would have more money really. Iran would not only be able to perhaps increase its bad behavior which you say is a separate issue, but it would also be able to take that money and use it toward getting a lot closer to making a bomb even if it didn’t cheat in the process. Is that a legitimate concern?
SN: I think that is a legitimate concern. I think that is the best argument that the opponents of this agreement are making, but it has a weakness. The weakness is you have to back up and say what is the assumption of that argument. The assumption of that argument is that we can continue the embargo and that the United States can make that decision and our allies will all, including Russia and China, will all salute and say “yes sir Uncle Sam” we’ll go along with that, and the European allies will continue to not buy oil which has been devastating to the European economy. That assumption is false.
Interviewer: So the agreement doesn’t cover what they do.
Sam Nunn: We’ve had, I think, real diplomatic success in keeping this coalition together so far, but in my view, Denis, we cannot hold it together if the United States turns down this agreement because we basically have got countries that don’t agree with us on the Iranian behavior. For instances, Russia is an ally of Syria, and they’re not going to have part of their embargo, including arms that Russia has cut off, involve a goal in Syria which they fundamentally disagree with. The assumption you make when you say that no we shouldn’t do this because it’s going to give Iran their resources–that assumption doesn’t hold up. A lot of the resource–not all of them but a lot of these resource–are going to come anyway if this agreement is turned down because the United States will have basically gone in a different direction from our allies in the embargo, and we’ll have gone in a different direction from the international community.
Interviewer: One of the reasons that you know as much as you do about the region is you’re a former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. There is the possibility, and some folks have raised this, that if Israel, which doesn’t like this agreement at all suspects that Iran is somehow inching closer to a bomb it could act unilaterally because Israel is not a party to this deal. Does that concern you at all as a possibility?
SN: Well that’s been the concern of the last two administrations. I think President George W. Bush’s administration basically urged Israel not to take unilateral action, and the Obama administration has certainly urged them not to take unilateral action. Israel is going to do what’s in their own fundamental interest. If they feel a huge threat to Israel from an Iranian weapon, I have no doubt they’ll take military action.
Interviewer: And then wouldn’t we have to go in and back them up?
SN: I think there is a strong likelihood that Israel would not take that action unless the United States was going to back them up. Because when you take that action, people think you can just go in a hit a couple of places. It’s much broader than that. You got to take out, in my view, the power grids. You can’t run centrifuges without power. I think you take out all the anti-aircraft missiles sites that they have, which are considerable. In my view you have to take out all the ships that could lay land minds in the Persian Gulf, which would basically clog the oil supplies and have huge economic implications. So these are the big air attacks. It doesn’t mean Israel couldn’t do severe damage, but everybody I’ve talked to in the Israeli military intelligence believe that if this is the kind of military action it would need to be United States involved. We also have to consider that we have had three or four wars with the Muslim community. Iran is Shiite and a lot of our allies are Sunni so they don’t necessarily like each other, but you have to ask can the United States afford another war at this stage with the Muslim community. In my view we have two fundamental goals and one is to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon but the second is also important to do so without military force except as a last resort. It could become a last resort, but hopefully it will not.
Interviewer: Now Denis you recently spoke with President Carter and he said he expects Iran will live up to the deal basically because it has a reason to do so. Senator Nunn has you’ve watched Iran’s nuclear program over the years. Do you have any reason to agree with President Carter on that.
SN: I think it’s in the interest of the Iranian government to become part of the international community economically. I think in this regime if Iran has any hope of surviving, they got to do a lot more for their young people. They got to address a lot of the concerns of the human rights activists in Iran. There are more and more of those. They got to have more of a civil society in Iran. They are going to have to make some fundamental changes, and I don’t think they can do that while defying the whole international community, so it seems to me it’s in their interest for this agreement to go through.
And you have to add one other dimension here and some people scoff at it but I don’t. The Ayatollah has said over and over again, it’s against the Iranian principle and against the religious principle to make a nuclear weapon, so the Ayatollah is not saying we want a nuclear weapon. He’s saying we have a sovereign right to have a nuclear program, which means civil which means medical. Now do you believe it? Of course, I’m skeptical myself do we need to verify that? Yes. Do we need to make sure that if they cheat, we are ready to do something about it? Yes. But it does give the Ayatollah and the religious group a landing place, so they can say they have not been humiliated. That’s important in international negotiations. They can say, as they’re saying, our goal all along was not to have a nuclear weapon. Now I don’t think all elements of Iran are in on that. Nevertheless, that is an important factor: They’re not having to back down and be humiliated by saying we had a nuclear quest for a bomb and now we don’t. They’re not saying that because that wasn’t where they were.
