“[My time at ACA] prepared me very well for the position that I took following that with the State Department, where I then implemented and helped to implement many of the policies that we tried to promote.”
– Peter Crail
Business Executive for National Security
June 2, 2022
December 2022
Edition Date: 
Thursday, December 1, 2022
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Biden’s Disappointing Nuclear Posture Review

December 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

Since the end of the Cold War, every U.S. president has conducted an in-depth review of the nation's nuclear strategy. Each study, including President Joe Biden’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), has produced disappointing results. That is because they all maintain a dangerous reliance on the threat to use nuclear weapons to deter and, if necessary, respond to hostile attacks, including non-nuclear attacks, “that have a strategic effect against the United States or its allies and partners.”

A military aide carries the "nuclear football," which contains launch codes for nuclear weapons, while walking to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House October 3, 2022 in Washington, DC. President Biden is traveling to Puerto Rico on Monday, where he will outline a $60 million plan to help the island recover from Hurricane Fiona. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)The broad, ambiguous nuclear declaratory policy in the 2022 NPR walks back Biden’s pledge to narrow the role of U.S. nuclear weapons. In 2020 he wrote “that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring and, if necessary, retaliating against a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.” As far back as 1990, Biden, then a U.S. senator, argued that the “military rationale for ‘first use’ has disappeared.”

But the Pentagon-led 2022 NPR claims that the administration conducted a “thorough review of options for nuclear declaratory policy, including both no-first-use and sole purpose policies, and concluded those approaches would result in an unacceptable level of risk.” In reality, policies that threaten the first use of nuclear weapons carry unacceptable risks. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats in the war against Ukraine and a Russian policy that reserves the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict with NATO underscore the dangers.

As Biden himself declared on Oct. 6, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as an ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.” Nevertheless, his NPR, released two weeks after his “Armageddon” remark, leaves open exactly that possibility.

Biden’s NPR also rubber-stamps most of the long-planned multibillion-dollar program for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which will cost at least $634 billion over the next decade. This includes 400 new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, a new fleet of nuclear-armed strategic submarines, a new strategic bomber, a new air-launched cruise missile, a newly designed nuclear warhead (the W-93), and the refurbishment of other nuclear warhead types.

Biden’s NPR also endorses President Donald Trump’s initiative for the W76-2 lower-yield warhead on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The weapon provides a nuclear war-fighting capability at the regional level using a missile system designed for retaliation against an all-out strategic attack on the United States. In 2020, Biden criticized the W76-2, saying it was a “bad idea” that makes the United States “more inclined” to use nuclear weapons. In 2022, his NPR endorsed that very weapon.

The 2022 NPR calls for the cancellation the $10 billion Trump-era plan for a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile. But because the Pentagon delayed public release of the document for seven months, the administration failed to persuade the Democratic-led Congress to zero out research and development for the weapons system.

On the positive side, and in contrast to Trump, the 2022 NPR says the United States “will seek opportunities to pursue practical steps to advance the goals of greater transparency and predictability, enhanced stability, reduced reliance on nuclear weapons and, ultimately, a world without nuclear weapons.”

“Mutual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategy and prevent their use,” the review asserts.

Indeed, effective nuclear arms control and disarmament diplomacy is more salient than ever as Russia and China seek to fortify their nuclear forces. In August, the Biden administration said it was ready to launch negotiations with Russia on an agreement or agreements to supersede the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which expires in 2026, and to engage China in a risk reduction and arms control dialogue.

Deeper cuts in the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals are essential to reduce the Russian nuclear threat, constrain a potential Chinese nuclear buildup, prevent an all-out nuclear arms race, and lower the risk of nuclear conflict.

In 2013, following completion of his NPR, President Barack Obama determined that the United States could safely reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third below New START levels. Even if the United States made this decision independently, it could still hold adversary targets at risk so as to deter nuclear attack. Ten years later, the rationale for a smaller force still holds. Any increase in the numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons would only make it more likely that Russia and China would substantially build up their nuclear forces over the coming decade.

Biden’s NPR falls well short of promises he made before becoming president. It sends muddled messages about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy at a time when all states should be deemphasizing nuclear weapons. In his remaining time in office, Biden needs to follow through on his call for effective nuclear arms control negotiations with major U.S. nuclear adversaries. That remains the best strategy to reduce nuclear arsenals and prevent nuclear war.

Since the end of the Cold War, every U.S. president has conducted an in-depth review of the nation's nuclear strategy.

The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Time for Plan B

December 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Halfway into his first term, U.S. President Joe Biden faces the reality that one of his most significant foreign policy promises remains unmet: returning the United States and Iran to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).1

Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, says the Biden administration is open to resuming diplomacy with Iran but right now is focused on “what is happening in Iran…. the sale of armed drones by Iran to Russia…and the liberation of our hostages.” (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)Tragically, time nearly has run out to achieve this commitment. If Biden does not start exploring other options to stabilize the growing nuclear crisis, the United States could have to contend with an Iranian regime on the brink of possessing nuclear weapons or with a conflict to prevent it.

Restoring the JCPOA even at this late date still would significantly reduce the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program and restore critical monitoring mechanisms. Nevertheless, the Iranian negotiating strategy casts doubt on President Ebrahim Raisi’s current interest in resurrecting the accord.

After closing in on an agreement to revive the JCPOA in August, Iran’s 11th-hour demand that any agreement end the investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into Iran’s nuclear past and prohibit such probes in the future stalled momentum toward a deal.2 The United States and its JCPOA partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) have no role in negotiating over the IAEA safeguards mandate, a fact of which Iran is well aware. Iran’s continued investment in new nuclear capabilities that cannot be fully reversed and have no civil nuclear justification raises further questions about whether Iran is serious about returning to the accord.

In addition to Iran’s intransigence in negotiations, political will to reach a deal is waning in the United States and Europe. Since talks to restore the JCPOA stalled, protests erupted throughout Iran after the country’s morality police beat a young woman, Mahsa Amini, to death for improperly wearing a headscarf. The Biden administration quickly expressed support for the protesters and is now under domestic political pressure to refrain from any actions that could be perceived as legitimizing or enriching the regime in Tehran. Iran’s sale of drones to Russia, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, has inflamed tensions further, making negotiations even more difficult.

Robert Malley, U.S. special envoy for Iran, said on November 14 that the Biden administration is open to resuming diplomacy with Iran “when and if” the time comes, but he reiterated that the U.S. focus is on “what is happening in Iran…the sale of armed drones by Iran to Russia…and the liberation of our hostages.”3

Malley would not put a time frame on how long the administration will keep open the option of returning to the JCPOA, but he said Washington is continuing to apply pressure and sanctions while talks are stalled. If this is Biden’s plan B for addressing the nuclear crisis, it will not stabilize the situation, not least because Iran can ratchet up its nuclear program far more quickly than the United States can turn up the sanctions pressure.

Washington’s European partners appear more willing to acknowledge that prospects for restoring the JCPOA have diminished severely and that it is time to consider a new approach. French President Emmanuel Macron suggested on November 14 that a “new framework” will likely be necessary for addressing the nuclear crisis.4

It is critical that the Biden administration, as well as the Europeans, outline options for a new diplomatic initiative. With the nuclear program steadily advancing and with Tehran facing new political pressures that make a decision to produce a nuclear bomb increasingly likely, the United States cannot afford to let this major security challenge fester any longer.

A Dangerous Nuclear Acceleration

When Iran first began violating the JCPOA’s limits in May 2019, a year after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord and reimposed sanctions, the breaches were calibrated carefully. Designed to be reversible quickly, they largely comprised instances where Iran resumed nuclear activities that had been limited under the JCPOA.5 This deliberate response suggests that Iran was trying to preserve space to restore the JCPOA by putting pressure on the United States to return to the accord while signaling that Iran had no intention of developing nuclear weapons or investing in new weapons-relevant research.

Iran’s strategy shifted, however, in December 2020 when the Iranian parliament passed a law that required the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to further accelerate the country’s nuclear program and reduce IAEA access. The parliament pushed the law through after Israel assassinated Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the man often called the father of Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, in November 2020.

When Raisi became president in August 2021, he continued aggressively expanding Iran’s nuclear program into more proliferation-sensitive areas beyond what was required by the December 2020 law, including the unprecedented step of enriching uranium to 60 percent U-235 in April 2021. The decision to begin enrichment to this level was made shortly after an explosion at the Natanz uranium-enrichment complex. That was another serious escalation that cannot be fully reversed given the knowledge Tehran gained from the enrichment process.

Due to these breaches, Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than at any point in the country’s history. As of November 2022, Tehran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in fewer than seven days. By comparison, that period, often called the breakout period, was two to three months when the United States began negotiations on the JCPOA in 2013 and about 12 months when the JCPOA was fully implemented.6

The risk posed by the shrinking breakout window is further compounded by the December 2020 law’s requirement that Iran suspend aspects of its more intrusive safeguards arrangement with the IAEA, known as the additional protocol to Iran’s safeguards agreement, and the continuous surveillance of key nuclear sites required by the JCPOA. Halting implementation of these measures in February 2021 eliminated IAEA access to facilities, such as centrifuge production workshops, that support Iran’s nuclear program but do not contain nuclear materials. The suspension also reduced the tools available for the agency to verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful. Iran continues to implement a less intrusive comprehensive safeguards agreement, as required by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but history has demonstrated that these agreements are insufficient in preventing proliferation.7

As a result of the reduced access, Iran could amass a significant quantity of bomb-grade material at some point between IAEA inspections, raising the risk that a move to produce weapons-grade material would not be detected. Although weaponization could still take two years, these processes would take place at covert facilities and be more difficult to detect.8

Thus far, the United States appears willing to tolerate this increased proliferation risk, but that calculus might change when Iran is able to produce enough nuclear materials for several nuclear weapons between IAEA inspections. Breaking out to produce one nuclear weapon does not provide Tehran with much of a deterrent, particularly given that it has never tested a nuclear explosive device, but producing several warheads would have greater deterrence value and pose a more serious proliferation threat.

Even so, the speed at which Iran could break out and build a nuclear weapon is a technical calculation. It does not take into account Iran’s intentions or the political factors that might drive the country to consider developing a nuclear deterrent. The U.S. intelligence community long has stated that Iran’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons will be based on a cost-benefit analysis. As of early 2022, it assessed that Tehran had not made the political decision to build a bomb or restarted key nuclear weapons-related activities.9

The factors influencing Iran’s decision-making, however, could be shifting if the regime views the widespread protests at home as a political challenge. Tehran may view the development of nuclear weapons as an option with which to preserve the existing political system, particularly if it perceives foreign countries as supporting the domestic protests.

Tehran also may gamble that the geopolitical rift caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine would mitigate the impact of UN sanctions and the diplomatic isolation that the United States and its European partners will pursue if Iran continues its nuclear expansion. The Raisi government may calculate that its support for Russia and its supply of drones for the war will insulate it partially from the global pressure campaign that preceded negotiations on the JCPOA.

Although it is still unlikely that Iran will decide to pursue nuclear weapons or withdraw from the NPT, the threat of proliferation is increasing, and this is underscoring the urgent need to stabilize Iran’s nuclear program.

Increasing Transparency

Iran’s advancing nuclear program poses two serious proliferation risks. First, Iran’s enrichment capacity and stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) allow it to break out quickly, possibly between IAEA inspections. The second risk is a longer-term concern that Iran is diverting materials from unmonitored facilities to build a covert, parallel program that could be used to develop weapons-grade uranium down the road. Given the urgency of these risks, it is important to stabilize the situation and prevent Iran from further escalating its nuclear program, thus reducing the risk of conflict and creating time and space for a more comprehensive negotiation on a long-term solution. As the JCPOA has demonstrated, reaching a new nuclear agreement could take years.

The United States could seek to mitigate these risks and buy time for future talks by offering Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for increased monitoring over Iran’s nuclear program. Ideally, additional transparency would increase the likelihood that the IAEA would more quickly detect any Iranian attempt to break out and deter any move to divert materials, such as centrifuge components, for a covert program.

To increase the likelihood of IAEA inspectors detecting any move to produce weapons-grade uranium, Iran could reinstate daily access to uranium-enrichment facilities. The JCPOA required this level of access, but since February 2021, the frequency of IAEA inspections has been determined by Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement, which requires less frequent access for inspections.

The level of enrichment is one factor that helps determine the frequency of inspections. Given that Iran is now enriching uranium to 60 percent U-235, a level that no other non-nuclear-weapon state is pursuing, inspectors are visiting enrichment facilities quite regularly. The threat of an undetected breakout still exists, however, as Malley warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 25.10 Daily inspections would further mitigate that risk.

Iran also could reconnect the online enrichment monitors, a verification tool that is used to track its enrichment levels in real time. Iran disconnected these machines in June 2022 after the IAEA Board of Governors censured Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency’s safeguards investigation. Without these machines in place, IAEA sampling and analysis of uranium-enrichment levels can take up to three weeks.11 Resuming the monitoring of enrichment in real time would help inspectors determine more quickly if Iran was deviating from its stated enrichment plans and pursing uranium enrichment up to 90 percent U-235.

