Assessing the Nuclear Threat
A Conversation With Jessica Tuchman Mathews
President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
President, Baruch College;
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterproliferation Policy, U.S. Department of Defense
Jessica Tuchman Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace joins CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb to discuss the current state of nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Mathews identifies India-Pakistan as the most concerning nuclear hotspot in the world today, both in terms of the potential for nuclear conflict between the two countries and also for the risk of proliferation of nuclear materials to nonstate actors. She is optimistic about the potential for a nuclear deal with Iran over the coming months, but suggests that a new approach may be needed to deal with the North Korean nuclear program.
The Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security was established in 2002, and is dedicated to the memory of Paul Warnke (1920–2001), member and former director of the Council on Foreign Relations. The series commemorates his legacy of public service, his friendship to the Council, and his unique combination of eloquence, intellect, and pragmatism in the cause of peace and America's values.
GELB: All right. Good afternoon.
There are some things that I was supposed to say that I've forgotten, but Angela will come back and retrieve them. But I just recall to you that this is on the record, Warnke Lecture.
This is something very, very special to me. Paul Warnke was my hero in government. I never knew anyone as courageous, as bright, as willing to sacrifice himself politically to do some things on the arms control front, in particular, that he felt were very important to America.
And Paul was precious to me for another reason. I never won an argument from that man.
He was so damn overwhelmingly smart. And I must say I didn't win too many from our guest today either.
About 14, 15 years ago, Alton Frye and I went out and raised funds for this lecture. Alton was also a great admirer of Paul. And Paul and his wife Jean were very close friends with myself and my wife. And we tried to pay attention to their very talented family, some of whom are here today, as much as we can. They're terrific people.
And this lecture has had some real stars over the years and we have another star today, who's also very precious to me and who really knows what she's talking about when it comes to proliferation.
Years ago, in something that I think was once called the Carter administration, Jessica was the principal NSC person on proliferation and a number of other things as well. And then she went on; the highlight of her life was when I appointed her as vice president of the Council and director of our Washington operations.
And you know, at the time; people don't realize this, but in the early '90s, the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations consisted of Alton Fry and two assistants. That was it. And Jessica and I proceeded to build it up till there were a couple dozen people there or so and the programs—the meetings went from about a dozen a year to near a hundred a year.
Jessica has since become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a formidable president. Carnegie, under Jessica's leadership, is one of the most dynamic and relevant and useful of the foreign policy organizations; just a terrific job.
We're going to be talking about proliferation. It's a huge topic and rather than trying to cover everything, what I thought, Jess, was that you could give the people here a very quick sense of who the nuclear powers are, who the near nuclear powers are, who others are, just to give them some background, and anything you want to say about the other weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological, just to provide some background.
GELB: As quickly as you can.
MATHEWS: OK. Let me just first say that I said to Stephen and Paul Warnke that it was a big honor to be here in their father's name, and I really mean it, as well. I didn't know him as well as Les, but I knew him well enough to admire deeply.
When I heard yesterday that Mitch Wallerstein, who was supposed to chair this, couldn't come, they told me that they would find someone, but I didn't know they'd scrape the bottom of the barrel.
But, seriously, Les has been a dear friend and someone I have admired for so long, so it's a great pleasure to be here and with all of you who braved the floods.
Nuclear powers now; nine of them that we know about. Good to remember that five of them were in—were 50 years ago and only four have been in the last half century; Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Iran is—we can talk about, but if we're going quickly, I won't—I won't pause to try to explain where they are.
I think the other thing, just as a stage setter that's worth remembering is that there are far fewer nuclear weapons on the planet than there were in the '60s, '70s, '80s; far fewer countries with nuclear programs. There were 23 countries in the 1970s, when Les and I were both working on this, that either were nuclear powers or had active nuclear programs. That number went down to 19 in the '80s and '90s, and is at 10 today, to the best of our knowledge.
So that's the good news. There's—there's plenty of bad news and maybe we can turn to that.
GELB: We'll talk about the bad news.
GELB: All right. What's the worst news as far as you're concerned? What are you worried about most? Is it Iran or North Korea or India-Pakistan?
MATHEWS: I think that the thing that we ought to worry about most is India-Pakistan, in terms of real threat, in terms of likelihood of a—a conflict becoming nuclear. We have gotten, I think, all so used to saying this is the most dangerous threat and nothing happens for year after year after year, we—we forget to feel it.
But Pakistan is, as I think everybody knows, a—a government with a tenuous hold on its own country, making active—actively expanding its nuclear arsenal, making easily portable tactical nuclear weapons, which could easily be taken over by terrorist groups, if—if the government ever, for example, tried to crack down on Laskar-e-Taiba or any of the other active groups in—in Pakistan and—and lost.
