“[My time at ACA] prepared me very well for the position that I took following that with the State Department, where I then implemented and helped to implement many of the policies that we tried to promote.”
– Peter Crail
Business Executive for National Security
June 2, 2022
October 2021
Edition Date: 
Friday, October 1, 2021
Cover Image: 

Biden’s NPR Must Reduce the Role of Nuclear Weapons

October 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

Most successful U.S. presidents have actively led efforts to advance arms control agreements and reduce the risk of nuclear war. Although much has been achieved over the years, there are still 14,000 nuclear weapons and nine nuclear-armed states; progress on disarmament has stalled; and tensions between the United States and its main nuclear adversaries—Russia and China—are rising.

A deactivated Minuteman II missile in its silo. (Photo credit: U.S. National Park Service)President Joe Biden clearly recognizes the problem and the value of diplomacy and nuclear restraint in solving it. His Interim National Security Strategic Guidance states that his administration will seek to “re-establish [its] credibility as a leader in arms control” and “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [U.S.] national security strategy.” In February, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and negotiate further nuclear limits.

But it remains to be seen whether Biden’s recently launched Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) will lead to meaningful adjustments in the dangerous Cold War-era nuclear policies and costly nuclear modernization programs he inherited. Earlier this year, Biden blew the chance to meaningfully scale back his predecessor’s bloated $44 billion annual nuclear budget.

Going forward, Biden needs to play a more direct role in the NPR to ensure it reflects his priorities and does not reinforce the dangerous overreliance on nuclear weapons and exacerbate global nuclear competition. As I and other experts recommended in a recent letter to the White House, the president should make important changes in several key areas.

First, the NPR should include a declaratory policy that substantially narrows the role of nuclear weapons, consistent with Biden’s stated views. In 2020, he wrote, “I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice.”

A “sole purpose” policy that rules out the use of nuclear weapons in a preemptive strike or in response to a nonnuclear attack on the United States or its allies would increase strategic stability, reduce the risk of nuclear war, and help operationalize the principle that Biden and Putin agreed to in July that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The more options there are to use nuclear weapons, the more likely it is that they will be used.

Second, the NPR should revise outdated targeting requirements that are used to determine how many nuclear weapons are “enough.” Although Russia is modernizing its arsenal and China is rapidly increasing its smaller strategic retaliatory force, including systems to evade U.S. missile defenses, the current U.S. nuclear arsenal vastly exceeds what is and will be necessary to deter a nuclear attack.

President Barack Obama announced in 2013 that the United States could safely reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by one-third below New START levels, to approximately 1,000 deployed strategic weapons, regardless of what Russia did. The case for such a reduction still holds.

Contrary to the Cold War logic of U.S. Strategic Command, having more bombs and more delivery options does not translate into more effective deterrence. It can fuel arms races and squander funds needed to address higher priority security needs. The sobering reality is that it would take just a few hundred U.S. strategic nuclear weapons to destroy Russian and Chinese military capacity, kill hundreds of millions of innocent people, and produce a planetary climate catastrophe.

By signaling that the United States seeks a smaller, more appropriately sized nuclear force, Biden could help lower tensions, put a spotlight on other nuclear-armed states that are expanding their arsenals, and more credibly claim the United States is fulfilling its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Third, Biden’s NPR should examine options for scaling back the size and scope of the U.S. nuclear modernization plan and put into practice the “no new nuclear weapons” policy he said he would support during his presidential campaign. He should reverse the decisions made by the Trump administration to field a new lower-yield W76-2 warhead variant and to develop a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. These weapons invite miscalculation in a crisis by lowering the threshold for nuclear use. New warhead projects, such as the W93 for U.S. and UK submarine-based missiles, are also unnecessary and costly and should be shelved.

In his inaugural address to the United Nations, Biden said, “[W]e stand…at an inflection point in history.” He is right. The actions that world leaders take in the next decade are critical to whether we address massive global threats and challenges, including the existential threat of nuclear war. Biden must do his part by implementing policies that reduce the salience of nuclear weapons and head off a new arms race.

Most successful U.S. presidents have actively led efforts to advance arms control agreements and reduce the risk of nuclear war. 

Iran Avoids IAEA Censure

October 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran avoided a censure from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors by striking a last-minute deal with the agency that allowed inspectors to access monitoring equipment at several nuclear facilities.

The chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami (R), and Iran's governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharibabadi, attend the IAEA General Conference, an annual meeting of all member states, at the agency's headquarters in Vienna on September 20, 2021. (Photo by Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)But as of late September, Iran had only partially implemented the deal and had blocked inspectors from replacing damaged cameras at a location the IAEA says is covered by the agreement.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi and Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), announced the access agreement in a Sept. 12 joint statement. The IAEA later confirmed that, under the terms of the deal, Iran allowed inspectors to visit the facilities Sept. 20–22 to replace the data storage units and ensure the surveillance machines are functioning properly. The agency will only be allowed to access the data collected by the monitoring equipment if the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers is restored. Iran limited the IAEA’s access to information and sites in February, as part of a series of actions designed to push the United States to return to the nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran. (See ACT, March 2021.)

Grossi said in a Sept. 12 press conference that the access agreement was “indispensable” for the IAEA’s ability to provide the “necessary guarantee…that everything is in order.” He stressed that the arrangement is intended to “allow time for diplomacy” and is not a “permanent solution.”

Grossi traveled to Tehran to negotiate the access after noting in a Sept. 7 report that Iran’s refusal to allow inspectors to access and service the equipment was “seriously compromising” the agency’s technical capabilities to “maintain continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s nuclear program. If the IAEA cannot do that, it could inhibit the agency’s ability to resume the monitoring and verification activities required by the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), according to the report.

The Sept. 12 arrangement also allows inspectors to replace cameras at a centrifuge production facility that Iran claims were damaged during an attack on the site in June. But Iran blocked inspectors from accessing the facility on Sept. 26 to install the new surveillance equipment, according to an IAEA report issued that same day.

Iran removed the cameras shortly after the attack and did not allow inspectors to access the machines until Sept. 4. According to the Sept. 7 report, IAEA inspectors noted that the data storage unit from one of the destroyed cameras was not among the debris and requested Iran find the unit. The IAEA will not know if the data collected from the other damaged cameras are recoverable until the nuclear deal is restored.

The Sept. 26 report said Iran’s refusal to allow inspectors to access the site is “contrary to the agreed terms” of the Sept. 12 arrangement. The report notes the importance of installing the machines before Iran resumes production of centrifuge equipment.

Iran has denied it is violating the terms of the Sept. 12 deal with the agency. Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, said on Sept. 26 that the centrifuge production facility is “still under security and judicial investigation” and that the equipment at that site was not included in the Sept. 12 arrangement.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom said in a Sept. 27 statement that they were “profoundly concerned that Iran has not fully implemented” the Sept. 12 agreement and warned that if Iran does not cooperate with the IAEA, the agency will “lose the ability to re-establish continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s nuclear program. The three countries are considering “appropriate action” in response, the statement said.

If Iran and the IAEA had failed to reach an agreement on inspector access, the IAEA board appeared poised to pass a resolution censuring Iran during its Sept. 13–17 meeting in Vienna. A European official told Arms Control Today in a Sept. 16 email that, “absent the agreement, a resolution censuring Iran for failing to cooperate with the IAEA was a near certainty.” The resolution would have had enough support from the 35 members of the IAEA board to pass, even with Russia and China opposing it, the official said.

A resolution censuring Iran would have little practical impact in the near term, but it would lay the groundwork for the IAEA board to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. The IAEA board took that step in 2006 after passing several resolutions urging Iran to comply with the agency’s investigation into the country’s undeclared nuclear activities. The Security Council then sanctioned Iran for failing to cooperate with the IAEA.

But a censure could have hindered efforts to restart negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal. Iranian President Ebraham Raisi warned on Sept. 8 that an “unconstructive” action by the IAEA board would “disrupt the negotiations” in Vienna. Those talks have been stalled since Raisi’s election in June, but he has pledged to return to the negotiating process.

The initial decision to pursue the resolution “did not come easily” for France, Germany, and the UK, the three countries that were pushing for a resolution prior to the Sept. 12 agreement, the official said. The countries were concerned about negatively impacting the Vienna process, but agreed that a censure was necessary to support the agency and send a message to Iran that “its continued failure to cooperate with IAEA requests would not be tolerated.” The states also recognized that restoring the nuclear deal and sustaining it would require the IAEA to reconstitute a record of Iran’s nuclear activities from the time period that inspector access was limited, the official said.

The United States shares that concern. Louis Bono, U.S. charge d’affaires to the UN missions in Vienna, said in a Sept. 15 statement to the IAEA board that it is “very important that Iran uphold the understandings reflected” in the Sept. 12 joint statement. He said the United States remains committed to restoring the 2015 nuclear deal but that “will be far more difficult if the IAEA is unable to recover and reestablish” its knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program. The “onus must be on Tehran to do its part,” Bono said.

The IAEA has had limited access to Iranian nuclear sites since February, when Tehran notified the agency it was suspending implementation of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, which gives inspectors more access to sites and information in Iran, and certain monitoring provisions specific to the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran passed a law in December 2020 that mandated certain breaches of the JCPOA, including the monitoring reduction, until Iran received relief from U.S. sanctions that were reimposed when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018.

Under a Feb. 21 arrangement reached between Iran and the IAEA before the suspension went into effect, Iran agreed to allow continuous surveillance of certain nuclear facilities to continue. But the IAEA would not have access to the data collected until the 2015 nuclear deal was restored. If an agreement to restore the deal was not reached, Iran said the data would be destroyed.

The initial arrangement between the agency and Iran expired in May. At that time, it was extended for another month. In a June 24 letter to the IAEA board, Grossi raised concerns that Iran had not responded to his requests for information about the status of the special monitoring arrangement. He again noted in the Sept. 7 report that Iran had not responded to IAEA requests to clarify the status of the special arrangement.


Iran avoided a censure from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors by striking a last-minute deal with the agency that allowed inspectors to access monitoring equipment at several nuclear facilities.

New Iran Leadership Complicates Negotiations

October 2021
By Sina Azodi

The election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president represents a consolidation of power by hard-liners who generally oppose engagement with the West. These forces, who previously worked to undermine President Hassan Rouhani’s engagement agenda, are now in control of all three branches of the Iranian government. Meanwhile, Raisi is grappling with several other major challenges, including a crumbling economy battered by U.S. and international sanctions, high unemployment, and the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which have put the country on its heels.

Ebrahim Raisi speaks during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Iranian President on August 5, 2021 in Tehran, Iran.  (Photo by Meghdad Madadi/ATPImages/Getty Images)Although Raisi has expressed a desire to revive the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and to achieve a lifting of U.S. sanctions, he has repeatedly refused any modifications in Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional activities, two other areas on which the United States and its partners in the nuclear deal—China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom—have demanded action. Historical factors and a complicated geostrategic environment are also driving Iranian decision-making, thus making compromise with the West even more unlikely. The United States still has some policy options for dealing with Iran’s regional activities and missile program, but they are likely to fall far short of what was once envisioned.

The JCPOA, signed in 2015, was a diplomatic achievement that ended decades of tensions over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. From the onset, however, critics undermined the deal by claiming it did not cover such critical issues as Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional involvement in places such as Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Ultimately, President Donald Trump used these shortcomings as a pretext to withdraw the United States from the agreement, reinstate previously lifted sanctions, and impose even tougher new ones on the Iranian economy, all in an attempt to force Tehran to submit to a “better” agreement. This “maximum pressure” campaign failed miserably as Iran responded first by exercising restraint, then by expanding its nuclear program. Today, Iran is enriching uranium to a level of 60 percent uranium-235 and has much more advanced centrifuge machines compared to where things stood when the JCPOA was being fully implemented by all signatories.

The Consequences of Choices

Critics ignore that exclusion of Tehran’s missile program and regional activities from the nuclear agreement was a deliberate choice. Both sides preferred to focus attention on the more dangerous issue—the nuclear program—and neither was ready to accept a compromise on the ancillary issues. In January 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif contended during the negotiations that “[w]e agreed from the beginning [of nuclear negotiations] that regional and missile issues will not be negotiated in the JCPOA…. This [missile] issue was raised, but we refused to negotiate over it, and we paid a price for not talking [about it]."1

After he took office, Trump cited the agreement’s “near total silence on Iran's missile programs”2 as a pretext for the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. The Biden administration, although committed to reviving the agreement, has expressed its intention to eventually seek follow-up talks with Tehran on the missiles and regional topics. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken observed last February, the United States, working with its allies and partners, “will also seek to lengthen and strengthen the JCPOA and address other areas of concern, including Iran's destabilizing regional behavior and ballistic missile development and proliferation.”3 Similarly, in March, he told members of Congress that “[w]e have fundamental problems with Iran’s actions across a whole series of things, whether it is support for terrorism, whether it is a ballistic missile program.”4

The View in Washington

Given that ballistic missiles are a primary method of delivering nuclear weapons, Iran’s large and diverse inventory of short- and medium-range missiles, in conjunction with its quest for nuclear capability, has raised many concerns among U.S. officials, intelligence analysts, and think tank experts. Shortly after the nuclear deal was implemented in April 2016, President Barack Obama criticized Iran for undermining the “spirit” of the agreement by testing ballistic missiles.5 Two successive intelligence directors also raised alarms: James Clapper argued in 2016 that Iran’s ballistic missiles are “inherently capable of delivering” weapons of mass destruction,6 and three years later, Daniel Coats warned that Iran’s missile program continues to pose a threat to the countries of the Middle East.7

Such comments reflect a strong consensus in Washington that because Iran’s ballistic missile program jeopardizes the national security interests of the United States and its allies, the United States must somehow contain the program.