To deter and detect any Iranian attempts to divert materials from facilities no longer subject to IAEA inspections, Iran could allow the agency to conduct technical visits to these locations. Technical visits are voluntary access arrangements that have been used in the past when the IAEA sought access beyond what is permitted in a safeguards agreement and the state agreed.12

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, displays a surveillance camera that is used to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. (Photo by Guo Chen/Xinhua via Getty Images)Another confidence-building action would be for Iran to allow the IAEA to restart camera surveillance at nuclear facilities no longer subject to inspections. In February 2021, after Iran suspended adherence to its additional protocol, which gave the IAEA access to more information and sites that support Iran’s nuclear program but do not contain nuclear materials, and JCPOA-specific transparency measures, Iran and the IAEA agreed that agency cameras would continue collecting data at certain facilities. Iran said it would give the recordings to the agency if the JCPOA was restored. Tehran’s decision to disconnect 27 of those cameras in June 2022, however, will make it difficult if not impossible for the IAEA to re-create a history of Iran’s nuclear activities during the monitoring gap.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi warned in reports on September 7 and November 10 that because of the monitoring gap, the agency will be challenged to reestablish a baseline of Iran’s centrifuges and heavy water, even with Iran’s cooperation and the recordings from February 2021 to June 2022.13 If the IAEA cannot establish a reliable baseline, that could have serious implications for future diplomacy. It would be even more challenging for the IAEA to verify that Iran is meeting agreed limits in a restored JCPOA or a new deal.

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), a U.S. law passed in 2015, requires the U.S. Department of State to submit a report to Congress assessing the IAEA’s capacity to verify any nuclear agreement with Iran. The agency’s concerns about reestablishing a baseline could make that certification more difficult and provide a basis for JCPOA opponents to argue that Congress should exercise its authority under the law to block sanctions relief. Restarting the cameras and giving the IAEA regular access to the recordings could preserve space for future diplomacy while providing some assurance that Tehran is not diverting materials for a covert program.

Agreeing to additional monitoring also benefits Iran. Greater transparency would provide further assurance that Tehran’s nuclear program is peaceful, as the government claims. As Iran seeks to increase its leverage by ratcheting up its nuclear program further, it runs a greater risk of misjudging what activities might trigger a military response. Increased transparency could reduce the chance of miscalculating the proliferation threat posed by Iran’s technological advances, thus decreasing the risk of further sabotage or military action by the United States or Israel.

If Iran is willing to take voluntary steps to increase transparency, the United States must propose meaningful sanctions relief that would benefit Iran immediately. One option is to allow Iran to sell a limited amount of oil and petrochemical products every month. As with the nuclear monitoring steps, oil sales would provide an immediate benefit and could be halted quickly if Tehran suspended the voluntary verification measures. The United States also could consider unfreezing limited amounts of Iranian assets held abroad.

Longer-Term Stabilization

Increased monitoring and transparency of Iran’s nuclear program are modest steps that would mitigate the growing proliferation risk, but they are not a long-term solution for the threat posed by an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program. If the Biden administration decides that the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA have eroded past the point where the sanctions relief offered is sensible or that restoration of the JCPOA is too polarizing in the United States, it may prefer negotiating an entirely new nuclear agreement.

Iran too may favor such an approach, given declining support in Tehran for the JCPOA and deficiencies in the 2015 deal’s approach to sanctions relief. It also may prefer to wait until after the 2024 U.S. elections to begin negotiations on a longer-term deal. If a Republican is elected, they may withdraw again from the JCPOA, even if Iran is complying with the accord. Other frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination have expressed similar opposition to the JCPOA, fueling concern in Tehran that even if the deal is restored, it may only last two years.

In any scenario where a new, more comprehensive deal or restoration of the 2015 JCPOA is not anticipated in the short term, voluntary measures solely aimed at increasing monitoring may not be sufficient. Increasing transparency and expanding Iran’s breakout window would stand a better chance of stabilizing the current crisis for a longer period and building time and space for negotiations on a new comprehensive nuclear agreement. This could be accomplished through an interim deal or a series of voluntary steps that include monitoring measures and limits on certain nuclear activities.

The swiftest way to increase Iran’s breakout time would be to ship out or blend down the country’s stockpiles of uranium that is enriched to 60 percent U-235 or 20 percent U-235. These stockpiles can be enriched to weapons grade (90 percent U-235) much more quickly than the 3.67 percent U-235 level to which Iran was restricted under the JCPOA. Iran, however, views these materials as its most significant source of leverage and is unlikely to give them up as part of an interim process. Nevertheless, Tehran could take certain steps to mitigate the risk posed by these materials.

One option would be for Iran to limit the amount of 60 percent- and 20 percent-enriched uranium that is stored in gas form in the country. Uranium in gas form can be injected back into centrifuges for further enrichment. Nearly all of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is in this form. If Iran has enough uranium enriched to these levels to use as feedstock to produce weapons-grade uranium for several nuclear weapons before the international community could respond, it could develop a more effective nuclear deterrent.

If Iran can only produce weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon between inspections, that constitutes a less significant proliferation risk because one weapon provides limited security value. Capping stocks of 60 percent- and 20 percent-enriched uranium gas at this amount would increase Iran’s breakout margin, while allowing the country to retain its most significant source of leverage. The excess material could be converted to powder or stored in another country.

Enriched uranium in powder form poses less proliferation risk because it must be converted back into gas form before it can be enriched further. This process would be more challenging to complete without detection by the IAEA.

In addition to capping HEU stockpiles, an interim deal could limit Iran’s research and development activities to prevent further acquisition of new capabilities that could complicate future diplomatic efforts or further reduce the breakout window. This could include commitments by Tehran to refrain from further advanced centrifuge R&D and weaponization-related activities, such as uranium metal production and experiments relevant to designing an explosive package for a nuclear warhead. By allowing Iran to continue ongoing nuclear activities, albeit with some new restrictions in areas such as uranium stockpiling and centrifuge development, the Raisi government may be able to sell such an agreement domestically because it would not have to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.

The Challenge of Congress

If the Biden administration succeeds in negotiating an interim deal or a series of voluntary measures with Iran, it will face a second challenge: preventing Congress from blocking sanctions relief. Under INARA, Congress has 30 days to review a nuclear deal with Iran. During that period, if the House of Representatives and the Senate pass resolutions opposing the agreement, the president is blocked from lifting sanctions on Iran.

The Democratic majority in the Senate in the next Congress increases the likelihood that the administration could prevent both chambers from passing resolutions of disapproval. Biden cannot assume, however, that the Democrats will support a new nuclear deal. Like the administration, Congress is focused on steps that the United States can take to support the Iranian protests. Even some previous JCPOA supporters are urging a pause in negotiations with Iran during the protests.

Despite shifting congressional support, Biden can make a strong argument that either an interim deal or voluntary measures would provide U.S. national security and nonproliferation benefits commensurate with limited sanctions relief and that such an arrangement is necessary to prevent escalation and buy time for a longer-term deal.

The risk of military conflict also will increase absent steps to prevent the nuclear crisis from escalating. There is little domestic appetite for the United States to become embroiled in another Middle Eastern conflict, particularly while it is helping Ukraine repel Russia, and Congress will not want to bear the blame for driving the United States into a preventable conflict. Given this, Biden should be able to garner enough congressional support to deliver sanctions relief commensurate with Iranian steps to reduce nuclear concerns.

The Drawbacks of Military Action

Although the available diplomatic options have drawbacks, they are by far preferable to military action or sabotage and stand a better chance of blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons in the long run. Kinetic action may slow the nuclear program, but as history demonstrates, Iran will respond by hardening its nuclear facilities against further attacks and by further ratcheting up its nuclear program.

In a worst-case scenario, military action could drive Iran to develop nuclear weapons covertly or withdraw from the NPT. If Tehran views nuclear weapons as the best means to prevent further attacks on its territory, the perceived security benefits of a nuclear arsenal increase.

It is also questionable how successful a military operation against Iran’s nuclear program could be, given the hardened nature of certain sites, particularly Fordow, the underground enrichment facility near Qom.

During JCPOA negotiations, the United States pushed to end enrichment at Fordow because its location deep within the mountains make it challenging if not impossible to destroy the facility using conventional weaponry. Iran restarted enrichment at that facility in November 2019 as part of its campaign to pressure the remaining parties to the JCPOA to deliver on sanctions relief.

In a study prior to the JCPOA negotiations, experts assessed that an Israeli military strike might set Iran’s nuclear ambitions back up to two years and a U.S.-led strike by up to four years.14 Those estimates are likely optimistic at this point, given that Iran has built additional, hardened facilities since then and gained additional knowledge as a result of its research activities that cannot be reversed. The U.S. intelligence community assessed in 2007 that Iran had the technical capacities to build a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so.15 Since then, Iran has not had an organized nuclear weapons program, but its uranium-enrichment capability significantly increased, and the knowledge it gained from mastering those processes cannot be bombed away.

Protesters in New York in November call on the United Nations to take actions against the treatment of women in Iran where the government is facing political unrest after Masha Amimi died in the custody of the Iranian morality police.  (Photo by Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images)Although military options are unlikely to be successful in blocking Iran’s pathways to the bomb in the long run, Biden probably would use military force rather than allow Iran to build a bomb during his presidency. Given the current inadequate monitoring system and Iran’s intention to continue building leverage by further advancing its nuclear program, it is increasingly likely that it could misjudge the leeway it has to maneuver and cross a line that triggers U.S. or, more likely, Israeli military action. The short window available to try and disrupt a nuclear breakout before Iran could move its nuclear material to a covert facility further increases the risk of some country prematurely using military force.

In addition to pursing voluntary measures or an interim deal to increase transparency and put time back on the breakout clock, the United States and its JCPOA partners should communicate clearly to Iran what nuclear activities will trigger a military response. Given the muted international response to past escalations, such as Iran’s decision to enrich to 60 percent U-235, Iran may perceive more latitude to expand its nuclear program than actually exists. If all options are indeed on the table to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, greater clarity about U.S. redlines could avert miscalculation.

The United States manufactured the current nuclear crisis when Trump withdrew from the JCPOA despite Iran’s compliance and over the objections of U.S. allies. Although Iran will now share the blame if the JCPOA is not restored, it would be an act of diplomatic malpractice if the Biden administration passively allows this volatile situation to continue to build. Negotiating with Iran while the regime is brutally repressing peaceful protests is not an attractive option, but an Iranian regime emboldened by nuclear weapons is a far greater threat to the Iranian people, the United States, and its allies and partners in the region. It is time for a diplomatic plan B to stabilize the cycle of nuclear escalation and create space for future diplomacy.



1. Joseph Biden, “There’s a Smarter Way to Be Tough on Iran,” CNN, September 13, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html.

2. Stephanie Liechtenstein, “Iran Nuclear Talks Head Into Deep Freeze Ahead of Midterms,” Politico, September 9, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/09/13/iran-nuclear-talks-midterms-00056312.

3. John Irish, “No Push for Iran Nuclear Talks, U.S. Envoy Says, Due to Protests, Drone Sales,” Reuters, November 14, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/no-push-iran-nuclear-talks-us-envoy-says-due-protests-drone-sales-2022-11-14/.

4. “France’s Macron Does Not See Room for Progress on Iran Nuclear Deal Right Now,” Reuters, November 14, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/frances-macron-need-find-new-framework-over-iran-nuclear-deal-2022-11-14/.

5. Julia Masterson and Kelsey Davenport, “Assessing the Risk Posed by Iran’s Violations of the Nuclear Deal,” Arms Control Association Issue Brief, Vol. 11, No. 9 (January 29, 2020), https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2019-12/assessing-risk-posed-iran-violations-nuclear-deal.

6. Kelsey Davenport and Julia Masterson, “The Limits of Breakout Estimates in Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Association Issue Brief, Vol. 12, No. 6 (August 4, 2020), https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2020-08/limits-breakout-estimates-assessing-irans-nuclear-program.

7. Trevor Findlay, “Looking Back: The Additional Protocol,” Arms Control Today, November 2007, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_11/Lookingback.

8. Anna Ahronheim, “Iran Is Not Getting the Bomb Any Time Soon - Military Intelligence Head,” The Jerusalem Post, October 3, 2021, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/iran-news/head-of-military-intelligence-iran-not-getting-the-bomb-any-time-soon-680853.

9. U.S. Department of State, “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” April 2022, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/2022-Adherence-to-and-Compliance-with-Arms-Control-Nonproliferation-and-Disarmament-Agreements-and-Commitments-1.pdf; Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” February 2022, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2022/item/2279-2022-annual-threat-assessment-of-the-u-s-intelligence-community.

10. Robert Malley, “The JCPOA Negotiations and the United States’ Policy on Iran Moving Forward,” May 25, 2022, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/the-jcpoa-negotiations-and-united-states-policy-on-iran-moving-forward05252201.

11. Vincent Fournier and Miklos Gaspar, “New IAEA Uranium Enrichment Monitor to Verify Iran’s Commitments Under JCPOA,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Office of Public Information and Communication, January 16, 2016, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/new-iaea-uranium-enrichment-monitor-verify-iran’s-commitments-under-jcpoa.

12. John Carlson, “Special Inspections Revisited” (paper presented to Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, Phoenix, Arizona, July 10–14, 2005), https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/uploads/INMM2005SpecialInspections.pdf.

13. IAEA, “NPT Safeguards Agreement With the Islamic Republic of Iran: Report by the Director General,” September 7, 2022, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/22/09/gov2022-42.pdf.

14. The Iran Project, “Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran,” 2012, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/event/IranReport_091112_ExecutiveSummary.pdf.

15. “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” November 2007, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/20071203_release.pdf.

Kelsey Davenport is director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.

With time running out on the Iran nuclear deal, what can be done to reduce the risk of Iran’s nuclear program?

Engaging China on Multilateral Arms Control

December 2022
By Oliver Meier and Michael Staack

Future efforts to maintain and strengthen multilateral arms control will have to take China into account. Beijing has abandoned its previous restraint and is actively shaping the global security order of the 21st century. It sees itself as a global player, a trading power, a major power in Asia, and the world's largest developing country, although it would be more accurate to say it is a country that has been developing rapidly.

