“A path to deal with N. Korea is a combination of pressure plus incentives”

Is North Korea a serious threat – and are Russia and the US really going to cut their nuclear arsenals? Joseph Cirincione, an authority on nuclear issues, shares his view on the situation with RT.

RT: Thank you very much for being with us today. We’ll start with START – the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. How quickly do you think an agreement can be reached on that?

Joseph Cirincione: Well, the US and Russian presidents have set a deadline. They want a report by the July summit, and they want the treaty completed before the end of the year, when the existing START treaty expires. Every indication is that the US and Russian negotiators are making rapid progress. I expect to see a treaty some time around October, submitted to the two governments for approval.

RT: Now, if you can spell it out for us, what do both sides in START agree on and disagree on?

J.C.: There is actually fundamental agreement right now between the US and Russia. One is that they need to continue the treaty verifications procedures. These are the procedures that allow inspectors from each country to go to the other country and see what the other side is doing with their nuclear weapons. Second – they want to keep up the process of arms reductions, they don't want that to end. And third – they agree that they can go even lower than the existing treaty allows for. So we will probably see an agreement as part of this deal to go to about 1,500 deployed strategic warheads. That's lower than the 2,200 that was agreed to in the Bush-Putin SORT treaty. The key is that the process doesn't end with this one agreement. This one will be something like a bridge agreement to a new more sweeping agreement that both sides have discussed. That will probably take place next year in negotiations. That's where we would talk about all our nuclear weapons, about bringing the US and Russia down to about 1,000 total weapons. That treaty might take another year-and-a-half to negotiate, but that's where we are going.

RT: What is the situation surrounding the warheads on standby, and the warheads in storage?

J.C.: The existing treaties only cover deployed warheads. So, for example, the United States has about 4,900 deployed warheads, but it has another 5,000 in warehouses, in storage. Those aren't counted. The same is with Russia.

RT: How effective do you think the proposed US missile defense system in Eastern Europe is?

J.C.: We do not have an effective anti-missile system that could intercept a long-range ballistic missile. We never have had such a system. What we do have are systems like Patriot that can do a pretty good job of intercepting short range systems like Scuds, but when it comes to long range we have not solved the basic technological challenges.

RT: How large is the threat posed by Iran to the US or Europe?

J.C.: Iran has a significant ballistic missile threat, but it is medium range, so they have missiles that can go about 2,000 kilometers. They can hit Israel, or parts of Turkey, but not much more than that. And as people in Russia know well, there is a big difference between a country that can make a short range missile or a medium range missile and a country that can make a true intercontinental ballistic missile, like Russia and the United States. There are only five countries that have even done that, and it takes years, it takes billions of dollars, it takes a big industrial base, and tremendous government dedication. Iran is nowhere near that. Even doing it requires substantial outside help. This is where US-Russian cooperation comes in. If the US is really worried about the Iranian threat, the best way to shut it down is cooperating with Russia to restrict the technological imports that Iran can get.

RT: What kind of cooperation are we talking about? How can the US and Russia cooperate together to protect themselves against present and future threats?

J.C.: Iran is probably the most significant sort of state threat to the United States and Israel in the Middle East. But solving it requires Russia. We need Russia for at least several reasons. One – diplomatic, to help convince Iran that it’s not just a US effort against Iran, that all its neighbors are concerned. Two – if you are really worried about short-range missiles you need Russia to cooperate in a joint US-Russia missile system. Three – if you really want to understand the threat, you should be doing joint threat assessments. Four – if you want to shut down the program you need Russia. Russia is a source of much of Iran’s technological imports. If Russia decides not to sell, there are very few places for Iran to go.

RT: Russia has been proposing the Gabala radar base in Azerbaijan as an alternative to the AMD in Eastern Europe. Why do you think that has been ignored?

J.C.: One of President Bush's biggest mistakes was ignoring that offer from President Putin to use the Azerbaijan radar. It’s true that the radar was not as capable as the radar that we are talking about putting in the Czech Republic, but it is closer to Iran and has the benefit of being a joint US-Russian operation. It was a big mistake not to take that offer up. I am delighted that the Obama administration is exploring this option and looking at it quite seriously.

RT: Just to be clear – are you saying the AMD in Eastern Europe is not going to take place?

