"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
April 2017
Edition Date: 
Saturday, April 1, 2017
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Can the INF Treaty Survive? Putin’s New Missile Presents A Major Test for Arms Control

April 2017

By Greg Thielmann

One month into his term of office, President Donald Trump asserted in a news interview that Russia had violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, specifying that Russia’s “deployment” of treaty-prohibited ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) was “a big deal.”1

Two weeks later, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Paul Selva, also went public on the dispute, saying in congressional testimony that Russia’s deployment violated “the spirit and intent” of the treaty and that he sees no current indication that Moscow, which denies any INF Treaty violation, intends to return to compliance.2

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan shake hands after signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the White House December 8, 1987. (Photo credit: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Although Trump pledged to raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin “if and when we meet,” it is not at all clear what his strategy is for dealing with the matter. How he handles the worsening dispute over INF Treaty compliance will affect his ability to follow through on his stated desire to make deals with Putin on other issues. Even with Republican Party control of the executive and legislative branches of government, Trump’s flexibility will be constrained by questions about whether his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 elections and by the large number of arms control skeptics and Russophobes among Republican members of Congress.

Making History

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the INF Treaty on the course of modern European history and the evolution of the international security order.  Along with the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow’s failed attempt to expand its monopoly in long-range, nuclear-tipped theater missiles marked the twin military policy disasters of the regime’s last decade.. At the same time, Moscow’s partnering in the elimination of an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons in U.S. and Soviet constituted one of the world’s most dramatic achievements in curbing the nuclear arms race.

The unprecedented results ultimately achieved by the treaty seemed far from likely in the late 1970s, when the Soviets began replacing their single-warhead SS-4 and SS-5 theater ballistic missiles with the longer-range, more mobile triple-warhead SS-20 missiles. Meanwhile, it was clear then that the prospect of counterdeployments by NATO members would generate serious resistance among European publics long before they would yield effective leverage for negotiating Soviet reductions.

NATO’s “Dual-Track Decision” on theater nuclear modernization and arms control in December 1979 called for deploying 572 U.S. intermediate-range missiles in five countries of the alliance, while offering to negotiate lower limits that would reduce the Soviet missile forces already deployed and the number NATO planned to deploy. Alliance strategists hoped that these new missiles would reduce NATO’s reliance on increasingly vulnerable aircraft based in Europe for theater delivery of nuclear weapons. At the same time, they calculated that beefing up longer-range nuclear forces would facilitate the reduction of some 7,000 shorter-range nuclear weapons, deemed no longer necessary militarily and increasingly burdensome politically.

By the end of 1981, negotiations had commenced in Geneva. The United States opened with a “zero-zero” proposal, offering to cancel plans for future U.S. INF missile deployments in exchange for elimination of all existing Soviet INF missiles. Seeking to prevent the deployment of any U.S. INF missiles, Moscow argued that British and French nuclear forces and U.S. nuclear-capable aircraft based in Europe should be taken into account in calculating the balance, but not Soviet forces based outside of Europe. Over time, Moscow offered some reductions of existing Soviet INF missiles in exchange for complete cancellation of NATO’s planned modernization. Yet, the real action during the first three years of the INF Treaty negotiations was in the streets and parliaments of Europe’s NATO members. After narrowly failing in late 1983 to prevent NATO’s initial INF deployments in the United Kingdom and Germany, the Soviets walked out of the Geneva talks in protest.

Subsequently, the Soviets returned to the table, agreeing to conduct INF Treaty talks as part of broader negotiations that would also include strategic arms and missile defenses. Under new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Moscow eventually accepted not only the U.S. zero-zero formula, it challenged the alliance also to eliminate short-range missiles with ranges between 500 and 1,000 kilometers. The anti-nuclear sentiments of President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart and those of European publics ultimately prevailed over the best laid plans and preferences of many security experts in Washington and Moscow. The INF Treaty was signed on December 8, 1987, and ratified the following year.

Nearly 2,700 missiles were eliminated under the treaty. Equally important was the establishment of new precedents for on-site inspections and other up-close verification measures, paving the way for the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), concluded in 1991. NATO’s dual-track approach was considered an impressive application of collective action by the diverse and deeply divided societies of the Western alliance against Soviet threats and intimidation.

Fast Forward

Ironically, Russia’s apparent willingness now to develop and deploy GLCMs in violation of the INF Treaty’s ban on such systems threatens to have equally momentous consequences. If such a serious compliance challenge to the treaty is not satisfactorily resolved or at least managed, it will be very difficult to make further progress on U.S.-Russian strategic arms reductions. Such a failure also could invalidate the assumptions behind the disarmament and nonproliferation commitments incorporated in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This pillar of the existing international order is already under threat from the assertion of a right to “go nuclear” by such countries as North Korea and the potential effects of the nuclear ban movement, challenging the bona fides of the five original nuclear-weapon states’ commitment to their NPT disarmament obligations.

Many in Russia have long viewed the INF Treaty as discriminatory to Moscow. They see the treaty as imposing a heavier burden on Russia, which, unlike the United States, is ringed by third countries with nuclear-tipped INF-range missiles. These Russian domestic critics also believe the treaty is inhibiting Russia’s effective use of its nuclear forces to compensate for deficiencies in conventional military capabilities. In the United States, some believe the INF Treaty, whatever the value of its past contributions, is no longer necessary and now represents an undesirable constraint on U.S. pushback against Russian aggression and intimidation.

Despite critics in both countries, the U.S. and Russian governments still pledge fidelity to the treaty. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters March 9 that Russia rejects U.S. violation claims and remains committed to its international obligation “including those arising from the INF Treaty.”3 Yet without movement toward resolution of INF Treaty compliance issues, the prognosis for this treaty is poor, and the prospects for any future nuclear arms reduction treaty will recede beyond the horizon.

Deepening Grievances

The New York Times, citing anonymous U.S. officials, first reported in February 2017 that the INF Treaty-class cruise missiles, which the United States in 2014 accused the Russians of testing, have been deployed.4 This news account said that two battalions of GLCMs, designated “SSC-8” in the West, have been formed, with one battalion “shifted in December from [the] Kapustin Yar [test site] to an operational base.”The deployment news is interpreted by many in NATO as the latest evidence, on top of reckless behavior by Russia’s air and naval forces in the Baltic and Black Sea regions and Putin’s rhetorical nuclear saber-rattling, that Moscow is seeking to intimidate alliance members.

Another cause for concern is Russia’s recent deployment of the SS-26 Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile system into Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, between Poland and Lithuania, putting a significant portion of Poland within striking distance from Russia’s tactical, ground-based, nuclear-capable missile forces. Such deployments, however, do not violate the letter of the INF Treaty and do not fundamentally alter the strategic equation in the region.

Moscow, meanwhile, expresses similar concerns regarding the reinforcement of NATO combat forces on its periphery. The implementation of a NATO decision to rotate four multinational combat battalions through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland has prompted Russian complaints that such measures constitute a new security threat and will require countermeasures. Yet in this case too, the impact is more political than military because the regional balance of forces in the Baltics remains overwhelmingly tipped in Russia’s favor.

Of explicit relevance to the INF Treaty, Russia accuses the United States of malign intent in moving forward with the deployment of the more capable Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile defense interceptors to neighboring Poland. Moscow previously complained that the “Aegis Ashore” MK-41 launchers for the SM-3 Block IB interceptors deployed to Romania were INF Treaty violations because they had been used previously to launch Tomahawk BGM-109A sea-launched, land-attack cruise missiles.5

Beyond the legal and technical issues is the credibility gap opened by U.S. unwillingness to adapt its Aegis Ashore deployment schedule to the significant diminution in the missile threat from the Middle East against which NATO justifies these deployments. When the Polish missile defense site was planned in 2009, the United States was projecting the near-term possibility that Iranian long-range, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles could threaten all of Europe.

Yet, with conclusion and implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the absence of any long-range missile testing by Iran, that threat has receded far beyond the 2018 deadline for declaring operational more advanced missile defenses in Poland. For Moscow, the continued construction there constitutes confirmation of long-standing suspicions that these systems are directed against Russia rather than Iran.

In 2014, Russia raised two other allegations of U.S. noncompliance with the INF Treaty. Those are that the United States continued to test missile targets under its ballistic missile defense program that have characteristics similar to intermediate- and shorter-range missiles and that these tests are used to improve key elements of missile systems prohibited under the INF Treaty, and that the United States is increasing the production and use of “heavy strike” unmanned aerial vehicles that conform with the INF Treaty definition of GLCMs.

Soviet inspectors and their American escorts stand among U.S. Pershing II missiles destroyed in accordance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in a photo taken January 14, 1989. (Photo credit: MSGT Jose Lopez Jr./U.S. Defense Department)Moscow did not rank the three allegations in terms of seriousness—all were raised in response to U.S. charges—but it appears to regard Aegis Ashore as its best case for arguing U.S. noncompliance. The issue of using INF missiles in missile defense tests had been raised and extensively discussed during previous meetings of the Special Verification Commission (SVC), the body created by the treaty to address alleged violations. There was little mention of the issue subsequently for more than a decade. U.S. use of armed drones was initiated long before Russia expressed concerns that such use violated the INF Treaty.

Dispute Resolution Process

Despite worsening relations between Washington and Moscow and continuing belligerence between Moscow and Kiev, Russia and the other active states-parties to the treaty (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) agreed to the U.S. request for a meeting of the SVC in Geneva to take place on November 15-16, 2016. This 30th meeting of the SVC constituted the first session held since 2003 and took place more than two years after the United States levied public charges of noncompliance against Russia. Few details were released on the content of the discussions, and no follow-on meeting has been announced. It is reasonable to assume that little substantive progress was made in this short session. Nonetheless, the parties’ decision finally to engage the treaty’s designated mechanism for resolving compliance issues is a positive development.

Activating the SVC mechanism was consistent with the recommendation in last June’s report of the Russian-U.S.-German Deep Cuts Commission, titled “Back from the Brink.”6 The group of former government officials and arms control experts called for “supplementing ongoing diplomatic dialogue with technical expertise, either by convening the [SVC] or a separate bilateral experts group.”7 In order to achieve satisfactory resolution, political authorities need to provide impetus for continuing work at the technical level.