Under President Xi Jinping, shown here at the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee in October, China has evinced some ambivalent policies on arms control and nonproliferation. Even so, future efforts to strengthen multilateral arms control will have to take China into account. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)With China’s constructive participation, it will be much easier to manage challenges to international arms control and the international order, such as those posed by Iran and North Korea. Efforts to further develop the multilateral arms control architecture also will be more effective and sustainable if Beijing is on board.

In August, China’s growing importance and more assertive stance on arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation became abundantly clear at the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), where it pursued its own interests and significantly shaped the meeting’s agenda. China highlighted its concerns about the nuclear submarine cooperation among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It opposed any increased commitments on nuclear transparency and successfully rebuffed calls for a fissile material moratorium that could impinge on its own nuclear arms buildup.

The Chinese style of disarmament diplomacy was often tenuous and uncompromising. Even so, the four-week-long review conference also demonstrated that Chinese arms control and disarmament policies no longer can be simply equated with those of Russia. On some issues, such as criticism of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, the positions of Moscow and Beijing overlapped. Nevertheless, China did not provide political cover for Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

Review conference President Gustavo Zlauvinen said later that he was under the impression that “there was no overall strategic coordination” between China and Russia in New York. He described how, on the conference’s penultimate day, China “let go” of its objection to language on transparency and reporting on nuclear arsenals in order to pave the way for a draft final outcome document.1 Even if China was ready to accept the compromise language, it could not prevent Russia from standing in the way of consensus.2 The review conference ended in disagreement, with Beijing calling this failure “regrettable.”3

In early November, during German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping confirmed Chinese concerns about a possible nuclear escalation over Ukraine. Xi said that the world should “advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used, a nuclear war cannot be waged, in order to prevent a nuclear crisis” in Eurasia, the strongest Chinese warning against nuclear use directed at Russia.4

Engagement on arms control with China is also necessary because it is no longer possible to relegate China to the level of a second-rate military power. By 2050, China aims to have military forces that are technologically on par with those of the United States. Beijing is developing a broad arsenal of state-of-the-art weapons systems, making technological leaps in development, becoming increasingly active as an arms exporter, and initiating sophisticated defense cooperation programs, for example, with Pakistan and Russia. An unconstrained Chinese military build-up with the consequence of new arms races is highly destabilizing and costly. As a result, any progress on engaging China in cooperative efforts to control and reduce military potentials is valuable in and of itself.

Arms control with China mostly has been discussed from the perspective of dialogue between itself and the United States, the two main global competitors, but U.S. efforts to engage China have had limited success. Some bilateral dialogue forums came to a halt during the Trump administration, and efforts to restart them mostly have flopped. It is therefore imperative to broaden the discussion. Engaging China in efforts to advance multilateral arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation efforts matters not only to the United States but to all states with a vested interest in preserving global arms control arrangements.

Countries around the world are struggling to deal with Russia’s turn against multilateral arms control across the board. Moscow is shedding arms limitations and increasingly misusing global regimes to promote false narratives and deepen divides within the international community. Its ultimate goal is to undercut the broad global rejection of the war against Ukraine. Against this dire background, Chinese support and engagement is a necessary precondition to keep the norms against weapons of mass destruction intact and multilateral disarmament and nonproliferation regimes afloat. Achieving that outcome will require that, in addition to the United States, countries that are not seen as China’s strategic competitors also pursue constructive dialogues with China on multilateral arms control.

Keeping It Simple

Four guidelines could improve the likelihood of successful multilateral arms control engagement with China. First, an arms control dialogue should be kept as separate as possible from discussions on other security issues. Chinese involvement in multilateral, regional, and bilateral agreements to limit military capabilities, for example, those that could spread to third countries, has merit in and of itself. Such cooperation can contribute to a long-term positive change in the political relationships between China and other countries that support arms control, establish channels of communication, and foster awareness of shared interests.

As a participant in multilateral nuclear negotiations on Iran and North Korea, China has benefited by being treated as equal to other major powers. Here, Wang Qun, China’s envoy to the United Nations and other international organizations in Vienna, speaks with reporters in 2021 after a meeting on the 2015 Iran deal. (Photo by Georges Schneider/Xinhua via Getty Images)Second, engagement should be as issue specific as possible. The field of disarmament and arms control has evolved and become so multifaceted and differentiated that the general demand for Chinese involvement rings hollow. Although interconnections between topics cannot be completely ignored, for example, with regard to issues involving disarmament and nonproliferation, there is a risk of weighing down talks with too many linkages.

Third, proposals for talks should begin with topics on which China’s understanding of its role in multilateral arms control is ambivalent. China wants to leverage its nuclear weapons, yet remains interested in preventing nuclear war. It wants to reduce the risk of military escalation over conflicts involving the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea but also wants to maintain its political and economic influence in the Middle East and East Asia. China sees arms control accords that focus on the humanitarian consequences of weaponry, such as anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, as a means to build bridges with countries of the global South. Even so, it does not want to renounce possession of such weapons, at least while its main competitors retain them. For countries interested in engaging China, it is worth exploring the gaps between these competing goals.

Finally, Beijing’s participation and involvement in informal groups of states discussing specific arms control challenges, such as the International Partnership for Disarmament Verification, should be encouraged. Given military power disparities and distrust among major powers, China’s lack of experience in arms control, and the closed nature of the Chinese political system, the level of ambition of any engagement with China on multilateral arms control initially will have to be low. Technical discussions in cross-regional groups, for example, on nuclear risk reduction or verification, could be a way of bypassing currently unresolvable political issues that stand in the way of engaging China on arms control.

Avoiding Pitfalls

It is important to be realistic about China’s participation in arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament initiatives. China wants to be treated as an equal with its main competitor, the United States. China is not ready for agreements that impose constraints on its arms policy without the United States being subject to similar provisions.

Thus, China has rejected participation in the Russian-U.S. nuclear arms control process and is likely to continue to do so as long as there is a significant gap between its nuclear capabilities and those of the two biggest nuclear possessor states.5 China believes that U.S. missile defenses, the possible deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missile systems, and advanced U.S. conventional weapons in Asia put its nuclear second-strike capability at risk. Fu Cong, director-general of the department of arms control at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, argues that “under all these circumstances, you can't expect China to be both transparent in doctrine and transparent in numbers.”6

Beijing also is dragging its feet regarding arrangements on militarily applicable technologies that it wants to use for an asymmetric arms build-up against the United States. For example, China has a technological lead over the United States on hypersonic weapons systems and therefore is unlikely to sit down to discuss transparency measures, let alone limits. Unsurprisingly, the result is a destabilizing and dangerous arms race in these systems.7

China does not support or is reluctant to support regional approaches to confidence- and security-building measures or arms control if these run counter to its aspirations for regional supremacy. Compounding the problem is the fact that any efforts at regional arms control would have little on which to build. Regional arms control scarcely exists in Asia, and regional decision-makers are often unaware of the usefulness of arms control as a stabilizing instrument. Mutual security perceptions are driven by worst-case scenarios.

Furthermore, China remains deeply skeptical about governance approaches for the regulation of novel technologies, such as information or space technologies, that can be used for civilian and military purposes. By contrast, many Western countries believe that effective rules and regulations for such dual-use technologies would need to be based on cooperation between governments and civil society, as well as private sector actors. In Beijing’s view, codes of conduct or attempts to operationalize international legal standards for arms control could amount to “interference in the internal affairs” of the country. China promotes a traditional—some would say outdated—concept of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation, based on legally binding intergovernmental agreements that are implemented and verified with minimal invasiveness.

For example, China and Russia have proposed a treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space to prohibit an arms race there. Western countries, however, have criticized the proposal for being based on the concept of regulating objects, rather than providing generic rules of the road to prevent military misuse. They argue that the Chinese-Russian approach is no longer appropriate and are pushing for an agreement that would set norms for responsible behaviors in space. Such differences also characterize multilateral discussions on regulations to prevent the military misuse of information technology and artificial intelligence.

Straddling Contradictions

China is a latecomer to multilateral arms control, having begun to intensify its involvement in such treaties and regimes in the mid-1980s during the country’s economic opening. Ten years later, China largely had caught up with the arms control mainstream. Today, it is a signatory to all major multilateral regimes for the control of weapons of mass destruction and also party to other arms control treaties.

As other states do, China is trying to influence political discussions in multilateral institutions by filling senior posts with national staff. Overall, it still is underrepresented, having held only 13 top postings in UN specialized agencies since assuming its UN Security Council seat in 1971. Of the five permanent council members, only Russia has assumed fewer senior positions while the United States has held five times as many. China has “yet to lead an agency with a remit directly addressing international peace and security.”8 Nevertheless, Chinese influence is growing, and Beijing would appear to be attempting to politically “guide” UN staff possessing Chinese passports more closely than in the past.

Although China’s policy on disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation is guided by clear principles, its actions are by no means cast from a single mold. Conflicts between objectives and a fractured understanding of its role sometimes result in ambivalence or inconsistency. For example, China has an interest in strong nonproliferation regimes to minimize proliferation risks that could endanger stability, especially in regions where it has strong economic ties. For China, being part of the Iranian nuclear negotiations with France, Germany, Russia, the UK, the United States, and the European Union and part of the six-party talks with North Korea has the added benefit of giving it equal footing with other major powers.

Yet, there is friction between Beijing’s support for nonproliferation and its geopolitical power claims and economic interests, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. Sometimes it views potential or real proliferators as difficult regional partners; other times it sees them as useful allies in its broader geopolitical competition with the United States. China’s support for Pakistan illustrates the ambivalence or duplicity of its nonproliferation policy. China has tolerated and even encouraged Pakistan’s development into a nuclear weapons possessor by sharing nuclear weapons-related information. China views Pakistan as a counterweight to its regional competitor India. Even today, China is supplying civilian nuclear technology to Pakistan, which, like India, is not party to the NPT.

China is expanding its nuclear weapons stockpile and growing in importance on arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation challenges. This Donfeng-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, paraded through Beijing in 2019, is a major addition to its arsenal. (Photo by Lan Hongguang/Xinhua via Getty Images)Such an incongruous policy can have implications for multilateral arms control. For decades, Pakistan has been blocking the start of negotiations on a treaty prohibiting the production of weapons-grade fissile material at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Islamabad ostensibly has conditioned its consent on including New Delhi’s stockpiles of fissile material in any future treaty, but many observers wonder whether Beijing may be encouraging such stonewalling to prevent future limits on its own nuclear weapons.

China wants to avoid a military, especially nuclear, escalation of the conflict between North Korea and the United States. Yet, it also props up the North Korean regime whose collapse could lead to a unified Korea allied with Washington. Beijing at times has supported international sanctions against Pyongyang, but implemented them inadequately.

China’s self-perception in arms control regimes also fluctuates between its claim to regional hegemony and its traditional role as a developing country. China’s historical experience as a victim of Western, especially Japanese, aggression, including the horrendous use of biological and chemical weapons by Japan against China from the early 1930s until 1945, has left a lasting mark on Chinese attitudes toward arms control. As a result, China has long criticized the NPT as discriminatory, arguing that the United States and Soviet Union saw the treaty as an instrument to prevent it and other countries from fully developing a nuclear arsenal. It was only in 1990 that Beijing took part in an NPT review conference for the first time and two years later that it acceded to the NPT.

Today, China’s positions on the NPT range between siding with those of the Non-Aligned Movement, which primarily represents the interests of non-nuclear-weapon states from the global South, and embracing its privileged role as a nuclear-weapon state formally recognized under the NPT. This dichotomy is underscored by the fact that when Beijing operates in multilateral forums outside of regional groupings, it refers to itself as the “group of one.”

In recent years, China has increased the size and diversity of its nuclear arsenal,9 yet it declares itself in favor of a world free of nuclear weapons and repeatedly asserts that it does not want to be involved in a nuclear arms race. China is the only NPT nuclear-weapon state to have adopted a nuclear no-first-use policy and advocates that other nuclear weapons possessors adopt a similar policy. Despite such disarmament rhetoric, Beijing has aligned itself with the other nuclear-weapon states in rejecting calls for a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons and in opposing the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Like all other nuclear-weapon possessors, China did not participate as an observer at the June 2022 conference of TPNW states-parties.

China feels comfortable in the company of other nuclear-weapon states on other issues too. It has the lead among them in developing a joint glossary on nuclear terminology and coordinates the nuclear-weapon states’ dialogue with members of the nuclear-weapon-free zone in Southeast Asia. China frequently and proudly refers to the January 2022 statement in which the five nuclear-weapon states agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”10

There also are incongruities in Beijing’s policies on chemical and biological weapons control issues. China has been a party in good standing to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention since the treaty entered into force. It has declared and dismantled its chemical weapons program in conformity with the convention’s rules, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) conducts routine inspections in China without any major problems.

Yet, China backs Russia in the United Nations and in OPCW decision-making bodies in protecting Syria from the consequences of its repeated use of chemical weapons. China and Russia have wielded their UN Security Council vetoes to prevent referral of the investigation into chemical weapons attacks in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Beijing has opposed new OPCW powers to investigate chemical weapons attacks. It also has voted against funding a new Investigation and Identification Team in the regular OPCW budget, arguing that such funding would give the OPCW investigative powers beyond the intergovernmental sphere.

China’s behavior as a member of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is similarly incongruous. It supports calls by many nonaligned states for resuming talks on a BWC verification protocol. Since 2016, China has been working within the BWC framework to improve international cooperation on security-relevant research and with Pakistan and Brazil produced a proposal titled “The Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists,” which received wide support among BWC states-parties.11

This engagement stands in stark contrast to Chinese support for baseless accusations by Russia that biosecurity laboratories funded by Western countries in Ukraine and elsewhere are being used for prohibited biological weapons activities. In October 2021, Beijing and Moscow jointly argued that “overseas military biological activities” by the United States and its allies “cause serious concerns and questions among the international community over its compliance with the BWC” and “pose serious risks for the national security” of China and Russia.12

China’s understanding of its role in humanitarian arms control, which aims to reduce the human suffering caused by particularly gruesome types of weapons, is also somewhat ambivalent. It appears open to the humanitarian perspective, but rejects the norms-based approach adopted in relevant treaties. As with other permanent UN Security Council members, Beijing also is unhappy that states have agreed on new humanitarian arms control accords by evading the consensus principle.

