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"[Arms Control Today is] Absolutely essential reading for the upcoming Congressional budget debate on the 2018 NPR and its specific recommendations ... well-informed, insightful, balanced, and filled with common sense."

– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Julia Masterson

Saudi Arabia May Be Building Uranium Facility


September 2020
By Julia Masterson and Shannon Bugos

With Chinese support, Saudi Arabia may be constructing a new uranium processing facility to enhance its pursuit of nuclear technology, The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 4. Citing unnamed Western officials, the report said that a facility near Al Ula is intended to be used to produce concentrated uranium, known as yellowcake, from mined ore. The reported development comes as U.S. and Saudi officials have been unable to agree on the terms of a nuclear cooperation agreement to support Saudi plans to develop nuclear energy.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the 2016 G20 Summit in China. Recent reports have suggested that China is backing the construction of a uranium processing facility in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)The Saudi Energy Ministry reportedly has categorically denied the existence of such a facility at that location. If confirmed, such a facility could signify Saudi progress toward constructing an indigenous uranium enrichment program, as yellowcake production is a key step in refining uranium for civilian or military uses.

Saudi officials have stated their intent to pursue a uranium enrichment program as part of the country’s plan to build 16 civilian power reactors over the next 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion. (See ACT, October 2019.) Companies from the United States, Russia, South Korea, China, and France are competing for a contract to build the first two of the planned 16 nuclear power reactors, but Riyadh has yet to select a vendor.

Israel also raised concerns about the new facility to the Trump administration, Axios reported on Aug. 19. There are “worrying signs about what the Saudis might be doing, but it is not exactly clear to us what's going on in this facility," said one senior Israeli intelligence official.

Saudi Arabia is not believed to have any uranium enrichment program as of now, but mastery of the enrichment process could embolden Riyadh to enrich to weapons-grade levels.

Revelation of the facility and Saudi Arabia’s possible lack of transparency has spurred renewed concern from members of Congress about how the Trump administration might address Saudi nuclear ambitions.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Arms Control Today that “President Donald Trump’s cozying up to Saudi Arabia has threatened our national security interests and undermined our values,” referring in particular to the administration’s lack of response to the October 2018 murder in Turkey of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident.

“The return on this investment is now clear: a purported ally turning to China to accelerate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” said Kaine.

Meanwhile, three Democratic members from the House Foreign Affairs Committee—Reps. Joaquin Castro (Texas), Ami Bera (Calif.), and Ted Deutch (Fla.)—sent a letter on Aug. 17 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting information and a briefing on the recent revelation as it “raises further questions about whether Riyadh’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) led a bipartisan group of senators in writing an Aug. 19 letter to Trump also demanding further information and a briefing on the status of U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear cooperation negotiations and the state of U.S. discussions with China on Riyadh’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“Riyadh’s apparent lack of transparency regarding its nuclear efforts coupled with a growing ballistic missile program poses a serious threat to the international nonproliferation regime and United States objectives in the Middle East,” the senators wrote.

Concerns about Riyadh’s nuclear intentions have been exacerbated by rhetoric from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who in 2018 pledged that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” (See ACT, June 2018.)

A U.S. intelligence analysis circulated in early August detailed a second newly constructed structure near Riyadh, according to an Aug. 5 report by The New York Times. Analysts speculated it could be an undeclared nuclear facility, but the confidence with which that assessment was made is not clear.

Reports of the existence of the site near Al Ula allege that Saudi Arabia was aided by China in its construction. Asked about China’s role in Saudi Arabia’s nuclear development, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Webin said Aug. 7 that “China and Saudi Arabia are comprehensive strategic partners,” who “maintain normal energy cooperation.” He did not address the suspected yellowcake facility, but said that Beijing “will continue [its] strict fulfillment of international obligations in nonproliferation and pursue cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy with other countries.” China and Saudi Arabia’s nuclear collaboration dates back to 2012, when the two countries signed their first cooperative pact.

Saudi Arabia has also received help from China on the significant expansion of its domestic ballistic missile program, according to U.S. intelligence agencies in June 2019. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

Currently, Saudi Arabia has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that is complemented by an outdated small quantities protocol, reflective of the negligible size of its nuclear program at the time its safeguards agreement was concluded in 2005. Under that protocol, Saudi Arabia is not obligated to invite IAEA inspectors into its nuclear facilities, including any potential yellowcake production facilities.

IAEA officials have been pushing for Saudi Arabia to transition to a full-scope comprehensive safeguards agreement for several years as Riyadh has moved to expand its civilian nuclear program. Following the revelation of the possible yellowcake facility, Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, urged Riyadh on Aug. 8 to strengthen its agreement with the agency and invite inspectors in.

