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Theilmann ’72 speaks on NewSTART arms limitation strategy

In 1972, Greg Thielmann was a senior in Grinnell College, living in Younker South. Since then, Thielmann has served as a U.S Foreign Service Officer, is the former director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office at the State Department’s Intelligence Bureau and has most recently served as senior professional staffer of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Thielmann is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former member of the Board of Directors of the Arms Control Association (2003-2005). His appearance at a 2003 press briefing on faulty intelligence regarding Iraq’s WMD capabilities made Thielmann the focus of an Emmy Award-winning CBS News Segment entitled The Man Who Knew. Thielmann sat down with Lily Jamaludin of the S&B for an interview and discussed the threat of nuclear weapons in the modern world.

Thielmann Q&A
Greg Thielmann '72, center left, chats after his presentation on nuclear arms limitations on Wednesday - Aaron Barker

Why is it necessary that we reduce the amount of nuclear arms? What is the threat that they pose?
Well that’s actually going to be the very thing I’m talking about this afternoon. I really identify two different aspects to it. The quick answer is because nuclear arms are dangerous. They’re dangerous because there is always the chance, even though it’s a fairly small chance, there’s a chance that we can have a nuclear war between two countries using their nuclear weapons[…]that would not only be catastrophic for those countries, it would be catastrophic to the whole planet. I mean, it would end life as we know it on the planet Earth. And so even [if] there’s a remote chance of [nuclear war], if the stakes are that big – it’s something we should address.

The other problem which is much more evident obviously after 9/11, is that there are groups of people—Al-Qaeda is one of them—who are willing to use suicide tactics against the United States and other countries, and if those people got access to a nuclear weapon, you could have a catastrophe that would be much, much worse than 9/11.

So those are both dangers of the nuclear arsenal, and I think it really argues for addressing those dangers by trying to, as rapidly as we responsible can, reduce the overall number of those weapons.

The ultimate goal, of course, would be to get to zero, but that’s so far away[…]It’s not important to focus on that right now, we need to focus on what the next step we can take in that direction [will be].

So you believe that in the end we should be working to no nuclear weapons?
I do, yeah.

How has the START treaty affected foreign relations with Russia?
You have heard this term “Reset.” It’s to reset our relations, and I think that’s actually a good description. I think the fact that the U.S. and Russia could, in less than a year, agree on the next major step in nuclear arms control has really had a positive effect on every other aspect of [our] relations [with Russia]. Obviously we’re both big and powerful countries, we have separate interests—not all of our interests overlap—but to be able to work together on one of the goals that’s most important for both countries and the world, cannot but help [our] relations and I will be mentioning in my speech that the two very obvious examples are that Russia, after this agreement, has allowed US supplies and US troops to actually move through Russia to Afghanistan, which is of enormous importance for us because previously we had to bring everything through Pakistan—a very long route that was very susceptible to interception and everything—so to have another supply line to Afghanistan is a huge advantage for us. It’s unimaginable in the Cold War that Russia would allow the US military and personnel and supplies to go through, but it has.

You mentioned Iran’s insufficient cooperation. Do you believe that “instable” leaders such as Kim Jong-il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could realistically pose a threat to the world situation if they possessed nuclear weapons?
The quick answer is yes, but I would amend that answer by saying I do not believe in the lines you often hear that the leaders of Iran and North Korea are irrational, or mad—that they are not subject to the normal rules of deterrence and international relations because they’re crazy people. I once had a brief conversation with a CIA psychiatrist, and I asked him, “Do you regard leaders of countries like Iran and North Korea to be insane?” And I was happy to hear from him that he said no. In the way that we usually use the word insane, in terms of clinically insane—not being able to function in the real world – that’s incorrect. And I think many people who say this are showing their own ignorance. They don’t understand why these leaders are acting the way they are. But that’s more of our ignorance than the irrationality of these leaders. The leader of any dictatorship has a certain amount of sanity, because if he’s really insane, he would be killed by others competing for the power, and very quickly. So it doesn’t mean that they’re good people—they can be evil people, but they’re not insane. And they may not understand the world the way we wish them to understand it, but they are people who have some sort of notion of advantages and disadvantages, and they’re at least functioning people, whatever their neuroses are.

So, with Iran we were able to come to an agreement on Afghanistan in the winter of 2002 and the Chief U.S. negotiator in those discussions that resulted in the Bonn Agreement on setting up a government in Afghanistan after the Taliban—he said that it was the Iranian delegation that was the critical component of reaching an agreement. So obviously this is a government which is at least pragmatic enough that we can deal with. And to call it mad or irrational is doing a disservice to people trying to understand these issues.