Interviewer: I’m going to step back to something you mentioned earlier. If Iran is successful and does build a bomb what that could mean for other countries. Talk more about that. Are we talking tiny countries with nuclear bombs? Who would you suspect would be next on that list?
SN: You’ve got countries that I don’t want to say what they might do and might not do; that would be up to them. But you’d certainly have concerns for leading Sunni countries that don’t want to live by Shiites to have a nuclear weapon when they don’t. Saudi Arabia is a big supporter of Pakistan. Pakistan they’re a Muslim country too and they already have a hundred of weapons at least, so there would be a strong suspicion of what Saudi’s might do and they’ve been a good ally of ours. You would also have Turkey, a member of NATO; you have Egypt, one of the historical powers in that region as well as others.
One of the things that will have to be done here that is very important. We talked about the weakness of this agreement, and it is the resources that are going to go to Iran and we’ve got to have an assertive foreign policy in the Middle East–more assertive than we have had–to reassure our allies, including some of those countries we talked about that might want their own nuclear weapon and that’s a very important part of this.
Is America is going to be able to be able to assure our allies? But I also have to add another dimension here and that includes Israel. Our allies are going to have to do some reassuring of us too because some of our allies there are sponsoring, and have for many years, extreme education curriculum that grows a lot of the terrorists that come out of there. This is happening all over the Muslim world, and we have to have some frank conversation with some of the funders of that kind of educational program.
We also have to have, I think, some reassurance from Israel on the whole question of settlements because we need eventually a two-state solution on this Palestinian question, and the settlements are, everybody knows, a very detrimental factor in that. Reassurance works both ways. We’re going to have to be much more assertive in terms of reassuring our allies, but they have their own important role to play too.
Interviewer: Got a couple of minutes left with former Georgia Democratic U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, former chair of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate, and co-founder and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Senator based on what you’ve observed of Iran’s nuclear activity over the last few years because you’ve been watching them for awhile now do they have a pattern of pushing things to the edge, trying to play fast and loose with whatever arrangements have been made prior?
SN: Denis, I’ll say very quickly. Trust but verify. We’ve got to verify this, and we have to enforce it. I think that’s enormously important, but we also have to ask very seriously what’s the effect if we turn this down? What’s the effect if we see a resolution of disapproval in the House and one in the Senate, which I think you’re probably going to get and then the President vetoes it, and then they override with two-thirds in the House and two-thirds in the Senate.
In my view it would isolate us from the international community on this Iranian question, and it would make every one of these difficulties with Iran–including the nuclear weapon preventing that from happening and including their behavior–much worse. So those people who are adamantly opposed to this agreement and there’s all sorts of reasons you could be opposed. In fact, there is almost no constituency for it. The opposition got all the constituency here, but you have to ask what are the consequences for turning this down. In my opinion, the consequences would be very severe.
Interviewer: One of the arguments that has come up and unfortunately we only got about a minute to answer what may be a complicated question, but opponents have pointed to previous agreement with other rising nuclear powers, like North Korea. We thought we had a deal with North Korea and they have just gone ahead. Does the North Korean experience apply at all to what we might see with this deal with Iran?
SN: Well, I think it does. I think it tells you countries can cheat, and I think you have to be prepared for that. I think you have to be prepared for verification. I think you have to be prepared for enforcement, and you have to have allies with you. It cuts both ways, though. Look where North Korea is now. They’ve got the bomb. They’ve got the bomb, and they got a program where they’re going to have more bombs, so the absence of an agreement does not mean you stop the bomb. It means you have to take military action to stop it. Of course we have not done so. I don’t think many administrations, once they get in office and see all the sobering realities, are going to think the first preference is a war with Iran or the first preference is a war with North Korea. I think most presidents will decide those are last resorts, and we need to do everything we can to find an answer without resorting to war. But that’s an option. There always has to be an option.
Interviewer: Well you’ve given us a whole lot more to think about and maybe some understanding of why this is so complicated. Former Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn. Thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.
SN: Sure. Thank you, Denis and thank you, Jim.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.
Moniz spoke with Chris Cuomo about consequences of the withdrawal from the Iran Deal by the United States
NTI Co-Chair and CEO Ernest Moniz discussed the Iran Deal on PBS' NewsHour.
Ernest Moniz says the Russian leader needs to back away from the nuclear button.