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Technology and Culture Forum at MIT

The Future of Nuclear Technology

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Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons
Joseph Cirincione
February 22, 2007
7:00 PM


Technology and Culture Forum at MIT
MIT Student Pugwash

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Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons

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Joseph Cirincione
Senior Vice-President for National Security and International Policy, Center for American Progress

Joseph Cirincione delivers an energetic and at times impassioned primer on the standoff with Iran on its nuclear program, drawn in part from his latest book, The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (Columbia University Press, Spring 2007).

He offers a succinct ‘equation’ to describe what drives nations to acquire nuclear weapons: 3P+T+E, where power (security), prestige, politics (domestic), technology and economics combine in various ways to tip a nation toward joining the nuclear club. If one or more of these factors can be blunted somehow – for instance, through economic or political incentives, or preventing the free flow of fissile material and technology – then nuclear-inclined nations may be persuaded to change course.

The current tense situation with Iran throws such drivers into vivid relief. Cirincione first notes that Iran’s nuclear weapons development began under the U.S.-installed Shah, who was to be our “gendarme in the Gulf.” His program had the backing of many of today’s key U.S. political figures, including Vice President Cheney. After the 1979 revolution, Iranian leaders continued the program, acquiring technology from Pakistan, to counter Iraq, which had its own weapons program, and which invaded Iran in the early 80s. One million Iranians died in this war, and no one came to their aid, says Cirincione. “Iranians remember they were alone. You have to understand history to understand why Iran may want nuclear weapons now.”

But in a twist, Cirincione hypothesizes that Iran did not get far with its nuclear development and that it doesn’t currently have a secret weapons program. While Iran maintains it has the right to acquire nuclear technology, it won’t admit to its past weapons work. That would “blow their whole story line, that it’s against Islam to have nuclear weapons.” So they stall international inspections and hope “by obfuscation and delay they can drag out the issue, and the world will acquiesce to their plans.”

With Iran insisting on moving ahead with uranium enrichment, what are the options? Cirincione takes aim at the current U.S. default policy, “to muddle through.” He also scoffs at the idea of regime change in Iran, since Iraq teaches that “democratic transformation takes a long time.” He saves his most poisonous barbs for U.S. neoconservatives, who are hatching military plans to sweep through Iran. “This is nuts,” says Cirincione, a strategy driven by people with “messianic impulses” who perceive “one great Islamo-fascist threat.” Iran could respond to attack by shutting down oil traffic, or attacking U.S. servicemen in Iraq; rage in the Islamic world “would put at risk American economic, political and cultural institutions worldwide.” Plus, Iranians “would go pedal to the metal to get a bomb as quickly as they could.”

The alternative, says Cirincione, is to contain and engage: expand harsh sanctions against Iran and create fractures among Iranian political factions. We “back them into a corner, then give them a way out,” says Cirincione. “Negotiations aren’t appeasement, they’re statecraft. We should be having direct discussions with Iran.”

Prior to joining the Center in May 2006, Joseph Cirincione served as director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for eight years. He is the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (Columbia University Press, Spring 2007), Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats (Second Edition, 2005), and co-author of Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security (March 2005). He teaches at the graduate School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Cirincione worked for nine years in the U.S. House of Representatives on the professional staff of the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Government Operations, and served as staff director of the Military Reform Caucus. He is the author of numerous articles on nuclear weapons issues, the producer of two DVDs on proliferation, and is a frequent commentator on these issues in the media. He has held positions at the Henry L. Stimson Center, the U.S. Information Agency, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is an honors graduate of Boston College and holds a Masters of Science with highest honors from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

Cirincione's website

Video length is 1:24:28.

The Rev. Amy McCreath, Coordinator of the Technology and Culture Forum, opens the event, the first in a series on the future of nuclear power, and introduces
Joseph Cirincione.

At 5:16, Cirincione begins.

At 47:15, Cirincione takes questions.

At 1:15:41, he introduces Kosta Tsipis, Research Scientist, Department of Mechanical Engineering, to discuss briefly the twin threats of nuclear terrorism and global warming.

The information on this page was accurate as of the day the video was added to MIT World. This video was added to MIT World on 2007-05-09.


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