U.S.-Saudi negotiations on the nuclear energy cooperation deal, called a 123 agreement after the section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act requiring it, have stalled over the past year.

An April report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office suggested that U.S.-Saudi talks have faced two unresolved issues. First, Riyadh has not agreed to sign an additional protocol to its limited safeguards agreement, which would provide the IAEA with a broader range of information on its nuclear-related activities. Second, Saudi Arabia has so far declined to promise to forgo nuclear fuel production activities, a step that is called a nonproliferation “gold standard.” (See ACT, June 2020.)

A 123 agreement sets the terms and authorizes cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear technology, equipment, and materials with other countries. A 123 agreement can include a gold standard commitment in which a cooperating country agrees to refrain from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, as those activities can be used to produce weapons-grade material. By forgoing those, countries adhering to a gold standard signal their commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.

In September 2019, Energy Secretary Rick Perry reportedly sent a letter to Saudi officials stating that the United States would require Saudi Arabia to adopt an additional protocol with the IAEA and commit to the gold standard. (See ACT, October 2019.)

Kaine questioned U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea during his July 21 hearing for the top arms control job at the State Department on whether he would maintain that requirement. The State Department leads negotiations on 123 agreements, which, once complete, require congressional approval.

“You have my commitment that I will pursue the so-called gold standard in these 123 agreements,” said Billingslea. “I believe [it] should also be pursued with the Saudis.” He did not address the additional protocol.

 

Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia could be starting a uranium enrichment program.

UAE Reactor Reaches Criticality


September 2020

The United Arab Emirates on Aug. 1 became the first Arab country to operate a nuclear power plant when officials announced that the first of four planned reactors at the Barakah nuclear power station achieved criticality by completing a sustained fission reaction. According to the UAE leadership, once all four units at the Barakah plant are operational, nuclear power will account for a quarter of the country’s electricity and reduce the nation’s reliance on oil and gas.

The UAE’s nuclear progress has highlighted concerns about the security implications of an uptick in nuclear programs in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is in the early stages of developing its nuclear program, and Iran has a demonstrated uranium-enrichment capability. Israel has an assumed arsenal of nuclear weapons.

But according to Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at The Century Foundation with expertise in the Persian Gulf region, the UAE nuclear program does not pose a proliferation risk. Abu Dhabi has taken deliberate measures to publicly signal the strictly peaceful application of its nuclear program, Esfandiary told Arms Control Today. These measures include the country’s decision to forgo uranium enrichment, among other things. The UAE is also a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has had an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in place since 2009. (See ACT, October 2019.)—JULIA MASTERSON

UAE Reactor Reaches Criticality

Security Council Rejects Iran Arms Embargo Extension

Security Council Rejects Iran Arms Embargo Extension The Security Council decisively rejected a U.S. resolution to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire in October according to the terms of Resolution 2231, which endorses the 2015 nuclear deal and modifies UN sanctions on Iran. Despite the defeat, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft said Aug. 14 that the Trump administration intends to try and use a mechanism in Resolution 2231 that allows for participants of the nuclear deal to snapback UN sanctions on Iran in order to prevent expiry of the arms embargo. Craft said the...

The Limits of Breakout Estimates in Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Program

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Volume 12, Issue 6, August 4, 2020

Over the past year, Iran has taken several troubling steps to breach the limits that were imposed on its nuclear program by the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While Iran’s violations of the accord appear to be carefully calibrated to create leverage in response to the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the accord and reimposition of sanctions, Iran’s actions have rekindled the debate about how quickly Iran could “breakout,” or produce enough nuclear material for a bomb.

Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi (left), government spokesman Ali Rabiei (center), and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi (right) give a joint press conference in Tehran as Iran prepares to  begin enriching uranium beyond a 3.67 percent cap set by the 2015 landmark nuclear deal, July 7, 2019. (Photo: HAMED MALEKPOUR/AFP via Getty Images)Estimates about the length of time it might take for Tehran to breakout have become synonymous with assessing the risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. During negotiations on the JCPOA, the breakout time established by the nuclear restrictions imposed by the deal became a key metric by which policymakers, particularly members of Congress, judged the value of the accord. Supporters of the JCPOA highlighted the 12-month breakout achieved by the deal as a measure of success in rolling back the country’s nuclear program and creating a buffer that would give the international community time to respond to any Iranian move to try to produce nuclear weapons. Critics of the nuclear deal decried the accord for ‘only’ achieving a 12- month breakout for the first decade of the accord.

The attractiveness of a breakout estimation from a policy-making perspective is clear—it is a quantitative assessment of a country’s capacity to produce fissile material for a bomb that establishes a time frame for intervention.