As this report advised, it will be necessary for future meetings of technical experts to resolve outstanding compliance issues. Although the principal obstacle to moving toward resolution is the current lack of political will, the groundwork now has been laid for engaging technical experts. Among the elements:

•   Technical experts could work out language making clear the difference between prohibited intermediate-range ballistic missiles and permitted target missiles for missile defense tests.

•   While armed unmanned aerial vehicles, which Russia and the United States are developing and deploying, do not clearly fit the treaty definition of cruise missiles, their differences could be more clearly spelled out in language drawn up by technical experts working under SVC auspices. The separate category of weapons, so identified, could be subject to future negotiations with the purpose of limiting their scope. 

•   Transparency measures could be established with respect to the MK-41 Aegis missile defense launchers deployed in Romania and to be deployed in Poland. Russian inspectors could be invited for initial on-site examination of the system and subsequent periodic visits to ensure that no banned INF Treaty categories of missiles were being deployed. The United States and host government might tie invitations for such visits to reciprocal inspection visits to Russia to resolve suspicions about GLCM deployments. 

•   It may not be possible to conclusively establish whether GLCM tests alleged by the United States had occurred and the parameters of the violation, but it should be less difficult to employ national technical means to establish whether new Russian GLCMs have been deployed. Moreover, on-site inspection measures could be devised that would increase confidence that such deployments had not taken place or were being reversed.

It is still possible to find ways to restore the health of the INF Treaty using properly structured discussion of compliance issues in the SVC, fusing political will with the application of technical expertise. U.S. willingness to allow Russian access to deployed MK-41 Aegis launchers and Russian willingness to accept on-site monitoring of SSC-8 GLCM launchers at test sites and challenge inspections at suspect deployment sites could lead to a breakthrough in the current compliance stalemate.

If measures can be found to differentiate launchers that appear to be capable of launching cruise missiles or missile defense interceptors or to differentiate cruise missiles from armed drones that may have similar missions and characteristics in the future, it will help clear away obstacles to restoring the health of the INF Treaty and open up possibilities in other areas.

Political Environment

“Fixing” the INF Treaty will require political initiative in Washington and Moscow. Unfortunately, in neither capital is the current political environment favorable for resolving the compliance issues and removing the obstacles to progress in nuclear arms control. Disputes over Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria, along with questions about Moscow’s alleged efforts to tilt the U.S. presidential election in Trump’s favor, weigh on relations between the two superpowers.

During his successful campaign for president, Trump frequently expressed admiration for Putin’s strength and leadership. As president-elect, he continued to praise Putin and chose a secretary of state who had extensive successful business dealings with Russia’s leadership. For his part, Putin made favorable gestures toward the incoming U.S. president, including a decision not to impose reciprocal measures following President Barack Obama’s late-stage expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in response to alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.

Yet, in the early days of the new administration, a significant fissure is emerging within and between the executive and legislative branches on the conduct of U.S.-Russian relations. Although the Republican Party controls the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, no consensus has formed on policies toward Russia.

Many key members of Congress have expressed alarm over alleged Russian hacking activities, deep skepticism of Putin’s motives, and hostility to the idea of bilateral cooperation. Only two days after publication of news reports that Russia had deployed illicit GLCMs, Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that would allow U.S. countermeasures, including the development of similar systems.8 Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, asked at a Mar. 8 hearing that the U.S. military provide Congress with response options by the end of the month.

Responding to Violation

As with INF Treaty issues during the Cold War, the views of U.S. allies in Europe are critical to successful resolution of the current compliance issue. Any U.S. move to violate the INF Treaty in response to a Russian violation would be likely to elicit deep divisions in NATO and to provide Moscow with an excuse to withdraw from the treaty.

An undated photograph shows a former Russian RSD-10 “Pioneer” ballistic missile system, a nuclear weapon known in the West as an SS-20, that was eliminated by the INF Treaty on display at the Kapustin Yar museum in Znamensk, Russia. (Photo credit: Leonidl/Wikimedia Commons)Meanwhile, Russia and the United States are under increasing diplomatic pressure from the majority of non-nuclear-weapon states for failing to make sufficient progress on eliminating their nuclear weapons, as called for in the NPT. At the UN General Assembly on December 23, 113 states voted to convene a UN conference in 2017 “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”9 Growth in the perception that the INF Treaty, one of the signal achievements in nuclear disarmament, is unraveling could strengthen international support for the nuclear weapons ban talks that Washington and Moscow vigorously oppose.

The appropriate advice to the White House and Congress at this stage therefore would be “first, do no harm.” Continued Russian deployment of SSC-8 GLCMs will be increasingly difficult to hide and deny, and Russia should not be given cover by the United States committing reciprocal violations of the treaty.

A wiser course to pursue would be in the realm of arms control initiatives that could be mutually advantageous to Washington and Moscow and supported by the international community.

Broaden the Negotiations

Given the apparently weak political support in Russia for preserving the INF Treaty, it may be necessary to exploit Russia’s greater interest in keeping a lid on U.S. strategic arms and preventing the enlargement of strategic missile defenses, which could jeopardize Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Putin has signaled Russia’s continuing interest in strategic constraints, reportedly urging a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) during his initial telephone conversation with Trump in January. Putin presumably understands the implications of U.S. “fuzing” improvements for counterforce strikes10 and the U.S. numerical advantage in strategic warhead upload capacity. Moreover, his interest in constraining U.S. missile defenses is manifest.

One way to compensate for the leverage Russia may have gained from deploying GLCMs is to strengthen the linkage between strategic, INF, and missile defense negotiations, as was done in the Geneva nuclear and space talks initiated in 1985. Such negotiations also could seek to extend existing INF Treaty limits on delivery systems to all nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Steven Pifer has suggested a limit on deployed strategic warheadsthat would be augmented with an overall limit on all nuclear warheads in U.S. and Russian arsenals, including those used with nonstrategic nuclear weapons.11

Addressing Problems

Another way to revive the INF Treaty would be to convert the GLCM ban to a limit on all nuclear-tipped INF-range missiles by deeming the warheads on such systems to be “strategic,” prohibiting all nuclear-armed missile deployments, or banning all INF nuclear warheads altogether. Any of these options could be accommodated within Pifer’s tiered nuclear arms control framework.

A U.S. soldier fires December 1, 2016, during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization training exercise hosted by Lithuania known as Iron Sword that involved almost 4,000 soldiers from 11 NATO countries. NATO’s decision to rotate four multinational combat battalions through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland has drawn Russian complaints that such activities constitute a new security threat that will require countermeasures. (Photo credit: NATO)Several knotty INF Treaty problems could be addressed through the denuclearization of cruise missiles while advancing progress on nuclear disarmament overall. Ongoing trends in weapons development exacerbate the treaty compliance issues now in dispute because of the newer weapons’ similarities to weapons banned by the treaty. One of the weaknesses built into the treaty was the differential treatment of nearly identical land-attack cruise missiles based on the nature of their launch platforms. All ground-based INF-range cruise missiles were banned; all air- and sea-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs and SLCMs) with similar capabilities were unconstrained.12 As technology advances and launchers become more interchangeable, these dissolving system boundaries between ALCMs, SLCMs, and GLCMs and the absence of cruise missile limits in New START undermine the effectiveness of nuclear arms control limits.

Washington and Moscow appeared committed to withdrawing all land-attack nuclear SLCMs under the nonbinding Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of 1991-1992. Although the United States withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from surface ships, attack submarines, and naval aircraft and phased out its nuclear-armed SLCMs entirely, Russia is believed to be continuing its deployment on submarines and surface warships.

Both countries continue to deploy nuclear-armed ALCMs in their strategic arsenals. Russia is equipping its heavy bombers with new nuclear-tipped Kh-102 ALCMs. The United States is planning to replace its current ALCMs, launched from strategic bombers, with the nuclear-capable long-range stand-off cruise missile.

Yet, the long-range stand-off missile program has generated vigorous opposition in the United States among many security experts, including former Defense Secretary William Perry,13who consider the program unnecessary and destabilizing. California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein (D), has consequently called for a global ban on all nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.14 Even Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, conspicuously failed to endorse the program during his confirmation hearings.

Moscow’s willingness to consider precluding nuclear-armed systems may be more plausible than it has previously appeared. The Russian military has been following the course of the U.S. military, placing increased emphasis on highly accurate, conventionally armed cruise missiles, reducing the requirements for its nonstrategic nuclear forces.

The Deep Cuts Commission pointed toward exploiting this trend in recommending that the United States and Russia “address the destabilizing effects of nuclear-armed cruise missiles.”15Expanding the INF Treaty regime by banning all nuclear-tipped INF-range cruise missiles would allow the parties to leapfrog current compliance disputes and Moscow to escape the diplomatic cul-de-sac into which it has backed itself. A nuclear cruise missile ban also would close the ALCM loophole in New START’s treatment of the air-launched leg of the strategic triad, which benefits the United States disproportionately.16

To extend limits on all nuclear-armed cruise missiles, data would be exchanged on the disposition of all ALCMs, SLCMs, and GLCMs capable of nuclear weapons delivery. As an interim measure, all nuclear-armed cruise missile warheads would be de-mated and consolidated in a few, heavily monitored storage facilities. Although the unprecedented transparency measures necessary to achieve high confidence in ultimately achieving warhead elimination would be difficult to negotiate, interim measures to securely isolate warheads from their delivery systems would be easier. As the INF Treaty demonstrated, confirming the complete absence of systems is often less challenging than trying to count the number deployed.

Just as many of the INF Treaty inspection protocol provisions were incorporated into START nearly verbatim, finding the means to resolve contemporary INF Treaty compliance issues and devise measures to ensure the absence of deployed nuclear warheads can contribute to negotiating additional reductions in aggregate strategic arsenals. Much applicable research has been performed in recent years on methods to verify arms control limits on nuclear warheads.17

As NATO and the Soviet Union discovered in the 1980s, effective constraints on INF missiles are an essential component of strategic arms control. The extensive transparency measures of the INF Treaty, including data exchanges, on-site monitoring, and challenge inspections, and the decision to create a ban rather than a limit on the most destabilizing systems were critical milestones on the path toward concluding the first treaty to reduce strategic arms. INF arms control led the way then, and it can do so again.