This ambivalent attitude likely is an attempt to improve China’s political standing vis-à-vis countries of the global South without assuming any disarmament obligations. The result is that China has not signed the 1999 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, which bans most landmines, or the 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans cluster munitions. Nevertheless, China attends meetings of states-parties to both treaties as an observer and supports key principles in the accords, such as the one asserting that states responsible for use of cluster munitions are responsible for clearing them.

Engaging China

Arms control engagement should focus first on such gaps, ambivalences, and contradictions in China’s arms control policies. Even if Beijing holds some of its disarmament positions for opportunistic or propagandistic reasons, taking it at its word could ease the way for dialogue.

Wherever possible, this kind of pragmatic approach should aim to separate dialogue on arms control from the overall geopolitical rivalry. Talking about nuclear risk reduction and nuclear disarmament as “global goods” benefiting the entire world may be more persuasive than framing arms control as a tool to restrain military competition. This is particularly true for countries that see China not only as a rival and competitor, but also as a partner.

In his November 2021 talks with Xi, U.S. President Joe Biden seemed to imply that Washington supports separating arms control from the broader competition. Biden “underscored the importance of managing strategic risks” and emphasized “the need for common-sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict and to keep lines of communication open.”13 This approach appears to be more promising than the crude and heavy-handed demands of Biden’s predecessor that Beijing join trilateral nuclear talks with Moscow and Washington. It would also be in line with U.S. policy to seek dialogue with China on transnational challenges such as climate change and health security.14

Discussions on technical issues, such as verification, could be one good starting point. China has comparatively little experience in this important aspect of arms control, but has shown some interest in it.15 From 2014 to 2017, China participated with Russia as an observer in the first phase of the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, where more than 25 nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states discussed procedures to jointly verify nuclear disarmament. Beijing stopped participating during the Trump administration. Bringing Chinese experts back into this dialogue could be one way to tackle “China’s traditional belief in the top-down approach of trust-building.”16

Cooperation on implementing positive obligations under multilateral arms control agreements might be another engagement avenue. This could include joint work on the peaceful use of certain technologies or in the humanitarian area. Such cooperation could appeal to China’s proclaimed affinity for positions of the countries of the global South. The EU and Germany support cooperative initiatives in manifold ways, such as in the control and destruction of small arms and light weapons.

Nuclear risk reduction is a third challenge on which intensified Chinese engagement should be sought. Even before Russia’s nuclear threats in the context of its war against Ukraine, the topic had received attention among NPT member states. One venue for such discussions could be the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament Initiative, a group of about 40 nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states that is conducting informal talks on nuclear disarmament-related matters. China has participated since the United States launched the group in 2018. Within this initiative, nuclear risk reduction is the focus of a working group co-chaired by Finland and Germany.

None of these recommendations will lead immediately to restrictions on China’s growing military capabilities. Nevertheless, even low-threshold dialogues can help establish channels of discussion, provide insights into the formation of Chinese opinion and decision-making, and in this manner prepare the ground for the eventual initiation of dialogue at the formal level at a later stage. That would be no small achievement given current conditions of global geopolitical competition.



1. Multilateraler Dialog KAS, “Webinar: The NPT Review Conference,” YouTube, September 8, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iz-YmZ-MlX0.

2. Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, “10th NPT Review Conference: Why It Was Doomed and How It Almost Succeeded,” Arms Control Today, October 2022, pp. 20–24.

3. “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference,” August 29, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/202208/t20220829_10757209.html.

4. Stuart Lau, “China’s Xi Warns Putin Not to Use Nuclear Arms in Ukraine,” Politico, November 4, 2022.

5. See Ulrich Kühn, ed., “Trilateral Arms Control? Perspectives From Washington, Moscow, and Beijing,” Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy Research Report, No. 002 (March 2020), https://ifsh.de/file/publication/Research_Report/002/20200224_IFSH_Research_Report_002_final.pdf.

6. Elena Chernenko, “Director-General Fu Cong’s Interview With Kommersant,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, October 16, 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zzjg_663340/jks_665232/jkxw_665234/202010/t20201016_599378.html.

7. Shannon Bugos, “China Tested Hypersonic Capability, U.S. Says,” Arms Control Today, November 2021, pp. 19–20.

8. Courtney J. Fung and Shing-hon Lam, “Why the Increase in Chinese Staff at the United Nations Matters,” International Affairs Blog, August 2, 2021, https://medium.com/international-affairs-blog/why-the-increase-in-chinese-staff-at-the-united-nations-matters-e0c30fdfcc46.

9. Gerald C. Brown, “Understanding the Risks and Realities of China’s Nuclear Forces,” Arms Control Today, June 2021, pp. 6–13.

10. “Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races,” The White House, January 3, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/01/03/p5-statement-on-preventing-nuclear-war-and-avoiding-arms-races/.

11. Ninth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, “The Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists,” BWC/CONF.IX/PC/WP.10, April 7, 2022.

12. “Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of the People’s Republic of China and the Russia Federation on Strengthening the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, October 7, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/202110/t20211007_9580297.html.

13. “Readout of President Biden’s Virtual Meeting With President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China,” The White House, November 16, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/11/16/readout-of-president-bidens-virtual-meeting-with-president-xi-jinping-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china/.

14. “Readout of President Joe Biden’s Meeting With President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China,” The White House, November 14, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/11/14/readout-of-president-joe-bidens-meeting-with-president-xi-jinping-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china/.

15. Tong Zhao, “Practical Ways to Promote U.S.-China Arms Control Cooperation,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Policy Outlook, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Outlook_Zhao_ArmsControl-Updated.pdf.

16. Tong Zhao, “China’s Approach to Arms Control Verification,” Sandia Report, SAND2022-3562 O (March 2022), p. 23, https://www.sandia.gov/app/uploads/sites/148/2022/04/SAND2022-3562-O.pdf.

Oliver Meier is a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, based in Berlin. Michael Staack is a professor of international relations at Helmut Schmidt University/University of the Armed Forces in Germany. This article is based on the authors’ 2022 report “China’s Role in Multilateral Arms Control,” Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Bonn, June 2022.

Chinese support is needed to keep the norms against weapons of mass destruction intact.

The Cautious Nuclear Approach of Australia’s New Prime Minister

December 2022
By Aiden Warren

During 19 of the last 26 years in Australia, the conservative Liberal Party has been at the forefront of defining and cultivating the country’s foreign policy and its broader approaches toward global security. Not surprisingly, that has included maintaining a nonintrusive line in the arms control and nuclear nonproliferation domain.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L) meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Bali in November. Concerns about Chinese aggression have caused Australia to enter the new Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) defense pact. (Photo by James Brickwood/Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images)Although Liberal leaders generally have advocated reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons held by all nuclear-weapon states and adhered to Australian participation in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), their approach has been somewhat paradoxical. In this regard, Australia has not forthrightly challenged the utility, value, legality, and legitimacy of nuclear weapons nor questioned the logic and practice of nuclear deterrence. Notwithstanding the 2021 pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States known as AUKUS, Australia has left nuclear agency predominantly in the hands of the states that possess nuclear weapons, compliantly accepting that this group can safely manage nuclear risks through appropriate adjustments to warhead numbers, nuclear doctrines, and force postures.

With the election of Anthony Albanese as prime minister in May 2022, Australia looked poised to move away from this hedging and somewhat pedestrian position to one that would embolden its nonproliferation efforts by proposing concrete new steps toward disarmament. Despite making bold proclamations while in opposition, however, the Albanese government’s position in its first year in office indicates that any movement toward a more progressive disposition on arms control and nonproliferation will be slow and very cautious. Evidence of that assessment can be found most clearly in the government’s approach to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and implementation of the controversial AUKUS pact.


In late 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution mandating the convening of a conference to negotiate a legally binding agreement that would prohibit nuclear weapons and ultimately lead to their total elimination. Reflecting the views of the Liberal Party, which was in power at that time, Australia did not embrace the treaty’s core premise that merely banning nuclear weapons would lead to their elimination. The Liberal government also did not believe that such a treaty would alter “the current, real, security concerns of states with nuclear weapons or those states, like Australia, that rely on extended nuclear deterrence as part of their security doctrine.” On this point, they argued that “disarmament efforts must engage all the nuclear-armed states and must focus on practical measures that recognize both the humanitarian and security dimensions of this issue.”1

To further underscore its position, the Liberal government did not take part in the UN conference to negotiate the ban treaty because it said that such a move did not offer a practical path to effective disarmament or enhanced security because key nuclear-armed states were not involved. Additionally, government officials contended that a ban treaty risked undermining the NPT, which Australia rightly regards as the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation and disarmament architecture. Because the TPNW stipulates parallel commitments to the NPT, officials argued that the ban treaty would create “ambiguity and confusion and would deepen divisions” between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states.2

As stated by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop in 2018,

The argument “to ban the bomb” may be emotionally appealing, but the reality is that disarmament cannot be imposed this way. Just pushing for a ban would divert attention from the sustained, practical steps needed for effective disarmament. The global community needs to engage those countries that have chosen to acquire nuclear weapons and address the security drivers behind their choices. They are the only ones that can take the necessary action to disarm.3

The TPNW evolved principally out of the sheer frustration felt by some states and nongovernmental disarmament organizations that the NPT was not effectively moving states toward a world without nuclear weapons. Although there has been significant reductions in the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals since the Cold War, it became evident in the early to late 2000s that the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the NPT (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States) had not held up their end of the NPT bargain. Disarmament proponents highlighted the plans of nuclear-armed states to modernize their nuclear arsenals and argued that this trend clearly indicated that these states intended to maintain their stockpiles. For TPNW proponents, the accumulative effect of such modernization plans, coupled with the varying divisions within the NPT community, proved that the NPT had distinct limitations. Although the NPT imposed good faith obligations on nuclear-armed states, it left a legal gap to be addressed, namely that nuclear weapons need to be banned just as chemical and biological weapons are banned.4

The response of Australian policymakers toward the ban treaty has not been surprising and sits comfortably alongside the narrative and approach sponsored by many previous governments. In addition to complaints about the ban treaty “complicating matters,” there has been strong criticism about what signing the ban treaty would do to the Australian-U.S. alliance. According to Gareth Evans, foreign minister in a previous Labor-led government, “The difficulty for Australia in terms of signing or ratifying the ban treaty is that, to do so, we would effectively be tearing up our U.S. alliance commitment.”5 While in opposition, Richard Marles, the deputy prime minister and defense minister in the current Labor government, argued that the ban treaty raised “the prospect of Australia needing to repudiate our longstanding defense relationship” with the United States and “might undermine” the NPT and the ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-United States) security agreement.6

Such views reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the ban treaty in Australian foreign policy circles. One commentator, citing a paper published by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, has argued that in signing the ban treaty, Australia actually would advance its stated goal of pursuing nuclear disarmament without engendering insuperable legal complications to ongoing military relations with the United States. Moreover, Australia signed up to the treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions even though the United States still has not signed on. In other words, the alliance relationship does not bind Australia to include weapons of mass destruction in its defense policies.7 In 2018 it was clear that these sentiments had come into play when, on the last day of the 48th Australian Labor Party national conference, Albanese, then opposition stalwart, declared that if Labor won the 2019 Australian federal election, it would sign and ratify the TPNW. He gave assurances that his party would pursue a more assertive and “ambitious” approach, saying, “There’s a practical issue of how we bring those states, which are nuclear states, forward, so that this isn’t just a gesture…. [W]e want outcomes, that’s what we’re about as a political party. But one way in which you secure universality of support, in terms of a step towards that, is by Australia playing a role.”8

Labor leaders at the time believed that there was ample support for such a policy, with 78 percent of the federal caucus, 83 percent of Labor voters, and two dozen unions agreeing to endorse the ban treaty. Despite polls indicating that Labor was the hot favorite to win control of the government, it actually lost what was supposed to be the unlosable election to the Liberal Party’s Scott Morrison. With that definitive verdict, Albanese’s bold proclamations came to an abrupt halt.

Following the treaty’s global entry into force, the Labor Party reasserted its 2018 policy pledge on the TPNW at a platform conference in March 2021. Party branches in the states of South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia, as well the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, passed motions reinforcing the federal position. According to Albanese, Labor’s “carefully negotiated commitment” is consistent with its “values and our long history of advocacy on weapons of mass destruction.”9 When the party won control of government in the May 2022 national election, Albanese, as the newly minted prime minister, indicated that Australia would attend the UN meeting of states-parties to the ban treaty, which he had advocated in opposition and swore to ratify should Labor attain power.

As Albanese promised, Susan Templeman, a Labor member of Parliament from Macquarie, attended the first TPNW meeting of states-parties the following month as an observer. Her attendance was welcomed by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), whose spokesperson said the group saw it as “recognition the newly-elected federal government is willing to engage with this critical meeting as a step towards signature and ratification” of the treaty.10

Yet, the new government made clear its cautious approach and its desire first to evaluate the legitimacy of the treaty’s verification and enforcement regime, its interface with the NPT treaty, and the extent to which states that signed the treaty proposed to bring together widespread support for the absolute ban. In this regard, the Albanese government wanted to be assured that such matters were addressed before it agreed to sign and ratify the treaty.11

Despite Albanese’s caution, the significance of the issue within the Australian political ranks was evident when, ahead of the TPNW meeting, 55 former Australian ambassadors and high commissioners, including Stephen FitzGerald, John McCarthy, Neal Blewett, and Natasha Stott Despoja, sent an open letter encouraging the prime minister to act promptly in meeting his preelection promise to sign and ratify the TPNW. “We hope…that Labor’s commitment to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will be swiftly realized. Making meaningful gains in eliminating the most destructive weapons ever invented is as crucial for Australia’s security as it is for the security of people everywhere,”12 the letter stated.

