Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 40-52)



  Q40 Mr. Horam: I am very interested in what you said about the frustration on the part of the non-nuclear powers, and how that has built up to a point where it has become something that the nuclear powers have to take seriously. I am sure that the nuclear powers would say, "That is all very well, but what we are really concerned about is the possible rogue states such as Iran, and the difficulty that we face over there. That is a real threat. The threat does not come from us; it comes from Iran or North Korea." How do you see the situation between those two perhaps conflicting viewpoints? The major powers are concerned about Iran and North Korea, and are probably less concerned about the frustrations of the non-nuclear powers.

  Baroness Williams: I have attended about seven or eight conferences at which substantial numbers of non-nuclear weapon powers were present, and I have to say that they do not see Iran in the same way as the United States and the United Kingdom do. That is not particularly because Iran has done a very good job at diplomacy with them; Iran tends to be a rather remote power that does not go out of its way to build friendships. Having said that—I am talking not about Islamic countries but about non-Islamic ones—it is probably true that the sense of alarm that is felt here is not felt in the same way by other non-nuclear powers, including some European non-nuclear powers. I will come back, if I may, to why. I do not know, Mr. Chairman, whether you want me to go any further into Iran. I am happy to do so.

  Q41 Mr. Horam: We are interested in why you think that that is the case, so please go further now.

  Baroness Williams: Okay. I have recently been in Iran. There is a very strong argument about what Iran's real motivations are and whether they resemble those of Iraq, in the sense that you hide the information because you do not want your bluff called, but it is a bluff. The second argument, strongly advanced by Dr. el-Baradei, director of the IAEA—including in a conversation with me a couple of months ago—is that one of the main reasons for Iran being obscure and leaving open the question of whether it is or is not developing nuclear weapons is that, because until very recently the United States was not prepared to talk directly to it or to recognise it diplomatically, it has been unable to establish a diplomatic presence in the region, so it uses the obscurity about whether it has a weapons programme as a way of compelling people to recognise its role in the region. Its real intention is to be taken as a serious regional power, not to develop nuclear weapons particularly.

  It is interesting that Mr. James Dobbins, whom I know quite well, and is a director at the RAND Institute, which many of you will know has a highly sophisticated and very capable military intelligence centre, takes the same view. I thought that you might ask a question of that kind, so I brought a document from him for you to see. He says that he believes that the fear in Iran of a possible military strike, somewhat strengthened a few weeks ago by Israel's consideration of such an action, has made Iran a very defensive and very secretive power. However, if it were possible to have direct discussions with Iran, one would be able to find out much more about what Iran's real intentions were. Dobbins argues that there should be a diplomatic initiative, which was not possible under the Bush Administration but might be under a new one.

  When I want to Iran a couple of months ago, I found that there were two unending problems. One was that the relationship between Ahmadinejad and the supreme ruler was very obscure—incidentally, his proper description is the Supreme Guide. He certainly seemed to be busily building up both sides of the argument in Iran itself, perhaps to strengthen his hand.

  In that context—and now I will make a remark that may or may not appeal—I regret the fact that the Government did not welcome Dr. Larijani's approach, when he asked for a select parliamentary group to meet with the Iranian Majlis to discuss issues between the west and Iran. I say that because of my impression that the Iranian Administration is not only layered, but divided, and that there are voices such as that of Larijani—who of course is the speaker of the Majlis and was so elected—who very much want a peaceful outcome to the divisions. This is only an impression and I do not want to put too much credence on it. There are others, such as Ahmadinejad, whose popular base is based upon making frightening and extreme statements. One has to make a difficult judgment about those two, but it is not in our interest not to welcome statements by, what one might call, the deliberately moderate-minded and internationalist element in the Iranian Government more than we do. Beyond that, it is hard to discover people who you can talk to there who will not revert to obscure and, in many cases, theological comments, which were rather hard to follow at the seminar that I recently attended.

  Q42 Mr. Horam: That is interesting. You may be aware that this Committee went to Iran.

  Baroness Williams: A year ago.

  Mr. Horam: Yes, and we recognised some of the points that you are making. We said in our report, with certain qualifications, that we wanted talks to take place, not entirely without preconditions—

  Baroness Williams: I thought that you were very nuanced.

  Mr. Horam: We were giving a clear signal that we would like it to happen the way that you describe. As you said, we are at a significant moment with Obama being elected President of the United States, and the United States is the key. One lesson that we have learnt from all these talks with the Iranians, both in Washington and in Tehran, is that the United States is the key to unlocking this. If it does not play a role, everybody else—all the European powers—can talk until they are blue in the face but they will not necessarily make a difference, because that is what Tehran understands to be the power of the situation. Do you not think, therefore, that given what Obama has said, we are at a significant moment where some real progress could be made in relation to Iran?

