Zarif at the G7, US-North Korea negotiations, India and No First-Use and stopping hurricanes

a 7-minute news roundup from the Press the Button podcast

This is a transcript of a recent Early Warning segment from the podcast Press the Button, in which Michelle Dover and guests discuss a surprise visit from Javad Zarif at the G7, US-North Korea negotiations, India's relationship to "no first-use" and the idea of using nuclear weapons to stop hurricanes. Listen and subscribe to our weekly podcast today! 

Early Warning segment, August 20, 2019

  • Michelle Dover, Director of Programs, Ploughshares Fund
  • Catherine Killough, Roger Hale fellow at Ploughshares Fund
  • Matt Korda, Research Associate at Federation of American Scientists

MICHELLE: Welcome back to another Early Warning. I'm Michelle Dover, Director of Programs here at Ploughshares Fund. Today I am joined by my colleagues, our resident Roger Hale fellow here at Ploughshares, Catherine Killough, and Research Associate at the Federation of American Scientists, Matt Korda. Welcome.

MATT: Thank you so much.

MICHELLE: And Matt, if I can just say we're, one, excited to have you on, I know it's your first time on. And, two, I know you just received a grant. You're part of the team that received one of our Women's Initiative grants from earlier this summer. So congratulations.

MATT: Thank you so much. I'm really excited about it.

MICHELLE: So are we can't wait to see how the project goes. Okay. So I know I say this every week, but there's really a lot going on and we do only have seven minutes. So let's get started. Catherine. Iran's Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, showed up at the G7 in a surprise visit this Sunday. It was a last minute invitation from the French President and it was basically a move straight out of a Real Housewives episode where he shows up, se's only meeting with France’s Foreign Minister, not going to any of the formal G7 sessions, not meeting with any Americans and some disagreement about who knew he was coming. But everyone's well aware that Macron, the French President, has been trying to diffuse the tensions between the US and Iran. You've been following the US-North Korea summitry and negotiations. Anything about this situation feel familiar?

CATHERINE: Yeah. Yeah. I can't help but wonder how Iran has been observing and taking lessons from the US-North Korea diplomatic efforts in the past year. And I wonder if, you know, Iran surprise visit was maybe an attempt to take advantage of what they see as Trump's desire for, you know, media distraction, surprise summitry. And if that is true – if they were trying to appeal to Trump's senses – then this is a really sad indication of the state of international diplomacy today all thanks to Trump and his reality TV style.

MICHELLE Yeah. And we're going to have to see if it does, you know, I mean, if it does get down to substance cause in order for these negotiations to work, to deescalate, the US and Iran are going to have to decide if Iran’s allowed to legally export oil, which is right now the major sticking point. Matt, switching gears a little over a week ago, the United States conducted a surprise launch of a Tomahawk missile that traveled a distance of more than 500 kilometers, according to DoD. And so if the INF treaty still existed, this would have been a violation. You just wrote a piece on this in which you said that the interesting part of it was that this type of launcher isthe same launcher that the Russians have been decrying as a violation of INF for years. So why would the US use this launcher?

MATT: So essentially…for political reasons, right? So as you say, it's the same kind of launcher. This is something that the Russians have been complaining about for some time. They say that the type of launcher that was used on Sunday is exactly the same one that's deployed in Europe. The US says that they're different. So it is kind of easy to get lost in the talking points between Russia and the United States on this one when you have these competing narratives about what the launcher actually represents. Sunday's launch doesn't exactly prove either one either way, right? So we don't really know, like, what the internal schematics of the launcher are. But it definitely doesn't help kind of diffuse the arms race at all. And in my opinion it's not really worth it just to kind of give the corpse of the INF treaty in the middle finger. So…


CATHERINE: Matt, did you see North Korea's recent statement after one of their projectile launches where they actually condemned the US missile launch? I think it goes to your point that we see with countries like North Korea that they feel justified in their pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile testing when they see the US conducting tests of this scale.

MATT: Oh, absolutely. And you know there's a great point there about China as well, right? So China can essentially feel totally vindicated about it's decision not to join in on arms control talks here because why would it do that when it has such fewer weapons than both United States and Russia and, now Russia and India and the United States are all developing these same types of missiles. So it's really interesting to see how different countries have been responding to this latest US test.

MICHELLE: Speaking of India, Catherine, I don't know if you saw recently the Defense Minister of India said that he remained “firmly committed” to the doctrine of no first use for nuclear weapons, but that what happens in the future depends on the circumstances. And he said this while he was at the range where India has tested some of its weapons. And just in case we thought it might've been a fluke, he reiterated it in a tweet. Why would he say this now? What do you make of it?

CATHERINE: Yes, I did see this and I think we need to remember that this statement comes on the heels of India's decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status and it's autonomy. And I think reading it in this context we see how India feels emboldened to escalate crises and push the limit with regard to regional confrontations by relying on the threat of nuclear conflict. I think it's also interesting – I can't help but observe the US double standard here in that we're condemning countries like North Korea for their nuclear development, but we are pretty much staying mum on this actual nuclear conflict.

MICHELLE: Well, and if anything, seeing the photo op, we bring it full circle. Seeing the photo op with Trump and Modi at the G7, it seems to provide this blessing for India to continue these actions even though the US has stated and would typically act in a more  kind of broker role to try to reduce tensions.


MICHELLE: So before we wrap up for today, the story that was in everyone's inbox this morning; Trump has suggested multiple times to senior Homeland Security and National Security officials that they explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States. Okay. I get that everyone is laughing at Trump for this, but it's actually not a new question. And to me it seems that this is just another example of Americans looking at nuclear weapons as a silver bullet or a problem solver. You know, if Hollywood can use it to fix our asteroid problems, like, let's fix our hurricane problems! I don't know. Catherine. Matt, what do you guys think?

CATHERINE: Well, this is something that actually the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) took up years ago. So you can go to their website, they have an FAQ on why it's not a good idea to throw nukes at a hurricane. I mean, it's essentially – yeah, throwing radioactivity at a huge fan is not the best solution.

MICHELLE: Oh God. Yeah.

MATT: Yeah. And I really do love this story because, you know, every time President Trump wants to do something kind of wacky with nuclear weapons, it means that our community gets to have, I think, a really important discussion about Sole Authority as it relates to nuclear launches. Right? So, right here in this situation, we have a President who wants to launch a nuclear weapon at a hurricane. It's a terrible idea for a number of reasons. But institutionally, there's nothing really in place to stop him in the same way that, in the middle of a nuclear crisis where clarity surrounding intelligence and things like that is there's a lot more murky, there's nothing to stop him there either. Right? And so this is something that I think we need to be thinking about any time the President decides to do something kind of wacky with nuclear weapons.

MICHELLE: And with that, our time is up. Thank you so much for joining us.

CATHERINE: Thank you.

MATT: Thanks so much.


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