While breakout estimates can appear to be a quick and easy metric for assessing a proliferation threat, they can also be misleading and oversimplify the complex technical weaponization process and the political factors that influence the decision to develop nuclear weapons. Breakout is often discussed absent a shared understanding of what the term constitutes and the assumptions that go into the calculation. More importantly, breakout is a measure of technical capacity and capability, not intent. Iran’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons—or not—will be based on an array of political considerations, Tehran’s threat perceptions, and its leaders’ cost-benefit calculations.

Establishing limitations and restrictions that extend a country’s breakout time are important for mitigating proliferation risk. However, pairing the limits established by the JCPOA with a strategy for addressing the factors that impact Tehran's decision-making stands a better chance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran in the long term.

What is Breakout?

“Breakout” commonly refers to the amount of time it would take for a country to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb. Every country has a breakout timeline.

While the amount of fissile material used in nuclear weapons varies considerably, breakout is often estimated using what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) refers to as a “significant quantity” of weapons useable material: 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or four kilograms of separated plutonium-239. States that already possess nuclear weapons have developed warheads using less fissile material, but Iran—which has never built or tested a nuclear device—would likely require the IAEA’s estimated significant quantity of fissile material, or more, to account for wastage in the process of manufacturing the weapon.

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In discussions about the Iranian nuclear program, breakout is most frequently used to describe the country’s capacity to produce enough HEU for one weapon using gas centrifuges. Iran has an established uranium enrichment and centrifuge development program that could be more readily reconfigured to produce HEU for nuclear weapons than the plutonium route.

Even before negotiations on the JCPOA, Iran lacked a separation facility to remove plutonium-239 from spent reactor fuel. Additionally, its unfinished heavy-water reactor at Arak, which may have initially been designed as a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons, was years away from completion. Currently, provisions of the deal requiring Iran to modify the Arak reactor to a design that would produce less than a kilogram of weapons-usable plutonium yearly (and even that will be shipped out), and forgo reprocessing for 15 years, serve as a further bulwark against a plutonium route to the bomb.

In determining Iran’s breakout time using its uranium enrichment program, several factors impact the calculation, including the types of centrifuges used for enrichment, the efficiency and configuration of those machines, and the size and enrichment levels of Iran’s existing stockpile of uranium.

Often, breakout estimates are based on worst-case scenarios and they can vary significantly. Variances in breakout estimation can depend on the assumptions made about factors that are not established publicly by IAEA reports on Iran’s nuclear program or other sources of data. For instance, the efficiency of Iran’s first-generation IR-1 centrifuge, known as its “separative work unit (SWU)” capacity, is fairly well established by more than a decade of IAEA reports. The New York Times also reported in 2015 that the United States has a cascade of IR-1 centrifuges that it uses to test its performance assumptions in calculating breakout. Iran’s advanced centrifuges, however, do not have the same public operational history and documentation, making estimates about their efficiency more imprecise. 

Longer or shorter breakout estimates may also be attributed to differing judgments on how quickly Iran could reconfigure its centrifuges to enrich to higher levels, assumptions about how many/few machines will break during that process, the rate at which Iran could install additional centrifuges, and how much material Iran would need to produce to account for wastage in the process.

Fluctuations in Iran’s Breakout

Before implementation of the 2013 Joint Plan of Action, the interim nuclear deal between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union) and Iran, Tehran’s breakout time was assessed at about 2-3 months. At that time, Iran had produced and stockpiled about 200 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium gas—nearly enough that, when further enriched to weapons-grade, could be used to produce enough HEU for a bomb. This stockpile had a significant impact on the breakout estimate because enriching to the 20 percent uranium-235 level constitutes about 90 percent of the effort required to produce 90 percent enriched uranium and would jump-start any weapons effort. At that time, Iran was also operating more than 10,000 IR-1 centrifuges and had produced and stockpiled more than enough uranium gas enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235 that, when further enriched to weapons-grade, would produce enough HEU for a half dozen nuclear weapons.

As a result of the interim Joint Plan of Action, Iran ceased enriching to 20 percent and diluted or converted its stockpile of that material, increasing the breakout time. The JCPOA further limited Iran to 3.67 percent enrichment for 15 years. Additional limitations put in place by the JCPOA included restricting the stockpile size to the equivalent of 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235—not nearly enough for one nuclear weapon—for 15 years and limiting enrichment output to only 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges for 10 years.

In combination, these restrictions on the uranium enrichment program extended the breakout time to about 12 months for the first decade of the agreement, according to the Obama administration. Then-Director for National Intelligence Dan Coats presented a similar assessment in Jan. 2019 when Iran was fully implementing the deal.

