In each month's issue of Arms Control Today, executive director Daryl Kimball provides an editorial perspective on a critical arms control issue.
Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust, the threats posed by the bomb have changed, but still hang over us all. Today, there still are nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons, and there are nine nuclear-armed states. More countries have access to the technologies needed to produce nuclear bomb material, and the risk of nuclear terrorism is real.
The United States has relatively robust regulations governing international transfers of conventional arms and ammunition, but many other countries have weak or ineffective laws and policies, if they have any at all. In the absence of common international standards and national export controls, arms suppliers and brokers exploit the gaps for profit, allowing arms and ammunition to flow to unscrupulous regimes, criminals, illegal militias, and terrorist groups.
Nearly 10 years have elapsed since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had secretly built a uranium-enrichment facility. Nearly seven years have passed since talks between Iran and the European Union stalled and Iran resumed its enrichment activities. Since then, Iran and the P5+1—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have fumbled fleeting opportunities to reach a deal that reduces the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran in exchange for a rollback of proliferation-related sanctions.
Late last month, UN officials confirmed that more than 100 Syrians—the majority women and children—were killed following artillery and tank shelling of civilians near the town of Haoula by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Despite the brutality of the Assad regime over the 15-month conflict in which some 10,000 Syrians have been killed, Russia, Iran, and possibly others continue to sell weapons to Damascus.
After a long delay, serious negotiations to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its growing capacity to enrich uranium appear to be back on track. Although no breakthrough was achieved, the April 14 round of talks with Iran in Istanbul established a good foundation for progress.
Preventing the spread and buildup of nuclear weapons remains one of the highest priority international security challenges. Success depends on a multipronged global strategy, including a verifiable ban on nuclear explosive testing to prevent the emergence of new and more deadly nuclear weapons. U.S. leadership is critical.
Within his first 100 days in office, President Barack Obama delivered a stirring address in Prague on the steps necessary to move toward a world free of nuclear weapons. On April 5, 2009, he pledged to “put an end to Cold War thinking” by “reduc[ing] the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”
North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il may be gone, but the dangers posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs persist. Although the long-term future of the regime under the new young ruler, Kim Jong Un, remains uncertain, it is clearly in the United States’ interest to get the much-delayed denuclearization process back on track.
The Obama administration entered office in 2009 seeking both to maintain pressure on Iran to comply with its nonproliferation obligations and to engage Tehran in a renewed dialogue on confidence-building measures to allay concerns about the purpose of its nuclear program.
In one of the smartest and boldest moves of the nuclear age, President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed in 1991 to withdraw most U.S. and Soviet forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons and dismantle a large portion of those weapons. These actions reduced tensions and the risk of nuclear catastrophe as the Soviet Union broke apart.
Within weeks, a congressional “supercommittee” is due to deliver recommendations for reducing the U.S. federal budget deficit over the next decade. The Pentagon and the White House support trimming military spending by at least $350 billion as part of the plan, but some Republicans are balking. If Congress fails to agree on a deficit reduction formula, even deeper budget cuts will be triggered.
Each year, thousands of civilians around the world are slaughtered by weapons sold to unscrupulous regimes and transferred to criminals and illegal militias. The enormous human toll of this cycle of violence undermines economic development and political stability in fragile regions.
After years of discussion, the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has agreed on a clearer, tougher set of guidelines designed to prevent the spread of uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing equipment and technology. The action should help guard against the further proliferation of sensitive equipment and technology that can be used to make fissile material for nuclear weapons.
After months of review and debate, a bipartisan Senate majority approved the resolution of ratification for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) on Dec. 22, 2010. But now, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) and the leading critic of New START in the Senate, Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), are trying to rewrite New START policies and understandings approved only six months ago.
In the 20 years since the end of the Cold War, successive U.S. and Russian presidents have gradually reduced the size and salience of their enormous nuclear stockpiles. Nevertheless, the size of each country’s arsenal far exceeds what might be considered necessary to deter nuclear attack. Both sides can and should go lower.