"The Arms Control Association’s work is an important resource to legislators and policymakers when contemplating a new policy direction or decision."

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
October 2023
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October 2023 Digital Magazine

October 2023 Digital Magazine

Just Say ‘No’ to Uranium-Enrichment Cooperation With Saudi Arabia

October 2023
By Daryl G. Kimball

Curbing the spread of nuclear weapons and the uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies needed to make them has long been in U.S. security interests. Today, this is especially true in the troubled Middle East, where one state, Israel, already is nuclear-armed, and another state, Iran, has amassed a substantial uranium-enrichment capacity. The challenge of containing Iran's capabilities has grown significantly since U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the successful Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (L), India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C), and U.S. President Joe Biden attend a session as part of the G20 Leaders' Summit at the Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi on September 9, 2023. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Further troubles loom ahead. In a Sept. 20 interview on Fox News, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reiterated his threat that “[i]f Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, we must obtain one as well.”

In January 2023, Saudi Arabia's energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, told a mining and industry conference in Riyadh that the oil-laden kingdom plans to enrich uranium stocks to ensure its ability to complete “the entire nuclear fuel cycle.” The Saudis have also purchased nuclear-capable Dongfeng-3 ballistic missiles from China and are manufacturing ballistic missiles that could provide the means to deliver nuclear weapons against an adversary, according to a 2022 U.S. intelligence assessment.

Disturbingly, no Biden administration official has publicly condemned the latest Saudi threat to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does. Worse yet, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal report that a small circle of senior Biden administration officials is engaged in active, high-level talks to supply the kingdom with a U.S.-run uranium-enrichment operation, among other nuclear supply alternatives, as part of a complex three-way deal to establish official diplomatic relations between the Saudis and the Israelis.

Whatever value a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement may serve, it must be measured against the potential damage to other long-standing U.S. and international security interests. Saudi Arabia’s brazen nuclear weapons hedging is a profound threat to the global nonproliferation regime that the United States has led for decades.

The United States has never before contemplated, let alone negotiated and concluded a nuclear cooperation agreement with a state that is threatening to leave the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and for good reason.

Unnamed Biden officials have issued vague pledges that “whatever is done regarding civil nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia or anybody else will meet stringent U.S. nonproliferation standards.” Such statements are hardly reassuring given Saudi Arabia’s stated intentions and given that the modest standards for nuclear cooperation, contained in section 123 of the 1954 U.S. Atomic Energy Act, are insufficient and out of date.

The Biden administration must commit to, and Congress must insist on, more stringent nonproliferation standards. To start, the United States must maintain its position that Saudi Arabia sign and ratify an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which allows expanded agency access to information, sites, and materials to guard against military diversion. Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that has refused to adopt such a protocol.

But tougher IAEA safeguards are not enough. The United States must seek a legally binding Saudi commitment not to pursue or acquire enrichment and reprocessing technology. Such technology is unnecessary for the kingdom’s future nuclear energy or commercial pursuits.

The absence of such a provision would depart from the policy pursued by the three prior U.S. presidents and open the door for the kingdom to pursue fuel cycle capabilities without U.S. approval, possibly igniting a regional nuclear arms race. A typical 123 agreement merely requires that the United States consent to any request to enrich or reprocess uranium if the material is of U.S. origin.

Washington also should press the Saudis to sign the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and stipulate that U.S. nuclear cooperation will be terminated if Saudi Arabia conducts a nuclear test explosion, violates IAEA safeguards, or seeks to acquire enrichment or reprocessing technology.

If the Biden administration or a future administration concludes a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia that does not contain adequate nonproliferation guardrails, Congress, which has the right to block the agreement, should condition its approval on the adoption of these or other higher nonproliferation standards.

U.S. and global efforts to prevent proliferation have been more successful when U.S. presidents and Congress insist on high barriers to the transfer of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technology. We have seen setbacks and failures when they make exceptions for “friends“ and “partners.”

In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 19, President Joe Biden vowed that the United States would “lead by example on curbing weapons of mass destruction.” To succeed, he will need to walk the talk and avoid making compromises and exceptions for Saudi Arabia.

Curbing the spread of nuclear weapons and the uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies needed to make them has long been in U.S. security interests.

Twenty-Five Years of Overt Nuclear India

October 2023
By Christopher Clary

What are the requirements of nuclear deterrence? How many nuclear weapons, and of what type, are needed to ensure national survival? These answers are not immediately apparent from careful deduction or induction. Different states have made different assessments, the same states have changed their assessments over time, and within states, there have often been harsh disagreements on the topic.

Indian soldiers in 1998 patrol shattered ground along the edge of the crater at the Pokhran Test Range where on May 11 and May 13 of that year the Indian government conducted five underground nuclear tests. (Photo by John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images)When India opted to test nuclear weapons in 1998, the government offered what it argued would be a clear, definitive answer about what it sought to achieve with the tests: “credible minimum deterrence.” Nothing more was needed, but nothing less would do. Yet as such officials acknowledged even in the initial years, there was always a tension between the two adjectives that framed their nuclear thinking. That is, the need for credibility would inevitably pull up the requirements for deterrence beyond a minimum number of weapons. How much was the tricky part.

Now, 25 years later, Indian decision-makers have yet to conclude that they have met the requisite minimum needed for deterrence as they continue to pursue credibility. This pursuit has resulted in a slow but steady quantitative and qualitative modernization of the Indian arsenal. India pursues such steps even as Pakistan continues its own nuclear modernization and as China embarks on a nuclear expansion that is unparalleled in that nation’s nuclear history. Whether India’s deliberate pace is adequate to India’s credible but minimum deterrence needs will be a dominant question facing the country’s nuclear stewards in the coming decade.

Nuclear Tests and Afterward

In 1998, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee explained to U.S. President Bill Clinton that he had authorized new nuclear tests because he viewed a “deteriorating security environment” in the region. India faced an overt nuclear weapons state on its border, China, that had materially helped another neighbor, Pakistan, to become a covert nuclear state, he argued. Further, he explained, both countries had committed aggression against India in the past.1

India previously tested a nuclear explosive device in 1974, but framed that test publicly as a “peaceful nuclear explosion” rather than a weapons test. Although the peaceful appellation was not especially convincing to outsiders, the design of the device was not ruggedized or weaponized for delivery until renewed work on the project began in earnest in the late 1980s.2 Despite progress in secret, the semicovert nature of the program limited India in the steps it could take to deploy a ready arsenal. Some Indians thought it called into question the credibility of the deterrent, and others perceived an intolerable status deficit between India and other nuclear-armed states in the international system, a kind of “nuclear apartheid.”3

In these circumstances, India decided to conduct a brief series of nuclear explosive device tests on May 11 and 13, 1998. This overt testing triggered a short but intense round of nuclear weapons sanctions. Those sanctions proved transitory. By the end of the George W. Bush administration, Washington had shifted from treating India as a nonproliferation rogue to wooing India as a valuable strategic partner.