Or if—if, for some reason, a fourth India-Pakistan war were to happen; you've got two countries, sort of like the way the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced each other during the active years of the Cold War. That is with hugely asymmetric conventional strength and the weaker one, in that case, the U.S. and in this case, Pakistan, relying on nuclear weapons to deter the stronger ones.
GELB: Now both these countries really are a pain in the neck; aren't they? Because with India, we couldn't make a deal with them to have limited inspections in some of their nuclear plants until we agreed not to inspect their military plants.
GELB: In the case of the Pakistanis, you know, perhaps they did more to help other countries gain knowledge of nuclear weapons than almost any other country. They helped the North Koreans, helped the...
MATHEWS: That's right.
GELB: ... Saudis, the Libyans.
MATHEWS: The A.Q. Khan commercial network was a equal opportunity dispenser of nuclear—nuclear technology and know-how and did really spread an awful lot around.
But beyond India-Pakistan, I think, you know, of the—the possibility that terror—terrorist groups would find, say a radiological weapon, rather than necessarily an explosive one, but just one that would use conventional explosion to spread radiation, I think is a very high risk.
"I think that the thing that we ought to worry about most is India-Pakistan, in terms of real threat, in terms of likelihood of a conflict becoming nuclear."
And then there's Iran, and that's a—that's a...
GELB: Before you go to Iran, Jess, hang with Pakistan a moment longer. What are we worried about when it comes to the Paks at this point?
MATHEWS: As I said, I mean I—you've got a government that has a tenuous hold over its own country. It has tried, sort of fecklessly to get control of various different jihadist groups in the country. When it does, it generally does so very poorly and, you know, it arrests people and then lets them out of prison over and over and over again.
The—the likelihood—I mean we—right now, we're in a pretty calm phase. We've actually had a transfer of government by peaceful means, which was a first in Pakistan's history.
GELB: They're still building nuclear weapons at a pretty fast pace.
MATHEWS: But they're actively—they're actively expanding their—their—and you know, some of this redounds also in our—in our negative column.
The Chinese and the Pakistanis feel that the deal we did with India in—in the Bush administration; that violated the set of international rules about transferring nuclear technology to nonmembers of the nonproliferation treaty, sort of sets them free to climb that mountain.
And that deal finally removed the block that prevented us from having good relations with India, which there are lots of good reasons to have, but it had a huge cost. It had a tremendous cost.
GELB: Let's move to Iran, just so we can cover some things before the Q—the Q&A period, Jess.
Here we're—we have an interim agreement, which is kind of a standstill on most fronts.
MATHEWS: Rolled (ph) out (ph).
What do you think the chances are of our being able to turn that into a meaningful and lasting agreement?
MATHEWS: I think the chances are good. This is a classic case, where finally, both parties at the table want a deal. And when that happens, you usually get a deal. And it's a hugely difficult one. There's still an awful lot of—of tough issues to confront that weren't even touched on in the—in the first—in the interim agreement.
But what scares me is not the people in the room. What scares me is the Revolutionary Guard and that crew in Tehran and the opponents of a deal on Capitol Hill here and in Jerusalem.
GELB: Well, Obama kind of stood up to the anti-deal lobby in Congress. They had a majority of votes. They could have added sanctions to the ones already being imposed, which might have killed the whole negotiations, but he did back them off; no?
MATHEWS: He did. Well, what happened was there was a bill introduced by Senators Kirk and Menendez last fall. It was, by all accounts, written by AIPAC. It was a bill that was so hard to follow that I read it three times and still had no idea what it said until somebody from the banking committee sat down and kind of walked me through it.
And I say that because it had a real effect, which was that lots of people agreed to cosponsor it who did not understand what it said. And the fact was we had just signed a deal with Iran, where one of the few things that we had given in this deal was that we would not impose any new nuclear sanctions during the six months of the interim agreement.
And this bill would have imposed new sanctions and so—but I would say a healthy fraction of the senators who cosponsored it did not understand that. So—so there was a huge tussle. The cosponsors got up to 59 and I think if they had gotten to 60, it would have been very hard for Harry Reid to keep it off the floor.
And—and then the tide turned and more and more people started to find out what was actually in the bill and more and more of them started to call Reid and say I cosponsored this, but I sure hope you won't take it to the floor.
And—and the—and the public calls started to run very heavily against it, so.
GELB: Let's look at the Iran side of it, Jess.
What do you think are the legitimate worries we have about Iranian nuclear programs and Iran itself? If you wanted to worry, quite apart from politics and influence of Israel on American politics, you want to worry about what you consider the real issues. What would they be?
MATHEWS: The—the biggest issue in my view is that if Iran were to become a nuclear power, I think Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia would all try to follow rather quickly.
"I think the chances are good. This is a classic case, where finally, both parties at the table want a deal. And when that happens, you usually get a deal."
