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Obama Adviser Gary Samore: 'The Ball Is Very Much In Tehran's Court'

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad inspects the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant in March 2007.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad inspects the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant in March 2007.
Gary Samore is a top adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama on issues of arms control and nonproliferation. It's an extensive brief that comes with one of the longest titles in the Obama administration. Samore, whose official title is special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism, spoke with Irina Lagunina of RFE/RL's Russian Service and Hossein Aryan of Radio Farda about U.S. policy toward Russia and Iran.

RFE/RL: Russia is extolling the new spirit of cooperation between the United States and Russia, with the countries working together as partners rather than adversaries. But it seems this spirit of partnership could be tested when it comes to the question of missile defense and tactical nuclear weapons. What kind of challenges do you see in this discussion of tactical weapons?

Gary Samore: I think there are big challenges, because there's a disparity between the U.S. and Russia when it comes to tactical nuclear weapons. The U.S. has a very small number -- only a few hundred tactical nuclear weapons -- and we don't really have a strong military reliance on them as far as European security goes. In contrast, the Russians have a much larger number -- probably a few thousand nuclear weapons -- and they say that they need those tactical nuclear weapons to counteract NATO's conventional superiority. So in many ways the two sides have a big difference of view in terms of numbers and mission, and that will complicate efforts to achieve any arms control agreement that includes tactical nuclear weapons.

Gary Samore
But nonetheless it's been interesting. Since the Cold War, the Russians have certainly reduced significantly the number of tactical nuclear weapons they have; and as I understand it they no longer deploy tactical nuclear weapons with their troops in the field -- instead the weapons are in storage. So there may be some overlap -- now that we're no longer in a Cold War situation -- and so there may be some room at least for greater transparency, which is where we think we need to begin: an exchange of information on numbers, types [and] locations, to set a baseline so we can then begin a conversation about possible agreements for reductions.

RFE/RL: That's exactly what I wanted to ask. Russia is claiming that these types of weapons are in storage and there is no way to check them. So it's basically a unilateral claim.

Samore: Well, I think the first step is an exchange of information, and we would be prepared to exchange with Russia information about numbers, types, and locations of U.S. tactical weapons if they were prepared to do the same about Russian tactical nuclear weapons. The next step is monitoring and verification, and that will require some very creative means -- both technical and onsite verification.
My personal view is that if the cost of the nuclear program is high enough, it is possible for the leadership in Iran to decide that it would be better for them to make some compromises on their nuclear program in order to avoid the political and the economic risks of continuing with the program.

I think ultimately, the two sides will have to talk about whether there are ways to allow access to storage facilities to verify that tactical nuclear weapons are not being removed. But that's an area that we're prepared to begin discussion with the Russians over: what kind of access and verification arrangements, you know, we could design in order to verify tactical nuclear weapons. It's never been done before, so it probably will take some time to work that out.

RFE/RL: How much of the discussion about missile defense is based on emotions, rather than rationale, do you think?

Samore: Well, you know, the Russian military remembers the days of Ronald Reagan and "star wars," when they were very concerned that the U.S. was building a perfect defense that would negate Russia's strategic capabilities. And I think there may still be some elements in the Russian military that remember the days of the Cold War, that see the United States as the primary military threat to Russia, and therefore they naturally view missile defense as a threat to Russia's military capabilities. But from the American standpoint we don’t view Russia as an enemy. The purpose of missile defense is not to be used against Russian missile forces; we're much more concerned about Iran, and that really is why we're trying to develop missile defense.

RFE/RL: Moving to Iran, there seems to be a difference between the tactics of Barack Obama's administration and George Bush's administration. While the Bush administration insisted on zero enrichment, the Obama administration is willing to talk to Iran and also use sanctions and diplomacy. Has it worked?