  Baroness Williams: I do. I would hope that our Government could encourage the new President, and perhaps even more so those people around him, such as the Secretary of State and the new Secretary of Defence—or perhaps the same Secretary of Defence—to consider sitting down and talking. There was one element of breakthrough a month or two ago, when the United States agreed to the presence of an observer on the one plus three discussions. That was encouraging.

  There have also been back-channel discussions between individuals with a lot of knowledge of nuclear issues. They are, of course, not able to be publicly acknowledged, but they are known about by the American Administration without any doubt. Some of them are serious middle east and Iranian experts who are, in a sense, acting individually, apparently on their own. They are acknowledged in the American Administration but there is not any official acknowledgement.

  I am hopeful of that. It is terribly important—and your Committee recognised it when you visited—that there has been no official diplomatic relationship with Iran since 1980, which is quite extraordinary. It is one of the major powers in the world. As we all know, when the leader of the Iranian Administration was rather liberal, Iran made deliberate attempts to reach across to the United States, particularly in 2002 and in 2004—perhaps an unfortunate year—to try to talk about the possibility of discussing how the two countries could deal with Iraq and how they should deal with the general troubles in the region. One of the problems is that those approaches were rejected by the Bush Administration. That tends to build up a sense of paranoia among the Iranians because they feel that there is no way that they can reach a formal exchange of views which are officially recognised. The sensitivities are huge. Iran feels itself to be a great civilisation. It feels that it is not recognised as such by the major powers in the west.

  Q43 Mr. Horam: To finish with this point on Iran—I am sure we do not want to carry on too long—one point that has been made to us by the experts on Iran, in the context of the Iranian push for nuclear weapons, or perhaps not nuclear weapons, is that when our Secretary of State, David Miliband, came to office, he failed to make an early visit to Tehran, when he could have done so. Because of the importance that the Iranians still attach to British opinion—it is second to America, certainly, but still important—that would have been well received. It is a pity that the UK Government did not make that initial effort.

  Baroness Williams: That is rather my sense as well. That is why I said that I thought the opportunity that was offered by the Larijani initiative only a couple of weeks ago might have been one where we could at least have used the phrase, "This sounds interesting enough to explore," or something of that kind. In fact, as far as I know, we said nothing. That is immediately seen as another rejection by Iran.

  I have only one other thing to add about that, which is that cultural exchanges, and for that matter, inter-faith exchanges with Iran could be very useful. That country is very far away and isolated from the rest of us. When we were going there, for example, there was a tight system of selection to decide who would be allowed to have a visa to get to Iran. At that time, rather sadly, all the American applications were dismissed, but that was because America, in turn, had dismissed all the Iranian applications to go there.

  Mr. Horam: That is one issue that we took up with them.

  Chairman: I am conscious that we do not want to spend too long on Iran because we have to get on to other areas.

  Mr. Horam: Can I broaden out one question?

  Chairman: On Iran?

  Mr. Horam: No.

  Chairman: In that case, Fabian wants to come in on Iran and then we can move on.

  Q44 Mr. Hamilton: Baroness Williams, you touched on the point that just before we went to Iran last November, we were in Washington. As I recall, we had breakfast with the late Tom Lantos, who is sadly missed. At this breakfast with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, he told us that he and a number of other Congressmen and women had applied to go to Tehran because they felt, independently of their Government, that they needed to talk to the Iranians—Iranian parliamentarians and people like Larijani—but they were told that there would be no visas. When we were there, we challenged people on why they were not given visas. They were going to go there to talk to the Iranians against their own Government's wishes. They were peaceful elements of the American Administration and the Iranians would not even talk to them because they would not give them visas. Has that changed?

  Baroness Williams: Yes, I think that it has changed. I completely agree with you, and you are absolutely right. It was very foolish to refuse those visas, but you will remember that the Iranian Administration at that time was very much divided. There was the rise of Ahmadinejad, who had just recently come back as the President, and there was the attempt to move Larijani from the Administration altogether. He was later saved by the supreme ruler and brought back as his adviser on nuclear proliferation, and he is now showing signs of rising in the Administration. As I mentioned earlier, I suspect that the supreme guide does not discourage divisions between those around him. It is not a unified Administration, so now is a good time to revisit that because you have the initiative coming from Iran, albeit through the Larijani channel, but you are clearly not going to get it through the Ahmadinejad channel at the moment.