And I think four new nuclear powers, one right after another, could very well mean the end of the nonproliferation regime, which has been the most ambitious international effort to impose the rule of law ever undertaken, and certainly one of the most successful.
But it's fragile and four countries in that troubled region going nuclear in quick succession, I think that's the number 1 worry, more than that—the number 2 worry would be not that Iran would actually use a nuclear weapon, but that it would throw its weight around and be able to throw its weight around, because it was a nuclear power.
And so I think those are the—those are the biggest fears.
GELB: What do you think the Israelis are really worried about? Do you think that serious Israelis are worried about Iran using the nukes?
MATHEWS: Opinion is vastly more divided than we think it is here, because we're all—we mostly only hear Netanyahu's view and—and it's certainly not the—the general view.
I mean there are—there is active, at least intellectual think-tank type debate about whether Israel could live happily with a—happily; could live safely with a nuclear Iran. And—but I think Netanyahu has made this more of a symbol almost than anything else.
GELB: What about Iranian cheating. Let's say we made a deal. What's their capacity to cheat and what's our capacity to discover the cheating?
MATHEWS: Well, even without very intimate inspections over the last 18 years, we had a pretty good idea, not in real time, but we caught up when they were cheating.
One of the important things about this interim agreement that hasn't gotten nearly enough attention is that it expands inspections—first of all, it calls for daily inspections and daily downloads from the cameras, which is something that's never been—never been in place before.
But more importantly, it expands inspections to uranium mines and mills and factories that manufacture centrifuges. And it does all that because that's the way we might find out if they were running a covert fuel cycle, because we would have a handle on how much they're—how much they're mining, how much they're milling, how many centrifuges they actually have.
And that's something that's never been done before. There's never been, ever any place or any setting where inspections were applied that way. So I think, at this point, we would have a very good idea about cheating.
GELB: And you think they would agree to severe inspections; that that wouldn't be an issue and when push comes to shove.
MATHEWS: I mean, they have agreed in the joint plan of action, in the interim agreement, to the extraordinarily intrusive inspections. And so far, they have lived up to all their commitments.
I think, under this agreement and what one would expect to be the follow on, we will have a pretty—we may not know everything about what they have done in cheating in the past. And I would argue that is a—it would be a terrible mistake if we try to lock that down. It's far less important than the future.
But—and that's a mistake we made over and over again with the North Koreans. But the—I think we would know. And the other question that has to be asked is why—they did very well by cheating; OK? And they did very well by just sort of inching forward for 18 years; lying to the IAEA, et cetera, and just sort of creeping forward in number of centrifuges, number of the...
Why would some—why would Rouhani take the world's whole attention onto him, negotiate an unprecedentedly intrusive agreement with explicit requirements and—and—and commitments to all the world's major powers if what he was interested in doing was cheating?
It just doesn't make sense. I mean there would be no reason to do that.
GELB: Well, having spent my life in the foreign affairs field, it doesn't make sense turns out to be the explanation for most events.
Why do you think, Jess, that we were able to bring Iran to the table? Iran decided to go to the table; economic sanctions worked there. And equally stringent, if not more stringent economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation hasn't worked with North Korea? What's the difference?
MATHEWS: Well, because North Korea is an autarky. I mean they have cut themselves completely off from the rest of the world and they are prepared to starve 90-plus percent of the population. And no other country, I think virtually on the planet would—would either choose that or be in a position to impose it.
I think three things changed in Iran. And in this period where we have plenty of reason, and I share it, to be concerned about our foreign policy; I think we have to remember that we would never have this—had this opportunity if Obama in 2009 had—and 2010 had not done two things.
One was to repair the damage that Bush had created with a whole huge range of countries; not just our allies, but the Russians, the Turks, the Indians; all kinds of people who no longer trusted us and thought that we were trying to keep the Iranians from something that was entirely within their rights under the NPT.
And so sanctions weren't working, because they were basically unilateral. So they would never have become as effective and as powerful as they had if they hadn't—if this administration had not undertaken a two-three-year effort to convince the world, through just solid, quiet, sound diplomacy that we had a case.
The second thing they did was to reach out and convince the Iranians that we really were prepared to negotiate; seriously. I mean, earlier, we'd had some of these sort of silly things where we'd say give up everything and we'll give you pistachio nuts and carpets and airplane parts and stuff like that. I mean, those were real things. You know, asking the moon and giving pistachio shells.
But when he reached out, talked about unclenching the fist and stuff, he did change dramatically, both their—both the elite thinking and—and Iranian politics. And I think this election would not have happened, absent both the impact of multilateral sanctions and ordinary Iranians being tired of being international outcasts. They just—they didn't want to live that way anymore, quite apart from the economic costs.
GELB: If we go back to the Bush administration, there was a period where it looked like the North Koreans didn't want to be international outcasts either. And where they went so far as to conclude an agreement with us about limiting their nuclear program and then, all of a sudden, it was April fool, so why couldn't the same sort of thing happen with Iran?
