Interviewed by Wade Boese and Miles A. Pomper
The Department of State currently has a full plate of issues on nonproliferation and arms control matters, ranging from trying to resolve nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea to promoting a far-reaching U.S. initiative to engage in civilian nuclear commerce with India. Arms Control Today met May 18 with Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph to discuss these issues as well as the upcoming Biological Weapons Convention review conference.
ACT: When talking about Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, U.S. officials say that each country should make a strategic decision to give up its nuclear programs. How does this administration define “strategic decision?”
Joseph: Iran and North Korea pose strategic threats to our security interests in vital regions, the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and the international community. We believe that in both cases what is required is a strategic decision. By strategic decision we mean a decision that these governments will end their programs and will ensure that there is full confidence that these programs have been ended. I would point to Libya as a case in which we achieved a strategic decision on the part of a government pursuing nuclear weapons. The Libyans made the calculation that the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction was no longer in their interest. They announced their decision [Dec. 19, 2003] to eliminate these programs and to allow full access by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as the United States and the United Kingdom, to their programs, the individuals involved, and the facilities involved. We have confidence that the decision was permanent and it applied comprehensively.
ACT: How would Tehran or Pyongyang, were they to take such a decision, demonstrate it? Would it be the same steps [as Libya] in terms of the public announcement and access to all the relevant people?
Joseph: The Iranian regime denies that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. It says that its program is entirely peaceful. We of course believe that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Clearly, the concerns of the international community in that regard are reflected in the long line of IAEA resolutions and more recently by a [March 29] presidential statement from the UN Security Council. Iran has concealed its program for over 18 years. It has, according to the IAEA Board of Governors, violated its safeguards commitments. U.S. and other intelligence agencies and the IAEA have uncovered indications that [ Iran] has pursued not only the capability to enrich uranium for fissile material for weapons, but indications of weaponization work. North Korea in September agreed to eliminate all of its nuclear programs. We believe all of those programs are related to nuclear weapons.
A strategic decision on the part of these governments would reflect the same conditions we saw with regard to the Libyan decision, which was a voluntary decision. Strategic decisions by their very nature have to be voluntary. One can look to the Libyan model as a model that applies in these other countries in the context of what a strategic decision would look like. Clearly, Libya is different from North Korea and North Korea is different from Iran. All of the proliferation challenges that we face are unique.
ACT: As you know, since you participated in them, the administration engaged in direct negotiations with Libya. Why won’t the administration do that with Iran or take a multilateral approach like the six-party talks with North Korea as recommended recently by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger?
Joseph: We do have a multilateral structure for discussions with North Korea. We did have discussions with the Libyans. I would not characterize them as negotiations in the classic sense where you trade X for Y. We had discussions. We were very clear in terms of how we characterized what needed to be done in order for us to have confidence that a strategic decision had been made on the part of the leadership to eliminate their weapons of mass destruction programs. In the case of Iran, we have of course approached this in a very multilateral way. We have approached it in the context of the IAEA process in Vienna. We have approached it in the context of the Security Council in New York. We have supported the various efforts by the EU3 [France, Germany, and the United Kingdom] and others to find a negotiated outcome, a diplomatic outcome to this threat.
ACT: But why won’t the United States actually take part in talks as it has with North Korea?
Joseph: We have made very clear to Iran what our position is on these issues. We have a wide range of fundamental differences with the Iranian regime. We have not only the nuclear threat, but we have Iran as the central state sponsor of terrorism. It is a regime that is using terror and terrorist organizations to undercut the prospects for peace in the Middle East, for the fulfillment of the aspirations of the Lebanese people, and for undercutting the movement to democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have got a set of fundamental problems with the Iranian regime. I do not think there has been any lack of clarity in terms of the U.S. position on each of the key issues with Iran.
ACT: Would Iran’s compliance with the IAEA board’s requirement be sufficient to support a “diplomatic negotiated solution that guarantees Iran’s nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes” as outlined in the UN Security Council presidential statement?
Joseph: It is very important for Iran to meet the call of the Security Council in the context of the presidential statement and the resolutions of the IAEA board in the first instance by suspending its enrichment activities, which of course represent the most visible and urgent threat. Iran removed in January the IAEA seals on its facilities related to enrichment and has moved very fast down the enrichment path. It has announced that it has conducted enrichment activity at the 164-centrifuge cascade [at Natanz]. It has stated that it has converted over 110 tons of UF6, the feed material for centrifuges. It has stated that it has enriched uranium to over 3.5 percent. All of these are very troublesome to us, and not just to the United States but to the international community. These activities on the ground have had a great deal to do with bringing together an international coalition that is determined to stop Iran from acquiring the capability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. It is a first step. Suspension [of Iran’s enrichment activities] is a first step. The Iranians need to demonstrate that any peaceful program is entirely peaceful.