  Mr. Hamilton: Thank you for your very clear analysis of Iran.

  Q45 Mr. Horam: I want to look at the whole NPT situation and get away from the issue of Iran for a moment. We asked the two previous witnesses what they saw as the weaknesses of the present international arrangements for controlling nuclear weapons, and one answer was that we had not been tough enough on some of the people who threatened not to comply with them. Unfortunately, Iran is one of them, but I do not want to go on about that. Do you agree that we have not been tough enough with some of them?

  Baroness Williams: I will step back for a moment and look at that word "we". We are by no means a completely united group, in the sense that France clearly follows a rather different line than the Bush Administration in the US does. I might put that in stronger terms than those that you have used so far, because I think that the Indo-US nuclear treaty was seen by many non-nuclear powers as a coach and horses going right through the middle of the NPT, and I rather agree.

  At that time the US did not exact from India the requirement that the additional protocol apply to its military installations, for example, but allowed it to refuse any access to military installations. They proudly said that they would accept access to civil nuclear facilities, but that was not the point. We do not allow Iran to say, "You can have access to our civil nuclear facilities at Bushehr, but do not come and ask us about anything to do with the military." That would make a nonsense of the NPT. Although I am, personally, deeply pro-Indian, I though that that was a very unfortunate and damaging case of double standards.

  America was offering such a good deal on access to nuclear materials in almost every circumstance, so I would have thought that the US Administration could have exacted a heavier price—if not membership of the NPT, then at the very least full adherence to the NPT requirements of inspection. However, they did not do that. Among other things, of course, that has made Pakistan, at an internal political level, argue that it has been treated quite differently from India and far less favourably. It is not a happy moment for that kind of attitude to be taken in a democracy that is clearly very frail at present.

  Q46 Mr. Horam: Thank you, Baroness Williams. With our previous witnesses we discussed, as you might have heard, dirty bombs, their associated problems and the business of the wrong material getting into terrorist hands. Have we succeeded in making the acquisition of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction by terrorists less likely?

  Baroness Williams: No, we have not. We have not given that anything like the necessary attention, but I would question slightly the use of the word "terrorist", and you will see why. I have just looked at a very interesting report called "Securing the Bomb", which the Committee might want to look at, which was put out by the Belfer Centre, of which I am a board member, and written by Malcolm Bunn, a brilliant man and one of the centre's experts in the field. The report points out that since 1993 there have been approximately 1,800 attempts to seize, sell or trade nuclear materials. Of that 1,800, only 18 have been serious attempts to seize highly enriched uranium. Most of the other incidents involved poor security or attempts by people—but not serious terrorist groups—to seize or steal.

  So far, the most serious breaches that we know of among those 18—those that are on a substantial scale—are quite astonishing because they had nothing to do with terrorists. One involved the deputy chairman in charge of security at nuclear sites who was himself a Russian citizen. He was sacked from his job for attempting to smuggle and steal nuclear materials and sell them abroad. The second one, which is almost as troubling and is also mentioned in the report, was an attempt by certain senior figures in the Pakistani military to get hold of nuclear materials to sell them to al-Qaeda. The breaches were discovered, and in both cases the people concerned were sacked, but because we have concentrated so much on terrorism—I am not saying that that is wrong, but you see my point—there have been in some ways much more organised and much more serious internal betrayals involving nuclear materials and nuclear knowledge and understanding than any terrorist has so far succeeded in bringing about. It does not mean that they could not do so, but one has to look inside as well as outside—possibly even more inside than outside.

  Very quickly on the broader issue, at the Nuclear Threat Initiative we think that about 55% of the Russian nuclear installations have been raised to what are called high security standards. That means that 45% are not there yet—they have not got that high. In the case of research materials using highly enriched uranium, there is very little proper security. The amounts are small, but even so, there is very little security.

  One of the things that NTI is anxious to do wherever possible is to exchange, free of charge, lowly enriched uranium and a pledge to continue the supply for the highly enriched uranium that is being used in the many—literally, hundreds—of small research reactors, mostly in universities in the rest of the world but often in countries with no knowledge at all of the dangers of nuclear weaponry.

  Mr. Horam: Thank you.

  Chairman: That is very helpful. Some of the members of the Committee went to Russia on a previous inquiry and visited a nuclear research reactor. We saw what I would say was woeful security, but it was being improved with the support of Global Partnership and British Government money. That was just two years ago, so the issue that you mentioned is important.

  Q47 Sir John Stanley: Baroness Williams, in the context of the NPT review process in 2010, what is your view as to what the British Government's policy objectives should be? What should we try to achieve in that review?