MATHEWS: I think they're totally different countries, totally different cultures, totally different sets of expectations. I mean Iran is a—a modern country in all kinds of technological ways.
I—you know, if there was ever an issue that deserves to be rethought, it's what we have been trying to do with the North Koreans for—I mean, if there ever was an approach that has been proven to be not working, it's—it's what we've been trying to—whether it's bilateral or six-party with the North Koreans, it has failed.
And the people who are most closely involved in it will say—you ask them questions about what the North Koreans are thinking; kind of the question that's inherent in what you said, and they say I don't know. People who spent thousands of hours talking to them don't understand what drives them. We don't even understand basics about how they make decisions.
But I—you didn't ask me this question, but I'm going to say it anyway.
MATHEWS: I have an unorthodox view on this, which is, you know, we are still technically at war with North Korea. We have an armistice and for years they've been saying we want the United States to sign a peace treaty.
And it's one of our bargaining chips and it's way—it's a very expensive bargaining chip in our view and so it's way down on the list of, you know, of course we will—we will do this when we have agreed on 47 other things.
My view is that bargaining chips are not worth anything if you never are going to be able to spend them. And this one is one that I think has absolutely no value to us in and of itself; right? We don't think we're at war with North Korea, so why don't just agree to say so.
If it bothers—if, in fact, they are as paranoid as they seem and this is something that's meaningful to them, if—if I were President, I would just say yes, for nothing. Because I don't think, otherwise, we're ever going to—we're ever going to get there.
And see, because you know, sometimes just somebody taking an effort like that makes a difference.
GELB: Let me go to the last topic I'd like to cover before we open it up to you all. It's something I think a lot of us are musing about or puzzling over. And it's the role that has been played—will be played by China and Russia on the proliferation front.
Thankfully, the Cold War seems to be returning and...
"You know, if there was ever an issue that deserves to be rethought, it's what we have been trying to do with the North Koreans."
And I begin to understand something about this world.
Peace—peace was much too complicated for me to digest, but now we have regular troubles with the other major powers, so familiarity breeds appreciation.
What role have Moscow and Beijing been playing in all the issues you've been talking about, Jess? And do you think that role will change now that we have these more complicated big power relations?
MATHEWS: I don't think it'll change from where we are now, which is stuck; right? We—I mean before this whole thing turned nasty with Russia in the last four or five months, the prospects for further arms control agreements after New START were almost nil, for a variety of reasons that had to do both their concern, first about ballistic missile defense, but now about what we call conventional prompt global strike; our ability to develop hypersonic conventional missiles that can hit anywhere in the world, carrying conventional warheads.
And I think conventional prompt global strike has the potential to be much more of a problem with the—with the Russians, even than ballistic missile defense did.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are in a completely different place. You know, they—they have—one of the most exciting things we're doing in Beijing right now is a—a project to address this. But there are very few people in China who are empowered to discuss issues of nuclear strategy at a serious level in—in an unclassified setting in—in the way that we have had a huge academic and sort of think tank...
GELB: With the Russians.
MATHEWS: ... field of thought for 40 years. And—and it turns out that, among the tiny number who do, they're very, very constrained about what they could say, what they could think as they—as they begin to try to address issues of—of strategy and arms control.
And—and we are discovering, in the beginnings of—that they mean completely different things by concepts and words that we and the Russians understand each other very well on, that—where we've really got to start from the beginning.
GELB: But, Jess, in a nutshell, do you think Moscow and Beijing have been helpful, harmful or something else in our efforts to combat proliferation?
MATHEWS: Over the years, Russia's been a very good player. They, for years, when we were exporting technology, they were not. They never sold nuclear fuel. They would lease it and it would have to come back to Russia, so it didn't sit around where it could be reprocessed. They were good players.
And the Chinese—you know, the Chinese have—thank heaven; have been very relaxed about developing their own nuclear capability. Tiny number of nuclear tests, you know, in the—in the 20s, 30s, as compared to thousands that we and the Russians have done.
They are—they are modernizing now, but they're modernizing, first of all, very—on a very relaxed schedule and—and—and in a—with a very, apparently modest set of ambitions, so..
But, you know, after New START, I think the U.S.-Russian numbers had gotten down into the neighborhood where you started to think about you couldn't go down a whole lot further before you brought the Chinese into the conversation. And the Chinese, right now, are not ready to do that.
GELB: Thank you. Just very well done, Jess, and I appreciate it.
Open it up to the floor now. Remember, what you have to do is, first, waggle your hand around and one of our associates will go over to you; I can't see your hands waggling. And then arise, state your name and affiliation and ask your question as briefly as possible.
And if you want to make a statement, that's all right too, but fast, so I don't have to interrupt you. Floor is open.