1.   Steve Holland, “Trump Wants to Expand U.S. Nuclear Arsenal, Make It ‘Top of the Pack,’” Reuters, February 23, 2017. 

2.   Michael Gordon, “Russia Had Deployed Missile Barred by Treaty, U.S. General Tells Congress,” The New York Times, March 8, 2017.

3.   Frederik Pleitgen, Alla Eshchenko, and Laura Smith-Spark, “Russia Denies Deploying Cruise Missile in Treaty Breach,” CNN, March 9, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/09/europe/russia-us-cruise-missile-treaty/.

4.   Michael R. Gordon, “Russian Cruise Missile, Deployed Secretly, Violates Treaty, Officials Say,” The New York Times, February 14, 2017.

5.   The BGM-109G ground-launched cruise missile banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was a variant of the Tomahawk.

6.   Deep Cuts Commission, “Back From the Brink: Toward Restraint and Dialogue Between Russia and the West,” June 2016, http://deepcuts.org/images/PDF/Third_Report_of_the_Deep_Cuts_Commission_English.pdf.

7.   Ibid., pp. 9, 25.

8.   Michael D. Regan, “Republican Bills Counter Russia’s Apparent Violation of Nuclear Arms Treaty,” NewsHour, February 18, 2017.

9.   UN General Assembly, A/RES/71/258, December 23, 2016.

10.   Hans M. Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, and Theodore A. Postol, “How U.S. Nuclear Force Modernization Is Undermining Strategic Stability: The Burst-Height Compensating Super-Fuze,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1, 2017.

11.   Steven Pifer, “Nuclear Arms Control Choices for the Next Administration,” Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Series Paper, No. 13 (October 2016), https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/acnpi_20161025_arms_control_choices_final.pdf.

12.   When the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) entered into force, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) became subject to the warhead limits attributed to deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and deployed heavy bombers; but under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), ALCMs were no longer counted under deployed warhead limits.

13.   William J. Perry and Andy Weber, “Mr. President, Kill the New Cruise Missile,” The Washington Post, October 15, 2015. 

14.   Dianne Feinstein, “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Limited’ Nuclear War,” The Washington Post, March 5, 2017.

15.   Deep Cuts Commission, “Back From the Brink,” p. 26.

16.   Unlike START, which had a separate sublimit combining deployed missile warheads with ALCMs attributed to heavy bombers, New START counts each heavy bomber as equivalent to one strategic ballistic missile warhead, no matter how many ALCMs it carries. U.S. bombers carry substantially more than their Russian counterparts.

17.   Such research is conducted by a variety of organizations, such as the United Kingdom’s Verification Research, Training and Information Centre and the Nuclear Futures Laboratory of Princeton University in the United States. The UK/Norwegian Initiative’s working paper submitted at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference is an example of the kind of research conducted on improving nuclear warhead verification measures. See 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “The United Kingdom-Norway Initiative: Further Research Into the Verification of Nuclear Warhead Dismantlement,” NPT/CONF.2015/WP.31, April 22, 2015.

Greg Thielmann is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer, who worked on intermediate-range missile arms control issues in the U.S. Department of State, participating in the initial round of negotiations on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. He was subsequently an office director in the State Department’s intelligence bureau, senior staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and senior fellow at the Arms Control Association.


It may be necessary to exploit Russia’s interest in preventing the enlargement of strategic missile defenses.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: Fin de Regime?

April 2017

By Paul Meyer

For almost 50 years, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has provided the foundation of the global security order. It had bound its 191 states-parties in a joint enterprise to curtail nuclear proliferation and to promote nuclear disarmament.

Today, this enterprise is in mortal peril. An enormous fissure has opened regarding the right course of action to realize the treaty’s disarmament objectives. Two-thirds of its adherents are opting for a new process to produce a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons while the minority faction of nuclear-weapon states and their allies are shunning this process. An existential threat to the NPT has emerged that will require dedicated remedial action if the treaty is to mark its golden anniversary at its next review conference in 2020.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the 2015 Review Conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the United Nations on April 27, 2015. (Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)The origins of the current crisis can be traced back to an extraordinary meeting of NPT states-parties in 1995. The NPT entered into effect in 1970 with an initial term of 25 years. Every five years, the states-parties to the treaty meet in a review conference to consider the functioning of the treaty and to make decisions regarding it. The 1995 review conference had the additional crucial task: deciding whether the treaty should be extended indefinitely or for another fixed period.

At the time, a strong current for an indefinite extension was evident in the lead-up to the conference, but it would require some delicate negotiations to make this outcome unanimous. The resulting package included the indefinite extension alongside decisions on “Principles and Objectives,” a strengthened review process, and a resolution calling for the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. In recalling the importance of this interlinked package for the successful outcome, Jayantha Dhanapala, the president of the conference, has stated his conviction that “without this political foundation—which at the last minute of the conference was extended to include the Middle East resolution—the states-parties would never have been able to agree to the indefinite extension without a vote.”1 The failure to implement this package over the subsequent 20 years is a primary driver of the current crisis of confidence for the NPT.

Package Failures

The “grand bargain” concluded with some fanfare at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference almost immediately ran into implementation problems. Decision 2 adopted at the conference, titled “Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament,” had set out key priorities in terms of future multilateral agreements needed to underpin the NPT. First among these was the conclusion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) prohibiting all nuclear tests. The CTBT was concluded shortly after the review conference and opened for signature in the fall of 1996. Despite wide support, the treaty has never entered into force due to the failure of eight states specified in a treaty annex to sign and ratify the agreement.

Second was the negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, known as the fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). The 1995 review conference called for the immediate commencement of negotiations on an FMCT in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the 65-member body in Geneva designated by the United Nations as its negotiating forum for arms control and disarmament agreements. These high-priority negotiations for an FMCT have never been initiated, and the CD has been in a state of total paralysis for more than two decades due to clashing priorities in a consensus-bound forum unable to agree on a program of work, let alone commence one.

The “strengthened” review process did not result in the fuller scrutiny of the implementation record of states-parties or the generation of substantive recommendations for consideration by the review conference. The four annual preparatory committee meetings of each five-year review cycle have shied away from generating substantive proposals. These meetings have been content with taking a few, basic procedural steps and have put off any decisions on substance to the review conferences themselves.

The 1995 Middle East resolution, with its goal of a WMD-free zone involving all the states of the region, has failed to show any progress. A commitment made at the 2010 review conference to convene by 2012 a conference on the subject failed to be realized. As this failure continued into subsequent years, many viewed the entire endeavor as constituting yet another “nil” result in the NPT’s performance report.

The one element of the 1995 package that has endured is the indefinite extension of the treaty, that is, the commitment of its parties to adhere permanently to its provisions. Some of these parties are beginning to question whether a crucial element of leverage to ensure compliance with treaty commitments was lost when the NPT was given an indefinite extension rather than a time-limited one.

This buyer’s remorse for the landslide movement in 1995 to extend the NPT indefinitely reflects a wider perception that the so-called grand bargain embodied in the treaty itself is not respected in an equitable manner. That bargain consisted of a tripartite commitment on the part of non-nuclear-weapon states to forswear the acquisition or development of nuclear weapons, on the part of the five nuclear-weapon states under the treaty to pursue nuclear disarmament, and for all parties to support the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

These underlying provisions have come under increasing stress in recent years to the point where the treaty’s continued authority is being called into question. Since the turn of the millennium, these stresses have been reflected in a disconcertingly unstable pattern of achieving consensus outcomes at successive review conferences. The 2000 and the 2010 conferences concluded with substantive outcomes, but the 2005 and 2015 conferences failed to produce any such results. The first preparatory committee meeting of the current NPT review cycle gets underway in May, and it may prove fateful for the treaty’s future.

Four key factors have combined to undermine the NPT and compromise the solidarity of its members: (1) the failure of the nuclear-weapon states to fulfill their disarmament commitments, (2) the inability to effect universalization of the treaty and resolve its major regional security threats, (3) the absence of crucial institutional support for the NPT, and (4) the erosion of the “common purpose” that had animated NPT parties around its core nuclear nonproliferation norm. After examining each of these factors, this essay will conclude with suggestions for remedial action. 

Nuclear Disarmament Impasse

The elimination of nuclear weapons arsenals has been a goal of the international community since the UN General Assembly adopted its first resolution in 1946 calling for their abolition and that of any other weapon of mass destruction. This goal was enshrined in the NPT when it was concluded in 1968. Article VI of the treaty famously requires that the five nuclear-weapon states party to it (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

In general, the nuclear-weapon states have argued that they have honored this commitment through various unilateral actions or bilateral arms reduction agreements, although not a single nuclear weapon has been eliminated through a multilateral agreement involving the nuclear-weapon states. These states will point to the major reductions of nuclear weapons since the Cold War, yet some 15,000 of these weapons remain, with more than 90 percent in the possession of the United States and Russia. Some of these states, notably Russia and France, have also argued that the Article VI commitment to nuclear disarmament is conditional on achieving a treaty on general and complete disarmament and that the international community should not expect to eliminate nuclear weapons until that halcyon period of comprehensive disarmament occurs.2

In the eyes of the non-nuclear-weapon states, progress on nuclear disarmament has been woefully inadequate and has essentially ground to a halt in the current period. Efforts by successive NPT review conferences to provide objective benchmarks to measure progress on nuclear disarmament, notably the 13 “practical steps” endorsed in 2000 or the “22 Action Items” agreed in 2010, have not resulted in greater results or transparency by the nuclear-weapon states. The accumulated frustration over the failure of the designated multilateral body, the CD, to produce anything for 20 years has led to a concerted pushback by the majority of non-nuclear-weapon states. After years of being passive spectators at the equivalent of a Waiting for Godot play about nuclear disarmament, these states have finally awoken from their stupor to demand alternatives to the moribund CD.