  Baroness Williams: That is a huge question, but I will try to answer it quickly, because I know that you are a bit short of time.

  The first thing is that in order to get the strengthening of the NPT on track before 2010, we really have to encourage an initiative by the United States and the Russians together. Questions were asked earlier about the reduction of nuclear arsenals, and there is no question about the need to do that in a major way. That would begin to get some of the sense of there being sharp divisions between non-nuclear and nuclear back on track again.

  Let me say quickly that I heard the earlier interchange with Malcolm Chalmers and Mark Fitzpatrick. I was present at a very interesting meeting in Harvard of experts from Russia and the United States. It was held under the aegis of the Gorbachev Foundation at the time, but they were not Gorbachev people. They were mainly scientists and technicians. I do not pretend to be able to know whether what they were saying was right, but it was very interesting that the Russian and American scientists—the meeting was held two years ago—agreed that both sides could reduce their nuclear warheads to 500, and that that would be a more than sufficient deterrent. At present, the United States has 10,000 nuclear warheads, and the Russians have 16,000. The point about that is that it is so far beyond the deterrent required that there is a wide-open invitation to accessibility to the parts that are not needed and not well protected, but could certainly be the source of materials for other powers. One of my strong senses is that it would not be difficult to get towards the point at which you could have major reductions, without even Britain, France and China being affected, because they are well below these figures. That would go a long way to rebuild trust.

  If you do not mind, I shall move on from that for one minute. You asked a question—I probably do not agree with my own Government on this—about the possibility of moving towards huge reductions in arsenals, taking weapons off alert status, with very few exceptions to that rule, and a much more manageable nuclear proliferation situation that we could probably cope with. That has suffered very much at the hands of the deterioration in relations between Russia, the United States and ourselves. The issue that you raised—ballistic missile defence—is absolutely central there. I cannot help wondering whether the price that we are paying for that is not much too high.

  Q48 Sir John Stanley: Thank you. Rightly, in my view, you highlighted the huge scope and critical importance—preferably before 2010—of trying to get real substantive progress between the US and Russia in reducing their nuclear weapons stockpiles. We have a change of American President, but it remains to be seen what degree of priority this will have for President-elect Obama. However, from your knowledge of the Putin Government—he is now Prime Minister—and how they have moved, do you believe that there is a realistic possibility of getting them to move into an altogether more co-operative stance towards the United States and to talk really serious numbers in terms of reducing their own stockpile, if there are equivalent reductions by the Americans?

  Baroness Williams: I think that there is. I spend a fair amount of time in Russia, because I am on the board of something called the Moscow School of Political Studies, which is a fairly democratic body, with all the parties of Russia in there, training young elected members of the Duma and the regional and major city dumas—that is to say, the next generation of Russian democrats, if there is a Russian democracy. The school is supposed to be for young people between the ages of perhaps 25 and 40, and they are almost all elected councillors or parliamentarians, but—although they are mostly pretty pro-American—I have never encountered such an absolutely united sense of hostility towards the United States and the UK over the recent installation of ballistic missiles, which are not necessarily nuclear, in Poland and the Czech Republic.

  If one thinks for a minute about the history of Russia—with respect to my American colleagues, not many know it—it is a history that leads to paranoia. This is a country that has been invaded and invaded and invaded, and has gone into a sort of state of what one must almost call a security obsession. I think that whatever we may say rationally about this—"It's not really threatening Russia"—the Russians are not going to be persuaded of that. They really believe that it is a threat to Russia. When they look at Iran or North Korea—well, "It's a funny place," one might say.

  What could we do? Personally, I think that the United Kingdom Government could do two important things. One, investigate the Russian proposal for linking up the radar screens, which you may remember that they made at an earlier stage. They said that we could link our radar screens to the Russian radar screens and have a common missile defence, which would go a long way to persuading them that it was not aimed at them. It would be well worth trying to explore that. The second, which I think the UK Government have been very good about, is the work done on verification—because verification dies out in 2009, which I think Malcolm Chalmers pointed out. There is no international verification system whatsoever after the START agreement comes to an end in 2009. Therefore, the British, who have been working hard on verification issues, including at a technical level in the Atomic Weapons Establishment, could put forward a proposal for seeing whether these missile protection schemes can be brought together.

  I shall make a final point quickly—if I seem to have been controversial, forgive me. We are very fortunate that the possibility of Ukrainian membership of NATO has been put on to the back burner. It would have been seen by the Russians as a disastrous form of offensiveness because, whether we like it or not, Ukraine is clearly still seen by them rather like Ireland is seen by us—as being part of the same area of political interest, entity and so forth. They feel very strongly about it, so it would have been silly to go ahead with Ukrainian membership at the present time.