ACT: But what evidence would provide you confidence that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons?
Joseph: What is important is that Iran not pursue the sensitive fuel cycle technologies of enrichment or reprocessing. Another great concern, for example, is the construction of a heavy-water reactor. We, along with the other members of the IAEA board and the Security Council, believe that should stop.
ACT: Returning to North Korea, a couple things. First, there was a mention in The New York Times today that the administration was talking about moving forward with a peace treaty proposal independent of whether there is an outcome on the nuclear talks. Can you confirm that? Second, on the nuclear talks, would the United States participate in providing North Korea with energy supplies if it froze operation of or dismantled its existing nuclear reactor?
Joseph: I can not confirm anything in The New York Times story. We have been very clear in terms of what we believe should be the next step. North Korea should come back to the six-party talks and we should implement the agreed statement that was reached last September. That statement emphasizes the need for North Korea to eliminate all of its nuclear programs and that is the emphasis that we would certainly agree with.
ACT: If North Korea went forward [with dismantlement] would the United States participate in providing Pyongyang with energy supplies?
Joseph: We have made clear both in our June 2004 proposal and more recently that if in fact North Korea’s nuclear programs were eliminated we would work to provide incentives, including in the energy area. That would be of benefit to the North Korean people.
ACT: Does the United States have a verification proposal that we are willing to share with North Korea so we could be certain that they are fulfilling their commitment to dismantle their weapons program?
Joseph: We are putting a lot of time and effort into developing a type of verification proposal.
ACT: Another issue that has garnered a lot of attention recently is the U.S. proposal to resume full civilian nuclear cooperation with India. Notwithstanding the broader U.S.-Indian strategic relationship, is this a net gain if assessed only on nonproliferation grounds?
Joseph: My assessment is that this is a net gain for nonproliferation. My assessment is that the steps that India has agreed to take as reflected in the commitments from last July  do, on balance, strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It is important that India will harmonize and implement the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) regulations for its exports, along with the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime. It is important that the civilian programs and civilian activities in the nuclear area will be safeguarded. It is important that India will sign and implement an [IAEA] additional protocol. It is important that India has agreed not to transfer enrichment or reprocessing technologies to states that do not have them. Collectively, these commitments and the other ones that India took on in July, move India closer into the mainstream of nonproliferation as opposed to keeping India on the outside. It is a net gain. I have never tried to oversell this, but I do believe that it is a net gain.
ACT: You mentioned the July 18 statement. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had committed India to “assume the same responsibilities and practices” as other leading countries. Given that the five recognized nuclear-weapon states have enacted or are understood to have enacted a fissile cutoff [for weapons purposes] and have all signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, why aren’t these actions expected of India as well?
Joseph: We have encouraged India to stop the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. But that is not part of the July agreement.
ACT: Did the United States originally seek to have India end its fissile material production for weapons?
Joseph: We did. India was not willing to do that. We have made very clear that we will not recognize India as a nuclear-weapon state, which is something that it wanted us to do. We have made very clear that nothing that we provide under this or any other arrangement will be used for India’s nuclear weapons program. We have made explicit in our testimony and our public statements that we believe the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is of fundamental importance and that we will not do anything in the context of our relationship with India or in any other context to undercut that treaty. We have said the same about the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which is a very important nonproliferation tool. We are not going to take any steps that would undercut its validity.
ACT: With regard to the NSG, if other countries were to oppose the U.S. initiative to exempt India from the guidelines, would the United States still act on a bilateral relationship with India to pursue full civil nuclear cooperation? Or would we try to change the NSG consensus rule?
Joseph: We have said all along that we have to achieve a positive outcome both with the Congress and with the NSG in order to move forward. We have said that we would not seek to change the rules of the NSG. The NSG operates on the basis of consensus. We know that we have our work cut out for us [in the NSG], just like we do to achieve passage of legislation with our own Congress. There are many legitimate questions that have been raised both by Congress and in the NSG. We are addressing those questions and we think we have good answers to those because we do think overall this is a net gain for nonproliferation.
ACT: What is the current status of the U.S.-Indian negotiations on the bilateral cooperation agreement? Our understanding is that India has received a U.S. draft and came back with a half dozen criticisms or questions. Could you fill us in on the status of the negotiations?