Since Iran began taking steps in May 2019 to breach limits set by the accord, the breakout time has slowly decreased. As of June 2020, Iran is now enriching uranium up to 4.5 percent uranium-235 using more than 6,100 IR-1 centrifuges and several hundred advanced machines. Iran has also exceeded the stockpile limit for enriched uranium and possesses 1,088 kilograms of uranium enriched between 2-4.5 percent uranium-235—more than enough to produce a significant quantity of HEU if enriched to weapons-grade.

Given the uncertainties about advanced centrifuge machine performance and variances of enrichment levels within the stockpile, breakout estimates as of the June 2020 IAEA report range from three to six months. If Iran continues to install additional centrifuges or begins enriching to higher levels, the breakout time could decrease further.

Iranian officials have made clear, however, that these steps are not a dash to a bomb and that Tehran will return to compliance with the accord if the other parties to the deal meet their obligations, namely on sanctions relief. Iranian officials have notified the IAEA in advance of its actions to breach the deal and the agency has monitored and reported on the violations. The careful calibration of these transparent steps to gradually decrease breakout and the reversibility of Iran’s actions support the claim by Tehran that this is about pressing the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief. Furthermore, the 2020 State Department report on compliance with arms control and nonproliferation agreements assessed that Iran is not engaged in activities relevant to nuclear weapons development nor has Tehran made the decision to do so.

This demonstrates one of the limitations of the breakout calculation: Iran’s breakout has significantly decreased over the past year, but the country’s political calculus does not appear to have shifted in favor of building a bomb. As such, despite the shorter breakout window, there is still time to influence Iran’s decision making.

What Else Goes into Making a Bomb?

While breakout typically refers to the time necessary to produce enough fissile material for a bomb, the calculation is often conflated or confused with the total time necessary to build an actual nuclear weapon.

Although the production of fissile material is arguably the most resource-intensive and difficult step in building a bomb, there are several additional technical hurdles, including designing and constructing an explosive device and integrating it into a delivery system (most likely a ballistic missile). When breakout is misconstrued as the time to build a weapon or reference to these steps is omitted, it can artificially inflate the immediacy of the proliferation risk.

To build a bomb, there are several additional time-consuming steps following the production of fissile material. After producing enough HEU gas for a bomb, Iran would need to convert the material into powder form, fabricate the metallic core of the weapon from the powder, assemble other weapons components that had been previously developed or acquired on an independent track, and integrate the weapons package into a delivery vehicle. This process could be more easily hidden and progress would be more difficult to quantify, but there would still be a period of time for intervention.

James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 9, 2016. (Photo:SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)It is likely that if Iran were to produce enough weapons-grade material, the country would be able to build a nuclear weapon. In an unclassified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Iran had a nuclear weapons capability—namely, the country developed the technical competencies to build a bomb—but had not made the political decision to follow through.

James Clapper, director for national intelligence from 2010 to 2017, confirmed during testimony in Feb. 2016 that that assessment still held, noting that U.S. intelligence community does not believe Iran faces any “insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon,” but that there was no indication that Tehran intended to pursue nuclear weapons at this time.

Past verification activities and reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) further support the assessment Iran has retained the technical know-how to adapt a stockpile of HEU for use in a nuclear explosive device. A 2011 IAEA report annex on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program referenced Iran’s attempts to convert HEU compounds into metal and to fabricate HEU metal components into a size suitable for a nuclear weapon. That same report confirms that Iran engaged in the development of a detonator, which can be used to ignite the high explosives that surround a weapon’s fissile core.

Beyond constructing a bomb, states developing nuclear weapons have typically conducted multiple, large-scale nuclear test explosions to perfect their warhead designs, particularly the smaller, lighter, and more efficient designs needed for missiles. Iran has not conducted a nuclear test and any attempt to do so would very likely be detected by existing U.S. national means of intelligence and the International Monitoring System established to verify compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

If Iran chose not to test, Tehran would be staking everything on the perfect performance of one untested system. It is highly improbable that Iran would plan to break out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by building only one nuclear weapon. Calculating timelines based on a one-device scenario, therefore, compounds the misimpression already left by using a breakout definition that falls short of actually building a weapon.

However, if Tehran were to choose to increase the odds of success by planning to build multiple weapons, it would increase the need for fissile material, thus lengthening the breakout timelines and increasing the chances of international detection and blocking actions. The likelihood of detection is further increased by the more intrusive monitoring and verification mechanism put in place by the JCPOA.

Even if Iran were willing to tolerate the large uncertainties deriving from an untested nuclear weapons design, integrating the warhead with a delivery system could add additional uncertainties and further increase the timeframe. Launching a nuclear weapon using a ballistic missile—which the U.S. intelligence community assessed was Iran’s most likely delivery system—requires miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to ensure the size and weight are compatible with the missile’s capabilities. The annex to the 2011 IAEA report indicated that Iran was studying how to pair a warhead with its Shahab ballistic missiles.