Go ahead. They'll—they'll come around to you.
QUESTION: Hi, my name's Charles McLaughlin (ph). I'm affiliated with West Point.
In some policy and military circles, one of the most important rationales for our extended stay in Afghanistan and continued stay in Afghanistan is to keep an eye on Pakistani nuclear weapons and stay in the neighborhood.
So, from a proliferation point of view, what's your evaluation of how sound that thinking is, relative to the cost?
MATHEWS: Not—not sound. I mean the—relative to the cost, it's—we have, I think better ways to do that and better ways to advance the—the kinds of conversations we need to have. I'd give you just one example.
Carnegie, we—I have two people on my staff; George Perkovich, who runs our nuclear program, and a guy named Toby Dalton, who used serve in Islamabad in the Foreign Service.
We've been doing a track II effort for the State Department for four years, running conversations with the ISI and also younger experts on all the kinds of things that we can't talk to the Pakistanis about officially, like extended deterrents, like stability of basing, like all kinds of rather technical stuff.
And these conversations have—have gone a long way, but as you know, you know, the paranoia there that anything sort of official on this is underlaid by a desire in the United States to get ready to steal their weapons makes the official stuff very hard.
But I—I—I think the cost of staying in Afghanistan, relative to what we learn in ways that we can't learn other ways about Pakistan doesn't work for me.
GELB: So just out of curiosity, Mr. McLaughlin (ph), do you think that being in Afghanistan helps us with proliferation in Pakistan?
QUESTION: I don't know, to be honest. It's one of the reasons I asked. I mean it seems like—it seems like a very indirect kind of way to deal with that problem. And it's not just to learn about, but also to have influence and—and potentially attrit (ph) the Pakistani Taliban if it looked like they were going to take over. That's—those are the discussions that I've heard, but it seems a very messy, costly way to do that, so.
GELB: Yes, indeed.
MATHEWS: It is.
GELB: Thank you.
Thank you. I'm Cora Weiss with the Hague Appeal for Peace.
I love your expression that somebody making an effort makes a difference and I want to apply it to my question.
We are one of a great many signatories to Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that speaks to nuclear disarmament. And in 1996, the World Court issued a decision that said, basically—I don't have the text in front of me; basically said that nuclear powers have a good faith obligation to go to nuclear disarmament.
Last week, a case went to the World Court, asking if 18 years is enough already to—to make that good faith obligation happen.
GELB: So your question is have we been living up to our good faith obligation?
MATHEWS: First of all, I think we—you know, we don't get credit enough, and with the Russians, too; the degree to which the numbers have come down, post Cold War. It's been—it's been huge.
But, secondly, I don't think this is a matter for legal adjudication. In fact, the way—if Les had asked me a different first question, the way I would have begun today would have been to say, if a few years ago I had said to this group the word Prague, most of you would have said, oh, Obama's speech calling for zero nuclear weapons.
But if I said it today, probably most of you would say, oh, the Soviet invasion of 1968; you know? So the...
GELB: What I would have said first.
MATHEWS: The astonishing thing was, first of all, what he said. And when you go back and read that speech, which I did the other day, it is an—it is a—it is an astonishing statement. And he said—he committed the United States to...
GELB: You mean astonishing—astonishingly unrealistic?
MATHEWS: No, I don't think so. It—it—in the sense of taking a step forward, away from conventional wisdom.
He said, and made the case why the world needed to go eventually to zero. And he said I'm not naïve; this will probably not happen in my lifetime. And then he listed a whole bunch of steps you—that needed to be taken to start down what was going to be a long road.
Five years later, to the month—this was April of 2009; those ideas have vanished from international discussions. Nobody talks about nuclear zero anymore.
MATHEWS: Well, that's kind of why I wanted to talk about it. I don't think there's a—I don't think there's a short answer. A lot of the things that he pledged to do, we haven't been able to do; ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty, our own initiative.
Just—you know, the Republicans just will not—I mean there isn't a prayer. And you could say why doesn't he fight for it more? There's so little of a prayer that I think it was probably wise. Negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty haven't even begun. That was another of his steps.
Another of the steps was to start an international effort to lockdown highly enriched uranium and plutonium that's around the world; these so-called—and we've now had three or four of those—excuse me; of those summits.
A lot of progress has been made. It's very nice that Ukraine no longer has nuclear weapons in it...
GELB: Jess, if—if you were empress of the United States, would you have made pushing on this issues you've just cited—these negotiations; would you have made them a priority over all the other stuff going on in the world?
MATHEWS: Well, if you go back to 2009, there wasn't all that other stuff going on. I—I thought he should have tried on the comprehensive test ban, because I think it's so important and would have changed things so much.
But I think the answer to your question, why has this idea, which didn't just spring out of Obama's head in 2009; remember, there had been four or five years of active discussion and thinking about nuclear zero before that.
