American diplomat Thomas Pickering
30 June 2015

Interview: Thomas Pickering on diplomacy, Iran, Korea, Russia, realpolitik, and the ethics of war

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette, Jr. is a science writer/editor and foreign correspondent who has filed stories from every continent except Antarctica. His stories have appeared in Scientific American,...


Diplomat Thomas R. Pickering draws upon his 40 years of experience in the US State Department to give the Bulletin’s Dan Drollette Jr. his take on a wide range of current affairs—such as the progress of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear capabilities, the assassination of Iranian scientists, North Korea’s weaponry, Russia’s attitudes toward the West, the effectiveness of realpolitik, and the possibilities for eliminating all nuclear weapons.

Early in his career, Pickering was special assistant to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, later rising to become undersecretary for political affairs—the department’s third-highest position, where he was in charge of daily operations around the clock.

Pickering went on to serve as ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, the United Nations, India, and Russia. Fluent in French, Spanish, and Swahili, Pickering also has a working knowledge of Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Time magazine once called Pickering “the five-star general of the diplomatic corps,” and King Hussein of Jordan described him as “the best American ambassador I’ve ever dealt with." Before he retired, Pickering was granted the agency’s highest title: Career Ambassador.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)


Bulletin: In a 2008 Bulletin interview, you said you were “participat[ing] in back-channel discussions with Iranian academics and policy advisers on a host of issues—including Tehran’s nuclear power program.” How likely did you think some sort of agreement was between Tehran and Washington? The last round looked promising until the last minute.

Pickering: All along, the goal was for an agreement on major outstanding fundamental questions by the end of March, and a treaty draft with all the annexes by July. Each side, I think, was always anxious to have an agreement—but on terms that optimize its ability to sell it domestically. (Laughs.)

We’re not likely to see movement until the deadline stares them in the face. I think each side has optimistic expectations of how much the other side will give.

Essentially, the sticking point was the degree to which the United States and its friends accept Iran’s capacity to produce separative work units (SWUs)—the measure of output of an enrichment device per year. SWUs are more accurate than talking about the number of centrifuges, which are tricky because centrifuges vary so much in their production, from 0.7 SWUs per year to over 100. I think the negotiators consider the first-generation IR-1 centrifuges to have the capacity to produce roughly one SWU annually—it’s really closer to 0.7, but in that neighborhood.

Bulletin: So it doesn’t help much if we ask them to get rid of a thousand centrifuges and they get rid of all the worst ones but keep the latest, second-generation, high-performance centrifuges?

Pickering: Right. They’ve now got 9,620 to 9,640 of the old ones working, which together produce about 8,000 separative work units, depending on how you measure that. We’d like to see the number be around 4,000 or 4,500 SWUs.

The trick is that the Iranians don’t want to take any centrifuges now operating offline. They have about 19,000 centrifuges installed, with less than half working. We’d like to see those centrifuges producing well below full capacity: about 4,000 SWUs per year maximum, because to us that volume of enriched uranium equals a one-year breakout period—the time it takes to produce enough highly enriched uranium to make one nuclear weapon.

On their side, they’d like to see all sanctions removed immediately. That presents problems, partly because a number of sanctions have nothing to do with their nuclear program, but concern human rights violations and so forth.

Thus far they’ve been scrupulously careful about not violating the interim agreement—a very good sign.

But we’re in a situation where our Congress is highly unlikely to remove the sanctions. Of course, the president has some waiver authority.

Besides our sanctions, there’s the European ones, which may be easier to lift, but less of a concern to the Iranians. The US ones are the most sweeping; in essence, our sanction says, “If you do business with the Iranian financial system, you can’t do business with the US financial system”—and the US banking world is so much more important to the international investment world that bankers are very hesitant to deal with the Iranians. And it includes everything, like letters of credit for imports. So, in effect US sanctions become an almost complete prohibition on all Iranian imports.

So far as UN sanctions go, lifting them can be a problem from our point of view, because any action is more or less irrevocable. If a Security Council resolution is ever passed to lift them, getting them back in place may be almost impossible—the Russians and the Chinese are unlikely to agree to reimposing UN sanctions unless there’s a really horrendous violation by the Iranians.

So, we’d prefer to lift UN sanctions on a trial basis for a year at a time, and then go back at the end of each one-year period and re-examine the case for keeping them lifted.

Bulletin: If Iran is indeed scrupulously careful, is there such a thing as over-monitoring? Iran argues that it is already subject to the world’s most intrusive inspection regime.

Pickering: Having grown up in the disarmament world, I think the idea of over-monitoring is a wiggle device to try to avoid the IAEA and others.

Bulletin: Tell us what you mean by growing up in the disarmament world. What got you interested in disarmament and diplomacy?

Pickering: I was always interested in history—mainly the Medieval and Renaissance eras—and government. Around my junior year at Bowdoin College, I decided on a career in the State Department’s Foreign Service. I took their exams in 1955, went to Australia on a Fulbright, did my thesis, then came back to the United States and did three years in the Navy. After I finished my military service, I started work at the State Department, where I was assigned to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Then a man with whom I carpooled offered me an interesting job, in what was a very new field back at the end of the Eisenhower administration: arms control and disarmament.

But it was not an unusual career segue. Much of what I previously did in the Navy was related: I was a photo interpreter, where I looked at targets and helped plan missions for pilots. So I got very familiar with Soviet activities, airfields, those kinds of things.

I spent a few years at the bureau, then went to the US Arms Control Administration for two years, then in 1962 I went to Geneva as the first permanently assigned foreign service officer dealing exclusively with disarmament. I stayed until ’64, then volunteered to go to Zanzibar for two years, and then Dar es Salaam. When I came back, I was offered a job as deputy to the guy who ran the Arms Control Agency—a huge promotion for me. I worked for him for nearly four years.

I was working at the State Department when Henry Kissinger arrived in August 1973; I worked a while for him as special assistant, and then he sent me to Jordan as ambassador.

I wound up being ambassador to seven places: the United Nations and six countries. So, disarmament and diplomacy have been a big part of my professional life.

Bulletin: A recent Bulletin article said that at least five Iranian nuclear scientists have been the target of assassination attempts in recent years, often attributed to Israeli intelligence. Although to complicate matters, there are rumors the Iranian regime itself was involved sometimes.

Pickering: I find it quite a stretch to believe that the Iranian regime was involved in assassinating its own nuclear scientists; they play such an important role in their program. If the Iranian government had doubts about their scientists, would they really go that far down that road?

The generally accepted view is that the Israelis, probably through the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (a militant Iranian dissident group known for waging a bloody internal war with the clerics who run the country), have been the primary responsible people for the assassinations. Certainly when she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton did everything she could to separate the United States from the assassinations—as opposed to Stuxnet activity.

Bulletin: Because sending a computer virus like Stuxnet to disable Iran’s nuclear program was more palatable?

Pickering: Right. And there was an obvious effort to be responsible and avoid having that computer virus contaminate the rest of the world. The Iranian control network was stand-alone, and the perpetrators used very precise human agency to introduce the virus. (Editor’s note: To sabotage the facility’s frequency-converter drives—fussy, precision-made, computer-guided devices that control how fast centrifuges spin to separate out and purify the uranium—someone had to physically insert a memory stick infected with the Stuxnet virus into a computer at Iran’s Natanz nuclear-enrichment plant. Some experts say the virus apparently had a number of fail-safe mechanisms built in, such as the ability to infect only a limited number of devices, and even then only for Iranian industrial-control parts like frequency-converter drives. In addition, Stuxnet self-destructed after a pre-set time.)

Bulletin: Getting back to the assassination of Iranian scientists to stop their nuclear program: One of the questions raised was whether, in terms of pure realpolitika concept closely associated with your old boss, Henry Kissinger—this approach was ultimately counterproductive. In the end, doesn’t targeting experts in nuclear science increase the threat of nuclear war?

And beyond such “pragmatic politics,” is assassination morally defensible?

Pickering: It’s an interesting discussion, which rapidly moves into the question of drones, and whether targeting leaders on the other side is valid.

During the Second World War, we assassinated a Japanese admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto, after codebreakers intercepted information that indicated he was flying to a base on the front lines in the South Pacific. Yamamoto was the senior commander of the Japanese forces who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, so when we sent fighter planes to shoot down his aircraft, we considered that perfectly okay.

And history tells us that in the Middle Ages, you went after the enemy leader on the field of battle if you could get at him. And during the Renaissance, people thought nothing of poisoning or assassinating foreign leaders.

In the modern era, I think there was no line drawn under Hitler’s name that said, “Don’t touch.”

So, now the question comes up: Can you use drones to do this? Are drones really just like “smart artillery,” or are they something fundamentally different? And is that allowed? And what about any unintentional killing or wounding of noncombatants—collateral damage—while attacking a legitimate enemy target?

I personally think you’ve got a huge responsibility to avoid collateral damage if you can. And so far as I know, our people worked hard to do that. But they’ve clearly made mistakes: In World War II, we firebombed Japanese cities and destroyed 80,000 people at a pop—almost as much as a nuclear weapon. And we bombed German cities and other enemy targets; Dresden was clearly a population-oriented attack.

So, where do you draw the lines on these things?

My view is that if you have good reason to believe people are out to get you, and you use proportional and acceptable military methods to respond, and you try to avoid innocent casualties, then you are probably acting within the rules of a just war and the use of force. Though I ain’t a lawyer.

Bulletin: You make a distinction between the use of a drone and the use of someone who drives up on a motorcycle and attaches a bomb to the car door of a nuclear physicist at a stoplight?

Pickering: Well, certainly Secretary of State Clinton did.

I think she distanced herself in part because of the record on Iran. On a regular annual basis, the director of national intelligence for the United States has reported that there is no evidence that Iran has decided to use a nuclear weapon.

Therefore, the attack on Iranian scientists is an attack on civilians who are not operating in a system that is making a nuclear weapon.

On the other hand, the Iranians, through their civil programs, are certainly seeking to acquire the technology, experience, and equipment that would put them in a position to carry out such a decision if it were made in the future.

The only time we used force to prevent a state from acquiring nuclear weapons, that state had already given them up: Iraq.

It gets real complicated. Which is what diplomats get paid to deal with.

Bulletin: How should we view Iran’s scientists and its nuclear program?

Pickering: We’re dealing with an Iranian civil program that has been through numerous inspections and limitations. There isn’t a high danger of their developing a nuclear weapon without our knowing about it long before they could succeed in producing a single weapon.

And even if they produced it, is somebody going to use or test a single nuclear weapon? Highly unlikely.

Secondly, whatever they create may not necessarily be deliverable. To get such a device by crude methods would take quite a long time, and to get it sufficiently miniaturized so that it could be put on the front of a missile might take three years.

So, between the year it takes to make fissile material and the three years it would take to weaponize it, there would be plenty of time to increase sanctions and reopen negotiations. That means that if we got word that Iran was moving toward a nuclear weapon, we’d have plenty of opportunities to stop them, well short of war.

Bulletin: Is the situation in North Korea different from Iran?

Pickering: North Korea is quite different. They had three tests, of which two worked. They have enough material for between five and 25 weapons, depending upon how much plutonium they’ve made at Yongbyon and how much highly enriched uranium they’ve made at facilities we’ve only begun to learn of—there’s something at Yongbyon that looks like an enrichment facility, but we don’t know if there are others.

Another distinction is that North Korea has many underground and emplaced artillery weapons within range of Seoul. And based upon the evidence, they have a significant chemical warfare capability.

So it’s not just their nuclear retaliatory capability, but their conventional capability that makes the situation different.

Consequently, people have been more careful about whether we might readily resort to using military force against North Korea.