Estimates of how quickly Iran could complete a bomb after producing the fissile material differ. The United States does not provide official estimates, but an annual report from the State Department released in June 2020 noted that “Iran is not currently engaged in key activities associated with the design and development of a nuclear weapon.” Former U.S. officials have said the weaponization process could take about a year. Leaked reports of a threat assessment provided to Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in June 2020 concluded that Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in six months, but it would take the country about two years to build a bomb if Tehran decided to do so.

The difference between the breakout timeline and the total estimated time to build a nuclear bomb highlights a limitation of focusing too narrowly on breakout as the window for intervention. For one, breakout creates the perception that a state must be stopped before producing a significant quantity of HEU or plutonium, which may be used as a justification for a military strike. Military action, however, will only set back Iran’s nuclear program and may end up spurring Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons to deter future strikes.

Furthermore, breakout assesses the time it would take for Iran to concentrate its nuclear capacity to produce enough nuclear material for one weapon. A single nuclear bomb—particularly given that Iran has not tested a nuclear device in the past to verify its design—has limited security value. It is not an effective deterrent and it is unlikely that Iran would want to face the consequences of breakout—increased international pressure and possible military action—for one nuclear weapon based on an untested design.

The Political Factors Related to Breakout

Overreliance on using breakout estimates also creates the impression that Iran will inevitably pursue nuclear weapons at some point and that there is a technical solution to block what is ultimately a political decision shaped by a country’s threat perception. However, given that the U.S. intelligence community has already assessed that Iran has developed a nuclear weapons capability, restrictions can increase the time it would take to build a bomb, but they cannot undo that knowledge. Ultimately, if Tehran decides to build a bomb, the country has the technical competencies to do so.

But, as Clapper testified in 2012, “we judge Iran’s nuclear decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.” To that end, pairing a return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal by the United States and Iran with a strategy for active engagement on regional security issues and investment in Iran’s economic development would increase the time it would take to build a bomb while increasing the benefits of compliance. This approach of establishing technical barriers and addressing the factors that impact Tehran’s decision making stands a better chance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran in the long term.

Conclusions

Limiting and restricting Iran’s breakout timeline is a critical component and benefit of the JCPOA. However, policymakers must focus not only on the technical barriers and the robust inspection regime necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons but also on a strategy to address the political factors that influence Iranian decision making on security issues.

A key part of any such strategy involves a mutual return to the JCPOA by the United States and Iran. Doing so would be an important first step toward stabilizing the current situation and preventing a new nuclear crisis in the region. A return to full compliance with the nuclear deal would provide a platform for further negotiations on a long-term framework to address the country’s nuclear program and create space to engage with Iran on other areas of concern, such as regional dynamics and the country’s ballistic missile program.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, with JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant

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Iran’s recent steps to breach the limits imposed on its nuclear program under the JCPOA have rekindled the debate about how quickly its nuclear program could “breakout,” or produce enough nuclear material for a bomb.

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OPCW Presses Syria on Chemical Weapons


September 2020
By Julia Masterson

The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted on July 9 to adopt a decision demanding that Syria cease all use of chemical weapons and come clean on its illegal arsenal.

Bassam Sabbagh, Syria's permanent representative to the OPCW, strongly criticized the agency's findings that Syrian forces were responsible for chemical attacks in March 2017. (Photo: Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty Images)The decision acknowledges that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that Syria used chemical weapons, marking the OPCW’s most formal finding of a state in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) since the treaty entered into force in 1997.

Syria acceded to the CWC in 2013 and cooperated with international efforts to destroy its declared chemical stockpile, but horrific chemical weapons attacks have continued on an irregular basis since then and throughout the country’s ongoing civil war. The OPCW’s July decision was the international watchdog’s most strident response to Syria’s chemical weapons program since reports of these attacks first resurfaced in 2014. (See ACT, October 2014.)

The UN Security Council was scheduled to convene in August to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons program. A readout from this briefing has not been made public, but, coupled with the OPCW decision and recent investigations by the organization into chemical activity in Syria, renewed attention to Syria’s chemical weapons in multilateral forums has signaled an international commitment to enforce the country’s return to CWC compliance.

The OPCW Executive Council decision in July followed an inaugural April 8 report by the chemical watchdog’s new Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which is tasked with identifying perpetrators responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The report attributed responsibility for a series of sarin and chlorine attacks to the Syrian Air Force after finding that sarin dropped over the town of Ltamenah, Syria, in March 2017 shared a unique chemical signature with samples of the nerve agent retained in OPCW labs after the destruction of Syria’s declared stockpile. (See ACT, May 2020.)

