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January/February 2021
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A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A New Approach to Nonproliferation

January/February 2021

Denuking the Middle East

A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction:
A New Approach to Nonproliferation

By Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Emad Kiyaei
(Routledge, 2020)
166 pages

Reviewed by Thomas R. Pickering

The incoming Biden administration will certainly need to face Middle Eastern nuclear issues immediately as it considers whether and how to revitalize the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal, from which the United States withdrew in 2018, is a key factor in addressing larger regional nuclear issues. Many hope that the region can someday adopt an agreement establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and two Iranian authors have penned a serious technical and political examination of this problem.

On a late January afternoon in 1985, in my office at the U.S. embassy in El Salvador, I received an unexpected phone call from Secretary of State George Shultz. He asked if I would serve as the next U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv. With only one hesitation, I agreed. The hesitation was whether the Israelis would accept me because I had been ambassador to Jordan seven years earlier. The answer was “yes”; they are interested in Jordan and whether Amman can play a positive role in making peace with the Palestinians.

My time in Jordan had focused on such peace issues, and I brought to it some experience with arms control and disarmament from the 1960s. I had watched the Arms Control Agency’s deputy director, Adrian “Butch” Fisher, struggle with the early stages of an Irish idea that became the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968.

It turned out that my service in Israel was all about the peace effort and not about nonproliferation. That was no surprise. Peace trumped and sublimated Israel’s nuclear program and U.S. attention to it.

A WMD-Free Zone

That conundrum is now at the center of A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A New Approach to Nonproliferation by Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Emad Kiyaei. It is not the only salient question in the challenge of whether nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons can be removed permanently from the region, but one of the most important. There are others: Can a WMD-free zone work in a politically contested and chaotic Middle East? Will including chemical and biological weapons help or hurt in the creation of such a zone? Are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey ready for such a deal? Is the region capable of coming together over WMD prohibitions with contention between Iran and the Persian Gulf states and differences in Algeria and Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen? Is the return of Iran and the United States to the JCPOA necessary to succeed? Can key JCPOA provisions be used to build the nuclear aspects of such a deal? Is a regional approach achievable? Can a subregional approach without Israel be achieved, possibly as a first stage of a regional approach? Is a more universal approach, filling the “hole” in the NPT by using commitments from the JCPOA on inspections and limits to uranium enrichment and no separation of plutonium, a possibility to enhance a regional approach? Will global powers cooperate?

Making It Happen

The NPT is the bedrock to avoid nuclear catastrophe. It is based on a simple approach: the more states that hold nuclear weapons, the greater the chances for use, mistaken or accidental. Once begun, a nuclear exchange is not possible to stop.

Nuclear weapons have only been used by the United States against Japan, the death and casualty toll horrendous. The impact compelled statesmen for 75 years to seek answers through weapons sharing (the Baruch Plan), commitments to nonproliferation, and a strategy to deter use by making clear any use would result in a certain and devastating response. Serious thinkers such as former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), and former Secretary of Defense William Perry have advocated for zero nuclear weapons. All agree it would be preferable for all states to have confidence that there is a solid answer to the question of how we can be sure that all such weapons have been destroyed and no new ones created and what to do if there is a failure on either of these points.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian was a leading official on the Iranian nuclear negotiating team from 2003–2005. (Photo: Robert Newald/Getty Images)Nonproliferation policies have been dedicated to halting the spread of such weapons to more and more states. Fundamental to these efforts is limiting any spread of nuclear weapons to new states and reinforcing that policy by assuring that individual states commit against proliferation in the NPT and join regional zones free of nuclear weapons.

The authors of this important book look at the Middle East (the Arab states, Iran, Israel, and Turkey). They take the proposal a step forward by adding three important features designed to make a nuclear-free zone more effective and perhaps more acceptable.

The first is to incorporate chemical and biological arms into a broader WMD-free agreement. Those weapons are currently the subject of separate global agreements in which most but not all Middle Eastern states have agreed to participate.

A second concern is Israel. A widely recognized but not self-admitted possessor of nuclear arms, Israel is seen by the other states in the region as a necessary participant in the zone. As such, it would have to become a full party to the zone agreement and the NPT, as well as the other treaties on chemical and biological weapons. Israel’s policy has been accompanied by a statement, now more than 30 years old, by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that Israel would consider joining the NPT when a full and effective peace arrangement in the region was in force. Similarly, then-Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres stated in 1963 that Israel would not be the first to “introduce” a nuclear weapon in the Middle East. There are obvious ambiguities about whether those declarations still remain the policy of Israel and about what the verb “introduce” means. It could cover everything from a posture of not completing the full assembly of a weapon to a decision to use the weapon or the actual delivery of a weapon.

The book’s authors understand that, among supporters of such a zone, Egypt in particular has strong interest in having Israel in the zone. In principle, the authors agree, but are bedeviled by the concern that if the zone has to await a peace agreement, other states may have already proliferated.

The third major point is the conclusion that states in the region can begin the process with a first stage, subregional arrangement excluding Israel. With the importance of proliferation in the region, a logical and important step would be to include Iran and the Arab states in a subregional pact as a first step.

With regard to Iran and peace in the Middle East, outside regional players, including the United States, Russia, and China, have a major role to play. How, when, and where remains clouded. Yet, they could contribute to efforts to bring nonproliferation first, with peace to follow. There is no assurance that it will work, but the authors believe it is worth a try; given the objective and their experience, I agree.

The authors have significant experience in dealing with the region and nuclear issues. Mousavian is a distinguished diplomat deeply involved in the negotiations around the Iran nuclear program. Kiyaei is a director of the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO), a body dedicated to eliminating these weapons from the region.

The book makes clear that a subregional agreement that meets the needs of the area and enlists civil society and religious views behind it would make it easier for Israel eventually to join. It fails to resolve the continuing question of whether any nation will join such an agreement without all states being involved, particularly Israel.

The book looks carefully at how the elements and principles of the JCPOA can best be incorporated in a regional accord. It reviews the troubled diplomacy for bringing a zone about with a phased approach. It looks carefully at the pitfalls and problems, including the peace issues, and makes cogent suggestions for moving forward.