Joseph: We provided India with a draft of the so-called 123 agreement. India has not gotten back to us formally on this. We anticipate that they will provide their comments in the form of an alternative draft in, we hope, the near future. We have heard that there are some difficulties in terms of the draft that we provided but that is why one has negotiations. These agreements often involve intense negotiations.
ACT: Returning to fissile materials, the United States just offered a new Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) proposal at the Conference on Disarmament (CD). Why now and is it directly tied to trying to win congressional approval for the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation deal?
Joseph: The administration’s position on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty has been clear for some time. In July 2004, [then-U.S. permanent representative to the CD] Jackie Sanders stated our position on an FMCT before the conference. (See ACT, September 2004.) This is the next step. We have translated our position on FMCT issues into a draft text and today we laid that text down. We hope that it will become the basis for negotiations in Geneva.
ACT: Have you heard back from India whether it supports this new proposal?
Joseph: It is clear that there are differences in terms of the approach to an FMCT between the United States and India. But we both support the negotiation of a treaty to cut off fissile material production for nuclear weapons or other explosive purposes.
ACT: You mentioned differences. That largely goes to the issue of verification. With regard to the new U.S. proposal, if negotiations were to begin is there anything that would prevent other countries from raising the issue of verification in those negotiations and would the United States be receptive to potentially adding verification measures to this draft agreement?
Joseph: Clearly there is nothing to prevent any participating government in the CD from raising whatever it wants to raise. We anticipate that more than one government will raise the question of verification in the context of an FMCT. We have looked at verification very closely. We did a full-scale assessment on verifiability of a cutoff and we have come to the conclusion that it is simply not verifiable.
ACT: Would that preclude the United States from being receptive to adding some type of verification measures or confidence-building measures to the draft that we have submitted?
Joseph: We are not in a position where we are going to accept provisions in a treaty that we do not think are effective. In fact, we believe that they could be counterproductive in the sense that they may give a false sense of complacency.
ACT: Aside from the scope of an FMCT, talks on that agreement have been held up in the CD because of other linkages. Other countries have wanted to talk about nuclear disarmament and prevention of arms race in outer space. Is the United States prepared to hold discussions and negotiations on those topics so we can begin discussions on the FMCT proposal?
Joseph: There has been a long-standing paralysis within the CD. Perhaps the clearest reason for that paralysis has been this hostage-taking; this linkage of one issue to another. We do not think that we should move forward on negotiations on these other issues. We think we should have the CD concentrate on an FMCT and let’s see if the conference can make a contribution in that context. We know that this paralysis will continue if the hostage-taking continues. We would like to focus on an FMCT.
ACT: You mentioned negotiations, but my understanding is that other countries merely want to set up ad-hoc groups that are for discussions rather than negotiations. Are we willing to discuss these subjects?
Joseph: I will just say that our preference is that we focus on an FMCT. It has been years since the CD has produced anything of value. We would like it to have productive negotiations on a topic of importance to the United States as well as to the broader international community.
ACT: Last year the State Department consolidated the arms control bureau and the nonproliferation bureau. Media reports have alleged that key officials say that the reorganization was politically motivated and will weaken U.S. efforts to address global weapons dangers. How would you respond to those charges?
Joseph: The reorganization was not politically motivated. The call for the merger of the arms control and nonproliferation bureaus surfaced for the first time in a review by the [State Department Inspector General (IG)]. The objective of the merger was, and remains, to restructure these two bureaus so that they and the very talented people that reside in them can make the greatest contribution to dealing with today’s national security threats. I would start from the basic question: how can the State Department and, specifically, how can the bureaus [under the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security] make the greatest contribution to our national security? At the top of the list of the threats we face is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, whether it is Iran, North Korea, other rogue states, or terrorists. We have restructured these two bureaus. We have created new offices in these bureaus to deal with the new threats that we face today to ensure, with regard to our traditional tools of nonproliferation, that we are making the greatest contribution. Whether that is in terms of strengthening the treaty regimes, or improving our export control assistance to other countries, or in the context of new missions promoting the effectiveness of the Proliferation Security Initiative, or implementing Security Council Resolution 1540, or expanding programs that will help to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
ACT: You mentioned the IG report. Why were the responsibilities of the Verification and Compliance Bureau increased while the IG report recommended that the bureau should have its functions and role narrowed?
Joseph: We looked at the issue across the bureaus and it seemed to me and to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the best approach was to create a new bureau that focused on proliferation threats. This is the International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau. The traditional arms control implementation functions we believed fit more appropriately with the verification bureau. It was those offices that were transferred into that bureau.
