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“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
Senator
January 28, 2004
June 2022

Arms Control Today June 2022

Edition Date: 
Wednesday, June 1, 2022
Cover Image: 

No Ordinary NPT Review Conference

June 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, waged under the threat of nuclear weapons use, has delivered a shocking reminder of an existential danger that did not disappear with the end of the Cold War. Putin’s aggression increases the potential for a NATO-Russian conflict that could quickly escalate, lead to the use of nuclear weapons, and spiral into a global nuclear catastrophe. Although leaders in Washington and Moscow understand that a nuclear war cannot be won, their respective nuclear deterrence policies and the ongoing fighting make it more likely that a nuclear war could be fought.

United Nations Headquarters. (UN Photo/Joao Araujo Pinto)Putin’s decision to discard diplomacy and invade Ukraine puts the 77-year taboo against nuclear weapons use to the test. It also has derailed the strategic stability and arms control dialogue between Washington and Moscow, made a mockery of the repeated security assurances that nuclear-armed states will not attack non-nuclear states, and created a major challenge for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.

But the international community’s pushback against Russia’s nuclear bullying has been far too tepid.

The next global debate about nuclear weapons will take place in August at the 10th NPT Review Conference. In the face of the growing danger of nuclear war, this is a critical opportunity for the treaty’s 191 states-parties to reinforce the norms against nuclear weapons, to strongly condemn any threat of nuclear weapons use, and to intensify the pressure for action to fulfill the treaty’s Article VI provision “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

Responsible nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states cannot afford simply to muddle through the month-long meeting. Russia’s violent assault on Ukraine is a clarion call for responsible NPT states to rally around a meaningful nuclear risk and disarmament action plan. Even if a consensus final document is not attainable due to tensions over the war, a supermajority of states should seek to chart the path forward through a joint declaration.

Putin’s war has derailed for now U.S.-Russian talks on further cuts in their bloated strategic arsenals and new agreements to limit short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons, but the United States and Russia, as well as other NPT states-parties, are still bound by their disarmament obligations. The last remaining U.S.-Russian arms reduction agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), expires in early 2026. Without commonsense arms control guardrails, the dangers of unconstrained global nuclear arms racing will only grow.

U.S. President Joe Biden should direct his team to embrace a bold, specific NPT action plan, which, more than any rhetoric from U.S. diplomats, would show that his administration wants to be on the right side of history rather than resisting the overdue action that is needed to reduce nuclear dangers.

Other states cannot afford to wait for the United States to lead or allow the other NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, and the United Kingdom) to escape accountability. Robust, constructive leadership from other NPT states-parties, such as Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, South Africa, and Sweden, will be needed. Leaders of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons and the Non-Aligned Movement also have crucial roles to play. Their previous statements and working papers suggest these states share common positions that would allow them to advance a common nuclear risk and disarmament action agenda that:

  • calls on the United States and Russia to resume their strategic stability dialogue, begin negotiations on New START follow-on agreements, and issue unilateral reciprocal commitments to respect the central limits of New START after 2026;
  • calls on all NPT nuclear-armed states to freeze their nuclear stockpiles and engage in disarmament negotiations;
  • endorses a moratorium on intermediate-range nuclear weapons and the deployment of new short-range nuclear weapons;
  • calls for all states to respect the de facto global moratorium on nuclear testing and to negotiate on-site confidence-building measures pending the entry into force of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
  • reaffirms that any use of nuclear weapons would produce catastrophic humanitarian consequences and that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” nor should any state threaten the use of nuclear weapons;
  • urges all states to phase out “launch under attack” postures and refrain from offensive cyberattacks on nuclear command, control, and communication systems; and
  • calls for the start of negotiations on legally binding security guarantees to prevent unprovoked attacks by nuclear-weapon states against non-nuclear-weapon states.

At this time of heightened nuclear danger, responsible NPT states must act with urgency to reinforce norms against nuclear weapons, push back against Russia’s nuclear bullying, and strengthen their commitment to reverse the arms race, avoid nuclear war, and eliminate nuclear weapons.

At this time of heightened nuclear danger, responsible NPT states must act with urgency to reinforce norms against nuclear weapons, push back against Russia’s nuclear bullying, and strengthen their commitment to reverse the arms race, avoid nuclear war, and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Will Domestic Politics Trump Nonproliferation in Stalled Iran Deal?


June 2022
By Barbara Slavin

Only a few years ago, the notion that Iran could be weeks away from amassing sufficient material for a nuclear weapon would have generated a massive crisis in Washington and monopolized international diplomacy. Yet, there seems to be little palpable sense of urgency today, despite the fact that Iran is enriching uranium to near weapons grade and is on the verge of the proverbial breakout about which Iran hawks have warned so often in the past.1 Meanwhile, negotiations on restoring compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and rolling back Iran’s nuclear advances have been in limbo since mid-March.

A Shahab-3 surface-to-surface missile is displayed in Tehran next to a portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a 2021 exhibition marking the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)In the U.S. view, the ostensible reason for the impasse is an Iranian demand for sanctions relief that goes beyond what is required by the JCPOA. Iran has been seeking removal of the foreign terrorist designation of a powerful branch of the Iranian military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The U.S. Department of State added this designation in 2019 as the Trump administration ran low on new targets to sanction under its “maximum pressure” campaign. The Biden administration, which says it wants to revive the JCPOA, has indicated that it would be willing to lift the designation, which has little practical effect because the IRGC remains subject to numerous other U.S. sanctions, if Iran makes a gesture of its own.2

That could entail an Iranian promise to engage in follow-on talks on regional issues or a pledge not to try to kill former U.S. officials implicated in the 2020 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Qods Force branch of the IRGC.3 Iran has refused so far, although efforts to find a mutually acceptable compromise continue.

In many ways, the issue appears to be an excuse and not the real cause for the diplomatic deadlock. Other factors have led to the delay in restoring compliance with the JCPOA, in particular, the war in Ukraine. With Russian forces committing atrocities daily in Ukraine and the Western world focused on punishing Russia and rearming the Ukrainians, there is less political bandwidth left to deal with the Iran issue.

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The merits of restoring the JCPOA also have come under increasing scrutiny in the United States and Iran. The landmark deal, intended to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to reintegrate Iran into the global economy, never fulfilled its potential, given that it had only nine months of full implementation before Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016. The agreement started to fall apart after the Trump administration unilaterally quit in 2018 and reimposed all the sanctions lifted by the JCPOA. The administration then added more sanctions even though Trump officials acknowledged Iran was complying with the deal at that time. Iran eventually ramped up its nuclear activities, busting through the limitations established by the JCPOA on stockpiles, enrichment levels, and use of advanced centrifuges, as well as provisions for strict international monitoring.

As of February 2022, Iran possessed more than 3,000 kilograms of enriched uranium. That is more than 10 times the stockpile allowed under the JCPOA and includes more than 30 kilograms enriched to 60 percent uranium-235, perilously close to weapons grade.4 By May 10, the stockpile was at more than 40 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent, Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told the European Parliament.5 Although much of this activity can be reversed, the knowledge Iranian scientists and engineers have acquired is permanent, meaning that the long-term nonproliferation benefits of the agreement, if restored, would inevitably be less than when the deal was implemented in 2016.6

U.S. officials continue to assert that the JCPOA, whose limitations on enriched uranium stockpiles are supposed to last until 2031, remains beneficial. “We are still at a point where, if we were able to negotiate a mutual return to compliance, that breakout time would be prolonged from where it is now,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on May 4, 2022.7 “We would have greater transparency. There would be those permanent, verifiable limits reimposed on Iran. That would be in our national security interest.”

Yet, the domestic political climates in Iran and the United States have shifted in ways that have made compromise more difficult. It remains to be seen if there is sufficient political will and creativity to end the impasse.

Weakened Iranian Pragmatists

Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA gravely undermined the so-called pragmatist camp in Iran that had negotiated and championed the deal, making President Hassan Rouhani and his team look foolish and naïve. This perception complicated negotiations even after the Biden administration took office, with Iran refusing to sit directly with the U.S. delegation in Vienna and initially seeking some form of guarantee that a subsequent U.S. administration would not quit the deal again. Nevertheless, substantial progress was made in indirect talks, which resumed in April 2021.

Negotiations paused in June 2021 for the Iranian presidential elections. Rouhani’s successor, Ebrahim Raisi, was handpicked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in large part for his hard-line views on domestic and foreign policy, as well as his fealty to Khamenei. Raisi, like Khamenei, was critical of the JCPOA and named a cabinet of like-minded officials.8 The new Iranian administration then waited until November 2021 to send a team to Vienna, where talks resumed with the other parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus the European Union.

As with the previous team, the Iranians refused to meet directly with U.S. negotiators, arguing that the United States had forfeited its right to be considered a JCPOA party by quitting the agreement without cause. The Iranians also initially demanded the unfreezing of billions of dollars of their assets stuck in foreign banks9 as a precondition for negotiations, a nonstarter for Washington while the Iranian nuclear program continued to advance.

There was also a wrangle over a separate but related issue: a long-running dispute between Iran and the IAEA over Iran’s alleged efforts nearly two decades ago related to possible nuclear weapons development. An 11th-hour trip to Tehran by Grossi in early March 2022 resulted in an agreement that Iran would provide additional documentation about suspect sites in time for the IAEA Board of Governors meeting in June.10 Grossi complained on May 10 in a session with the European Parliament that Iranian officials have been slow to provide clarification about the origin of traces of enriched uranium found at the sites.11

A more positive development had occurred on February 4, when the Biden administration announced that it was waiving sanctions on foreign cooperation with Iran’s civil nuclear program. Price said that the waivers were in the U.S. “vital national interest regardless of what happens with the JCPOA.”12 In fact, the waivers were necessary prerequisites to a deal because they facilitate the disposition of Iran’s excess stockpile of enriched uranium and the resumption of modifications to the Arak heavy-water reactor to make it more proliferation resistant. The waiver would also allow an underground site at Fordow to cease uranium enrichment and return to the production of isotopes for medical use as specified by the original agreement, Price explained.

The Ukraine Effect

According to participants, negotiators completed a 27-page draft agreement in mid-March that specified the steps Iran would take to roll back its nuclear progress in return for relief from U.S. nuclear-related sanctions.13 Talks had been interrupted in late February by a Russian effort to exploit the JCPOA to circumvent some of the sanctions imposed on Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. In the end, the Russians backed down and accepted the terms of the original deal, under which Russia agreed to accept excess enriched U-235 from Iran and provide other civil nuclear cooperation that does not deal with broader Iranian-Russian trade issues. Nevertheless, the momentum in Vienna was broken by the war in Ukraine and the Russian attempt to hold the Vienna talks hostage to sanctions exemptions. Despite valiant efforts by EU envoy Enrique Mora14 and other would-be mediators, the stalemate has continued.