At the time of the 1998 tests, India’s ability to confront nuclear challenges from its regional foes was limited. New Delhi could deliver nuclear warheads only by aircraft or the short-range Prithvi-1 liquid-fueled missile, which had uncertain reliability even against many Pakistani targets and could reach only a small subset of Chinese population centers, notably not Beijing. Today, most nongovernmental analysts assess that India retains its aircraft-delivered weapons while adding four variants of the solid-fueled Agni missile family to the arsenal, with perhaps three more Agni variants in development. All of India’s land-based missiles are road or rail mobile. These aircraft-delivered and land-based elements are supplemented now by a seaborne leg with a few ship-based, short-range Dhanush ballistic missiles, which are of uncertain utility, and periodic operational deployments of a nuclear-powered submarine capable of carrying the short-range Kalam-15 (K-15) submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Today, India can target the entirety of Pakistan with a variety of nuclear-capable systems, while Indian coverage of the Chinese eastern seaboard remains limited. As India deploys newer variants of the Agni missile family and the longer-range Kalam-4 (K-4) and Kalam-5 (K-5) submarine-launched missiles, India’s ability to hold all of China at risk should be credible even to skeptical observers by the end of the decade. Although some sources refer to Indian cruise missiles, such as the BrahMos and Nirbhay, as nuclear capable, such sources are not authoritative. India may have sufficient fissile material for additional warheads, but most nongovernmental analysts assess that the government has deployed perhaps 160 warheads. Such a number, if correct, would place India at or near parity with Pakistan but substantially below estimates of the growing Chinese arsenal.4

Counterforce Temptations

In part out of sincere conviction and in part out of a desire to defuse international condemnation for its 1998 nuclear tests, India in subsequent years has promulgated a series of policy statements to showcase that its new nuclear deterrent would be at the minimum level possible while still appearing credible to India’s adversaries. New Delhi declared that it would adhere to a doctrine of no first use of nuclear weapons, thus underscoring its view that “the principal role of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by an adversary.” Indian officials “discarded” the possibility of nuclear war-fighting and promised that India would “not engage in any arms race.”5

Yet even as the government reiterated its commitment over the years to a no-first-use policy, a portion of India’s strategic community continued to question the wisdom of restraining India’s options during contingencies in which national survival would be on the line. By 2003, the Indian cabinet committee on security released a document on “operationalizing” the nuclear doctrine that made it clear India’s no-first-use commitment did not apply in the face of a major attack with chemical or biological weapons. Such a no-first-use commitment is arguably a mere caveat rather than a major doctrinal evolution, although the history of powers falsely or erroneously accusing one another of chemical or biological weapons use makes the caveat somewhat more worrisome.

Although his government promoted the doctrine of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared in 2000 that "If [Pakistanis] think we would wait for them to drop a bomb and face destruction, they are mistaken."  (Photo by Sondeep Shankar/Getty Images)Despite his government’s role in promulgating the no-first-use doctrine, Vajpayee himself was not always dogmatic in his public messaging on the issue. In 2000, in the face of what he viewed as unacceptable Pakistani nuclear threats, Vajpayee declared, “If [Pakistanis] think we would wait for them to drop a bomb and face destruction, they are mistaken.” Separately, multiple former Indian strategic force commanders have advocated for greater doctrinal ambiguity to permit rapid retaliatory or preemptive options in the event of likely adversary nuclear use. Some commanders even have argued that Indian leaders might have a moral obligation to consider preemptive counterforce nuclear strikes if they believed meaningful damage limitation was achievable.

At a minimum, there seemingly was widespread support within the military for the use of conventional weapons against nuclear or dual-use launch vehicles, and at least some civilians and military officers believed India should have the option to move beyond conventional counterforce to nuclear counterforce if need be. In 2016, India’s former defense minister stated that, “in a personal capacity,” he did not understand why India should “bind” itself publicly to a no-first-use commitment. That same year, a former Indian national security adviser wrote in his memoirs that a careful reading of Indian doctrine might permit the preemptive use of nuclear weapons as part of a broader argument that “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for.”6

When nongovernmental analysts began pointing out that such messages indicated that India might be shifting away from an ironclad no-first-use policy, such analyses did not prompt a full-throated refutation by Indian officials.7 Instead, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh visited the Pokhran nuclear test site in August 2019, where he reiterated India’s prior commitment to a no-first-use doctrine but suggested that such a commitment might not be enduring. “India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in [the] future depends on the circumstances,” he said.8

Even with such developments as more advanced versions of the Agni nuclear ballistic missile, India seems far away from its deterrence goals, according to analyst Christopher Clary. (Photo by Sondeep Shankar/Getty Images)These ambiguities in signaling were accompanied by continued Indian capability developments that seemed at variance with the goal of a credible minimum deterrence. Although in the aftermath of the 1998 tests India initially had framed the doctrine almost exclusively in terms of the minimum requirements for credibility, the government subsequently articulated that its retaliatory strikes would be “massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”

Massive retaliation is compatible with smaller arsenals, especially in contrast to flexible response or other nuclear war-fighting strategies, but India was silent on the sorts of targets that would face retaliatory strikes. Many informed observers argued that Indian doctrine was most consistent with a countervalue, city-targeting strategy. By refusing to retaliate until after India was attacked with nuclear weapons, government and military leaders would want to ensure that whatever force survived could still cause sufficient damage to deter even the most callous opponent. “With a no-first-use posture, if in the remote contingency that India is to respond to a nuclear attack, it would be most logical to use the weapons on cities instead of on purely military targets,” Indian analyst Manpreet Sethi assessed.9

Such a city-killing, massive retaliation strategy would reduce the technological burden faced by Indian scientists because an exquisite or large force was not required, merely a survivable one. This was consistent with prior Indian messaging that although the requirements of minimum credible deterrence were “dynamic,” they were not “open-ended.” As officials seemed to indicate in the initial years after the 1998 tests, India would have an arsenal to deter any plausible foe in the near future. This was not a never-ending journey but one with a reachable destination.

Twenty-five years later, New Delhi still seems far away from its deterrence goals. Some desired requirements seem imminently reasonable, such as the need to have at least a few dozen missiles capable of reaching targets as far as Beijing. Yet even today, most of the Indian nuclear arsenal is only able to reach western and central China. Other sought-after requirements are more debatable, such as the number of ballistic missile submarines India requires and whether submarine deterrence patrols need to be continuous or only occasional.

Still other decisions India has made seem incompatible with an arsenal designed for countervalue retaliatory attacks. Indian defense scientists have been eager to publicize that even their longer-range ballistic missiles have achieved a degree of accuracy that appears greater than necessary for countercity attacks. Their repeated announcements that tests across all missile types have achieved “pinpoint” accuracy with a “single-digit” and “close to zero” error rate suggests possible counterforce aspirations because such accuracy is not needed for the gruesome task of city killing. These advertised accuracy improvements have occurred alongside other changes in India’s posture, including apparent gains in the peacetime readiness of the arsenal. Such changes make it quicker and less detectable to prepare at least a subset of India’s nuclear weapons for use than it would have been in the early years of the program.

Taken together, these developments indicate that Indian officials are tempted by counterforce options, as demonstrated by their occasional but repeated public statements expressing skepticism about inalterable no-first-use commitments. As a consequence of this interest and as indicated by the capability developments, the Indian defense establishment has invested some energy and resources into making those options executable.

The pursuit of counterforce options might be incompatible with the spirit of the no-first-use doctrine, but it does not imply that India has or will soon change its declaratory doctrine. Such options might presage such a public change in policy, but Indian officials also might decide such mixed signals are useful, or in time they could reject counterforce options as infeasible. Hedging strategies are often difficult to distinguish from steadfast pursuit. This could be such a circumstance.