The Biden team has evinced solid interest in returning to the JCPOA. That could lead to further work on proliferation, but inspiration is not achievement. The Israel conundrum hangs heavy over the region and proliferation, as does the need for a peace settlement.

There is no doubt that a WMD-free zone in the Middle East would be a major step, and on this, President Joe Biden beats President Donald Trump. The Israeli aspect of the issue is critical, and uncertainties still abound. All close followers of nonproliferation and the politics of this fractured and torn region will find this book solid and engaging as it wrestles with a transcendental and irascible problem written from a unique regional perspective.

Thomas R. Pickering served four decades in the U.S. Department of State, retiring in 2000 after more than three years as undersecretary of state for political affairs. During his career, he served as ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan.

Two Iranian scholars consider ways to bring into effect a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

First UN Resolution Holds Lessons for Latest Nuclear Treaty

January/February 2021
By Ryan A. Musto

The UN General Assembly’s first resolution, passed 75 years ago on January 24, 1946, looked to “deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy.” Specifically, Resolution 1(I) created the UN Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC) and charged it with making proposals for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons” and the use of atomic energy “only for peaceful purposes.”1

The first session of the UN Atomic Energy Commission met in New York on June 14, 1946. (Photo: United Nations)Scholars, activists, jurists, and policymakers celebrate the resolution as a foundational moment in a collective push for nuclear disarmament, an effort that has seen its latest achievement with the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Set to enter into force on January 22, the TPNW seeks to outlaw nuclear weapons worldwide. In its preamble, the TPNW recalls the resolution as a source of inspiration, and the two initiatives are widely regarded as bookends of a lifetime commitment by the United Nations to ban the bomb.

The resolution, however, was not the lodestar many in the nuclear policy community imagine. The United States crafted its language to avoid a nuclear ban. Moreover, by placing the UNAEC under the direction of the UN Security Council, the resolution helped to consolidate an unequal global nuclear order. Less a model to achieve, the resolution is a reminder of challenges the TPNW must overcome on the path to global zero.

Bucking a Ban

In November 1945, three months removed from the U.S. atomic bombings in Japan, U.S. President Harry Truman hosted the prime ministers of Canada and the United Kingdom in Washington to chart a position on the international control of atomic energy. Vannevar Bush, the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, took charge of the U.S. position.

U.S. President Harry Truman (left), UK Prime Minister Clement Atlee (center), and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie meet aboard the USCG Sequoia in Washington in November 1945. Their discussions addressed the international control of atomic energy, and their summit statement led to the creation of the UN Atomic Energy Commission. (Photo: Harris and Ewing/BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives, Canada)Bush outlined a three-staged proposal he hoped the Soviet Union, the estranged wartime ally, would support. The first two stages would use the UN to facilitate the sharing of atomic information and establish inspections for materials used in making nuclear weapons. The third stage would dismantle atomic bombs, transfer their fissile material to peaceful nuclear power plants, and help ensure that the future production of fissile material be used solely for peaceful purposes.2

Bush’s goals, however, did not include a ban on the bomb. “We also want to have atomic bombs and to be in a clear position to use them promptly, if there is any chance that our enemy has them,” Bush wrote to Secretary of States James Byrnes. “Hence our program toward international understanding should involve no premature ‘outlawing of the bomb,’ which is a dangerous phrase.” Bush believed that a determined state would be able to make an atomic bomb and thus found any nuclear prohibition futile. What needed to be outlawed in the atomic age, he argued, was not the weapons that waged war, but war itself.3

With all fissile material stored in “bar form” for use in nuclear power plants, Bush looked to prevent any surprise nuclear attack. The time it would take to divert fissile material from nuclear power plants into weaponized form, he reasoned, would provide ample warning. Yet, Bush was not prepared to forgo the ability to make that transfer. “The cost of this step to us is merely that it would make the material unavailable for atomic bombs without a period of preparation,” Bush assured Byrnes.4 It meant the United States would maintain a latent nuclear weapons capability and be able to reconstitute an atomic arsenal in a time of need.

Bush led the creation of the joint statement the three leaders issued at the conclusion of the summit. The so-called Washington Declaration dealt a blow to a ban on the bomb in varied ways. It claimed that no nation should possess an atomic monopoly, a means of assurance to the UK of an Anglo-American atomic partnership. It also held that “no system of safeguards that can be devised will of itself provide an effective guarantee against production of atomic weapons by a nation bent on aggression.” In other words, any nuclear ban seemed unenforceable. Finally, the declaration called for the creation of the UNAEC, which would make proposals for the elimination of atomic bombs, not as a category of weapon but from national armaments. Some thought this stipulation meant that an international authority, perhaps the UN, might wield a nuclear arsenal. Overall, one informed source claimed the Washington Declaration looked to avoid the “spurious security” of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact that failed to outlaw war.5

Serving the Security Council

To make the Washington Declaration’s call for the UNAEC a reality, the United States required Soviet support. In December 1945, the Soviet Union agreed on the condition that the UNAEC serve under the UN Security Council. This arrangement would give the permanent members of the Security Council and Canada veto power over any action by the UNAEC.6

With language taken directly from the Washington Declaration, Resolution 1(I) passed unanimously on January 24, 1946, but it hardly constituted a “collective delegitimization” of nuclear weapons.7 The New York Times noted that the General Assembly adopted the resolution “without even a serious attempt to analyze what it meant. The general attitude was that members could not change it without antagonizing the powers that controlled the atomic secrets, so they did not try.”8 Feeble protests, though, had emerged. Mexico called to adjourn the General Assembly to seek further clarification. The Philippines argued that the question of atomic energy was “so transcendental that there should be full discussion” and reprimanded the great powers for their attempt to “railroad the matter through.”9 Nevertheless, the great powers ensured that the resolution passed in a “swift, businesslike manner.”10

By placing the UNAEC under the UN Security Council, the resolution stripped the General Assembly’s small and medium-sized members of power to steer the world’s nuclear fate. The injustice was not lost on Philippine delegate Pedro Lopez, who declared that the resolution “would result in embarrassing, instead of glorifying, this Assembly.” As Lopez asked his counterparts in vivid terms, “If this text is adopted, should we not find ourselves in the same awkward predicament as a woman who gave life to a child and yet was not permitted to fondle it, nor to direct the course of its upbringing in accordance with the image of her ideal, or even to see the child? Would you conceive of a God who was impotent to give our fates and destinies any guiding direction after having created us?”11

Within months, the United States and Soviet Union doomed the UNAEC with dueling plans for nuclear disarmament. Faced with perpetual deadlock, the UNAEC became inactive by the end of the decade and dissolved shortly thereafter.

