Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Former White House adviser on weapons of mass destruction speaks at USF

Gary Samore’s job was to prevent terrorists from getting nuclear weapons.

Gary Samore’s job was to prevent terrorists from getting nuclear weapons.

TAMPA — The White House Situation Room, Gary Samore said, feels like a windowless cubicle, very small, with the president, the secretary of state, the heads of defense and the CIA positioned around a table in the center.

His seat was along the wall, he said, but when the president called on him, it was still plenty nerve-wracking. As the former White House adviser on weapons of mass destruction, Samore dealt with countries that posed a threat to the United States, like Iran and North Korea. He was tasked with preventing terrorist groups from acquiring nuclear weapons and managing relations with nuclear powers like Russia and China.

Samore visited the University of South Florida in Tampa on Thursday night to talk to about 200 USF students, faculty and members of the public. He touched on everything from the crisis in Syria to America's relationships with Iran, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Samore, 60, served as President Barack Obama's coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism until February. Now, he's executive director for research at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, and a frequent face on television news.

During his time in the White House, he worked closely with Iran. The country has a new, more moderate president, elected in June. Hassan Rouhani has started what many are calling a charm offensive, saying he hopes to resolve nuclear tensions and improve Iran's relationship with America. In September, leaders of both countries spoke on the phone for the first time since 1979.

"I happen to be cautiously optimistic," said Mohsen Milani, executive director of USF World's Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies. "I think you are a little less optimistic than I am. Please try and convince me why I shouldn't be cautiously optimistic."

Samore agreed that U.S. sanctions have caused great public unhappiness in Iran.

"My question is whether the supreme leader and more conservative factions, including the Islamic Guard, will be willing to give Rouhani enough flexibility so that he can offer the kind of nuclear concessions the U.S. will demand as a condition for sanctions relief," Samore said.

The key to reducing Iran's nuclear capabilities lies in small steps, Samore said. The country could be doing more with its nuclear program right now, he said, but leaders are deterred by the threat of American force.

He called diplomacy the bridge between attacking and acquiescing.

"My advice to the negotiators is to start with small agreements," he said. "Modest sanctions relief for modest nuclear constraints … supreme leader doesn't want to get bombed and President Obama doesn't want to bomb him. So at least there's some basis … to avoid a conflict."

Inside an auditorium at USF's Patel Center for Global Solutions, the second half of the talk turned to Syria's ongoing chemical weapons crisis and civil war. Did Samore think president Bashar al-Assad's agreement to dismantle chemical weapons was sincere?

"When the agreement was first announced, I was very skeptical that Assad would cooperate," Samore said. "What has happened since then over the past month has been pretty impressive. … The best explanation I have for his behavior is that he may have concluded that the chemical weapons are really not necessary or useful for him. He's winning the civil war with conventional weapons, with heavy artillery and planes and so forth. And to use chemical weapons, he now knows it's extraordinarily dangerous because it could provoke an American attack on his forces that could affect the balance of power in the civil war.

"… Even if we get only 80 percent, that's still a tremendous achievement," he said.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (813) 226-3394.

Former White House adviser on weapons of mass destruction speaks at USF 10/10/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 10, 2013 11:18pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. New owners take over downtown St. Petersburg's Hofbräuhaus


    ST. PETERSBURG — The downtown German beer-hall Hofbräuhaus St. Petersburg has been bought by a partnership led by former Checkers Drive-In Restaurants president Keith Sirois.

    The Hofbrauhaus, St. Petersburg, located in the former historic Tramor Cafeteria, St. Petersburg, is under new ownership.

  2. Ed Sheeran coming to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa


    Let it never be said Ed Sheeran hasn't given the people of Tampa what they want.

  3. Editorial: Once more, homeowners are let down by state housing agency


    Once upon a time, the federal government created a program called the Hardest Hit Fund. Its goal was admirable, and its mission important. The fund was designed to aid Americans in danger of losing their houses after the Great Recession had wreaked havoc on the economy. Unfortunately, the folks in Washington erred in …

    The Hardest Hit Fund was designed to aid Americans in danger of losing their houses after the Great Recession. Unfortunately, the folks in Washington trusted Florida to get that money into the hands of people who needed it most.
  4. Editorial: Lessons from Hurricane Irma


    Two weeks later, Florida is still recovering from Hurricane Irma. But with federal, state and local officials still on the ground, and the experience fresh, now is a good time to start assessing what went right, what went wrong and how Florida can better prepare for the next one.


    More than 6 million of Florida’s 10 million residential and business customers lost power, including about 80 percent of Duke Energy’s customers in Pinellas.
  5. Back in bargaining, Hillsborough school district and its teachers are $50 million apart


    It started off nice and friendly. Gretchen Saunders, chief business officer for the Hillsborough County Public Schools, passed candy around the room. Negotiators for the district and the teachers' union commended one another for their good work during Hurricane Irma. The union thanked the district for paying everybody a …

    This a breakdown of what the school district says the teachers' union requests would cost if granted. The union rejects many of these numbers.