Meanwhile, in 2018, Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief who played a pivotal role in the JCPOA negotiations, made clear that the EU shares some of the U.S. concerns over Iran’s ballistic missiles.8 Similarly, in June 2021, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council states urged that the revived nuclear negotiations also encompass Iran’s “sponsorship of terrorist and sectarian militias” and missile program.9

The View From Tehran

For the Iranians, however, ballistic missiles are the backbone of the country’s national defense strategy and a symbol of its power projection capabilities in a hostile and unstable neighborhood. Although much attention has been given to Iran’s missile development, it is noteworthy that the country’s quest to acquire indigenous ballistic missile technology dates back to the time of Shah Mohammed Reza Palavi, who was then a close ally of the United States. After Washington refused to sell nuclear-capable Lance surface-to-surface missiles to Iran, the shah joined Israel in a secret multibillion-dollar project code-named Project Flower to develop missiles capable of carrying 1,650-pound warheads a range of up to 300 miles.10 Although the project was abandoned after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the backbone of Iran’s defense strategy remained its U.S.-supplied air force with state-of-the-art fighter aircraft.

The fall of the shah, the subsequent taking of U.S. diplomats hostage by Iranian student radicals, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 fundamentally reshaped Iran’s national defense strategy. The hostage crisis destroyed the U.S.-Iranian relationship and deprived Tehran of its primary source of weapons. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in September 1980 and the systematic use of chemical weapons on Iranian troops and population centers taught bitter and important lessons about the nature of regional threats that left an indelible mark on the Iranian political psyche.

Official UN documents reveal that the Iraqi army began systematically using chemical agents against Iran as early as October 1983,11 and by the end of the war, up to 100,000 Iranian civilians and soldiers had been exposed to these weapons.12 These atrocities were largely ignored by international organizations and world powers, some of whom actively supported Saddam Hussein’s war machine. The United States, for instance, reportedly gave Iraq intelligence on Iranian positions.13

These memories are still raw. As Zarif stated in 2016, “We really wish and hope for the day when nobody spends any money on weapons…. [W]e spend a fraction of others’ expenditure. We are entitled to the rudimentary means of defense, which we need to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner to attack us with chemical weapons.”14 In 2018, Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, recalled that “[w]e still remember the French Super Etendards [fighter jets], British Chieftain tanks, German chemical weapons, U.S. AWACS planes and Saudi dollars…[which aided Iraq during the war]. Our missile program is defensive.”15

The Value of Missiles

The brutal eight-year conflict also taught Iranians an important lesson on the strategic value of ballistic missiles and their retaliatory function against an adversary’s population centers. Similar to World War II tactics, Iraq during the conflict with Iran launched a variety of ballistic missiles on Iranian population centers, including Shiraz, Isfahan, and Tehran, with the aim of breaking the Iranian will to fight. Over the course of the conflict, Iraqi military units reportedly launched 533 ballistic missiles on Iranian cities, resulting in nearly 14,000 deaths and injuries among Iran’s civilian population.16 Iran initially lacked a ballistic missile capability, but illicitly acquired a small number of Soviet-made Scud missiles from Libya, North Korea, and Syria.17 These missiles set the foundation for Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Equally important for Iran’s security calculations is the country’s current strategic environment and the ongoing military imbalance in the region. To the west, Iran faces an existential threat in nuclear-armed Israel. Because of the decades-long international arms embargo, Iran’s conventional military has been unable to modernize and procure new weapons systems, but its Arab neighbors are among the top customers of advanced U.S. and European military equipment. Iran’s estimated defense spending in 2020 was $12 billion, while Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, spent $55 billion dollars in that same period.18 Iran has compensated for its lack of access to an array of modern weapons systems by heavily investing in an arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which can target large population centers and, with improved accuracy, can conduct precision strikes almost anywhere in the Middle East.

In addition to its defensive qualities, the missile program symbolizes Tehran’s power projection capabilities in the Middle East. After a terrorist attack by the Islamic State group in Ahvaz in October 2018, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls the country’s ballistic missile arsenal, showcased its capabilities by launching six ballistic missiles into Syria targeting Islamic State bases. More significantly, in January 2020, after the United States assassinated General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC Quds Force, the IRGC launched a dozen ballistic missiles at the Al-Assad base where U.S. forces were stationed. This strike marked the first state-sponsored attack on U.S. military bases in decades. Although no U.S. personnel died, the attack sent a strong political message that Tehran is willing and capable of directly targeting U.S. military in the region.

These factors can explain the widespread domestic popularity of Iran’s missile program. An Iranian public opinion survey in October 2019 found that 92 percent of respondents believed it is important for Iran to develop its missile program, while 60 percent of respondents view the program as an effective deterrent.19 By February 2021, that number had increased to 66 percent, demonstrating steady support.20

Raisi and the Future of Talks

For the moment, the talks to revive the JCPOA are stalled, primarily due to the transition of power in Tehran and the new administration’s apparent ambivalence about resuming them. Although Raisi and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have spoken in favor of the nuclear negotiations and the lifting of sanctions, several factors have chilled Tehran’s appetite for follow-up talks over Iran’s missile program and its regional activities, as the United States and its European partners are demanding.

In 2016, Hossein Amirabdollahian, then Iran's deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, met in Tehran with UN Envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura to discuss Syria peace negotiations. Amirabdollahian was just promoted to foreign minister by new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)Unlike the Rouhani administration, Raisi and his cabinet are more aligned with Iran’s deep state which works in parallel with the elected bodies, often undermining their efforts to engage the West.21 One example is newly approved Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, a career diplomat with ties to the IRGC. Because of his support for Iran’s regional activities, including Iran’s intervention in Syria and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, he is often referenced as Diplomat-e Movaghemat, or the Resistance Diplomat, a reference to Iran’s “axis of resistance” in the Middle East.22

Amirabdollahian has an academic background in regional affairs and previously served as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs. He speaks fluent Arabic and halting English, meaning that, unlike his predecessor, he likely will find it more difficult to effectively communicate with officials in Washington and Europe. His linguistic skills, regional expertise, and close relationship with the IRGC could enable him to focus on improving Iran’s relations with its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia.

Regarding ballistic missiles, the Raisi administration’s approach is quite similar to its predecessor’s. The new president has stated that Iran will not negotiate on the program or its regional activities.23 His foreign minister has asserted that “American dreams for negotiations over Iran’s missile program will never come to realization…. Iran’s missile capability is a strategic asset for regional stability.”24 It bears noting that Amirabdollahian, who holds a Ph.D. in international relations, shares the view with “realist” scholars that the essence of foreign policy and international relations is “power.”25 As a result, one should expect Iran’s new chief diplomat to be even more hawkish than Zarif in support of the country’s ballistic missile program.

More importantly, Khamenei, who has the final say on Iran’s national security decisions, deeply distrusts the West and has repeatedly rejected any negotiations beyond the nuclear program. He reinforced this point in July when he said, “In this government, it became clear that trust in the West does not work and they do not help, and they strike a blow wherever they can, and if they do not strike somewhere, it is because they cannot.”26 Two years earlier, he warned that Iran “will not negotiate over the issues related to the honor of our revolution. We will not negotiate over our military capabilities. Negotiations means a deal, meaning that you need to compromise over your defense capabilities.”27 In short, Iran’s key national security decision-makers all favor the country’s missile program and regional interventions, which they perceive to be in the vital interests of the state.

Nevertheless, there may be some wiggle room. Notwithstanding his strong opposition to negotiations over the missile program, Khamenei claimed in June 2021 that he ordered the IRGC to limit the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles to 2,000 kilometers. “At a time we could only produce two types of artillery shells, now we have ballistic missiles with the range of 2,000 kilometers; they [the military] wanted to go to 5,000 kilometers, but I didn’t allow it…. [T]hese precision-strike capabilities are notable,” he said.28 This view has been echoed by Iranian military commanders and reflects the leadership’s threat perception. Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of IRGC Aerospace Force, noted in December 2018 that although Iran has no technical limitation on increasing the range of its missiles, the current range satisfies Iran’s existing security needs.29

Reaching a Consensus

The U.S. decision to unilaterally renege on its JCPOA commitments in May 2018 has deepened Iran’s distrust of Western countries. Iran is unlikely to participate in any negotiations that would jeopardize the backbone of its national defense strategy; no sensible country would. Meanwhile, credible reports have indicated that the United States plans to impose new sanctions on Iran’s drone and precision missile capabilities.30 Sanctions alone, however, will not prevent Tehran from advancing its national defense, as security concerns always trump other issues.

An Iranian medium range missile passes by the official reviewing stand in Tehran during the annual military parade in September 2017, marking the anniversary of the outbreak of Iran's devastating 1980–1988 war with Iraq. Iran's diverse and growing missile arsenal concerns the United States and its allies. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)Nevertheless, a face-saving missile compromise might be achievable. Under favorable circumstances, the United States and Iran could agree to codify Tehran’s self-imposed 2,000-kilometer-range into a formal agreement. That is far less than what the United States has advocated, but at least it would restrain the program somewhat. Washington must be willing, however, to reciprocate Tehran’s concessions and recognize its legitimate security concerns. In the words of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “[E]very agreement generally reflects reciprocal concessions rather than unilateral satisfaction.”31 Washington has a number of options in its foreign policy toolbox. These concessions could include a U.S. commitment not to prevent other countries from selling conventional weaponry to Iran or a commitment to lift sanctions on Iran’s missile program, if such a framework is reached.

With regard to Iran’s regional activities, the United States should take a hands-off approach and instead throw its diplomatic and political support behind a regional dialogue that offers the possibility of a favorable outcome for all regional powers, including Iran. Washington, for example, could support the ongoing talks between Riyadh and Tehran, which aim to mend relations between the two regional powers. Recently, Amirabdollahian attended the Iraqi Neighboring Countries Conference, which was aimed at supporting Iraq.32 He also met with a number of Arab leaders, including Kuwait’s foreign minister and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, emir of Dubai. “What we need more than ever today is sustainable regional security…. Security can only be achieved through mutual trust between the countries of the region…strengthening communication and good neighborliness,”33 Amirabdollahian observed. Such initiatives can create a platform for regional leaders to meet and discuss their outstanding issues, including the devastating war in Yemen. A framework for considering the interests of all parties could advance regional peace and stability and enable the United States to focus more of its attention on the rise of China.

Raisi’s inauguration marks a hostile takeover by hard-liners in all three branches of Iran’s government. Given the alignment of views among Raisi, Amirabdollahian, and Khamenei, in addition to the IRGC, the resulting synergy is certain to create a more homogenous and effective decision-making environment within national security circles, potentially leading to a more assertive Iran. In other words, Raisi’s tenure fills the gap between what Zarif once dubbed “diplomacy and field,”34 a reference to the struggle between the Foreign Ministry and the IRGC in determining and executing Iran’s foreign policies in the region.

To produce the economic results so vital to Iran’s survival, the Raisi administration is certainly interested in and requires a revival of the JCPOA and the termination of what has been effectively the economic strangulation of Iran. Even so, the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA has left very little appetite or political capital in Tehran to negotiate with Washington and European capitals. Perhaps the best approach for the Biden administration is first to revive and then implement the nuclear agreement in good faith, allowing Iran to see the benefits of negotiations. Only after that is Tehran likely to be amenable to follow-on negotiations to reach a broader framework agreement with Washington.


1. “Iran’s Missile Program Not Subject to Negotiations, Zarif Says,” Tehran Times, January 20, 2021.

2. “Iran Nuclear Deal: Trump’s Speech in Full,” BBC, October 10, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41617488.

3. “Antony Blinken on Iran,” The Iran Primer, June 25, 2021, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/jan/21/antony-blinken-iran.

4. Rachel Oswald, “Blinken Tells House Panel to Expect Firmness Toward China,” MSN, March 10, 2021.

5. Julian Hattem, “Obama: Iran Not Following the Spirit of the Deal,” The Hill, April 1, 2016.

6. James R. Clapper, Statement on the worldwide threat assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, February 9, 2016, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Clapper_02-09-16.pdf.

7. Daniel R. Coats, Statement on the worldwide threat assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, January 29, 2019, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR---SSCI.pdf.

8. “Iran Deal: EU United in Keeping Iran Nuclear Deal in Place for European Security,” European Union External Action Service, May 29, 2018, https://eeas.europa.eu/topics/multilateral-relations/45352/iran-deal-eu-united-keeping-iran-nuclear-deal-place-european-security_en.

9. “Gulf States Want Iran Deal Talks to Address Tehran’s Missiles Program, Support for Proxy Groups,” Al-Monitor, June 16, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/06/gulf-states-want-iran-deal-talks-address-tehrans-missiles-program-support-proxy.

10. Elaine Sciolino, “Documents Detail Israeli Missile Deal With the Shah,” The New York Times, April 1, 1986.

11. UN Security Council, “Letter Dated 9 November 1983 From the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General,” S/16140, November 10, 1983.

12. Marcus George, “Insight: After Syria, Iran Laments Its Own Chemical Weapons Victims,” Reuters, September 13, 2013.

13. Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid, “CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy, August 26, 2013, https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/26/exclusive-cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/.

14. “Iran FM Javad Zarif Responds to a Reporter's Question Regarding Ballistic Missiles,” YouTube, April 20, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejudkZgs5Vg.

15. Sina Azodi, “U.S. Should Offer Incentives for Iran Missile Testing Moratorium,” Atlantic Council, February 20, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/us-should-offer-incentives-for-iran-missile-testing-moratorium/.

16. Ali Khaji, Shoadin Fallahdoost, and Mohammad Reza Sorush, “Civilian Casualties of Iranian Cities by Ballistic Missile Attacks During Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988),” Chinese Journal of Traumatology, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 1, 2010).

17. “Shahab-1 (Scud B-Variant),” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 31, 2021, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/shahab-1/.

18. “SIPRI Military Expenditure Database,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex (accessed September 14, 2021).

19. Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), “Iranian Public Opinion Under ‘Maximum Pressure,’” October 2019, https://cissm.umd.edu/sites/default/files/2019-10/Iranian%20PO%20under%20Maximum%20Pressure_101819_full.pdf.