There was strong popular support for such a move. An Ipsos poll in 2022 found that 76 percent of the public believed Australia should sign the TPNW, with 6 percent opposed, and 18 percent undecided. A range of actors within civil society also backed the treaty, including the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Red Cross, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and more than 60 religious organizations. Local government councils in 40 Australian towns and cities, including Brisbane, Canberra, Hobart, Melbourne, and Sydney, also called on the government to sign and ratify the TPNW.13 In response, the government said that although it “shares the ambition of TPNW states-parties of a world without nuclear weapons,” it needed to take a thorough approach in examining a range of questions “to inform its approach to the TPNW.” Moreover, despite the government recently dropping its opposition to the ban treaty and shifting its voting position at the United Nations to “abstain” after five years of “no,” a prolonged, cautious approach of “consultation with partners, and civil society stakeholders” will remain par for the course.14

The AUKUS Pact

The other significant issue that will challenge the mettle of the Albanese government’s nuclear approach pertains to the controversial AUKUS pact. Announced in September 2021, the security partnership markedly redefined Australia’s middle-power status in the context of its role and capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Given the growing significance and frequency of Australian-U.S. ministerial consultation meetings over the last decade, the AUKUS pact in many ways can be perceived as yet another extension of Australia’s increasingly robust bilateral alliance with the United States. During the last five years in particular, the two countries clearly have decided that the Indo-Pacific strategic environment, dominated by competition with China, requires a more cooperative, unified approach that utilizes the shared defense technology and industrial bases of both states.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in July in an attempt to smooth bilateral relations that were badly damaged after Australia canceled a deal to buy 12 submarines from France.  (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)Not surprisingly, many of the concerns articulated by local and international experts during the AUKUS initiative’s first year will persist deep into Albanese’s tenure in office. The first controversial development emanating from it was the clumsy diplomacy demonstrated when Australia precipitously canceled its planned purchase of Attack-class submarines from France so that it could buy nuclear-powered submarines from the UK and the United States. Although the financial compensation for terminating this program—$568 million paid by Canberra to the French-owned Naval Group—has been settled and recent diplomatic visits to Paris by Albanese and Marles have quelled the acrimony, the total cost of the abandoned program will be approximately $2.3 billion. Aside from the economic fallout, many questions remain unanswered, including those relating to the logistics, gaps in capability, and extent to which Australia will be able to meet its NPT obligations.15 Additionally, Australia is a non-nuclear-weapon state; so its ability to own, operate, and fuel nuclear-powered submarines will have to comply with strict NPT requirements.

In the next few years, more information likely will come to the fore as the three AUKUS states turn from the consultation stage to the actual implementation of the pact. The depth and timing of such disclosures no doubt will continue to spur much discussion. Traditionally, the Australian defense industrial base has been dependent on the United States for key technologies. As such, Australian governments since 2017, including the Albanese government, have placed an important emphasis on working with the expanded U.S. national technology and industrial base, which is designed to promote a defense free trade area with some U.S. alliance partners, as well as leverage the Australian-U.S. Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty.

In a July 2022 speech, Marles underlined that one of the main goals of the AUKUS agreement was to “streamline processes and overcome barriers” in industrial cooperation. In undertaking this task, the Albanese government, he argued, would strive to improve its capacity to traverse the complicated U.S. defense export control regime, particularly U.S. Department of State regulations for international arms sales, with its requirements for security classifications and technology transfers. This would entail close dialogue with the U.S. Congress and agencies, such as the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration on the submarines and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security on export regulations for categories such as quantum technologies. Such increased cooperation has engendered much debate between those who argue that developments in the Indo-Pacific region necessitate these overtures and those who believe that they put Australia on a slippery slope to being inextricably tied to the U.S. military and its questionable security incursions.

Australia plans to replace this conventionally-powered Collins-class submarine with nuclear-powered submarines from the United Kingdom and the United States under their new AUKUS defense pact. The deal has raised many questions.  (Photo by POIS Yuri Ramsey/Australian Defence Force via Getty Images)Albanese will be in a better position to address lingering questions about the AUKUS pact when the government’s nuclear-powered submarine task force makes recommendations in March 2023. For instance, on a logistical level, the task force is expected to determine whether Australia will go with the UK Astute-class submarine, the U.S. Virginia-class nuclear submarine, or another version shared by all three states. The conclusions of this preliminary consultation phase should also illuminate the specific details of a submarine built domestically, what submarine the government proposes as an interim capability, and any additional proposals to address any AUKUS workforce requirements.

In addition, the government’s defense strategic review, also due for release in early 2023, will convey how the AUKUS initiative is situated overall in Australia’s wider defense posture, preparedness, structure, and “looming capability gap.”16 The government will also articulate whether an interim, conventionally powered submarine fleet is required to address the chasm between the retirement of the Collins-class submarines and the development of the AUKUS nuclear-powered vessels.

In this regard, several retired defense officials have cautioned that Australia needs a “son of Collins” fleet or else the state will be left in a vulnerable position, particularly given that AUKUS submarines will not be operational until the 2040s. Navy Chief Vice Admiral Mike Noonan has said that constructing a new class of submarines as an “interim” capability could not be ruled out: “I think we’re going to see a period of study and reflection and we’re going to look at all options, so I don’t rule out any decision that our government might make with respect to realising our future navy capabilities.”17

Aside from these issues, what is missing in Albanese’s approach thus far is more clarity regarding proliferation concerns, which have resonated at home and abroad. A group of crossbench independents remain hesitant about the AUKUS pact, while the Australian Greens Party, in particular, has disagreed vehemently with the procurement of nuclear-powered submarines, or what they have termed “floating Chernobyls.” There are fears that introducing nuclear-powered submarines into Australia, a non-nuclear-weapon state, could prompt other non-nuclear-weapon states to acquire such a technology. This could trigger an arms race while increasing threat perceptions and security risks associated with Australia’s procurement of Tomahawk cruise missiles for the future submarines, particularly with regard to China. In the United States, some Democratic members of Congress also have raised concerns about the impact such developments could have on nonproliferation precedents.18

Many critics have questioned the utility of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.19 Such vessels are regarded principally as a means of extending power at a distance, where they can operate near to China’s coast in conjunction with U.S. war-fighting strategies, instead of protecting Australia’s own coastline. A continued reliance on conventionally powered submarines is perceived to be a more suitable, cost-efficient strategy.

Additionally, some commentators and analysts have argued that obtaining nuclear submarines could necessitate a greater investment in a range of associated activities: more nuclear engineers, more applicable infrastructure, more logistical coupling, and further nuclear-military intermingling with the UK and the United States. Notwithstanding the growing anxieties about an increasingly assertive China, the majority of the Australian public is still disinclined toward nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The general populace also is concerned that the argument for nuclear-powered submarines could be skewed to soften up popular sentiment toward the eventual basing or storage of nuclear weapons on Australian territory.

The most pressing debate, however, has been the specific proliferation questions presented by the prospect of nuclear-powered submarines. Australia has been a consistent proponent of nuclear nonproliferation efforts, including domestic and international programs to reduce and remove weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) from civilian uses worldwide, and it claims to support a fissile material cut-off treaty. Even so, each submarine could contain approximately 20 nuclear weapons’ worth of HEU.20 Such a large cache of weapons-usable material could undermine Australian nonproliferation efforts and fissile material security if it is not subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and inspections. Although using low-enriched uranium (LEU) as an alternative in the submarines would present a lower proliferation hazard than the existing HEU plan, nuclear-powered vessels and their accompanying nuclear infrastructure still raise other environmental, health, radioactive waste, accident, and proliferation risks. As a result, critics contend that the spread of any naval nuclear propulsion would be dangerous.

One issue to be addressed pertains to the further development of naval nuclear reactors and the Paragraph 14 loophole in the IAEA Model Safeguards Agreement Albanese needs to articulate in greater detail and nuance how he aims to maintain and even strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency of the IAEA safeguards system and not weaken it through the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. Additionally, in the context of the NPT, what will the military-to-military transfer of HEU to a non-nuclear-weapon state such as Australia mean for IAEA verification? Surely this could open the pathway for other non-nuclear-weapon states, some with potential proliferation motives, to obtain nuclear materials and to evade adherence to safeguards.21

Lastly, the Labor government, much like its Liberal predecessor, has said little regarding Australia’s South Pacific neighbors who have not been a factor in the recent nuclear-related discussions even though the humanitarian impacts of past nuclear tests and other nuclear activities remain a serious concern for them. Some Pacific leaders have argued that the AUKUS agreement undermines the Pacific community’s deep commitment to keeping the region nuclear-free. It also has spurred proliferation and political concerns among some of Australia’s closer neighbors in Southeast Asia.

A Disappointing Start

Albanese promised that his election as prime minister would deliver a more robust Australian commitment to nonproliferation, but his government’s first seven months in office have been somewhat disappointing, revealing a cautious, incremental approach that falls short of the challenge. Given that key nuclear-weapon states are busily modernizing and in some instances increasing their armories instead of dismantling them, many Australians have become disillusioned with the NPT and are pushing ratification of the TPNW with its absolute ban on nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding his government’s observer participation at the TPNW meeting in May, Albanese’s wait-and-see approach appears in stark contrast to the promising progressive words espoused before he was in a position of power.

In terms of the AUKUS pact, the discussion and scoping stage is now shifting toward the implementation phase. How the Albanese government responds to the findings of the task force and the defense review in early 2023 will determine the options for future Australian governments. Uncertainties persist as to the scale, budget, timeline, and significance of the AUKUS pact. All this makes 2023 a critical year for the Labor government.22

Commentators have explicitly highlighted the government’s general lack of discussion and transparency on these and other seminal issues: the diplomatic falling-out with France; the expanding cost of reneging on the French submarine deal; the likely cost to obtain nuclear submarines from the UK or the United States; the prospect of nuclear mishaps and their environmental ramifications; the disrupting capacity that the AUKUS pact might present to the Indo-Pacific region, particularly when diplomatic nuance, rather than military responses to China, needs to remain at the fore; and the concern of several of Australia’s neighbors whose sensitivities to nuclear issues have been disregarded. On all these matters, Albanese and Marles have walked a careful, minimalist line in terms of treatment and explanation.

Although it can be argued that it is too early to assess Albanese’s performance on the nuclear disarmament portfolio, indications suggest that incrementalism likely will remain his preferred approach. Such a missed opportunity would be tragic, especially when Albanese once espoused a more ambitious and hopeful vision of a world far less dependent on nuclear weapons.



1. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Steps Towards a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World,” 2018.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Shanelle Van, “Revisiting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Lawfare, November 27, 2018, https://www.lawfareblog.com/revisiting-treaty-prohibition-nuclear-weapons.

5. Paul Karp, “Labor Set for Nuclear Showdown as Gareth Evans Warns of Risk to US Alliance,” The Guardian, December 17, 2018.

6. Richard Lennane, “Shadow Ministers’ Move on Nuclear Ban Treaty,” Australian Institute of International Affairs, October 25, 2018, https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/shadow-ministers-move-on-nuclear-ban-treaty/.

7. Gem Romuld, “Labor Sets the Right Course on Nuclear Disarmament,” The Sydney Morning Herald, December 27, 2018.

8. Anthony Albanese, “Speech to the 48th National Conference of the Australian Labor Party Moving Support for the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty Adelaide Convention Centre, Sa,” n.d., http://anthonyalbanese.com.au/speech-moving-support-for-the-nuclear-weapon-ban-treaty-tuesday-18-december-2018.

9. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), “Australia’s New Prime Minister Is a TPNW Champion,” May 21, 2022, https://www.icanw.org/tpnw_albanese.

10. “MP Susan Templeman Represents Australia at Landmark Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty in Vienna,” Blue Mountains Gazette, June 26, 2022.

11. Ben Doherty, “Australia Yet to Sign Up to Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons but Will Attend UN Meeting as Observer,” The Guardian, June 19, 2022.

12. Ibid.

13. ICAN, “Australia,” n.d., https://www.icanw.org/australia (accessed November 19, 2022).

14. Ibid.

15. Peter K. Lee and Alice Nason, “365 Days of AUKUS: Progress, Challenges and Prospects,” United States Study Centre, September 14, 2022, https://www.ussc.edu.au/analysis/365-days-of-aukus-progress-challenges-and-prospects.

16. Ibid.

17. Andrew Greene, “AUKUS Nuclear Submarine Plan to Be Revealed by March 2023,” ABC News, June 28, 2022, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-29/richard-marles-defence-projects-submarines-aukus/101190876.

18. Lee and Nason, “365 Days of AUKUS.”

19. Hugh White, “From the Submarine to the Ridiculous,” Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, September 18, 2021, https://sdsc.bellschool.anu.edu.au/news-events/news/8191/submarine-ridiculous.

20. Alan Kuperman, “Opinion: Bomb-Grade Uranium for Australian Submarines?” Kyodo News, November 11, 2021, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2021/11/006a0287253b-opinion-bomb-grade-uranium-for-australian-submarines.html.

21. Marianne Hanson and Gem Romuld, “Introduction,” in Troubled Waters: Nuclear Submarines, AUKUS and the NPT, ed. Gem Romuld (ICAN, Australia, July 2022), pp. 2–5, https://icanw.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Troubled-Waters-nuclear-submarines-AUKUS-NPT-July-2022-final.pdf.

22. Lee and Nason, “365 Days of AUKUS.”

Aiden Warren is a professor of international relations at RMIT University in Melbourne and an Arms Control Association Fulbright Scholar alumnus.

This article was corrected online Jan. 3, 2023, to reflect these changes: Anthony Albanese was an opposition stalwart not its leader in 2018; endnote 11 should read Ben Doherty, not Brett Doherty; and the Labor Party came to power seven months ago, not nine months ago.

There had been hopes that Anthony Albanese would embolden his country’s nonproliferation efforts with concrete new steps toward disarmament.

Making the Case That Nuclear Weapons Are Immoral: An Interview With Archbishop John C. Wester

December 2022

(Photo by Leslie M. Radigan)If nuclear weapons are ever eliminated, it will be the result of actions big and small at every communal level, from international leaders to civil society. The Reverend John C. Wester occupies a unique role in this continuum as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Santa Fe, whose archdiocese is home to the Los Alamos and Sandia national nuclear laboratories and site of the first Manhattan Project nuclear tests. In January, Wester issued a pastoral letter, “Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament,” which called for the abolition of nuclear weapons and declared that the archdiocese “must be part of a strong peace initiative.” He had a compelling basis for action: In 2021, Pope Francis shifted the church’s position from accepting deterrence as a legitimate rationale for nuclear weapons to decrying the possession of nuclear weapons as “immoral.” Even with the pope’s admonition, however, Wester is finding his peace initiative slow going. He discussed his efforts with Carol Giacomo, editor of Arms Control Today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ARMS CONTROL TODAY: You often tell the story of visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2017. It almost seems like an epiphany. How did that trip and other forces, including serving as the top Roman Catholic Church official in Santa Fe, home to Los Alamos and Sandia, propel you to take on the mission of eliminating nuclear weapons?

Archbishop John C. Wester: Until I came here to Santa Fe, I was pretty much like I believe most people are, lulled into a false sense of complacency. I did not think much of nuclear weapons, to be honest. I do remember vividly 60 years ago during the Cuban missile crisis, but going to Japan and going to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and seeing the children, that was what really hit me most. I saw the display in the museum there, the audio and video displays and all the pictures. They had this one of the children rushing to the window to see the bright light that was detonated above their heads. That really hit me hard, it was a visceral moment, and I think it was an epiphany. It was a real sea change in my own attitude and my own consciousness of nuclear weapons.

ACT: How did you school yourself on nuclear issues, which can be an arcane subject?

Wester: It was very gradual. It involved taking my family members and friends to the museum in Santa Fe and looking at the Manhattan Project [displays]. Initially, there was a feeling in me of a kind of national pride, in what our country came up with, what the scientists and all did. Then immediately I felt, wait a minute, I'm looking at what we created and developed and manufactured and sent out to Japan. These are the very bombs I'm looking at that killed those children. So, the disconnect and the sharp contrast was so real.

As a man of faith—I believe in God, obviously—I really believe it was providential. I was asked to give a talk at our state capitol in Santa Fe on peace and nuclear disarmament, and I gave the talk. To be honest, at that time, these were words to me, and I didn't really understand a lot of them yet. Then I met this gentleman, who went to the talk, and he's become a very dear friend of mine now, Jay Coghlan, the head of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. He saw me afterwards, and he asked me questions. My first thought was, “Oh gosh, here's one of these radicals.” He challenged me to be more upfront about this subject and not just to give one talk but to get into it.

A tourist at the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico, examines a full-size replica of the 'Fat Man' atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. The museum is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Los Alamos National Lab, which was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the nation's top secret program to develop and build the atomic bomb. The lab remains central to the U.S. nuclear program. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)One thing led to another, and we ended up writing a pastoral letter. I thought this is exactly what I should do as the archbishop of Santa Fe, where all these nuclear weapons programs started. Santa Fe has to have a place at the table discussing those issues. Then I started reading up, including some things that are in favor of dropping the bomb in World War II, just so I can hear more from the other side. I don't want to be myopic on it. I'm on a steep learning curve, and I'm doing my best to get it because my whole intent is to keep the conversation going further. We have to keep talking about this until one day we can really rid the world of nuclear weapons.

ACT: Pope Francis has made disarmament a major focus, declaring that possessing nuclear weapons is “immoral.” What do you see as the faith basis for arguing for an end to nuclear weapons?

Wester: This is an extremely important point. I believe it's an ethical principle for all human beings, regardless of their faith or if they have no faith, that Pope Francis boldly and courageously, I would say, declared that even possessing nuclear weapons is immoral. To me that moved the moral needle like crazy. In 1983 the bishops of the United States said it was okay to have nuclear weapons for deterrence, and that seemed plausible to me. But then Pope Francis says no, you can't even possess them, what you're doing just having them sit there is immoral.

I think that really was a wake-up call. I have to admit that it's a good thing when the pope says it because it sure makes it easier for me because you do get interesting letters when you make a bold statement [like that]. Indeed, the pope is right on target because nuclear weapons are immoral; and considering their potential lethalness, they could destroy all of us and the planet and civilization. If anyone still survived the nuclear winter, it would send us all back to the ice age. We'd all be in caves and writing on the walls, and everything would have to be reinvented, you know, the alphabet and penicillin and you name it. I'm learning quickly that people don't want to talk about it.

ACT: You recently gave a speech in which you noted that the U.S. Catholic Church and the media have ignored the pope's call. If the pope made such an issue of nuclear weapons, why aren't all clergy speaking out? If you can't get the Catholic clergy to do it, how can you expect to rally others?

Wester: It's a very good question, but it's a complicated one. Part of it has to do with the polarization in our world and our politics and in our church, and part of it has to do with a more conservative approach, even to things like defenses and the whole nuclear armament question. I think it's also tied to a new point that the pope has made that nuclear weapons are immoral. A lot of people that I'm conversing with, and I welcome all angles, really do believe that we need these nuclear arms for deterrence. They think that this is the right way to go. I would say, unfortunately, they don't understand.

As [U.S. Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara said many decades ago, the only reason we didn't have a problem in the Cuban missile crisis was because of luck. We've been lucky. We've had miscues, such as Soviet submarine officers who decided not to fire their nuclear weapons. There have been bombs dropped, even here in Albuquerque, that did not detonate because one last little low-voltage switch didn't turn on and luckily nothing detonated. How long is our luck going to last? Anybody who gambles for a living will tell you it never lasts forever. But this is something that people, either because they don't want to or because they're afraid to think of it, just don't want to deal with. Yet, we have to do it because if we don't do it now, it's going to be too late; and once it's too late, it truly is too late.

ACT: What feedback have you gotten as you advocate eliminating nuclear weapons?

Wester: The response I've gotten, including from the archdiocese and the church in general, has been—how would I characterize it? If you're a teacher, grading on the A-thru-F scale, I'd put it at a C-minus. The response has been polite. Some people, very few, have said, “Wow, we're so glad you did this, it's so important.” The people you'd expect [with disarmament organizations] have been very favorable, but in the general population, I’d say it has been polite but very unengaged, not wanting to talk about it. My sense is that they're hoping the issue will just go away. That's one thing we're doing our very best not to let happen. We've translated the pastoral letter into Japanese and Korean and Spanish. We've just ordered 1,000 more copies in Spanish, so we're doing our very best to get the word out to keep this conversation going.

But the response has been lackluster. I haven't gotten a lot of hate mail. Maybe that's because, deep down, most people do understand that nuclear weapons are not a good thing. I'm trying to read that. Maybe deep down, they know we do have to do something about it but would just as soon someone else do it. I think, too, with the Ukraine war and with [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin rattling his nuclear saber, that scares people. India-Pakistan, China-Taiwan, Iran, all of these geopolitical issues scare people. They're probably feeling the best offense is a good defense so let's keep building these plutonium pit cores [for nuclear weapons] and let's keep doing what we're doing. What we're doing is really pursuing a second arms race that's probably more dangerous than the first.

ACT: Have you met with executives at the labs at Los Alamos and Sandia or with defense industry CEOs?

Workers conduct an analysis of plutonium at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico where plutonium pits for nuclear weapons are manufactured.  (Photo courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)Wester: Yes. We are going to. We had quite a few date possibilities this last summer. I was going to meet with scientists in the Los Alamos labs, and we're still going to do it, we just could not come up with a date, I suppose because of the vacations and all. So, I want to have that conversation. I have gotten some responses from some engineers and scientists at Sandia and Los Alamos that have been positive. They've said they agree with the pastoral letter. They read the summary of it at least, and they do agree with its ultimate desire to rid the world of nuclear arms. But my sense is that they think that we have quite a few steps to take before we get there. It's hedging their bets maybe. We've already waited too long. There are 13,000 weapons in the world today, with more being produced. Several countries are modernizing their weapons, including with hypersonic delivery systems, and all this portends badly for the future.

ACT: Presumably, some people are worried about losing jobs if the nuclear industry goes away. You have suggested that if nuclear weapons are eliminated, the scientists and their skills can be used for other things such as verification work and environmental cleanup. Do people consider that argument credible?

Wester: The feedback has been mixed. I think it's more one of disbelief, like, prove it, show me. We're working on that, trying to get more statistics. I think there are two points there, though, that really are compelling. One is that there's going to be about $9.4 billion spent by the U.S. Department of Energy in New Mexico this fiscal year for nuclear weapons development, most of it for Los Alamos and plutonium pit core production, and also for the Sandia labs for nuclear weapons life extension programs. I think it's $8.5 billion. So, that’s 10 percent more than the state of New Mexico’s entire operating budget. People see those numbers and they go, “New Mexico is benefiting from all this money,” but in fact New Mexico is not benefiting from all this money. There are some who are, and obviously Los Alamos is one of the wealthiest areas of the United States. But the money does not really trickle down to the average citizen in New Mexico. It's kind of a red herring to think that all this money is going to help. It doesn't.

Number two, the labs are already doing other things besides developing and building nuclear arms. They were at work helping with the COVID-19 crisis. They also do work in the medical field and on climate control questions, and if we really do have verifiable, multilateral nuclear disarmament, we're going to need very clean and well-developed technology to do what [President Ronald] Reagan said, trust and verify. That's going to be a huge industry. I don't deny that whenever there's a switch—when the Industrial Revolution came along, or when technology and computers came along—obviously there are going to be instances of people losing a particular job. But in the main, I believe there'll be far more jobs available because of this. Plus, this is going to be a gradual thing. We're not going to unilaterally disarm tomorrow morning. So, I think the job question can definitely be answered clearly and, I think, satisfactorily.

ACT: Is there anybody in the New Mexico congressional delegation who's been particularly supportive?

Wester: Yes. I think Representative Melanie Stansbury has been supportive, and I'm very grateful to her. But our delegation pretty much is backing up the nuclear weapons industry here in New Mexico, and this is going to be a tough nut to crack. But we're going to do our very best to do so because we've got to really make our case with them, and we have to make the case at the grassroots level. We're trying to develop a grassroots here to get our archdiocesan and parish peace and justice commissions to be more conversant on the pastoral letter and on this issue so they can start writing letters. Politicians want to know where the votes are, and if we can show them that we've got the votes, that's going to make a big difference.

ACT: In a June public statement, you asked what the United States was afraid of when it refused to even attend a meeting of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Later, you accused nuclear-weapon states of having no intention to honor their pledge to eliminate nuclear weapons. Have you gotten any pushback from federal officials on such comments?

Wester: Not to my knowledge. I know when I came out with my [state capitol speech] a couple years ago, I got pushback from the local paper, the Albuquerque Journal, which is a conservative-biased paper. They refuted my speech, and to their credit, they published a letter to the editor that we wrote back as a counterrefutation. I'm a pretty small voice in this whole question. I don't think people really hear my voice. But maybe if I keep speaking, I'll become annoying enough. It's going to take real leadership to do what we're asking, for the United States to take the lead and work with the other nuclear parties to say, “Look, we've got to do something about this.” In my opinion, we also have to come to an agreement that we will not have any first-strike plans in our nuclear posture review. That alone would be a very important first step.

Right now, everybody's too afraid to make the first move, and I think the United States has to do that. I think President Joe Biden and his administration are handling the Ukraine war tragedy very well and they're trying to tamp down any panic or possibility of miscommunication [prompted by Putin’s nuclear threats]. I think they're doing as best they can, given the circumstances. They've taken real leadership on this, and the way I see the geopolitical landscape right now, I think the United States is the one to make that first step [on nuclear policy as well].

ACT: What did you think of the administration’s new nuclear policy review, which did not include a no-first-use nuclear strike component?

Wester: I'm a neophyte in many ways on this, but from my vantage point, I found the Nuclear Posture Review that came out recently very disappointing. It's going in exactly the wrong directions and not showing the necessary leadership. It’s frustrating that a lot of times, politicians will say things as they go up the ladder, but then when they get to a position where they really can do something, they pull back. They're privy to information I don't have, obviously, but it seems to be quite logical that having these nuclear arms is just untenable and we've got to do something about it and we've got to start taking the first step.

We're not asking President Biden or President Putin or [Chinese] President Xi Jinping to unilaterally disarm. We're asking them to begin. Why can't we go back to those days when we went from, like, 60,000 nuclear weapons down to what we have now, 13,000? That was quite a significant reduction in nuclear armaments. It seems to me that we could take the leadership and start that diplomacy going again. But for some reason, there just does not seem to be the will at those higher levels that you speak of.

ACT: As you mentioned earlier, we are in a different political environment, and there's a real turn, certainly in this country, toward grievance and vitriol. That's a pretty tough environment in which to make policy that breaks the mold.