Trouble for the TPNW?

The loopholes and inequities Resolution 1(I) looked to exploit are obstacles the TPNW must overcome. The TPNW calls for the “irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons,” but the threat of nuclear latency, which Bush guarded against and relied on, remains. A 1997 report by the National Academy of Sciences predicted that even after all nuclear weapons had been eliminated, a score of states “could in a national emergency produce a dozen simple fission weapons in as little as a few months, even if no effort had been made to maintain this capability.”12 A more recent study published by the Wilson Center concurs. “In a world of greatly reduced or zero nuclear weapons, latency would create high levels of crisis and arms race instability. Latency might enable states to rapidly reverse their disarmament activity.”13 The TPNW offers no solution to this vexing problem, and some argue that it must prohibit “nuclear-weapons usable materials for any purpose” to meet the danger.14

The TPNW also calls on a “competent international authority” to enforce its mission, but it must avoid the power imbalance found with the subjugation of the UNAEC to the Security Council. The International Atomic Energy Agency is set to play a major role in TPNW verification, but the great powers designed and dominate its operation. Perhaps the creation of a parallel body under the TPNW composed of UN employees and a diverse cadre of independent experts would offer a solution.15

Proponents of the TPNW find one of its greatest contributions to be normative. They believe the TPNW, negotiated by more than 120 non-nuclear-weapon states of the General Assembly and civil society groups, will stigmatize and delegitimize nuclear weapons enough to change the behavior of nuclear-armed states and their allies. Its bottom-up push for a global ban on the bomb exceeds the intent behind Resolution 1(I), but supporters must beware the pitfalls of Resolution 1(I) that remain.


1. UN General Assembly, “Establishment of a Commission to Deal With the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy,” A/RES/1(I), January 24, 1946.

2. Vannevar Bush to James Byrnes, memorandum, November 5, 1945, in Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, 1945, General: Political and Economic Matters, Volume II, doc. 26, pp. 69–73, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1945v02/d26.

3. Ibid.

4. Vannevar Bush and L.R. Groves to James Byrnes, memorandum, November 9, 1945, in Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, 1945, General: Political and Economic Matters, Volume II, doc. 27, p. 74, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1945v02/d27.

5. Paul W. Ward, “U.S., Britain and Canada Propose UNO Establish Group to Design Guards,” The Baltimore Sun, November 16, 1945, p. 1.

6. Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko, The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 105.

7. Nina Tannenwald, Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 101.

8. James Reston, “UNO Adopts Plan for Atom Control by Unanimous Vote,” The New York Times, January 25, 1946, pp. 1, 3.

9. Sydney Gruson, “UNO Unit Adopts Bomb Resolution,” The New York Times, January 22, 1946, p. 4.

10. Sydney Gruson, “Atom Commission Has a Hard Task,” The New York Times, January 27, 1946, p. E5.

11. Record of the seventeenth UN General Assembly plenary meeting, January 24, 1946, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/482340/files/A_PV-17-EN.pdf.

12. Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences, The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997), p. 97.

13. Joseph F. Pilat, ed., “Nuclear Latency and Hedging: Concepts, History, and Issues,” Wilson Center, September 2019, p. 7, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/book/nuclear_latency_and_hedging_-_concepts_history_and_issues.pdf.

14. Zia Mian, Tamara Patton, and Alexander Glaser, “Addressing Verification in the Nuclear Ban Treaty,” Arms Control Today, June 2017, pp. 14–22.

15. Tamara Patton, Sébastien Philippe, and Zia Mian, “Fit for Purpose: An Evolutionary Strategy for the Implementation and Verification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2019, pp. 397–404.

Ryan A. Musto is a MacArthur Nuclear Security Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

Approved 75 years ago, UN Resolution 1(I) illustrated challenges still facing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Stepping Back from Unilateralism

January/February 2021
By Antony Blinken

The world that Vice President Biden would be inheriting goes a long way to telling you the direction of the foreign policy we pursue in office. We are facing the most challenging and complex international landscape and international security landscape, certainly in decades, if not longer.

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty ImagesHaving said that, Biden certainly believes it’s within our considerable capacity, America’s considerable capacity, to shape things, at least on the margins, for a better future where our security, our prosperity, and our values are enhanced, not diminished. That’s kind of the big picture that we’re facing. Even in all of this change, there are certain constants; let me just briefly mention those, and we can get into more specifics.

First, whether we like it or not, the world tends not to organize itself. There is a premium still, and in some ways even more than before, on American engagement, on American leadership, because basically we have a choice. If we’re not doing a lot of that organizing in terms of shaping the rules and the norms and the institutions through which countries relate to one another, then one of two things: either someone else is doing it and probably not in a way that advances our own interests and values, or maybe just as bad, no one is, and then you tend to have chaos and a vacuum that may be filled by bad things before good things. There’s a premium, I think Biden believes, on American engagement, on American leadership.

Second, and again no less important for being obvious, there’s also a premium on finding ways and probably new ways to cooperate among nations and among different stakeholders because, simply put, the big problems that we face as a country and as a planet, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s the spread of bad weapons—to state the obvious, none of these have unilateral solutions. Even a country as powerful as the United States can’t handle them alone. There’s no wall high enough or thick enough to ward them off.

Add to that, a crisis in the credibility of institutions, hyperpartisanship, corruption permeating our systems in different ways—it makes for an incredibly challenging time.

To address one specific issue—Iran—we have a problem that President Donald Trump has turned into a much bigger one, a much deeper one and potentially into a crisis. The president did two things: He tore up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran, and he said it would lead to and compel Iran to negotiate a better agreement. He also instituted a campaign of so-called maximum pressure that he said would curb Iran’s provocative actions in the region.

