Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism: Today we will talk about nuclear security, mostly about efforts to keep nuclear weapons materials from falling into the hands of terrorists or terrorist governments. That was the subject that brought the largest number of world leaders to the United States since the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. Forty-seven heads of state attended the Washington meeting. The result was the adoption of a plan to reduce the amount of existing weapons-grade nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorist organizations like al-Qaida or the Taliban, but the two-day meeting did nothing to protect material that might be manufactured in the future in India or Pakistan. Nor did it take any steps to convince those two nuclear-weapons powers, and Israel, a third, from joining the 40-year-old nuclear non-proliferation treaty. So was this simply a public relations event to focus on President Barack Obama’s desire to bring nuclear weapons under control or did it have real meaning? This was a huge meeting but it came and it went very quickly. What was the real impact?
Albert Eisele, editor, The Hill; Washington, D.C: I think it was both public relations and substance. I think Obama made some important first steps and there are a lot of things left to be done. I think it is very important that he got agreements from Ukraine and from other nations to give up their fissile materials. But it is still a huge problem and a huge danger that these materials are going to continue to be produced and possibly fall into the hands of terrorists.
Loory: It would seem that the fissile materials problem is a problem that is more important in other places. For example, Pakistan, India and maybe Iran. Does it mean very much if we’re talking about Chile and Ukraine?
Eisele: It is a first step. I think he focused world attention on these problems and China, for instance, agreed to continue asserting diplomatic pressure on Iran.
Loory: Moscow and Russia and the former Soviet Union are places where criminals operate very freely, and there is some possibility that in that part of the world they can get their hands on nuclear materials and perhaps sell them to people who shouldn’t have them. What is being done in Russia and other former Soviet republics to try to control that?
Michael Bohm, opinion editor, The Moscow Times; Moscow: It is a serious problem. Russia has its own problems with al-Qaida. And I think what they are trying to do is solve it with iron-fist methods. In Chechnya, they have their iron-fist leader, [Ramzan A.] Kadyrov, but I’m not sure that will be enough to solve the problem because you’re talking about a partisan war, and it is going to be very difficult.
Loory: The Iranians were not invited to attend this meeting in Washington, and there is a strong possibility that weapons grade material will soon be produced there. How did the Iranians feel about what happened in Washington and how might that affect its program in Iran?
Borzou Daragahi, Middle East correspondent, Los Angeles Times: The Iranian government is absolutely livid about this conference and about Obama’s attempts to cobble together what appears to be an international front focused on nuclear issues, proliferation issues, with the underlying aim of bringing attention and pressure to bear on the Islamic Republic of Iran. They quite clearly see Obama’s attempts at creating this space of diplomatic compromise over the nuclear issue as a way to isolate Iran further. And they have been very defiant. Their foreign minister has said that Obama is playing with fire. President Ahmadinejad has threatened to retaliate if anyone were to put undue pressure on Iran.
Loory: What you appear to be saying is that the United States is more interested in isolating Iran than it is in bringing some solution to the problem.
Daragahi: I think if you look at the reports from the Los Angeles Times in our Washington bureau, it does appear that that is the kind of Plan B that Obama has. That is our assessment as a paper, of containing Iran, isolating it, putting diplomatic pressure on it in order to raise the costs of Iran’s nuclear program and force it into changing course and not heading toward weapons capability.
Loory: With all of the heads of state that were in Washington, one head of state was not there and that was the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He decided not to go and he sent a deputy. Why was that?
Jay Bushinsky, U.S. correspondent, CBS Radio and executive editor, MGI News; Savyon, Israel: Netanyahu did not want to have Israel as the central issue at this conference, which it could have become if he was there to be targeted. Regarding the subject of Israel’s non-adherence to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, [Daniel] Ayalon [Israeli Ambassador to the United States] said it is irrelevant because whether Israel does have or does not have atomic weapons or nuclear arms, Israel is not threatening any other country as a possible target of nuclear attack.
