During 24 years in the Senate, Sam Nunn earned a reputation as a pragmatic chairman of the Armed Services Committee and co-author of the landmark Nunn-Lugar nonproliferation legislation that helped secure thousands of nuclear weapons in former Soviet states.
Not surprisingly to those who follow nuclear weapons policy, Nunn has spent a good bit of time in Kazakhstan since launching NTI. The former Soviet state voluntarily relinquished its arsenal of some 1,400 nuclear warheads when the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s. In August, Nunn traveled to the Kazakh capital of Astana for a signing ceremony that made official the IAEA’s management of a new low-enriched uranium fuel bank at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant. Kazakhstan — eager to boost its international credibility and experience in the nuclear realm, having handled and stored nuclear material safely and securely for more than 60 years — made good sense as the fuel bank’s location.
Nunn is supportive of the controversial pact — not Congress’s effort to derail it.
“This president has negotiated it and if America, having led that effort, turns against it and rejects it, I think it goes far beyond Iran,” Nunn said. “I think it weakens our leadership in the world. What are the consequences if we turn this agreement down having led the charge?
“Other countries are not going to salute and say, ‘Well, Uncle Sam doesn’t like the agreement they negotiated in red and now Uncle Sam wants us to continue the embargo.’ They just aren’t going to do it anymore,” Nunn said. “I don’t think even our friends in Europe were going to continue economic sanctions if this was rejected. Iran was going to end up having increased its strength via the economic sanctions and they will not have the restrictions of the agreement and so forth.
“This agreement has a pretty good chance of preventing Iran from getting a weapon over the next 15 years, and we have much stronger verification with the agreement than without it,” Nunn continued. “So, I look at what the alternative is and to me it’s clear. You’re buying time and you’re reducing the risk dramatically that they could get a weapon in the next 10 or 15 years and you’re also preserving America’s leadership in the world.”
Nunn conceded that money will begin flowing to Iran that had previously been choked off by international sanctions — which could allow its government to foment more terrorism in the region.
“I think it’s a risk that Iran may use it to promote things in the Middle East that we are very much opposed to, and we’ll have to oppose, but we have all the options we have now to take action — economic or other action, even militarily, to stop that,” Nunn said. “But if you block this agreement, are you really going to be able to deny Iran the resources to create mischief or play games in the Middle East? [The answer] to that pretty clearly is no.”
Nunn, like many other experts in the field, has concluded that the agreement is the world’s best hope for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran — at least in the short term. Anything longer than that will be up to the international community and committed groups like NTI to stop down the road.
“When you get right down to it, what we’re doing is we’re buying time,” Nunn said of the agreement. “We’re not getting an insurance policy that they’ll never have a weapon.”
Meanwhile, plenty of other countries are quietly angling for more nuclear capability.
“You’ve got this psychology around the globe of [nuclear] haves and have-nots,” Nunn said. “There is deep resentment about that because the three-legged part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty was that countries that didn’t have nuclear weapons weren’t going to get them. Countries that had nuclear weapons would step by step get rid of them, and the third was that everybody had the right to this technology.”
According to the Ploughshares Fund, nine countries in the world possess a total of 15,695 nuclear weapons and the United States and Russia account for 93 percent of them. Nunn said American leadership on the nuclear issue is critical. President Obama has called for a nuclear-free world but his most recent budget actually boosts nuclear spending.
“Having the United States as a nuclear power with the long-term vision of ultimately getting rid of nuclear weapons is enormously important,” Nunn said. “Everybody knows how hard that is going to be. It’s going to take a long time.”
The end of the Cold War menace of the U.S and Russia staring each other down with nuclear arsenals has passed, and in a sense so has the public’s fear of nuclear Armageddon.
“I don’t think we are nearly as alert to the nuclear threat as we were because people don’t see the United States and the former Soviet Union are at each other’s throats,” Nunn said.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, however, Nunn and his Senate colleague, Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), were quick to recognize that the threat of nuclear annihilation was far from over. Their landmark piece of legislation in 1991, which ushered in the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, continues to be a key bulwark against nuclear proliferation. CTR is housed within the U.S. Defense Department and continues to safeguard nuclear weapons technology and infrastructure in the former Soviet Union. Among other things, the program has dismantled hundreds of missiles and silos, removed fissile material from unsafe areas, secured nuclear storage sites and created jobs for thousands of scientists who used to work on weapons research.
While Nunn laments the nuclear ambitions of countries such as North Korea and Iran, he is grateful that through the work of CTR, NTI and international leaders, large stockpiles of nuclear materials have been secured.
“We have made progress in reducing the supply of nuclear weapons-grade material around the globe,” he said “Twenty years ago there were 50 countries that had weapons-grade nuclear material and now there are 25, so you can say we’ve made progress, but you can also say we have a long, long way to go.
“During that time, we’ve had India and Pakistan and Iran and North Korea basically develop a nuclear arsenal, or a program in the case of Iran,” he said. “The dangers in some sense have come down and in other ways have gone up. It’s a balance.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman (@michaelcoleman) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat