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Nuclear Security Expert Assesses World Threats in 2018

Assoc. Prof Discusses Political, Military Hot Spots in Asia, Europe and the Middle East

North Korean ICBM
This photo released by the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun shows the Nov. 29 launch of the country’s new Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of more than 8,000 miles.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

In November, North Korea announced it had successfully launched a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking all of the U.S. mainland. It was the country’s 23rd missile fired in 16 tests in 2017. Among the security experts worldwide keeping a close eye on this development is Assoc. Prof. Sukesh Aghara, director of UMass Lowell’s Nuclear Engineering Program.

Aghara heads the university’s Integrated Nuclear Security and Safeguards Laboratory and is a senior research associate at the Center for Terrorism & Security Studies. He also co-directs the Intercontinental Nuclear Institute, which is a collaboration between UMass Lowell, the Czech Technical University in Prague and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Aghara has funded research from the U.S. State Department on nuclear security culture and threat assessment as well as a collaboration with Brookhaven National Laboratory on nuclear nonproliferation and safeguards.

Here, Aghara shares his perspective on what we can expect to see in the geopolitical landscape in the coming year.

Q: What do you think will happen with North Korea in 2018? 

A: North Korea will continue to develop its long-range ICBMs and nuclear weapons program, and I do not see any change in this regard. The country’s maturity in these technologies has reached a point of no return under the current regime. The United States needs to continue to contain this development by engaging the U.N. Security Council, the IAEA, South Korea, China, Russia and other regional allies. There is also substantial global interest in the South China Sea, and U.S. leadership is essential to maintain peace. 

Q: What about Iran? What’s next for the nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration with the U.K., Russia, France, China and Germany?

A: The Iran nuclear deal has successfully put the country’s uranium enrichment program and nuclear weapons development on ice. However, the deal does not eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability as desired by many in the U.S., including the Trump administration. By refusing to certify the agreement in October and asking Congress to review it, the Trump administration is pushing U.S. policymakers to debate the alternatives to the Iran deal. As it is, Iran has not breached any of the clauses of the current deal and hence, it is difficult for the administration to walk away from it. However, by taking this step, the issue is brought back into the forefront of discussion.
Sukesh in Saudi Arabia
Assoc. Prof. Sukesh Aghara, left, receives a plaque of appreciation from Prof. Jamaan Rashid ben Ragosh, president of Naif Arab University for Security Sciences in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for his presentation on nuclear security and safeguards in 2015.

Q: In the South China Sea, there’s ongoing dispute between China and Southeast Asian countries over territorial waters and sovereignty, and in the East China Sea, tension is increasing between China and Japan over maritime incursions. Both could have significant impacts on U.S. national interests in the region and could quickly escalate into full-scale armed conflict. Are there other potential global flash points we should worry about in 2018?

A: Europe continues to develop into a dynamic region that will pull U.S. interests into different directions. The departure of the U.K. from the European Union and a weak election outcome in Germany leaves a power vacuum in the region. The United States has diverse history and national interests in the region that span all the way from the U.K. to Turkey. Our diplomacy and foreign policy are going to be tested in the coming year. 

Q: What about Israel and Palestine, now that the U.S. has officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?

A: The announcement from the Trump administration is definitely provocative and changes the decades-old status quo in the region. The administration’s position is that, by deciding to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the U.S. has not changed its position on the two-state solution. However, European and Middle Eastern allies and the United Nations view the embassy move as the U.S. changing its position on the issue and hence, it could be violating Security Council Resolution 478. This certainly presents the potential for violence against U.S. interests and increases the threat to national security. Nevertheless, the State Department could use the time between now and the planned move to motivate the two states to enter into a discussion for a probable solution. 

Q: Finally, is the world getting closer to a nuclear conflict?

A: It will take a crazy person to start a nuclear conflict in the 21st century. History has shown that using a nuclear weapon is not the true advantage, but rather possessing the technology, which provides strategic and tactical deterrence. It is unlikely that a state will make a conscious decision to use a nuclear weapon; however, the real danger is that if the control of that weapon gets outside of the regulator’s direct command, it can pose a major problem.