And there had been these series of Op Ed pieces written by Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn; the four horsemen, so-called, on the—in the Wall Street Journal, making these—making the case. That—they did their first one in early 2007 and in 2008 and they were actively involved with him on this issue during the campaign.
There are—100, 150 European senior security folks who have also, you know, endorsed this notion.
So somehow (ph) the world started to take a serious step towards it and—and it is a very long road. I mean, we did a whole book on just what is the research agenda, before you could begin seriously to confront what it would take to get to zero.
But it's gone. It's really—we've—I mean it's really stepped back. And you know, next year is the next international review meeting on the non-proliferation treaty; happen every five years. And it's going to be horrible, because there has—there has been no real progress on the Article VI commitments towards—in recent years.
But I have to say that the non-nuclear states that you would think would be pushing the nuclear states forward, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa; instead of pushing, they're standing on the sidelines grumbling.
GELB: Grumbling about the fact that the big powers aren't?
MATHEWS: They're thinking about rethinking their non-nuclear posture. They don't like anything. They're not being at all constructive.
So we're in a—we're in a—a swale on this issue and—and where it looked in 2009, we were on one path; I think we're—we're on a different path now and the current situation in Ukraine certainly makes it a whole lot harder.
GELB: Thank you, Jess.
QUESTION: Jeff Laurente (ph). I want to follow up on this question that you've just addressed, Jessica.
Why do you think, in the U.S., it has become so hard to put nuclear weapons control in the positive light on the political agenda? I mean, 20 years ago, the big surprise was, at the end of the Cold War, instead of leading to the elimination of the nuclear arsenals that had been created to, quote, fight it, instead resulted in the elimination of the anti-nuclear citizens' movements that had been trying to push back on that agenda.
And to what degree is the U.S. different from the other nuclear-armed countries, in terms of the internal dynamics in support of nuclear weapons, even if everyone else sees that there are almost no circumstances under which you could use them? Why is Gollum's ring so tightly clung to in all of these countries and pursued by a few others?
MATHEWS: I think it's because people aren't scared anymore. You know, most of us in this room—well, most of us in our—my generation and above (ph); you know, we got under our desks and put the coats over our heads and we remember that. You know, nobody under the age of—I don't know; 50 does.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) in D.C. Are they—do they contribute to it?
MATHEWS: Does what?
QUESTION: The lobbies.
MATHEWS: The lobbies in—well, yes, there is a powerful—we were talking at lunch (inaudible) about the—the lobbies that pushed back against this effort to kill the Iran—the early Iran deal. And it's powerful. I mean, in some of the offices, the phone calls were running 10-to-1 against the—the againsters.
So—but I think, basically, you know, in some ways it's the worst of both worlds. So the—sort of the mainstream—not the Tea Party, but the mainstream of the Republican Party still has this kind of kneejerk thing that every time you do some arms control agreement, you should pay for it by starting some new weapon system.
So—so after the New START Treaty, you know we have to spend $90 billion, upgrading a nuclear warhead that almost nobody believes will ever be used. I think part of the—at least part of the explanation for why there's been so many morale problems and bad management and people getting fired in the Air Force who were taking care of nuclear weapons is because it's no longer a place you want to be, career-wise.
MATHEWS: Right? You want to be in cyber or Special Forces or on the ground you know nation-building, but you don't want to be managing a bunch of weapons that you're absolutely certain are never, ever, ever going to be used, so it's a backwater.
So you know, we've got the—we're now spending vastly more, as a result of New START, upgrading a whole set of new—of warheads than we are on non-proliferation. It's...
GELB: It's America.
Right down here.
QUESTION: Herbert Levin (ph). I'm a councilmember.
Do you believe that, since the Indians have failed to pass implementing legislation with the nuclear agreement that we should denounce it and withdraw?
MATHEWS: That's interesting thought. I—I was a fervent opponent of it. But I think that time has passed, because we would not undo the damage it did by doing so. And so we would bear none—all of the cost and none of the benefit.
QUESTION: I don't agree.
MATHEWS: OK. Well, I'm—and we'll see what happens if—under the new government.
GELB: Herb (ph), we'll give you a chance to argue with Jess after the meeting.
Go ahead. Oh, right here.
QUESTION: I'm Bob Millard (ph). Could you—I know your background might permit you to say this, but can you touch—say—say a word about the emerging threats, or the threats that might emerge from new genetic engineering capabilities?
MATHEWS: Well, I have always thought that biological warfare is not as dangerous as we periodically think it is; not because you couldn't do—manufacture some bugs for which there would be no resistance or whatever, but because the risks of doing so are so high to the people who are doing it and to the—your side when it gets used, and because most terrorists like things that go bang.
MATHEWS: It's really true. I mean, you know, if you look; biological warfare has very rarely been used, over the—over the years, when it could have been, you know.