In interviews with ACT and in Iranian press reports, Iranian analysts have stated that, for domestic political reasons, Raisi feels he needs to squeeze more concessions from the United States than the Rouhani team obtained, resulting in the demand to take the IRGC off the list of foreign terrorist organizations. At the same time, Iran is no longer feeling the pinch of U.S. secondary sanctions to the extent it was a few years ago. Iran has managed to increase its oil exports, primarily to China, to more than one million barrels a day. Given the steep rise in prices due to the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, Iran is earning sufficient revenues to meet its basic needs.15 Even if the United States could enforce secondary sanctions on Iranian oil customers, there is little motivation to do so at a time of global shortages and sky-high energy prices.

Biden’s Ambivalence

As the Iran issue appears to have lost urgency, the Biden administration also seems increasingly ambivalent about the value of the JCPOA when weighed against the potential domestic political costs of compromising with a long-time U.S. adversary. President Joe Biden did not announce a U.S. return to the JCPOA on the first day of his presidency as many proponents of the deal had hoped. He did appoint an experienced Iran envoy, Rob Malley, who had participated in the original negotiations, within a week of taking office. Yet, Malley took months consulting with U.S. allies and Middle Eastern partners such as Israel, which opposed the original deal, and with Arab countries, which were concerned about the increased oil revenues that Iran would receive and possibly divert to its regional partners.

Biden administration officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also talked about their desire for a “longer and stronger” deal before the old one could be revived.16 This language reflected a genuine desire to improve on the original and an effort to placate powerful deal opponents among Democrats such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.), who had the power to slow the confirmation of Biden appointees in a closely divided Senate.17 As a result, precious time was lost before the Iranian presidential elections and the replacement of the Iranian negotiation team with JCPOA skeptics.

With U.S. midterm elections now approaching, the Biden administration seems particularly leery of acceding to Iran’s demands regarding the IRGC. Although it is largely a conscript organization, IRGC elements, particularly the Qods Force, have been implicated in attacks on U.S. military forces in the Middle East, as well as in support of anti-U.S. nonstate actors, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units. Biden appears concerned about looking weak and the impact this might have on select races in November when Democrats are at risk of losing control of the House and Senate.

For Biden, the JCPOA was never the signature issue it was for President Barack Obama, who considered the deal his most important foreign policy achievement. Biden has been much more engaged in solidifying NATO in the face of Russian aggression and is also eager to focus on the challenge of China. He appears unwilling to expend as much political capital as Obama did on the Iran agreement even though public opinion polls show that the deal is more popular in the United States now than it was in 2015 and experts acknowledge that there is no realistic plan B for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the long term.18

Iran’s Goal

One possible reason for the lack of urgency in Washington over Iran’s nuclear advances is that the U.S. intelligence community continues to find no evidence that Iran has resumed work on developing an actual nuclear weapon, despite its growing stockpile of enriched uranium.19 Iran has always denied that it seeks to build nuclear weapons, but the fact that it was found to have possessed a clandestine program two decades ago20 and that its cooperation with the IAEA has been less than stellar has fueled suspicion and concern. Still, Iran’s program has been the slowest moving in the history of nuclear proliferation, given that its activities began in the 1950s under the U.S.-led Atoms for Peace initiative.

Since Iran’s nuclear work first began, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have built nuclear arsenals, but Iran has not. The Iranian program was suspended following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Western companies halted work on nuclear projects in Iran. The program was revived in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war when Iran feared that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. Progress in the 1990s was slow, inhibited by successful U.S. appeals to Russia and China, but picked up in the mid-2000s after the 2005 election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The organized weapons program halted in 2003 and certain weaponization-related activities continued until 2009, but there has been no evidence of illicit weapons work since then, according to the IAEA and the U.S. National Intelligence Council. The JCPOA halted and rolled back the program significantly until the Trump withdrawal.

As a signatory of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran has pledged to remain free of nuclear weapons, a pledge it reiterated in the preamble of the JCPOA. The key provisions of the agreement were designed to make it extremely difficult for Iran to violate that pledge without being detected. If Iran returns to compliance again, it must blend down or export hundreds of tons of excess U-235 and remove advanced centrifuges. These actions must be verified and monitored by the IAEA, with no time limits on that cooperation, to provide confidence that Iran cannot “sneak out” and amass material clandestinely for a bomb. Iran, under its interpretation of the JCPOA, says it is entitled to breach these limits again if the United States does not fulfill its obligations to waive key sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and financial transactions.21

Supporters of the agreement concede that, because of the additional technical knowledge that Iran has accumulated since the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran’s ability to break out and amass sufficient material for a single nuclear weapon has been significantly increased.22 When combined with the limitations on uranium stockpiles and IAEA monitoring, however, a restored agreement should still provide sufficient time for the international community to react should violations occur. Without an agreement, Iran could continue amassing larger and larger quantities of U-235 enriched to higher and higher levels. This activity would be inherently destabilizing. It could spark a nuclear arms race in the region, prompting Saudi Arabia in particular to acquire a nuclear arsenal, and provoke new sabotage or other kinds of attacks on Iran by Israel or even the United States, both of which have vowed to never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

The Role of Congress

Because the agreement would be a restoration of the original, not a rewrite, the Biden administration has argued that it is not obliged to submit the deal for formal review by Congress under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act of 2015.23 Malley testified on May 25 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, that the administration will invoke the law if a deal is struck to allow Congress to publicly debate the issue.24 It is extremely doubtful that a veto-proof majority of two-thirds of the House and Senate could be assembled to block restoration of the JCPOA. Even so, Republicans are united against the deal; even some Democrats, most prominently those who did not support the agreement in 2015, have expressed concern that it does not cover non-nuclear issues such as Iran’s growing arsenal of ballistic missiles and drones.25

Senator John Hoeven (ND), at podium, and other Republican senators hold press conference at the U.S. Capitol in March to discuss their objections to negotiations aimed at restoring Iranian and U.S. compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.  (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)A more serious issue is what might happen in 2024 if a Republican is elected president. Trump and other GOP hopefuls are opposed to the JCPOA and might follow the precedent set by Trump in 2018. It will be important for supporters of the agreement to underline the negative consequences of the Trump withdrawal for U.S. nonproliferation and regional security interests. It will also be key for the United States and other parties to intensify efforts to deescalate broader tensions between Iran and its neighbors and between Iran and Israel to build a stronger foundation for the JCPOA.

Fortunately, Iran, a Shia theocracy, has already made some progress toward improved relations with its Sunni Arab rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Iran and Israel remain bitter adversaries, but the removal of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister and the formation of a broad coalition government in Israel has led to less prickly relations between Israel and the Biden administration. There was also a brief pause in Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists and facilities. That appears to have ended, however, with the May 22 assassination of an IRGC officer in Tehran and a mysterious "explosion" May 26 near the Parchin military facility that killed an Iranian engineer.26

Much will depend on Iran’s evaluation of the material benefits it is slated to receive if it returns to compliance with the JCPOA. Iranians have suffered greatly from Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign, not to mention the COVID-19 epidemic, endemic economic mismanagement, and corruption. According to Iranian statistics, the percentage of Iranians classified as poor has doubled over the past three years to more than a third of the population.27 Inflation is higher than 40 percent, and unemployment is also in double digits. The waiving of U.S. secondary sanctions on key sectors of the Iranian economy, especially oil and gas, and the repatriation of some $100 billion in hard currency assets would provide a substantial, if temporary, boost to Iran’s economy. To sustain these benefits, Iran would need to institute reforms of its own, increasing transparency in its banking sector, reducing consumer subsidies, and tackling corruption more effectively.

Iran’s Foreign Policy Orientation

Another unfortunate result of the maximum-pressure campaign and a factor in Iran’s ambivalence about returning to compliance with the JCPOA has been the solidification of the Iranian regime’s anti-Western orientation. The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA vindicated Khamenei’s view that the United States is untrustworthy and led him to boost Iran’s economic dependence on China and strategic cooperation with Russia, countries that do not criticize the Islamic Republic for human rights abuses or foreign adventurism. This orientation does not reflect the views of many Iranian people, who traditionally have looked toward Western countries for trade and investment, as well as for cultural ties, underscoring the fact that a large Iranian diaspora resides primarily in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Regardless, the “look to the East” policy is still supported by hard-liners who now control all elements of the Iranian government and is important to their domestic political power base.28

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks in May to Iran’s first international event on privatization. (Photo credit: Iranian government website)When the original nuclear deal was reached, supporters made clear that it was valuable on its own merits. Still, there was hope that the JCPOA, as the product of unprecedented, direct, high-level U.S.-Iranian diplomacy, would lead to some broader détente and even normalization of ties between Washington and Tehran. As then-Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif famously put it, the JCPOA could be “the foundation, not the ceiling” of Iran’s foreign relations, including with the United States.29

Those hopes have been dashed by the Trump withdrawal and the political backlash against pragmatists in Iran. That said, a revived JCPOA is a prerequisite for any improvement in bilateral ties, including the release of jailed dual nationals and a resumption of people-to-people engagement. It would give the United States a seat at the table again in the joint commission that monitors the JCPOA and thus a venue to raise issues that go beyond the nuclear file. It would facilitate Western support for programs to address climate change and other severe threats to the Iranian people and to the world at large. It would also make it easier for Iran to engage with its neighbors on deescalating tensions and resuming normal diplomatic and economic interaction.30

Despite anti-government protests in Iran regarding the poor economy and harsh repression of civil society, the Iranian system has withstood immense challenges and does not appear likely to fall in the near future. It is incumbent on U.S. policymakers to continue to express their views on Iranian policies that are harmful to the Iranian people and to the interests of the United States and its allies and partners. Yet, one lesson of the past four, if not 40, years has been that the United States should use opportunities to lessen tensions when it is in the interest of both countries and the broader Middle East. As former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage once said, “Diplomacy is the art of letting the other guy have our way.”31

If the JCPOA can be revived, it will show that diplomacy can achieve what military conflict cannot. If it finally collapses, it will sadly confirm that the agreement was merely the exception that proved the rule in four decades of U.S.-Iranian enmity.