In fact, exactly the opposite has happened, as many predicted at the time. Far from leading to a better agreement, the unraveling of the JCPOA, because of the actions of the Trump administration, has now put us in a place where, one, we’re isolated from our partners who negotiated the agreement with us and, two and much more importantly even, Iran is restarting dangerous components of this program and putting itself in a position where it is closer to a capacity to develop a solid material for a nuclear weapon on short order than it was when we left office.

There is, as far as I can tell, no strategy, no plan on the part of this administration to do anything about this. We’re heading right back to where we were before the agreement, which is a really terrible binary choice between either taking action to stop the program [and] all of the potential unintended consequences of doing that or doing nothing and allowing Iran to be in a breakout position where it can develop a nuclear weapon on very, very short order.

The most fundamental challenge for us and problem for us in terms of our own interest is, in the first instance, dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. That’s what the JCPOA was about. If Iran comes back into compliance with its obligations, Biden said, “[w]e should too, and we would too,” having brought the allies back on our side. But [right] now they keep asserting an equivalence between Iran and the United States, pretty extraordinary, asking us both to calm down.

With our partners and allies back on our side, with the agreement, once again, enforced, we can use that as a platform to try to build a stronger and longer agreement. With the allies with us again, we’re in a much better position jointly to confront Iran’s actions and provocations that we don’t like.

Right now, most of our partners are spending all of their time trying to figure out how to keep the nuclear agreement alive, not working with us to deal with Iran’s excesses in the region.

Adapted from remarks by Antony Blinken, President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, at a Hudson Institute event on July 9, 2020.

The nominee for secretary of state discusses some of the Biden administration's foreign policy principles.

Iran Enriches Uranium to Higher Levels

January/February 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran began enriching uranium to a higher purity level in January, despite warnings from European countries that taking such a step would jeopardize efforts to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi announced on Jan. 11 that Iran was enriching uranium to 20 percent "quite rapidly." (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiyee said on Jan. 4 that “the process of [uranium] gas injection started” at the Fordow facility and that the first “product will come out within a few hours.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that same day that Iran began enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent uranium-235 at the Fordow facility and had notified the agency of its intention to do so in advance, consistent with its past breaches.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on Jan. 11 that Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent was proceeding “quite rapidly” and could likely produce about 10 kilograms of uranium enriched to that level every month.

Enriching uranium to 20 percent is a significant violation of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which limits Iran to uranium enrichment up to 3.67 percent U-235. Iran breached that restriction slightly beginning in July 2019, when it ratcheted up enrichment to 4.5 percent U-235 in response to the Trump administration’s sanctions campaign. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

A law enacted on Dec. 28 mandated that Iran produce 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent every year. The bill passed despite the objections of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who described it as narrowing the space for future diplomacy.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a statement Dec. 7 warning Iran against following through on the activities specified in the nuclear law, saying that if Tehran “is serious about preserving a space for diplomacy, it must not implement these steps.”

They said such action “would jeopardize our shared efforts to preserve the JCPOA and risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming U.S. administration.”

Iran produced 20 percent-enriched uranium prior to negotiations on the JCPOA. Under the deal, Iran is prohibited from enrichment activities at Fordow and is limited to enriching uranium to 3.67 percent for 15 years. Twenty percent-enriched uranium poses a more significant proliferation risk because it constitutes about 90 percent of the required work to enrich uranium to weapons grade, which is uranium enriched to greater than 90 percent U-235.

Despite the move, officials in Tehran, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, continue to signal that Tehran is open to returning to compliance with the accord if the United States does likewise. Khamenei said on Dec. 16 that Iran “should not hesitate for even an hour” if sanctions can be lifted in a “correct, wise” manner.

The law does say that the required actions can be suspended if certain sanctions relief envisioned by the nuclear deal is granted.

U.S. President Joe Biden has made clear his intention to return the United States to compliance with the JCPOA, alongside Iran. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

In a Dec. 2 interview with The New York Times, Biden reaffirmed his intention to return the United States to the JCPOA if Iran adheres to its obligations. He said the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear program” first.

Biden’s plan to rejoin the JCPOA and use it as a basis for further diplomacy with Iran differs significantly from the Trump administration’s approach, which relied on sanctions pressure to try and push Iran to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Iran’s nuclear law in a Dec. 11 statement, describing it as a “ploy to use its nuclear program to try to intimidate the international community.” He said countries “must not reward the regime’s dangerous gamesmanship with economic appeasement.”

The law would also require Iran to halt implementation of the more intrusive inspections in the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, enrich uranium using at least 1,000 advanced IR-2m centrifuges at the Natanz facility within three months, complete the Arak heavy-water reactor, construct a new heavy-water reactor, and inaugurate a uranium-metal facility within five months.

Iran notified the IAEA on Dec. 2 that it intends to install additional advanced IR-2 centrifuges at Natanz.

Despite passage of the legislation, Iran in a Dec. 21 joint statement with the remaining parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the EU) reiterated that the “full and effective implementation of the JCPOA by all remains crucial.”

The statement, which was released after a ministerial meeting of the Joint Commission, the body set up to oversee implementation of the JCPOA, “acknowledged the prospect of a return” of the United States to the JCPOA and “underlined their readiness to positively address this in a joint effort.”

Iran has begun to produce 20 percent-enriched uranium, significantly reducing the work needed to make nuclear weapons material.

No Deal Yet as New START Expiration Nears

January/February 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

With the sole agreement limiting U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals set to expire in early February, Russia has repeated its offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). President Joe Biden has said that he will seek to extend the agreement, but the incoming administration has yet to decide on the length of an extension to seek.

Toward the end of 2020, Russian officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, reaffirmed Russia's willingness to extend New START, but raised the prospect that there was insufficient time to do so. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)“Russia is in favor of extending this treaty for five years without additional conditions,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Nov. 30. In his annual end-of-year news conference on Dec. 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an extension of the treaty for at least one year. New START allows for an extension of up to five years so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents mutually agree to it.

Biden’s advisers continue to consider the length of extension the incoming administration should pursue, with Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan saying Jan. 3 that "right out of the gate in the early days and weeks of the administration...we will have to look at extending that treaty in the interests of the United States." Nearly 30 U.S. arms control experts in a Nov. 30 letter urged Biden to agree to a full five-year extension without conditions as one of his first priorities.

