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Topics / Nuclear Threats

To Deal or Not to Deal

Telling the human stories behind the nuclear agreement that divided the nation

After decades of hostile relations, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, marked a huge potential shift in Iranian relations with the United States — and the world. In the U.S., the policy community and the public were split between those who thought it was the best chance for avoiding a nuclear-armed Iran, and those who thought it fell unacceptably short. Laicie Heeley, founder and editor of Inkstick Media, spoke with Carnegie Corporation of New York's Noelle Pourrat about the newly released second season of her podcast Things That Go Boom, which tells the stories behind how the deal was made and what has happened since. Even as the plot unfolds, no one can know yet how it will end.

Tell us how you got into the field of nuclear and international security.

My story is similar to a lot of folks in the field of nuclear security, in that I kind of fell into it. I started out as a theater major but got scared and felt like I needed something more serious. The thing that I was most passionate about was political science, so I went into international relations, got very into security policies, and then went looking for a job and was happy to get one that focused specifically on nuclear threats.

And then my eyes were really opened. Folks, especially in my generation, really didn't — don't — have a good appreciation of nuclear threats. We're the 9/11 kids. So I had gone straight for counterterrorism and all of that kind of stuff. Then when I realized that nuclear issues were still so important, suddenly there was this whole piece of the puzzle that I had been missing.

And then I say often that reading John Hersey's Hiroshima was a pivotal moment for me. The storytelling really helped me to understand the devastation beyond just the idea that it happened. It still sticks in my brain today, and it's still one of the things that I think of for why I'm in the nuclear field.

The second season of your podcast Things That Go Boom is all about the Iran nuclear deal. How do you make the story about such a technical topic accessible and interesting to a broader audience?

You can go very quickly down the technical rabbit hole when it comes to any nuclear or security issue. It gets very jargon-y very fast, it gets out of the realm of “public speak” very fast. Regular people don't talk like most folks who work in security in Washington do. So you think of it like talking to your college-educated friend in a bar, explaining it to them in a way that is friendly and human and gets down to the basics.

There are two things very specifically on Things That Go Boom that we come back to almost always. One of those is human storytelling. Policy doesn't get made in a vacuum. There are reasons that we pursue nuclear reductions and things like the Iran deal, and those reasons are rooted in human lives. We boil it down to the humans who are impacted by those policies.

The other thing we do, even when dealing with such a serious topic, is we try to have a lot of fun. We interviewed Dr. Ernie Moniz about uranium enrichment and asked him to explain why going from 0 to 20 is harder than going from 20 to 90. We told him, “If I were five, how would you explain it to me?” So he explained it in terms of sorting jellybeans: if you have a tub of jellybeans and you start taking out the ones you don’t like, the process gets faster and faster as the total number of jellybeans decreases and the proportion of the jellybeans you want increases.

Would you say that one of the things that makes podcasts a powerful medium is that the storytelling helps get past some of the divisiveness of the topic?

Absolutely. There is nothing else I've ever worked on that was as controversial as the Iran deal. We felt like we had to treat it with kid gloves and be very careful about it. Yet when you go speak to people, you hear why they did the things they did, how they arrived at the policies that they did, and what that’s rooted in on a truly human level. It's a completely different way of approaching subjects than from the political 10,000-feet level and the "take it or leave it" kind of conversations that we normally have. It's so, so powerful.

As humans we are built to learn things through storytelling.

Beyond the podcast, you also are the founder and editor of Inkstick Media. Why create a new media platform, and what is it like working in the media space these days, especially on these kinds of foreign policy and national security issues? 

That's a good question because I think most folks would say that it is a terrible idea. But the foreign policy and national security space is very specific and most of it has been around for a long time. It's established, run by folks who've been in the field for a very long time, and emerging voices often have a hard time breaking in.   

So we have a twofold goal. One is to elevate those emerging voices and thereby diversify the field, because we are taking people who haven't traditionally had an opportunity to speak up. We're saying, your opinion is just as valuable, your research is just as valuable as someone who has been around a lot longer — if it's thoroughly fact-checked and vetted and it's a good piece. It's worthy of being right up front.

Second, a lot of the existing outlets in foreign policy and national security are not going out looking for stories. They're looking for the hard policy and the conversations that get way into the weeds. That's extremely valuable, but nobody is exploring the conversations that help people outside the beltway understand these issues. So we're saying to everyone who has been doing this for a while: we want you to talk like us. We want you to change the way that you're having this conversation, because if you move things into our space just a little bit, you can make it more accessible.

People all over the country are generally interested in foreign policy and national security but they feel like the conversations that are happening just aren't for them. Whether it’s because they're a woman or a person of color or a young emerging expert, or because they just happen to be like my dad in Oregon who is really interested in the subject but wouldn't want to read a long wonky white paper on the subject. He just wants something that helps him to understand it in a way that speaks his language, and that's what we're trying to do.

Nuclear nonproliferation issues have been a high priority for Carnegie Corporation of New York for decades now. What can foundations do to support work in this space?

This goes back to what I said about a whole generation not really feeling connected with the nuclear issue. In a world of threats left and right and everywhere, and things that they just can't even begin to internalize because the news cycle is so fast and there is a new crisis every day, nuclear seems both ultimate and nonexistent. So people are able to not think about it.

It is so important that foundations not fall victim to that same sort of mentality. Right now we have a president who has brought the nuclear issue out a little bit more. With issues like North Korea and Iran, people are really thinking about this. It's more in the news, it's more on the world stage. When we're not in the middle of a crisis, when we're in those points when it's quieter and the nuclear threat doesn't seem like it exists, I think it’s the role of experts and foundations and all of the people who really care about this issue to keep it elevated, to remind people that it exists and why it's important. That's an even bigger challenge when it's not in the news.

Learn more about how Carnegie Corporation of New York continues to address these and other security issues facing the world.