This interpretation of conscious bureaucratic intent is not the only conclusion that could be drawn from the available data. Other experts, such as former U.S. official Ashley Tellis, have argued that most Indian policymakers “are not well versed in the arcane terminology of nuclear deterrence theory” and thus any statements that are inconsistent with no-first-use adherence should be discarded. With regard to capabilities that are inconsistent with countervalue targeting, Tellis and others say that Indian scientists simply have exaggerated the capabilities that their systems have achieved and such claims should be discounted as promotional puffery and little more.10 Even if such braggart scientists view their primary audience as the Indian public, these recurrent capability claims reach external audiences as well. Because one primary goal of no-first-use doctrines is to reassure adversaries, public articulations of Indian doubts and caveats on the doctrine combined with these capability revelations serve at a minimum to undercut such reassurance.

Confronting a Chinese Sprint

In 2021 the United States charged that China was undertaking a significant, rapid expansion of its nuclear force. This intelligence assessment was buttressed by nongovernmental analysts with access to commercial satellite imagery who located sites in China that showed apparent large-scale construction of silos consistent with such an expansion. The U.S. Department of Defense projected that China “likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030,” a substantial increase from prior assessments, which had placed the size of China’s nuclear warhead stockpile in the low 200s.11

As China accelerates and expands development of its nuclear arsenal, including with the DF-41 missile shown here in 2019, India is expected to increase its numbers of nuclear-capable systems. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)Since China acquired nuclear weapons in 1964, there has been a meaningful nuclear asymmetry between it and India. Prior to India’s 1974 nuclear explosive device test, that asymmetry was totally in China’s favor. After 1974, India was slow to weaponize its nuclear explosive design, and it struggled to produce a weapon that could strike major Chinese population centers. Even once Indian work on weaponization began in the late 1980s, Chinese targets could only be held at risk by Indian aircraft. Into the 1990s, when China had a remarkably limited ability to target the continental United States, India’s geographic proximity meant China had many delivery vehicles capable of reaching into India, including medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and bomber aircraft. This asymmetry moderated a decade ago, when New Delhi finally deployed the Agni-2 and Agni-3 missiles. Only then did India have a credible means to reach many Chinese targets. It took several more years and the deployment of the Agni-4 missile for India to achieve the ability to credibly threaten major eastern coastal population centers in China, such as Beijing.

As India was securing a measure of nuclear parity, the new modernization effort by China has opened the prospect that China will sprint away from India quantitatively and perhaps qualitatively. Although Indian commentators have long maintained that New Delhi will not have to match Beijing’s expansion “warhead for warhead” or “system for system,” they have conceded, as one said, that “[o]bviously there is a need to adjust the numbers” of Indian weapons in the context of an accelerated Chinese buildup.12 The extent of the requisite numerical adjustment in Indian systems, however, has not been clarified.

One qualitative asymmetry that might exacerbate any growing numerical disparity is the perceived reliability and expected yield of India’s nuclear warheads. India’s 1998 tests were designed to test a weaponized fission design, but they also sought to validate a thermonuclear capability. There has been considerable controversy, including within the Indian nuclear scientific community, about whether that latter goal was achieved. Indeed, the widely perceived “under-performance” of the thermonuclear device in the 1998 tests calls into question whether India has a reliable boosted fission design, which in turn has implications for the probable yield of any weapons in India’s arsenal. India might have reliable warheads capable of small yields, similar to those achieved by the first-generation devices that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also might have unreliable warheads that are designed to achieve larger yields but in practice might fizzle.13

From the earliest days of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, there has been a debate about whether yields much larger than those associated with the first generation of fission weapons are truly necessary for deterrence. Many but by no means all Indian commentators have argued for the desirability of larger-yield devices, especially because only some remnants of India’s arsenal might survive an adversary’s first strike, thus making it necessary that the effects of only a handful of devices be sufficient to deter foes. In the words of one recent senior Indian military officer, “That our warheads have the capability of destroying cities in a single strike must be conveyed in the strongest terms.”14

This requirement seems unnecessary since even first-generation weapons can cause enormous, society-transforming destruction, especially given the population densities of modern Asia. A Nagasaki-equivalent device dropped on Chengdu in central China might not “destroy the city” in a literal sense, but it would destroy a meaningful portion of it and likely kill hundreds of thousands of people and injure hundreds of thousands more. Would a boosted fission device that killed more than a million people really change the calculus of any Chinese leader? Are there Chinese leaders who are willing to countenance 250,000 dead civilians per city but would draw the line at 1 million? There is no sure answer because leaders of other nuclear weapons states have often concluded differently, believing that bigger weapons and more potential dead would add meaningfully to the calculus of the living.

The stakes of such morbid calculations and associated debates are not merely abstract. The Russian war on Ukraine has caused renewed rumblings in Moscow that nuclear tests might be an advisable way to showcase the continued credibility of its deterrent. Such a development could trigger a cascade of tests by other states and cause India to reconsider whether another round of its own tests would be advisable.

An Arms Race in Southern Asia?

After India tested in 1998, officials were at pains to emphasize that they “refuse to participate in an arms race, including a nuclear arms race.” Yet such proclamations, previously quite common in the first decade-and-a-half of India’s overt nuclear age, appear to have disappeared since then from public speeches by Indian leaders.

China and India, of all the nuclear weapons states since 1945, have been the least concerned that relative nuclear inferiority might jeopardize nuclear deterrence. For China, the current nuclear modernization suggests that thinking is shifting. For India too, there have been signs that minimum credible deterrence might require larger, more capable arsenals than Indian leaders might have anticipated in the initial years after the 1998 tests. The future of stability in Asia and the health of the global arms control effort may depend on whether past relaxed views on deterrence were merely reflective of a transitory state of mind. If so and if Indian decision-makers come to believe that deterrence is more fragile than they initially assessed, then a new arms race in southern Asia seems virtually certain, although the pace and dangers of such a race may not be fully apparent for some years to come.



1. “Indian’s Letter to Clinton on the Nuclear Testing,” The New York Times, May 13, 1998,
p. A14.

2. See Vipin Narang, “Strategies of Proliferation: How States Pursue the Bomb,” International Security, Vol. 41, No. 3 (2017): 110-150; Gaurav Kampani, “New Delhi’s Long Nuclear Journey: How Secrecy and Institutional Roadblocks Delayed India’s Weaponization,” International Security, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Spring 2014): 79-114.

3. Jaswant Singh, “Against Nuclear Apartheid,” Foreign Affairs 77, no. 5 (September/October 1998): 41-52.

4. See Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations: Strategic Dilemmas, Doctrine, and Capabilities,” International Security, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Winter 2018-2019): 110-150; Ashley J. Tellis, “Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear Transitions in Southern Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/202207-Tellis_Striking_Asymmetries-final.pdf; Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Indian Nuclear Weapons, 2022,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 78, No. 4 (2022):
224-236; “World Nuclear Forces,” in SIPRI Yearbook 2023: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023), pp. 294-299.

5. “Clarifying India’s Nascent Nuclear Doctrine: An Interview With Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh,” Arms Control Today, December 1999, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1999-12/featuresclarifying-indias-nascent

6. For a discussion of these and other quotes, see Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations.”

7. U.S. academic Vipin Narang first brought attention to several of these lines of evidence in early 2017. See Max Fisher, “India, Long at Odds With Pakistan, May Be Rethinking Nuclear First Strikes,” The New York Times, March 31, 2017.

8. Ministry of Defence, Government of India, “Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh Pays Homage to Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Pokhran on His First Death Anniversary,” August 16, 2019, https://pib.gov

9. Manpreet Sethi, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: The Basis for Credible Deterrence,” Air Power Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2007): 53.