20. CISSM, “Iranian Public Opinion, at the Start of the Biden Administration,” February 2021, p. 28, https://cissm.umd.edu/sites/default/files/2021-02/CISSM%20Iran%20PO%20full%20report%20-02242021_0.pdf.

21. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, “Iran’s War Within,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2021-08-05/irans-war-within-ebrahim-raisi.

22. “Naagofte-haye Diplomat-e Moghavemat az Nabard-e Shaam,” Islamic Republic News Agency, January 7, 2017, https://www.irna.ir/news/82787902/.

23. Erin Cunningham and Kareem Fahim, “Raisi Says Iran’s Ballistic Missiles Are Not Negotiable, and He Doesn’t Want to Meet Biden,” The Washington Post, June 21, 2021.

24. “Ro’yaye kelid Khordan e Moazekereh Moushaki Iran Hargez Ta’bir Nemisahavd,” Iranian Students News Agency, September 21, 2018, https://www.isna.ir/news/97063014707/.

25. Iran Documentary, “Hossein Amir-Abdollahian Interview With Dast-Khat Documentary,” YouTube, June 24, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=fUWe8g3F1X4.

26. Rick Gladstone, “Khamenei Adds to Doubts in Iran Nuclear Deal Talk,” The New York Times, July 28, 2021.

27. “Ali Khamenei: We Will Not Negotiate Over Issues Related to the Honor of Revolution,” Radio Free Europe, May 29, 2019, https://www.radiofarda.com/a/f4_ali_khamenei_statement_iran/29970492.html (in Farsi).

28. Ali Javid, “Iran Ayatollah Khamenei: Missile and Range,” YouTube, June 17, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdk0VqG7Ni4.

29. “Iranian General Says Nation Can Extend Missile Range Beyond 2,000 kilometers,” The Times of Israel, December 10, 2018.

30. Ian Talley and Benoit Faucon, “U.S. Plans Sanctions Against Iran’s Drones and Guided Missiles,” The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2021.

31. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1994), p. 740.

32. Sara Masoumi, Twitter, August 14, 2021, https://twitter.com/SaraMassoumi/status/1430200197972381702?s=20.

33. “Deepening Ties With Neighbors a Priority of Raisi’s Foreign Policy,” Tehran Times, September 6, 2021.

34. Parisa Hafezi, “In Leaked Recording, Iran’s Zarif Criticises Guards’ Influence in Diplomacy,” Reuters, April 26, 2021.


Sina Azodi is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and a lecturer of international affairs at the Institute for Middle East Studies in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the University of South Florida, where he studies Iran’s nuclear program.

New leadership in Iran, historical factors and a complicated geostrategic environment are driving
Iranian decision-making, thus making compromise with the West on the nuclear deal unlikely.

Iran Deal Scenarios and Regional Security

October 2021
By Farzan Sabet

The Iran nuclear deal is on life support. A major blow came in May 2018 when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and launched a diplomatic, economic, and military “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. Despite expressing support for the agreement, President Joe Biden has delayed reentering it since taking office in January and instead retained the sanctions on Iran in a somewhat diminished form, thereby sustaining the deal’s precarious status.

With meetings like this gathering of the JCPOA Commission in July 2019 in Vienna, Iran and the other participants in the nuclear deal tried to keep the agreement alive after the United States pulled out. (Photo by Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)Iran initially exercised “strategic patience” regarding its nuclear activities after Trump’s withdrawal in the hopes that other participants in the nuclear deal—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—could compensate for the economic loss wrought by the U.S. pressure campaign. When this support did not materialize as expected, Tehran shifted to “maximum resistance” in May 2019 by incrementally reducing compliance with the deal and increasing grey-zone military pressure on the United States and its allies in the Middle East.1 It is not known if Iranian policy will change under newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi. On one hand, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently concluded another temporary agreement to implement agreed verification measures and Iran’s foreign minister stated his country will return to nuclear negotiations “very soon.” On the other hand, Raisi has signaled that his government may take an even tougher approach.2

Although the other JCPOA participants have had limited success in reducing the effects of sanctions on Iran, they have played an important intermediary role by facilitating indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Nonetheless, it is apparent that unless the United States is an active and full member of the deal, the other participants cannot continue to prop it up by themselves.

Yet, all is not lost. With political will, diplomatic skill, and some luck, the JCPOA could survive in some form and become an important component of future regional weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and security agreements. If the nuclear deal is not reinstated, the region will not benefit from the political and security breathing space that it could provide, but there will still be opportunities to address regional security, proliferation, and other challenges.

The Situation at Year Six

The Iranian government, despite benefiting from one of the world’s largest petroleum reserves, embarked on an ambitious nuclear energy program in 1974 that it claims is for peaceful uses.3 Since the outset, there have been accusations that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, and this issue was pushed back onto the international stage in August 2002 when an Iranian opposition group revealed the existence of previously undeclared Iranian nuclear facilities.4 The JCPOA was intended to address the international community’s proliferation concerns by placing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for significant sanctions relief for Iran and cooperation with Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities.

The restrictions were designed so that, during the deal’s first decade, if Tehran wanted to cheat, it would take a year to break out and produce enough uranium-235 fuel for a nuclear weapon. In theory, that would be long enough for the IAEA to find out and the other JCPOA participants to take timely preventive action. The deal also dismantled Iran’s plutonium research and production capabilities, although Iran would eventually be permitted to reconstitute this infrastructure after 15 years if it so chose. It imposed very strong and intrusive monitoring, safeguards, and verification measures to ensure compliance. In addition, a key related UN Security Council resolution enshrined the JCPOA in international law, keeping in place an arms embargo on Iran for the first five years of the deal’s implementation, until 2020, and restricting ballistic missile development for eight years, until 2023. Furthermore, until 2025, the other JCPOA participants retain the option to snap back international sanctions on Iran in case of a significant violation.5

It remains to be seen if Iran and the United States will ever fully reimplement the deal. After taking office, the Biden administration, representing the participant that reneged on the agreement, had an opportunity to take the first step to return to the deal and encourage Iran to take reciprocal steps to resume its own commitments. Instead, the new U.S. government demanded that Tehran again fully comply with its commitments and raised new demands that go beyond those in the JCPOA. The Iranian government responded with its own set of demands.6

In this photo, released by Iran's Atomic Energy Agency and dated 2019, technicians work at the Arak heavy water plant, one part of the country's vast nuclear infrastructure.The demands by the two sides generally fall into three categories. The first is the type and level of concessions required by both sides before they are willing to fully reimplement the JCPOA. The United States has asserted that Iran has made unacceptable nuclear advances since 2019 and that compensatory nuclear restrictions are now required to get back to the one-year breakout time. A corollary issue is how to address Iran’s reduced compliance with enhanced IAEA monitoring, safeguards, and verification measures under the JCPOA and its refusal to answer questions about past nuclear work, although a recent agreement between the two sides to reset monitoring equipment may be a step in the right direction.7 In the past, Iran has demanded compensation for the economic damage done by the Trump-imposed maximum pressure campaign, which its foreign minister once claimed cost up to a trillion dollars.8 It also wants to keep some of the nuclear gains it has made.

The second issue relates to what guarantees the two sides need to reenter the JCPOA. A key demand of the Biden administration has been that following U.S. reentry, Iran should agree to follow-up missile and regional security talks. Iran has demanded a commitment that the United States will not withdraw from the JCPOA in the future. It has also sought limits on the ability of the United States to trigger the snapback of sanctions.

The third issue centers on the sanctions on Iran. Tehran is seeking the removal of more than 1,500 Trump-era sanctions covering nuclear- and non-nuclear-related entities and activities and a process verifying their removal. The Biden administration is believed to have divided these sanctions into three baskets depending on their perceived inconsistency with the deal, including those to be lifted, those to be negotiated, and those that would remain.9

Three Future Scenarios

The current impasse suggests there are at least three possible scenarios for the JCPOA. Each would open different possibilities for how future Middle East security talks and agreements could unfold and represent a spectrum along which events could develop. There are many possible permutations; only a few are elaborated here.

Return to an agreement. In this first scenario, the two sides would simply return to the agreement as it existed before Trump’s withdrawal. With each passing month and as greater complexities emerge, this seems less likely. The expressed desire of both sides for a “better” deal indicates they may aim for a “JCPOA-plus” that incorporates some new compromises and trade-offs. Alternatively, they could take a page from the original JCPOA negotiations between Iran and the five major nuclear powers plus Germany by agreeing to a preliminary deal, such as the Joint Plan of Action concluded prior to the JCPOA, that meets some of the most urgent requirements. That could lessen tensions and create room for future talks and eventually, a JCPOA-plus deal that offers both sides more for more.

The Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction held its first session in November 2019 at the United Nations in New York. The second session, set for Nov. 29 to Dec. 3, affords an opportunity for regional states to cooperate. (UN photo)A JCPOA-plus could make a renewed agreement more durable in Washington and Tehran, at least for the remainder of Biden’s tenure, as both sides could claim they got a better deal. It also has the benefit of taking the nuclear issue off the table for now as a major source of U.S.-Iranian tension and could build confidence and space for talks on WMD and regional security issues. This scenario would not be as reassuring for the Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf who are more concerned about Iran’s regional proxy network and ballistic missile program. Finally, it would give Raisi’s government an early political win and economic gains that enhance the new president’s legitimacy with the Iranian public and bolster his credentials abroad.

The road to a JCPOA-plus is strewn with perils. Such additional demands by the two sides would make reaching an agreement more difficult. Iranian principalists, labeled conservatives or hard-liners in the English-language press, who dominate the new government, have a tough negotiating style harkening back to the last time they were in power, in 2005–2013.10 If talks drag, the politics of the JCPOA could become more toxic for the Biden administration, which may be eager to avoid further criticism of its foreign policy ahead of the 2022 midterm elections after what many viewed as the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.11

Status quo. In the second scenario, Iran and the United States would fail to restore full compliance with the JCPOA, but restrain their activities so the agreement does not fall apart entirely. The result would be a de facto “JCPOA-minus” that could limp along until the expiration of the snapback mechanism or the possible election of a new U.S. president, both in 2025, after which the Iran nuclear deal would be in renewed danger of complete dissolution.

No JCPOA. In the third scenario, one or both sides take steps to terminate the Iran nuclear deal, perhaps with the intention of gaining leverage for a JCPOA-plus or grand bargain that addresses issues beyond the nuclear file, although such outcomes would not be guaranteed.

Scenarios two and three carry greater risk of retaliatory economic, military, and nuclear escalations by the two sides and their respective allies. They also open the door to U.S. or Israeli military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. In contrast to its predecessor, the current Israeli government has signaled it would prefer a restored and fully implemented JCPOA to the status quo or no JCPOA. It also has indicated that, in the absence of such results or action by the international community, it is prepared to take military action.12

When Biden took office, a return to the original JCPOA appeared possible. Iran faced a grave economic situation, severely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and sanctions relief would have given the country’s economy and health sector a shot in the arm. The Rouhani government and the so-called moderate coalition that backed it could have used a return to the JCPOA to improve their political fortunes in the 2021 Iranian presidential election. The Biden administration, in turn, could have distinguished itself from its predecessor in Iranian eyes, lowered tensions with Tehran, and further freed the United States to reduce its military presence in the region.13

Yet, both sides had reason to slow-walk JCPOA reimplementation. Biden and his team needed time to review and articulate a policy toward Iran and the deal. In addition, they made clear they would seek to redress certain perceived JCPOA shortcomings and reduce opposition to the agreement at home and abroad, but this approach effectively kept in place key elements of the Trump-era policy. Rouhani hinted that the sides were close to a deal but that a domestic law prevented it.14 As a result, scenario two, in which the de facto JCPOA-minus status quo continues for the foreseeable future, has become more likely.

This situation could continue to become more dangerous. The U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute has not only heightened regional proliferation concerns, but spilled over into other domains. The U.S. maximum pressure campaign has raised doubts among Iranian elites about the utility of negotiating with Washington and will make achieving and sustaining future agreements more difficult. U.S. and Israeli overt and covert military actions against Iranian nuclear, missile, proxy, and other targets may have perceived security benefits for the perpetrators, but such actions also strengthen Iranian resolve to advance these programs and eventually retaliate.

Bank Melli is among the Iranian financial institutions that have been under U.S. sanctions. (Photo by Alessandro Rota/Getty Images)U.S. attempts to strangle the Iranian economy through sanctions have arguably been a key driver of Tehran’s reduced compliance with the JCPOA and worsened humanitarian conditions in Iran amid the global pandemic.15 On the other hand, any demonstration of Iranian capabilities in the nuclear, missile, and proxy domains risks military, economic, and political consequences while the country is coping with domestic unrest, economic stagnation, a worsening pandemic, water shortages, and a deteriorating environment. Finally, the conflict between the two has contributed to a deterioration of maritime security in regional waters. The United States and Iran are liable to remain in the status quo or sleepwalk into having no JCPOA at all due to overconfidence in their respective positions and the dubious belief that time is on their side.

The JCPOA and Middle Eastern Security

One less politically sensitive challenge that could lend itself to cooperation among Middle Eastern states is combating climate change.  The Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan, shown in this image from 2018, now often runs dry due to water extraction before it reaches the city. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)The Iran nuclear deal’s uncertain future looms as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its reduced presence in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq underscore a shift of U.S. military and political interests from the Middle East to Asia. Although the region is likely to remain important for U.S. foreign policy, it is likely to be less of a focus as international relations move back toward great-power competition and global issues such as climate change and pandemics consume more attention and resources. Countries in the region are already looking inward and, by virtue of shared history and geography, to one another to address pressing issues.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, if not earlier, Middle Eastern countries and their nonstate associates have formed new coalitions as alliances with the United States and traditional groupings were perceived as less reliable or insufficient to meet present challenges. These new coalitions include the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance,” mainly composed of Shia and anti-U.S., anti-Israeli states and nonstate actors such as Syria, Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and the Houthis; the anti-Axis alliance, composed of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; and the Turkey-Qatar partnership.16 There is also a principally nonstate Salafi-jihadi movement whose fortunes have ebbed and flowed since 9/11, but which may have gained a new center of gravity in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding. These groupings have altered the old regional balance of power in the context of the U.S. pivot to Asia. These groupings and processes, such as the Abraham Accords, Iranian-Saudi talks,17 Turkish-UAE talks,18 the Saudi-Qatari reconciliation,19 and the Baghdad Conference,20 are in their infancy. Given the security challenges requiring cooperation among neighbors, their durability is uncertain.