J.C.: Inside the Obama administration there is a variety of views, and there are some who are most afraid of the president looking weak. And they don't want to give something up, they don't want to be giving up a missile deployment. I believe that position is wrong, but they are in there debating. Other officials, who are advising Obama, believe what Obama says. He is in favor of missile defense if it is operationally effective and affordable. The European system is not operationally effective, nor is it affordable. So I think in the end that you will see Obama delay any action on that and ultimately realize we don't need it. But it is going to be a struggle.

RT: North Korea is obviously another sore point, and it has been emerging as a nuclear threat more and more. Where else do you think the US could look to place the anti-missile defense shield – maybe somewhere else in Asia?

J.C.: The basic problem is that the missile shield doesn't exist, there is no missile shield. This is an illusion of defense. It's something that the right wing has pushed in the United States for years, that is: “We don't need treaties. We don't need to cooperate with other countries. We can put our own defenses up. We can build a castle that can protect us.” Nonsense! This is propelled not by technology, but by ideology.

RT: But the North Korean regime does seem determined to emerge as a nuclear power and build nuclear missiles. So, if the world community wanted to deter them, how could they do that?

J.C.: North Korea is a real threat. It's just that missile defense is not an answer to that. The only missile defense that would work here is intercepting those missiles on the launch pad, which by the way is a real military option. We are still talking about large, cumbersome, liquid fueled rockets that take days to assemble. They are big fat targets. My favourite missile defense is pre-boost intercept. You get it on the launch pad, but that doesn't solve your basic problem.

RT: How do we calm them down, basically, altogether?

J.C.: There is a very clear path to deal with North Korea, and we have dealt with them successfully in the past. It’s a combination of pressure plus incentives. You cannot coerce them into compliance or collapse. So number one, you need the strong international condemnation from all the powers. Number two – you have to have a complete agreement with those in the Six-Party Talks, including China and Russia to intervene with the North Korean leadership. And three – you need to have the US engaged directly at high levels. This is what has been missing. Engage at high levels with the North Korean leadership. You have to give them the attention and the respect they think they deserve, however difficult that may be for us, and show them that they can get what they want – security, respect – by non-nuclear means.

RT: As hard as it may be, we have to give them respect. It seems that is the sort of a stance that Russia has towards North Korea and that why it has been accused of having a too soft of a stance. Maybe it’s better to actually have a softer stance rather than be aggressive towards North Korea?

J.C.: The key is that we have to do this together. I believe that the Chinese and Russian view of North Korea is basically correct – that you can’t coerce them into giving up their program, and that you have to deal with that through diplomacy. That is basically correct, but when you don't have the US playing that same game, then the whole strategy fails. So we need to find some sort of compromise between the sanctions approach favored by the United States, and the diplomacy approach by Russia. I think we can get that. The Obama team dropped the ball here and it exploded at their feet. They basically thought they could ignore North Korea. When we ignore North Korea, that’s when they break loose, that’s when they demand our attention through tests. That was a mistake.

RT: And here comes the million dollar question. Popular belief stated that Bush was a hawk and Obama is a dove. Do you think Barack Obama will bring a real change?

J.C.: I think Barack Obama will bring dramatic change. He already has brought dramatic change to US policy. President Bush represented an extreme in US history, a truly radical view of how the US should use its power to invade and overthrow other countries like Iraq. President Obama comes in and understands that the country has rejected that view, and he rejects it too. And he is a true transformational figure. In his Prague speech he articulated the most detailed, most comprehensive, most transformational US nuclear policy any US President has ever articulated. And he has married up his vision of a nuclear-free world with a series of practical steps and how to accomplish it, starting – and this is the key – with US-Russian co-operation. If the US and Russian can co-operate on this, if Russians believe that Obama is genuine about this, everything is possible.

RT: How do you see the US-Russia relations going on from now?

J.C.: Look at the language in the Obama-Medvedev April 1st statement. Very different from the Bush and Putin statements – they were stiff and diplomatic mumbo-jumbo. No, this was very straightforward. They talked about joint enterprises, joint assessments, commitments, obligations. And it was not just about nuclear, but it was also about renewing and expanding joint exchanges: culturally, diplomatically, and economically. I think there is keen awareness at the very highest levels that the two countries need each other to solve these core problems: proliferation, climate change, energy, the global economic crisis. More than ever we need each other. So I expect to see this built up step by step. As Obama and Medvedev said at the end of their statement – it’s time to turn these warm words into action. So we will see the action.

RT: So, are we heading towards a multi-polar world?

J.C.: A multi-polar world, that’s the world we live in, and the US might be the biggest pole right now, but that's not going to last, and increasingly Americans understand this. By the middle of this century they are going to be one among equals, not the top dog.