10. Tellis, “Striking Asymmetries,” pp. 85, 117-118.

11. U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2021,” 2021, https://media.defense.gov/2021/Nov/03/2002885874/-1/-1/0/2021-CMPR-FINAL.PDF; U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” 2020, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF; Henrik Stålhane Hiim et al., “The Dynamics of an Entangled Security Dilemma: China’s Changing Nuclear Posture,” International Security, Vol. 47, No. 4 (2023): 147-187.

12. Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar, “Deterrence in Asymmetries,” Vivekananda International Foundation, September 12, 2022, https://www.vifindia.org/article/2022/september/12/deterrence-in-asymmetries.

13. Tellis, “Striking Asymmetries,” p. 106.

14. Kumar, “Deterrence in Asymmetries.”

Christopher Clary is an associate professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York, and a nonresident fellow of the Stimson Center’s South Asia program.

Twenty-five years after their last nuclear weapons test, Indian decision-makers have yet to conclude that they have met the requisite minimum needed for deterrence.

Pakistan’s Evolving Nuclear Doctrine

October 2023
By Sitara Noor

In May, Pakistan commemorated the 25th anniversary of nuclear tests that were carried out in response to a series of nuclear blasts conducted by India a few weeks earlier.

The Nasr multi-tube ballistic missile is displayed during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad in March 2015.  (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)Islamabad’s decision to pursue a nuclear weapons program was largely shaped by its 1971 war with New Delhi, which led to the dismemberment of the country, and India’s first nuclear test, in May 1974. Faced with an escalating conventional imbalance vis-à-vis India, Pakistan saw nuclear deterrence as the primary means to establish strategic stability and dissuade India from engaging in a major future conflict. Since then, Pakistan has been trying to come up with solutions to what it deems destabilizing moves by India in the conventional and nuclear domains.

Although India publicly enunciated its nuclear doctrine in 2003, Pakistan, preferring ambiguity, did not make its doctrine public. Instead, it issued statements through various official channels from time to time to provide some insight into its nuclear policy. The deliberate ambiguity served Pakistan well and has allowed the country more flexibility to adjust its policy as India continued to evolve its conventional and nuclear posture.

The conception of Pakistan’s officially undeclared nuclear doctrine rests on formal statements from the civil and military leadership. This includes statements from the prime minister; press releases by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistani military; and statements from other officials such as the foreign minister and Lt. Gen. Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, the founder and longtime director-general of the Strategic Plans Division.

Kidwai, in particular, regularly articulated policy positions in interviews and speeches in numerous national and international platforms while serving as the director-general of the Strategic Plans Division and, after retirement, as an adviser to the National Command Authority, the apex decision-making body that deals with all policy matters concerning nuclear weapons.

During a recent address at an event commemorating the nuclear test anniversary, Kidwai provided additional insights into Pakistani nuclear doctrine. Given his pivotal role in shaping this doctrine, his statements continue
to carry significant influence even in retirement and have ignited debate regarding potential shifts in the
country’s nuclear stance.

To understand the comments and their significance and potential impact on future policy, it is crucial to situate Kidwai’s speech within the broader context of Pakistani nuclear doctrine as it underwent various adaptations and alterations in response to changing regional dynamics and policies in India over the past two decades.

Enduring Features of the Doctrine

In contrast to India’s declared no-first-use nuclear policy, Pakistan decided not to endorse such a policy, thus leaving open the interpretation that Islamabad might use nuclear weapons first under certain circumstances. This has been a consistent, long-standing feature of the country’s nuclear posture. Given that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal serves as a deterrent against conventional aggression and nuclear threats from India, Islamabad deems it appropriate to maintain the first-use option. This is even more important for the country’s security because India’s no-first-use policy has been significantly diluted in recent years, as indicated by various official Indian statements.1

Unlike the Cold War practice, Pakistan views its nuclear weapons as an instrument of deterrence, and it is not seeking to obliterate the adversary in a splendid first strike or a bolt-from-the-blue-type attack. In that regard, Pakistan reportedly has kept its weapons in a de-mated form, meaning the warhead is separated from the delivery vehicle, with a strict centralized command-and-control system in place. Following the first successful flight test in 2011 of Nasr, also known as the Hatf-9, a solid-fueled tactical ballistic missile with a range of 60 kilometers, there were apprehensions regarding potential command-and-control challenges associated with its deployment. Nevertheless, Pakistan has maintained its position and reaffirmed assurances that it will continue to assert a centralized command and control over all missiles. This stance has remained consistent even after India’s advancements in the development of canisterized nuclear missiles.

Another enduring feature of Pakistani nuclear policy is a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing underscored by Islamabad’s declaration that “it was not the first country to test and will not be the first to resume testing of nuclear weapons in South Asia.”2 Pakistan even offered to convert its unilateral moratorium into a bilateral commitment with India as a confidence-building measure. Nonetheless, India has not accepted this proposal, and there are signs that India may undertake another series of nuclear tests. Pakistan’s moratorium is subject to India’s decision in that regard. If India decides to resume nuclear testing at some stage, Pakistan is likely to follow suit.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and deterrence posture is defensive and India specific, unlike India, which has kept its policy more open-ended and avoided identifying specific potential adversaries in its doctrine. This foundational element of Pakistan’s nuclear posture has been highlighted officially since its nuclear tests in 1998. While speaking at the UN General Assembly in September of that year, just a few months after the nuclear tests, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif unequivocally stated that “Pakistan’s nuclear tests were conducted not to challenge the existing non-proliferation regime, nor to fulfill any great power ambition. They were designed to prevent the threat or use of force against Pakistan. Our tests in response to India thus served the cause of peace and stability in our region.”3

Following the 2011 U.S. military operation that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, a discussion erupted over whether Pakistan might reevaluate its nuclear strategy to deter potential threats from its western border other than India. A similar argument has surfaced periodically suggesting Israel as a potential adversary for Pakistan. This argument gathered strength in view of the fact that Pakistan has no diplomatic relations with Israel and consistently takes a firm stance in support of the Palestinian cause against Israel in international forums. Likewise, the close defense ties between India and Israel, as well as Israel's alleged collaboration with India on potential air strikes against the nascent Pakistani nuclear program in the 1980s, contributed to this heightened sense of threat perception between the two countries.

This debate gained more traction with the testing in 2015 of Pakistan’s first intermediate-range ballistic missile, the two-stage, solid-fueled Shaheen III, having a range of 2,750 kilometers. Although Pakistan’s declared intent in developing the missile was to cover the entire Indian landmass including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,4 there were concerns, particularly in the United States, about the Shaheen III potentially having the capacity to reach other targets, such as Israel. This debate resurfaces every now and then, but there has never been an official statement or any other indication of a shift to identify Israel as a potential target. On the contrary, Pakistan repeatedly has reiterated that its nuclear weapons program is only to deter threats from India. Likewise, the range of the Shaheen III was capped intentionally at 2,750 kilometers to allay any such concerns.

Evolving Trends

Pakistan started its nuclear program as a counter to India’s conventional superiority, particularly after losing its eastern territory in the 1971 war with India. Therefore, Pakistan’s nuclear policy has been inherently reactionary. As India’s nuclear and conventional posture changed over the years, so did Pakistan’s response, with some key inflection points being the 1998 nuclear tests and the development in the 1990s of a robust nuclear delivery infrastructure, including the Ghaznavi, Ghauri, and Shaheen missile systems, in response to India’s development of the Prithvi and Agni strategic missile series.