After the U.S. presidential election, the Trump administration and Russia signaled a willingness to reach a deal on extension based on proposals exchanged in October. (See ACT, December 2020.) Washington proposed a politically binding one-year extension of New START and a one-year freeze on the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads of any type at current levels, as well as some type of verification plan for the freeze. Russia, which had called for a five-year extension of New START for much of 2020, countered with a one-year extension and a one-year warhead freeze so long as Washington put forward no other conditions, such as on verification.

Putin said on Dec. 17 that Russia remains open to dialogue regarding the treaty and awaits a response from Washington.

Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, replied on Twitter that the Trump administration has responded five times “to meet to finalize the freeze/extension deal to which Putin agreed” but that the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected all the meetings.

Ryabkov responded to Billingslea that Russia “offered [the United States] to agree on proposal by President Putin 25 times.... Instead of accepting this simple scheme they’re making unacceptable demands.”

The fate of the treaty now rests on the incoming Biden administration and Russia. The two sides will have just 16 days to seal an extension before the treaty expires on Feb. 5, 2021.

Billingslea insisted in remarks given on Nov. 17, published on Dec. 8, that the Trump administration’s proposal “is now the de minimis threshold for all future nuclear arms control deals with Russia.”

“Any future deal which fails to cap all warheads should be regarded as an abject failure,” he continued. “Any simple extension of New START without capitalizing on Putin’s acquiescence to an overall warhead limit would demonstrate a profound lack of negotiating acumen.”

Billingslea said that the two countries “are at the brink” of agreement and that there “is still time to hammer out” the details.

Trump administration critics have argued that such a freeze has never been done previously and that there is not enough time to reach agreement on key details. They claim that the incoming administration should not feel bound to a deal that might break new ground with respect to a warhead freeze but has not been officially agreed to and would only last a year in any event.

The details yet to be finalized include the definition of “warhead,” stockpile declarations, data exchanges, and a plan for verification of the freeze. (See ACT, October 2020.) “All we need to do is define what we are freezing [and] the cap level and start verification talks,” Billingslea tweeted on Dec. 17.

U.S. and Russian officials have said that the Trump administration sought a verification approach outside warhead production and disassembly sites known as portal monitoring. Russia has adamantly objected to this approach.

Meanwhile, in the event an agreement on extension is reached between the Biden administration and Moscow, it remains to be seen how Russia will seek to initially implement an extension given that Russian law requires approval by the Russian parliament.

Ryabkov said on Dec. 7 that, “for Russia to extend [New START] would mean to go through numerous steps…that equals to the formal ratification of a treaty.”

“We are prepared to…do our utmost to be there in time,” he said, but “the situation is challenging, it’s quite a demanding one.”

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.a

The fate of the only treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons remains in question as the Trump administration closes.

U.S. Defense Bill Drops Nuclear Testing

January/February 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

U.S. lawmakers agreed in December to drop dueling House and Senate defense bill provisions on nuclear test explosions prompted by reports last spring that the Trump administration had discussed a resumption of such testing.

Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) praised Congress for refusing to authorize or appropriate funds for renewed U.S. nuclear testing. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)The Democratic-led House in July adopted in its version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) an amendment offered by Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) to prohibit any fiscal year 2021 or prior-year funding “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.” (See ACT, September 2020.)

The House version of the defense and energy and water appropriations bills included a similar prohibition.

The Republican-led Senate version of the authorization bill, however, included an amendment introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to make $10 million available for the United States to conduct a nuclear test. (See ACT, June 2020.)

The final version of the authorization and appropriations bills ultimately eliminated all of the provisions.

McAdams said the final outcome would make the resumption of nuclear testing less likely.

“Our success in this fight means that our citizens won’t have to face the prospect of more dangerous and unnecessary explosive nuclear weapons testing in our backyard,” said McAdams in a Dec. 4 statement. “The United States maintains the most effective and capable nuclear deterrent in the world. We have done so while observing a moratorium on explosive nuclear testing for the past three decades.”

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden criticized the Trump administration last May for debating a return to nuclear testing, calling the possibility “as reckless as it is dangerous.”

Congress initially passed the final defense authorization bill in December by overwhelming veto-proof majorities, but Trump vetoed the bill Dec. 23. The Senate and House overrode the veto on Dec. 28 and Jan. 1, respectively.

Trump signed omnibus appropriations legislation on Dec. 27, and overall, Congress provided $741 billion for national defense programs, the same as the budget request.

In other areas, the sprawling appropriations law approved the vast majority of the Trump administration’s proposed $44.5 billion budget request for programs to maintain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear triad and its associated warheads and supporting infrastructure, but not without controversy.

The law provided $4.4 billion for building a fleet of 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, a slight increase of about $100 million above the budget request. The bill noted that “challenges have occurred in certain design, prototyping, and advance construction efforts of the program” and that “the supplier industrial base presents the most significant risk to the program.”

The law approved $2.8 billion to continue development of the Air Force’s B-21 Raider strategic bomber, the same as the budget request; $1.5 billion for the program to build the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was a decrease of $75 million from the budget request; and $385 million for the Long-Range Standoff Weapon program to replace the existing air-launched cruise missile, $89 million less than the budget request.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile interceptor launches from Kwajalein Atoll in a 2019 test. The defense appropriations bill funded the Missile Defense Agency with 12 percent more than the Trump administration requested. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency) The Air Force in September awarded a $13.3 billion development contract to Northrop Grumman to build the new ICBM system. (See ACT, October 2020.)

The funding reduction for the new cruise missile appears to reflect the Air Force’s decision last spring to continue development with Raytheon as the sole contractor. (See ACT, May 2020.) The service is planning to award the main development contract for the missile in May, about nine months earlier than planned, according to a Nov. 18 Inside Defense report.

The initial House and Senate versions of the appropriations and authorization bills largely aligned on funding to modernize the nuclear triad, but the budget request for and oversight of the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was far more contentious.

The Trump administration last February requested $15.6 billion for the agency’s nuclear weapons activities account, an increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 appropriations and $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the fiscal year 2020 budget request.