Should the JCPOA be restored, as in scenario one, the momentum for Middle Eastern states to engage in negotiations and reach agreements on arms control and other security issues could increase. For example, regional states concerned about the deal’s sunset provisions on Iranian fuel-cycle capabilities could use the JCPOA’s reimplementation as a foundation on which to build. The Middle East is experiencing an increased interest in nuclear energy.21 Because parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty benefit from the right to the peaceful uses of nuclear technology, regional states could collectively decide to adopt their own measures to ensure the peaceful application of this technology. That could be one way to arrest the region’s long history of nuclear proliferation and counterproliferation conflicts.

There are many ways to do this. Given Iran’s negative experience with the JCPOA, the Raisi government may not be eager to quickly negotiate a follow-up agreement that extends nuclear restrictions or puts in place more stringent monitoring, safeguards, or verification measures. Even so, concerned regional states could cooperate with Iran to implement key elements of the JCPOA on a wider, more permanent basis by adopting bans on reprocessing, limits on uranium enrichment, and an additional protocol to their safeguards agreements. Persian Gulf states could also address nuclear issues on a more comprehensive basis as part of a subregional security dialogue. Several such proposals exist.22 Another possibility involves addressing nuclear issues as part of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone. The Second Session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction will take place November 29 to December 3 and could be a forum where regional states consider how to build on the JCPOA.23

Reimplementing the JCPOA could create momentum for bilateral, subregional, and regional dialogues on conventional arms control aimed at decreasing tensions between Iran and other regional states and allowing them to shift focus to other issues. Western and regional proposals for follow-on talks to the nuclear deal largely have focused on Iran’s ballistic missile program and militant proxy network so far. Talks that single Iran out and focus exclusively on its military capabilities will be a nonstarter for the Raisi government, which has promised a more assertive foreign policy.24 Regional states that advocate reductions or limits on Iranian capabilities must be willing to accept similar reductions or restrictions on their own capabilities. These states, which are building up their arsenals,25 feel vulnerable to perceived threats from Iranian capabilities and are unlikely to accept restraints now. Despite the limited prospects for this kind of conventional arms control, the various ongoing, ad hoc security dialogues and more ambitious proposals, such as one for a subregional security process, could still decrease tensions, facilitate confidence-building measures, and address conflicts such as those in Libya and Yemen.

Such arms control and security dialogues could take place under a JCPOA-minus, albeit with longer odds. Iran may still want to normalize its nuclear program with the international community and benefit from some U.S. sanctions relief and improved ties with neighbors. In turn, the United States and its allies may still be reassured somewhat by a JCPOA-minus, not want to fuel the deal’s further disintegration through maximum pressure-style tactics, and thus be open to talks on terms that are more palatable to Iran. Progress is more difficult to envisage with no JCPOA.

Cooperation on Nontraditional Security Issues

Under all three JCPOA scenarios outlined above, regional states should still discuss and act on nontraditional security issues that could be less sensitive right now but loom large for the future of the Middle East. For instance, most states have experienced major domestic unrest in the last decade driven primarily by the lack of economic opportunity for young people. The causes are legion, ranging from the structural to idiosyncratic. As in the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a major blow to Middle Eastern economies. The region is burdened by a legacy of exploitation, mismanagement, and corruption. Some states have been the persistent target of U.S. and international sanctions. The more affluent petroleum-exporting economies have experienced lower oil prices in recent years due to growing capacity, stagnant demand, and mounting global pressure to reduce the use of fossil fuels to combat climate change.26

The most attainable way to address the lack of opportunity is by improving economic relations among states in the region, which has long been underutilized due to a legacy of colonial boundaries, interstate conflict, and ethnosectarian divides. It would require negotiations to reduce barriers to stimulate cross-border trade, investment, and migration to drive growth. Regional states could work on joint projects from transportation to energy to education to meet critical needs while reinforcing the Middle East’s status as a nexus of global and Eurasian commerce. Although improving economic ties might raise fewer security sensitivities, there would still be obstacles, including patronage systems and protectionist forces. Furthermore, states may be reluctant to encourage economic ties in the absence of improved political relations. Even so, limited economic initiatives could eventually give way to long-term integration by increasing interdependence and people-to-people contact, thus strengthening common interests and personal bonds that mitigate future conflicts.

Smog, like this hazes engulfing Tehran in January 2021, is another climate threat facing Iran that could lend itself to regional remedies. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)There are other nontraditional, potentially less sensitive areas where cooperation could become necessary and possible, starting with climate change, the environment, and water resources. Local ecosystems often do not neatly conform to state borders, straddling many sides. Climate change is already making the region less livable due to rising temperatures, power shortages, drought, desertification, and sandstorms.27 By establishing better formal and informal lines of communication and working relationships, regional states could ameliorate some of the worst effects of climate change. For instance, preserving and sharing finite freshwater resources could meet people's basic needs and prevent conflicts over water. Meanwhile, the region’s increased interest in nuclear energy means its leaders must find cooperative ways to establish and uphold strong safety and security standards to prevent nuclear incidents, accidental or otherwise.

The same goes for the COVID-19 response. As with other parts of the world, no state in the Middle East is truly safe from pandemics unless its neighbors are. At a regional level, that means developing protocols to facilitate the movement of essential goods and people, even amid an outbreak, while stopping the spread of disease, including through exchanging information and vaccine sharing.

Although global powers have frequently been negative forces in the Middle East through military interventions, economic sanctions, and political pressures,28 they would be wise to support regional states in addressing these nontraditional security challenges. Failure to make inroads in promoting regional economic growth, arresting environmental degradation, and minimizing the ravages of pandemics will certainly hurt the people of the Middle East and destabilize their governments. Global powers will also be affected by these developments in the form of pressure to intervene in the region militarily, economically, and diplomatically and to help cope with the large waves of migration already hitting their shores and influencing their domestic politics.29

Looking Ahead

Whether the result of U.S.-Iranian negotiations is a JCPOA-plus, JCPOA-minus, or no JCPOA, regional cooperation on traditional and nontraditional security issues is still possible. The Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab states signed during the Trump administration and recent cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean on natural gas are just two examples of what the regional states can do even amid seemingly intractable conflicts. The Abraham Accords may exist at least partly because of the specter of the JCPOA’s demise and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Even so, conducting negotiations and reaching agreements will be more difficult with a weakened or nonexistent JCPOA. Since Trump blew up the Iran deal, the renewed nuclear challenge has fueled conflict and mistrust among regional states, needlessly drained governance capacity and diplomatic bandwidth, and made progress in other areas more elusive. A restored JCPOA or a JCPOA-plus, especially in the context of a receding U.S. footprint in the region, could flip these unfavorable conditions and become a cornerstone on which countries in the region can build a new security architecture and determine their own fates.


1. Javier Jordan, “International Competition Below the Threshold of War: Toward a Theory of Gray Zone Conflict,” Journal of Strategic Security, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2020): 1–24; Farzan Sabet, “A Fraught Road Ahead for the JCPOA?” UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), August 20, 2020, https://unidir.org/commentary/fraught-road-ahead-jcpoa.

2. Radio Farda, “Iran Ready to Resume Talks on Nuclear Deal, but Not Under Western 'Pressure,' Raisi Says,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), September 4, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-nuclear-raisi-jcpoa-negotiations-us/31443879.html.

3. Farzan Sabet, “The April 1977 Persepolis Conference on the Transfer of Nuclear Technology: A Third World Revolt Against U.S. Non-Proliferation Policy?” The International History Review, Vol. 40, No. 5 (2018).

4. “Iran,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, June 2020, https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/nuclear/.

5. “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” July 14, 2015, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/122460/full-text-of-the-iran-nuclear-deal.pdf.

6. John Krzyzaniak, “Iran and U.S. Still Far Apart on Reviving the JCPOA,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, August 23, 2021, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2021/08/iran-us-jcpoa.

7. Laurence Norman, “Iran Pledges to Cooperate With UN Atomic Agency, Easing Nuclear Talks Threat,” The Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2021.

8. Maziar Motamedi, “U.S. Sanctions Inflicted $1 Trillion Damage on Iran’s Economy: FM,” Al Jazeera, February 21, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/21/us-sanctions-inflicted-1-trillion-damage-on-irans-economy-fm.

9. 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.

10. Saeid Jafari, “Saeed Jalili: The Former Nuclear Negotiator That Rubs Diplomats the Wrong Way,” Atlantic Council, June 11, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/saeed-jalili-the-former-nuclear-negotiator-that-rubs-diplomats-the-wrong-way/.

11. Jackie Calmes, “What Will the Disastrous Fall of Kabul Mean for Voters in 2022?” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 2021.

12. Anshel Pfeffer, “They Once Called It the New ‘Munich.’ But Can Israel Now Live With a Nuclear Deal With Iran?” The Jewish Chronicle, September 23, 2021; Neri Zilber, “Israel Can Live With a New Iran Nuclear Deal, Defense Minister Says,” Foreign Policy, September 14, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/09/14/israel-iran-nuclear-deal-defense-minister-gantz/; Judah Ari Gross, “As Bennett Meets Biden, IDF Ramps Up Plans for Strike on Iran’s Nuke Program,” The Times of Israel, August 25, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/as-bennett-meets-biden-idf-ramps-up-plans-for-strike-on-irans-nuke-program/.

13. Gordon Lubold, Nancy A. Youssef, and Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Military to Withdraw Hundreds of Troops, Aircraft, Antimissile Batteries From Middle East,” The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2021.

14. “Rouhani Says Hopes Iran's Next Govt Can Conclude Nuclear Talks,” AFP, July 14, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210714-rouhani-says-hopes-iran-s-next-govt-can-conclude-nuclear-talks.

15. Grégoire Mallard, Farzan Sabet, and Jin Sun, “The Humanitarian Gap in the Global Sanctions Regime: Assessing Causes, Effects, and Solutions,” Global Governance, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2020): 121–153.

16. Michael Stephens, “Israel and Normalisation: Is a New Middle East Order Emerging?” Center for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, October 30, 2020, https://chacr.org.uk/2020/10/30/israel-and-normalisation-is-a-new-middle-east-order-emerging/.

17. “Iran Plans New Round of Talks With Saudi Arabia - Iranian Envoy,” Reuters, August 31, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-plans-new-round-talks-with-saudi-arabia-iranian-envoy-2021-08-31/.

18. Amberin Zaman, “Iraqi Kurdish Leader Helps Ease Turkey-UAE Tensions,” Al-Monitor, August 31, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/08/iraqi-kurdish-leader-helps-ease-turkey-uae-tensions.

19. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “Analysis: Has the Gulf Reconciled After the Qatar blockade?” Al Jazeera, June 3, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/6/5/has-the-gulf-reconciled-after-the-end-of-the-qatar-blockade.

20. Ali Mamouri, “Baghdad Conference to Establish Cooperation, Partnership in Region,” Al-Monitor, August 30, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/08/baghdad-conference-establish-cooperation-partnership-region.

21. Dania Saadi, “Middle East Nuclear Ambitions Stymied by Financial Constraints, Enrichment Fears,” S&P Global Platts, November 11, 2020, https://www.spglobal.com/platts/en/market-insights/latest-news/electric-power/111120-middle-east-nuclear-ambitions-stymied-by-financial-constraints-enrichment-fears.

22. UN Security Council, “Concerned About Lasting Conflicts, Terrorism, Sectarian Tensions Plaguing Persian Gulf, Speakers in Security Council Stress Need for Coherent Approach to Collective Security,” SC/14333, October 20, 2020, https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14333.doc.htm.

23. Chen Zak and Farzan Sabet, eds., “From the Iran Nuclear Deal to a Middle East Zone? Lessons From the JCPOA for an ME WMDFZ,” UNIDIR, 2021, https://unidir.org/sites/default/files/2021-06/UNIDIR%20-%20Lessons%20from%20the%20JCPOA%20for%20the%20ME%20WMDFZ%20essay%20series.pdf.

24. Golnaz Esfandiari, “What Iranian Foreign Policy Could Look Like Under President Raisi,” RFE/RL, June 17, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-presidential-election-raisi-foreign-policy/31313258.html.

25. “International Arms Transfers Level Off After Years of Sharp Growth; Middle Eastern Arms Imports Grow Most, Says SIPRI,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, March 15, 2021, https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2021/international-arms-transfers-level-after-years-sharp-growth-middle-eastern-arms-imports-grow-most.

26. Anjli Raval, Chloe Cornish, and Neil Munshi, “Oil Producers Face Costly Transition as World Looks to Net-Zero Future,” Financial Times, May 26, 2021.

27. Anchal Vohra, “The Middle East Is Becoming Literally Uninhabitable,” Foreign Policy, August 24, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/24/the-middle-east-is-becoming-literally-uninhabitable/.

28. Ahmed Rasheed and Louise Heavens, “Iraq at Risk of Power Shortages After Iran Reduced Gas Supply,” Reuters, September 1, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/iraq-gas-iran/iraq-at-risk-of-power-shortages-after-iran-reduced-gas-supply-idUSL1N2Q30K8.

29. Bassem Mroue, “Aid Groups: Millions in Syria, Iraq Losing Access to Water,” Associated Press, August 23, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-business-syria-environment-and-nature-lebanon-e21f41e6a2b8d277b2547ce1e4b5b130.

Farzan Sabet is a researcher in the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone Project at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. He holds a Ph.D in international history from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

With political will, diplomatic skill, and some luck, the JCPOA could survive in some form and become
a cornerstone for future regional weapons of mass destruction and security agreements.

