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Experts Explore Nuclear Issues

The spread of nuclear weapons is a pressing issue the United States must recognize and address, experts said during a two-day conference on campus this week.

"There is a lengthy history of fear and suspicion that I think is very relevant to the nuclear issue." —UCLA Iran expert Nikki Keddie

This article was first published in The Daily Bruin.

By Julia Erlandson

Over 30 scholars, government officials and other experts, including several UCLA faculty members, convened in Covel Commons on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss nuclear issues ranging from changing technology to challenges the next presidential administration will likely face.

"Nuclear weapons continue to pose an existential threat to our nation and to civilization," said former Secretary of Defense William Perry during the conference's keynote address Tuesday afternoon. "The greatest danger today is that a terror group will detonate (a nuclear bomb) in one of our cities."

During a series of panels and breakout sessions over the span of the two days, experts explored that and other possibilities, including regional nuclear threats such as Iran and North Korea.

North Korea successfully tested a nuclear bomb for the first time in October 2006, and though Iran does not currently have nuclear weapons, they are pursuing a nuclear energy program that some international experts believe could lead to weapons capability.

"I think we should be really, really worried about the potential of Iran for getting nuclear weapons," said Scott Sagan, a political science professor from Stanford University, during a breakout session focusing on Iran.

"In the real world, nuclear weapons aren't controlled by states ... or even statesmen. They're controlled by normal, fallible people in normal, fallible organizations."

But Nikki Keddie, a UCLA professor emerita of history who has authored numerous articles and books on Iran, emphasized the importance of mutual understanding and communication between the U.S. and Iran.

"There is a lengthy history of fear and suspicion that I think is very relevant to the nuclear issue," she said.

In the case of both Iran and North Korea, the U.S. has diminished its chances of successful negotiation and deterrence by simultaneously calling for the overthrow of those countries' ruling regimes and asking those same regimes to make concessions, Keddie said.

Former UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale, whose background is in nuclear engineering and nonproliferation diplomacy, said he agreed that the U.S. has sent mixed messages to nations such as Iran and North Korea by condemning their pursuit of nuclear capability even as the U.S. maintains an arsenal of nearly 10,000 warheads.

But Carnesale also called deterrence efforts essential, because terrorist groups could buy or steal a nuclear weapon from a country that has them legally.

Another breakout session later in the day focused specifically on the possibility of nuclear terrorism.

Brian Jenkins, a UCLA alumnus and current senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, said during the session that Sept. 11 made people take nuclear terrorism more seriously.

"(Sept. 11) had an enormous impact on people's thinking," he said. "It redefined plausibility. ... Undoubtedly, (nuclear weapons capability) will continue to be a source of public apprehension."

Jenkins suggested that the best way to deter terrorist groups from using nuclear weapons is to make it clear that such an action would result in retaliatory, and possibly additional pre-emptive, efforts from nations around the globe.

Speakers spent the later part of Wednesday formulating other policy suggestions as they discussed what challenges the next presidential administration would likely face with regard to nuclear weapons.

Panelists took different approaches to dealing with the future of nuclear weapons, ranging from involving China more heavily in nonproliferation efforts to reducing the U.S.'s own nuclear stockpile.

But all the speakers repeatedly emphasized that the nuclear issue will be an ongoing one.

"What we know about the challenge of nuclear proliferation is that it's long-term and it's not going away," said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations and a key conference organizer.