In the wake of an internal Trump administration dispute about the appropriate size of the NNSA weapons budget request, the Senate version of the defense authorization bill included provisions that would give the Pentagon’s Nuclear Weapons Council, a body that coordinates the Defense and Energy departments’ nuclear weapons stockpile responsibilities, a much greater say in the annual formulation of the NNSA budget. (See ACT, March 2020.)

In addition to proving controversial in the Senate, the language prompted strong pushback from the House. The lower chamber’s authorization bill included a provision that would make the energy secretary a member of the council, and its appropriations legislation sought to bar the council from expanding its budget role.

The final version of the authorization bill, however, retained much of the Senate language, and the House provisions were dropped from the final appropriations bills.

Meanwhile, the law provided $15.4 billion for the NNSA’s nuclear weapons activities, a decrease of $257 million from the budget request but an increase of $2.9 billion from last year’s appropriation. The law fully funds the $53 million NNSA request to begin early work on a new-design submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead dubbed the W93 and the $1.5 billion NNSA request to increase the rate of production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads to at least 80 per year.

In contrast, the House had proposed $13.7 billion for weapons activities, including no funding for the W93, and a cut of several hundred million dollars for pit production.

Lawmakers poured cold water on the Pentagon’s proposal to supplement existing U.S. homeland missile defenses by modifying existing systems.

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) requested $274 million in fiscal year 2021 to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles, to provide an additional layer of defense against limited ICBMs threats.

In the end, the law provided $49 million only for limited concept studies, a decrease of $225 million from the budget request.

The final authorization bill authorized a similar funding reduction and conditioned 50 percent of the remaining funds on the receipt of a report from the defense secretary and the MDA director detailing a description of the requirements for the layered missile defense proposal; a site-specific fielding plan that includes possible locations, the number and type of interceptors, and radars in each location; and a life-cycle cost estimate of different deployment options.

The law also required an assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency of how using the Aegis and THAAD systems “to conduct longer-range missile defense missions would be perceived by near-peer foreign countries and rogue nations” and how they “would likely respond to such deployments.”

The skepticism from Congress comes on the heels of a successful first intercept test of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile of an ICBM target on Nov. 17. (See ACT, December 2020.)

Critics have warned that an increase in the number of U.S. interceptors capable of intercepting ICBMs could exacerbate Russian and Chinese concerns about the threat the defenses pose to their nuclear deterrents and prompt them to take steps to counter new U.S. missile defenses.

The law provided $10.5 billion for the MDA, an increase of $1.3 billion from the budget request.

The appropriations include increases of $220 million to sustain the existing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system based in Alaska and California, $194 million to develop a new next-generation homeland defense interceptor in the wake of the demise of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program, and $76 million to buy an eighth THAAD battery.

Despite providing a funding boost for the GMD system, Congress raised concerns about the next-generation interceptor, which is not slated to be fielded until 2028 at the earliest. The authorization law requires an independent cost estimate and at least two successful flight intercept tests prior to beginning production of the new interceptor.

The bill also directed the MDA to develop, subject to the availability of appropriations, 20 interim homeland missile defense interceptors by 2026 that, “at minimum, meet the proposed capabilities of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program” and “leverage existing kill vehicle and booster technology.”

The appropriations law, however, did not provide any funding for such an interim interceptor. Moreover, the authorization bill allows the Pentagon to waive the requirement for the interceptor if development is not technically feasible, the interim capability is not in the national security interest of the United States, and the capability cannot be fielded at least two years before the next-generation interceptor.

Elsewhere in the appropriations bill, Congress provided no funding for the Marine Corps to assess the feasibility and utility of firing the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile from a ground launcher.

The Marine Corps had requested $125 million to purchase 48 Tomahawk missiles for this purpose. (See ACT, June 2020.) With an estimated range of between 1,250 and 2,500 kilometers, a ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk would have violated the now-defunct 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the treaty in August 2019.

But the bill provided $88 million in initially unrequested Army funding to pursue development of a ground-launched midrange missile capability. (See ACT, October 2020.) The service last fall selected variants of the Tomahawk and the Navy’s Standard Missile-6 missiles to be part of an initial prototype scheduled to be fielded in 2023.

The appropriations law also increased funding for the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which seeks to counter weapons of mass destruction and related threats.

The Pentagon requested $239 million for the program in fiscal year 2021, a decrease of $135 million, or 36 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 appropriation, prompting alarm from members of Congress, former government officials, and nuclear security experts. (See ACT, April 2020.)

The appropriations bill provided $122 million in additional funding for the program, including an increase of $98 million for the program’s efforts to reduce the proliferation of biological weapons and facilitate detection and reporting of diseases caused by especially dangerous pathogens.

The authorization law also requires a report from the National Academy of Sciences on improving U.S. strategies “for preventing, countering, and responding to nuclear, biological, and chemical terrorism.”

The sprawling National Defense Authorization Act does not permit nuclear testing, but does strongly support expanded U.S. nuclear capabilities.

Weapons Allegations Dominate CWC Meeting

January/February 2021
By Julia Masterson

Two nations accused of using chemical weapons recently were the focus of discussion by states-parties at the annual conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in late 2020. Official findings that Syria was responsible for chemical attacks during its civil war in 2017 and international assessments that Russia poisoned a political opposition leader in August 2020 have highlighted the need to strengthen implementation of the treaty, said Fernando Arias, director-general of the governing Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Socially distanced delegates attend the OPCW Conference of States-Parties on Dec. 1, 2020 in the Hague. (Photo: OPCW)“The world is not the same place as the one of 1993, when the convention was signed. It is a more polarized place, where progress in demilitarization and nonproliferation is constantly threatened, and the efforts of the international community to live in a safer place are compromised,” he said on the opening day of the annual conference of states-parties.

The conference enables the 193 CWC members to discuss the treaty’s implementation and review ongoing efforts to strengthen the global norm against chemical weapons. Originally scheduled to be held as a single session the first week of December, the conference was divided into two parts in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first sessions convened at The Hague from Nov. 30 to Dec. 1, and the second session is scheduled to meet in the spring of 2021.

A majority of states-parties joined Arias in expressing concern over Syria’s treaty compliance and Russia’s alleged attack against dissident Alexei Navalny.