The initial evidence of this call for a new approach came with a series of three conferences held in 2013 and 2014 and hosted by Norway, Mexico, and Austria, respectively. The common theme of the gatherings was the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use. They served to remind the international community of the devastating threat represented by existing nuclear arsenals and of the complete unavailability of an adequate humanitarian response to any detonation of a nuclear weapon. That reality undergirds the view that the only sure way to eliminate the existential risk is to eliminate the weapons. The conferences, which involved ever greater numbers of states as well as civil society groups, introduced a new and potent discourse of morality into the drier strategic language that had dominated NPT sessions.

The humanitarian initiative conferences were given diplomatic expression by the adoption of a resolution at the 2015 session of the UN General Assembly calling for states to work “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”3 The resolution focused on a long-standing contradiction in the international security framework, that the NPT had not subjected nuclear weapons to a comprehensive prohibition akin to that applied to the other weapons of mass destruction: biological and chemical. The resolution implied that this de facto exemption for nuclear weapons was invalid and should be terminated.

The non-nuclear-weapon-state proponents of the “Humanitarian Pledge” resolution supplemented it with another in December 2015 that set out a process to revitalize the UN disarmament machinery.4 The resolution established an open-ended working group to meet for three sessions during 2016 and report to that fall’s General Assembly. In pointed contrast to the CD’s strict consensus procedures, the working group was created under UN General Assembly rules that allowed for voting.

Partly because of this break from the straitjacket of consensus, the five nuclear-weapon states of the NPT and the four non-NPT nuclear-armed states (India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) decided to boycott the entire working group process. This was a rather extreme tactic to employ on the part of the nuclear-armed states, given that it not only deprived them of a voice in the proceedings, but also represented a blatant act of disrespect toward a duly constituted multilateral process representing the vast majority of NPT states.

Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons

The working group reported on its findings in August 2016, with its chief recommendation being for the General Assembly to commence in 2017 negotiations on a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading toward their elimination.5 This recommendation was made effective through a new version of the December 2015 resolution at the 2016 General Assembly session, which was adopted by a vote of 113-35 with 13 abstentions.6 Of the nine nuclear-weapon-possessing states, five (France, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) voted against, three abstained (China, Israel, and Pakistan) and one supported (North Korea). Among the negative votes were all the non-nuclear-weapon member states of NATO except the Netherlands and several others sheltered under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, notably Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

The United States had conducted an energetic lobbying campaign to bring the allies aboard, with a U.S. note arguing that the negotiation of a ban on nuclear weapons was “at odds with NATO’s basic policies on deterrence” and could vitiate U.S. nuclear guarantees to allies. Not content with pressing allies to vote no on the resolution itself, U.S. diplomacy also sought to enlist them in a boycott led by nuclear-weapon states of eventual ban negotiations. The U.S. nonpaper “calls on all allies and partners to vote against negotiations on a nuclear weapons treaty ban, not to merely abstain. In addition, if negotiations do commence, we ask allies and partners to refrain from joining them.”7

Many nuclear-weapon states also expressed concern that the ban treaty process would weaken the NPT and was somehow incompatible with it. As the NPT essentially specifies the goal of nuclear disarmament rather than prescribing any particular process to obtain it, the logic behind these arguments was suspect. A stronger contention from the nuclear-weapon states was that they would not take part in any ban treaty negotiation and hence this process would not be effective in actually producing nuclear disarmament. Proponents of the ban responded that the participation of nuclear-weapon states was not essential because the force of stigmatization of nuclear weapons represented by a ban would facilitate eventual elimination of these arms. As one ban advocate described it, “A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons will make it more difficult for nuclear-armed states to continue to justify possessing and planning to use nuclear weapons.”8

Regardless of the debating points and diplomatic jousting that occupied much of 2016, a new reality will be present in the multilateral disarmament arena as of March 2017. Pursuant to the resolution, four weeks of an open-ended multilateral process will commence with the aim of negotiating a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The NPT has never been able to deliver such a multilateral negotiation on nuclear weapons, and now a large group of non-nuclear-weapon states has essentially bypassed its cumbersome consensus-bound procedures. In a further repudiation of the traditional processes as represented by the CD and NPT review conferences, the new negotiation is to be conducted under UN General Assembly rules of procedure that do not require consensus decisions.

A new source of energy has appeared in the multilateral disarmament realm, one that enjoys considerable support from the majority of NPT states-parties and many in civil society. Although it is too early to foresee the results of this negotiation, there is no question it will shake up the NPT establishment and pose a severe challenge to its credibility and authority. If it is to survive, the NPT will have to overcome the current rejectionist front of the nuclear-weapon states and their allies and develop a positive agenda for nuclear disarmament in general and the ban negotiations in particular.

The Outliers

The appearance of the ban treaty negotiation is not the only serious challenge to the NPT’s standing. The inability to bring into the fold the four nuclear-armed states remaining outside the treaty (India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) has cast a shadow over the NPT project, especially given the active nuclear weapons buildup undertaken by three of these states.

British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart, seated between ambassadors from the Soviet Union (left) and the United States (right), signs the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at Lancaster House in London on July 1, 1968, the day the accord opened for signature. In total, 58 countries signed the treaty that day. There are now 191 states-parties to the NPT. (Photo credit: Jim Gray/Keystone/Getty Images)Despite years of lip service to the goal of universalization of the NPT, the reality is that little has been done by states-parties in that direction. In fact, what has been done by influential nuclear-weapon states, notably with respect to India, has been in the opposite direction. The series of nuclear cooperation agreements concluded between India and leading nuclear-weapon states, starting with the U.S.-Indian deal in 2005, essentially provided India with the benefits of NPT membership without its obligations and thus removed whatever motivation there might have been for it to adhere to the treaty. The regional and global security threats represented by the heated nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan, not to mention the unchecked nuclear weapons drive of North Korea, have not been abated by the existence of the NPT or through the efforts of its leading states-parties.

Lack of Institutional Support

An underappreciated problem with the NPT is its institutional deficit. As an early international security agreement, it was not provided with the range of support mechanisms now considered standard for multilateral arms control and disarmament accords. Between the review conferences once every five years, the NPT lacks an institutional persona.

There is no standing bureau or executive council to provide continuity and oversight, no empowered annual meetings of states-parties, and no secretariat or dedicated implementing organization. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has important tasks pursuant to the nonproliferation commitments set out in Article III of the NPT, but there is no agency with responsibility to oversee compliance in general. The treaty lacks any provision for the convening of an emergency meeting of the states-parties to respond to developments that may threaten the treaty’s authority. North Korea’s 2003 withdrawal from the treaty clearly was detrimental to the interests of all parties, but there was no NPT mechanism to give expression to this. Members had to wait three years before the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on the matter.

Although there have been occasional efforts by NPT state-parties to propose reforms to overcome this institutional deficit, these have not gained the consensus approval required for adoption and remain footnotes in review conference outcomes.9 Efforts to provide for agreed indicators of progress in treaty implementation, such as the 13 “practical steps” from the 2000 review conference or the 64-item action plan set out during the 2010 review conference, have not yielded the desired results. It has some presentational appeal, but the mere increase in action items does not equate with actual action in their implementation. Insufficiencies in the required reporting by nuclear-weapon states on their implementation of Article VI commitments have rendered difficult accountability efforts in the NPT context given the lack of common and comparable data. Some have suggested that the practice of consensus agreement to review conference outcomes be abandoned as more problematic than useful, although this procedural departure would serve to highlight further the divisions among states-parties.10

A Shattered Consensus

Probably the most important political impact of the humanitarian initiative and its culmination in the ban negotiations is how it has shattered the consensus around the NPT as the framework for global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. For almost half a century, the NPT and the political directions generated at its review conferences have provided the blueprint for the international community’s efforts in the nuclear field. The step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament advocated by the leading nuclear-weapon states and echoed by their retinue of allies was not seriously challenged. The existence of a legal “gap” in the treaty was neither acknowledged nor figured in any of the action plans generated by review conferences.

With the adoption of the Humanitarian Pledge and the authorization of the ban negotiations, a major schism has opened up within the NPT community. A two-thirds majority of its states-parties have now endorsed a competing agenda to the nuclear orthodoxy of the past that sets its sights on the mere possession of nuclear weapons as unacceptable and supports the negotiation of a legal instrument prohibiting them. This stance by the majority of non-nuclear-weapon states is correctly viewed as being incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, with its threatened use of nuclear weapons under certain circumstances.

U.S. President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had just signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the White House on February 14, 1994. With U.S. encouragement, 29 countries joined the NPT during the Clinton years. (Photo credit: Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)The ban camp also has effectively challenged the relevance of the usual diplomatic menu endorsed at successive review conferences. The ritualized calls for early entry into force of the CTBT, for the immediate commencement of negotiations on an FMCT in the CD, and for the further reduction of nuclear forces and the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines will seem increasingly hollow against a background of an actual multilateral negotiation for a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Following the initial one-week session of the negotiations in late March, what will be the mood among the representatives of the NPT states-parties when they convene in May in Vienna for the first Preparatory Committee meeting leading up to the 2020 review conference? Will there still be a sufficient sense of a common purpose to motivate the delegates and encourage cooperation? Some may argue that the NPT’s nonproliferation pillar will provide sufficient purpose to maintain solidarity. Certainly, the conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran, although not done under NPT auspices, has helped to reinforce the treaty’s nonproliferation commitment.

Disarmament, however, has long been recognized as the opposite side of the nonproliferation coin, the treaty requiring progress on both if it is to retain its authority. If the nuclear-weapon states are not able to go beyond the threadbare rhetorical commitments to nuclear disarmament during this review cycle, the rift among the NPT membership is likely to become unbridgeable, with serious consequences for the treaty’s viability going forward.

Conclusion and Action Plan

This year may prove to be decisive for the future of the NPT. It is difficult to see how sufficient common purpose can be sustained now that a major rift has opened over the realization of the NPT’s nuclear disarmament aims. A two-track approach whereby a majority of non-nuclear-weapon states participate in the ban negotiations while the nuclear-weapon states and their allies boycott the process and continue to support the moribund step-by-step approach will not be a credible option for even the near term. The treaty parties will end up espousing two contradictory positions on nuclear disarmament and, in so doing, undermine a core pillar of the NPT.