Confronting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Challenge: An Interview With New CTBTO Executive Secretary Robert Floyd

October 2021

For a treaty that has never formally entered into force, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has a very good success record. It opened for signature on September 24, 1996, and has near-universal support, with 185 signatories, including the five original nuclear testing states. More importantly, no state except North Korea has conducted militarily significant nuclear test explosions in the last 23 years, and North Korea halted testing in 2017.

Robert Floyd took office as the fourth executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization on Aug. 1. (Photo by CTBTO)Nevertheless, unless eight key states—China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States—actually ratify the treaty, it cannot enter into force. That raises serious questions about the durability of the unofficial testing moratorium that nuclear-armed countries are currently observing and about the long-term future of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) and its sophisticated global network of sensors that monitor for nuclear testing.

The person elected by CTBT member states to lead the organization into this uncertain future is Robert Floyd, the former director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office. He became the CTBTO’s fourth executive secretary in August. He spoke with Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball on September 16 about the challenges ahead.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

ACT: This month marks the 25th anniversary of the opening for signature of the CTBT, made possible in part by the diplomatic leadership of Australia, your home country, back in the summer of 1996. Looking back over the last quarter century, give us your broad sense of what has been accomplished in terms of international security since then on nonproliferation and with respect to
the CTBTO.

Robert Floyd: The 25th anniversary and any anniversary, I think, is a really good time to look back at what has been done and take stock of that, as well as to review what has yet to be done. In the case of the CTBT, in the 25 years since its opening for signature, so much has been done, and this is at several different levels.

One level is that there is almost universal support for this treaty. We should never lose sight of that. We have 185 states out of 196 that have signed the treaty. We have 170 states that have ratified the treaty. Of those states that have not done so, the vast majority of them actually support the treaty, but there are two main classes of reasons as to why they may not have signed or ratified.

The first is actually bandwidth. It’s to do with how much legal drafting skills, et cetera, do they have available….
[M]any of those that haven’t completed [ratification] are the smaller and new countries. So, there’s a special case where I think more work can be done in support.

Then there’s another set of countries that have…their own circumstances which might limit their ability to take the decision politically now to either sign or ratify the treaty. Some of their considerations may well be more strategic than anything. So, all of that aside, the vast majority of countries support it, so that’s the first achievement.

Antarctica, Ascension Island, Greenland, and United Kingdom are just some of the 300 sites worldwide where the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Organization has located its sensors to detect potential nuclear tests. This one is in Qaanaaq, Greenland. (Photo by CTBTO)The second achievement is that the treaty organization, the CTBTO, is responsible for establishing the verification mechanism so that it can be ready for when the treaty enters into force. That verification arrangement contains over 300 monitoring stations of what we call the International Monitoring System (IMS). It entails the International Data Centre (IDC), established here at the CTBTO, and the network of national data centers in various states. It entails developing on-site inspection protocols and approaches and the training of a cadre of would-be inspectors for any inspection which may be required by the verification regime of the treaty. The network is 90 percent complete, which is an amazing achievement.

This goes to your point about the accomplishments in terms of international security and nonproliferation, what we then have is something like a global norm that’s been established, a global norm against nuclear testing. Although we do not yet have a legally binding treaty—of course it has not entered into force due to eight of the states listed in Annex II having not yet ratified—we have a verification system under development that can demonstrate very clearly if there has been a nuclear test conducted anywhere, anytime... [B]efore the treaty was opened for signature, more than 2,000 tests had taken place. Since then, very few, and by very few states: India
and Pakistan late in the 1990s, and then the only state to test in the 21st century being North Korea. That to me is a story of great success.

ACT: Let me zero in on some of the challenges that you were alluding to. There are eight countries that have either not signed or ratified the treaty that are listed in the Article XIV provision on entry into force. What specifically do you plan to do to engage with those eight countries and to work with other friends of the CTBT countries to try to advance entry into force?

Floyd: The eight countries are an important focus of activity. My plan for engagement is that I want to meet with each of those eight countries individually, and I want to sit down with them to better understand three things: For five of the eight, when they signed this treaty, what were their considerations, and why did they sign the treaty? To understand their current context with regard to the treaty—their policy goals, situation, and natural disposition with regard to the treaty. Importantly, to explore with them scenarios as to how we can move from where we are now to where we want to be, where they would ratify.

That, to me, is a discussion I would want to have with each of those states to understand their individual history, journey, and possible scenarios to move forward. It would be presumptuous of me to be just writing the script for those meetings without actually meeting with the individuals that hold those responsibilities. I recognize, though, that the steps forward may not be so individual, the step forward well may be regional and coordinated in some ways in different parts of the world. Some would even suggest that it’s entirely global.

So, that’s how I would approach it, but let me put just one rider on that. Entry into force of the CTBT is a team sport. I have a part to play, and I take it very seriously. The CTBTO as an organization has a part to play, and we take it very seriously, but it’s actually a team sport of all those that love and appreciate the objectives of the CTBT. So, working with other state signatories, working with civil society, working with the youth—all of these are important avenues of engagement that we together could make a difference.

ACT: Speaking of one of the team players, so to speak, you met with some senior Biden administration officials here in Washington earlier this month. What was your basic message to the Biden administration about what it can do to advance the CTBT and to support the organization beyond rhetorical expressions? What can you share with us about what you might have heard back?

Floyd: Yes, of course I would not go into the greater details of discussions with members of the Biden administration, for which I am very thankful to have had some helpful discussions and to have had a good deal of their time. It is clear, everybody can see, that President [Joe] Biden and his administration are certainly keen about the CTBT. His history of involvement early on with the CTBT is well known. It’s also clear that the process for ratification is not just about the president’s wish, and so there are some practical challenges to seeing the treaty move to a point where a ratification might happen.

I am confident that if any opportunity arose for that to happen, then the opportunity would be seized, but that is for the judgment of the U.S. administration and the U.S. officials. So, I think that the discussion with the U.S. administration is not one that should be single dimensional. If it is unidimensional and it’s just about entry into force, then it’s too narrow a discussion. The discussion, to me, is to see a continuation of the great commitment that the United States has made across many administrations to support financially the CTBTO, both through regular assessed contributions, but also through some very generous extra contributions. We are deeply appreciative of that clear and very strong demonstration of support.

An additional demonstration of support has been the engagement of U.S. technical experts in areas of the processes, committees, and considerations and even technologies used by the CTBTO, and I would love to see that continue on. In addition, I would like to see strong political support by the U.S. administration in encouraging, even though this is slightly awkward, further ratifications moving toward universalization—ratifications and signatures with other states.

Obviously with the Nuclear Posture Review coming up, we would appreciate as strong and as forward-leaning language as can be produced to be put into that document. I would personally love to see that that would be stronger than has ever been used before in the Nuclear Posture Reviews of the past. All of these are things that the U.S. administration can do, could do, and would be good illustrations and demonstrations of their commitment to the treaty, even if delivering on ratification was not possible in the immediate term.

Infrasound Station IS50 on Ascension Island. (Photo by CTBTO)ACT: Speaking of some of the technical operations, you are the head of a large organization that has a global span, and one of your core missions is maintaining the IMS and the IDC. What do you see as some of the main challenges facing the organization, in particular, maintaining the funding necessary to keep the organization’s operations going? Is it more difficult to do so given the delay in the formal entry into force of the treaty?

Floyd: Yeah, the IMS and the IDC are the major cost centers of the CTBTO. The on-site inspection area should never be forgotten, it’s a very important part of the verification mechanism, but it certainly demands less of the budget than those other two areas.

ACT: That has not yet been implemented because on-site inspection can only be triggered with entry into force, correct?

Floyd: Absolutely. The preparation for approaches, protocols, handbooks, et cetera, and even the training of a possible cadre of inspectors are important preparatory activities, but nonetheless the cost of that is way less than the cost to set up the monitoring and the analysis and the data center part. It’s been estimated that the IMS and the IDC is about a $1 billion asset that has been invested in over the last 25 years. So, that is a very significant asset. When I look at the functioning of the IMS and the IDC, I see continuing improvement, continuing adding of stations, but I’ll give you what keeps me awake at night.

What keeps me awake at night is that a $1 billion asset needs to be serviced in terms of its depreciation….[T]his equipment needs to be sustained. There are repairs, maintenance, and replacement that need to be done. You need a significant financial commitment that should be continuing over every year and accumulating over years to be able to sustain a $1 billion asset such as this one, spread across some of the far reaches of the globe. That, to me, is the challenge. The normal operation of the agency through the goodwill and generosity of the state signatories is being covered even with the impact of COVID-19 on global and national economies, but this other aspect is yet to be worked through.

ACT: Let me ask you a question about the role of some of the former nuclear testing states, particularly the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which happen to all have had nuclear testing programs. You will be attending a special meeting on September 27 on the CTBT, convened by Ireland. While there has been cooperation on the council in expressing support for the CTBT, there have also been some disagreements. I wanted to ask you to offer some thoughts about one of these issues.

As you’re aware, the United States has alleged that Russia has engaged in activities at its former test site that are inconsistent with the zero-yield prohibition established by the treaty. Russia has denied this charge. Has the United States presented or sought to present any evidence to the CTBTO or to member states about its concerns
about Russia’s activities so far?

Floyd: As far as I am aware, and I would never be fully aware of everything that the U.S. government would do, but as far as I’m aware, the United States has made, on a number of occasions, that declaration that you just mentioned. But I’m not aware of a sharing of more detailed information that might back that up.

ACT: The CTBT, when it was negotiated, was not really designed to operate indefinitely in the situation in which on-site inspections are not available, but that’s where we are. So, just a technical question: Does the treaty allow for states to discuss or explore confidence-building measures to supplement the formal system, and how might the CTBTO play a technical role in facilitating that if states-parties request it?

Floyd: Confidence-building measures are an important part of the treaty. They particularly are opportunities for states to give some explanation of any incidents or events that may occur in their jurisdiction which could end up being misread or misinterpreted in various ways. Sharing that information with other states is a helpful thing so that people don’t jump to wrong conclusions. This mechanism, building confidence, is an important one, and the application of that in a context that is pre-entry into force is a slightly different consideration as to how that would and could take place. At this point, this is all quite theoretical in that nothing has been brought to the CTBT for consideration by the [CTBTO]…. Until it is, we don’t have something to be responding to.

ACT: As you were saying at the outset, the test ban treaty has always been viewed as part of the global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament architecture. As we all know, at some point if it’s not delayed once again, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) states-parties will convene for the 10th review conference, and the CTBT has always been part of the NPT deliberation. What are you hoping that NPT states-parties agree to do with respect to the CTBT when they meet for this review conference, and how important do you think the treaty is with respect to the NPT, which is now more than 50 years old?

Floyd: Obviously, it’s kind of a significant review conference for the NPT. It’s slightly delayed, so it does coincide with their 50th anniversary and, for us with the CTBT, the 25th anniversary of opening for signature. My desire is that there would be some strong language in any document which is produced by the NPT review conference speaking about the importance of the CTBT and calling on all states yet to do so to sign and ratify so that the treaty can enter into force. The CTBT has a very important draw when it comes to fulfilling part of the NPT, and in the space of nonproliferation and disarmament, having an effective and verified ban on testing is an important element. Maybe in this coming 10th review conference, the work and the achievement of the CTBT is one of the things that states can point to that helps us in the space of ultimate disarmament. Moving to ultimate disarmament is not possible unless there is a testing ban and a verifiable testing ban to put that block in the pathway of the proliferation of weapons capability or the enhancement and development of new weapon types. So, I think that the CTBT and all it has achieved is the good news story…and its recognition in [the NPT] concluding document would be wonderful.

ACT: There is a new treaty that has come on the scene since 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). How do you see the relationship between the TPNW and the CTBT? Does it reinforce the norm? Is this helpful for the CTBT regime as a whole? How do you personally view it?

Floyd: The TPNW is the latest element of the international nuclear architecture. The NPT is probably in many ways the centerpiece. The CTBT augments and delivers a part of that. There are many other treaties that are important, such as treaties on nuclear security like the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its amendment, and there are nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaties. All of these have complementary roles. The TPNW is a part of that broad, international legal instrument landscape around nuclear weapons. My responsibility is clearly for one of those treaties, the CTBT, and its entry into force and the implementation of particularly the verification architecture associated with that. My goal is to work cooperatively with all of the other elements of the nuclear architecture.

ACT: To circle back to one of the things you mentioned at the top about the role of civil society, your predecessor, Lassina Zerbo, and his predecessors launched some key initiatives to engage civil society in the work of the CTBTO and the treaty. What is your plan, your view, about how such initiatives can help advance the CTBT regime?

Floyd: As I said early on, the role of civil society is very important. It’s not about governments alone, and governments reflect in democracies the will and the interest of people. Civil society, the media, all of these players have a part in this important social discourse. A couple of things that Dr. Zerbo did when he was executive secretary that I think were particularly important were the establishment of the CTBTO Youth Group, an initiative to engage the next generation of policymakers, maybe legislators, as well as the thinkers and academics of the next generation. I had the privilege to speak to the youth group on a video chat earlier this week. I had been so looking forward to it, and I was not let down. It was such a pleasure to meet with them and to hear their ideas, their enthusiasm, and their commitment. Sadly, the entry into force of this treaty is a multigenerational activity, and so the work of Dr. Zerbo to work with the young people to establish the youth group is particularly to be applauded. I would like to see how we make it even better. To review, to take stock, and to look at how we improve the effectiveness of the youth group, as well as its support for the CTBT and the CTBTO.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Dr. Zerbo established another group called the Group of Eminent Persons (GEM), and that is picking up on a number of people from different countries around the world that have had deep experience in issues related to nuclear policy and the establishment of the nuclear architecture. Engaging with these people to learn from their experiences and to also see them continue to be involved in influencing and shaping, I could see the logic of why that was also important, and I heard of the very positive experience when
GEM met the youth group and the generations were able to interact and learn from one another.