In April, the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) concluded that the Syrian government was responsible for the use of sarin and chlorine in a series of attacks in Syria in 2017. (See ACT, May 2020.) The OPCW Executive Council reached a decision in July on Syria’s chemical weapons program, calling on Damascus to return to compliance with its treaty obligations by declaring the totality of its chemical weapons program and resolving all outstanding discrepancies to its initial stockpile declaration. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Syria failed to meet that deadline. According to Arias, while the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team “collected samples [and] verified the destruction of items previously observed as undestroyed” in late September and early October, 19 issues remain outstanding. “At this stage, considering the gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies that remain unresolved, the declaration submitted by the Syrian Arab Republic still cannot be considered accurate and complete,” Arias said.

In his statement submitted to the conference Nov. 27, French Ambassador Luis Vassy called on the conference of states-parties to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges in the decision-making bodies of the OPCW. The potential for such action was outlined by the Executive Council’s July 9 decision, which stated that a failure by Syria to meet the 90-day deadline could result in a conference decision to take action pursuant to CWC article XII. Article XII, titled “Measures to Redress a Situation and to Ensure Compliance, Including Sanctions,” outlines that the conference may restrict or suspend a state-party’s rights and privileges under the CWC until it conforms with its obligations under the treaty.

Vassy said that 46 states from four regional groups co-sponsored France’s statement calling to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges. The conference of states-parties is expected to continue those discussions during its second session in 2021.

Arias also addressed the poisoning of Navalny, a Russian political activist who was poisoned on a domestic flight in Russia. The OPCW collected biomedical samples from Navalny in September and determined he had been exposed to a toxic chemical of the Novichok family. Novichok is a form of nerve agent, and certain Novichok agents are included on the CWC Schedule 1 annex on chemicals, demarcating those expressly banned by the treaty. But whether the Navalny compound was on the list is immaterial, Arias said.

“The poisoning of an individual through the use of any nerve agent is a use of a chemical weapon, whether or not this chemical is included in Schedule 1 of the annex,” Arias said.

A group of 58 states-parties released a joint statement Dec. 2 condemning the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon and remarking that “the Russian Federation has provided no further information on its findings ahead of this conference commencing.”

Navalny, who survived the assassination attempt, shared his suspicion Oct. 1 that the Kremlin, specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin, was behind the attack. Russia has denied involvement in the case. In their statement to the conference of states-parties submitted Nov. 27, the Russian delegation suggested that efforts to investigate Navalny’s poisoning by the OPCW and Germany and other European states demonstrated an “intention to use this international organization to exert political and sanction pressure on the Russian Federation.”

Denying that Navalny was poisoned, the Russian delegation called the incident “a verbal propagandistic stunt.”

The OPCW investigation into the poisoning is not yet complete. In October, Russia submitted a request to the OPCW for technical assistance. According to Arias, the OPCW is working closely with Moscow to define the legal, technical, operational, and logistical parameters for investigating the Navalny attack.

In other business, 29 states-parties also issued a joint statement Nov. 27 calling on the conference to take action on the use of chemical agents for law enforcement purposes, as riot control agents. Their statement makes note of an October 2019 draft document submitted to the Executive Council calling on the council to recommend that the conference of states-parties recognize inconsistencies between the spirit of the CWC and the use of riot control agents.

By reaffirming that understanding, the statement outlines, “states-parties will make clear that countries may not hide their work to advance an offensive capability regarding aerosolized [central nervous system]-acting chemicals under the guise of doing so for law enforcement as a ‘purpose not prohibited’ by the CWC.”

“If adopted, the proposed decision would contribute to preventing the use of aerosolized [central nervous system]-acting chemicals for offensive purposes by state and non-state actors. Such an effort benefits all [s]tates-parties,” the statement said.

The annual conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention focused on allegations of Syrian and Russian chemical weapons use.

U.S. Selects Missiles for INF-Range Capability

January/February 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The U.S. Army announced on Nov. 6 its selection of two missiles to serve as the basis for initial development of a conventional, ground-launched, midrange missile capability. Both missiles would have been prohibited under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, from which the United States withdrew in August 2019. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Sailors aboard the USS Barry prepare to fire a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile during a September 2020 exercise. The U.S. Army is considering using a variant of the missile as a land-based weapon that would have been banned by the INF Treaty.  (Photo: Samuel Hardgrove/U.S. Navy)Lockheed Martin won a sole source contract worth $339 million to design, develop, and deliver the Mid-Range Capability (MRC) prototype to be fielded in fiscal year 2023.

“Following a broad review of joint service technologies potentially applicable to MRC, the Army has selected variants of the Navy [Standard Missile-6 (SM-6)] and Tomahawk missiles to be part of the initial prototype,” said the statement from the U.S. Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office.

The SM-6 was developed as a missile defense interceptor and first deployed in 2013. The Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile has been in service since the 1980s, although some variants, such as those carrying a nuclear payload, have been retired.

“The MRC supports one of the Army’s chief roles in multi-domain operations: to use strategic fires to penetrate and disintegrate enemy layered defense systems, creating windows of opportunity for exploitation by the joint force,” the office said.

The Army told Breaking Defense that it does not plan to modify either of the Navy missiles. By selecting variants of the two missiles, the Army would be able to purchase the latest models: the SM-6 Block IB, estimated to complete development in 2024, and the Tomahawk Block Va, known as the Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST), which began production in 2020.

Since the demise of the INF Treaty last year, the Trump administration has been vocal about quickly developing and deploying a ground-launched, intermediate-range missile capability to counter Russia and China in particular. (See ACT, October 2020.) But where such missiles might be based remains unclear, as countries, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea, have downplayed the possibility of hosting them. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Signed in 1987, the now defunct INF Treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

The U.S. Army has identified two Navy missiles to serve as the basis for a new land-based system that would have violated the INF Treaty.

UAE Arms Sales Survive Senate Vote

January/February 2021
By Alexander Bertschi Wrigley and Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration's controversial proposal to sell more than $23 billion of arms and related services to the United Arab Emirates moved ahead after two bipartisan joint resolutions of disapproval fell short of a majority in Senate votes in December. The next step in the process is to negotiate contracts between Washington and Abu Dhabi, a task that will likely conclude with the incoming Biden administration, which has not indicated a stance on the sales.