Pakistani army soldiers salute as they accompany a Shaheen III long-range ballistic missile during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad in March 2016.  (Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)Along the way, Pakistan has maintained a deliberate ambiguity about the size of its arsenal, its targeting options, and the thresholds for nuclear use. All these elements have evolved over the years in response to the evolving threat perception from India.

Credible minimum deterrence is another early tenet of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine as laid out in various official statements. On May 20, 1999, a year after the nuclear tests, Sharif stated that, “in maintaining the nuclear deterrence, we remain acutely conscious of the risks and responsibilities arising from the possession of nuclear weapons.... Nuclear restraint, stabilization and minimum credible deterrence constitute the basic elements of Pakistan’s nuclear policy.”5 Further explaining the rationale and dynamism of this tenet, one Pakistani official maintained that “minimum cannot be quantified in static numbers. The Indian buildup will necessitate review and reassessment.”6

This inherent flexibility in Pakistan’s credible minimum deterrence posture has enabled the country to respond to shifts in India’s nuclear and conventional strategies. In light of India’s evolving Cold Start doctrine, which envisages a swift military action against Pakistan under the nuclear overhang, meaning trying to find an opportunity to attack Pakistan despite the threat of nuclear escalation, Islamabad transitioned toward what it called a “full spectrum deterrence” approach. Notably, Pakistan consistently has asserted its commitment to the fundamental principle of maintaining a credible minimum deterrence while resorting to full-spectrum deterrence. This shift toward full-spectrum deterrence was announced in 2011 in a press release after Pakistan’s first test of the Nasr tactical nuclear weapon.7 Expanding on this concept, Kidwai has asserted that, with a “full spectrum of nuclear weapons in all three categories—strategic, operational and tactical—[and] with full range coverage of the large Indian land mass and its outlying territories…[India would have] no place to hide.”8

More recently, Kidwai provided additional details on full-spectrum deterrence. Speaking at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad on May 24, he stated,

Pakistan’s full-spectrum deterrence capability, while remaining within the larger philosophy of credible minimum deterrence, comprises horizontally of a robust tri-services inventory of a variety of nuclear weapons…[that] is held on land with the Army Strategic Forces Command, the ASFC; at sea with the Naval Strategic Forces Command, the NSFC; and in the air with the Air Force Strategic Command, the AFSC. Vertically, the spectrum encapsulates adequate range coverage from zero meters to 2,750 kilometers, as well as nuclear weapons destructive yields at three tiers: strategic, operational, and tactical. India’s vast eastern and southern geographical dimensions are, therefore, entirely covered.… Pakistan possesses an entire range of weapons yield coverage in terms of kilotons…and the numbers strongly secured to deter the adversary’s declared policy of massive retaliation…. Pakistan retains the liberty of choosing from a full spectrum of targets in a target-rich India, notwithstanding the Indian indigenous ballistic missile defense capability or the Russian S-400, to include countervalue, counterforce, and battlefield targets.9

The statement offers insights into Pakistan’s evolving nuclear posture, highlighting recent developments, reiterating previously outlined features of the full-spectrum deterrence concept, and shedding light on potential future trends.

A bomb crater in a meadow in Balakot, a remote area of Pakistan, was left behind after an Indian fighter jet in 2019 attempted to strike a mountaintop building that New Delhi said was a militant training camp. (Photo by Pamela Constable/The Washington Post via Getty Images)Kidwai’s statement about “range coverage from zero meters to 2,750 kilometers” has piqued greater curiosity. Several national and international scholars have weighed in on the risks involved in adopting such a policy.10 Following the mounting debate over the logic of a range of zero meters, a clarification came in a tweet from a government-sponsored think tank. The tweet quoted Kidwai as saying that the reference to zero meters in his speech was just “metaphorical” and there was no change in the Pakistani missile ranges. The clarification indicates that toying with the idea of a range of zero, whether metaphorically or otherwise, may not directly reflect the official stance of the Strategic Plans Division or the National Command Authority. It implies, however, that such considerations may have existed to some degree in the periphery. Therefore, it is important to discuss the merits of any such policy that might have been under consideration at any level.

Kidwai’s clarification reiterates that there is no change in the range of nuclear missiles and the existing range of missiles from 60 kilometers to 2,750 kilometers shall remain sacrosanct for now. Nonetheless, it reinforces speculation that any potential change in the range, if at all, will amount to a change in the type of weapons system employed, for example, resorting to nuclear artillery or nuclear land mines.

Statements and a recent speech by Lt. Gen. Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, now retired, the founder and longtime director-general of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, are being scrutinized for insight into Islamabad's nuclear policy. (Photo courtesy of Center for International Strategic Studies Sindh)Thoughts about resorting to lower-range weapons appears to be influenced by the growing belief in New Delhi that India’s 2019 airstrikes on Balakot, triggered by an alleged Pakistani-backed suicide attack on Indian forces in Pulwama, exposed a gap in Pakistan’s full-spectrum deterrence posture. With a lower range, Pakistan seems intent on plugging that perceived gap by lowering the nuclear threshold.

Regardless of the weapons system or range, any potential policy shift must weigh carefully the challenges and costs associated with it against the intended benefits. Especially in the nuclear policy domain, any shift should target specific strategic objectives rather than tactical advantages. Advocating a reduction in the nuclear threshold likely will lead to the latter, potentially overlooking the broader strategic costs associated with such a move.

A robust nuclear deterrence rests on the ability of the state to communicate the threat effectively while demonstrating the capability and resolve to carry out the threat. For deterrence to be effective, it is crucial for it to function within a specific operational range. If the nuclear threat surpasses a certain upper threshold, it could be perceived as implausible and consequently lose its effectiveness. Conversely, lowering the threshold too much carries the risk that the adversary might opt to absorb a low-yield attack and ultimately prevail on the political and diplomatic fronts. The essence of deterrence lies in the notion of inflicting unacceptable damage. If the threshold and yield are reduced to a point where the nuclear damage becomes tolerable or acceptable for the adversary, especially when weighed against potential nonkinetic political and diplomatic costs it may inflict on the adversary, the efficacy of deterrence could be compromised.

Notwithstanding the safety, security, and command-and-control challenges, the potential use of low-yield, shorter-range nuclear weapons with the aim to stop the Indians in their tracks may halt temporarily their advancement, but it is less likely to produce a major military advantage for Pakistan. On the contrary, it could be a diplomatic nightmare because it may open the floodgates of international condemnation for breaking the much-revered nuclear taboo.

Such a posture also goes against the primary concept of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence, which views nuclear weapons as weapons of last resort that would inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. The potential use of lower-yield nuclear weapons is neither the last resort nor potentially the cause of an infliction of unacceptable damage to the adversary, but as a first response, no matter how limited in yield, this approach would be enough to allow India to justify its massive retaliation response.

The potential change in the range also must be seen in the context of other elements of Kidwai’s speech. Another significant point was his reiteration of the importance of a full spectrum of targets, which include countervalue targets such as cities and civilian population centers and counterforce targets, including conventional and nuclear military targets, their associated infrastructure, and other logistics.