 

ENDNOTES

1. “White House Says Iran Is ‘a Few Weeks or Less’ From Bomb Breakout,” Times of Israel, April 27, 2022.

2. “Secretary of State Blinken Testifies in Senate Foreign Relations Hearing 4/26/22,” April 27, 2022, https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/secretary-of-state-blinken-testifies-in-senate-foreign-relations-hearing-4-26-22-transcript.

3. Laura Rozen, “U.S. on Iran Deal Deadlock: ‘We Know the Status Quo Can’t Endure for Long,’” Diplomatic, May 4, 2022, https://diplomatic.substack.com/p/us-on-iran-deal-deadlock-we-know?s=w.

4. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015),” GOV/2022/4, March 3, 2022, pp. 9–10.

5. Rafael Mariano Grossi, “Exchange of Views With European Parliament: The Work of the IAEA at an Unprecedented Moment in History,” May 10, 2022, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/248145/EP_IAEA_20220510dg.pdf.

6. “U.S. Sees Iran’s Nuclear Program as Too Advanced to Restore Key Goal of 2015 Pact,” The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2022.

7. U.S. Department of State, “Department Press Briefing—May 4, 2022,” May 4, 2022, https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-may-4-2022/.

8. Mehrzad Boroujerdi, “Who’s on Iran’s Current Nuclear Negotiating Team? Some Have Controversial Pasts,” IranSource, January 11, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/whos-on-irans-current-nuclear-negotiating-team-some-have-controversial-pasts/.

9. Barbara Slavin, “Iran Offers Less for More as Vienna Talks Stall,” IranSource, December 6, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/iran-offers-less-for-more-as-vienna-talks-stall/.

10. IAEA, “Joint Statement by HE Mr. Mohammad Eslami, Vice-President and President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, and HE Mr. Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” March 5, 2022, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/joint-statement-by-he-mr-mohammad-eslami-vice-president-and-president-of-the-atomic-energy-organization-of-iran-and-he-mr-rafael-grossi-director-general-of-the-international-atomic-energy-agency.

11. “IAEA Warns That Iran Not Forthcoming on Past Nuclear Activities,” Reuters, May 10, 2022.

12. U.S. Department of State, “Department Press Briefing - February 7, 2022,” https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-february-7-2022/.

13. Stephanie Liechtenstein and Nahal Toosi, “Iran Nuclear Talks Freeze Amid Terrorist Label Spat—Even With Deal on the Table,” Politico, April 28, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/iran-nuclear-talks-freeze-amid-terrorist-label-spat-even-with-deal-on-the-table/.

14. Laurence Norman, “Europe to Make Fresh Push to Revive Iran Nuclear Deal,” The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2022.

15. Parisa Hafezi, “Analysis: Rising Oil Prices Buy Iran Time in Nuclear Talks, Officials Say,” Reuters, May 5, 2022.

16. Steven Erlanger and David E. Sanger, “U.S. and Iran Want to Restore the Nuclear Deal. They Disagree Deeply on What That Means,” The New York Times, May 9, 2021.

17. A U.S. negotiator stated in February 2021 that Menendez was a key factor inhibiting U.S. willingness to quickly return to compliance with the JCPOA. U.S. official, conversation with author, Washington, D.C., February 13, 2022.

18. Matthew Kendrick, “Many U.S. Voters Support a Binding Nuclear Deal With Iran. That Might Not Count for Much,” Morning Consult, February 16, 2022, https://morningconsult.com/2022/02/16/iran-deal-polling-us-voters/; Atlantic Council, “Is There a Plan B for Iran?” YouTube, December 9, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4jLhkO2dHU.

19. U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” February 2022, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/ATA-2022-Unclassified-Report.pdf.

20. U.S. National Intelligence Council, “National Intelligence Estimate; Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” November 2007, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/20071203_release.pdf.

21. Francois Murphy, Parisa Hafezi, and John Irish, “Exclusive: Iran Nuclear Deal Draft Puts Prisoners, Enrichment, Cash First, Oil Comes Later - Diplomats,” Reuters, February 17, 2022.

22. Laurence Norman, “U.S. Sees Iran’s Nuclear Program as Too Advanced to Restore Key Goal of 2015 Pact,” The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2022.

23. Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, 42 U.S.C. § 2160e (2015).

24. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, "The JCPOA Negotiations and United States’ Policy on Iran Moving Forward," Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, May 25, 2022, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/the-jcpoa-negotiations-and-united-states-policy-on-iran-moving-forward05252201

25. Andrew Desiderio, “Congress Fires Its First Warning Shot on Biden’s Iran Deal,” Politico, May 5, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/05/congress-warning-biden-iran-deal-00030448.

26. Farnaz Fassihi and Ronen Bergman, "Israel Tells U.S. It Killed Iranian Officer, Official Says," The New York Times, May 25, 2022.

27. Nadereh Chamlou, “Can President Ebrahim Raisi Turn Iran’s Economic Titanic Around?” IranSource, February 1, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/can-president-ebrahim-raisi-turn-irans-economic-titanic-around/.

28. Javad Heiran-Nia, “How Iran’s Interpretation of the World Order Affects Its Foreign Policy,” IranSource, May 11, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/how-irans-interpretation-of-the-world-order-affects-its-foreign-policy/.

29. “Iran Deal Not a ‘Ceiling’: Zarif,” Islamic Republic News Agency, July 14, 2015, https://en.irna.ir/news/81683560/Iran-deal-not-a-ceiling-Zarif.

30. Barbara Slavin, “The Potential Side Benefits of a Revived JCPOA for Middle East Stability,” IranSource, April 5, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/the-potential-side-benefits-of-a-revived-jcpoa-for-middle-east-stability/.

31. Barbara Slavin, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 223.


Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

There seems little U.S. urgency to restore compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal despite the fact that Iran is advancing its nuclear capabilities.

Nuclear Overtones in the Russia-Ukraine War


June 2022
By Manpreet Sethi

Nuclear weapons today occupy center stage in an unexpected theater in Europe. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has drawn attention to these weapons of mass destruction and the alarming possibility of their use in a manner that had mostly been forgotten. When the Cold War ended more than three decades ago, it was not anticipated that the threat of nuclear weapons use would make such a comeback. South Asia and the Korean peninsula were considered the more likely nuclear flashpoints, not Europe.

The remains of a school in Kharkiv, Ukraine, that was destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces on May 24. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)More than two months have elapsed since the start of the conflict. Although the actual fighting is taking place between nuclear-armed Russia and non-nuclear Ukraine, the threatening shadow of the nuclear weapons possessed by the United States and NATO is palpable. Since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, this is the first real engagement between the United States and Russia where they are indirectly yet directly involved. Millions of lives have been disrupted, and several thousand people have died. This is an irreparable and inconsolable human loss.

There also will be long-lasting implications for states, whether possessing nuclear weapons or not, as to how these capabilities are perceived in the future. This experience has created profound nuclear challenges, but also offers some opportunities for reducing nuclear risks.

Nuclear Challenges

One immediate concern is the manner in which nuclear Russia has used force against non-nuclear Ukraine. A popular view emerging internationally is that Russia exploited its nuclear status to invade its neighbor and that its nuclear weapons, in effect, gave it the immunity to wage a war against a non-nuclear-weapon state.

This perception raises the stock value of nuclear weapons and could lead a non-nuclear-weapon state to reexamine its security requirements, especially when it experiences hostile relations with countries that possess nuclear weapons. It will have implications for how a non-nuclear-weapon state evaluates the worth of negative security assurances provided to it by the nuclear-weapon states. Despite such assurances being made to Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia, for instance, Russia has used the threat of the potential use of nuclear weapons as a way to deter Ukraine from soliciting and receiving outside support. This episode raises the possibility of similar instances of nuclear coercion against additional non-nuclear-weapon states, which, in turn, could lead these states to acquire their own nuclear weapons to fend off nuclear-armed adversaries.

A second challenge arises from the heightened risks of nuclear use when two nuclear-armed states engage in conventional war with each other. During the Cold War, it was generally assumed that, in case of a direct conflict between two countries with nuclear weapons, presumably the United States and the Soviet Union, the fighting would turn quickly into a nuclear exchange. As a result, the planning process in both countries shifted to the realm of nuclear war-fighting. The size and structure of the U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, targeting strategies, and civil defense measures were constructed with the inevitability of a nuclear war in mind. Little attention was paid to containing a war at the conventional level.

Fortunately, incidents of direct military engagement between nuclear-armed states were few. The only direct conflict during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States took place in 1962 over Cuba, and a direct military clash between the Soviet Union and China took place over the Ussuri River in 1969. All other confrontations between nuclear superpowers were fought through their proxies in third countries that were themselves non-nuclear. This record, not surprisingly, reinforced the thinking among scholars and political leaders that nuclear deterrence averts war between nuclear-armed nations. Tomes have been written about how the presence of nuclear weapons induces nations to be prudent and to establish “tools for crisis management to reduce the prospect of the outbreak of unintended warfare, either nuclear or conventional.”1 Such a belief is also responsible for the positive spin around nuclear weapons as keepers of stability and peace between nuclear-armed nations and hence against the case for nuclear disarmament.

Interest and concern about the possibility of conventional wars that could be fought between nuclear-armed states picked up after India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Given their historically troubled relationship and geographical contiguity, the possibility of conventional war within this nuclear shadow presented a significant new challenge. The West rushed to provide Islamabad and New Delhi with “nuclear learning” from its experience. Over the years, India and Pakistan have found ways of navigating the narrow space of conventional military operations against the backdrop of their nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the risk of escalation can never be obviated.

The experience of Southern Asia, a term used to define the nuclear dynamics among China, India and Pakistan, underscores that when caught in a direct confrontation, nuclear-armed states, irrespective of their doctrine or apparent nuclear bluster, are cognizant of the consequences of intentional use and the risks of inadvertent use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, leaders take conscious measures to avoid risks and are forced to do two things: show high tolerance for their adversary’s military and political actions, and moderate the use of their own military capability to remain below the other side’s perceived nuclear threshold. A former Indian defense minister made this observation after the nuclearization of South Asia: “Nuclear weapons did not make war obsolete; they simply imposed another dimension on the way warfare was conducted…. [C]onventional war remained feasible, though with definite limitations, if escalation across the nuclear threshold was to be avoided.”2 As history has shown, nuclear-armed states of all hues are compelled to impose constraints on the use of their conventional military forces to avert raising the level of the crisis.

