By Ben Goddard - 07/16/08 05:48 PM EDT
In a surprising move this week, the Bush administration announced William Burns, its third-highest-ranking diplomat, was going to Geneva to attend talks with Iranian envoy Saeed Jalilli this weekend. The talks, organized by the EU, are aimed at persuading Iran to stop activities that could lead to the development of nuclear weapons. While the White House has emphasized that Burns is only there to listen, not to negotiate, his attendance breaks with longstanding Bush policy. Contacts between the U.S. and Iran have been few and far between since the American hostage crisis that likely cost Jimmy Carter a second term. The Bush administration has adamantly demanded that Iran suspend all nuclear enrichment activities before America will sit at the table with them.
Burns’s trip sends a message that something has changed. Even with the disclaimer that we’re only there to listen, not to talk, this trip indicates a new attitude, if not policy. Some have suggested that oil may be driving this re-examination. Others point to the recent Iranian missile tests as a possible cause. But it just may be that the president is hearing a growing concern that nuclear terrorism poses a new and very dangerous threat to the world and America must become more engaged and more cooperative in the process of avoiding a catastrophe. We need the help of all nations, including Iran.
In the early ’90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, fears of nuclear war dropped off the public’s radar screen. But some wiser minds in our political leadership saw there was a whole new threat. Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) authored legislation to dismantle nuclear warheads and their delivery systems in former Soviet states. Nearly 10,000 warheads, missiles, bombers and other weapons were destroyed or re-processed to peaceful purposes. Former Sen. Nunn points out to audiences that 20 percent of America’s electricity comes from nuclear power and that 50 percent of those power plants run on nuclear material that was taken out of Eastern Europe, re-processed to a less dangerous level and sold to U.S. power plants. The lesson, he says, is that weapons that were once aimed at us now power one in 10 of America’s light bulbs.
But Nunn and others realized the real threat was the potential of a terrorist group getting a nuclear weapon. And it wouldn’t be that hard. The U.S. and Russia still have over 20,000 warheads. While they are generally considered secure, we saw a year ago that our Air Force could misplace some of them. Over 40 countries have enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium lying around to make a bomb, some of it much less secure than our missing bombs were. A.Q. Kahn’s ring of Pakistani smugglers who sold nuclear material to North Korea, Iran and Libya also had detailed plans to make a bomb. All a terrorist group needs is those plans, a ball of fissile material about the size of a grapefruit and a trained engineer. Osama bin Laden has called getting the bomb a “religious duty,” and the 9/11 Commission says terror groups have been trying to acquire one for a decade.
A little over a year ago Nunn and former Secretaries Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Bill Perry — four Cold Warriors who’d spent their careers making sure America was strong — wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal laying out a vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
They accompanied the vision with a list of practical steps to get us there. The four could hardly be called a gaggle of peaceniks, and people paid attention. Two-thirds of all living former secretaries of state and defense and national security advisers have endorsed the plan. As have both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama. The latter has recently launched a television ad in which he calls nuclear terrorism the greatest threat facing the world today and touts his work with Sen. Lugar to find a bipartisan solution.
This weekend’s trip by William Burns just could be an acknowledgement by President Bush that the time has come to stop posturing over one of the most dangerous issues facing humankind and start talking about solutions. To every issue there is a season, to paraphrase. It will come as a welcome surprise to this writer, and to many others, if our president sees that season is upon us. It would do much to burnish an otherwise tarnished legacy.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.