Is the threat of another nuclear arms race—say between other Persian Gulf states around Iran—a possibility?
It is a concern but I think it is an exaggerated concern. A lot of people say, “Well, if Iran succeeded in getting nuclear weapons, then Saudi Arabia would automatically get nuclear weapons, and the United Arab Emirates would get nuclear weapons, and other countries in the region would.” I don’t think that necessarily follows. What Iran will find out is that nuclear weapons really don’t help them much in that area. What are they going to do with nuclear weapons? Are they going to attack Israel? Of course not. Israel has nuclear weapons and would annihilate Iran if they attacked. And just as I said about North Korea, the Iranian leaders are not suicidal—they don’t want to die. They don’t mind so much if some of their soldiers die, perhaps[…]but they don’t want to turn Tehran into glass[…]so of course they’re not going to attack Israel. And why would they attack the states across from the Persian Gulf? What would they gain by threatening to attack them with nuclear weapons? The United States and a lot of other countries in the world are very determined to keep the Persian Gulf open to oil transport, for example, and they would run into very serious questions with the US. Iran does not have military superiority in the region – so, I hope very much that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons but I think we all have to get a grip on ourselves in predicting the apocalypse happening. If [Iran develops nuclear weapons] we’ll deal with it – we’ve dealt with new nuclear weapon states before, like North Korea. The world has even seen some states, like South Africa, getting nuclear weapons and then giving them up. So there’s nothing inevitable about Iran getting nuclear weapons, and nothing inevitable if they get nuclear weapons in them keeping nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945, and there hasn’t been a war between any two states that possess nuclear weapons. For example, India and Pakistan both obtained nuclear weapons in 1998 and have never fought a war since. Do you think that possession of nuclear weapons can provide some sort of stability and peace? Do you believe that the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction is still applicable?
I think it’s a very risky game. Anyone who studies the specifics of the Cuban Missile Crisis realizes how close we came, not just once, but several times during the critical six-day period to actually – mostly based on miscalculation or surprise developments – getting into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

One example – we were focusing on the intermediate-range nuclear missiles that the Soviet Union had transported secretly to Cuba. We picked it up from U2 spy photographs, we knew that those missiles were capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and from various intelligence sources [we] believed that nuclear warheads were available for those missiles. The Soviets had other weapons in the area, including much shorter range rockets, [what] NATO used to call FROG missiles—Free Rocket Over Ground[…] We found out that many years later that those rockets also had nuclear missiles. And the United States had made plans at the time to invade Cuba if the Soviets would not back down. So we actually had plans to attack Cuba with paratroops and with amphibious forces. The orders the Soviet commanders had at the time was to use those short-range rockets against maritime invasion. So we would have been completely oblivious – we wouldn’t even have known what hit us and they could have used nuclear weapons against us. So that was one of the ways during that crisis in which we came pretty close to an invasion.

What kind of pace should we follow?
Well if I could write the pace, I would say this latest agreement should have gone down to 1,000 nuclear warheads on each side from the current 2,200. Unfortunately it’s a little bit more modest than that, down to 1,550 significant reductions in the number of launchers but the warhead number is still higher than I think it needs to be. But clearly the Obama administration wanted to propose a step that we could get the Russians to agree to, and—actually more importantly in this case—a step [where] there would be bipartisan consensus and support. That the Republicans would support it as well as the Democrats, that the U.S. Military would be enthusiastic in supporting it. Well, the military is supporting it and all the previous national security officials in the US from the Republican side and the Democratic side said this is an urgent priority. But the U.S. Senate won’t work on it. There’s about a third of the senate – you only need 34 votes to block this ratification, and these 34 senators don’t really want to do much right now. So that’s the problem in a nutshell.

Do you think Obama will succeed in coaxing the world toward nuclear disarmament?
My guess is yes. Based on the strength of what he succeeded in doing earlier this year, it was really rather phenomenal[…]that he could not only negotiate this treaty within one year, but at the same time he could call a nuclear security summit in Washington, attended by many countries that have nuclear research reactors. He was pinpointing a very serious non-proliferation problem, and that is that a lot of older nuclear research reactors actually have fissile material – the ingredients of nuclear weapons – you know, highly enriched uranium. And in many cases it’s not very secure, vulnerable to theft, and in various places that terrorists could have access to. This has to be eliminated as soon as possible – so he was able to convene a conference and basically cut in half the amount of time the international community had planned to slowly convert these reactors to something that would not be dangerous. He managed to do that in the spring. He also succeeded in the[…]nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference [that occurs every five years] after a lot of people said that this treaty is really on the ropes because the 2005 review conference was a disaster. The Bush administration basically ignored all the recommendations made by the international community in 2000. And so the treaty was on the ropes but Obama succeeded in getting the treaty to move forward and rejuvenate itself. So all this happened in the period of about two months. In Washington people call it the Nuclear Spring—the Obama administration again showed that the U.S. had recaptured leadership on arms control, and was able to get others to move to the next steps of nuclear disarmament. We know that Obama is going to be President at least until 2012, and I think because he understands the issue, and because he’s shown the energy to pursue these issues, I think it’s going to continue.

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    Junayd '09Oct 5, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Greg Thielmann is the coolest.