In light of these findings, the Executive Council’s new decision imposes a strict 90-day deadline for the Syrian government to declare the remainder of its stockpile, including all chemical agents, their precursors, and the facilities where chemical weapons are developed, produced, and stored. The decision also empowers the OPCW Technical Secretariat to conduct biannual inspections at Syria’s Shayrat and Hama airbases, which were identified in the April IIT report as directly involved in the March 2017 chemical attacks.

In his statement before the Executive Council’s 94th session in July, Bassam Sabbagh, Syria’s permanent representative to the OPCW, slammed efforts to attribute blame for chemical weapons use in Syria to the Syrian government. Damascus has consistently rejected OPCW findings of Syria’s ongoing involvement in chemical weapons attacks, including those outlined in the April IIT report.

The Syrian Foreign and Expatriates Ministry previously called the April report “misleading” and said that Syria “condemns, in the strongest terms, what has come in the report of the illegitimate so-called Investigation and Identification Team, and rejects what has been included in it, in form and content.”

Russia also condemned the April IIT report as flawed and untrustworthy, and China views the organization’s ongoing attribution work as an overstep of the CWC mandate. Neither country expressed great satisfaction with the Executive Council’s July decision.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, tweeted on July 9 that “everything was politically motivated. This is another sign of further degradation of [the] OPCW.”

Fu Cong, who heads the Chinese Foreign Ministry Department of Arms Control, called the July decision “politically motivated” and “based on a flawed ‘investigation’” in a tweet also published that day.

The Executive Council’s decision was otherwise met by overwhelming support, including by the U.S. State Department, which applauded the decision in a statement published July 9.

In accordance with the decision, the OPCW director-general will report to CWC states-parties in October on whether Syria fulfilled the prescribed mandate. If Syria fails to do so, the Executive Council could recommend that states-parties vote to take action under CWC Article XII, restricting the country’s rights and privileges under the treaty.

Article XII offers a series of steps to redress a situation and ensure a country’s compliance with the CWC that ultimately ends in referral to the United Nations. Should Syria fail to meet the Executive Council’s 90-day deadline, the issue could soon be in the hands of the UN Security Council, which holds the authority to impose more significant consequences.

The July decision notably reaffirms the Executive Council’s position that perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks must not only be identified but also held accountable. It emphasizes “the importance of affording to the greatest measure of assistance in connection with criminal investigations or criminal proceedings in accordance with international law,” specifically relating to the chemical weapons attacks detailed in the April IIT report.

It also references the UN International, Impartial, Independent Mechanism (IIIM) tasked with assisting in the investigation of crimes committed in violation of international law in Syria since 2011. The IIIM lacks legal authority to prosecute those in violation of international law, but its mandate calls for the collection of evidence to support the criminal proceedings of those tried in national or international courts and tribunals. The Executive Council’s July decision welcomes a memorandum of understanding between the OPCW and the IIIM.

 

The OPCW Executive Council set a 90-day deadline for Syria to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Explosion at Natanz Damages Centrifuge Production Building

An explosion at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility appears to have been a deliberate attack that will set back the country’s ability to manufacture centrifuges. Speaking at a news conference July 6, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), confirmed that the July 2 explosion occurred in a building at Natanz where Iran produces advanced centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium. The explosion did not impact the area of the facility where uranium enrichment takes place and the International Atomic Energy Agency said July 3 that its application of...

OPCW Rebukes Syria’s Chemical Weapons Program

A July 9 decision by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Executive Council demands that the Syrian Arab Republic cease all use of chemical weapons and come clean on its illegal arsenal. The decision marks the international watchdog’s most punitive response to Syria’s chemical weapons program since reports of chemical attacks first re-surfaced in 2014 and is a necessary step to address Damascus’s blatant violation of international law. Horrific chemical weapons attacks have continued on an irregular basis throughout the country’s ongoing civil war, despite the...

Tensions on Korean Peninsula Rise


July/August 2020
By Julia Masterson

Tensions between North and South Korea have escalated after Pyongyang cut all communications lines and later demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, on June 16. South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who previously oversaw relations between South and North Korea, resigned June 19.

Cho Myoung-gyon (left), then South Korean unification minister,  and his North Korean counterpart Ri Son Gwon (center), attend the opening ceremony of the now-demolished joint liaison office on Sept. 14, 2018 in Kaesong, North Korea. (Photo: Korea Pool/Getty Images)The liaison office was established following the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, which laid out a list of commitments shared by the two Koreas “to boldly approach a new era of national reconciliation, peace and prosperity, and to improve and cultivate inter-Korean relations in a more active manner.” The declaration was concluded at an April summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, following a period of newfound bilateral cooperation.

