WASHINGTON _ Just a few months ago, Gary Samore was the White House architect of efforts to convince North Korea and Iran to foreswear nuclear weapons and strengthen international cooperation to prevent the further spread of catastrophic weapons, especially to terrorist groups.
As President Obama’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction proliferation and terrorism from 2009 to 2013—a new position that Obama established upon taking office—Samore also spearheaded negotiations with Russia to reach a new arms control treaty and organized a series of initiatives to reduce and secure vulnerable fissile material that could be fashioned into an atomic bomb.
But now as he looks back on the last few years from his new perch at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Brookline native is drawing some pretty stark lessons.
One is that under their current leadership neither North Korea or Iran will be compelled to shelve their plans for nuclear arsenals through diplomacy.
“I think it is very unlikely,” Samore, who started his new job as executive director of the Belfer Center six weeks ago, said in an exclusive interview. “In both cases, you have governments, for different reasons, that are committed to maintaining or achieving a nuclear weapons capability and as long as those governments are in place the best we can do is slow down, deter, contain, limit.”
He said the more challenging of the two hard cases is North Korea “because the program is much more advanced and the North Koreans are much more impervious to political and economic pressure.”
But Iran—which Samore believes is “still a few years away from having a nuclear weapons capability” and “more vulnerable to international pressure”—could prove just as impervious to diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions.
“There is still a prospect of achieving interim agreements that can limit the nuclear program but I don’t think we are going to persuade the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] that having a nuclear weapons capability is a bad idea and he should give it up.”
In an interview on Tuesday Samore, who first did a stint at the Belfer Center in 1984 and has held positions in the Clinton and Obama Administrations and at leading foreign policy think tanks, discussed his views on a host of arms control and proliferation challenges, including prospects for new arms talks with Russia; the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal; Israel’s undeclared atomic bomb program; and the potential nexus of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and Al Qaeda. Highlights are below.
WP: What is your assessment of the WMD threat posed by Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups?
GS: I think the likelihood has been reduced, both because of the broader counter terrorism effort by the United States, which has made it more difficult for Al Qaeda and similar groups to have a secure base of operations and obviously there has been so much damage to the leadership from drone attacks and others things that there challenge is to sustain themselves day to day. It is hard for them to have a very good concerted program, with the kind of effort that would be required to acquire a nuclear weapon or fissile materials. Second, countries around the world have done a better job of securing nuclear material.
Countries around the world since 9/11 and then also spurred on by the nuclear security summits [organized by the Obama administration] have done a better job of securing nuclear materials. Obviously there is still more to do and one has to constantly evaluate measures that are taken to ensure they are strong, but I do think there is a stronger international consciousness of the threat and therefore more resources have been put in to making sure that uclear materials and weapons are secure.
The threat still exists because there are groups who desire to acquire nuclear weapons or nuclear materials. I think if they got them they are very likely to use them. They would not be easily deterred. Because they are extremist groups they would feel justified in using nuclear weapons against their enemies. And clearly there is a lot of nuclear weapons-usable fissile material in the world, both military and civil programs.
WP: What is your level of confidence about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?
GS: The Pakistanis are very well aware of the risk to their nuclear forces—not only from the Taliban but from Pakistan’s standpoint they are nervous about the United States seizing their weapons. I think the Pakistanis have put a tremendous amount of effort into securing, protecting their nuclear forces. Under normal circumstances that would probably be sufficient. The concern is that in a country that has so many internal problems can that security hold up in the face of the kind of conflicts that are going on inside Pakistan between the civilians politicians and the military, between various religious extremist groups, and that is what the concern is people have.” They have a huge internal terrorism problem, relations between the civilian leadership and the military have always been rocky and there are various tensions within the society. It bears close watching.”
WP: How does Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons program impact the broader nonproliferation effort?
GS: Israel’s status as an undeclared nuclear power does handicap US diplomacy. It makes us vulnerable to accusations of double standards. It undermines the legitimacy of the Nonproliferation Treaty in the Middle East because people think it's unfair because they have signed the treaty and given up their legal rights to build nuclear weapons and Israel hasn’t. The Iranians have tried to use that as much as possible to deflect pressure. On the other hand it simply isn’t realistic to expect the conditions for Israel to join the [Nonproliferation Treaty] or establish a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. The current conditions in the Middle East make that impossible. The last couple of years, with the wave of political turmoil and conflict, including the civil war in Syria, any prospect for negotiating such a nuclear regime in the region has really receded.
WP: What are the prospects for new arms control talks with the Russians, along with the potential that negotiations to reduce nuclear arms could be expanded to include other nuclear weapons states?
GS: Ultimately there will have to be some multilateral arms control agreement if we are going to try to reduce nuclear weapons, much less achieve zero nuclear weapons, which is obviously a long term vision. I don’t think we are at the point now that the other nuclear weapons states would be willing to agree to that kind of negotiation, mainly because the US and Russia have so many more nuclear forces than everybody else. I don’t see any willingness on the part of the Chinese and the French and the British, much less the Indians and the pakistanis, to agree to any kind of legal regime.
There’s at least one more round of US-Russia reductions before we can even think about going multilateral. Whether we can achieve that with the Russians is very much in the air. The Russians have publicly said they are not interested in another round of reductions until their concerns about missile defense are addressed. If the Russians can satisfy themselves that their military needs can be met at lower levels I think there is a chance they would be willing to negotiate a further round of reductions. At this point it is just too early to tell whether that will be possible.
WP: How well do you think we understand the motives and worldviews of the leaders in North Korea and Iran?
GS: In the case of North Korea I think our understanding of Kim Jong Un’s worldview and how decisions are made is very obscured. We can speculate but I don’t think we have much of an insight. In the case of Iran I think it’s a little bit less obscured, or at least there is more information available, including public statements that are made by different competing politicians. Nobody I think is in a position to say they are absolutely certain of the Supreme Leader’s views and calculations. Clearly in the case of Iran, where there is obviously some pretty serious political infighting among the political elite, that clearly complicates diplomacy—although I think we all believe at the end of the day [the Ayatollah] has the ultimate decision-making authority on key national security issue like the nuclear issue.
WP: What surprised you the most in your recent White House post?
GS: I’ve been in and out of government for my whole career. What was really different for me was President Obama’s personal interest in nuclear issues. The first major foreign policy speech he made, in Prague in 2009, was laying out his agenda on nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear security [and] nuclear energy issues. I think that came very much from his personal interest, which made it possible for us to negotiate the New START Treaty with the Russians in record-breaking time—mainly because when we ran into a snag the president was prepared to pick up the telephone and talk directly to [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev about some very technical issues that presidents don’t often get into. I think President Obama’s commitment made the nuclear summits possible, which were really important in terms of driving progress toward securing nuclear materials. Finally, I think on both Iran and North Korea he was genuinely committed to trying to find a negotiated solution to those problems. Obviously that has been a terrible frustration, for him and everybody else. In both cases we have not been able to make any diplomatic breakthroughs. We have been instead using political and economic pressure as a tool to try to convince those government to restrain their nuclear missile programs, which has had some effect but it clearly has not resolved the issue.”