QUESTION: I'm really talking about longer term.
GELB: Speak up a little louder, Bob. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Longer term.
MATHEWS: Synthetically, yeah.
QUESTION: Synthetic biology.
MATHEWS: I—you know, I—I think we may run into problems we didn't anticipate, but they're not—I don't think they will be B.W.
GELB: OK, Rita (ph).
QUESTION: Jess, Rita Houser (ph).
Jessica, can we get back to Iran for a bit? Assume for the minute that there is a deal by the end of the year, which is I think a good chance. What is it that Obama's going to be able to do about lifting sanctions? There's a limited amount he can do with executive order and in any event, the Iranians are going to look for something far more permanent than an executive order.
We go into the primaries; it would seem to me that this issue, next year and into the election year, will become a very significant political issue. How do you see him selling it? Can he...
MATHEWS: I think he has to—he has to do something that he hasn't done his entire presidency and that is talk really seriously about an issue to the American public. And I mean sit down behind that big desk and ask for 15 minutes of television time and ask Americans to pay attention.
And I don't—in a different way than they do when they hear him on the campaign trail. He never did it with healthcare. He hasn't done it on Ukraine. Les tells me he's never going to do it, but I—he has to.
And what he has to say is very simple. There are three options. Option one is more of what we've been doing for the last decade. And in that time, Iran has gone from having 200 centrifuges to having almost 20,000, and has gone from having no enriched uranium to having 10,000 kilograms and 200 kilograms of—of 20 percent enriched.
MATHEWS: And they—you know, and built an underground facility and they can build a lot more. They've learned how to do almost everything they need to do at home. So that's one path and it leads to an Iran that's either an implicit or an explicit nuclear power.
Path number 2 is an attack; better known as a war. And even its most fervent supporters do not argue that it will buy us more than two years of delay. So after those two years, when the program is being rebuilt in Iran, we will not have inspectors on the ground.
We will not have cameras. We will not have anything remotely like the knowledge we have now about how fast it's going, where it is, et cetera, et cetera. So that doesn't look like a terrific option.
And option three is a deal. And deals are compromises. You don't get a surrender; you get a—you get a compromise. And it has a degree of remaining risk and it requires active attention and concern.
I don't think that's a hard argument to make. And the people then who come back and say well, we just have to insist that—that the Iranians give up the right to enrichment; you turn around and you say under what regime? Under what law; under—do—under what writ do we insist on that?
They have a right to enrichment, if their program is peaceful. We may wish that the NPT had been written differently in 1968, but it wasn't. That's what the law is.
GELB: Jess, let me see if I can do this. If anyone wants to argue with that...
MATHEWS: I (ph) wasn't even finished explaining...
MATHEWS: ... what he had to say.
GELB: Oh, you wanted to finish?
MATHEWS: No, go ahead.
MATHEWS: Anyway, I do think...
GELB: I thought you said it wasn't reasonable to ask that.
MATHEWS: ... it's eminently possible for him to cut the ground out from—and he just has never done it.
QUESTION: Do you think he will? (OFF-MIKE)
MATHEWS: I'd be happy to.
GELB: Please, go ahead and write him. He's not going to read it.
Anybody want to argue with Jess on this? Anyone believe that we should demand elimination of the right to enrich and...
QUESTION: Well I really wanted to find out...
GELB: Who are you?
QUESTION: My name is Ronnie Haiman (ph) and I wanted to find out...
GELB: Are you going to answer my question or say something else?
QUESTION: No, I'm—I'm...
GELB: Going to argue with her?
QUESTION: ... not—well, I'm going to ask her whether I understood her correctly in her earlier remarks about the danger of Iran developing a full nuclear, resulting in four other nations insisting that they've—OK, which is really leading us to the question of isn't it—isn't it impactful on public opinion to be against arms control and—and non-proliferation, depending on who is holding the nuclear?
When Israel had nuclear for 40 years, there was no groundswell in Turkey and Egypt and Syria to develop nuclear.
GELB: So you're basically agreeing with what Jessica was saying?
QUESTION: I'm—I'm not agreeing. I—I think I'm disagreeing with you...
GELB: You are?
QUESTION: Yes, because I—I think...
GELB: I think you said it's all right if we didn't make a fuss when Israel went nuclear, but we are making a fuss when Iran...
QUESTION: Well that's—that's right. I think—I think that it depends. Public opinion depends on who's holding the nuclear.
QUESTION: And when you have an Iran, which is a—really, a rogue state, which has stated that they will use weapons in a very jingo (ph)—yes, they have.
QUESTION: And in fact...
GELB: Not that I'm aware of.
QUESTION: Ahmadinejad did.
GELB: (inaudible) said they—they'd use nuclear weapons. They—they said they...
QUESTION: Ahmadinejad had—had said...
