The recent failure to reach a nuclear accord with Iran was apparently a one-day story, rapidly eclipsed by Ferguson, Eric Garner, and sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby. As a recovering politician — an escapee from the Congressional asylum — I know how hard it can be to break out of the news cycle. Some stories have legs. Some don’t.
The news media long ago decided on the marquee headlines for 2014: the Islamic State, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ukraine, Ebola. Underreported stories compete for whatever oxygen’s left. And with even the Iranian nuclear talks struggling to hold the spotlight for long, broader nuclear security issues have dropped off the public radar entirely. That’s dangerous in the extreme. With loose nukes in Pakistan, loose material worldwide, and nuclear fumbling here at home, we have to have our eye on every proliferation risk. No one wants a mushroom cloud on tomorrow’s front page; to counter these threats, we must multitask more effectively.
In 2011 in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder wrote just about the most frightening sentence I’ve ever read: “In a country that is home to the harshest variants of Muslim fundamentalism, and to the headquarters of the organizations that espouse these extremist ideologies,” they wrote, “nuclear bombs capable of destroying entire cities are transported in delivery vans on congested and dangerous roads.” That’s right: Pakistan uses delivery vans, as secure as the ones you and I might use to move furniture, to move its nuclear arsenal. This in a country where the Taliban routinely assaults hardened facilities with great success, where Al Qaeda feels entirely at home, and where the Islamic State was recently embraced by six senior Taliban commanders.
In addition to the risk that nuclear material or weapons might fall into terrorist hands, there’s always the very real possibility that Pakistan will transfer a tactical nuke or worse to another state. Saudi Arabia, the BBC reported in 2013, feels confident that it will be able to acquire a weapon from Pakistan should Iran go nuclear — one more piece of evidence that even in discussions of Iran’s nuclear program, an Iran-only focus is dangerously myopic. And remember, the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan was instrumental in getting Iran’s program off the ground in the first place.
While the progress made worldwide since President Obama acted as host to the first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 is impressive, don’t forget that participating countries vowed to secure weapons-grade materials by this year. No such luck — and when it comes to radioactive materials, every pound counts. Meanwhile, Russia has suspended longstanding and successful cooperation with the United States in securing Russian nuclear sites; its president, Vladimir V. Putin, plans to skip out on the next nuclear security summit too, his absence another casualty of the Ukraine crisis. On nukes, the trend line for political will worldwide is not encouraging.
Nuclear security — in any context but the ongoing negotiations with Iran — has been thrown onto the pile of forgotten causes. One reason, probably, is the poor example set by our own nuclear forces. As a pair of scathing Pentagon studies recently found, we have 60-year-old missile silos with blast doors that don’t close. We have crews servicing intercontinental ballistic missiles with one wrench — one! — able to join warheads with their missiles, a wrench they share with one another via FedEx. Professionalism this is not.
The president has backed a serious, comprehensive, and vastly expensive effort to modernize American nuclear forces. Besides the price tag, there’s a big problem: The overhaul will take three decades. As a former member of Congress who knows what election cycles can do to sound budget thinking, I have a hard time trusting in our government’s ability to follow through on a 30-year plan. While President Obama deserves a great deal of praise for his longstanding and continuing work on nonproliferation, his administration has a hard time multitasking. Congress, with toxic partisanship raging and an incredibly full plate for the months ahead, is unlikely to be helpful.
By March at the very latest, when a broad-strokes political agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is due, Washington’s attention will turn back to nonproliferation. But that’s risky. Terrorism via weapons of mass destruction, Pakistan’s irresponsibility, Russia’s temper tantrums, the future of our own nuclear arsenal — all of these concerns should be on the table and in the media spotlight now. The dates baked into extended negotiations with Iran should be occasions for a broader conversation. A gap in committed attention and long-term thinking leaves the work of nuclear security dangerously unfinished.
The age of the atom is far from over. On nukes, let’s learn to walk and chew gum.
Jane Harman is the director, president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She was a Democratic representative from California from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2001 to 2011.