Pronouncements about a spectrum of targets and an emphasis on “countermassive retaliation” have been articulated in previous addresses,11 but their reiteration in conjunction with proposals to lower the nuclear threshold indicates a major shift from deterrence by punishment to deterrence by denial. This element has been duly noted by scholars who have highlighted that such an explanation of full-spectrum deterrence stands in sharp contradiction to the concept of credible minimum deterrence, which is a primary pillar of Pakistan’s declaratory nuclear policy.12 Likewise, there has to be convergence in the declaratory doctrine and its operationalization, otherwise deterrence could lose its credibility.13

Strengthening Deterrence

Since 2001-2002, India has worked simultaneously on two fronts. Diplomatically, it has pressured Pakistan with allegations about sponsoring terrorism in India and used this strategy as a pretext for avoiding bilateral talks to resolve issues with Pakistan. In contrast, Pakistan has struggled to garner international support on terrorism charges against India. Second, India is consistently advancing its conventional force posture with the aim of finding a way to attack Pakistan under the nuclear overhang. In addition to advancing its doctrine of limited conflict, India is transitioning gradually toward a nuclear war-fighting posture and contemplating preemptive counterforce first strikes against Pakistan.

Pakistan’s full-spectrum deterrence concept effectively has countered India’s plan to launch swift ingress into Pakistan under the Cold Start, or proactive, doctrine. Nevertheless, India’s purported surgical strikes in the wake of the Pulwama attack in February 2019 marked the first aerial skirmish between the two countries since their overt nuclearization. Following the Pulwama/Balakot crisis, in which Pakistan successfully responded to the Indian aerial aggression, both countries seem to have drawn contradictory lessons. From the Indian perspective, India has found a way to attack Pakistan under the nuclear overhang. Conversely, the Pakistanis believe their effective response has thwarted the perceived vulnerabilities that India sought to leverage.

The 2019 aerial exchange between the two nuclear-armed states underscored the importance of differentiating between theater-tactical-level deterrence and strategic deterrence. It also highlights the significance of conventional deterrence at the first rung of the escalation.14 Pakistan’s successful response in 2019 has proven that its conventional first response is effective, despite perceived weaknesses if it had to be employed in a long-drawn conventional war.

Therefore, in order to strengthen tactical-theater deterrence in an evolving strategic environment, Pakistan needs to further enhance its conventional strength. This will not only add strength to Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence posture, but would also be in line with Islamabad’s policy position of having “seamless integration between nuclear strategy and conventional military strategy” and using nuclear weapons as weapons of
last resort.15



1. Toby Dalton, “Much Ado About India’s No-First-Use Nuke Policy,” India Global Business, September 26, 2019, https://www.indiaglobalbusiness.com/igb-archive/much-ado-about-indias-no-first-use-nuke-policy.

2. Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Pakistan’s Policies on Arms Control, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Issues,” n.d., https://mofa.gov.pk/acdis/ (accessed September 22, 2023).

3. “Text of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Speech at the UN: September 23, 1998,” Strategic Studies, Vol. 19/20 (1998).

4. “A Conversation With Gen. Khalid Kidwai,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 23, 2015, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/03-230315carnegieKIDWAI.pdf (transcript).

5. See Rodney W. Jones, “Minimum Nuclear Deterrence Postures in South Asia: An Overview,” U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, October 1, 2001, n.39, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/2001/south_asia.pdf.

6. Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 41 (November 1999) (quoting Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar, November 25, 1999).

7. Inter-Service Public Relations, No. PR-94/2011-ISPR, April 19, 2011, https://www.ispr.gov.pk/press-release-detail.php?id=1721.

8. Khalid Kidwai, Address at “Defence, Deterrence and Stability in South Asia” workshop, Islamabad, December 13, 2016 (hereinafter 2016 Kidwai address).

9. Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, “Special Message by Lt. Gen. (Retd) Khalid Kidwai,” YouTube, May 25, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3oOXOk3G1k.

10. For a detailed discussion on Pakistan’s evolving nuclear policy, see Ejaz Haider, “Nuclear Deterrence: Is the Last Resort the First Response?” The Friday Times, June 17, 2023; Adil Sultan, “The Next Decade of Nuclear Learning,” StrafAsia, May 28, 2023; Sitara Noor, “Did Pakistan Just Overhaul Its Nuclear Doctrine?” Foreign Policy, June 19, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/06/19/pakistan-india-nuclear-weapons-zero-range-cold-start

11. 2016 Kidwai address.

12. Haider, “Nuclear Deterrence.”

13. Ali Ahmed, “Limiting a Subcontinental Nuclear War,” SP’s Land Forces, Vol. 11, No. 4 (August-September 2014), https://www.spslandforces.com/story/?id=317.

14. Syed Ali Zia Jaffery, “Enhancing Deterrence Stability on the Subcontinent: The Case for Conventional Deterrence,” Henry L. Stimson Center Visiting Fellow Policy Memo, April 8, 2020, https://www.stimson.org/2020/enhancing-deterrence-stability-on-the-subcontinent-the-case-for-conventional-deterrence/.

15. Khalid Kidwai, Keynote address and discussion session at “South Asian Strategic Stability: Deterrence, Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control” workshop, February 6, 2020, https://www.iiss.org/globalassets/media-library---content--migration/files/events/2020/transcript-of-lt-general-kidwais-keynote-address-as-delivered---iiss-ciss-workshop-6feb20.pdf.

Sitara Noor is a fellow in the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

In order to strengthen tactical-theater deterrence in an evolving strategic environment, Pakistan needs to further enhance its conventional strength.

Behind the Scenes: How Not to Negotiate an Enhanced NPT Review Process

October 2023
By William C. Potter

When more than 100 delegations assembled in Vienna this summer for two sets of meetings to review the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), expectations among most diplomats were low.

Finnish diplomat Jarmo Viinanen chaired the first preparatory committee meeting for the 11th nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference that was held July 31 to Aug. 11 in Vienna. (Photo by Dean Calma/IAEA)There was good reason for skepticism given the failure of the 10th NPT Review Conference in August 2022, the second consecutive conference that was unable to produce a consensus final document. More significantly, the international environment was even less welcoming than the previous year as Russia continued to wage its brutal war on Ukraine, Chinese-U.S. relations plummeted to their lowest level in decades, and prospects faded for resolving nuclear challenges in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula.

It was a surprise, therefore, that the one-week meeting of the working group on further strengthening the NPT review process got off to a good start. Most delegates abandoned their standard practice of reciting highly scripted and predictable remarks in favor of more spontaneous, interactive deliberations. Delegates even appeared to listen to one another at the meeting, the first of its kind in the history of the NPT review process. Could it be that states were sufficiently frightened by a world in disarray that they had awakened from sleepwalking toward a nuclear catastrophe? Might they demonstrate the common sense and flexibility necessary to strengthen one of the few remaining international bulwarks against the spread of nuclear weapons? The short answer is no, but the manner in which negotiations collapsed at both events—the working group meeting and the first preparatory committee meeting for the 11th NPT Review Conference scheduled for 2026—is even more disturbing than their barren outcomes and bodes poorly for the future of multilateral nuclear diplomacy.

Searching for Solutions

The working group, which met July 24-28, was mandated by the 2022 review conference to “discuss and make recommendations to the preparatory committee on measures that would improve the effectiveness, efficiency, transparency, accountability, coordination, and continuity of the review process of the treaty.”1 The intent was not to renegotiate the 1995 decision to strengthen the review process, but to improve how the review process operated in order to make it more effective and efficient.2

Effectiveness and efficiency meant different things to different parties. Nevertheless, it quickly became apparent that although many states criticized the lengthy amount of time typically allocated to national statements at the opening of review process meetings and recognized the utility of appointing presiding officers earlier in the review cycle, their highest priority was enhancing accountability on the part of the nuclear-weapon states.