Wester: You're right, and it's absolutely irresponsible, for example, for the U.S. president to say [as President Donald Trump said to North Korean leader Kim Jung Un], “If you do this, you're going to see more hellfire from heaven than you've ever seen before.” We're just trying to get a political leader to move the needle back to the middle where he will be diplomatic and careful and prudent of what he says.

ACT: Are there any concluding points you want to make?

Wester: There's one thing that really speaks to me, and that is, as I am doing this, I do get the impression that a lot of people look at me and say, “Oh well, archbishop, aren't you a nice man, why don't you just go back to your sacristy and say your prayers and don't stick your nose where it doesn't belong.” I have a feeling that what they're saying to me is, “You're just being naive, you really don't understand what we're dealing with, we're the scientists, we're the politicians, we're the ones who know what we're talking about.” I would say back to them, who really is it that's being naive? If they look at all the years now that we've had nuclear weapons, as I've said earlier, and as McNamara, [President Dwight] Eisenhower, Reagan have said, really, it's only by luck that we haven't destroyed the planet yet.

It's far more naive to think that we can continue the way that we're going, building up our nuclear arms, and to think that luck is going to save the day. To me, that’s the epitome of naiveté. What we need to do is roll up our sleeves and start talking seriously about the danger our planet Earth is in. You talk about climate change; this to me is the number one issue of climate change. You talk about the sanctity of human life; this to me is the number one issue of human life, because these bombs would destroy all of human life and all of any living, sentient beings. So, I'm waiting for the day for somebody to come up and just say it, you know, archbishop, you're a bit naive. Oh? Because I think you're naive.

He knows some think he is naïve but says, “It’s far more naïve to think that we can continue the way that we’re going.”

The Hegemon’s Tool Kit: US Leadership and the Politics of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

December 2022

Beyond Nonproliferation Hegemony

The Hegemon’s Tool Kit: US Leadership and the Politics of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime
By Rebecca Davis Gibbons
Cornell University Press

Reviewed by Douglas B. Shaw

Rebecca Davis Gibbons’ The Hegemon’s Tool Kit: US Leadership and the Politics of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime is an insightful, readable, and theory-driven explanation of how the United States built and maintains the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It operationalizes a command of international relations scholarship on how the distribution of material power among states is reflected in the global order and fills a critical hole in the literature by explaining adherence to the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Students of security studies and the public will enjoy Gibbons’ sharp narration of the blocking and tackling maneuvers of nonproliferation diplomacy. Policymakers will benefit from her clarion warning that “[w]hen the United States does not prioritize the regime, it weakens.”

The book is an important addition to a powerful new wave of literature on nuclear proliferation and nonproliferation that centers U.S. leadership within the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. Other recent examples include Rupal Mehta’s Delaying Doomsday: The Politics of Nuclear Reversal; Rachel Whitlark’s All Options on the Table: Leaders, Preventive War, and Nuclear Proliferation; and Vipin Narang’s Seeking the Bomb: Strategies of Nuclear Proliferation. Using The Hegemon’s Tool Kit as a lens for viewing a global nonproliferation regime as a product of U.S. influence is jarring, especially in light of persistent concerns among many states about the NPT’s discriminatory nature. Its focus on nonproliferation behavior rather than proliferation behavior uniquely makes unflinchingly plain the hegemon’s role as one who usually writes “the first draft and finances the effort.”

Gibbons explains regime adherence—the act of states agreeing to their commitments to be bound by the NPT and associated agreements—as a function of U.S. efforts to encourage each state to undertake these various nonproliferation commitments. U.S. encouragement takes the form of low-cost diplomacy, such as messages delivered by diplomats from U.S. embassies or at the United Nations; high-cost diplomacy, such as direct requests between national leaders; positive inducements, such as offers of peaceful nuclear assistance; and coercion, such as threats to withhold other international assistance. Gibbons observes that U.S. diplomacy promoting the NPT regime is more or less effective depending on how deeply embedded the target state is in the U.S.-led international order.

Chapter 2 briefly describes the actions taken by each U.S. administration from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to President Donald Trump to promote adherence to the nuclear nonproliferation regime. This gives the reader an intuitive grasp of how much effort different presidents put into advancing nonproliferation and how much success they have had as a result. The author describes this varying presidential performance against a steady institutional backdrop of a focused U.S. nonproliferation bureaucracy.

South Africa, a key actor in the history of nuclear nonproliferation, gave up its nuclear weapons program after Frederik de Klerk (L) was elected the country’s president in 1989. He is pictured in 1990 with anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, who would become de Klerk’s successor. (Photo by Gallo Images via Getty Images/Sunday Times)The author then tests her theoretical explanation of why states adhere to the various nonproliferation agreements by using case studies representing multiple steps in the construction of the regime. She examines how the United States acted to bring Japan, Indonesia, Egypt, and Cuba into NPT membership, showcasing the range of the hegemon’s tools across a range of states with varying degrees of embeddedness in the U.S.-led international order. Next, the U.S. global campaign to indefinitely extend the NPT in 1995 is viewed through the lenses of Japan, Indonesia, South Africa, and Egypt. Finally, Gibbons details U.S. efforts to promote adoption by Japan, Indonesia, and (unsuccessfully) Egypt of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Model Additional Protocol.

Her case selection in these three empirical chapters is elegant and parsimonious. Japan’s story carries the reader through that country’s flirtation with nuclear armament, its commitment to the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament within limits set by its reliance on U.S. extended deterrence, its development of a vast nuclear power program unique in a non-nuclear-weapon state, and its intense sensitivity to U.S. policy signals, given Japan’s close alignment with the United States. Regional security considerations, turbulent domestic politics, and dynamics as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement have caused a wide variation in Egypt’s receptivity to U.S. nonproliferation leadership, including its long-standing rejection of adopting an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. South Africa’s story encompasses the complex interaction of a revolutionary government coming to terms with an imperative to pursue a justice agenda while navigating nuclear disarmament under intense U.S. scrutiny.

The Cuban case shocks the reader with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s claim, just five years after the Cuban missile crisis, that Cuba’s participation in the nonproliferation regime “does not relate to the Soviet Union” and U.S. Department of State official John Bolton’s unsubstantiated claim in 2002 that Cuba had a biological weapons program that might lead the United States to attack. Bolton’s threat in the context of the U.S. invasion of Iraq apparently coerced Cuba into finally joining the NPT and was “the opposite of what security theory would predict” and what North Korea did. Indonesia’s journey invites the reader to view the nonproliferation regime through the hopes and challenges that nuclear power poses for a developing economy. These cases not only cover theoretically important questions related to Gibbons’ theory, but also give the reader a solid introduction to the practice of nonproliferation diplomacy.

The distinction between nuclear proliferation behavior and nuclear nonproliferation behavior could have been drawn more brightly in the book. For example, Gibbons contrasts her theory with security arguments for nuclear weapons and Etel Solingen’s domestic political explanation for proliferation restraint, which are typically understood to be explanations for the proliferation behavior of states, not their nonproliferation behavior. This choice may invite neorealist skepticism of the notion that paper tools such as negotiated treaties can drive material outcomes such as nuclear restraint. Nuclear nonproliferation diplomacy is mostly a quotidian concern of diplomats, in contrast to nuclear weapons policy decisions that are the assertively defended fiefdom of defense officials. Considering an alternative view of the NPT as an indicator of the quality of agreement around a balance of obligations rather than a little paper barrier to big change in atomic hardware might better insulate the author’s bull’s-eye insights into what makes the nonproliferation regime work.

In describing the strength of the nonproliferation regime as a function of The Hegemon’s Tool Kit, Gibbons is careful to draw out a vital corollary: other states have politics too. Doing so invites future researchers to extend her method to additional cases and additional elements of the nonproliferation regime. Extending her method also could help design more effective future elements of an enhanced nonproliferation regime, including in ways that better represent the views of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Although crucial to international security, the NPT is not the best imaginable version of itself. Gibbons observes how the United States has worked to shore up the treaty with other measures, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the IAEA Model Additional Protocol, but U.S. preferences may not always be the best to strengthen the regime. For example, the U.S. emphasis on universality is not the only possible measure of goodness or effectiveness of the regime. States are not equally interested in or adequately resourced to prevent nuclear proliferation, as Gibbons demonstrates in her discussion of the developing world’s low interest in adopting an additional protocol. Regional groupings, such as the implementing bodies for zones free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), may be superior mechanisms for strong nonproliferation engagement than UN delegations working from New York or Geneva.

Gibbons describes U.S. negotiator Tom Graham’s globe-trotting campaign to secure indefinite extension of the NPT, a campaign needed in part to bind the ambassadors at the United Nations, who normally had wide decision-making discretion, to the considered national positions of their governments. Similarly, although the NPT’s indefinite extension was achieved without meeting Egypt’s demands, the issue of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East surfaced again at the 2010 NPT Review Conference and remains unresolved. Mohamed ElBaradei’s service as Egyptian vice president following his leadership of the IAEA seems deeply relevant to Egypt’s nonproliferation story, but is missing from this narrative.

The author explores the role of nuclear power in nuclear nonproliferation, emphasizing the important changes made by the addition of the NSG and the additional protocol to the regime. Additional research could further illuminate how the danger of climate change and the growing need for electricity, which is especially profound in the developing world, could drive groups of states to contribute positively to the further development of the nonproliferation regime. The wealth of detail Gibbons provides about supply-side constraints on enrichment and reprocessing should be matched by additional research on demand-side dynamics, which Scott Sagan has suggested is necessary to move beyond the “chimera” of a single measure of nuclear latency. Today’s understanding of enrichment and reprocessing “hedging” or “latency” could be enhanced by a more inclusive view of the role of nuclear energy and other energy technologies in meeting global climate and development challenges.

The new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) may be a step toward a regime that is not exclusively the hegemon’s project. It is a potential remedy to Gibbons’ observation that, “after 50 years, the [NPT] no longer seems as fair to many of its members.” She documents the Trump administration’s imperious impertinence in sending a message to TPNW states-parties that “we believe you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession.” The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership experience of convening energy ministries rather than foreign ministries to discuss nonproliferation considerations has potential and should be further explored. Further research should look beyond how each past step in the nonproliferation regime prioritized U.S. goals and explore instead how the TPNW could be a first step toward prioritizing the goals of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Gibbons’ dire warning that “a period without a clear hegemon could endanger the regime” should awaken us not only to the fragility of the NPT regime but also to the opportunity to include more voices in solving the global problem of nonproliferation as a mechanism for preventing nuclear war. As the boundaries among nuclear nonproliferation and deterrence, arms control, and disarmament shift, Gibbons’ book offers an excellent starting point to imagine a stronger regime and a more secure future.


Douglas B. Shaw consults on nuclear weapons policy research and education and is a research professor of international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Policymakers will benefit from Rebecca Davis Gibbons’ clarion warning that “[w]hen the United States does not prioritize the regime, it weakens.”

December 2022 Books of Note

December 2022

Ploughshares and Swords: India's Nuclear Program in the Global Cold War
By Jayita Sarkar
Cornell University Press
July 2022

Jayita Sarkar’s book presents a comprehensive and engaging history of the first 40 years of India’s nuclear program from its inauguration in the 1940s through the 1980s. India conducted its first nuclear weapons test in 1974 and a second round of tests in 1998. The author, having grown up in India, remembers how South Asia was shaken after the May 1998 tests. She focuses not only on India but also on how the crux of the Atomic Age coincided with an era of global decolonization after World War II.

Sarkar examines how the nuclear program was shaped by shifting geopolitical dynamics after Indian independence and throughout the Cold War in terms of the country’s relationship with China; France, its first nuclear partner; Pakistan; and the United States. She argues that India’s nuclear weapons and energy programs had a deliberate duality from the start, saying that, from inception, “ploughshares were swords, and swords were ploughshares.” The nuclear program also was entrenched in the development of Indian space technology. The book is an essential reference to understanding the complex nuclear histories of India and its regional competitors and, as such, is a finalist for the 2023 ISA Global Development Studies Book Award.—HEATHER FOYE

The Nuclear Club: How America and the World Policed the Atom from Hiroshima to Vietnam
By Jonathan R. Hunt
Stanford University Press
November 2022

In The Nuclear Club, Jonathan R. Hunt explores the history of the campaign to ban the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries in the wake of the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He details the rise of the nonproliferation regimes after 1945, and the international negotiations that led to the landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968.

The book draws on declassified sources to illustrate how this Cold War diplomacy built a foundation for the international society rooted in the myth that the absence of war among world powers would result in global peace. This, Hunt argues, led members of “the most exclusive club on earth” to intervene in global affairs in the name of “saving humanity from itself.” By that “club” he means the United States, primarily, but also the other nuclear-weapon states legitimized by the NPT (China, France, the Soviet Union/Russia and the United Kingdom).

Hunt is unsparing in his critique and focuses more than most on the darker side of the experiment to remake the post-World War II international order. He observes “how what began as an attempt to build world government under law became a warrant for defying the UN Charter.” He also asserts that the “NPT’s founding purpose was not peace but to nip the revolutionary potential of atomic physics in the bud.”—CHRIS ROSTAMPOUR

Ploughshares and Swords: India's Nuclear Program in the Global Cold War
By Jayita Sarkar
Cornell University Press
July 2022

The Nuclear Club: How America and the World Policed the Atom from Hiroshima to Vietnam
By Jonathan R. Hunt
Stanford University Press
November 2022


Iran Escalates in Response to IAEA Board Censure

December 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran responded to a censure by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors by ratcheting up uranium-enrichment activities at its underground Fordow facility, a move that increases the risk of proliferation.

Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, addressed the 66th International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference in September in Vienna. (Photo by Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)The IAEA board on Nov. 17 passed a resolution condemning Iran for its continued failure to cooperate with a years-long investigation into past nuclear activities that should have been declared under Iran’s legally binding safeguards agreement. Prior to the vote, the IAEA reported that there was no progress on the investigation despite two meetings between Iranian and IAEA officials in September and November.

The resolution, approved by a vote of 26–2, is the second resolution the board passed this year censuring Iran for stonewalling IAEA inquiries. (See ACT, July/August 2022.) Using stronger language than the June 2022 board censure, the Nov. 17 resolution “decides” that it is “essential and urgent” for Iran to “act to fulfil its legal obligations” and clarify the outstanding safeguards issues without delay. The IAEA investigation is focused on accounting for the presence of uranium processed prior to 2003 at three locations that Iran did not identify for the agency as nuclear sites.

In a Nov. 17 statement on behalf of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Corinne Kitsell, UK ambassador to the IAEA, said Iran’s cooperation in addressing the outstanding issues is “integral to the necessary verification assurances that Iran’s declarations are complete and correct.”

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami, said on Nov. 19 that Iran would “respond firmly” to the resolution, which he described as containing “untrue content.” Iran has continued to claim, without presenting any evidence, that the presence of the processed uranium at the undeclared locations was an act of third-party sabotage and that the IAEA investigation is based on fabricated information.

Three days later, Eslami announced that Iran had begun enrichment of uranium to 60 percent uranium-235 at Fordow, which the IAEA confirmed in a report that same day.

Uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 can be used for building nuclear weapons, but a warhead with a material enriched to that level would be bulky and inconsistent with the designs Iran pursued as part of its pre-2003 organized nuclear weapons program. But enrichment to 60 percent U-235 is shy of the 90 percent U-235 considered weapons grade. Iran has enough 60 percent U-235 stockpiled that it could produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb in less than one week.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a Nov. 20 interview with CBS that “we don’t have any information that would indicate that Iran has a nuclear weapons program at the moment.” He added that “we need to work very hard” to make sure Iran does not get there.

Iran’s choice of the Fordow facility for increasing its production of 60 percent U-235 poses a more serious proliferation risk than if it decided to increase production of 60 percent U-235 at the Natanz complex, where in April 2021 it began enriching to that level at its aboveground enrichment building. (See ACT, May 2021.)

Fordow, near the city of Qom, was transitioned to a research facility under the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Uranium enrichment was prohibited at that site for 15 years in part because the deeply buried facility would be challenging to destroy in a military strike. The design suggests the facility was built originally as a complex for producing nuclear material for weapons because its small size is not well suited to producing the large quantities of low-enriched uranium necessary to fuel a nuclear power reactor such as Iran’s Bushehr reactor.

Iran had resumed enrichment activities at Fordow in November 2019 as part of its efforts to pressure the United States to return to compliance with the nuclear deal and was using it to produce 20 percent U-235 prior to the Nov. 22 announcement.

The IAEA also reported on Nov. 22 that Iran plans to install at Fordow an additional 14 cascades of IR-6 centrifuges, six of which would replace the less efficient IR-1 centrifuges currently installed at the facility. According to an IAEA report on Nov. 10, Iran had two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges and six cascades of IR-1 centrifuges at the facility.

In a Nov. 22 statement, France, Germany, and the UK called the decision to produce 60 percent U-235 at Fordow a “challenge to the global nonproliferation system” that has “no credible civilian justification.” Iran does not operate any reactors requiring uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235.

The statement also drew attention to the negative implications Iran’s actions have for restoring the nuclear deal. “By accelerating its production of enriched uranium, Iran has taken further significant steps in hollowing out the JCPOA,” they said.

But European and U.S. officials have admitted that restoring the nuclear deal is not their primary focus at this time. French President Emmanuel Macron went a step further, telling France Inter radio on Nov. 14 that a “new framework” likely will be necessary to address Iran’s nuclear program.

Robert Malley, U.S. special envoy to Iran, speaking to reporters on Nov. 14, did not comment on how long the window for restoring the JCPOA will remain open, but said that the U.S. response “will be different and coordinated with our European allies” if Iran’s nuclear program crosses “new thresholds.”


After the censure, Iran ratcheted up uranium-enrichment activities, increasing the risk of proliferation.

North Korea Conducts Unprecedented Missile Drill

December 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea conducted an unprecedented missile drill involving the launch of more than 20 systems in response to South Korean-U.S. military exercises as tensions on the Korean peninsula continue to escalate.

North Korea has cited recent military exercises between South Korea and the United States as a reason for ratcheting up tests of its missile arsenal. (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)The Nov. 2 drill involved short-range ballistic and surface-to-air missile systems. The day-long barrages were designed to simulate a “strike on the enemy’s air force base” and demonstrate North Korea’s ability to “annihilate air targets at different altitudes and distances,” according to a report from the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army.

The flurry of launches responded to a large-scale South Korean-U.S. military exercise, called Vigilant Storm, involving more than 240 aircraft. Pyongyang described it as a “dangerous war drill” and an “open provocation.”

U.S. Defense Department press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the four-day exercise, which began on Oct. 31, was designed to “support our strong combined defense posture” with South Korea.

The day before the launch, Pak Jong Chon, secretary of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said the drills are part of a U.S. plan to “end the government” of North Korea. He warned that if South Korea and the United States attempt to use force against North Korea, they will “pay the most horrible price in history” and the North will use nuclear weapons “without delay.” In September, North Korea passed a law codifying its nuclear posture and mission, which includes using nuclear weapons first if necessary to repel an attack. (See ACT, October 2022.)

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price accused Pyongyang of using the joint exercise as a “pretext for provocations” and said it knows the U.S.-South Korean exercises are “purely defensive in nature.”

One missile launched on Nov. 2 landed near South Korea’s territorial waters. South Korean President Yook Suk Yeol called the test a “territorial encroachment” and ordered the military to take swift action so that North Korea pays a “clear price” for the provocation. The South Korean air force responded by firing several air-to-surface missiles near North Korea’s territorial waters.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said the response demonstrated that South Korea is willing to “firmly response to any North Korean provocations” and that it has the “capabilities and readiness” to conduct precision strikes against North Korea. “All responsibility lies with North Korea” if the situation escalates further, the statement said.

North Korea launched additional missiles on Nov. 3–5, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fired on a lofted trajectory. The ICBM tested was a new missile that appears to be designed to carry a larger payload than earlier missile models. The launch was only partially successful, according to the South Korean military.

North Korea conducted a second ICBM test on Nov. 18. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the Hwasong-17 missile launch and said that if enemies continue to pose threats, his government will “resolutely react” with nuclear weapons. North Korea first tested the Hwasong-17, which is capable of reaching anywhere in the United States, in March. (See ACT, April 2022.)

South Korea disputed North Korea’s claims that the North launched two cruise missiles on Nov. 2, saying no missiles were tracked in the area where the North claims the launch took place.

Regardless, Pyongyang’s pursuit of cruise missiles is concerning because these systems are maneuverable in midflight, unlike ballistic missiles, which fly on a set trajectory. Guiding cruise missiles midflight makes these systems more difficult to intercept, but there is an increased risk that the systems will veer off course if the guidance systems fail.

North Korea’s missile launches over the four-day period demonstrated its ability to paralyze the “operation command of the enemy” and show South Korea and the United States that they will pay the “most horrible price in history” if they attack North Korea, according to the general staff statement published on the state-run Korean Central News Agency website.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said it will not consider suspending military drills in response to North Korean threats and that exercises are a “fundamental” duty of the military.

U.S. President Joe Biden, trying to prevent regional tensions from escalating further, urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to press North Korea not to conduct a seventh nuclear test. He spoke with Xi during a Nov. 14 meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit.

South Korean intelligence has assessed that North Korea completed preparations for the nuclear explosion at its Punggye-ri test site, but it is not clear when the test will take place.

After meeting Xi, Biden told reporters he is “confident that China is not looking for North Korea to engage in further escalatory” actions, but acknowledged there are limits to China’s influence.

Biden reiterated that the United States will respond to a nuclear test but that those actions are designed to “send a clear message to North Korea” that the United States will “defend our allies” and any response “would not be directed against China.”

Ahead of the Biden-Xi meeting, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that China has an interest in “playing a constructive role in restraining” North Korea, because if “North Korea keeps going down this road, it will simply mean further enhanced American military and security presence in the region.”

Biden also met the leaders of Japan and South Korea during the G-20 meeting. They issued a trilateral statement on Nov. 13 that said any nuclear test by North Korea would lead to a “strong and resolute response from the international community.” The statement said the three countries would work together to “close gaps” in sanctions against North Korea and called on the North to “return to negotiations.”

Although North Korea’s missile launches are prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have not succeeded in garnering support for new resolutions condemning the North’s actions and imposing further sanctions.

China and Russia have objected to ratcheting up pressure on North Korea at the Security Council and instead proposed limited relief from some UN sanctions to encourage the North to return to talks.

Yoon met Xi during the G-20 meeting and requested that China play a “constructive role” at the UN Security Council in response to North Korea’s provocations. Xi said China would “actively support” Yoon’s diplomatic approach toward North Korea if the North shows interest.

In what he called an “audacious initiative” for resuming dialogue, Yoon in August said South Korea would offer incentives that will “significantly improve North Korea’s economy” in exchange for a “genuine and substantive process for denuclearization.”

The United States also continues to reiterate its willingness to engage in talks with North Korea without preconditions, but the North does not appear interested in diplomacy at this time.

The Nov. 2 drill involved the launch of more than 20 systems in response to South Korean-U.S. military exercises as tensions on the Korean peninsula continue to escalate.

Russian Officials Talk Nuclear War, U.S. Intelligence Says

December 2022
By Shannon Bugos

Senior Russian officials have discussed the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, according to a new U.S. intelligence analysis. But U.S. officials stand divided about the meaning of the analysis, CNN and The New York Times reported on Nov. 2.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks to reporters in November on a visit to Kyiv. In recent months, he has held discussions with Yuri Ushakov, a top foreign policy adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an effort to keep communications open between Moscow and Washington. (Photo by Evgen Kotenko / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)The new assessment by the U.S. National Intelligence Council has led to differing interpretations. Some Biden administration officials believe the Russian discussions might signal genuine consideration of nuclear use on the Ukrainian battlefield, where Russia has sustained huge losses, while others believe the discussions do not imply intent at this stage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin did not take part in discussions, according to senior U.S. officials who described the intelligence assessment to CNN and The Times.

The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry immediately dismissed the reports, stating that “Russia is strictly and consistently guided by the tenet that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The Russian Defense Ministry responded by outlining the scenarios in which Moscow might “hypothetically” consider the use of nuclear weapons, as described in a June 2020 policy document. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

U.S. National Security Council official John Kirby refused to comment “on the particulars of this reporting,” but said the United States has maintained “an appropriate level of concern about the potential use of weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, to include nuclear weapons.”

The Pentagon, along with U.S. and allied intelligence agencies, has monitored Russian nuclear forces continually and repeatedly assessed that there are neither signs of imminent nuclear use nor reasons for the United States to change the posture of its nuclear forces.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, has held behind-the-scenes discussions in recent months with Yuri Ushakov, a top foreign policy adviser to Putin, and Nikolai Patrushev, the Russian Security Council secretary, in an effort to maintain communications, clarify potential misunderstandings, and decrease the risk of escalation, including to the nuclear level, in Ukraine.

Similarly, CIA Director William Burns met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Naryshkin, on Nov. 14 in Ankara, Turkey, to dissuade Russia from using nuclear weapons.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also spoke with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on Oct. 21, the first time since May, and “emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war against Ukraine,” according to a Pentagon statement.

On direct orders from Putin, Shoigu called his French, Turkish, UK, and U.S. counterparts two days later to allege that Ukraine was readying a “dirty bomb,” a conventional explosive designed to spread radioactive material.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley spoke on Oct. 24 with Chief of Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States jointly rejected Russia’s “transparently false” claim.

Ukraine invited the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into the country to conduct inspections, which the agency carried out at three locations beginning on Oct. 31.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi officially dismissed Russia’s claim on Nov. 3, announcing that “our technical and scientific evaluation of the results we have so far did not show any sign of undeclared nuclear activities and materials at these three locations.”

Moscow’s allegation came as an ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive prompted Russian forces to withdraw from Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city captured by Russia in its invasion. NATO and Russia had just ended simultaneous nuclear exercises in October. (See ACT, November 2022.)

Near the end of the exercises, Politico reported that the Pentagon has sped up the arrival of the upgraded B61-12 gravity bomb to NATO bases in Europe. The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the move and argued that the United States is “reducing the nuclear threshold.”

The U.S. Defense Department denied the Politico report, saying the B61’s modernization effort “is in no way linked to current events in Ukraine and was not sped up in any way.” Richard Johnson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear policy, reiterated on Oct. 28 that the B61-12 “is on the same schedule it has always been on.”

Three weeks later, concerns spiked that the war officially had entered NATO territory, with reports that some of Russia’s estimated 85 conventional missiles aimed at Ukraine’s power grid crossed over into Przewodów, Poland, on Nov. 15, killing two people.

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Nov. 16 that it was “unlikely in the lines of the trajectory that it was fired from Russia.” Later that day, Polish President Andrzej Duda shared the findings from an initial assessment, which found that “Ukraine’s defense was launching their missiles in various directions, and it is highly probable that one of these missiles unfortunately fell on Polish territory.”

Although the U.S. National Security Council, the Pentagon, and NATO all backed Poland’s assessment, Ukraine dismissed it. The Russian Foreign Ministry denied that “Russian firepower” had struck inside of Poland.

Senior Russian officials discussed possibly using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but U.S. officials are divided about what this means, according to CNN and The New York Times.


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