Again, using the wisdom and experience of elder statesmans is something I want to look at. How do we do that best, how do we harness all of that potential in the most effective way? Those are important initiatives and ones that I am wishing to understand better and look at how we enhance our effectiveness with both cohorts.

Confronting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Challenge: An Interview With New CTBTO Executive Secretary Robert Floyd

The Revolution That Failed: Nuclear Competition, Arms Control, and the Cold War

October 2021

Nuclear Revolution Theory Survives Attack

The Revolution That Failed: Nuclear Competition, Arms Control,
and the Cold War

By Brendan Rittenhouse Green
(Cambridge University Press, 2020)
265 pages

Reviewed by George Perkovich

The title gives away the ambition and, ultimately, the shortcoming of this book. Brendan Rittenhouse Green argues that the “nuclear revolution” theory posed by Robert Jervis, Kenneth Waltz, Charles Glaser, and others was and is wrong. This bold claim is sure to draw attention, but Green’s project depends on a straw-man version of the nuclear revolution theory. More regrettably, the theoretical debate running through the book diverts readers from the revealing archival reportage of the sometimes surreal nuclear posture and arms control policy debates of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, from 1969 to 1979.

Green sketches the straw theory on Page 1. The theory of “the nuclear revolution, often referred to as Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD), he writes,

drains all of the competition out of the international system. With victory on the battlefield impossible, the military balance is stalemated: states can no longer be stronger than one another, or exploit their relative strength in international bargaining. Further nuclear capabilities are therefore useless, and the military incentives for arms races and wars disappear. Likewise, because the defender of the status quo holds the advantage in the balance of resolve, challenges to the international order are destined to fail and will not be launched. Peace should prevail between nuclear powers, the status quo should be entrenched, and the traditional motors of great power rivalry should run out of gas.

He continues, “The nuclear revolution’s logic would appear to brook no argument, at least not among rational men and women…. Nuclear stalemate appears as a kind of brute fact, one that produces a nearly irresistible force locking rational states into stable force postures.”

Jervis and Glasercan defend themselves, but it is difficult to imagine them saying the MAD theory removes all international competition. The evidence to the contrary appeared every night on the broadcast news: Vietnam, the 1973 Middle East war, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Angola, Afghanistan. The theory simply said it would be insane for U.S. and Soviet leaders to attack each other’s homeland or that of treaty-protected allies. Nuclear competitors could be stronger than one another, but once they could guarantee massive nuclear retaliation to an adversary’s first strike, nuclear superiority should not be expected to give them a significant advantage in international bargaining or coercion. Challenges to the international order could come from many sources, including anti-colonial movements, political and technological revolutions, economic supply chain disruptions, and the rise of new powers.

Finally, the theory says nuclear competition should wane, not that it will. Regardless of how their rationality is assessed, people may still compete and seek advantage or dominance, including in nuclear forces. The nuclear revolution theory says they will not successfully escape from being deterred from initiating major aggression against an adversary with a survivable nuclear arsenal.

Green recognizes much of this. He acknowledges that “the Cold War blessedly ended without real political instability—a major war, crisis, or challenge to the status quo.” Oddly, he gives that fundamental conclusion second place, which enables him to say the nuclear revolution theory failed. He then offers his own theory to explain why “Washington consistently chose nuclear force postures characterized by military competition which seek to gain military advantages over rivals that could be converted into bargaining leverage in a crisis or time of peace,” instead of accepting the stability of the theory of MAD.

Green’s theory has two mechanisms, “the Delicate Nuclear Balance and Comparative Constitutional Fitness,” which together seek to “explain both the intense Cold War nuclear competition that occurred after nuclear stalemate was achieved and its bizarre juxtaposition against arms control talks.” He says the nuclear balance appeared delicate, rather than stable, because one side could imagine that itself or an adversary could find a new technology that would provide a significant advantage. A side with a perceived advantage could be emboldened to act aggressively rather than remain deterred. The worst-case analysis would have each side assume the other was seeking such advantage. That could create incentives to act preemptively before the balance of power got worse in the run-up to war or as war escalates. Conceivably, arms control could ameliorate these uncertainties and manage competition, but competitive urges and domestic political-economic interests created other rationales that precluded robust arms control, he argues.

Although Green acknowledges that “nuclear stalemate persisted throughout the Cold War, in spite of superpower attempts to undermine it,” he asserts that “effective peacetime competition can provide large political benefits, whether or not a state ever escapes nuclear stalemate.” Nuclear superiority or the perception of it “enhances general deterrence, diverts enemy resources, and can force important political adjustments in its grand strategy, while also bolstering alliance cohesion,” he writes.

Green scrupulously notes that the narrative and the theories he propounds focus on only two countries, the United States and the Soviet Union, in one decade, 1969–1979. Moreover, the driving challenge for the United States was the exceptional one of providing extended nuclear deterrence to allies. No other country does that. Yet, Green’s frequent use of the present tense and “states” as a general noun rather than specific proper nouns give a grander impression of his theory’s reach.

There are many things to say about all this. To start, the leverage that nuclear competition supposedly provides to change adversaries’ behavior is rather abstract. The declassified U.S. documents that fill Green’s narrative show Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter and their top advisers talking like theorists playing a game. Meanwhile, in the real world, the nuclear balance had almost no effect on the Vietnam peace negotiations and war; the 1973 Middle East war and subsequent Camp David negotiations; the contests in Angola, Ethiopia, and El Salvador; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Green mentions none of these real-world developments. Yet, if the nuclear balance were a meaningful bargaining tool, one would expect this could be demonstrated through real-world episodes.

Indeed, the omission of Nixon’s attempt to use nuclear superiority to make Moscow behave differently regarding Vietnam is particularly curious. As William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball documented in their important book Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War, in October 1969, Nixon, with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger at his side, secretly ordered a worldwide alert of U.S. nuclear forces to scare Moscow into “persuading Hanoi to make the military and political concessions desired by Washington and Saigon at the negotiating table in Paris.”1 If ever there was an example of the competitive logic Green discusses, here it was. Yet, no mention occurs in the book. If Green had addressed it, he would have been forced to conclude that the nuclear balance and this alert did not affect the Soviet leadership in any way. Nixon’s belief that he would have had to appear crazy to make Soviet leaders believe the nuclear threat confirms the basic proposition of the nuclear revolution theory. Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann demonstrate the uselessness of nuclear weapons for compelling adversaries to change behavior in their important book Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy. Green does not refer to their work either.

Rationality—how to define it, contextualize it, and apply it to nuclear policymaking—shadows this book. The nuclear revolution theory depends on rationality in the sense that decision-makers are assumed to prefer stability over instability and want to avoid self-destructive war and allocate resources efficiently on socially beneficial projects. Yet, that grand strategic rationality does not necessarily motivate individuals, parties, and organizations at moments short of an actual decision to launch nuclear weapons.

The president of the United States and reportedly the president of Russia plus one or two military advisers would ultimately decide whether to launch their country’s nuclear weapons. Their decision-making would determine whether the rationality supposed in the nuclear revolution theory holds in practice. Below that level, subsidiary individuals and institutions use instrumental rationality to pursue various lower-level interests, such as contracts for military-industrial businesses, defense budgets for weapons labs and military services, jobs for congressional districts, and votes for members of Congress.

Green’s account of the domestic political-economic drivers of nuclear competition captures some of this when he writes that each state’s actions were “influenced by their different economies, political institutions, civil-military politics, ideology, and vulnerability to public opinion.” These attributes combine to determine a state’s “comparative constitutional fitness,” in the formulation Green borrows from Aaron Friedberg. Green, however, exaggerates the role of strategic logic in the policymaking process. As Scott Sagan has noted,2 Green misses how staff in the nuclear weapons command did not listen to or follow guidance in the period Green covers and later.

That should not be surprising. What military leaders and war-fighting organizations would voluntarily accept being deterred from seeking ways to defeat their adversaries? Their jobs and their professional identities are to be undeterred. What the nuclear revolution means is that they will not succeed when it comes to direct, large-scale conflict against adversaries with assured nuclear retaliatory forces, and political leaders should be able to recognize this. Military and clandestine operators may find ways to conduct covert operations in third countries. They may try information operations, subversion, cyberespionage, and perhaps sabotage. They will look for ways to conduct limited nuclear wars. Someone else will have to impose on them the restraints of the MAD theory.

Similarly, individuals and enterprises that design and build nuclear weapons systems rationally pursue a range of interests and purposes that may not be necessary for nuclear deterrence. These impulses help drive competition for nuclear superiority and countermeasures to the other side’s quest for the same. Siegfried Hecker, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997, tells the story about how, in the mid-1990s after the Cold War ended, he sometimes enlivened meetings with Russian counterparts by saying, “Throughout the Cold War, everyone thought we were competing with you—with Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70. It is true that the Soviet Union was our adversary, but for Los Alamos, the real enemy was Livermore [National Laboratory].” The room would break into laughter. One of the Russian leaders would typically reply, “It was the same with us. Chelyabinsk (or Arzamas) was our enemy.”3

The interests and forces that propel some actors toward an arms race led others to invent arms control, which is supposed to be an instrument of restraint against irrationality, wantonness, and suicidal violence. Yet, the same interests that drive individuals and institutions to compete against mutual deterrence drive them to compete through arms control by gaming the restraints and seeking the putative advantages of competition.

“MAD has no explanation for why Cold War arms control became the Seinfeld of great power politics: a wildly popular show about nothing,” Green writes in his clever style. His explanation is that Washington wanted technological competition to gain leverage over Moscow and impress allies and “was not well suited for negotiating arms control with the Soviet Union” because the ability of presidents to maneuver was weakened by congressional pressure against defense spending and for arms control.

For Green, that is why the United States “used arms control in a competitive fashion, aiming to channel the competition toward its qualitative strengths” while seeking to limit the number of weapons to compensate for tighter defense budgets. Green mentions, almost in passing, that the constitutional requirement for a supermajority in the Senate to ratify treaties also could complicate greater arms control progress.

The quip about Seinfeld obscures the fact that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, combined with successive treaties to limit and then reduce offensive missiles, helped avoid an even more wasteful strategic arms race. These measures stabilized the Cold War competition for 30 years and helped end it without a superpower war, the essential purposes of arms control.

The abstractness of the book’s academic theorizing glosses over both the macrolevel irrationality of nuclear arms racing and the perversity of the microlevel rationalities that drive participants. Washington’s approach to nuclear arms control is not very different from its approach to gun control. There is a core of voters fixated on being unrestrained, and many politicians who feel the issue is not worth losing votes over, even though the result is more murderous and expensive for the American people than gun control would probably be. Rich lobbying organizations such as the National Rifle Association gain outsized influence with congressional candidates. The routine threat of the filibuster to require 60 senatorial votes to move legislation enables a motivated minority to prevail. What might rationally be the best outcome for society as a whole is not so politically or economically good for the particular actors who combine to make policy, and they smartly mobilize to get their way.

When Green moves from explicating the archival record to arguing the superiority of his theories, it sometimes seems like he is trying to prove he is the smartest kid in the class. Important stuff gets lost in the process. For example, he quotes a passage from Jervis to set up a critique of the nuclear revolution theory: “[O]nce ‘both sides have second strike capability, crises should not be frequent…. [T]he knowledge that war would be suicide coupled with the bargaining advantage possessed by the side defending the status quo means that would[-]be expansionists should be loath to instigate confrontations.’” Green ends the quote there, but Jervis’s next line is, “Furthermore, [those crises] that occur usually should be in peripheral areas and be initiated, not by the superpowers themselves, but by local actors.”4 This omitted line describes a lot of what ensued in the real world and remains so challenging with extended deterrence.

Indeed, Jervis’ text holds up very well on rereading and is ultimately more instructive. For example, Jervis writes that he “would propose the hypothesis that American foreign policy toward the [Soviet Union] has more often suffered from the difficulty of making the Soviets believe its promises than from that of making them believe its threats.”5 For all of Green’s theorizing about bargaining, he never explores the importance of convincing the other side that one will make and keep positive promises to ease competition or pressure if the adversary changes its threatening behavior.

That omission could be relevant to future U.S. relations with China and North Korea. Nuclear balances may be delicate as Green emphasizes in the U.S.-Soviet case. Yet U.S. nuclear capabilities have eclipsed Chinese capabilities for decades, and the gap between U.S. and North Korean capabilities is also enormous. Even so, Washington is unable to compel either one to change its behavior, and it is deterred from attacking both. Is the basic theory of nuclear revolution wrong? It does not seem so. Nuclear revolution theory suggests, however, that the United States needs to be more equitable in what it proposes and accepts in arms control negotiations.

As long as major war between nuclear-armed states does not occur, the revolution has not failed. Instead, Green’s book describes the ultimately futile quest by Nixon, Kissinger, and others in Washington and Moscow to arms-race away from nuclear deterrence in search of useable nuclear superiority. That history is being repeated today. Were Green to widen his aperture and show how irrelevant the differences in the nuclear balance were to the successes and failures of the United States and Soviet Union, it would be a useful cautionary tale, more aptly called “The Counter-Revolution That Failed.” For, even if one believed that competing with the United States caused the Soviet Union to collapse, nuclear weapons still have not provided Washington or Moscow with bargaining leverage to change each other’s behavior today.


1. William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2015), p. 2.

2. Scott D. Sagan, “Nuclear Revelations About the Nuclear Revolution,” in Book Review Roundtable: The Revolution That Failed, June 14, 2021, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/book-review-roundtable-the-revolution-that-failed/.

3. Siegfried Hecker, email correspondence with author, September 8, 2021.

4. Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 35.

5. Ibid., pp. 58–59.

George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Chair and vice president for studies, overseeing the Technology and International Affairs Program, and the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).

Scholar Brendan Rittenhouse Green takes on the iconic Cold War nuclear deterrence theory of mutually assured destruction.