Samore: Let me start by saying that the Bush administration said that once Iran satisfied concerns about its nuclear program, then Iran could have a peaceful nuclear program like any other [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] NPT party. The Obama administration has said the same thing, but Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton has gone a little bit further, and she's been explicit that once Iran has complied with the [United Nations] Security Council resolutions, and satisfies concern and restores confidence in its nuclear activities, then it has the same rights as any NPT party. And in the NPT there are no restrictions on the development of enrichment capability for peaceful purposes. So she has said explicitly what the Bush administration implied, but didn't say explicitly.

But both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have emphasized that the first step is for Iran to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions and restore confidence in its nuclear program. And what's remarkable is that of all the NPT parties, Iran is the only one that the [UN's International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA is not able to report that it has confidence that the program is purely peaceful. And I think the ball is very much in Tehran's court to take actions that will convince the Security Council and other countries that its program is really peaceful.

RFE/RL: What is the United States going to do to change Iran's behavior?

Samore: Well, I think the current Iranian leadership has been deeply committed to developing a nuclear-weapons capability for many years. I mean the program -- the current program -- started in the mid-1980s after [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini died. So I think what we're seeing is a political leadership in Iran, including former President [Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, and obviously the current supreme leader [Ali Khamenei], who strongly believes that having a nuclear-weapons capability is important for Iran's national pride and national defense. So this is a long-term effort to persuade the Iranian leadership that they'll be better off without pursuing a nuclear-weapons capability. And I think it's likely to take a long time to work.

So President Obama has tried to use both the offer of improved relations, to normalize U.S.-Iranian political relations, lift economic sanctions, [and] work together on oil and gas development and nuclear energy, if Iran is willing to address U.S. concerns about its nuclear program. On the other hand, since Iran so far has not been willing to engage in a serious diplomatic effort, either directly with the U.S. or in the context of the P5+1, President Obama sees no choice but to try to increase the cost to Iran's leaders of their nuclear program through political isolation and through economic sanctions. Whether this will work at the end of the day, I don't know. It may be that the current leadership in Iran is so committed to developing a nuclear weapons capability that all of the offers of engagement and all the threats of pressure and sanction simply may not be enough.

The good news though is that Iran's technical capacity really has slowed down. I mean, they really have experienced enough technical difficulties, and secret projects have been exposed, so all of that I think has given -- in my view -- the world some number of years to work on this problem before Iran is in a position where it could make a political decision to build nuclear weapons.

RFE/RL: Some say that Iran is probably not seeking to obtain an actual nuclear weapon itself, but wants to have the capability of producing a weapon. Does it make a difference from the point of view of nonproliferation?

Samore: I don’t think it makes that much of a difference. In the first place, if Iran acquires a nuclear-weapons capability, or the option to develop nuclear weapons, I think the effect on Iran's neighbors will be very similar to if they acquired a nuclear weapon itself. Because all of the neighbors will anticipate that Iran might decide at some point to exercise the option and build nuclear weapons, and they will feel compelled to follow suit -- to develop their own capability. And in the view of the U.S., additional nuclear-weapons capabilities in the Middle East is the last thing we need in a region that is already very unstable -- full of conflict, and tension and violence. So for us, and we think for the future of international security, preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is one of our top objectives.

RFE/RL: So could there be a military option used against Iran?

Samore: Well, President Obama has said that the military option is on the table -- but obviously that's not something that he finds an attractive thing to do. That's why he's trying to resolve this issue through diplomatic means. personal view is that if the cost of the nuclear program is high enough, it is possible for the leadership in Iran to decide that it would be better for them to make some compromises on their nuclear program in order to avoid the political and the economic risks of continuing with the program. But we won't know for sure whether that theory is accurate unless we can work together as an international community. And we've tried very hard to develop a closer relationship -- especially with the big powers, especially with Russia and China -- through the UN Security Council, and I think that's been effective. I think there has been some concern within Tehran about actions of the Security Council.

For right now, though, I think everybody's attention is so focused on the Arab spring, on the Arab uprisings, that that has probably pulled some of the attention away from Iran's nuclear program onto this instability in the Arab world. So that situation may have to settle down a bit before the nuclear program will come back into focus as a top priority.

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