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Top Five Nuclear Issues of 2007

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The close of 2007 reveals it was a roller coaster year for nuclear issues, both positive and perilous. We picked the five most important issues of the past year that have had and will have the most impact on U.S. policy in 2008. We explore this top five list in reverse order of importance—to give U.S. policymakers a clear list of priorities for the coming year—but first, we would be remiss not to mention the close contenders that did not make our list, including:

Deal or No Deal with India. The Bush administration this year cut a nuclear trade deal with India, ending 33 years of restrictions after India cheated on pledges not to use civilian nuclear technology to make bombs. Proponents said it would cement a new strategic relationship; opponents said it blew a hole in the non-proliferation regime. Indian domestic politicians are close to killing the deal, as both the left and the right work to block government approval.

All I Wanted for Christmas Was a New Nuclear Bomb. Congress played the Grinch, delaying production funds for a new nuclear weapon sought by the Bush administration. The announcement in late December that the total U.S. arsenal will shrink to about 5,000 weapons by the end of the decade underscored congressional requirements for a comprehensive plan before it authorizes any new weapon.

Not in My Backyard. The Bush administration also wanted to start building anti-missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic to counter Iran. The plan backfired, roiling U.S.-Russian relations, provoking opposition from the Polish and Czech people, publics, and causing Congress to deny construction funds until it gets studies verifying that the threat is real and the technology works.

The Mystery Box in the Desert. Israel bombed a square building in Syria anonymous officials claimed was a nuclear reactor built with North Korean aid. Four months after the strike, conflicting reports and fuzzy data mean we still do not know if this was a bold strike at a covert program, a mistaken attack based on faulty intelligence, or an Israeli message to Iran. International inspectors that could solve the puzzle have still not been called in to investigate.

All four of these nuclear developments in 2007 that could rise in prominence in 2008 were important, but we believe the top five issues of 2007 with more serious implications in 2008 are:

No. 5: Do You Know Where Your Nukes Are? The U.S. Air Force lost track of the equivalent of 60 Hiroshima bombs for 36 hours, as a B-52 bomber flew across the country with six nuclear missiles no one knew were tucked under its wings. The Air Force has not flown nuclear weapons on bombers for almost 40 years and has not even practiced loading these weapons on bombers for over 16 years. The live bombs were put on by accident. Most experts thought it impossible that any aircrew could get past the half-dozen security checks designed to prevent the unauthorized use of the most dangerous weapons on earth.

Yet, Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick disclosed that the loaded bomber "sat on the tarmac overnight without special guards, protected for 15 hours by only the base’s exterior chain-link fence and roving security patrols." To its credit, the Air Force disciplined the officers and crews involved. But if the country with the most sophisticated nuclear security system in the world can lose six hydrogen bombs, what could happen in other countries? How secure are the estimated 15,000 weapons in Russia? Or those in Pakistan? Or the highly enriched uranium and plutonium—enough for hundreds of thousands of weapons—scattered in hundreds of buildings in over 40 countries?

No 4: Winding Down the North Korea Nuclear Program. What a difference a year makes. By the end of 2006, President Bush’s policy had forced the collapse of the deal that had frozen North Korea’s plutonium production, triggering new North Korean tests of a long-range missile—that exploded soon after launch—and then its first nuclear weapon that fizzled, but sent shock waves around the world and started debate in Japan about whether that nation needed its own nuclear weapons. After President Bush shifted to negotiations reminiscent of Clinton-era efforts, 2007 ended with a deal that shut down the plutonium reactor, began its disablement, and could conclude in 2008 with the full disclosure and dismantlement of the nuclear program and the normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations.

Suspicions still run high on both sides. Full North Korean compliance is not at all assured; and there are already delays to the most recent accord—par for the course when dealing with Pyongyang. But the overall progress is encouraging. Responding to a personal letter from President Bush, North Korean officials confirmed that they would stick to the deal if America did the same. Despite efforts by neoconservatives to use everything from the Israeli attack on Syria to the election of Lee Myung-bak as South Korea’s new president to derail the deal, all signs are that Bush is staying with what could be his one major foreign policy victory.

No. 3: An Iranian Puzzle Inside an Enigma Wrapped in Uranium. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vitriolic attacks on the United States and Israel continued, as did the development of his nation’s 3,000 centrifuges. These machines are running at only 10 percent of their designed capabilities, but once perfected and multiplied to tens of thousands, these machines could eventually produce fuel for reactors or bombs. A new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran ended any covert work on weapons in 2003 and has likely not resumed since. With the likelihood of an immediate Iranian nuclear breakout now considered remote, the new intelligence estimate derailed the belligerent Bush administration rhetoric and strategy of the past year that rested on military options now clearly off the table.

