"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Interdiction Initiative Successes Assessed

Wade Boese

Commandos rappelling down ropes from a helicopter to a ship deck or navy forces boarding a vessel at sea are images often associated with a Bush administration initiative to intercept unconventional weapons or related cargo in transit. Actual interdictions tend to be less dramatic. Recently disclosed incidents involved export control and customs officials denying export licenses and transfers, as well as air traffic authorities refusing overflight rights to planes allegedly transporting suspicious goods.

U.S. officials detailed those interdictions as part of a Washington conference marking the five-year anniversary of the May 31, 2003, unveiling of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). (See ACT, July/August 2003 .) Initially comprised of 11 countries, the voluntary initiative has grown to more than 90 participants who have committed to intercept items of proliferation concern at sea, on land, and in the air before they reach their final destination.

Representatives of more than 80 countries attended the May 28-29 conference, the second day of which focused on expanding participation in the initiative. Officials from 21 nonparticipants, including China, India, and Pakistan, were present at the meeting. Those three countries, as well as others, have questioned the legality of interdictions and the initiative itself despite assurances from participants that all activities are consistent with international law. 

Assessing the PSI’s results has been difficult. Governments have been reticent to discuss specific interdictions publicly, claiming that to do so might imperil future operations by exposing intelligence sources and methods relied on to get useful information. In a June 6 briefing to nongovernmental groups, U.S. officials said even they are unaware of all PSI activities because participants keep some operations secret from each other.

Current and former U.S. officials periodically have issued vague claims of success. For instance, one U.S. official at the June briefing said there have been “several instances” in which suspect planes have been prevented from completing their flights due to governments refusing to let the aircraft fly over their territories.

In a May 28 op-ed in The Washington Times, Robert Joseph, a PSI architect and former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Brendan Melley, a former National Security Council official from 2001 to 2005, reported that “dozens of interdictions have taken place slowing nuclear and missile programs in Asia and the Middle East.”

The two former Bush administration officials implied a specific PSI triumph was the October 2003 confiscation of centrifuge technology bound for Libya aboard a ship, the BBC China. But foreign government officials familiar with that interdiction and John Wolf, the assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation at the time, have disputed that it was a PSI operation, asserting that the cargo seizure stemmed from activities preceding the initiative. (See ACT, July/August 2005. )

The discrepancy stems in part from the fact that the PSI, which participants describe as “an activity, not an organization,” is more of a call to action than a program with dedicated budgets, staff, and capabilities. A second U.S. government official at the June briefing noted, “[T]here are not any capabilities that are exclusively PSI.”

Instead, the initiative is based on encouraging countries to increase their cooperation and information sharing to counter proliferation. They also are supposed to make better use of and build on their pre-existing national capabilities and legal authorities to intercept suspicious or deadly cargo. As these capabilities expand, U.S. officials contend the channels through which proliferators can operate freely will shrink and their costs of doing business will increase.

Those of the opinion that the BBC China incident constitutes a PSI success seemingly classify all activities by participants since the initiative’s inception to halt questionable transactions as falling under the PSI. Indeed, a third U.S. official at the June briefing defined a PSI success as when “you stop anything from going to a proliferation destination.”

On the Washington conference’s second day, the U.S. government described five of those instances. Three of the cases involved missile- and nuclear-related cargo destined for Iran, while Syria was the intended recipient of missile-related goods in the other two examples. (See box.)

A trio of the interdictions entailed states stopping shipments that allegedly violated separate UN Security Council resolutions restricting certain missile and nuclear transfers to Iran or from North Korea. Another of the reported successes resulted from a government refusing an export license for a transfer because it contravened that state’s export controls. Given that those four transactions were inconsistent with national or international law, it is unknowable whether states would have worked together to halt them without the PSI.

In two of the cases, the exports in question never left the potential supplier’s territory, while the intercepted transfers in the other three incidents, including some U.S.-manufactured equipment, were returned to the state of origin. The third U.S. official at the June briefing pointed out that most of the goods in proliferation transactions are legal but recipients of concern pursue the items for arms programs through illegal methods, such as using front companies or fake manifests.

The first U.S. official added that “the end user is paramount” in identifying unacceptable trade and triggering action. Washington has been clear that it sees the PSI as a tool to impede trade involving Iran, North Korea, and Syria, but not U.S. allies and friends such as India and Pakistan, which developed covert nuclear procurement networks. (See ACT, December 2003 .) 

Despite the allure of interdictions, U.S. officials at the June briefing downplayed counting such operations as an accurate yardstick of the PSI’s value. They said the initiative’s worth is measured in what they claim are the growing individual and collective capabilities of participants to curb proliferation.

Examples frequently highlighted by U.S. officials are the eight bilateral shipboarding agreements that the United States has negotiated with other governments, Mongolia being the most recent in October 2007. The arrangements establish expedited procedures to allow searches of suspicious ships under those states’ legal authorities. U.S. officials say that 35 interdiction exercises, which have involved more than 70 countries, also demonstrate increasing capabilities.

Exercises and other PSI operational aspects are determined by the Operational Experts Group. The group is comprised of 20 states, including the United States and the other 10 original participants (Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom). It generally meets three to four times annually, and its next meeting will occur Sept. 24-26 in Paris.


Recently Claimed Proliferation Security Initiative Successes

As part of a May 29 briefing for foreign government officials attending a Proliferation Security Initiative conference in Washington, the U.S. government provided five examples of purported PSI interdictions. The Department of State later distributed that briefing paper June 17 to some nongovernmental entities, including Arms Control Today. Below are brief descriptions of the five incidents.

February 2005: The United States tipped off a European government that one of its national entities was preparing to ship coolers to Iran that could be used in that country’s heavy-water reactor program. Heavy-water reactors have served as a key source of plutonium in the nuclear bomb efforts of India, Israel, and Pakistan. The European government investigated the claim and denied an export license for the coolers in accordance with a national law controlling such exports to Iran.

November 2006: The transfer of chromium-nickel steel plates to Iran by an Asian company was stopped in a third country. The steel plates, which reportedly could be used in missile components, were returned to the original supplier country. The interdicting state acted in accordance with UN Security Resolution 1696, which calls on states to prevent transfers of items to Iran that could contribute to its ballistic missile programs.

February 2007: Unspecified sources alerted port authorities in an unidentified state to a shipment destined for Syria of U.S.-origin equipment that could be employed for testing ballistic missile components. Those authorities conducted an inspection, seized the equipment, and returned it to the United States. A foreign firm had served as the intermediary for the attempted Syrian purchase of eight vibration test systems and eight humidity chambers.

April 2007: A shipment of sodium perchlorate to Iran from an unspecified source was detoured to an Asian port, whose government then sent the shipment back to the country of origin. The sodium perchlorate, which can be used in making solid rocket propellant for ballistic missiles, was intended for an Iranian entity barred from receiving certain missile technologies by UN Security Council Resolution 1737.

June 2007: An unidentified country denied overflight rights to a Syrian plane scheduled to make a round-trip flight to North Korea. The denial stemmed from the United States sharing suspicions that the intended cargo was related to ballistic missiles. UN Security Council Resolution 1718 obligates countries to cooperate in preventing transfers of ballistic missiles and related technologies from North Korea. The Syrian flight did not occur.