The office was used to facilitate diplomatic relations between the two Koreas. Weekday inter-Korean phone calls took place twice daily through the office since its establishment in September 2018, until North Korea cut that and all other communications lines with South Korea on June 8.

Two weeks later, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) revealed Pyongyang’s plan to release 12 million propaganda leaflets into South Korea, in response to the scattering of anti-North Korea leaflets at the countries’ border in early June. Seoul came forward to say that move was conducted by several South Korean nongovernmental organizations, but Pyongyang holds South Korean authorities near the demilitarized zone responsible for the act. Propaganda leaflets are a relic of the Cold War and were common across the North-South border in the early 1950s.

The distribution of propaganda leaflets violates the Panmunjom Declaration, under which both countries pledged to cease “all hostile acts” on the Military Demarcation Line that spans their border.

Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, said June 4, “I would like to ask the South Korean authorities if they are ready to take care of the consequences of evil conduct.” She heads the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, North Korea’s highest political body. “The South Korean authorities will be forced to pay a dear price if they let this situation go on while making sort of excuses,” she said.

North Korea pledged on June 17 to ready its military for deployment near the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas, as well as to the southwestern maritime front, but later reneged on that threat. A KCNA statement June 24 clarified that North Korea’s military leadership “took stock of the prevailing situation and suspended military action plans against the south.”

Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, remarked June 24 that a détente of inter-Korean relations could only be achieved “by efforts and patience of both sides based on mutual respect and trust.” He warned, however, that “nothing will turn out favorable when our suspension becomes reconsideration,” adding that South Korea must “realize that self-control is the key to tiding over the crisis.”

Although the scattering of leaflets across the border exacerbated tensions, North Korea’s heightened hostility toward South Korea appears fueled by Seoul’s long-standing efforts to promote U.S.-North Korean dialogue on denuclearization amid souring inter-Korean relations.

Kwon Jong Gun, the, director-general of U.S. affairs in the North Korean Foreign Ministry, noted on June 13 that South Korean authorities had voiced their support for a resumption of U.S.-North Korean talks. “I still remember that exactly one year ago, we advised them to stop fooling around in such a nasty manner,” Kwon said, adding that “it is not because there is not a mediator that the [North Korean]-U.S. dialogue has gone away and denuclearization been blown off.”

A KCNA commentary on June 19 relayed that North Korea was “fed up with the disgusting acts of the South Korean authorities who accepted the ‘South Korea-U.S. working group’ even before the ink on the north-south agreement got dry,” referring to a body established in the fall of 2018 to strengthen coordination between Seoul and Washington on efforts to achieve North Korean denuclearization. Behind the scenes, the June 19 statement continued, South Korea remains “engrossed in military exercises with the foreign force” and has “connived at the leaflet-scattering by the human scum ten times last year and three times this year, reneging on the promise to halt hostile acts in frontline areas.”

South Korea’s presidential Blue House stated on June 17 it would “not endure” continued condemnation from Pyongyang and added that repeated criticism of Seoul transmitted through the KCNA was counterproductive to efforts to build trust between the two Koreas.

Seoul’s chief nuclear negotiator met with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun on June 18 to “assess the current situation on the Korean peninsula and discuss responses.”

 

North Korea has demolished a liaison office used to communicate with the South.

U.S. Sets Global Partnership Priorities


July/August 2020
By Kelsey Davenport and Julia Masterson

The United States is prioritizing the security of chemicals to help restore the norm against chemical weapons use during its chair of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction for 2020, a State Department official told Arms Control Today.

A scientist works at a laboratory of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Rijswijk, the Netherlands. The OPCW has received support from the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction to help nations prevent their chemical industries and materials from being misused. (Photo: OPCW)Increasing biological security will also be a key area of focus for the Global Partnership, as the coronavirus pandemic has renewed attention on the “catastrophic impact” that a biological weapon could have, the official said in a June 17 interview.

The Global Partnership is a multilateral initiative founded in 2002 to prevent the use and proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons.

Initially focused on disposing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related facilities in former Soviet countries, the Global Partnership expanded its geographic scope in 2008. The initiative now implements projects worldwide to secure and destroy WMD-related materials and support partnering countries’ efforts to adhere to international nonproliferation instruments. Its work is guided by six core principles, which include managing and destroying WMD materials, implementing effective border and export controls, protecting facilities that house dual-use materials, and implementing international treaties aimed at preventing WMD proliferation.

The Global Partnership is now comprised of 30 member states plus the European Union. The chair of the initiative rotates on the same schedule as the Group of Seven. The United States last chaired the Global Partnership in 2012. (See ACT, January/February 2013.)

Currently, the partnership has four working groups: nuclear and radiological security, biological security, chemical security, and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) security. The initiative implemented more than 180 projects valued at more than $534 million in dozens of countries in 2019.