A technician examines an MQ-9 Reaper drone at an Afghan air base in 2014. Trump administration plans to sell Reapers to the United Arab Emirates were not stopped by Congress, but still face an uncertain future. (Photo: Evelyn Chavez/U.S. Air Force)The sale includes up to 50 F-35 aircraft valued at $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones valued at $3 billion, and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions valued at $10 billion, as well as a revision to a 2018 notification for additional Sidewinder air-to-air missiles valued at $490 million. (See ACT, December 2020.) Although resolutions of disapproval were introduced on all these weapons, votes were taken only on blocking the F-35s and armed drones, garnering yes-no votes of 47–49 and 46–50, respectively.

The votes fell largely along party lines. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) joined all but one of the Republican senators in voting against both joint resolutions of disapproval. Newly elected Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) also voted against the resolution on the proposed sale of armed drones. All other Democrats present voted in favor of both resolutions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was the only Republican to vote in favor of the resolutions, which he co-sponsored.

The votes came just days before the end of a 30-day window during which Congress could pass joint resolutions to prevent the administration from moving toward formally concluding the sales by negotiating a letter of offer and acceptance. In theory, Congress could still pass such resolutions until the letter is concluded, which often takes months or years to negotiate, but the House did not take up its versions of the resolutions.

As of Jan. 9, the U.S. State Department was continuing to work on the letter, according to R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. With time running out on the Trump administration, however, the future of the arms transfers is uncertain, as there has been no clear indication of how the incoming administration will approach the sale. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was the only Democratic senator not present for the vote.

In the last weeks of December, the Trump administration also notified Congress of additional major arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which have been highly controversial during his presidential term. (See ACT, September 2019.) The 30-day congressional review period on those potential sales will not end until after President Joe Biden's inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20, leaving it to the incoming administration to decide whether to issue licenses or conclude a letter. The proposed sales include 7,500 precision-guided, air-to-ground munitions valued at up to $478 million, and 3,000 small-diameter bombs for $290 million.

Biden has already noted his desire to rethink the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, stating in October that, “under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”

Although the UAE has not been as visible an actor in Yemen to the U.S. public, Abu Dhabi has deployed ground and air forces to Yemen over the past six years. It has scaled back involvement of its own personnel, but continues to work through proxies in the country.

Concerns regarding the arms sales centered on their potential impact on Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region and Iranian behavior, as well as the UAE’s role in continuing wars in Yemen and Libya, with many human rights and arms control groups joining in opposing the deal.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor of the resolutions, raised the concern that the Trump administration was expediting the sales and sidelining Congress on what would be one of the largest arms packages ever sold by the United States, saying shortly after the vote that “rushing through massive sales of Reaper drones and our most advanced fighter jets to the Middle East just makes defense companies richer and international security poorer.” He added, “I am eager to work with the incoming administration to take a closer look at each of these sales before any transfers are completed.”

Congress rejected efforts to curtail U.S. arms transfers to the United Arab Emirates, but the future of the deal is uncertain with the incoming Biden administration.

States Fail to Agree on CTBTO Leader

January/February 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

After nearly five months of discussion and sometimes intensive debate, the member states of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) failed on Dec. 18, by one vote, to elect Robert Floyd of Australia as the agency’s next executive secretary.

Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office, fell one vote short of becoming the next CTBTO executive security in December voting.  (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)In the fifth round of balloting, Floyd secured 91 votes, with 46 voting against, and 3 abstentions from the 141 member states that had paid their dues and had full voting rights. The chair of the meeting ruled that Floyd was one vote short of the two-thirds majority required under the rules established for the selection of the executive secretary.

With the incumbent executive secretary, Lassina Zerbo, who was also on the ballot, failing to secure a simple of majority of votes among the member states for a third term, the nomination slate is wiped clean, and states can nominate or renominate candidates until Feb. 5. The eventual winner will lead the organization after July 31, 2021, when Zerbo, who is from Burkina Faso, will have completed his second four-year term.

Following the inconclusive outcome of the December voting in Vienna, Floyd told Arms Control Today on Dec. 30 that he expects his government to nominate him as a candidate for the executive secretary position.

According to multiple diplomatic sources, the vote was affected by lingering grievances over the contentious debate in October about how to resolve a dispute over which states-parties that are in financial arrears to the organization are eligible to vote to select the organization’s executive secretary. (See ACT, November 2020.)

The organization has an annual budget of approximately $128 million that comes from member state contributions assessed on the UN dues scale. In 2020 a relatively larger number of states fell behind in paying their assessed dues in part as a result of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the rules, nations that have extensive arrears lose their voting rights. In the weeks leading up to the executive secretary election, several European states, including some backing Floyd, were adamant that only those states that have met their financial obligation should be entitled to vote, while others, particularly from Africa, pressed for a more liberal approach.

How the unresolved leadership selection process will affect the organization and cooperation among states-parties is not yet clear. Because the next round will take place in a new fiscal year, many states that had previously paid their assessed dues to the organization and were eligible to vote may not be in the same position in 2021.

Floyd, who is currently Australia’s director for safeguards, said in November that, as executive secretary, he “would lead for all states across all regions [and] will work together to make progress on gender balance, with a substantial internship program for women; address geographic balance; and promote an internal culture of trust, cooperation, and collaboration.”

The CTBTO executive secretary is responsible for leading the organization’s work to maintain and operate the treaty’s global verification regime in preparation for the treaty’s entry into force, as well as promoting its entry into force. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has been signed by 184 states and ratified by 168. But there are eight holdout states—China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States—that must still ratify to trigger the formal entry into force of the 1996 treaty.

One major challenge for the leader of the CTBTO will be to maintain the International Monitoring System and International Data Center infrastructure in what will likely be a time of fiscal constraint. Another challenge will be to find effective ways to help CTBT signatory states reinforce the global nuclear test moratorium that has been established by the treaty as tensions remain high between those states that have conducted nuclear test explosions in the past, particularly the United States and Russia.

Nominations for the next head of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization were reopened after no candidates reached the majorities needed in a December vote.


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