Peter D. Zimmerman (1941–2021), Philip E. Coyle III (1934–2021)

October 2021

Peter D. Zimmerman (1941–2021)
By Edward Levine and Pierce Corden

The world of arms control lost a valued colleague on Aug. 27, when Peter D. Zimmerman died at the age of 80. He was inquisitive to the end, querying his doctors about how the devices they were using on him worked. (The same thing happened when fellow scientist and arms controller Phil Coyle died six days later. Intense curiosity about how the world works may be a hallmark of brilliant scientists.)

Pete was a scientist before he was an arms controller, but his upbringing may have prepared him to straddle both worlds. When he was 15, his father, who supervised nuclear weapons storage sites at Manzano Base, on the edge of Albuquerque, gave him a piece of metal and said that someday Pete would understand its significance. The fragment was from an unarmed MK-17 hydrogen bomb (having a yield greater than 10 megatons) that a B-36 bomber had just dropped by accident near Manzano. Nuclear dangers were in the air that Pete breathed, even though his father could not discuss them.

Pete studied at Stanford University and Lund University in Sweden, receiving his Ph.D. in nuclear/particle physics from Stanford in 1967. After postdoctoral work and adjunct positions at the University of California at Los Angeles, the German Electron Synchrotron, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, he joined the faculty at Louisiana State University (LSU) in 1974 and became a full professor 11 years later.

In the beginning, no one would have predicted where his nuclear physics work would lead, but then there were those visiting positions. In 1981, he was a research physicist and lecturer at the University of California at San Diego, working with Herbert York on test ban treaty options. In the summer of 1983, he was a visiting researcher at Princeton University, working with Frank von Hippel and Harold Feiveson on the relative utility of tactical nuclear weapons and proposed conventional substitutes.

By 1984, Pete was active in the Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society (APS). He was elected a fellow of the APS in 1990, and the APS gave him its Joseph A. Burton/Forum Award for physics in the public interest in 2004. Also in 1984, Pete became a William C. Foster Fellow at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and was awarded a second consecutive year after that. One of his responsibilities was to backstop the defense and space negotiations with the Soviet Union, and he became an adviser to the U.S. delegation to those talks. His curriculum vitae says that he “demonstrated that strategic defenses lead to an unstable deterrent relationship,” which may not have endeared him to the Reagan administration.

In 1986 he joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he co-edited a book, with Michael Krepon, on the national security implications of civilian remote sensing satellites. This led to teaching and research jobs involving remote sensing and arms control verification, including for a possible Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Contracts with the ACDA included work on what would become the “safeguards” that were proposed when the CTBT was submitted to the Senate for advice and consent and on how to harden nuclear weapons against a terrorist attack and to disarm terrorists’ nuclear weapons.

In 1999, Pete was appointed the ACDA science advisor. This position continued after the ACDA reverted to the State Department and included important work on the CTBT task force. At the beginning of 2001, however, the Clinton administration ended, and Pete was without a job.

Yet, Pete was rather entrepreneurial. Out of the blue, he suggested to Edward Levine, who was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member for disarmament and arms control issues for Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.), that the committee hire him as its chief scientist. The committee may never have had a real scientist, let alone a chief one, but Pete sold the idea and went on to prove that it was a good one.

The year 2001 was eventful. Senators sought to keep the new George W. Bush administration from doing away with Cooperative Threat Reduction and nonproliferation assistance programs. They had to guard against a move to have the Senate return the CTBT to the president so that he could “unsign” it. Then came September 11. Then came the anthrax attacks, which closed the main committee offices for weeks, forcing staffers to work cheek to jowl out of much smaller quarters in the Capitol.

So, what did Pete do? He called up a friend at LSU who specialized in anthrax, probably Martin Hugh-Jones, and gave the committee a direct line to the relevant academic expertise. As they gained knowledge in this area, staff members were able to talk more productively with additional experts about how to combat biological terrorism through improved public health and pathogen surveillance. Pete was the senior co-author of Biden’s Global Pathogens Surveillance Act of 2003, which was twice approved by the Senate. It died in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives because it was a Biden bill, but Pete’s work sensitized the future vice president and president to the importance of preparing for and averting pandemics.

Pete also led committee efforts to understand and combat the threat of nuclear or radiological terrorism, arranging very effective classified briefings and public hearings. His work alerted and educated members of the Senate and aided the committee’s bipartisan promotion of nonproliferation efforts in the executive branch. Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2003, and the Democrats, after keeping Pete on for a year, had to let him go.

So, what did Pete do? The entrepreneur got himself a professorship at King’s College London and led the Centre for Science and Security Studies, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Later, he was the physical science adviser to the Graham-Talent Commission to prevent weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. He also continued to do studies for U.S. agencies while managing to survive a series of life-threatening medical conditions.

Finally, in 2020, he felt better and joined a presidential campaign, becoming one of the policy volunteers who lent their expertise wherever it could be used. He enjoyed that immensely and was always up for a challenge. When one colleague proposed reviving the ACDA, Pete signed up to flesh out that idea and loved it.

As a scientist, Pete favored analytic conclusions over ideology. He was a fervent arms controller, but never supported complete nuclear disarmament, which he feared would lead to a revival of massive conventional wars. Although he was very sensitive to the dangers posed by nuclear power, he believed that it had to be part of any solution to the challenge of global warming.

Finally, Pete was a happy husband to his wife, Eva Zimmerman, and the proudest of proud papas to son Eric and daughter Rebecca. As one mourner remarked to Pete’s daughter at his funeral, “You may not know us, but we know everything about you!” His life was not always easy, but it was challenging, often fun, and truly a lifelong learning experience.

Pete made signal, important contributions to the fields of arms control and nonproliferation. He treated life as
a laboratory in which to learn and do good works. In his case, the experiment was a success.

Edward Levine is a retired professional staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (1976–1997) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1997–2011). Beginning in 1971, Pierce Corden worked at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, then as an office director at the State Department, focusing mainly on nuclear testing and United Nations issues. He retired in 2007 after 5 years as director of administration for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization's Provisional Technical Secretariat.


Philip E. Coyle III (1934–2021)
By Lisbeth Gronlund

Phil Coyle was a rare and magnificent bird.

He was one of the small handful of scientists who worked in the classified world of the Pentagon and weapons laboratories but also collaborated with those of us working on the outside to challenge U.S. policy on nuclear weapons and missile defense.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Phil’s involvement, which strengthened the analysis and recommendations made by members of the nuclear peace and security community and gave them credibility.

Phil was the consummate insider. He spent more than three decades working on nuclear weapons and related programs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, rising to associate director and deputy to the director of the lab by the time he left in 1993. He then spent seven years in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, serving as director of operational test and evaluation (OT&E), an internal watchdog that oversees the testing programs of major military systems.

A decade later, in 2010-2011, he had a year-long stint as associate director for national security and international affairs in President Barack Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. He was given a recess appointment because Obama believed that Phil’s work as director of the OT&E office would anger pro-missile defense senators and stand in the way of congressional approval.

Decades ago, I and several of my physics colleagues who were active in the anti-nuclear movement decided to leave academic physics and apply our technical backgrounds to assess and critique U.S. nuclear weapons programs. Every institution needs independent oversight and public accountability, but none more so than the Pentagon and the weapons labs. We only had access to unclassified information, but found we could use physics to understand and shed useful light on key military programs.

Our ability to do so benefited tremendously from talking to Phil and other insiders to fully understand the unclassified information and put it into context.

The Pentagon and the weapons labs frown on such interactions. A few years ago, I wrote a report critiquing the Obama administration’s plan for building new warheads. Three scientists working in the classified realm reviewed the report, but two of them did not want to be acknowledged by name. I thanked the third scientist, an academic who regularly consults for the weapons labs, in the acknowledgments. He later took part in a small, high-level meeting in the Pentagon. The first presenter put up their first slide, which was the cover page of my report, and said to him, “I see you’ve joined the dark side.” It was not a joke.

I do not know if Phil experienced this type of negative feedback, but he was knee deep in a culture that viewed outside critics as the dark side. When I first came to know Phil, he was heading the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) and was clearly deeply committed to getting the facts about the weapons systems he reviewed out to policymakers and the public. I think he viewed the arms control community as allies, not the enemy.

We quickly learned that any report that criticized a weapons program and was authored by scientists without a security clearance would be met with a fierce counterattack, usually not on the merits of the analysis but on the credibility of the authors. The Pentagon or the weapons labs and hostile members of Congress would simply dismiss an unfavorable report, saying the authors did not know what they were talking about because they did not have a security clearance.

Yet, if Phil or another scientist insider was a co-author, that kind of criticism simply evaporated. The Pentagon had to respond to the merits of the report. Hostile members of Congress had to take it seriously. Sympathetic members
of Congress could use it to ask the Pentagon and administration difficult questions and to request reports and studies. I was fortunate to co-author two reports with Phil.

It was during the Clinton administration that Phil was DOT&E, leading an office created in 1983 by Congress to prevent the kind of situation that occurred repeatedly during the Vietnam War when U.S. soldiers died because their weapons malfunctioned. Its mandate was to ensure the Pentagon adhered to a “fly before you buy” policy, meaning it would only purchase a weapons system once real-world operational testing, not just contractor computer graphics, demonstrated it would work as intended. The Pentagon also had to spell out the military requirements for these systems in advance so the test program would be appropriate and could not succumb to defense contractor lobbying or parochial interests and buy a new weapon that met only some of its requirements.

Phil, widely known as a straight shooter, was the ideal person to become DOT&E.

His work on the inside was invaluable to those of us on the outside fighting the U.S. plan to deploy the national missile defense system intended to defend against long-range nuclear-armed missiles. President Bill Clinton was slated to make a deployment decision in 2000 before leaving office.

The program had become much less ambitious since President Ronald Reagan launched the “Star Wars” program in 1983. The goal was now to defend against a handful of missiles launched by North Korea, rather than Reagan’s fantastical goal of defending against thousands of Soviet missiles. Yet, it was still nowhere close to meeting its objectives, and our technical analysis made the case that it never would.

The DOT&E annual reports to Congress, which must include an unclassified version, were invaluable. They laid out in gory detail the limitations of the test program and (politely) took the Pentagon to task for exaggerating the successes of the missile defense tests. Phil was not just a straight shooter, but an expert marksman.

On September 1, Clinton announced he would not begin deploying a national missile defense system, stating “I simply cannot conclude with the information I have today that we have enough confidence in the technology, and the operational effectiveness of the entire [national missile defense] system, to move forward to deployment.” It was clear he had received the message from Phil and the OT&E office loud and clear.

Under the George W. Bush administration, the Pentagon simply ignored the ongoing DOT&E criticisms of the program. It dropped the fly-before-you-buy requirement, essentially arguing the system was so important to national security that there was not time to make sure it worked properly. It also dropped all the requirements for the system. The program was now “capabilities driven,” meaning advocates would take what they could get. The Bush administration began deployment in 2002.

After stepping down as DOT&E, Phil became an integral member of our community. His next job was senior advisor to the president of the Center for Defense Information, a nongovernmental organization working on military security issues.

Later, he joined the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation as a senior science fellow. He served on the boards of directors of the Center and the Arms Control Association.

He continued to be a thorn in the side of missile defense advocates or, perhaps more accurately, an entire thorn bush. He understood the issues in detail and knew when the Pentagon was exaggerating or downright lying. He was unfailingly polite but direct.

The icing on the cake was that Phil was such a lovely person and interacting with him was such a pleasure. It was oddly charming that he used a flip phone and the email address of his wife, Martha Krebs, a physicist. The couple have four children.

Weapons lab directors, his government colleagues, and people working at peace and security organizations variously described him as a “man of high integrity” and a “very kind, supportive, and upbeat leader” who was “peaceful in his mannerisms and kind in his demeanor” and “committed to facts, good judgment, and moving a situation forward.” One admirer noted, “He asked great questions in a way that didn't threaten people, but let them know he understood the arguments and identified the weaknesses.”

The U.S. peace and arms control community has suffered a great loss.

Lisbeth Gronlund is a research affiliate of the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Peter D. Zimmerman (1941–2021), Philip E. Coyle III (1934–2021)

U.S., UK Pledge Nuclear Submarines for Australia

October 2021
By Julia Masterson

Australia could become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to field a nuclear-powered submarine as part of a new trilateral security partnership with the United States and United Kingdom known as AUKUS. The initiative was unveiled at a joint virtual press conference held Sept. 15.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shakes hands with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the latter arrives at the Pentagon on September 22. The meeting took place a week after the two countries and the United Kingdom announced the  AUKUS security pact to help Australia develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines and pursue other military cooperation.  (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) All three nations emphasized that Australia will not acquire nuclear weapons and that they will uphold their commitment to global nonproliferation standards. Even so, the decision by the United States and the UK to equip Australia with nuclear submarines has heightened proliferation concerns because the U.S. and UK submarines are powered by on-board reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU).

The objective of the new trilateral alliance is to ensure “peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific [region] over the long term,” U.S. President Joe Biden said during the joint appearance unveiling the initiative alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on video monitors.

“We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it will evolve because the future of each of our nations, and indeed the world, depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific, enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” Biden added.

The United States has shared nuclear submarine propulsion technology only with the UK, a product of a series of Cold War agreements aimed to counter Soviet influence in Europe.

The UK Royal Navy operates three nuclear-powered submarine systems: the Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarine and the Astute- and Trafalgar-class attack submarines. Johnson said the AUKUS partnership will provide “a new opportunity to reinforce Britain’s place at the leading edge of science and technology, strengthening our national expertise.”

Morrison said that Australia will work with Washington and London over the next 18 months “to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve” a conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarine fleet. He also said that the submarines will be constructed “in Australia in close cooperation” with the UK and the United States. The submarines will reportedly be finished in time to be fielded in the 2040s. Early reports suggest Australia may lease U.S. or UK nuclear-powered submarines in the meantime, but the details remain unclear.

At a press conference in Canberra on Sept. 16, Morrison noted that “[n]ext-generation nuclear-powered submarines will use reactors that do not need refueling during the life of the boat. A civil nuclear power capability here in Australia is not required to pursue this new capability.”