It was to be expected that non-nuclear-weapon states would attach importance to the need for NPT members to implement all past commitments, especially those related to nuclear disarmament. What was less obvious prior to the working group meeting was that France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which with China and Russia are the five NPT-designated nuclear-weapon states, also would be amenable to reserving time at future meetings to discuss reports by the nuclear-weapon states about their nuclear weapons capabilities and doctrines.

Many different formulations for reporting were broached, but the one that enjoyed the most support was captured in the second draft set of recommendations submitted on the penultimate day of the meeting by Jarmo Viinanen, the Finnish chair of the working group. It proposed that the nuclear-weapon states should use a standard reporting template that identifies the number, type, and status of nuclear warheads and their delivery systems, as well as measures that had been taken to reduce the salience of these weapons in nuclear doctrines and policies.3

Although most states were comfortable with proposals to enhance accountability through greater transparency and standardized national reporting, disagreements arose about the appropriate frequency and scope of formal reporting, the application of reporting to all or selected treaty parties, and the desirability of having outside experts, including from civil society, comment on national reports and the implementation of past commitments. Russia, for example, maintained that each nuclear-weapon state should have the right to set limits on transparency with respect to reporting and argued that reporting should apply to all states regardless of their nuclear weapons status. It also objected to the proposed use of expert panels or, for that matter, any engagement by civil society in what it characterized as a treaty review process reserved for NPT states-parties. Too much interactive dialogue, Russia asserted, could lead people to “get off topic.” Russia also proclaimed, to the bemusement of many delegates, that other states did not appreciate the substantial financial burden frequent national reporting would place on Moscow.

Several other states also expressed reservations related to enhanced transparency and inclusivity in the reporting process. China, for example, argued that a state did not achieve disarmament by means of reporting, prompting Egypt to respond that although that might be true, so is the fact that disarmament is dependent on reporting. That said, Egypt joined Russia in opposing the use of outside experts and expressed concern that the working group should not overshadow the preparatory committee. In addition, Iran objected to any reference to the issue of inclusivity, which it asserted was extraneous to the treaty.

By the last day of the working group meeting, on July 28, Viinanen had submitted two versions of draft recommendations to the preparatory committee.4 In addition, at the afternoon session, he submitted a paper titled “Draft Decisions.”5 Many countries took exception to the title because they were not prepared for the working group to make any decision and objected to the omission of anything on transparency and accountability. The general sentiment was that one of the preceding documents on draft recommendations better captured the range of opinions that had been expressed during the group’s deliberations.

Progress, Then Frustration

At this point, the generally positive atmosphere that had characterized the first four days of the working group meeting gave way to frustration and recrimination as many delegations realized that there was little time left to make substantive recommendations before the preparatory committee meeting began its work the following Monday.

In response to this stalemate, a savvy young diplomat from the Philippines offered a proposal to try to preserve the earlier momentum. It recommended that time be reserved in future review process meetings to consider national reports, in particular those of the nuclear-weapon states, and to engage in discussions on the basis of the proposals that had been raised in the working group.6

Delegates to the preparatory committee for the 11th nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, which eventually would fail to produce a consensus document, meet in Vienna on July 31. (Photo by Dean Calma/IAEA)A diverse group of states, including Austria, Egypt, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the United States, supported the general approach articulated by the Philippines. China indicated support for a “simplified version” of the proposal, while not specifying exactly what would be acceptable. The Russian delegation, however, remained a key outlier, arguing that it could not endorse the proposal because it was too late to receive instructions from Moscow.

Regrettably, the full record of these exchanges and those made earlier during the meeting are incomplete and impossible to document because the working group conducted its business, including the debate over the need for enhanced transparency, in private.7 What can be reconstructed is that as delegates approached the anticipated conclusion of the working group meeting, there was hope that a near consensus might yet emerge based on the Philippines proposal, as modified by Brazil, Canada, and Ireland.

Following a lengthy suspension of the meeting during which the heads of many key delegations huddled in the back of the conference hall with others looking on, four states produced a joint recommendation that time be reserved in future review process meetings for the consideration of national reports, in particular those of the nuclear-weapon states regarding the implementation of their NPT disarmament commitments. Moreover, they proposed that subsequent preparatory committee meetings in the current review cycle should continue these discussions with the objective of agreeing on recommendations to improve “the effectiveness, efficiency, coordination, continuity, transparency and accountability of the review process.” This would be based on a balanced consideration of the proposals presented during the working group meeting, including those in Viinanen’s second draft set of recommendations.

When the meeting resumed, most states still in the room welcomed the joint proposal as a compromise that preserved a record of many proposals to strengthen the review process without endorsing any specific recommendations. Even Iran, which had raised numerous procedural objections throughout the meeting, appeared to sense the shifting mood and did not object to the joint proposal.

Late that evening, Viinanen asked if delegations could accept the text proposed by the four states. The attention of all delegates was focused on the head of the Chinese delegation, Li Song. With much suspense, he announced that he had received permission from Beijing to accept the joint statement if specific reference to the conference document was omitted. This formula, although less than ideal, appeared to have the support of all delegations except Russia, which insisted that it could only endorse the joint proposal if it were substantially revised. At that point, Viinanen, recognizing the late hour and the fact that the heads of many delegations had already left the room, concluded that it would be impractical to continue further negotiations. He announced that he would issue a working paper containing draft recommendations under his own authority, and without further objections, the draft procedural report of the working group was adopted.8

The 2023 NPT Preparatory Committee

If the one-week working group meeting combined elements of meaningful dialogue and obstructionist behavior, the two-week preparatory committee meeting that followed was an exercise in futility that weakened the review process. Indeed, had it preceded the working group meeting, it is conceivable that the nearly 100 often repetitive statements during the general debate might have spurred NPT states-parties to adopt at least a few specific recommendations to reduce the inefficient use of time during meetings.

Izumi Nakamitsu (C), UN under-secretary-general of disarmament affairs, addresses delegates and participants at the July 31 opening in Vienna of the first preparatory committee for the 11th nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference. (Photo by Dean Calma/IAEA)Instead, for the first nine days, the captive audience had to endure stale arguments that would make ChatGPT sigh. Many heads of delegations were pleased to excuse themselves from the meeting and conduct business elsewhere, and the most stimulating discussions about pressing nuclear dangers and how to deal with them typically were found at side events organized by civil society. The surreal quality of the preparatory committee debate led one diplomatic newcomer to the review process to ask, “What is the purpose of this exercise?” It was not an easy question to answer.

Even under the best of circumstances, review process deliberations tend to be tedious and only loosely connected to the most pressing nuclear challenges. At times, outside observers might be excused if they were to infer from the intensity of the debate that the most significant issues at stake were the time slot reserved for the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, the amount of time set aside for interactions with civil society, and the degree to which the meeting chair was an instrument of a particular regional or political grouping.

The preparatory committee meeting in Vienna was no different in this regard. Thus, various delegations complained about the unraveling of arms control agreements, the need to preserve the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the dangers of nuclear sharing, and the risks posed by attacks on civilian nuclear facilities.9 Little new was said, however, regarding the urgency of nuclear risk reduction, the actions required to halt the erosion of norms against nuclear weapons use, and the possibility of narrowing the gulf that separates the majority of states that view their security as threatened by the existence of nuclear weapons and those nuclear-weapon states and their allies that regard nuclear deterrence as indispensable for the preservation of international peace and stability. If anything, these issues received less consideration in Vienna than they had at the ill-fated NPT review conference in 2022.