Now, would they give up their nuclear program if they got what they seem to want—a peace settlement, a reintroduction into the world community, and the end of sanction? I don’t know.

But certainly, we and China and Japan and Russia agree that the objective must be to get the North Koreans to give up their program.

Bulletin: Can the Chinese put pressure on them?

Pickering: Yes, but at the same time, the Chinese are equally concerned that if North Korea collapses, that would leave China’s 1400-kilometer-long Yalu River border with North Korea open to uncertainty.

From the Chinese perspective, at the moment they prefer to have a somewhat shaky North Korean regime be their buffer zone than deal with the uncertainty of a new, reunified Korean peninsula that would presumably be under South Korean leadership.

Bulletin: So, if the two Koreas combine, who knows what the newly formed, reunited Korea would do?

Pickering: And the big questions are: Who gets the nuclear weapons? And do we want them to have the weapons, or can we get rid of the weapons?

For these reasons, China seems to prefer the status quo. But the more North Korea looks wobbly and uncertain, the more I think the Chinese will have second thoughts.

But who knows what will happen. The North Korean leadership has hung on, under conditions of great adversity, without any military coup or popular uprising. For us to believe such things could happen may be a triumph of hope over reality.

Bulletin: Could an Orange Revolution happen there?

Pickering: I don’t know, but the mere hope that such a thing could conceivably happen is a cause of serious problems.

If we go back to Iran, for example, a fundamental difference between the United States and Iran is that the Iranians—at some serious and senior levels—believe that our primary objective in Iran is regime change. And therefore everything we do now is a kind of cover for achieving that goal.

So there are concerns that go beyond the extent and shape of their nuclear program.

Similarly, I think that in North Korea there is the same sort of deep concern—or fear—that regime change is the real objective of the United States. The North Koreans keep saying “hostile intent” is a serious issue for them.

Bulletin: Moving on, in a December interview, Yale professor Paul Bracken argued that “an easy pathway for cutting down the number of countries who have atomic weapons” is to encourage our allies to get rid of their nuclear weapons—taking advantage of the strong anti-weapons movement in places like the United Kingdom. In an email, you said: “We cannot begin with the UK and France without having others in the mix, even if they seem susceptible to downgrading or elimination.” Can you elaborate?

Pickering: France and the United Kingdom have very small numbers of these weapons. The British have talked a lot about getting out of the business, but I think both countries look at having nuclear weapons as the price of admission for playing at the table with the big boys.

For that reason alone, they want to hang on to their weapons because of the political entrée it gives them.

Don’t get me wrong about this; I’ve been engaged with Global Zero (an international nonpartisan group dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons) to look into cutting down or eliminating nuclear weapons, and it certainly seems that there are ways to get there.

And in his 2009 speech in Prague, President Barack Obama did speak about his willingness to move to a world with no nuclear weapons. The prime minister of Russia at the time, Medvedev, said roughly the same thing.

Bulletin: So the United Kingdom and France will probably continue to have nuclear weapons, even though it would be more practical and cost-efficient for those countries to build light, mobile forces?

Pickering: Sure. Even though the next generation of sea-launched ballistic missile submarines will be enormously expensive, it looks like the UK’s Conservative Party is prepared to go ahead with it. I think Labour was, too, because both parties see that as necessary to being in the larger international forums. And they want to make sure that their own nuclear deterrent, small as it is, can prevent anybody from using nuclear weapons against them.

Don’t forget that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was in favor of the new submarines, and he was Labour.

Bulletin: Do you think Global Zero has the right idea? Is it possible to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely, or is it more practical to try to reduce the number of weapons and the number of countries in the nuclear club?

Pickering: I think it’s useful to seriously look at how we could get to zero. Years ago, Bob McNamara (former US secretary of defense) said we ought to put the whole stockpile under the control of the UN Security Council—which may be putting it in the hands of the people least likely to agree on what to do with it, if one of the Security Council permanent members gets one of its own.