When India fought the war with Pakistan in 1999 over the Kargil district that had been clandestinely occupied by Pakistani army troops disguised as mujahideen, the Indian Air Force was instructed to operate without crossing the Line of Control, which divides the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir. Air operations to evict the intruders were conducted in a constrained space in order to avoid any chance of provoking Pakistan into expanding the conflict, thereby risking nuclear escalation. In more recent times, India’s response to continued cross-border attacks from Pakistan have taken the form of short, swift surgical strikes, as in 2016, or carefully calibrated air attacks, as in 2019. These operations have been crafted by India to punish without exploiting the full force of its conventional military capabilities. Pakistan’s retaliatory attacks also appear to have been prudently tailored to keep escalation in check.3

A similar pattern seems to be emerging in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, where in order to steer clear of the specter of nuclear escalation, both sides are moderating their military actions. The United States and NATO have refrained from undertaking any overtly provocative actions. The Ukrainian demand for help in imposing a no-fly zone has been rejected. The United States cancelled a scheduled test of an intercontinental ballistic missile and refused to raise the alert levels of its nuclear forces despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats and order to put his nuclear forces on somewhat higher alert. The objective of these Western efforts has been to avoid any action that could be misread by Moscow as a provocation.

Meanwhile, Russia has had to tolerate a certain level of arms and ammunition transfers to Ukraine. Even a strategic blow such as the sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva or reported high casualties among Russian troops have been absorbed. Despite the nuclear brinksmanship suggested when Putin threatened consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history,” concerns about the use of nuclear weapons to redeem losses on the ground appear farfetched. This is true even though the Russian leadership has not hesitated to draw attention repeatedly to nuclear weapons, whether by testing a Sarmat missile on April 20 or reiterating the threat of “unpredictable consequences” if heavy arms were supplied to Ukraine by Western powers. Indeed, keeping the nuclear threat in the news is part of the Kremlin’s nuclear strategy of deterrence.

As it appears now, the war could progress in slow motion indefinitely until both sides can find an off-ramp that allows them to avoid the appearance of defeat, or the war could “break out of the boundaries that have currently kept it contained.”4 More often than not, outright victories and defeats are difficult to ascertain in such conflicts. Nations are forced to tailor their political-military objectives along more and more limited lines as the conflict stretches on. In fact, the success of military campaigns is claimed more frequently in the individual narratives articulated by each side rather than on the ground. Indian-Pakistani military engagements since 1998 illustrate these facts.

The challenge remains that when two nuclear-armed states engage in conflict, they have the capacity to hold the world hostage to nuclear destruction. Executing conventional wars in the shadow of nuclear arsenals may be possible, but it is not devoid of high risks.

Norm-Affirming Opportunities

Incidences of direct military engagement between nuclear-armed adversaries and the manner in which they have been conducted also illuminate another interesting issue pertaining to the perceived military utility of nuclear weapons. Nuclear strategists and practitioners understand well that nuclear deterrence is a game of psychological manipulation. Nuclear bluster and brinkmanship are an important dimension of nuclear deterrence, especially by weaker conventional powers. Like Pakistan or North Korea, Russia appears to have used nuclear saber-rattling to deter its adversary from the large-scale use of conventional forces. Despite all the noise that must accompany strategies of first use of nuclear weapons or those premised on the notion of “escalate to deescalate,” it is never easy to find the appropriate military use for nuclear weapons. The nature of the armament as a weapon of mass destruction and the attendant risk of retaliation after first use make it a blunt instrument, at least from the point of view of war-fighting.

Therefore, in all crises between nuclear-armed states, nuclear weapons have not shown themselves to be useful for achieving any worthwhile political or military objectives through premeditated first use. This is particularly the case when both sides have assured second-strike capabilities, thereby raising the risk of an exchange that would cause unacceptable damage to both sides.

Once this logic is understood, it is possible to envision some opportunities that can be exploited to strengthen the norm of nonuse of nuclear weapons and reinforce the basics of nuclear deterrence. What needs to be underscored is the fact that nuclear weapons are distinct from conventional weapons. The instantaneous release of large amounts of energy in the form of blast and thermal heat, ionizing radiation, and the long-term radioactivity from nuclear fallout are unavoidable with nuclear detonations.5 The empirical data from the destruction wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by, respectively, 15-kiloton and 20-kiloton nuclear warheads are widely available. Today’s warheads are even more powerful and destructive. Although lower yields have been experimented with as one way of reducing the deleterious effects of nuclear explosions, a 2001 report concluded that even a ground burst of a nuclear yield as small as 1 percent of the Hiroshima weapon would “simply blow out a massive crater of radioactive dirt, which rains down on the local region with especially intense and deadly fallout.”6

Given that this is the true nature of the weapon, there hardly can be any credible scenarios where it could be used effectively to achieve an objective. Could any war aim be worth this cost to the adversary and to one’s own self given the retaliation that would likely follow? Over time, Washington and Moscow accumulated large stockpiles of varying yields in the hope of gaining an advantage in nuclear exchanges. Yet, neither country has been seriously inclined to test this hypothesis in real-life situations.

No matter how the war in Ukraine evolves, the nuclear threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), shown with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, have revived fears of nuclear conflict and changed how countries think about deterrence and other nuclear-related theories. The two men attended the Victory Day Parade, marking the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, in Red Square on May 9.  (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)Nations cannot defend themselves by using nuclear weapons. They can only do so by deterring the adversary’s use of a nuclear weapon by the threat of retaliation. In fact, the threat of using these weapons in any scenario other than retaliation, such as against terrorists, conventional offensives, and cyberattacks or space attacks, could only be counterproductive by escalating hostilities. Clearly, these weapons are most effective for only a narrow role.

Embracing this simple reality could make it possible for nations to agree to accept no first use of nuclear weapons as a doctrinal precept. If deterrence is the only function that nuclear weapons can credibly perform, then a no-first-use doctrine does not put nuclear-armed states at a disadvantage. Rather, it brings many benefits. For one, it allows countries to retain their nuclear weapons for the sense of notional security derived from their presence until such time as nuclear-armed states begin to see them as useless. At the same time, the no-first-use policy liberates nations from the need to build and maintain large arsenals with first-strike capabilities, which bring their own risks of safety and security.

Moreover, the policy releases national leaders from having to make the momentous decision to breach the nuclear taboo, which can never be easy because the act will provoke retaliation. It also frees adversaries from the use-it-or-lose-it dilemma, which could trigger nuclear preemption. Thus, a no-first-use policy offers crisis and arms race stability even in the presence of nuclear weapons.7 Because nuclear weapons possessors are unwilling to relinquish their arsenals until conditions are “right,” a no-first-use policy can help create those conditions by constricting possibilities for using the weapon, thus making them useless over time.

Backing Off the Nuclear Precipice

Six decades after the Cuban missile crisis, the Russian-Ukrainian war has brought nations yet again to the nuclear precipice. Talk of World War III is in the air. Of course, the United States and NATO have taken adequate precautions to avoid any move that could propel the world toward nuclear escalation. Some Russian ministers have announced that their country has no reason to use nuclear weapons except to defend against an existential threat. These efforts contribute toward minimizing the chance of intentional nuclear use. Nevertheless, the inadvertent use of the weapons due to miscalculation, misperception, or accident should not be overlooked. Given that tensions are high and information warfare well in progress, one cannot dismiss the presence of a thick fog of war that could make countries stumble into nuclear use.

As a result, it is imperative that this moment be seized by all those who believe that living with nuclear weapons is too risky to drive home the dangers of nuclear weapons and the alarming challenges that they pose for states with nuclear weapons and those without. The very existence of these armaments adds to the risk of escalation to the nuclear level in every war. Additionally, these weapons trigger anxieties about nuclear blackmail and coercion among nonpossessor states.

The war raging in Ukraine offers an important opportunity to sensitize nations and their populations to nuclear risks. All could do with a stiff dose of nuclear learning. The fate of future generations will rest on the world’s behavior today.

 

ENDNOTES

1. Richard Falk and David Krieger, The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), p. 26.

2. Raksha Mantri, “The Challenges of Limited War: Parameters and Options” (address, New Delhi, January 5, 2000), http://www.idsa-india.org/defmin5-2000.html.

3. See Nuclear Crisis Group, “South Asia: Post Crisis Brief,” June 2019, https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/South-Asia-Post-Crisis-Brief.pdf.

4. Lawrence Freedman, “Escalators and Quagmires,” Comment Is Freed, April 29, 2022, https://samf.substack.com/p/escalators-and-quagmires.

5. Some of these arguments draw on an earlier paper by the author. See Manpreet Sethi, “Back to Basics: Pledging Nuclear Restraints,” in Off Ramps From Confrontation in Southern Asia, ed. Michael Krepon, Travel Wheeler, and Liv Dowling (Washington: Stimson Center, 2017).

6. Robert W. Nelson, “Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons,” Federation of American Scientists, n.d., https://programs.fas.org/ssp/nukes/new_nuclear_weapons/loyieldearthpenwpnrpt.html.

7. With their declared no-first-use doctrines, China and India have demonstrated the benefits of this despite their long military stand-off since April 2020. See Ramesh Thakur and Manpreet Sethi, “India-China Border Dispute: The Curious Incident of a Nuclear Dog That Didn’t Bark,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 7, 2020, https://thebulletin.org/2020/09/india-china-border-dispute-the-curious-incident-of-a-nuclear-dog-that-didnt-bark/.


Manpreet Sethi is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi.

The war raging in Ukraine offers an important opportunity to sensitize nations and their populations to nuclear risk. The fate of future generations will rest on the world's behavior today.

How to Save the Irreplaceable Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: An Interview With Adam Scheinman


June 2022

The world has been trying to contain the nuclear genie ever since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. A core element of that effort centers around the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970 and now includes 191 states-parties, including five of the world’s nine states that have nuclear weapons.

In August, hundreds of diplomats representing the states-parties, along with representatives of civil society, will convene at UN headquarters in New York for the 10th NPT Review Conference. This event occurs more than a quarter-century after the states-parties agreed on the indefinite extension of the NPT at the 1995 review and extension conference.

The month-long meeting will cap a five-year review of implementation and compliance with the treaty. Diplomats will attempt to reach agreement on an outcome document that helps to advance the treaty’s main goals: preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons while supporting the peaceful use of nuclear technology, halting and reversing the nuclear arms race, and achieving nuclear disarmament.

Over the past decade, growing tensions among the major nuclear powers have been accompanied by the intensifying risk of nuclear proliferation, nuclear competition, and nuclear weapons use.