Loory: You say it is irrelevant that Israel is not a signer of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty because it is not threatening other nations. Of course, most of the signers of that treaty are not threatening and as a matter of fact, almost all of them do not even have nuclear weapons. Why is that not relevant?
Bushinsky: It goes without saying that most of the signatories are not armed with nuclear weapons, but there is speculation that Israel does have a nuclear capability and some say it has a substantial nuclear weapons capability. However, he says that even if it does have such capability, which it did not confirm or deny in accordance with Israel’s ambiguity policy, he said it is irrelevant because Israel has never threatened and does not intend to threaten any other country with a nuclear attack.
Loory: I read somewhere that they call the ambiguity policy transparent opacity.
Bushinsky: It may be a very clever policy. There are some Israelis who say it is archaic and it is time to come out with it one way or the other, but the majority here believe that they might as well go on as they have been doing since the late 1950s when Israel began its atomic development program – ambiguity.
Loory: The United States was avoiding, it seems, any discussion of nuclear weapons in Israel at the conference this week.
Eisele: Yes, you’re right. Obviously that was deliberate. I think the president wanted to keep it focused on the countries that are a danger like Iran and even Russia and other countries that are producing considerable amounts of plutonium. I think this conference laid out a blueprint for trying to lock down and prevent the spread of fissile materials to would-be terrorists. I give Obama a high grade on this. I think it called world attention to the problem.
Loory: In addition to the conference that was held in Washington there is to be a review of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty in New York in May. Can you tell us what the difference is between these two meetings?
Eisele: The meeting in Washington was focused on trying to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on a huge amount of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. The New York conference is a broader look in trying to prevent these countries from further developing nuclear capabilities.
Loory: Prague was the other big meeting of this month as far as nuclear weapons are concerned. That’s where the United States and Russia signed a new start agreement to reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons that each side had and the announcement after that meeting was that each side had agreed to reduce the number of weapons by roughly a third. Michael, you wrote an article saying that this was not so and when you look at the numbers more carefully, the reductions are quite a bit less. Can you tell us about that?
Bohm: Yes, both sides agreed to this because it was a PR opportunity. When you peel away all the numbers games, the real cuts are very modest: 100 deployed U.S. warheads and 190 Russian ones. That is better than nothing, but it is hardly an historic agreement as both leaders and most of the media called it.
Loory: One of the things that concerns a lot of people is any action that Israel might take, if it becomes definite that Iran is producing nuclear weapons. Israel was active in taking out Iraqi nuclear reactors. Israel was probably active in taking out a Syrian nuclear reactor. What is the possibility of Israel taking unilateral military action against Iran?
Bushinsky: Well you certainly cannot rule it out. Israel is indeed the Jewish homeland and the population consists of about 80 percent Jewish people and Ehud Barak said, in so many words, one holocaust is enough. Israel is not going to sit idly by and gamble that there won’t be another one. So it wouldn’t be a good idea for Iran to contemplate the use of nuclear weapons if it indeed gets them, and the deputy foreign minister seemed to believe that the chance of international prevention to that end are not so certain.
Loory: How is Washington viewing this possibility that Israel might launch a military strike against Iran?
Eisele: It is obviously concerned about it. Clearly the next focus on Obama foreign policy, I think, is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and you can’t look at that without thinking whether Israel might decide to stop the Iranian nuclear development. So it is a huge concern among members of Congress.
Loory: How does the Israeli attitude impact the way the Iranian authorities view their nuclear program?
Daragahi: I think it seems right now that the Iranians are not only refining their nuclear capability and their long- and medium-range nuclear missile technology but also their asymmetrical and conventional capability. They’re basically warning the world that if their nuclear sites are attacked, and I think we shouldn’t be so glib about saying “taken out,” this would be very a complicated venture as even military experts acknowledge.
Loory: Obviously, as Borzou Daragahi just said, this is not a matter that we can be glib about.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.
Global Journalist Live can be seen and heard Thursday mornings at 8:30 a.m. at www.rjionline.org, and there viewers can call in to 573-882-8925 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to ask questions of the participants.