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The US, Iran, and the Nuclear Dilemma: A Conversation with Jonathan Schell

The recent US missile defense push in the Persian Gulf to counter the perceived nuclear threat from Iran raises sensitive questions about our policies and priorities.
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The recent US missile defense push in the Persian Gulf to counter the perceived nuclear threat from Iran raises sensitive questions about our policies and priorities. I caught up with Jonathan Schell, one of the nation's leading advocates of a nuclear-free world, to talk about the need for a radical policy change, the nuclear energy controversy, and more.

LP: What is the 'real' nuclear relationship between the US and Iran?

JS: The first thing to remember is that Iran doesn't have nuclear weapons. But obviously, the issue is whether Iran is trying to get nuclear weapons-whether their program is a precursor to weapons or designed for peaceful purposes. In the end, the difference isn't as important as it might at first seem -- the fact is that by obtaining the capacity to enrich uranium, they're 8 out of 10 steps towards the bomb.

LP: How does the preemptive policy toward Iraq initiated under Bush affect our policy toward Iran?

JS: One of the reasons that Iran may have become interested in having nuclear weapons is to deter an attack by the United States. When they saw Saddam swinging by the neck, they thought: How can we prevent such an outcome for us? One answer might well be nuclear weapons. What the Iranians have done already carries them right to the nuclear bomb threshold.

LP: How do we wisely respond to Iran?

JS: Without a radical change of policy, there's very little chance that the US will be able to convince Iran to give up its nuclear program. Historically there's no precedent for a country rolling back a full-fledged nuclear program owing to international pressure -- there's never been a country to do that. Currently Iran is a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the question is whether or not they would pull out, an act that would likely have a high penalty attached to it. Even China, which now declines to impose stiffer sanctions on Iran, might then agree. Iran might just remain in the Treaty and stay on the threshold of nuclear arms.

Things might well be different if the world were to get serious about it's stated goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. Obama's goal of nuclear abolition should be on a much faster timetable -15 years, let's say. That circumstance would give the US international clout that would get countries to roll back their programs. If the Security Council was united in a commitment to disarmament, there would a real possibility that potential proliferators would get on board. Unfortunately, we don't see such steps; we don't see a timetable. So we just get used to a slow drift towards proliferation. The fact is, the existing nuclear powers have to fish or cut bait: either get serious about surrendering their own nuclear arms or get used to others' getting them. It's a demanding agenda, but history doesn't always make the solutions to the problems it poses easy.

LP: Will Obama's deployments in the Gulf hurt the chances of peaceful regime change in Iran?

JS: I'm not an expert on Iranian politics, but people in general do tend to rally around the flag in the face of an external threat. I noticed that the opposition movement has accused Ahmadinejad of being too soft on the nuclear front. These considerations don't suggest that getting tough with Iran will play well.

LP: Are the support of nuclear energy and the support of non-proliferation incompatible?

JS: There's a high degree of incompatibility. The spread of nuclear programs for refining uranium for use in nuclear power plants is the biggest step you can take toward having a nuclear bomb. But it's hard to make an absolute statement. There may be some way of designing nuclear power that would not be quite so dangerous -- if you were to have a system of global control of the nuclear fuel cycle, for example. Right now, the so-called nuclear renaissance and non-proliferation are on a collision course. You see it right there in Iran and North Korea.

LP: Is Obama's positive attitude toward nuclear energy in conflict with his non-proliferation goal?

JS: Yes. I'm so worried about global warming that I'm ready to reexamine my position against an increase nuclear power. But so far when I do so, I find that it's drastically incompatible with non-proliferation. There are other doubts. Let's suppose we have a nuclear renaissance, which would be happening in many countries around the world. All it takes is for one country to have a failure of technology, and we have a disaster. Nuclear energy requires a perfect record, and humans aren't perfect. I would be very wary of putting many eggs in that basket for stopping global warming.

LP: What threat is posed by our lack of attention to the nuclear question?

JS: In recent years, people sort of forgot about it. But currently I detect a resurgence of interest. I teach a class at Yale on the topic and have 230 students in class this year. Obama deserves some credit with his Prague speech advocating abolition. He has changed the atmosphere. There are discussions happening that didn't happen in the last 20 years. 15 years ago, or 10 years ago, if you tried to raise this subject, people looked at you blankly.

LP: Is proliferation the only danger?

JS: No. Most nuclear weapons are still in the hands of Washington and Moscow. They are still on hair trigger alert. The Cold War is over, but cold war nuclear strategies still guide these deployments. Politically speaking, it's very unlikely that there will be any conflict with Russia in the near term. But both the US and Russia insisting holding on to large nuclear arsenals indefinitely. What is that about? We don't know what's around the corner. Great power rivalry and even conflict is not a thing of the past. Remember the war in Georgia last year. The United States and China, another nuclear power, are still at loggerheads over Taiwan. No one should forget about the great -- power dimension of the danger as long as the arsenals exist.

LP: With regard to nuclear proliferation, are we safer or less safe since the end of the Cold War?

JS: Fundamentally, the situation is worsening for the following reason -- it's just in the nature of technology that it spreads. The building of nuclear bombs is based on technical and scientific information, and we now have Internet. Information is spreading all over the world -- we had North Korea possibly helping Syria building nuclear reactor.

LP: If we eliminated nuclear weapons wouldn't we be defenseless against a terrorist use of them?

JS: We are defenseless right now. If a bomb were used on an American city, of what use are nuclear weapons? On the other hand, if you put technology under international control, then you reduce your risk by 95%. The very steps you need to move to nuclear zero and are the same steps that will protect us from new nations or groups acquiring nuclear weapons.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0

Further reading:
The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger
, by Jonathan Schell

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