Now, the NPT regime faces a new challenge: the attack by Russia, one of its recognized nuclear-armed members, against Ukraine, a non-nuclear-weapon state, along with open threats of nuclear weapons use by Russia against any state that might try to intervene.

As a result, this review conference could prove to be one of the most important in the 50-plus-year history of this bedrock nuclear agreement. Carol Giacomo, chief editor of Arms Control Today, asked Adam Scheinman, the U.S. special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation, to discuss the Biden administration’s expectations for the meeting. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Arms Control Today: In a recent interview, nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “blown up” the global nuclear order. How has the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the global nuclear proliferation and disarmament regime, including the negative security assurances that nuclear-weapon states have extended to non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT?

Adam Scheinman: I think that's really an important question. I have absolutely enormous respect for Dr. Hecker. He's a legend in the field, but I'd say "blown up" is a little bit hyperbolic. There's no doubt that this is a very serious shock to the nonproliferation system and wider global order, but I wouldn't say the damage is total or irreversible. It is going to require that the international community respond and recenter the NPT in that rules-based order.

It's certainly the case that Russia’s aggression undercuts every core precept of the NPT. It's totally irresponsible. Russia’s nuclear saber rattling is out of step with the treaty’s disarmament goals. It has betrayed the security assurances given to Ukraine in 1994 that helped bring Ukraine into the treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state, and its military actions around Ukrainian civilian nuclear facilities raise fears of a serious radiological calamity. It also threatens the right of NPT parties to access the peaceful atom. So, these are very serious problems. It's going to require that we deal with them equally seriously.

More than 50 years after U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (R) looked on, the agreement remains the bedrock of the international arms control and disarmament regime. But it has grown increasingly unstable, especially since Russia invaded Ukraine. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)I would say that the argument of some that Russia's violation of the Budapest Memorandum shows that security assurances are worthless is just wrong. It's Russia that violated the security assurances. That's an indictment of Russia, not of the utility of security assurances that the other nuclear-weapon states have given, including the United States, and implement faithfully.

If nothing else, I think Russia's war on Ukraine should focus the minds of the parties on the fact that, by every conceivable measure that I can think of and most intellectually honest people can think of, the world is better off with the NPT than without it. So, if we're interested in solving nuclear problems, the fact that there's wide agreement around the idea that we’re better off with it should give us some optimism that the treaty will hold together and we’ll find our way through this troubling time.

ACT: In light of this war, has the NPT review conference taken on greater significance?

Scheinman: I think this review conference was always going to be significant. We're at the 50-year, half-century point with the NPT, which is pretty astonishing. It's hard to find examples of durable, global security treaties in history. Even before Russia's invasion, we understood that the NPT faces pretty serious challenges; I think of them as both political and strategic in nature. The political challenge concerns well-documented frustrations over the pace of nuclear disarmament, one that the United States in fact shares, even if we don't agree with everyone on the solutions offered to deal with it.

Of a more strategic character, I think it's pretty widely understood that if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon and if North Korea’s nuclear buildup were to continue, others might wish to leave the treaty and seek their own nuclear weapons capabilities. So, I think that's more of a strategic kind of problem for the treaty.

But without a doubt, I think this review conference takes on even greater significance and consequence following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. We hope that NPT parties will come to the review conference and reject Russia's very reckless behavior, and we should insist that states-parties take their obligations to one another seriously. So if there's ever a time for parties to set aside their differences and focus on what we share and put a marker down in support of this treaty, I think this is the time.

ACT: What else does the United States want to see emerge from the review conference? Will President Joe Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken address the conference?

Scheinman: I can't really tell you today who will address what, when, and where, but the administration is tracking our preparations for the conference very closely. The NPT is very much part of the president's commitment to multilateral institutions, treaties, and norms to uphold the rules-based order and tackle big transnational problems like nuclear proliferation. So, what do we want to emerge? I think one is that the conference reaffirm the commitment of the states-parties to all three pillars of the treaty and to strengthen it. Given the current security climate, it should be evident how important it is that we work collectively to insulate the NPT and preserve its authority. There is no global treaty that can take its place, so it's important that we work to preserve it. It's a really big deal and is why the United States nominates a special representative with the task of watching over the treaty.

One additional point: It's apparent that Russia's actions have created a new fault line in the NPT. It's one that distinguishes states that act responsibly from those that don't. What I think can emerge at the review conference is convergence on a set of principles and actions that advance the treaty's contributions to international security and highlight the security and economic benefits shared by its members. It necessitates holding states to account when they act outside of accepted norms.

ACT: How can you hold Russia to account?

Scheinman: We should understand that the review conference is not an enforcement mechanism. It serves a political function; states-parties can make clear in their national positions that this is totally unacceptable. They can work on a set of principles or proposals that a review conference could endorse or if not the entire review conference, then the vast majority of states. It should be made clear that it's not acceptable to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, as Russia has. It's not acceptable to put at risk nuclear facilities and impede the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) ability to conduct safeguards inspections and allow for safe and secure operations. It's that political action that I think the conference can take to hold Russia to account.

ACT: What else would make the review conference successful?

Scheinman: There's a tendency to rate a successful review conference by whether it produces a consensus final document. In the history of the NPT, I think we've only had five such consensus final documents, and the treaty has continued to function and has force. So, I wouldn't say the fact of reaching consensus is the right measure of success. We certainly will do our best to secure a consensus, but I think it's as important that we deal openly and honestly with the challenges made plain by Russia's actions, as well as longer standing challenges, such as regional proliferation concerns, securing universal adherence to the [Model] Additional Protocol, and expanding peaceful nuclear uses in energy and for sustainable development.

ACT: How can the conference constructively encourage North Korea to reengage in diplomacy? Is there a new opening with the North Koreans because of their COVID-19 problem?

Scheinman: I can't really say whether the COVID-19 issue has opened the door to diplomacy. There are others in the administration responsible for North Korean policy and have a better feel for what is or is not possible. But I'd say that the review conference ought to address North Korea, and in particular, I think we all need to be very concerned about reports of a possible North Korean nuclear test and ongoing efforts to develop ballistic missiles.

The administration has said repeatedly that the door is open to diplomacy with North Korea and we're ready to meet without preconditions. We hope North Korea takes up the offer, and we'd like to see the review conference urge that it do so. The review conference should also call attention to North Korea's reckless behavior and its repeated violations of UN Security Council resolutions.

There's one other point worth noting. It's not specific to North Korea; it's more of a consequence of what North Korea has done by exiting the treaty. This is the issue of preventing abuse of the treaty’s withdrawal provision. It's been 20 years since North Korea announced its intention to leave. In that time, NPT states-parties have not agreed on a single step to discourage abuse of withdrawal. I would think at a minimum we should discuss this issue openly and agree that, as a principle of international law, states remain accountable for violations of the treaty that occurred when still a party to it. There's no “get out of jail free” card because you withdraw. It's that kind of abuse of withdrawal that we ought to discourage, and I hope we can have a productive discussion at the review conference.

ACT: Do you think there will be agreement on a course of action?

Scheinman: I would very much like to see something in an outcome document that at least restates the principle in international law. Other ideas include convening extraordinary meetings of the parties, cutting off nuclear supplies to a state that engages in such behavior. There are a number of ideas that could be considered.

ACT: When you say cutting off supplies, do you mean the supply of nuclear material and fuel?

Scheinman: Yeah, any nuclear-related exports ought to be terminated in such cases. It's hard to think how this would work in practice, but the withdrawing country could also be required to return materials that have been supplied so they are not used for a military program. States-parties could also insist that international safeguards remain in place in the withdrawing state. North Korea kicked out the IAEA inspectors after terminating its IAEA safeguards agreement. We don't want to see that in the future. We should aim to preserve verification, even as we pursue all diplomatic options.

ACT: In 2010 the review conference agreed to an action plan on all three pillars of the treaty, including Article VI. Does the administration recognize those past commitments as still valid? Will it seek to update those goals, particularly Article VI, through the consensus document?

Scheinman: I think this issue of past commitments, which is talked about quite a bit, is a bit of a red herring. It's important to understand that only the terms of the treaty are legally binding on states-parties and that any commitment recorded at review conferences in a consensus document are political. They reflect what seems achievable or desirable at the time they were made. Now, it's certainly the case that many of the actions in review conference final documents remain relevant and certainly important. Others are past their shelf life. There's a call in previous documents for fully implementing the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, which hasn't been in force for two decades now. Other actions are important, but were the product of the time, when conditions for action were more favorable.

That's certainly the case in terms of U.S.-Russian arms control opportunities in the early post-Cold War period and also in connection with the Oslo Middle East peace process in the mid-1990s. What I will say is that we remain firm in our support for legal undertakings in the NPT, as I hope all parties are, and in our support for realistic arms control and disarmament measures. We also recognize the political importance of implementing commitments made in past documents. But security conditions change in unpredictable ways, and so it's probably more productive if we take a forward-looking approach and not lose time debating the history.

ACT: Do you expect the proposal for a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction will be as contentious as in the past? What is the U.S. approach on this issue?

Scheinman: I think whether the issue is likely to be contentious is a question for others, not for us. We have no desire to hold the review conference hostage to this issue or any other particular issue, and I hope other states-parties see it the same way. In terms of our approach, we have consistently supported the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and systems for their delivery.

But we also made clear that progress toward that goal can only be achieved through direct and consensus-based dialogue among all states in the region, which as a practical matter is both the arms control issue and the wider regional security issue. That remains our position. I'm well aware that there's a UN conference process on the Middle Eastern zone that started a couple of years ago. We're not participating in it, but I expect parties can find a way to address it at the review conference in an even-handed and factual manner.

ACT: In past review conferences, the five nuclear-weapon states have consulted on issue-coordinated statements. Are you consulting with Russia and China in preparation
for the conference? If yes, do you see hope for constructive action beyond a reiteration of the statement from December, that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought?

Scheinman: I don't want to comment on specific diplomatic undertakings at the moment, but I'll say that we have to be realistic about what can be achieved among the five in the current environment. Russia's war on Ukraine naturally limits possibilities for productive work among the five; I think that's just the reality of where we are today. But in the interim, we'll continue to work with others on topics that hold promise for engagement among the five down the road.

One example is strategic risk reduction, a topic having obvious relevance to strategic stability and disarmament goals. At the end of the day, I think we should probably recognize that a full and functioning P5 process is not a precondition to work on issues of common interest, whether of interest to the five nuclear-weapon states or the wider NPT membership. I really don’t expect the five to issue new statements beyond the one on preventing nuclear war that Russia joined in January, six weeks before invading Ukraine. We certainly stand by the statement. Whether Russia does, they'll have to speak for themselves.