Increasingly, we’re seeing that conventional capacity, with precise strikes and that kind of thing, could present a deterrent that might offset nuclear weapons, or at least a small number of nuclear weapons.

An extremely good inspection system and an extremely good intelligence system would help as well, despite the increasing presence of widely dispersed weapons-making facilities. For example, for years enrichment was confined to gaseous-diffusion plants which were hard to hide. It may be harder to spot enrichment facilities these days, but some of the key elements, particularly in the centrifuge approach to uranium enrichment, easily show up in the form of telltale sales and purchases on the international market. Increased trade in maraging steel (a heat-treated steel alloy strong enough for use in centrifuge components), for instance, is a strong indicator that something illicit is going on; it’s not something anybody can make in their backyard.

Bulletin: What would be the role of the new generation of hypersonic weapons in a nuclear weapons–free world?

Pickering: The new weapons come into play not so much because of speed, but in the ability to be very, very precise in targeting and striking with non-nuclear weapons. That could be game-changing.

For example, they could have a deterrent value: If you located a person who was developing a nuclear weapon contrary to treaty, you would have a very forceful, non-nuclear means of action.

So, these new technologies could help enforce a nuclear-free world. They promise extremely accurate conventional missiles, that could hit anywhere in the planet within minutes, by using hypersonic delivery, or working in the air-breathing environment or the near-stratosphere. And those features could make sure everyone toes the line.

That’s one idea, anyway.

Of course, detection—very accurate and timely intelligence—would be absolutely critical in such a scenario.

Bulletin: This ties in to what you said earlier, about your time in the Navy as a photo analyst, helping to target enemy sites for pilots to attack.

Pickering: Yes, this all loops back.

Bulletin: Things have obviously changed a lot since the old bipolar world, when it was largely the US and the USSR. Now it’s nine countries. Is the world a more dangerous place now than it was during the depths of the Cold War?

Pickering: I’d say that there is less incentive to go to war, but there are larger numbers of states, and each one of them brings with it the problems of their own individual accidents, mistakes, or misjudgments. India and Pakistan come to mind.

Or perhaps a misjudgment on North Korea’s part could happen.

Those are the kinds of things that proliferation brings. The weaponry of those three states—and Iran’s potential makes it a fourth—mean there’s a lot more potential for error.

It’s sad, because if we had been able to move onward from New START, it would have been possible to get the stockpiles down to a thousand operational weapons each, for the United States and Russia. And get rid of a lot of the reserve weapons. We may still be able to, if Mr. Putin ever wakes up to the fact that he’s destroying his economy with his actions.

But the more countries that have nuclear weapons, the more we need to worry about accidents and miscalculations.

I’ve observed that there are two things that occur when a state achieves breakout. First, they don’t want anyone else to have a nuclear weapon. Second, they have absolutely no idea how they would use it.

Bulletin: As the former US ambassador to Russia from 1993 to 1996, what is your take on what has been happening under Vladimir Putin, such as his speech last summer that “other countries should understand it’s best not to mess with us.” Or the November Pravda article that said: “Russia prepares a nuclear surprise for NATO.” Is all that just rhetoric designed for the home front?

Pickering: Part of it’s rhetoric; part of it’s a genuine concern. When the Soviet Union went out of business, they thought there would be no NATO enlargement, and certainly no forward deployment of nuclear weapons. And so far as I know, there hasn’t been any forward deployment, but they are still very worried about it.

And they are still concerned about NATO enlargement and encirclement, especially about the prospect of NATO enlargement to Ukraine. Now, up until recently, it was quite clear that the Ukrainian population was not in favor of closer ties with NATO. But lately, the Russians have reasons to be—let’s put it that way—nervous and jumpy. And Putin has been finding ways to exploit that, to ensure that he can continue to run Russia as his own fief.

So, he’s exploiting this for some propagandistic grounds, but there’s reason for people to be concerned.

Bulletin: So there are some genuine issues from the point of view of the Russians?