ACT: The 1991 START agreement, including its extensive verification regime, is set to expire in December 2009. Has this administration initiated discussions with Russia on ways to either extend the treaty or continue the verification system?
Joseph: We have had some very recent communications with Russia on this issue and we are creating a U.S.-Russian group that will look at that question. This is a group that will be chaired by [Deputy Foreign Minister] Sergei Kislyak and myself.
ACT: Will this administration seek additional strategic arms reductions or negotiations with Russia?
Joseph: We have the reductions that are called for in the Moscow Treaty (Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty) that will take us through 2012. It is our view that we ought to focus on other threats. We are working with the Russians on other issues. It is much broader than the old arms control agenda. We are working with them on a lot of nonproliferation and counterproliferation initiatives.
ACT: Is the administration interested in negotiating or discussing with Russia the issue of tactical nuclear weapons?
Joseph: We would very much like to engage on the issue of tactical nuclear weapons in the sense that there is a real imbalance. Russia is moving to put even more reliance on these weapons, while we have drastically reduced our inventories of tactical weapons. We would like to have that discussion. The question is are we going to negotiate? We would like to have that discussion because we think it is important to understand Russian motivations.
ACT: This November there is a Biological Weapons Convention review conference. What potential topics would the administration want to see addressed and what would you view as the ideal outcome of the conference?
Joseph: We think that the work program that has been in effect since the last review conference has been very productive. Instead of focusing on what we consider to be a counterproductive “non-verification” regime, we focused on the more practical and more concrete measures of security of biological agents, codes of conduct, and the need for nations to criminalize the proliferation of biological weapons. We think that these measures are very important and we would like to see a work program that continues in that same vein.
ACT: Aside from trying to resolve the problems that Iran and North Korea present to the nonproliferation regime, what other measures does this administration plan to pursue to help bolster the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and is the administration looking at the Seven-Nation initiative that is backed by the United Kingdom and Norway as something that might be a way forward?
Joseph: This administration, starting with President George W. Bush, has been very innovative in trying to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. I would refer you to the speech that the president gave at the National Defense University in February 2004 in which he laid out seven initiatives, most of which were directed at strengthening the NPT: the ban on the transfer of sensitive technologies related to enrichment and reprocessing to countries that do not already have that capability, the establishment of a special committee on verification, and the list goes on and on. (See ACT, March 2004) We are very proud of the record we have in that regard.
ACT: Thank you very much.
1. Low-enriched uranium nuclear fuel usually is enriched to 3 to 5 percent. Any material enriched to more than 20 percent is considered highly enriched uranium and is capable of being used to produce bombs. However, the level of enrichment considered ideal for weapons is more than 90 percent.
2. Sanger, David E., “ U.S. Said to Weigh a New Approach on North Korea,” The New York Times, May 18, 2006, p. A1.
3. The Nuclear Suppliers Group is a voluntary export control regime consisting of 45 countries that agree to abide by common guidelines in their civilian nuclear commerce. The Missile Technology Control Regime is also a voluntary export control regime that calls on its 34 members to exercise restraint in their missile exports, particularly of technologies that can be used to deliver a 500 kilogram payload more than 300 kilometers.
4. In a March 2 military-civilian separation plan agreed to by the United States and India, New Delhi committed to put a total of 14 of its 22 current and planned nuclear reactors under safeguards by 2014. Since a total of six reactors already have or were previously slated for safeguards, India essentially agreed to put eight additional reactors under safeguards. Aside from the eight reactors left outside of safeguards, India also refused to put its existing breeder reactors, enrichment and reprocessing facilities, and spent nuclear fuel under safeguards. New Delhi also reserved the right to declare any future nuclear facilities it builds as off-limits for safeguards.
5. Along with Israel and Pakistan, India has refused to join the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which commits all of its states-parties, except for China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to forswear nuclear weapons. However, the five nuclear-weapon states are obligated by the treaty to work toward abolishing their nuclear arms. India, Israel, and Pakistan all have nuclear stockpiles, but could not be recognized by the treaty as nuclear-weapon states because they did not conduct a nuclear explosion before Jan. 1, 1967.
6. Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 requires that the terms of U.S. nuclear trade with other governments are set out in bilateral cooperation agreements and establishes eligibility conditions for potential recipients of U.S. nuclear commerce. However, India does not meet all of the conditions so the Bush administration has proposed legislation to exempt India from them and alter the normal congressional review process of Section 123 agreements.
7. The treaty obligates the United States and Russia to reduce their operationally deployed strategic nuclear forces to between 1,700-2,200 warheads apiece. The treaty has no destruction requirements.