ACT: The United States has identified China and its expanding nuclear capability as a threat. What conversations are you having with China about the review conference and its Article VI obligations?

When states-parties meet for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty 10th Review Conference in August, one wildcard is the role that China, on a path to increase its nuclear weapons capability, will play in determining the treaty’s future. The DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, shown here, are an important part of the Chinese arsenal. (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)Scheinman: There’s no doubt that China’s rapid nuclear buildup is out of step with the other nuclear-weapon states. It is certainly out of step with the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. I'd say it's not exactly keeping with the spirit of Article VI, and that merits some attention at the review conference. Our approach has been to seek bilateral discussions with China on measures to reduce and manage strategic risks. President Biden conveyed our interest to President Xi Jinping last November, suggesting that we ought to have some commonsense guardrails in place to ensure that competition doesn't veer into conflict. To this point, China has not engaged or shown interest in engaging. We hope China will take a fresh look at this and see the value of exchanges both for regional stability and for nuclear security.

ACT: Are the Chinese really not talking to you about the review conference?

Scheinman: I didn't really answer in that context. I was answering more in the context of bilateral strategic stability discussions. But now, in the context of the NPT review, we did meet regularly with China as part of the P5 process prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But our NPT dialogue with China isn’t limited to the P5, and we will pursue all avenues for dialogue as we would with any other NPT state-party. We have our differences but probably many more NPT issues on which we agree.

ACT: May 26 marks the 50th anniversary of the first U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms control agreements: the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) agreement and the ABM Treaty, which emerged after the NPT entered into force in 1970. If there is no official U.S.-Russian dialogue on strategic stability, nuclear risk reduction, or disarmament now, how does the Biden administration think the two sides can maintain verifiable limits on their strategic stockpiles past 2026, when the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is due to expire?

Scheinman: I'm glad you note the anniversary of SALT I and the ABM Treaty. It has particular personal meaning to me because my first job in the field out of grad school was for a small Washington-based think tank led by Ambassador Gerard Smith, who was the negotiator of the SALT I and ABM treaties. This is someone who understood the purposes of nuclear arms control as well as anyone. He understood that arms control was needed for both stable nuclear deterrence and to preserve the future credibility of the NPT, that we couldn't choose whether to base our nuclear strategy on deterrence or arms control, that we have to do both together, and I think that is exactly true for today. It's among the reasons why President Biden on his first day in office gave the administration direction to extend New START for five years, to 2026.

Looking ahead, our thinking about future steps in arms control with Russia hasn’t changed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We remain interested in pursuing a future agreement that maintains control on intercontinental-range systems and deals with some of the novel nuclear systems that Russia has developed, as well as nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which aren't subject to any arms control agreement and which Russia has developed in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, at least in the intermediate-range category.

We also remain open to pursuing a broader type of arms control to address strategic stability, which could mean discussion of threat perceptions and of non-nuclear systems that can have strategic effect—conventional, missile defense, and so forth. Strategic stability talks are on hold given Russia’s actions in Ukraine. I can’t predict when it would be appropriate to resume that dialogue, but we'll certainly consider doing so when it best serves U.S. interests.

Ahead of a conference to review the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, U.S. President Joe Biden's special representative for nonproliferation says Russia's nuclear saber rattling is out of step with the treaty's goals.

After Exercise, Russia Downplays Nuclear Threat


June 2022
By Shannon Bugos

Russia simulated launches of nuclear weapons during military exercises in the Kaliningrad enclave in May, according to its defense ministry, even as Russian diplomats attempted to downplay the likelihood of Russia employing nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Russia has used the Iskander-M missile, shown parading through Red Square, to pummel Ukraine and conducted simulated launches of nuclear weapons with the missile during military exercises in the Kaliningrad enclave in May.  (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)The Russian exercise included “electronic launches” of dual-capable, road-mobile Iskander-M ballistic missiles against targets such as airfields, equipment depots, and military command posts. The Russian Defense Ministry said that more than 100 troops participated in the simulation launched from Kaliningrad, which is located between the NATO countries of Lithuania and Poland along the Baltic coast. Russia has used conventional Iskander-M missiles extensively in Ukraine.

Despite the nuclear simulation and continued threatening rhetoric from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Ministry officials have dismissed the prospect of Russia employing nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.

When questioned about the possibility of nuclear war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted on May 1 that “Russia has never ceased its efforts to reach agreements that would guarantee the prevention of a nuclear war.” He emphasized that Moscow has agreed twice in the past year to reaffirm the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Konstantin Gavrilov, head of Russia’s delegation on arms control in Vienna, said more directly on May 4 that “we by no means pursue any nuclear war-related aims on the territory of Ukraine.” Alexey Zaitsev, Russian Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson, echoed this on May 6, saying that nuclear weapons “are not applicable to the implementation of the tasks set in the course of the special military operation in Ukraine.”

Zaitsev pointed to four scenarios in which Moscow might use nuclear weapons, including when the state’s existence is perceived to be in jeopardy. The scenarios are outlined in the Russian nuclear deterrence policy released in June 2020. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

The remarks by the Foreign Ministry officials differ from Putin’s statements since the start of the war in Ukraine, in which he has threatened to use nuclear weapons if any country attempts to intercede on Ukraine’s behalf. (See ACT, March 2022.)

“If anyone intends to intervene from the outside and create a strategic threat to Russia that is unacceptable to us, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning fast,” Putin reiterated on April 27. “We have the tools we need for this…[and] we will use them if necessary.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has described such rhetoric as irresponsible and dangerous. “No one should be making idle comments about the use of nuclear weapons or the possibility that they’d use that,” he said on April 28.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby commented on the Russian war game and threats of nuclear use, dismissing the prospect of a U.S. or NATO reaction. “Has that exercise or has this rhetoric resulted in us changing the footprint on NATO’s eastern flank? No,” he told reporters on May 5.

Nevertheless, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines assured Congress on May 12 that the United States “will remain vigilant in monitoring every aspect of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.”

Thus far, neither the United States nor NATO has mirrored Putin’s decision in February to raise the alert level of Russian nuclear forces. Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, testified in March that he sees no need to change U.S. nuclear force posture. Kirby said on May 5 that the United States is “comfortable and confident that our strategic deterrent posture is well placed and robust enough to defend the homeland, as well as our allies and partners.” (See ACT, April 2022.)

Haines said that “there is not a sort of an imminent potential for Putin to use nuclear weapons.” But she added that he may engage in some further signaling of Russian disapproval of U.S. support for Ukraine “by authorizing another large nuclear exercise involving a major dispersal of mobile intercontinental missiles, heavy bombers, [and] strategic submarines.”

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resumed communication with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoigu, with an hour-long phone call on May 13, the first since the invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24.

During the call, Austin “urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication,” according to the Pentagon readout. A senior defense official added that the department had “been consistently asking for this conversation,” but it was not until that week when Shoigu finally agreed.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley then spoke with his Russian counterpart, Chief of Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, on May 19, also for the first time since the war started.

Moscow and Washington created a Russian-U.S. deconfliction line at the operational level between the Russian Defense Ministry and U.S. European Command in March, but there has been no communication at the most senior level until now.

China has called for restraint. “No one wants to see the outbreak of a third world war,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters on May 23.

The military exercises simulated launches of nuclear weapons.

Finland, Sweden Apply to Join NATO


June 2022
By Gabriela Rosa Hernández

Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO, abandoning their long-standing military neutrality in the face of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. The May 18 move signals an expected expansion of the alliance in ways that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. It is widely seen as a political defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who for years worked hard to tear the alliance apart and insisted that no new members be added.

U.S. President Joe Biden (C) moved quickly to host Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (L) and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson at the White House on May 19 in support of a decision by the two Nordic countries to apply for NATO membership. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)Sweden declared its intentions to seek NATO membership on May 15, shortly after Finland confirmed its move. Three days later, the countries filed formal applications at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

All of NATO’s 30 members must approve the new allies, a process that could take up to a year. In a surprise development, Hungary and Turkey, two NATO countries ruled by authoritarians, raised objections to the membership applications in what diplomatic sources described as an apparent attempt to gain political concessions driven by their national interests and desire to play to domestic audiences.

U.S. and European officials expressed confidence that any differences can be worked out. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on May 15 that the membership process could be very quick, according to media reports, and U.S. officials acted as if it were a done deal. But the Hungarian and Turkish obstructions cast a cloud over the historic Nordic shift.

U.S. President Joe Biden moved to speed the process and reinforce a sense of acceptance by inviting Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson to the White House on May 19. In a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, he said he was submitting immediately to the Senate the treaty language needed to make the two countries the newest members of the alliance.

“Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger,” Biden said. “They’re strong, strong democracies, and a strong, united NATO is the foundation of America’s security.”

Biden warned Russia that the United States would “deter and confront any aggression while Finland and Sweden are in this accession process” before they formally are accepted into an alliance whose core commitment is that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” Although Biden’s pledge is far short of a treaty, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on May 18 that the United States “will not tolerate any aggression against Finland or Sweden during this process.”

At the White House, Andersson said that “Russia’s full-scale aggression against a sovereign and democratic neighbor…was a watershed moment for Sweden, and my government has come to the conclusion that the security of the Swedish people will be best protected within the NATO alliance.”

As Finland and Sweden began taking formal steps to join NATO, Swedish Army troops, here camouflaging an armoured vehicle, participated in military exercises on the Swedish island of Gotland in May. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images) Finland and Sweden were nonaligned during the Cold War and maintained formal military neutrality even as their armed forces contributed to Western operations. Both countries are considered to be NATO’s closest geopolitical partners, possessing vibrant democracies, strong economies, and competent militaries. Since Russia invaded Ukraine and upended European stability, Finland and Sweden have become increasingly unsettled by the Russian threat and experienced a stunning surge in support among their politicians and publics to seek security in the alliance.

As late as March 8, two weeks after the invasion began, Andersson, Sweden’s Social Democratic leader, said that her party was opposed to joining NATO. Sweden consulted closely during the decision-making process with Finland, which led the way on the NATO issue.

“Military nonalignment has served Sweden well, but our conclusion is that it will not serve us equally well in the future,” Andersson told a press conference on May 15 in Stockholm in announcing her country’s NATO decision. “This is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said Turkey’s objection stems from opposition to Sweden’s and, to a lesser extent, Finland’s perceived support for the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and an armed group in Syria that Turkey sees as an extension of the PKK. Ankara’s conflict with the PKK, a Turkish separatist group, has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984.

