Monitoring Iran nuclear news keeps my London cousin busy

I used to joke that my globe-trotting cousin Mark Fitzpatrick might be CIA, as he took post after post overseas as a State Department official. But he’s always maintained he was too busy with his job and family to be anything other than strictly a diplomat.

Mark Fitzpatrick
MinnPost/Joe Kimball

Now he’s left government service and is director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a think tank in London.

Julie and I were in London earlier this month visiting our son Alex — who’s there for the semester in a study abroad program — and we had dinner and spent lots of time with Mark, a native Minnesotan who graduated from White Bear High (a year ahead of me) and got his degree from the U of M and worked on the Daily.

Our week in London was a busy time for Mark, as rumblings were already starting about the recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that indicated Iran could start building a nuclear weapon within months.

One day we stopped by his office, in the red-brick IISS building, a stone’s throw from the River Thames, and learned he’d already been interviewed by the BBC and had a CBS News interview coming up. Since then, he’s written about the IAEA report and been interviewed by news organizations around the world. (And over the years, we’ve heard often from people who’ve heard him quoted on BBC or NPR programs, or mentioned in national and international papers.)

He apologized for being so busy. I asked if we needed to worry about the Iran news. Would it trigger military action?

“Not yet,” he said.

After we left, Mark went to D.C. for meetings and spoke on a Nov. 10 panel about Iran. Before that appearance, he told me more about the current Iran concerns in an email:

“This week I have been swamped by Iran issues, assessing the damning IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear weapons R&D work and putting it into context. Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon today and it’s not inevitable that they will have one in the future,” he said. “We should neither exaggerate the threat nor be complacent about it.”

 These think-tank guys sure can stay calm, and his career helped prepare him for that.

Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London
MinnPost/Joe Kimball
Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London

Mark sagely avoided a newspaper career, getting a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, then worked for the State Department for 26 years, with stints in South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Austria and Washington, D.C. After our return, Mark and I exchanged emails, and I asked him to write down formally some of the things we talked about informally at dinner.

“Tokyo was a favorite posting,” he said. “I was sent there twice because I speak Japanese. My exchange student experience and my having a Japanese wife gave me deeper insights into Japanese thinking.

“That served me well when Fritz Mondale came to Tokyo as ambassador. His first week there I recall he had to brief a visiting Deputy Secretary of Defense on the status of negotiations with the Japanese government over some defense-related matters. Being new, Mondale turned to Political Counselor Larry Farrar [also from White Bear Lake] and me to give the briefing. I had just explored all the angles in a long discussion at the Foreign Ministry the day before, so I was able to predict how the Japanese would respond to U.S. proposals and to suggest how we ought to proceed.

“The Deputy Secretary of Defense seemed to be impressed, and Mondale thereafter called Farrar and me his Minnesota brain-trust.”

During his first stint in Japan, Mark was Embassy liaison to labor unions and some of the left-wing parties.

“When a Labour government took power in New Zealand in 1985 and banned U.S. ship visits unless they were declared to be ‘nuclear free,’ I was posted to Wellington to similarly maintain communication channels with the labor unions,” he wrote. “New Zealand’s beautiful scenery and laid-back social demands made it a wonderful place to be with our two young boys. But professionally it was a difficult three years.

“I couldn’t go to a dinner party without getting into an argument about U.S. nuclear policies. One time at a Labour Party convention, a speaker who had launched into an anti-American rant accused the CIA of spying on the convention. As the only American embassy official present, I felt all eyes turn in my direction.”

Hmmm. So I wasn’t the only one wondering about the “spy” thing.

Mark said even his sisters liked to pretend he was a spy.

“It’s impossible to disprove a negative, but I don’t know how I would have had any time for that on top of my day job in the embassy and my various family and school roles. In Vienna I served as Scoutmaster and head of the school board for the American school,” he said.

Point taken. No way James Bond would have been a Scoutmaster.

On one of his D.C. postings, he had the North Korea desk before the nuclear crisis there.

“There was only one person in the department working full time on North Korea country: me.”

He worked with veterans groups to arrange for repatriation of remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War.

“Once I found myself in a 3-way negotiation with the North Korean deputy ambassador to the U.N. in one corner trying to use the issue to milk concessions from the U.S. government, and U.S. Congressman Sonny Montgomery sometimes siding with him in an effort to do anything possible to win the speedy return of the remains. My responsibility was to balance and protect the range of U.S. interests.”

Over time, he became an expert on North Korea and international nuclear proliferation. And unlike pretty much everyone else in the world, he’d love to visit North Korea, but hasn’t, yet.

“The closest I got to North Korea was the border at Panmunjom when the first set of remains were returned,” he said. “Later, when I joined the think tank in London, I thought it would be a chance to finally get a first-hand look at a country that had been a key focus of my work for years. I employed a charm campaign with the North Korean embassy in London, and three times I made plans to go, but each time, at the last minute, the visa never came through.

”Their last excuse was that they were shocked to find out I was an American, not a Brit, though they had been talking to me for years about my time in the State Department,” he said.

Mark’s got lots of great diplomatic stories:

“Another of my state-side postings was as special assistant to Strobe Talbott, who asked me to help him oversee the negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program in 2004. If those negotiations hadn’t been successful, the Pentagon was preparing war options. I like to tell the story of the time Strobe had to fill my shoes — literally. He used to jog to work on Saturday mornings, but one such weekend he had to meet a foreign dignitary and he didn’t have any dress shoes in the office. Fortunately, mine fit.”

Mark left the State Department and joined IISS six years ago.

“Leaving the State Department wasn’t hard. I continue to cover the nuclear proliferation problems posed by Iran and North Korea that I was handling in the State Department, but without any of the bureaucratic or political constraints,” he said.

“It’s liberating to be able to speak my own mind, and also to look at issues such as America’s own over-large nuclear arsenal.”

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