States-parties may conclude that their security interests are no longer served by the constraints of the NPT and seek to exit the regime de jure via withdrawal or de facto by ceasing to comply with its provisions. Either way, the impact on international security could be seriously destabilizing, with some non-nuclear-weapon states even reconsidering their nuclear abstinence and nuclear-weapon states faced with an unstable and uncertain nuclear landscape.

Avoiding this damaging scenario will require a concerted effort to restore a modicum of solidarity and common purpose within the NPT community. The following are proposals for corrective action.

1.   The nuclear-weapon states must overcome their annoyance and rejection of a “not invented here” process that challenges their positions. With their allies in tow, these states should abandon the boycott tactics they have employed against the ban negotiations and agree to participate in this process mandated by the UN General Assembly. The nuclear-weapon states and dissenting non-nuclear-weapon states would be free to promote their views on the “premature” nature of a prohibition treaty and to enumerate the various conditions they consider necessary for a new multilateral agreement to advance toward the goal of a “world without nuclear weapons” that they have endorsed. There is no deadline to the ban negotiations, and if and when an agreement emerges, states will remain free to accept or reject it. The mere fact of having a multilateral disarmament negotiation underway will inject new life into moribund bodies. 

2.   The nuclear-weapon states and their partners should strive to demonstrate the utility of the step-by-step approach to disarmament by actually bringing one of these steps to a productive conclusion. The ripest in this regard would be the initiation of negotiation on a fissile material production ban. This would be an admittedly challenging undertaking, but it could be authorized by a General Assembly resolution, thus circumventing blockage at the CD. More study of the fissile material ban problem is not warranted; the time has come to launch a negotiation process. Such action would at least parallel a nuclear weapons ban negotiation with a negotiation of a relevant and long-standing agreed goal.

3.   Nuclear disarmament action needs to be revitalized in order to restore credibility to this dimension of the NPT bargain. There are many ways that the nuclear-weapon states can accomplish this individually and collectively. Unilateral reductions of nuclear forces could be undertaken along the lines of the presidential initiatives of the early 1990s and dubious elements of modernization programs could be shelved, such as U.S. development of a new, nuclear-capable long-range standoff (LRSO) cruise missile. The United States and Russia bear a special responsibility to demonstrate that the disarmament motor is not stuck in neutral or slipping into reverse. Resuming bilateral strategic reduction negotiations, including an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), without preconditions should be a political priority. Taking some proportion of U.S. and Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles off high-alert status would be another reassuring measure. Finally, the nascent consultative process among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which are the five nuclear-weapon states recognized in the NPT, needs to progress beyond the production of joint lexicons to engage in substantive projects aimed at facilitating equitable reductions of nuclear forces. Chinese and U.S. leadership in ratifying the CTBT to demonstrate the commitment of the five permanent members of the Security Council to this treaty would also represent a major confidence-building measure.

4.   Verification has long been recognized as an essential complement to nuclear arms control and disarmament. The launch by the Obama administration of the International Partnership on Nuclear Disarmament Verification was an important initiative in practical terms and as a political signal. This multilateral effort needs to be strengthened and rendered more transparent. The reality is that “not a single nuclear weapon has ever been dismantled under procedures internationally agreed and verified.”11 Imagine what might be achieved if even a small fraction of the $400 billion price tag for modernization of U.S. nuclear forces over the next 10 years was devoted to developing the procedures and technologies required to verify nuclear disarmament. 

5.   The nuclear-weapon states should assume leadership of a renewed effort at providing institutional support to the NPT. In cooperation with like-minded non-nuclear-weapon states, they should champion a package of reform measures that would provide the NPT with empowered annual meetings, some form of executive oversight and continuity between review conferences, and an implementation support unit. Such a reform exercise would constitute a public vote of confidence in the NPT and equip the treaty with practical support mechanisms.

6.   Transparency is essential for accountability. The nuclear-weapon states, building on modest initial steps, should embrace an annual reporting requirement based on a common format to provide details of their actions in fulfillment of treaty obligations. All states should be encouraged to produce reports on implementation, but it is vital for the credibility of the NPT process that the nuclear-weapon states furnish their fellow states-parties with accurate and comparable data on their progress in realizing treaty commitments.

A concerted effort on the part of concerned states-parties to revitalize the NPT as a potent force for progress on the global nuclear agenda is needed at this juncture. Part of the justification for initiating the humanitarian initiative and ban movement was the perception that the NPT has failed to deliver on one of its key objectives and had become an encrusted and rusty piece of diplomatic machinery.

Reinvigorating the NPT will require a major change of policy and practice on the part of its leading states-parties. If this rescue effort is not mounted, there is a serious risk that the treaty will start to hemorrhage its authority and support. Global nuclear governance and international security would suffer greatly as a result. 


1.   Jayantha Dhanapala and Randy Rydell, “Multilateral Diplomacy and the NPT: An Insider’s Account,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, UNIDIR/2005/3, 2005, p. 50.

2.   For a discussion of this point, see Paul Meyer, “Hard and Soft Linkages Between Nuclear and Conventional Disarmament,” in Rethinking General and Complete Disarmament in the Twenty-First Century, UNODA Occasional Paper, No. 28 (October 2016).

3.   UN General Assembly, “Humanitarian Pledge for the Prohibition and Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,” A/RES/70/48, December 7, 2015.

4.   UN General Assembly, “Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations,” A/RES/70/33, December 7, 2015.

5.   UN General Assembly, “Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations: Note by the Secretary-General,” A/71/371, August 2016 (containing “Report of the Open-Ended Working Group Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations”).

6.   UN General Assembly, “Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations,” A/RES/71/258, December 23, 2016.

7.   NATO, “United States Non-Paper: ‘Defense Impacts of Potential United Nations General Assembly Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty’: Note by the Secretary,” AC/333-N(2016)0029 (INV), October 17, 2016, annex 2, http://www.icanw.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/NATO_OCT2016.pdf.

8.   Beatrice Fihn “The Logic of Banning Nuclear Weapons,” Survival, Vol. 59, No. 1 (February-March 2017): 48.

9.   Canada was the initiator of a reform plan in the lead up to the 2005 and 2010 review conferences that sought to fill some of the institutional gaps via proposals for a standing bureau, empowered annual meetings, and a treaty support unit (secretariat). The proposal received some cross-regional support but was not included in the consensus section of the review conference outcome document. See 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Achieving Permanence With Accountability: Working Paper Submitted by Canada,” NPT/CONF.2005/WP.39, May 17, 2005; Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Working Paper Submitted by Canada,” NPT/CONF.2010/PC.III/WP.8, April 15, 2009.

10.   Robert Einhorn, “The NPT Review Process: The Need for a More Productive Approach,” Arms Control Today, September 2016.

11.   Edward Ifft, “A Challenge to Nuclear Deterrence,” Arms Control Today, March 2017, p. 12.

Paul Meyer is a retired Canadian diplomat who served as ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva from 2003 to 2007. He is an adjunct professor of international studies and fellow in international security at Simon Fraser University and a senior fellow at The Simons Foundation.


Why the landmark accord is in trouble and what can be done to bolster it. 

Q&A - Uncovering Cold War Secrets: An Interview with Nate Jones

April 2017

Interviewed by Charles J. Carrigan

In Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War, national security researcher Nate Jones draws on once-classified documents to describe how a U.S.-NATO military exercise in late 1983 was misinterpreted by some Soviet officials as a possible cover for launching a real attack, triggering what he says was perhaps the most dangerous moment between the superpowers since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Nate Jones

Jones is director of the Freedom of Information Act Project for the National Security Archive. He oversees the thousands of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Mandatory Declassification Review requests and appeals that the archive submits each year. He is a two-term member of the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee and board member of the American Society of Access Professionals. He is also editor of the archive’s blog, “Unredacted,” where he writes about newly declassified documents and FOIA policy. He earned his master’s degree in Cold War history from The George Washington University, where he used FOIA to write his thesis on the 1983 Able Archer nuclear war scare.

He was interviewed by Charles Carrigan on January 27. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you learn from your research about the risk of nuclear war that’s relevant today?

I learned that the risk of nuclear war through miscalculation is as large and is as dangerous as through a world leader deciding to begin a nuclear war. I think the more nuclear weapons there are, the greater the risk of accidental nuclear war.

Unlike the Cuban missile crisis, is it fair to say that no one at the time of Able Archer had any idea of the danger?

The public knew that the tensions were very dangerous, but only very few members of the U.S. and British intelligence elites knew of the danger from Able Archer 83. There are documents in my book showing that these elites actually sanitized intelligence reports so other people within their governments and NATO allies did not know. The reason for this, I think, was partially to not inflame the public’s antipathy toward nuclear weapons and further embolden the nuclear freeze movement and also because there was strong interest in further deploying intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe. If the danger became public, it might have stopped these goals. Essentially, intelligence agencies obscured this danger. So, few people in the government, much less the public, knew.

What was the effect of this episode on President Ronald Reagan when he finally saw how close we had come to accidental nuclear war?

According to documents, Reagan definitely knew by March 1984, and there’s some possible evidence, but no smoking gun, that he knew immediately after the exercise. The documents that would best reveal this, including National Security Planning Group meeting minutes, remain classified, so we don’t know. In his memoirs, he hints that he found out right away. He has a phrase that there is classified information about nuclear war that he still can’t share, and it had a large effect on him. Reagan was always a nuclear abolitionist. This bolstered his hatred of nuclear weapons, and I think pushed him toward the Reykjavik summit and his desire to work with Soviet leader [Mikhail] Gorbachev.

What led to your interest in Able Archer 83?

As an undergrad, I knew I wanted to study history. I remember watching the Berlin Wall come down as a child and that pushed me toward studying Cold War history. At Lewis & Clark College, my minor was Russian language. So, I was in a good place to study the Cold War; and this seemed like something that had been mentioned in memoirs and other secondary sources just a little bit at the time, around the early 2000s. There were no primary source documents, so I kept digging. I remember going to the Reagan Library and saying, “This folder on Able Archer is classified. How can I get it unclassified?” The archivist actually kind of sneered and laughed at me and said, “Oh, well, do this, but it’ll never happen.” That actually got me so angry that I started studying how to use the Freedom of Information Act, and then I came to the experts at the National Security Archive. They hired me as an intern, and then they couldn’t get rid of me.