Putin has long opposed NATO and before the invasion had demanded that the alliance cease adding new members.

Russia has responded to the Finnish and Swedish decisions by threatening retaliation, including unspecified “military-technical measures,” Reuters reported. Yet, Niniisto spoke to Putin on May 14 and said later that their conversation was measured and did not contain any threats. “He confirmed that he thinks [the decision to join NATO is] a mistake. We are not threatening you. Altogether, the discussion was very, could I say, calm and cool,” Niinisto said in an interview with CNN. The Kremlin described the exchange as frank and said the change of course in foreign policy could negatively affect Finnish-Russian relations.

On May 16, Putin said in his speech to the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit that the fact of Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members would not in itself be a direct threat to Russia, but the expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure to these countries would certainly provoke a response. Previously, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov told Kommersant that “the next expansion of NATO does not make our continent more stable and secure” and will require that Russia undertake a “special analysis and development of the necessary measures in order to balance the situation and ensure our security.”

Russia’s war on Ukraine has driven the two Nordic countries to abandon their military neutrality.

Russian Attacks Test International Norms


June 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Russia’s recent attacks on nuclear sites in Ukraine have raised concern about the strength of international humanitarian law, which prohibits targeting nuclear power plants if the attack would cause severe harm to civilian populations. Russia’s decision to flout this norm also increases the possibility that states may target nuclear infrastructure in the future.

A Russian soldier patrols the territory of the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Station in southeastern Ukraine on May 1, 2022. It is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. The photo was shot during a media tour organized by the Russian army.  (Photo by Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images) Since invading Ukraine, Russia briefly occupied and disrupted activities at Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 reactor meltdown, and still controls the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which includes six reactors.

When Russian forces attacked Zaporizhzhya in early March, they fired heavy weapons toward the reactor buildings and a facility that is used to store nuclear waste. Although reactors and spent fuel are housed in structures hardened to withstand attacks, the strikes still could have caused a reactor meltdown or a radioactive release by disrupting operations and support systems that are more vulnerable to damage.

The possibility of radioactive release causing severe harm to civilian populations, particularly in the case of the Zaporizhzhya attack, suggests that Russia’s actions may violate the 1977 protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which the International Committee of the Red Cross describes as the basis of international humanitarian law.

Protocol I of the Geneva Convention protects against the targeting of “installations containing dangerous forces,” including “nuclear electrical generating stations…if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.” It further prohibits the attack on military objectives “located at or in the vicinity” of these facilities if such an attack would cause severe harm to the civilian population.

Although Russia joined Protocol 1 in 1992, President Vladimir Putin withdrew in 2019. But Russia is still party to Protocol II, which repeats the prohibition on attacking nuclear power plants if it would result in severe harm to civilians.

Although the international community has broadly condemned Moscow’s targeting of nuclear facilities, the calls for Russia to cease military activity around Ukrainian nuclear infrastructure does not appear to have had a restraining effect on Russian actions.

When Russian military forces first occupied Chernobyl, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors passed a resolution urging Russia to “immediately cease all actions against” Chernobyl and “any other nuclear facility in Ukraine.” The March 3 resolution also urged Russia to allow Ukraine to preserve full control over nuclear sites. The following day, Russia attacked the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant and continues to occupy the facility.

UN Undersecretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo called the attack “contrary to international humanitarian law” and “highly irresponsible” during a Security Council meeting on March 4.

Russia’s refusal to adhere to the norm established by the Geneva Conventions protocols and to heed broad international calls to cease attacks at nuclear facilities suggests that Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure will remain a target and that other states could look to attack or occupy nuclear sites in future conflicts to advance military objectives.

Other states with nuclear power programs are preparing for that risk. For instance, the week after Russia attacked Zaporizhzhya, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that his government would examine whether existing defenses at his country’s nuclear power plants were sufficient. The announcement came after the governor of Fukui, Tatsuji Sugimoto, requested further defense forces for the prefecture, which includes several nuclear power plants.

Nuclear security may need to evolve to address this emerging risk because past efforts have focused largely on securing facilities against acts of terrorism and the theft of nuclear materials. Sigfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, noted in an April 21 interview with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that after the Sept. 11 attacks, “concerns were focused on preventing nuclear terrorism by non-state actors.” He called the attack on Zaporizhzhya “an act of state-sponsored terrorism.” Although Russia and the United States have cooperated to combat global nuclear terrorism, now “we must be concerned about Russia committing nuclear or radiological terrorism,” he said.

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in August could be a forum to begin discussions on strengthening the norm against targeting nuclear installations and condemning state-sponsored attacks on such facilities. But the conference outcome document must be approved by consensus, so it is unlikely Russia would agree to any language criticizing its actions.

Russia’s occupation of the Zaporizhzhya site raises further concerns about security, safety, and accountability for the nuclear material present there and for the well-being of the workers, who must continue operating the plant under the stress of the occupation.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on May 11 that conducting safeguards activities at the site is “challenging, owing to the presence of Russian forces” and nuclear personnel. He called the situation “unsustainable” and expressed hope that he would be able to visit the facility soon.

The IAEA is also working with Ukraine to restore safeguards and monitoring at Chernobyl after Russian forces withdrew at the end of March.

Grossi confirmed on May 4 that “data from all unattended monitoring systems installed at [Chernobyl] has now been fully recovered,” but said on May 6 that there is “still much to do to restore Chornobyl to normal operation.”

Russia’s recent attacks on nuclear sites in Ukraine have raised concern about the strength of international humanitarian law.

War in Ukraine Driving NATO Revamp


June 2022
By Gabriela Rosa Hernández

As the Russian war against Ukraine grinds on, the conflict is propelling a fundamental revamp of the U.S. and NATO military arsenals, as well as an unprecedented buildup of Ukraine’s war-fighting capacity. If the current trend continues, the result is likely to be a collection of much stronger, more modern Western militaries arrayed along the border with Russia, just as that country’s own military underperforms in Ukraine, experts and alliance officials say.

General Pierre Schill (R), chief of staff of the French Army, visits French troops deployed with NATO in Cincu, Romania in May 2022. (Photo by Didier Lauras/AFP via Getty Images)The United States and its allies have spent billions of dollars arming Ukraine since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. As Russia struggles to maintain control of the fight in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, it has continued to fire all kinds of missiles targeting key weapons facilities and industrial bases. On May 2, the U.S. Defense Department reported observing more than 2,125 Russian missile launches since the beginning of the invasion. While the barrage continues, the allies are not only learning valuable lessons about how these conventional missile systems are used and performing, but also taking steps to upgrade their own military equipment as they donate older models to Ukraine.

As one example, the allies have shifted to training Ukrainians to use Western military equipment as Ukrainian stockpiles of vintage Soviet-era systems have become depleted, according to PBS. Because of this, U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law on May 21 a $40 billion assistance package for Ukraine, bringing total U.S. assistance to roughly $54 billion.

The new package, in part, would reimburse the Defense Department for training and military education provided to Ukraine and to allies who aided Ukraine at the behest of the United States. This is in addition to weapons, logistic and radar system support, and intelligence provided directly to the Ukrainian military. The German Defense Ministry announced in May that it is training Ukrainians on using advanced self-propelled howitzers donated by Germany and the Netherlands, while Canada disclosed plans to train Ukrainians to use heavy artillery.

These packages are not only helping Ukraine modernize its force with NATO military equipment, but also allowing NATO European allies to replace their own Soviet-era arms stocks as they donate them to Ukraine. For instance, Biden announced in March that the United States would replace Slovakia’s Soviet-era S-300 air defense system with a U.S. Patriot system after Slovakia donated the S-300 system to Ukraine. In April, Poland signed a $4 billion deal to buy Abrams tanks from the United States. Defense News reported that the procurement would allow Poland to phase out its Soviet T-72 and PT-91 tanks with a new tracked vehicle platform, part of a broad U.S. effort to transition allies from dependence on Russian military equipment through the European Recapitalization Incentive Program. Under specific conditions, the program allows the U.S. State Department to allocate funds from the Foreign Military Financing program to specific countries to purchase U.S. defense articles, training, and services for their defense needs and thus reduce military dependence on Russia.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated this trend. As Poland donated a set of T-72 tanks to Ukraine, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government was considering donating Challenger II battle tanks to fill Poland’s defense gap. Although this transfer has not been confirmed directly, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on April 26 that Poland’s gap had been filled. He referred to U.S. and UK weapons provided to Poland since the beginning of the war. In the new $40 billion U.S. assistance package, about $4 billion is aimed at paying for European command operations and at helping NATO’s eastern flank countries, including with the deployment of another U.S. Patriot missile system. In late May, Poland said it would seek six more U.S. Patriot batteries and 500 HIMARS M142 launchers, a U.S. long range artillery rocket system.

Russia’s aggression has also propelled NATO to expedite plans to beef up the alliance’s conventional force posture. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the allies agreed in 2016 to establish a forward presence on NATO’s eastern front. By 2017, NATO established an “enhanced forward presence” composed of four rotating multinational battle groups, averaging about 1,000 troops each, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. In the Black Sea, NATO developed a “tailored forward presence,” which focused on exercises and training opportunities overseen by its headquarters in Romania.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told ACT that there were plans to increase further the troop presence on the alliance’s eastern front, but did not provide a timeline. Since the war began, NATO, citing the need for deterrence, has doubled its rotating multinational battle groups, establishing new groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. Also, battle groups in the Baltic states and Poland have significantly increased from about 5,000 troops to 18,200, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Reservists from the 2nd Estonian Infantry Brigade take part in maneuvers during a NATO exercise on the Estonian-Latvian border on May 25 in Voru, Estonia. Fifteen thousand troops from 14 countries are participating in one of the largest ever military exercises in the Baltics as NATO members funnel weapons and other assistance to Ukraine to beat back a Russian invasion. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Overall, more than 40,000 troops are now under direct NATO command on the alliance’s eastern front. In addition, The Washington Post reported in early April that the Pentagon had increased the number of U.S. military personnel in Europe from 60,000 to more than 100,000 since February 2022. The Post, quoting an anonymous senior defense official, also reported that there will be a permanent force posture change in Europe, including troops from other NATO member states and possibly including a greater U.S. presence. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated on April 5, “I believe a lot of our allies, especially those such as the Baltics or Poland or Romania…are very willing to establish permanent bases. They will build them and pay for them.”

