Video Remarks: James Timbie Forum on Arms Control and Nonproliferation

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
July 14, 2016

(As Delivered)

SECRETARY KERRY: Hello and welcome, everybody. I’m very sorry that I couldn’t be with you in person today, but I’m super pleased to have a chance nonetheless to just share a few thoughts with you.

I know that when you read the headlines or browse through posts on Facebook or Twitter and reflect on the many different threats that we’re facing in the world today, it can be difficult to imagine that our world is actually getting safer. But in certain respects, there is no question that it is.

When I was in grade school, children all across the United States held civil defense drills in which we were told we had to hide under our desks as protection against the possibility of a nuclear attack, and we actually practiced doing that. When I was in college, the United States came to the brink of nuclear war when the Soviet Union deployed ballistic missiles to Cuba. For decades, East and West were engaged in an arms race to build a massive stockpile of more and more powerful nuclear warheads, nuclear weapons, and nuclear weapons-bearing aircraft were constantly in the air on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Today, decades later, the level of nuclear armaments in the world has been reduced by 86 percent from the height of the Cold War. Aside from North Korea, which continues to recklessly shirk its international obligations and commitments, the number of explosive nuclear tests each year has gone down from about 70 to none. Respected national security leaders from both parties in the United States have argued that our goal should be the total elimination of nuclear weapons. And that is precisely the goal that President Obama embraced in his famous speech in Prague in 2009.

Today the vision of a world without nuclear weapons is just that – it’s a vision. There is much, much work left to do. And the progress made so far, and the gains that must still be made, can only take place through hard diplomacy, backed by scientific and technical expertise that enables us to know what we can safely do and what we can most sensibly ask others to do.

Now, we’ve learned that is far from easy, but we do know from recent experience it is possible. Diplomacy’s ability to prevent the spread of the worst weapons of war was proven yet again with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was approved exactly one year ago today.

On July 14th, 2015, the United States, our P5+1 negotiating partners, and Iran reached an agreement that blocks all of Iran’s potential pathways to acquiring a nuclear weapon and, in return, lifts the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran’s economy.

As a result, today, two-thirds of Iran’s 19,000 centrifuges are in IAEA-monitored storage. Ninety-eight percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium has been transferred out of the country. Iran’s uranium enrichment is capped at 3.67 percent, good for civilian purposes only. Let me emphasize that. With 3.67 percent limitation, you cannot make a nuclear weapon. In addition, the core of the heavy water reactor in Arak has been filled with concrete. Iran is living by the agreement we made. Every phase of Iran’s nuclear program is under close and constant scrutiny. And the world is safer because the danger of violent confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program – so threatening just a couple of years ago – has receded.

Now, that agreement took a long time to develop and many, many people played critical roles. But if you ask anyone involved in the negotiations, they will tell you it is hard to imagine how we could have gotten there without Jim Timbie.

Now, Jim has never been one to seek the spotlight – indeed, he tends to avoid it at all costs – but the fact is I can imagine no better name than his for a conference devoted to removing obstacles to peace.

Over his 40-year career, Jim combined the expertise of a Ph.D. in physics, the savvy of a skilled diplomat, and a basic, unvarnished human decency to help design or implement virtually every important arms control and nonproliferation initiative that occurred during that extraordinary period of time. When we were in Vienna last summer, there were many times when I turned to Jim in a meeting, or pulled him aside before sitting down at the negotiating table, or sent him off to crunch numbers that we were discussing – with full faith that he would reply to me with answers that were both thoughtful and accurate.

Every one of you who know Jim know that his hallmark was he approaches his work and approached his work with the knowledge that every day was key – and each step forward would make the next day easier – because it would bring us all closer to ultimate goals.

Make no mistake: Achieving those goals doesn’t only require smart people – it requires dedicated people, people who work in a painstaking way, to make progress wherever the opportunity arises.

Frankly, it requires public servants like Jim Timbie and future public servants – I hope, like many of you.

Certainly, the Iran agreement was a breakthrough – one of those accomplishments that many people said could never be done until we did it. We’ve also seen important progress in eliminating weapons of mass destruction with landmark developments like the New START Treaty with Russia, which just celebrated its fifth year of implementation, and the landmark effort of the safe removal of 1,300 metric tons of deadly chemical weapons and precursors from Syria, in the midst of the nation’s civil war. But we all know that history is fluid and technological change is constant – and so we will always have more to do. For example, in the near term, we need to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; we need to bring it into force. We also need to negotiate a verifiable ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Like the Gen Prague conferences of years past, the Timbie Forum is about young people, young people committing to the difficult but imperative task of reducing the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. It’s about education. But it’s also about giving a voice to the next generation of diplomats, experts, advocates, and practitioners.

In the days immediately ahead, and in the months, years, and decades that follow, you are the ones who will create the concepts, forge the agreements, and conceive the ideas that will help us travel even further toward the peace and security of a world without weapons of mass destruction. On behalf of President Obama and all Americans, let me thank you for your engagement, for your leadership in such an extraordinarily worthy endeavor.

Onwards. We have a lot of work still to do.