How much of this information was available when you began?

There were a couple of very brief mentions. In the Washington Times, there was about a one-paragraph story, essentially a CIA leak, in 1984. No one noticed. It came into the public view in the very late 1980s because a key Soviet spy who had revealed the danger to the British and, in turn, to the United States and Reagan wrote a book that gave his part of the story. After that, there were a couple other memoirs that mentioned it, but memoirs are not the greatest historical sources. All of the actual documents, the thousands of pages including the best ones, which I published in the book, were secret. We went from having kind of memoir accounts to now having the actual documents so that readers can decide for themselves.

What were the biggest challenges in getting these documents declassified?

Well, the main challenges are getting the agencies to acquiesce to the public’s right to know. Every agency has a classification guide that says what can and can’t be classified, and some stuff’s black and white, like agent names, but a lot of stuff is gray. The trick is getting someone with enough bureaucratic power and good judgment to decide on this “gray material” and release it. One place that’s very good, that ultimately released a key document after I’d been fighting for it for 12 years, is a group at the National Archives called the Interagency Security Classifications Review Panel (ISCAP). The joke is it’s ice cap, and they melt classified documents out to the public.

You tried to get something declassified in Russia as well?

I have tried in Russia and tried in Great Britain. There is some good stuff that’s been declassified from the British Ministry of Defence, but the British Cabinet Office is much more tight lipped and improperly uses its catch-all exemption. I’ve also done research in Russia, and there is actually a surprising amount of information available. The presidential archives are fairly open. In April, I’m fortunate to work on a Nuclear Proliferation International History Project fellowship to Odessa University to search the Ukrainian archives, which, according to reports, are very open.

What was the one thing that most surprised you during your research, either from a specific document or something about the research itself?

The biggest surprise was ISCAP’s declassification of the key president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board report. Essentially, that document is a retrospective all-source intelligence review. So they had access to everything—interviewed over 100 people and had access to all the documents to craft a 100-page review of the 1983 war scare and Able Archer. I’ll never forget the email that came in—it was actually on my birthday. I got the document and just tore through it quickly and saw that it was largely unredacted and then started reading the substance. That’s the one document that I fought for 12 years to get. I’ve never had a greater feeling getting a document declassified than that one.

What were the key factors that produced conditions in which the war scare happened?

There are the ones that people know about: end of détente, Reagan’s rhetoric, rearmament. But the most important one to me, the one that I study the most, is that as both adversaries improved their nuclear arsenals and decreased launch time and decreased readiness time, they actually increased the nuclear danger. So the key factor, I think, was the runaway arms race. There’s some good evidence that, on both sides, the arms manufacturers, the people making missiles, cared primarily about the missile factories staying open and building new products. So they built missiles that could devastate Europe.

Do you see similar conditions in place in certain countries, not necessarily just the United States and Russia, but smaller nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan?

The one that jumps out, actually, is North Korea. Interestingly, North Korea, within the past year, actually stated that it may use its nuclear weapons pre-emptively, which fortunately invoked a very strong condemnation from Russia. I also believe that the world today is much safer than it was during 1983. The key reason is that, despite important accusations about violations of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty by both sides, there aren’t hundreds of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe on a hair-trigger that gives leaders four minutes to decide whether to launch, either under attack or at launch-on-warning.

Do you see increased multipolarity as potentially increasing the risk of miscalculation?

Yes. The more countries that have nuclear weapons, the more nuclear weapons that exist, and the more people with the authority to order or to launch nuclear weapons without orders, the more the danger of miscalculation. I am convinced that it’s much more likely that the larger risk of nuclear war is through accident or miscalculation rather than a decision by Pakistan and India, to use your example, to start a nuclear war against each other.

Nate Jones discusses his efforts to obtain government documents for his book, Able Archer 83

Would More Sanctions Sway North Korea?

April 2017

By Kelsey Davenport

The United States is considering broader sanctions on North Korea, although it is unclear how effective the additional measures will be in curbing Pyongyang’s expanding nuclear and ballistic missile programs and in pushing North Korea to negotiate restrictions on these programs.

Absent a broader strategy, clear objectives, and consistent implementation, additional sanctions are unlikely to change North Korea’s behavior. Focusing on implementation of existing measures, however, could help disrupt the illicit networks Pyongyang uses to circumvent sanctions and import and export restricted goods.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Sohae Satellite Launching Station for a test of a new high-thrust rocket engine in a photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on March 19. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)The accelerating pace of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs is bringing renewed urgency to efforts to pressure Pyongyang to return to denuclearization negotiations before it tests a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile, which President Donald Trump indicated in a January tweet would cross what he considers a red line. “It won’t happen,” he declared in the three-word tweet, and he has met several times since then with his national security team to develop a new strategy on North Korea.

Trump has yet to provide details on his administration’s overall North Korea strategy or the role that sanctions will play in achieving his objectives. If Trump chooses to pursue talks, his administration has various options, such as seeking an interim agreement designed to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs until a more comprehensive agreement is reached or negotiating a denuclearization agreement at the outset. Absent a clear objective for the sanctions regime, it will be difficult to assess the value of additional restrictions, although there is some value in imposing sanctions to demonstrate to Pyongyang that there is a cost to flouting its international obligations.

Pyongyang is already subject to UN sanctions for its continued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council prohibitions, including Resolutions 2270 and 2321, passed in 2016 in response to North Korean nuclear tests. Some countries, including the United States, have imposed their own sanctions on Pyongyang for these activities.

The Trump administration and Congress are considering additional sanctions in response to recent North Korean provocations such as its missile launches on Feb. 12 and March 6. (See ACT, March 2017.) A senior U.S. official was quoted by Reuters on March 21 saying that the administration is considering “broad sanctions” against North Korea that may include measures to increase pressure on Chinese banks and firms that do business with Pyongyang.

This is consistent with recent comments from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson said in his confirmation hearings in January that he supported additional sanctions to fill gaps in the existing sanctions regime on North Korea. During a March 17 press conference in Seoul, he told reporters that “all options are on the table” for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear activities, ranging from sanctions to pre-emptive military action.

Members of Congress are also calling for additional restrictions. In a Feb. 14 letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for the United States to take actions that, if enforced, “could more effectively cut off North Korea’s access to the hard currency it uses to finance its illicit nuclear program.” The suggested actions include investigating whether North Korea “merits re-designation as a state sponsor of terrorism,” enforcing penalties against banks that provide correspondent services to North Korean banks, denying North Korean banks access to financial messaging services, investigating Chinese banks that conduct transactions with North Korea for violations of U.S. law, and freezing assets of any Chinese entity with assets in the United States that is importing coal from North Korea. Four other Republicans signed the letter.

Limited Benefit

Pursuing additional sanctions may not be the best tactic for influencing North Korean behavior, particularly given the poor enforcement of existing measures. Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said on March 21 at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference that “sanctions are highly unlikely to work” and noted that, despite an uptick in restrictions on Pyongyang, North Korea’s economy is improving under Kim Jong Un.

Andrea Berger, a senior program manager at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said at the same event that assessing the sanctions’ effectiveness depends on their objectives. She said sanctions have not been very effective in encouraging North Korea to resume negotiations on its nuclear program, but noted that there are critical subsidiary objectives for sanctions, such as preventing North Korea from accessing technologies for its programs and stemming North Korea’s illicit trade networks.

The Obama administration’s approach to North Korea put a return to negotiations on denuclearization as the objective of the sanctions regime. The policy, known as strategic patience, included increasing pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions, while stating a willingness to resume negotiations after North Korea takes steps toward denuclearization.

One expert on North Korea sanctions, who formerly served on a Security Council panel of experts in charge of assessing implementation of UN sanctions, criticized the Obama administration’s approach. In a March 21 email, he said that, without “buy-in on enforcing sanctions” from the international community and “an offer of carrots” for Pyongyang, sanctions alone were unlikely to influence North Korean behavior.

The expert, who asked not to be named because he holds a position in government, said he is not optimistic that sanctions would work any better for a Trump administration, particularly prior to developing a strategy toward North Korea. He said that “sanctions are tool, and tools work best if you know what you’re trying to build” and Trump does not have a clear plan.

Enhancing Enforcement

Although there may be limits to the effectiveness of additional sanctions, focusing on enforcement of existing measures could curb Pyongyang’s access to the materials and technologies necessary for advancing its nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea has developed a range of domestic capabilities for producing sensitive dual-use technologies, but it still relies on imports of certain technologies for its rockets. Analysis of debris recovered by South Korea from the rocket used by North Korea to launch a satellite in February 2016 shows that Pyongyang is using certain components sourced to foreign countries, including pressure transmitters manufactured in the United Kingdom.

Berger also described the current sanctions regime as “a sieve” and said that the focus should be on building capacity to enforce existing measures, such as ensuring that countries have the domestic legal frameworks for implementing UN measures.

China is frequently cited for poor enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea. China accounts for about 80 percent of North Korea’s trade and has tended to resist moves in the Security Council to increase sanctions, in part reflecting its long-standing concerns about triggering instability and a humanitarian crisis in the neighboring country.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se during a press conference on March 17 in Seoul. (Photo credit: Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images)Beijing has complied recently with caps set by UN Security Council sanctions on imports of North Korean coal, Pyongyang’s largest export item. China said in February that it was suspending all imports of coal from North Korea for the rest of the year.

But the former panel member said that it is too early to say if Beijing’s compliance is “merely cosmetic or signals a shift” in sanctions enforcement. He noted although coal imports from North Korea were cut, China continued its imports of certain metals in early 2017. Security Council Resolution 2321, passed in September 2016, bans countries from importing copper, nickel, silver, and zinc from North Korea. In assessing China’s performance, he said, the “real test is time.”

China is not the only country that can take steps to enhance enforcement of UN sanctions. Only 76 states reported to the Security Council on their implementation of the March 2016 sanctions resolution on North Korea. That is an increase in reporting since the prior resolution, but a majority of states fail to provide information about efforts to implement UN restrictions.