GELB: They said they wouldn't even acquire them, is their formal position.
QUESTION: Well, they want acquire them, but they're—they're jingoistic rhetoric...
QUESTION: ... has created an impression that would lead an Egypt, a Syria, a Turkey...
GELB: OK, let Jess—let Jess respond.
MATHEWS: Well, I—I think there are several things to say. One is, yeah; international opinion isn't fair. And people do feel that Israel's—first of all, for—for many, many years, Israel kept—was extraordinarily successful in keeping the lid on, so to speak, of whether it did or didn't have this capability.
But it's certainly not true that nobody minded in the region. Many countries adopted chemical weapons as an—as a WMD answer to Israel's nuclear, so it was by no means just sort of OK.
But first of all—and—and Iran is a—is a great power. You know, Iran has 80 million people; a big, powerful country with a long, long history. It—it feels different to people and it is different.
Third, you know, I don't want to live a Middle East with four or five nuclear powers in today's world. I don't think we'd, any of us, sleep well. And you know, you've got the Israeli-Palestinian problem still red hot. You have Sunni-Shia rivalry that's brewing all over the region.
You have all the unhappiness and disruption and insecurity that has come from the Arab Awakening and you put into that three Arab states, Israel and Iran as nuclear powers? Yuck; right? Also, you have to—I mean, Iran has to live with the threats it's made and with the lies over 18 years.
GELB: So, Jess, just deal with the factual question. What has Iran said regarding the use of nuclear weapons?
MATHEWS: That it does not believe that nuclear weapons possession—not even used, makes sense for its defense strategy and that, in the fatwa—in Khamenei's fatwa that they are considered unethical, as a matter of religion.
You know, you...
QUESTION: Am I mistaken? Did Ahmadinejad not make (OFF-MIKE)?
MATHEWS: He said...
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) 16 million of our people would be worthwhile if we could eliminate (OFF-MIKE) Israel. (OFF-MIKE)
MATHEWS: He talked about—yeah. He was not talking about nuclear weapons, but he was talking about wiping the Zionist entity out of—yeah.
But Ahmadinejad was also—he was not a serious...
GELB: He was a fringe president.
MATHEWS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you—we—we have to also, you know, put him in a context.
GELB: Jess, we have time for one—we have time for one more question over here.
QUESTION: Hi, excuse me; Steve Bafonne (ph) with the Gibson Dunn Law Firm.
After the exchange with the last question, I'm slightly frightened to ask my question, but I'm going to throw it out there anyway. I just...
MATHEWS: I'm not scary; he may be, but...
GELB: I'm scary.
QUESTION: Could you return to North Korea a moment. And agree (ph) with (ph) you mentioned earlier, you know, having a bargaining chip without using—using it is worthless. But isn't the issue—I'd like to ask you to expand a little bit on—on how you would use that bargaining chip. Do you just throw it out there?
And I think the great struggle is—you know, is quite simple in—in our approach or in dealing with North Korea. Rational actors have a difficult time dealing with crazies. And they're crazy and the gene pool is getting crazier.
And—and so I just wanted to know, would you just literally throw out that bargaining chip in no context, no framework of negotiations or just expand upon...
MATHEWS: No, I would have used it in 2005, when we had active negotiations. And we've had them a couple of other times.
You're quite right. I mean, right now, if I were to do it tomorrow, it would probably coincide with their next test. But—which they're getting ready to do and we have very clear satellite imagery that—you know, expect it in the next couple of weeks, I'd say.
No, you're quite right. You don't just do it absent anything, but I—I really—I don't know if you've—you probably have; seen the picture of Kyoungjong at the end of the Korean War. There's this massive sea of flattened buildings and one building sticking up.
And when you see that picture, you can understand that—what real paranoia can be. But I—I do think that they have said over and over and over again, in the context of negotiations, that they can't negotiate with a country with which they're at war and, you know, and that why won't we end the war and stuff.
Say yes; right? I mean there's not a person in this country who believes we're at war with North Korea. So if it means nothing to us and a great deal to them, it may not work. In fact, given how crazy this one is, it probably won't.
But nothing else has worked and—and we just keep on doing the same thing, over and over and over again, and it's getting us absolutely nowhere. So I—you know, my view is when something has been proven not to work; try something different.
GELB: I want to thank the Warnke family for joining us today.
And Paul Warnke would have been most proud to hear Jessica talk about this subject and I thank you so much.
MATHEWS: Thank you.
More from this series
Ernest Moniz discusses the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, its one-year anniversary, and the effectiveness of the nuclear deal's nonproliferation and verification measures in blocking Iran's path to a nuclear weapon.
Robert Gates discusses civic duty and leadership, and addresses the future of U.S. national security and defense.
Antony Blinken discusses strategic issues following his recent trip to the Middle East and the Maghreb.