Meanwhile, the alliance is keeping close track of Russian tactics. Russia claims it has used a variety of missiles to strike Ukraine, including expensive Kalibr cruise missiles, high-precision Oniks missiles, the Iskander missile system, and a dozen hypersonic missiles. Russia has destroyed or badly damaged a Ukrainian anti-ship missile facility near Kyiv, the Malyshev tank factory in Kharkiv, and heavy industrial complexes in the cities of Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv, a Ukrainian official told Foreign Policy. In late May, The Washington Post reported that Russia has also hit fuel and military supply depots, power stations, transportation infrastructure, and training centers in western Ukraine with its long-range precision-guided capabilities.

In numerous regional military exercises, the use of these systems in Europe was associated with deterrence, but now states will pay attention to the battlefield capability, use, and military units responsible for these systems when reflecting on their own force postures in Europe. These weapons “will no longer be perceived as a means of deterring a potential enemy, but as a weapon for real combat,” political scientist Pyotr Topychkanov wrote in Forbes.

One early indicator is the announcement by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka that Russia was interested in helping his country produce missiles such as the Iskander. In addition, Lukashenka recently said that Belarus received S-400 air defense systems from Russia.

The conflict is propelling big changes in U.S. and NATO arsenals as well as an unprecedented surge in Ukraine’s warfighting capacity.

Little-Used U.S. Powers Employed to Aid Ukraine


June 2022
By Jeff Abramson

President Joe Biden is taking advantage of rarely used legal authorities to expedite massive new U.S. weapons deliveries and other assistance to Ukraine while continuing to delay issuance of a new policy that broadly defines the purpose of arms transfers.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would not allow a $40 billion spending package to speed through the Senate via unanimous consent. He wanted  a special inspector general appointed to monitor the funds. The Senate voted to approve the spending on May 19 without Paul's changes and President Joe Biden signed it into law on May 21. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)In terms of aiding Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression, the most symbolic move so far was Congress’ decision to pass legislation modeled after the World War II-era Lend-Lease Act, which enabled the Roosevelt administration to quickly provide arms to U.S. allies and turn the tide of that conflict.

The Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 passed the Senate by a unanimous voice vote on April 6 and the House by an overwhelming 417–10 vote on April 28. In a speech touting the legislation that day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stressed the importance of “waiving time-consuming requirements on the president’s authority to send critical defensive resources to Ukraine.”

Biden waited until May 9 to sign the bill into law, providing a symbolic counter to Russia’s Victory Day celebrations. “Every day, the Ukrainians pay with their lives,” Biden said at the signing ceremony. “[T]he cost of the fight is not cheap, but caving to aggression is even more costly.”

Although lend-lease authorities already exist, they are rarely used. The new law removes a number of hurdles encumbering Ukraine or other eastern European countries affected by the Russian war, including a prohibition on loans or leases lasting more than five years. Exactly how the president might use the new authority is not clear.

Meanwhile, on April 24, U.S. officials declared that an emergency existed in order to provide $165 million in ammunition to Ukraine under the Foreign Military Sale program. This was Biden’s first use of a rarely invoked authority under the Arms Export Control Act that allows the executive branch to bypass mandated congressional review periods before it can conclude arms sales.

Unlike in 2019 when both chambers of Congress passed resolutions to try to block President Donald Trump from using such an authority for emergency arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Biden did not face any significant opposition to his emergency declaration. Trump had to veto the resolutions, which Congress was unable to override in late July 2019. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The same day the House approved the lend-lease legislation, the Biden administration asked Congress for an additional $33 billion for Ukraine and European security through September, stating that $3.5 billion in existing authority to draw down U.S. stocks was nearly exhausted. (See ACT, May 2022.) The April 28 request included $5 billion in additional drawdown authority, $6 billion for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and $4 billion for the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing program.

On May 10, the House added to the request by passing an even larger $40 billion emergency package in a 368-57 vote. In a press release, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who sponsored the bill, said, “Given the magnitude of the terror campaign being waged against the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian democracy, we are morally obligated to ensure Ukraine has the security and economic aid they need.” The Senate passed the legislation 86–11 on May 19, and Biden signed it into law on May 21.

The law places very few hurdles on the administration’s use of the funds, an issue that prompted Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to block an effort to move the bill forward by unanimous consent on May 12. He proposed including language requiring the appointment of a special inspector general to monitor the funds. That could have forced the legislation back to the House despite presidential calls for quick action.

The law requires the Defense Department’s inspector general to provide a report on the funds within 120 days, a report on end-use monitoring efforts within 45 days, and an unclassified report every 30 days detailing defense articles and services provided to Ukraine.

At the same time as it is speeding weapons to Ukraine, the Biden administration continues to delay actions that would clarify its view on the role of U.S. arms transfers more broadly. Specifically, the administration has not used the moment to finally release its new conventional arms transfer policy despite telling congressional offices as least as long ago as July 2021 that a presidential policy that would do more to promote human rights was coming.

During an event hosted by the Forum on the Arms Trade on April 14, Mira K. Resnick, deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security, reiterated that the revised arms transfer policy had the “goal of revitalizing U.S. leadership on democracy and human rights.” But she did not indicate when the document would be finalized.

Civil society advocates have expressed frustration with the delay of the policy release, which they have attributed to administration preoccupation first with the collapse of the Afghan government in 2021 and now the war in Ukraine. To many of those advocates, the policy inherited from the Trump administration places too much emphasis on the commercial value of arms transfers. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

The current policy did not come up publicly during recent Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) preparatory meetings in late April. At the annual ATT conference of states-parties last August, U.S. representatives indicated that the policy would be “finalized shortly and released” and would be used to review “the proper relationship of the United States” to the treaty. (See ACT, October 2021.)

Despite expectations that this administration would do so, it has not taken action to honor the 2013 U.S. signature to the treaty, which Trump rejected in 2019. (See ACT, May 2019.) The vast majority of the countries providing weapons to Ukraine are treaty members. Today, there are 111 states-parties to the treaty, including all NATO countries aside from Turkey and the United States.

 

Invoking rare legal authorities will enable President Joe Biden to expedite deliveries of arms to defend against Russia.

EU Attempts to Save Iran Negotiations


June 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

European negotiators traveled to Tehran in May to try and break the stalemate in negotiations to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but prospects for success remain dim as the country’s nuclear program continues to expand.

After EU lead negotiator Enrique Mora visited Tehran in early May to encourage progress on restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said his government had introduced special initiatives and proposals and it was time for the United States to act.  (Photo: Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA)Enrique Mora, the lead negotiator for the European Union, met with Iran’s lead negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, on May 11–12 over Iran’s demand that the United States remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. The terrorism designation is the last major obstacle to concluding an agreement to restore the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. (See ACT, May 2022.)

Although Mora did not convey a new proposal from the United States on the IRGC issue specifically, the Biden administration offered through Mora to address the terrorism designation after a deal to restore the JCPOA is finalized.

At a May 16 press conference, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh did not indicate if Iran were open to delaying talks on the IRGC issue or willing to discuss alternatives. It likely will be challenging domestically for the Iranian government to back down from its demand that the United States lift the IRGC terrorism designation. But Khatibzadeh told the press conference that the talks with Mora were “serious and result oriented.”

Ahead of Mora’s trip, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on May 7 described the trip to the Financial Times as the “last bullet” to keep alive negotiations to restore the deal. Borrell appeared somewhat optimistic that Mora’s trip was a success. He told the Group of Seven foreign ministers on May 13 that the trip had gone “better than expected” and that Iran’s engagement with Mora was “positive enough” to relaunch talks.

Despite Borrell’s optimism, with both the United States and Iran continuing to insist that the ball is in the other’s court, it remains to be seen if Mora’s trip could break the deadlock.

Khatibzadeh said that the parties may return to talks in Vienna if the United States “gives its response to some of the solutions that were proposed.” He said Iran awaits the “political decision” by the United States to move forward.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told a May 17 press briefing that “a deal remains far from certain.” He reiterated that Iran must decide “whether it insists on conditions that are extraneous to the JCPOA” or whether it is willing and able to reach a deal to quickly return to compliance with the accord.

Price said that the Biden administration continues to believe that “diplomacy and dialogue afford an opportunity to sustainably and durably and permanently put an end to Iran’s ability to produce or otherwise acquire a nuclear weapon.”

His comments came amid reports that the United States plans to take part in an Israeli military drill that will simulate an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Israel will practice in-air refueling by U.S. planes, according to Israeli media.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in a May 17 speech at Reichman University that Israel is “getting prepared for all scenarios by building its military power.” He emphasized Iran’s nuclear progress, noting that Tehran continues to “accumulate irreversible knowledge and experience in the development…of advanced centrifuges,” which are used to enrich uranium, and “stands just a few weeks away from accumulating fissile material that will be sufficient for a first bomb.”

Gantz also said that Iran is working to produce 1,000 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at an underground facility near Natanz. Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its intention to build a new underground facility to produce centrifuges after sabotage damaged its existing facilities at Natanz in April 2021. The IAEA has not publicly disclosed the scope of Iran’s centrifuge production at the site.

But IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi did raise concerns about Iran’s uranium enrichment during remarks to the EU foreign affairs committee. Grossi said the IAEA estimated that Iran had produced 42 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235. That quantity is sufficient to produce the highly enriched uranium required for a bomb, which is about 25 kilograms enriched to above 90 percent U-235, if it is in gas form that can be further enriched.

The IAEA reported in March that Iran had converted two kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 to a powder. Since Iran reduced IAEA access to Iran’s nuclear program in February 2021, it is unclear if additional material has been converted.

Grossi said Iran’s enrichment to 60 percent U-235 is “unprecedented” for a non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is “cause for serious concern.”

He also noted Iran’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA investigation into possible undeclared nuclear materials and activities from the pre-2003 period. The IAEA has asked Iran to provide explanations for activities at four sites, three of which the IAEA visited and confirmed the presence of processed uranium. The IAEA and Iran reached an agreement on March 4 on a series of steps that would allow Grossi to conclude the investigation by the June meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors. (See ACT, April 2022.)

Although Iran confirmed that it sent information to the IAEA regarding the April investigation, Grossi said Iran has “not been forthcoming” in providing the necessary explanations. The “situation does not look very good,” Grossi said.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, expressed surprise at Grossi’s comments and told the press on May 12 that Iran is cooperating with the IAEA.

 

European negotiators traveled to Tehran in May to break a stalemate but prospects for restoring the Iran deal remain dim.

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