  Q49 Chairman: You referred to the policy of the British Government in different ways. Wearing your hat in your special role, will you say whether the Government are doing enough on nuclear disarmament?

  Baroness Williams: In some areas, they are doing a major job that has not been publicised much. I have mentioned the verification issue, so I shall refer to the very interesting proposal of the Ministry of Defence for a summit between the laboratories. Your earlier witnesses mentioned, for example, the importance of defining what is a warhead. Of the 16,000 Russian warheads, which are effective and which are just there to fill in the gaps? We have been able to do that sort of technical work, and we have done that well, both verification and the lab proposal.

  We have not been sufficiently willing to talk about the BMD issue and NATO expansion. We could have risked saying that we were not feeling happy about them, instead of which we rather automatically backed the Administration. Because we have so long been dealing closely with the Bush Administration, I am slightly worried that we are not moving quite fast enough to see what changes might occur with an Obama Administration. A lot will depend on whom he appoints as Secretary of State.

  My final point concerns the UK. There is one huge contribution that we can make. You have not asked me the question, so I shall ask it of myself. Strengthening the IAEA at the resources and inspection level is absolutely crucial. It is now pushed to its limits. The UK could be a very satisfactory place for recruiting and training inspectors because ABWE is certainly one of the best technical bodies there is and, because of our well-known commitment to the IAEA and the United Nations, it is an area where there could be a British initiative. It could be very important. It could be helpful to America, which could not make that initiative at the moment because it has still not got the comprehensive test ban treaty through Congress. However, we have, and we have built up all the treaties; it is something that we could do in a major way and for which we could receive a great deal of credit.

  Q50 Chairman: We, as a Committee, intend to look closely at what is happening in the IAEA. You referred to strengthening, but is it just a question of resources or could any other changes be made?

  Baroness Williams: It is not just resources. We could explore the sort of training that new inspectors will need. They will need to be both civil and military to a much greater extent than they have been up to now. Obviously, the IAEA ought to expand to take in the inspection of potential proliferation in the form of civil nuclear reactors in countries that have never had anything to do with nuclear technology. There are an awful lot of them, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. They are all countries with virtually no knowledge, let alone people who would be capable of inspecting. There is a huge need, and the UK could help to fill that need. It is not just a matter of financial resources although, God knows, that is important. The level of experience is so low in human resources that the people from Britain and, for that matter, France who understand such matters, could do a useful job. In that context, you probably know that the new director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security—the NTI initiative for exchanging best practice on nuclear security—will be the former head of the British nuclear inspectorate, so that might be a useful link.

  Q51 Chairman: One other area is related to the action of the British Government. It is the suggestion of a so-called enrichment bond. Do you have any views on that?

  Baroness Williams: It is useful, but it is useful essentially as a complement to a relatively small fuel bank. It is another illustration of the distrust of non-nuclear weapon powers. You probably know that, a couple of months ago, they were advised by the IAEA to withdraw all support for fuel banks. It asked their Governments not to assist in creating a fuel bank. The reason for that was primarily sensitivity about sovereignty. It thought that it was a step towards refusing all non-nuclear weapon powers the ability to enrich uranium even up to the permitted level. It is a very sensitive area. Personally, I think that the only way in which we can deal with it is by leaping over the whole of that argument and moving to an international site for an enrichment plant—a nuclear Vatican—placed somewhere that could not have sovereignty.

  Q52 Chairman: Perhaps you should not call it the Vatican in the context of Iran.

  Baroness Williams: Of course, you are right, but you know what I am trying to say. It has to be placed somewhere where the sovereignty issue does not arise. In other words, it must be ceded to the United Nations. It has to be an international place, and that ceded place would probably best be Switzerland next door to the existing UN structures. A sovereign power must not be involved, because that power could decide to take over nuclear installations unilaterally by an act of nationalisation, which, after all, happened in the case of the Suez canal a long time ago. Countries will not buy into that.

  Going back to your question, my view is that we should have an enrichment facility that is international and internationally controlled, but it ought not to be on sovereign territory except that of the United Nations, and it could then be linked to our proposal for an enrichment bond, which is an excellent complement to a fuel bank, but not a total substitute for it. Sorry, that was a long answer.

  Chairman: No, it was very helpful. Baroness Williams, the proceedings have been extremely useful. We are very grateful to you for coming along and for giving us your wide experience of such matters.

  Baroness Williams: Thank you very much for inviting me. I am grateful to you, and good luck.

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