Although there is continuity in the scope of the working groups, the chair of the initiative can determine priorities for each over the course of a year.

The State Department official said the United States is focused on building capacity through donations during its chairmanship and on strengthening dialogue between partnership states to take into account their threat assessments and programming priorities. The official said the United States also wants to emphasize the importance of donor involvement and challenge all partners in the initiative to make substantial contributions. This includes focusing on the Global Partnership’s matchmaking process for implementing projects across the range of WMD threats. Such matchmaking pairs countries in need of assistance with state donor funding and expertise. As chair, the United States will seek to “tap into an evolving set of requirements on one side, and the priority of funding on the other, and try to match the two,” the State Department official explained.

The official said the United States takes seriously the full range of WMD threats, but the repeated use of chemical weapons over the past several years makes restoring the norm against chemical weapons usage a key priority for the initiative, which the United States will continue to emphasize in 2020.

The partnership’s significant efforts to strengthen chemicals security over the past few years has strengthened the regime and contributed to the capacity of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The United States plans to build on this work, and efforts to restore the norm against chemical weapons use will be a “centerpiece” of the Global Partnership’s work in 2020, the official said. The official noted that the working group plans to further develop best practices for chemicals security infrastructure and continue to build a network of experts on which the international community can draw.

The Global Partnership has a number of ongoing projects that support these goals. The United States announced $7 million in funding for the OPCW’s center for chemistry and technology and has funded a project since 2011 to assist states in securing chemicals and assessing the evolving threat of chemical weapons use. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, and Pakistan are some of the states that have benefited. Germany, in connection with the OPCW, funded workshops on chemicals security from 2009 to 2020 for professionals working in chemicals industries in Africa, Asia, and South America.

In the biological security working group, the official said the United States is concerned that nefarious actors are “paying attention to the consequences of the current pandemic” and may too become interested in biological weapons. The officials said that the pandemic has highlighted gaps in biosecurity and noted that some states have already requested help through the initiative to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Requests for assistance have included training for using personal protective equipment correctly.

The United States is also looking to prioritize building biological incident response capabilities and developing sustainable practices to minimize the risk of a future, intentional biological incident, the official said. The official also noted important progress on linking global health and security efforts in 2019 and said the United States will continue that work.

Past projects funded by the partnership have focused on capacity building to respond to biological threats. Germany funded a project in the Sahel region of Africa from 2016 to 2018 that established a regional response network, and Japan funded work during 2017–2019 to build capacity to diagnose infectious tropical diseases in Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the nuclear and radiological security working group, the United States is focusing on a range of issues, including enhancing operational resilience; supporting implementation of the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the parties to which will hold a conference in 2021; and priorities identified in the action plan released during the 2016 nuclear security summit.

The Global Partnership was one of five organizations tasked with continuing the work of the nuclear security summits, which aimed to secure and minimize weapons-usable nuclear materials in civil programs and raise awareness of the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The partnership’s action plan includes supporting efforts to increase cybersecurity and insider threat mitigation and working with the IAEA on nuclear security priorities.

The working group is scheduled to meet in July to discuss how the partnership can build on the IAEA’s February 2020 nuclear security conference.

The partnership has also contributed to continuing efforts to secure nuclear and radiological materials. The United States, for instance, is funding a 10-year effort through 2024 to secure high-threat radioactive sources in Kazakhstan, and Canada is working with nine Latin American countries from 2018 to 2022 to set up nuclear detection architecture to detect material outside of regulatory control.

The CBRN working group is taking a different approach to its mandate in 2020, the official said, noting that efforts will focus on implementing export controls and creating consensus recommendations on areas including addressing sanctions evasion and countering proliferation financing. The official said the working group will continue to advance implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to prevent WMD proliferation to nonstate actors and work more closely with the World Customs Organization on its capacity-building programs. The United States also hopes to revitalize matchmaking on CBRN projects and make strategic trade controls a permanent focus of the working group.

The United States is currently engaged in a multiyear program with a number of states in the Asia Pacific and East African regions to devise strategic trade controls and better enforce UN Security Council sanctions targeting North Korean proliferation.

The Global Partnership’s 31 members are primarily located in North America and Europe, but the United States has no plans to expand the initiative’s membership at this time. The State Department official said Washington hopes to strengthen existing members’ participation and to implement new project proposals through the matchmaking process.

The State Department official said that the pandemic has created new challenges for the initiative, but noted that the Global Partnership is taking an innovative approach to virtual meetings that allow the initiative’s threat reduction work to continue. Partners now facilitate virtual engagements, remote training, and distance learning in place of their regular activities.

Holding the rotating chair of the 30-nation group, the United States plans to focus on chemical weapons.

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