The most recent report from the panel of experts that assesses implementation of UN sanctions for the Security Council recommended steps to improve global compliance. One was that countries “rigorously implement the now legally binding ‘catch-all’ provision for items which could contribute to the country’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes.”

Another former member of the panel of experts, George A. Lopez, wrote in a March 13 column for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the February report’s recommendations “go beyond the weak, oft-heard call that nations must increase their vigilance in enforcing sanctions.”

Lopez noted that the report recommends that states “clarify their methods of implementing sanctions where trade in minerals is concerned; share more information regarding cases of sanctions evasion; and regularly update their lists of companies and ships that adopt aliases to avoid identification as they pursue illicit activities.”

South Korea Gets Missile Defense System

A U.S.-supplied missile defense battery for South Korea is scheduled to become operational as soon as this month, amid growing tensions with North Korea, opposition from China, and mixed signals about how a new government in Seoul will view the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. 

The arrival of the THAAD components in early March occurred over the objections of China, which describes the deployment as a provocative move. Beijing’s concern, in part, is that the system’s powerful radar would enable the United States to quickly detect and track Chinese missile launches. The United States denies that THAAD deployments to South Korea and Japan pose a threat to the security of China, which has shown its displeasure by curtailing some business and tourism ties with South Korea.

The THAAD system is intended to provide a limited defense for South Korea from North Korean ballistic missile attacks. That threat was highlighted by Pyongyang’s missile tests during March as the United States and South Korea conducted joint military exercises in which about 3,600 U.S. service members were deployed to join the 28,000 U.S. troops already based in South Korea. 

With South Korea due to hold presidential elections May 9, frontrunner Moon Jae-in has sought to smooth relations with China and signaled that if he wins, his government would review the deployment. A negative decision by the liberal Korean politician would mark a rift with the United States, which is committed to defending South Korea under a mutual defense treaty. 

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is trying to formulate a new North Korea policy that would end years of diplomatic stalemate while the country had advanced its missile and nuclear weapons capabilities in defiance of UN Security Council prohibitions. The issue has become more urgent as leader Kim Jong Un has increased his country’s production of nuclear weapons and is seeking the capability to extend his threats to the continental United States with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile. 

The Trump administration has abandoned the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” which envisioned out-waiting Pyongyang while ratcheting up pressure on North Korea through sanctions and covert actions, without a decision on what will take its place.

“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said March 17 in Seoul, during a trip that included consultation in Tokyo and Beijing. “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures. All options are on the table. North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure, economically prosperous future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.”

North Korea gave no indication that it is impressed by such talk, firing back with threats of its own and a publicized test of a new, high-powered rocket engine under the watchful eye of Kim himself. The test on March 18 coincided with Tillerson’s talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing, timing that amounted to a rebuff of the pressures from the United States and China, its main economic lifeline and ally.

Kim’s actions raise the stakes for the meeting tentatively planned for early April between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump has criticized China repeatedly for not doing enough to pressure Kim to return to negotiations on denuclearization. 

Standing alongside Tillerson in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reflected his government’s concerns about the Trump administration when he urged the United States to be “cool headed” in order to “arrive at a wise decision.”

Better enforcement of sanctions could curb Pyongyang’s access to the materials and technologies necessary for advancing its nuclear and missile programs.

Board Backs Off Lower-Yield Nukes

April 2017

By Charles J. Carrigan

Members of the Defense Science Board told Congress that the advisory group’s recent report on the potential utility of “lower yield” nuclear weapons was not intended as advocating U.S. production of such weapons.

The civilian technical experts, who testified March 9 before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, sought to tamp down controversy stirred by the group’s December 2016 report, “Seven Defense Priorities for the New Administration.”

Defense Science Board members Michael Anastasio and Miriam John testify March 9 before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. (Photo credit: House Committee on Armed Services)The part of the 76-page report that drew attention was brief language on the need to increase the flexibility of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, citing lower-yield weapons as a “hedge for future uncertainties.” The path to flexibility includes what the report called lower-yield, “primary only options” that could provide a “tailored nuclear option for limited use, should existing non-nuclear or nuclear options prove insufficient.”

It is a sensitive issue because critics warn that such tactical weapons lower the threshold for nuclear conflict and suggest there is a viable option for limited nuclear war.

Board member Michael Anastasio, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said the panel intended only to suggest that the U.S. nuclear enterprise have the flexibility and capability to produce such weapons if a policy decision were made that they are needed. The board had tried to “distinguish between the technical capability of this enterprise versus the policy questions,” he testified.

In the wake of the report, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and 12 other Senate Democrats wrote March 14 to Defense Secretary James Mattis and Energy Secretary Rick Perry expressing opposition to building a new, lower-yield nuclear weapon. “We strongly believe there is no such thing as the limited use of nuclear weapons or limited nuclear war,” they wrote.

“For 71 years, the United States has led the world in opposition to the use of nuclear weapons, leadership that would be called into question should the United States develop new, so-called low-yield nuclear weapons,” they wrote.

The issue is complicated by Russia’s evolving “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, which envisions its limited use of tactical nuclear weapons during a conflict in a show of determination intended to force the United States to back down to avoid full-scale nuclear war. The report includes a reference to the doctrine in a section that examined the reasons for continued U.S. development of deterrent capabilities.

At the hearing, board member Miriam John, retired vice president of Sandia National Laboratories facility in Livermore, Calif. emphasized the need to ensure that the technical flexibility will exist to produce such weapons. “If there’s a military need, then the [enterprise] will respond, but there is no military requirement,” she said. When asked to clarify that there is not a need for such tactical nuclear weapons, she responded by just saying, “Today.”

Another controversial part of the report suggested that the United States may need to resume underground nuclear testing at some point to advance “scientific understanding” and ensure the reliability of the nuclear stockpile. “It is my view, and I think the view of the Defense Science Board, that we do not need nuclear testing right now,” Anastasio clarified in his testimony.

The United States ended nuclear testing in September 1992 and has relied on the Stockpile Stewardship Program to maintain and modernize nuclear weapons without the need for explosive testing. Although noting the capabilities of that program, the report says that “an open question remains as to how long one can have confidence in the weapons” through this approach.

The senators, in their letter, offered strong opposition to consideration of renewed testing. “We do not believe it is an ‘open question,’ as the board claims, whether the science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program and associated nuclear warhead life extension programs can maintain our confidence in the long-term reliability of our nuclear deterrent,” they wrote.

“Additionally, in 2015, the three nuclear weapons lab directors reported that the country was in a better position to maintain the nuclear arsenal than it was during the era of test explosions, which ended more than 20 years ago,” they wrote. “We strongly believe that the United States does not need to resume nuclear testing, which will only encourage others to do the same. Instead, we should seek to reinforce the global norm against nuclear weapons testing.”

The Defense Science Board report drew strong pushback from Senate Democrats.

IAEA Provides More Detail on Iran

April 2017

By Kelsey Davenport

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provided greater detail about Iran’s nuclear activities in its most recent report, drawing praise from the United States and criticism from Iran.

The IAEA is tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities under the July 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and reporting quarterly to the agency’s Board of Governors. The agency issued its most recent report on Feb. 24 ahead of the March 6-10 quarterly board meeting.

Officials gathered for the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors meeting March 6 in Vienna. (Photo credit: Dean Calma/IAEA)For the first time since the agreement was fully implemented in January 2016, the IAEA reported on the size of Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent. The IAEA said Iran had 101.7 kilograms in several different forms. Under the deal, Iran can keep up to 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent, a level suitable for fueling nuclear power reactors but far below the enrichment level necessary to fuel a nuclear weapon.

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said that the report provides more information on Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium because of “clarifications” agreed by the Joint Commission. The commission, comprised of representatives from the P5+1 countries, Iran, and the European Union, oversees implementation of the deal and resolves technical and compliance issues.

In December 2016 and January 2017, the commission publicly released decisions it had made over the past year. The January document included an agreement on how to account for enriched uranium that remained in process lines at a plant used by Iran to convert uranium gas into powder. According to the document, Iran could take certain steps under IAEA verification to render the material “unrecoverable,” so it does not count against the 300 kilogram stockpile limit.

Andrew Schofer, a senior official at the U.S. Mission to the International Organizations in Vienna, said in a statement during the IAEA board meeting that the United States welcomes the “inclusion of the additional level of detail, and expects it will continue in the future.” Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Reza Najafi, disagreed and requested that the IAEA produce future reports that are “as concise as possible.” He said that Tehran opposes the “inclusion of confidential safeguard information under the pretext of transparency.”

The report also noted that Iran’s stockpile of heavy water was 124 metric tons, less than the limit of 130 metric tons established by the deal. Iran is permitted to produce heavy water, which is used to moderate certain types of reactors such as the IR-40 reactor Iran is constructing at Arak, and can sell any excess material on the open market. The quantity is capped based on an assessment of Iran’s needs.

The previous IAEA report, issued in November 2016, said that Iran slightly exceeded the limit and possessed 130.1 metric tons. The Feb. 24 report said that the IAEA verified that 11 metric tons were shipped out of Iran on Nov. 19. The agency verified Dec. 6 that all of the heavy water reached its destination and is in storage in another country.

Najafi contested the necessity of this step during the board meeting and said that nothing requires Iran to ship out heavy water in excess of 130 metric tons if Tehran has not found a buyer. Schofer responded by saying that the deal clearly states that Iran cannot accumulate heavy water in excess of 130 metric tons.

The IAEA report also said that Iran began feeding natural uranium gas into a single IR-8 centrifuge Jan. 21. The IAEA said in its report that this activity is within the limits defined by the deal, which allows testing on a single IR-8 machine in a way that precludes Iran from withdrawing enriched or depleted uranium and under agency monitoring.

Iran is only permitted to produce uranium enriched to 3.67 percent using 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at its Natanz facility. The IAEA report said that Iran is abiding by that restriction. Iran’s state-owned Press TV cited a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran on Feb. 14 saying that the new domestically manufactured IR-8 centrifuge is 20 times more productive than the IR-1. Iran anticipates mass producing IR-8s as international restrictions are eased starting eight years after the implementation of the nuclear deal, said spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi.

