Interview: Dr Sara Kutchesfahani

From career advice, to new perspectives into the future of how we approach the nuclear field, Dr Sara Kutchesfahani, as a new member of the UK PONI Board of Advisors, offered unique insights during an interview with Jack Crawford.

Let’s start from the beginning. What inspired you to pursue a career in the nuclear field?

Good question! I don’t think any kind of inspiration struck; it’s one of those things that I just fell into, which I think is usually the case across the board in the nuclear field. When I first started, I didn’t really know anything about nuclear weapons, nor did I know that this could be a pathway for my career.

My journey started a very, very long time ago, back in the early 2000s. My parents are Persian, and at the time there was a lot of focus on the relationship between the European Union and Iran as they were trying to normalise their relationship. I was reading lots of so-called expert commentaries about Iran, and I became really irritated by people who thought they were experts on a country they never actually visited. This prompted me to go, “okay, I need to change this.” One day, I read a fascinating op-ed on this issue by Professor Michael Clarke that I really loved, so I emailed him and asked for an opportunity to have a conversation. He agreed and put me in touch with what was once the International Policy Institute at King’s College London, where I obtained an unpaid internship and authored a research paper on differences in American and European approaches in dealing with Iran. To make a long story short, when this internship ended, I emailed over 500 experts across the US, Canada, and EU and landed my next role as a research assistant for Dr Gary Samore at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, assisting with a dossier on Iran’s weapons of mass destruction programme. It was in that role that I was introduced to nuclear policy.

So again, it’s not as if navigating the nuclear career field was something I knew about; it was just something that I ended up doing.

We were truly honoured to have you join the UK PONI Board of Advisors. Could you tell us a bit about your current role with N Square and how it fits within N Square’s broader mission and work?

I’ve been at N Square since April 2019. For those who don’t know the story, N Square was created by the five main peace and security funders in the United States who pooled their resources together because they felt that the nuclear risk reduction policy space, the NGO space, was really missing something. They wanted this new kind of entity to introduce creative approaches and innovative concepts to help minimise nuclear risk reduction issues, so N Square was created as a small funders collaborative that brings together lots of voices not traditionally engaged with the nuclear space.

I was essentially brought on because of my connections in Washington, DC to run N Square’s DC operations. One of the first things I did was a ‘listening tour’, where I interviewed 72 DC-based nuclear threat reduction professionals to gather diverse perspectives on the state of the field and hopes for its future. A lot of what we’re doing is still related to that report. We’re listening to the needs of the community because we need to have a better understanding of different approaches and different skill sets in the space.

I’ll stop there, but obviously I have lots to say about N Square and how great it is.

A lot of your current work seems to centre around the future of nuclear issues. What are some trends or projections you foresee for the nuclear space moving forward, both in the short term and several years from now?

This is a good precursor to the Horizon 2045 project that N Square is doing in conjunction with the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Rhode Island School of Design Centre for Complexity, which really speaks to our commitment at N Square to bringing different thinkers, disciplines, and approaches around the table. The idea of Horizon 2045 is imagining a world in which nuclear weapons don’t exist anymore. What might the global security architecture look like in 2045 if we don’t have any nuclear weapons? It’s a very ambitious project, and it’s a very rewarding project.

Obviously, none of us are fortune tellers, right? We can’t look into our crystal ball, so one of the things that we’re currently doing is trying to identify future trends by working with people who have been trained in strategic foresight planning. We identify areas in which we think there might be trends happening, whether that’s health, the environment or security. What are people saying? What are the projections that they’re making? After we collect all this information, we work with analysts to do something called sensemaking to identify future projections relevant to our work.

One of the things that I’ve been very involved in, which I think is relevant to UK PONI, is creating a nuclear systems map. We created this map because we wanted to a see what comprises a nuclear weapons system and, more importantly, where are the opportunities for disruption? Where are the opportunities where we can make a change? It’s very interactive, and it challenges people to engage in a way that they might see new leverage points in the field. To the best of our knowledge, we haven’t seen anyone else do anything like this, and it’s so useful because even though the nuclear space is a system, the people within it don’t realize that it is a system. Systems thinking then helps those people break down barriers in the space and identify opportunities to reshape the field. It’s really cool, honestly.

That leads perfectly into my next question. What do you see the impact of the Horizon 2045 project being?

One of the great things about this project is that it’s not just about the nuclear people, right? What we’re trying to do with Horizon 2045 is apply a whole of society approach. There are lots of tangential issue areas where there is space for disruption. For example, if you’re interested in economics, there’s space for you because of all the funding dynamics of the field. Without the nuclear systems map, it’s difficult to imagine all of this. It’s not that we don’t want to engage with the nuclear NGO community; of course we do, but we also want to talk to other people who are doing law, human rights, environmental justice, etc.  It’s not enough to just talk to nuclear people.

That’s the great thing about Horizon 2045—it’s ability to push the boundary. It’s extending the whole nuclear field. By focusing exclusively on nuclear weapons, I don’t think we are doing ourselves any favours. If we can expand to reach other partners, those partners bring new perspectives and different funding streams as well. How do we conceptualise this notion of security that cuts across all geographical boundaries? The beauty of Horizon 2045 is that it’s forcing us to really question what we mean by secure, and from whose perspective.

What advice can you share for emerging scholars or early career professionals or people who want to get more involved in nuclear?

I would encourage them to do research on experts and organisations; don’t wait for opportunities to open up! You should feel empowered and encouraged to reach out directly to connect yourself with new people, and don’t feel that there aren’t questions you can ask. As we discussed in the beginning, this is an issue area where there are not clear career trajectories. In fact, this is where the systems map can be helpful, because there are so many different opportunities for people across industries to become more involved in the space. Young people should be encouraged to speak to professionals in different areas. Additionally, when you speak with someone for an informational interview, at the end, asked them to recommend two more people with whom you can connect next.

Sara has over 17 years of professional and academic experience in the fields of nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear security, holding research, analysis, and managerial positions at a national nuclear weapons laboratory, an NGO, a university, and at various think tanks around the world. This diverse background is a clear indication of her openness to learning new processes and approaches. She has a PhD in political science from University College London and is the author of two books and numerous articles.

The interview was conducted by Jack Crawford, who at the time was the Project Officer for the Proliferation and Nuclear Programme at RUSI.

Image courtesy of Clark Tibbs, Unsplash


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