From rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula to questions about the future of the Iran nuclear agreement, the specter of nuclear conflict has returned as a concern for policymakers and citizens alike.
Two leading voices on nuclear issues, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, discussed the prospects for disarmament during a day-long conference on “Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War” held on MIT’s campus on May 6.
“Frankly, the possibility of a nuclear bomb going off is higher today than 20 years ago,” said Moniz, “in terms of the various regional conflicts we are facing.”
Lee, a Democrat representing California’s 13th District and a prominent advocate in Congress for nuclear disarmament efforts, recently returned from a trip to South Korea and Japan, where she met with security officials and visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
“I saw how volatile the region is,” she said.
Lee is a co-sponsor of H.R. 669, a bill that would prevent the U.S. president from launching a first-use nuclear strike without authorization under a declaration of war by Congress.
“We must continue to put pressure on this president to give Congress a comprehensive strategy for deterring North Korea, that puts diplomacy and nonmilitary strategies at the forefront,” she said.
“It is incumbent on us to show this administration the value of diplomacy,” Lee said, calling on attendees to pressure their elected representatives to oppose the Trump administration’s proposed sharp increases in defense spending and planned expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. “His budget puts forth a $1.4 billion increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to build more bombs, yet it doesn’t make our planet any safer, nor does it advance NNSA’s goal of nuclear nonproliferation,” she said.
“After nearly a decade of persistence, the Obama administration, together with our allies, were able to negotiate a deal that put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program and created the most extensive and intrusive nuclear verification regime ever negotiated,” she said.
Moniz described the key features of that agreement, reached in 2015 among Iran, the U.S., and five other world powers, and shared his perspective on its prospects for survival under the Trump administration.
“This was an important example of diplomacy reaching critical security goals without a shot being fired,” he said.
He reminded the audience of the long and difficult history of relations between the U.S. and Iran, stretching back to the U.S. role in a coup in 1953 and the hostage crisis of 1979. “The grounds of distrust are very, very deep,” Moniz observed. “This makes it even more remarkable this agreement could be accomplished.”
Moniz outlined how the agreement has successfully halted the Iranian weapons development program, which had been “expanding very dramatically, with 20,000 centrifuges and [was] close to [finishing a reactor that would produce] one or two bombs’ worth of plutonium per year.”
Moniz also pointed to “extraordinary transparency and verification measures,” which give inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to suspicious sites.
“No other country has a fixed time in which to respond to inspector requests,” he said. Iran, however, must respond within weeks to IAEA requests. “This is completely novel.”
Commenting on Republican criticism of the deal, he noted that quarterly reports to Congress have confirmed that Iran is complying with its requirements.
“If the U.S. walks away from the agreement,” he said, “we get the worst of both worlds. Then Iran has no formal constraints. And some may say, ‘We’ll put sanctions back on them.’ It won’t work. It worked before because we had the entire international community on the same page enforcing those sanctions.”
He expressed doubt that other countries would support reimposing and enforcing sanctions on Iran. “There is no reason to think that if we walk away, we don’t walk away alone. And the sanctions will not be effective.”
Moniz said he is “reasonably optimistic” that all parties to the Iran agreement will continue their compliance — including the U.S. He cited the support of Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, who recently called for the agreement’s continued enforcement.
“I can’t say that there’s no doubt that this deal will stick going forward, but I can say the logic is completely clear and compelling,” Moniz concluded. “And most people, including those who didn’t agree with the deal, have come to that [conclusion].”
If there is continued compliance with the agreement, Moniz said, the international community should go even further, to improve transparency in nuclear programs beyond Iran. “We have got to think hard about what do we want to see in Iran and elsewhere in the region and beyond, in terms of nuclear fuel cycles.”
In addition to returning to his role as a physics professor at MIT, Moniz was recently named the CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nonpartisan organization founded by former Senator Sam Nunn and Ted Turner in 2001, dedicated to reducing the threat of attacks with weapons of mass destruction and disruption.
In that capacity, he said, he hopes to engage with members of both parties to work toward nuclear nonproliferation and increased support for the IAEA’s work.
Lee and Moniz were introduced by John Tierney, former U.S. representative from Massachusetts and executive director of Council for a Livable World, which promotes policies to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons.
During a question and answer session, Lee and Moniz addressed a range of other issues as well, including the risks of a cyber attack interfering with the U.S. nuclear command and control systems, and Lee’s ongoing efforts to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolution passed by Congress.
The conference was jointly sponsored by MIT Radius, American Friends Service Committee, the Future of Life Institute and Massachusetts Peace Action, whose nuclear abolition working group is chaired by MIT professor of biology Jonathan King.