A senior Biden administration official appeared to confirm on Sept. 20 that the vessels will be powered with HEU, as UK and U.S. submarines are, when they commented on Australia’s fitness for “stewardship of the HEU.” It remains unclear who would supply Australia with the fissile material necessary to fuel the submarines or whether the nuclear-powered submarines might be provided through a leasing arrangement.

Another unknown is whether the submarine design will be based on existing U.S. or UK attack submarines or an entirely new design. One of the reasons that Australia may lease U.S. or UK vessels in the near term is to “provide opportunities for us to train our sailors, [to] provide the skills and knowledge in terms of how we operate,” Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton told reporters Sept. 19, suggesting the new submarines may share a similar design.

The AUKUS initiative is not limited to the new submarine project. It will also facilitate the sharing of information in a number of technological areas, including artificial intelligence, underwater systems, and quantum, cyber-, and long-range strike capabilities. Morrison said Australia will also enhance its long-range strike capabilities through the purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles and extended range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles.

The three leaders were careful not to attribute the new trilateral security initiative as a response to concerns about expanding Chinese military capabilities. In February, as part of a growing U.S. emphasis on prioritizing competition with Beijing, Biden announced a new Defense Department task force charged with assessing U.S. military strategy toward China.

Nevertheless, Chinese officials were quick to condemn the AUKUS initiative. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Sept. 16 that “the nuclear submarine cooperation between the U.S., UK, and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international nonproliferation efforts.”

China also expressed concerns about the proliferation risks posed by the initiative. Lijian warned that “the international community, including Australia’s neighboring countries, has full reason to question whether Australia is serious about fulfilling its nuclear nonproliferation commitments.”

Australian, UK, and U.S. officials have endeavored to assure the international community that the initiative does not pose a heightened proliferation risk. A senior Biden administration official said on Sept. 15 that “Australia, again, does not seek and will not seek nuclear weapons. This is about nuclear-powered submarines.” But they noted the novelty of the circumstance, adding, “[T]his is frankly an exception to our policy in many respects.”

Aidan Liddle, the UK ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, told Arms Control Today in an email Sept. 21 that “[a]ll three parties involved are absolutely committed to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] and have a long track record of working to uphold and strengthen the global counter-proliferation regime.”

“We have spoken to the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Director[-]General about this, and we will keep in close touch with the IAEA as we investigate the safeguards implications of the programme during the next phase of work,” said Liddle. He added, “[W]e will ensure that we are fulfilling our international obligations and giving absolute confidence that no HEU will be diverted for weapons purposes.”

Most nonproliferation experts, however, say the concern is not necessarily with Australia’s intentions but the precedent that the nuclear-powered submarine-sharing scheme would set. Although Australia’s new submarines would be conventionally armed, they clearly would be deployed for military use and will reportedly utilize HEU, which can also be used for nuclear weapons.

Washington has reached nuclear cooperation agreements for the exchange and transfer of civil nuclear material, equipment, and technology for peaceful purposes with many non-nuclear-weapon states. But military-relevant naval nuclear technology transfers are not covered under these agreements, including the U.S.-Australian agreement for nuclear cooperation that was signed in 2010.

In a Sept. 21 letter to the editor published in The New York Times, Rose Gottemoeller, former U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, criticized the proposal to share HEU-fueled submarines with Australia. The proposal, she wrote, “has blown apart 60 years of U.S. policy” designed to minimize HEU use. “Such uranium makes nuclear bombs, and we never wanted it in the hands of nonnuclear-weapon states, no matter how squeaky clean,” she said.

As recently as May 2021, the UK and United States declared that they wanted to “reinvigorate” efforts to minimize the use of HEU, according to the official statement laying out the goals for the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. (See ACT, June 2021.) Reducing the production and use of HEU “enjoys broad support but requires more solid political support,” the statement said.

Senior Biden administration officials have called the decision concerning Australia “a one-off,” implying that similar arrangements would not be made with other U.S. allies.

Despite support for the new initiative among the three capitals, the AUKUS partnership risks undermining U.S. and UK relations with allies, particularly France. Australia signed on to the nuclear submarine acquisition scheme after abandoning a $66 billion deal with France for the construction of 12 conventionally powered submarines. Negotiations to establish the AUKUS initiative took place in secret for six months, and the French were not privy to those discussions.

In her Sept. 21 letter to the editor, Gottemoeller criticized the submarine deal’s lack of “strategic imagination” and noted that “what we needed was a three-cornered billiard shot—pivot to Asia, yes, but keep our European allies on board.”

“I suggest bringing the French to the table,” Gottemoeller, who was also NATO’s deputy secretary-general from 2016 until 2019, concluded. The French utilize low-enriched fuel for their naval propulsion, which, if shared with Australia, would pose a dramatically lower proliferation risk than HEU, she wrote.

Following the AUKUS announcement, Paris recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Australia. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain and Defense Minister Florence Parley said in a joint statement that “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values or in terms of respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.”

Paris also cancelled a French-UK defense minister’s summit scheduled for the week of Sept. 20.

The controversial deal is designed to counter a more assertive China but many worry it could also weaken nonproliferation norms.

Iran Edges Toward Resuming Nuclear Talks

October 2021
By Julia Masterson

Iran’s new administration appears to be inching toward resuming multilateral negotiations on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and other major countries, but exactly when that might happen remains an open question. The sixth round of talks concluded on June 20, and negotiations have since remained stalled.

During his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 22, President Joe Biden said that although the United States is "prepared to return to full compliance [with the 2015 nuclear deal] if Iran does the same,” it also “remains committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” (Photo by Eduardo Munoz/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Although Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi used his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21 to slam the United States for the sanctions imposed on his country, he remained open to negotiations on the nuclear accord. Raisi made clear that Iranians “don’t trust the promises made by the U.S. government,” but said Tehran considers talks useful if they result in the lifting of all sanctions.

The same day, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying that talks with world powers over reviving the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would resume in a few weeks, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported, according to Reuters.

"Every meeting requires prior coordination and the preparation of an agenda. As previously emphasized, the Vienna talks will resume soon and over the next few weeks," he reportedly said.

U.S. President Joe Biden also used the UN meeting to lay down markers. “We are prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same,” he said in his first speech to world leaders. But Biden underscored that the United States “remains committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Early posturing by Raisi and his cabinet had cast doubt on the likelihood of the near-term resumption of talks.

The new Iranian government set out to clarify Tehran’s position on negotiations to restore the deal after Raisi was inaugurated Aug. 5. Although pledging a commitment to the deal, the new president said he would pursue “smart engagement” to lift U.S. and international sanctions on Iran, suggesting his administration may take a more hard-line approach. (See ACT, September 2021.)

Officials in Raisi’s government and that of his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, have long maintained that a restoration of the JCPOA should begin with the lifting of U.S. sanctions, which were reimposed after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018. Washington is also interested in returning to the JCPOA but in mutual exchange for Iran’s return to compliance with its obligations under the accord.

Tehran has cautioned the other parties to the deal, and specifically the United States, against pushing for a prompt return to talks. Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said during an Aug. 31 interview that a two- or three-month process will be necessary for the Raisi government to prepare for negotiations.

Although change is underway in Tehran, including the appointment of Ali Bagheri Kani as deputy foreign minister, there appears to be some continuity from the Rouhani administration. Abbas Aragchi, the former deputy foreign minister who was also Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, will stay on as an advisor to JCPOA talks, the Raisi administration confirmed Sept. 14. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Khatibzadeh, announced on Sept. 19 that further changes to Iran’s negotiating team are being considered but have not been finalized.

In a Sept. 4 interview, Raisi underscored that Iran is interested in negotiations but not with the pressure imposed by the United States and the European parties to the deal (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). But he confirmed Iran is committed to resuming talks and will not step back further from diplomacy.

Khatibzadeh said on Sept. 13 that Tehran will resume talks in the near future. Amid speculation that Amirabdollahian could meet with his foreign minister counterparts at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September, Khatibzadeh said that no decision has been made but that the Iranian minister will meet with each of the foreign ministers separately and on a bilateral basis.

Other parties to the JCPOA have pushed back on Amirabdollahian’s proposal. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Sept. 9 that “two or three months is a time frame that is much too long for us.” At a Sept. 15 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, France, Germany, and the UK delivered a statement urging Iran to “constructively reengage in negotiations without further delay.” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, in a Sept. 17 tweet similarly lamented that talks must promptly resume.

Although all parties to the JCPOA and the United States appear committed to restoring the deal, the window for talks may not stay open indefinitely. Iran has accelerated steps to breach JCPOA limits in accordance with its December 2020 nuclear law, including by boosting its enrichment of 20 percent uranium-235 and producing uranium metal. These provocative moves have shortened the one-year breakout window, or the time it would take for Iran to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb, that was envisioned by the 2015 accord.

In their statement to the IAEA board, the European parties noted that “[c]ollectively, these steps present a pressing nuclear proliferation risk, have irreversible consequences for Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and undermine the non-proliferation benefits of the JCPOA.”

“It is particularly regrettable that Iran has deepened its systematic violations of the JCPOA at a time when all JCPOA participants and the United States are engaged in substantive discussions, with the objective of finding a diplomatic solution to restore the JCPOA,” they said.

Asked about a deadline for negotiations to resume, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sept. 9, “I’m not going to put a date on it, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the [JCPOA] does not reproduce the benefits that the agreement achieved,” likely referring to the original one-year breakout window. He added, “[W]e’ve been very clear that the ability to rejoin the JCPOA…return to mutual compliance, is not indefinite.”

Meanwhile, Israeli officials said they have accelerated military planning against Iran's nuclear program.

Laying markers at the UN General Assembly, the U.S., and Iranian leaders reaffirmed interest in restoring the Iran nuclear deal but negotiations remain stalled.

Missile Defense Review Begins

October 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Biden administration has kicked off a review of U.S. missile defense policy, according to the Defense Department.

This intercontinental ballistic missile was the target for a test of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system from the U.S. Army's Reagan test site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands on May 2017. (Photo by U.S. Department of Defense)The review comes as the United States pursues new programs to defend the homeland against limited long-range ballistic missile attacks and Russia continues to insist that new arms control talks address U.S. missile defenses.

“The Missile Defense Review is currently underway,” Lt. Col. Uriah Orland, a Defense Department spokesman, told Arms Control Today on Aug. 13. “The review started in late June, and it will be finalized in conjunction with the National Defense Strategy early next year.”

The Trump administration’s review, published in January 2019, proposed a significant expansion of the role and scope of U.S. missile defenses. (See ACT, March 2019.) But it did not result in any immediate changes to U.S. defense deployments.

As a senator during the George W. Bush administration, Biden raised concerns about the administration’s disdain for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and plans to accelerate the fielding of an initial capability to defend the United States against long-range ballistic missile attacks.

“Are we really prepared to raise the starting gun in a new arms race in a potentially dangerous world?” he said in a speech on Sept. 10, 2001. “Because make no mistake about it, folks, if we deploy a missile defense system that is being contemplated, we could do just that.”

But Biden was largely silent on his views on missile defense during the 2020 presidential campaign.

His administration’s first budget request, released in May, would continue the Trump administration’s plans for missile defense. (See ACT, July/August 2021.)

The most significant early decision made by the Biden administration on missile defense was to continue with plans to build a new interceptor to counter long-range ballistic missile attacks. (See ACT, June 2021.)

The missile, known as the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI), emerged during the Trump administration after the Pentagon in 2019 cancelled the program to design an upgraded kill vehicle, the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, for the already existing 44 interceptors that are part of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system.

An independent Defense Department cost estimate published in April put the estimated cost of the interceptor at $18 billion over its lifetime.

The department plans to supplement the existing 44 ground-based interceptors with 20 NGIs beginning not later than 2028 to bring the fleet total to 64. In the meantime, the Biden administration’s budget request would continue to fund a service life extension program for the existing interceptors to keep them viable until the NGI is fielded.

Although the Missile Defense Review is certain to endorse development of the NGI, it remains to be seen whether the administration will bless, beyond this year, plans to supplement U.S. homeland missile defenses by modifying existing systems to defend against longer-range threats.

The Missile Defense Agency is in the early stages of developing a layered homeland missile defense approach to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles, to intercept limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats.

Congress has been skeptical of the plans, and the Government Accountability Office has raised technical concerns.

The Pentagon conducted a successful first intercept test of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 Block IIA missile against an ICBM target last November. (See ACT, December 2020.) Among the decisions the Biden administration will need to make is whether to pursue more such tests of the interceptor.

Other key programmatic issues likely to be considered in the review include the future of U.S. efforts to build a defense against hypersonic glide vehicles and cruise missiles and how best to augment the defense of Guam.

The Missile Defense Review will also address several policy issues, including the role of missile defenses in U.S. security policy and how to deal with defenses in arms control talks.

Traditionally, the United States has pursued long-range missile defenses to defend against a possible limited nuclear ICBM attack from North Korea or, in the future, Iran and relied on nuclear deterrence to defend against the larger, more sophisticated Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals.

The Trump administration’s review endorsed this declaratory approach, although President Donald Trump said the goal of U.S. missile defenses is to “ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”

Whether to accept negotiated limits on U.S. missile defenses is likely to be among the most contentious issues considered in the review and as part of broader policy development conversations within the administration about arms control diplomacy with Russia and possibly China.

Since the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002, long-standing U.S. policy has been to reject negotiated constraints on the development and deployment of U.S. missile defenses.

Amid the resumption of a strategic stability dialogue with Russia, the administration has expressed its desire to bring additional types of Russian nuclear weapons into the arms control process, namely so-called tactical nuclear warheads, and bring China into the arms control process for the first time. (See ACT, September 2021.) But it has not commented on whether it would be open to discussing missile defense in formal arms control talks and, if so, to what extent.

Russia, meanwhile, wants to focus on developing “a new security equation” that addresses all nuclear and non-nuclear, offensive and defensive weapons that affect strategic stability. That would include U.S. missile defense systems.


Among other issues, the Biden administration’s review will consider whether missile defense should be part of arms control negotiations with Russia.


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