The failure of the U.S. strategy to compel Iranian compliance or collapse temporarily weakens our leverage. A third United Nations sanctions resolution against Iran will be weak, if it happens at all. Russia has delivered the first two—and long delayed—shipments of nuclear fuel for Iran’s reactor. And the Iranians are doing a touchdown dance in the end zone. But it does not mean the game is over.

The Iran challenge is still serious, but the new intelligence estimate could bring U.S. policy more in line with other countries that see this not as a nuclear- bomb crisis but as a nuclear- diplomacy crisis. A new strategy could contain and engage Iran. The United States is still the most powerful country in the world with global alliances that include most of Iran’s neighbors, while Iran is a relatively isolated nation with a stagnant economy the size of Thailand’s, whose major exports after oil and gas are dates, pistachios, and carpets. There are multiple levers to use, if U.S. leaders are smart enough to use them— and if Iranian pragmatists are smart enough to know when to make a deal.

No 2: A Nuclear-Armed Pakistan Teeters on the Edge. The assassination this week of former prime minister and top opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and the intensification of the political crisis in Pakistan at the end of the year brings into sharp relief our most immediate nuclear threat. It comes not from Iraq or Iran, but Pakistan. With an unstable military ruler, enough material for 50- to- 100 nuclear bombs, strong Islamic fundamentalist influences in the country and armed, Islamic fundamentalist groups—including Al Qaeda—operating within its territory, Pakistan is the most dangerous country on earth.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and material are believed secure for now, but increased instability could split the military or distract the units guarding the weapon materials, providing an opening for a raid by an organized radical group. For all the focus on Iraq and Iran over the past six years, it is in Pakistan that Osama bin Laden may have his best chance of getting the nuclear weapon we know he wants.

It did not have to be this way. The crisis underscores the serious consequences of the failed Bush doctrine that saw regime change as the cure for nuclear proliferation and the military as the major instrument of statecraft. Rather than focus on the actual threats from nuclear weapons and Al Qaeda, administration officials systematically inflated threats elsewhere to justify pre-existing plans to attack Iraq and apparently Iran.

If President Bush had stayed focused on pursuing Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in Afghanistan back in 2001 instead of diverting troops to Iraq, Al Qaeda would not have had camps in Pakistan to train its assassins. If he had focused on promoting democracy rather that propping up a military dictator, Pakistan would have already had elections and a new government. If President Bush had worked on eliminating nuclear weapons where they actually existed instead of where they might, Pakistan would be reducing its arsenal, not expanding it. Bad policy has consequences; Pakistan is now suffering from years of wrong choices.

No. 1: Cold Warriors Prepare for Another Battle: Critical Nonproliferation. The greatest hope for reducing all these nuclear threats came from a policy plan developed completely outside the frame established by the Bush administration and largely followed by the press. The problem, said former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of State and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn in a January 4 Wall Street Journal op-ed, is not just nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue regimes, but nuclear weapons anywhere.

The answer, said these four veteran cold warriors, is for the United States to: recommit to the vision of eliminating nuclear weapons and marry that vision with an eight-point action plan, including steep reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty, eliminating as much nuclear weapon material as possible, and securing all weapons and material as well as we secure the gold in Fort Knox.

Their effort picked up momentum and new adherents throughout the year. They will soon announce the support of many other former secretaries of defense and state. In October, they got the endorsement of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who told the group: “You have a big vision, a vision as big as humanity—to free the world of nuclear weapons… Let me know how I can use my power and influence as governor to further your vision.”  Schwarzenegger’s embrace of a new role as “The Eliminator,” signals the broad appeal of their plan.

Though the dream of a nuclear-free world has been advocated by many over the past six decades, for the first time since the Truman years the call comes not from the left, but from the moderate middle. This is the fusion of John F. Kennedy’s vision that  “we must abolish the weapons of war before they abolish us,” with Ronald Reagan’s vision of making “nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

It also marks a rediscovery of Reagan as a nuclear abolitionist who came very close at his summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 to a deal eliminating all nuclear weapons within 10 years.  As Schultz, Kissinger, Perry, and Nunn emphasized: “Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage.” 

We will hear much more about all these nuclear stories in 2008, but it is this last issue that holds the greatest promise and hope for the future.

Joseph Cirincione is a senior fellow and Alexandra Bell is a research associate at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. To read more about the Center’s foreign policy decision please see our National Security page.

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