The Feb. 24 IAEA report said that Iran continues to allow inspectors access to nuclear facilities and sites in Iran, but did not specify if any of the locations inspected are facilities other than Tehran’s declared nuclear sites. 

Report covers low-enriched uranium stockpile and testing of a new centrifuge.

U.S. Eyes Resuming Saudi Arms Sales

April 2017

By Jeff Abramson

Yemenis gather on September 22 amid the rubble of buildings destroyed during Saudi-led air strikes on the rebel-held Yemeni port city of Hodeida the previous day. (Photo credit: String/AFP/Getty Images)Amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the Trump administration may be ready to send weapons to Saudi Arabia that the Obama administration had put on hold due to concerns about civilian casualties from the Saudi-led military operations in the Yemeni civil war.

On March 8, The Washington Post reported that the State Department had approved selling precision-guided munitions worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the Saudis but was awaiting authorization from the White House to proceed. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with President Donald Trump at the White House on March 14, after which there was no immediate comment on the weapons deal. State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined on March 15 to comment on the prospective sale, citing departmental policy not to “confirm or deny arms transfers until they’re formally notified to Congress.”

The sale may run into headwinds in Congress due to Saudi military conduct and the increasingly dire impact of the Yemeni war on civilians. In December, President Barack Obama suspended such sales to Riyadh as the Saudi-led military coalition fought in Yemen on behalf of former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was driven from power in early 2015 by rebel Houthi forces. (See ACT, January/February 2017.) Over the past two years, Yemen has become a humanitarian crisis, with almost 19 million people—two-thirds of the population—needing assistance and more than 7 million “who are hungry and do not know where their next meal will come from,” said Stephen O’Brien, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, at a special UN Security Council meeting March 10. “That is three million people more than in January.”

Fighting over the port of Hodeida, where the majority of humanitarian supplies would normally enter the country, is particularly controversial. Aid groups such as Save the Children charged in March that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners were preventing deliveries of food and medical supplies to the port, where ship-unloading cranes were destroyed by a coalition airstrike and aid groups said they were subsequently barred from delivering new cranes.

The situation was the focus of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing March 9, at which Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) criticized Saudi actions, including the recent use of cluster munitions that have killed and injured civilians. Murphy and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) drafted legislation last year to suspend certain munitions sales until the U.S. president certifies that the Saudis show commitment to fighting terrorism and to protecting civilians in Yemen. Paul described as “questionable” Saudi commitment to strictly targeting combatants and legitimate military targets. The two senators also led efforts that won the support of 27 senators in a vote against a $1.1 billion tank deal to Riyadh in September 2016, and they are expected to lead opposition to the prospective new sale. (See ACT, October 2016.)

In the House, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) led 53 members in signing a March 13 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, urging him to use “diplomatic clout” to open the port of Hodeida. Lieu and Conyers were among a bipartisan group of 64 House members who had asked Obama to withdraw the tank deal last year.

Once notified of a potential arms sale, Congress may block it if both houses pass a resolution of disapproval. Such strong opposition is rare because notifications happen only after interagency approval and consultations with congressional leaders. Precision-guided munitions have drawn extra scrutiny in part because they are not considered defensive weapons. In response to a $1.3 billion notification in November 2015 involving such weapons, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) invoked a new authority that requires the State Department to notify Congress at least 30 days prior to the delivery of an arms shipment. (See ACT, March 2016.)

In describing potential weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia in 2015, Dafna Rand, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Obama administration, testified on March 9 that the hope had been that the Saudi-led coalition would use the precision-guided munitions for better targeting. Rand concluded, however, that “what we’ve seen since is not an improvement in the targeting and the issue itself is the target selection.

Some U.S. lawmakers, troubled by civilian casualties in the Yemen civil war, are wary of lifting Obama administration’s hold on shipments.

U.S. Cites Russia for Banned Missile

April 2017

By Maggie Tennis

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with the permanent members of the Russia Security Council in Moscow on March 31, 2017. (Photo credit: Aleksey Nikolskyi/AFP/Getty Images)Russia has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by deploying ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs), a senior U.S. military official told Congress, escalating a dispute over the same type of missile that the Obama administration in 2014 accused Russia of illegally producing and flight testing.

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly confirmed news reports, attributed to unnamed U.S. officials, that Russia had fielded the new missile, known as the SSC-8. “We believe that the Russians have deployed a land-based cruise missile that violates the spirit and intent” of the INF Treaty, he said at a March 8 hearing by the House Armed Services Committee. “And we believe that the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO and to facilities within the NATO area of responsibility.”

His testimony provided new ammunition to Russia critics in Congress seeking a strong U.S. countermove by the Trump administration, as Republican lawmakers pressed for action on their proposed legislation for further missile defenses in Europe and U.S. development of a nuclear-capable GLCM in what they present as an effort to pressure Russia to return to treaty compliance.

The dispute endangers a Cold War-era accord that laid the groundwork for major U.S.-Russian treaties limiting strategic nuclear weapons (see here). U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in 1987, agreeing to eliminate permanently their entire arsenals of nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The treaty prohibits such missiles based on land.

Responding to Selva’s testimony, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any Russian violation. “Russia has been, remains, and will remain committed to all international obligations, including those arising from the INF Treaty,” he told reporters. “I want to remind you of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s words about the fact that Russia sticks to the international obligations, even if in situations where sometimes it doesn’t correspond to Russia’s interests. Russia still remains committed to its obligations, so we disagree and reject any accusations on this point.”

Russia previously has levied its own allegations of treaty violations against the United States, stemming from elements of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system in Europe and from heavy-strike unmanned aerial vehicles that Russia says fit the treaty’s definition of GLCMs. In November 2016, the United States and Russia held a meeting—the first in 13 years—of the Special Verification Commission (SVC), a forum established by the INF Treaty for dispute resolution.

In 2014 the Obama administration launched a review of U.S. options after determining Russia had flight-tested a GLCM with a range prohibited by the treaty. At a December 2014 hearing held jointly by House Foreign Affairs and House Armed Services subcommittees, Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said that potential military response options cover “three broad categories: active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles, counterforce capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks, and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces.” The administration was reviewing “a broad range of options, some of which would be compliant with the INF Treaty, some of which would not be,” he testified.

At the March 8 hearing, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) asked, “What is the [new] administration’s plan to deal with what seems like a flagrant violation of a treaty?” Selva replied that the Pentagon has “been asked to incorporate a set of options” during the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). “So, it would be premature for me to comment on what the potential options might be for the administration,” he said.

In February, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that they said would allow the United States to “take steps to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty” that include developing similar missile systems that the United States could deploy. Reps. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) introduced companion legislation in the House. The legislation “makes clear that Russia will face real consequences if it continues its dangerous and destabilizing behavior,” Rubio said in a statement.

Gary Samore, executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said Russia’s INF Treaty violation “frees us from any obligation” to abide by the accord. Still, U.S. responses, such as a decision to deploy systems now banned by the treaty, may limited due to opposition from European allies, he told the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee on March 8.

“It’s important to recognize that there would be some political cost to doing that, especially in Germany and the Netherlands and other countries,” he said. “This would be controversial, so we need to weigh the military benefits of deploying systems, if they’re necessary, against the potential political complications and figure out a strategy for overcoming those political complications.”


A keys arms control treaty is in jeopardy due to alleged Russian violations and potential U.S. countermoves.

Nuclear Weapons Ban Talks Begin

April 2017

Defying opposition by the world’s nuclear powers, 115 non-nuclear-weapon states began discussing March 27 a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. Meeting for five days at United Nations headquarters, delegates discussed elements to be included in the treaty’s preamble and core provisions. There was general agreement to reference the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and existing legal frameworks. They agreed on several core prohibitions, including banning the use, possession, acquisition, transfer and deployment of nuclear weapons, although other prohibitions, such as on testing, financing and the threat of use of nuclear weapons, were more controversial.

The United States and other nuclear-weapon states boycotted the historic undertaking. “There is nothing I want more than a world with no nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic,” Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, said in a statement. Most U.S. treaty allies followed suit. Japanese Ambassador Nobushige Takamizawa said his country couldn’t join in the talks “in a constructive manner and in good faith.” However, the Netherlands, the only NATO member present at the opening of negotiations, agreed to participate, while emphasizing that the treaty would have to be compatible with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Treaty advocates, including Mexico, Austria, and Brazil, have expressed frustration at the lack of progress in the Conference on Disarmament and what they consider to be reluctance of nuclear-weapon states to fulfill NPT commitments on nuclear disarmament. Supporters of a ban include Pope Francis, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, and many nonproliferation groups. The conference aims to adopt a treaty draft in the second round of negotiations June 15-July 7.

115 non-nuclear-weapon states began discussing March 27 a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. 

U.S. Reconsiders Nuclear Abolition Goal

April 2017

Christopher Ford, the National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, addresses the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference on March 21. (Photo credit: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review will include whether to maintain the long-standing U.S. goal of seeking a world without nuclear weapons. Christopher Ford, the National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, said the review will consider whether that declared end state “is in fact a realistic objective” given current international security trends. The commitment is enshrined in the binding 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The United States joined the four other nuclear-weapon states at the time in committing to seek “complete” nuclear disarmament in exchange for other countries pledging not to acquire such weapons.

Addressing the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference on March 21, Ford said there is reason to question whether “traditional U.S. fidelity to that visionary end state...is still a viable strategy” due to various factors, including the prospect of further U.S.-Russian reductions seeming “less likely than it might have been a few years ago.” Past U.S. declarations, including President Barack Obama’s April 2009 Prague speech on disarmament, encouraged “largely unrealistic expectations and demands for ever faster process,” Ford said. The disappointments from unmet nuclear disarmament expectations contribute to the demands by non-nuclear-weapon states for the “fundamentally misguided” negotiations for a nuclear weapons ban treaty, which the new administration opposes as “fundamentally misguided,” he said.


The Nuclear Posture Review will include whether to maintain the long-standing goal of a world without nuclear weapons.


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