Pickering: Yes, I think there are. The Russians have never lost the view of NATO that was formulated for them by old Soviet propaganda. And they’re not alone in this old-style thinking; we in the West do it as well.

I often give speeches and talk about Russia, and usually about the third or fourth questioner talks about “the Soviet Union” when they mean “Russia.” I myself have said “Soviet Union” when I meant to say “Russia.” And that’s a serious mistake; it represents a mind-set.

Old habits, and old ways of thinking, die hard.

Along those same lines, the Russian fear of invasion goes way back. Russia has a long history of being invaded, going back to the Tatars and the Mongols. And then there were the Poles, Lithuanians, French, and Germans. Russia’s had a difficult history; they don’t have what we would call firm, natural borders like we do in the United States. We’ve got oceans on either side, which are essentially two giant moats protecting us—and the Russians don’t have any of that.

Now, intercontinental ballistic missiles have changed all that. But it’s still useful to think about in terms of their and our formative histories.

Bulletin: A January article in The Guardian said that a main US concern is “Russian testing of a medium-range cruise missile which the Obama administration claims is a clear violation of the 1987 intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty, the agreement that brought to an end the dangerous standoff between US and Russian cruise missiles in Europe. By hugging the contours of the Earth, cruise missiles can evade radar defenses and hit strategic targets with little or no notice, raising fears on both sides of surprise pre-emptive attacks.” What’s your opinion?

Pickering: I think those are hyperbolic representations. They’re not unreal, but they are a bit exaggerated. We’re in a constant search in this country either for new enemies we haven’t discovered, or new clear ways to portray countries like China and Russia as deadly enemies that are in no way placated and will rise again. It’s a neoconservative mantra—but part of our political life.

Of course, we obviously have to be cautious and careful. But if we operate our foreign policy on the basis that they are enemies, and implacable and never going to change, then we make them into enemies.

On these same lines were a series of articles, including one written by my old friend Dennis Ross, that try to push Iran in that direction. We talked earlier about whether there’ll be an agreement—certainly it’s in the interests of both countries to have one—but we’ll have to wait and see if good sense prevails. A treaty means working out a hard-driven compromise that may not be completely satisfactory to each side, but will be workable—and sufficiently well crafted to withstand domestic objections

Bulletin: And the same approach toward relations with Russia?

Pickering: I hope so. My hope is that the continued pressure on Russia is a useful and important course of action.

But what is missing, in my view, is giving Mr. Putin a face-saving exit strategy—one that doesn’t require him to grovel, or grind his nose in the dirt. That’s important to dealing diplomatically with Putin and Russia.

So, he needs to save face, and we need to genuinely address some of the issues that bother him: There really was a hard right in the Ukraine that wanted to do away with the Russian language.

We in the West should be thinking about how to open a door for him: How to create an opportunity for him to work together with us and the IMF and the EU and the Ukrainians? How do we rebuild the Ukrainian economy—a root cause behind all these latest problems? How do we ensure that all Ukrainian citizens, whatever language they speak, are treated on a fair basis?

Maybe Ukraine, in economic and political terms, could become a bridge between the EU as a partner state and the state that Mr. Putin wants to create—which is a kind of expanded customs union among old Soviet Union countries. This would require asking Ukraine to stay out of NATO for a while, but it could possibly be dealt with in a series of agreements that would provide the kind of real security and stability that the Ukrainians would like.

So, the end goal could be that Ukraine becomes a kind of bridge country. And that’s not so far-fetched: Kiev was historically always sort of the Russian bridge to the West; it was the beginning of Russian Christianity. There was less distinction between Ukrainians and Russians in the ninth century than there is now.

Now, we can’t dictate any of this, but we can certainly help to influence things in that direction. And this approach would begin to drain away the exaggerated Soviet-style propaganda that the Russians have embraced.

Bulletin: Do you think this can be achieved?

Pickering: With good diplomacy, I think so.

Bulletin: What is good diplomacy?

Pickering: Good diplomacy is two-thirds listening and one-third talking. You get a lot more out of listening than talking.