To some extent, the uninspired debate can be attributed to the shorter-than-usual time available for preparation by delegates due to the accelerated review process schedule, after the more than two-year delay in holding the last review conference. It also reflects disagreements among states as to the primary purpose of preparatory committee meetings and the degree to which the first two sessions of every review cycle should include substantive negotiations on specific recommendations.

The overall dysfunctional nature of the latest preparatory committee meeting also was a result of the inability to compartmentalize nonproliferation negotiations from the acute political polarization apparent in almost all international forums. It is striking, for example, how traditional nonproliferation cooperation between Washington and Moscow, including in the NPT review process, is now nonexistent. Although its demise preceded Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and was especially noticeable at the 2018 NPT preparatory committee meeting, there is no longer any pretense of convergent interests on the part of France, the UK, and the United States on one hand and Russia and China on the other hand.

Today, Moscow also appears to attach less importance to the NPT review process than in the past as indicated by the relatively low rank of Russian diplomats in attendance. The head of the delegation was an acting deputy department director, while the very experienced Russian NPT diplomat, who is Moscow’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, chose to go on vacation during the preparatory committee meeting.10 Although the presence of senior diplomats by no means assures a successful outcome, their absence complicates the ability to negotiate timely compromises.

Even more important to a successful negotiation than the engagement of senior diplomats is the presence of diplomats with a deep knowledge of review process negotiating history. This institutional memory of what worked and what did not is largely absent today because very few delegations possess members who were present at the 2010 or 2015 NPT review conferences, much less earlier ones. As such, diplomats often appear to be repeating statements made by their predecessors without an understanding of the flexibility in positions that made possible past compromises on very difficult disarmament, nonproliferation, and regional security issues.11

Also absent today is the presence of cross-regional groupings able to broker compromise language acceptable to the major NPT stakeholders. The New Agenda Coalition, which effectively played this role at the 2000 NPT review conference, remains active, but it is no longer able to bridge increasingly wide divides between and within regional and political groupings on disarmament issues. The broker role was difficult enough when there were relatively well-defined groupings with identifiable interests, but it is nearly impossible in an environment in which the nuclear-weapon states are extremely fragmented, with a much more assertive China, and the Non-Aligned Movement has more members and observers armed with nuclear weapons than any other grouping.12

The Chair’s Prerogative, or Not

No preparatory committee meeting has blessed a chair’s factual summary since 2002, when the innovation was first introduced at the mandate of the 2000 NPT review conference. Instead, the standard practice when consensus is unattainable has been for chairs to issue a summary of the meeting as a working paper on their own authority rather than as conference papers. This approach is not confined to the NPT review process, and the issuance of recommendations in the form of personal working papers is widely regarded as the prerogative of any chair at multilateral negotiations.

This practice was challenged in Vienna by Iran, which accused Viinanen of displaying a Western bias and promoting a summary that was neither factual nor impartial. Russia also objected to what it saw as an imbalance in the summary and a failure to note how NATO states allegedly used the meeting to advance political goals unrelated to the review process. China aligned itself with these critics and questioned if the chair had the authority to make recommendations to the next preparatory committee, although it did not explicitly deny the chair’s prerogative. That action fell to Iran, which announced that it would block the listing of the chair’s factual summary in any fashion, personal working paper or otherwise.

In fact, states-parties could have called Iran’s bluff and forced a vote on the matter, which Iran certainly would have lost. Yet, that would have brought into question the circumstances under which the tradition of consensus decision-making should be abandoned, and Viinanen was not prepared to venture into that uncharted territory. Instead, he acquiesced to Iran’s demand and withdrew his proposal to issue a factual summary under his own authority.13

Viinanen sought to downplay the harmful effects of this action by arguing that just as he had the prerogative to issue a working paper, he also had the authority not to do so, but the damage had been done. The 2000 NPT review conference mandate for preparatory committees to produce factual summaries was ignored. This outcome set an extraordinarily dangerous precedent by which one defiant state could negate the will of the conference majority and erase the record of what had transpired.

It remains to be seen if Iran’s ability to disrupt this year’s meeting will empower other outlier states to hold future multilateral negotiations hostage. Alternatively, perhaps this experience will spur a more serious debate about the circumstances under which states should be prepared to vote at NPT meetings and the merits of adopting a more liberal interpretation of what constitutes consensus.

The latest setback also could have the positive effect of encouraging states at future meetings to seek agreement on a much smaller set of new measures that are responsive to the most severe contemporary nuclear threats instead of endlessly debating a lengthy catalogue of recommendations that differ only marginally from those of the past. Were that to occur and if states emulated the positive interactive debate that occurred during much of the working group session, perhaps the Vienna meetings ultimately will contribute to strengthening the review process.



1. 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Decision on the Next Review Cycle,” NPT/CONF.2020/DEC.2, August 26, 2022.

2. Thomas Markram and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, “Further Strengthening the NPT Review Process: Reflections and Recommendations,” Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation and James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, May 2023, https://vcdnp.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/NPT-SRP-paper-full-with-covers.pdf.

3. More specifically, paragraph 18 of the draft specified that national reports should identify

plans related to the modernization of nuclear weapons, and related changes to their nuclear capabilities; the number, type (strategic or non-strategic) and status (deployed or non-deployed) of nuclear warheads; the number and type of delivery vehicles; the measures taken to reduce the role and significance of nuclear weapons in military and security concepts, doctrines and policies; the measures taken to reduce the risk of unintended, unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons; the measures taken to de-alert or reduce the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems; the number and type of weapons and delivery systems dismantled and reduced as part of nuclear disarmament efforts; the amount of fissile material for military purposes.

Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Recommendations to the Preparatory Committee That Would Improve the Effectiveness, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability, Coordination and Continuity of the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2026/WG.I/CRP.2/Rev.1, July 28, 2023, para. 18, copy on file with author.

4. The first draft was submitted on July 26. The second draft was provided to delegates on July 28.

5. Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Decisions,” NPT/CONF.2026/WG.I/DEC.1, July 28, 2023, copy on file with author. There is no official record of this document or the second “Draft Decisions” paper that proposed to continue discussions on strengthening the review process at the first session of the preparatory committee for the 11th NPT Review Conference in 2026. See Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Decisions,” NPT/CONF.2026/WG.I/July 28, 2023, copy on file with author.

6. The proposal put forward by the Philippines, which was displayed on a video screen at the review conference, stated that

[t]he working group recommends that, consistent with the decision to improve the effectiveness, efficiency, coordination, continuity, transparency and accountability, as well to dedicate time in the formal meetings of the review cycle and to consider national reports of States Parties in particular nuclear weapons states in a manner than enables questions to be raised and clarifications to be made on the content of national reports, the Preparatory Committee engage in outcome-oriented discussions on the basis of a balanced consideration of all the proposals presented in the working group, including on formats and modalities.

7. For a list of the working papers submitted to the working group, see Reaching Critical Will, “Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty,” n.d., https://reachingcriticalwill.org/disarmament-fora/npt/2023/working-group (accessed September 20, 2023).

8. The chair’s working paper contained 26 recommendations, many of which mirrored those contained in the earlier draft documents, as well as recommendations broached in the article by Markram and Mukhatzhanova (See endnote 2). As a chair’s working paper rather than a conference paper, it lacked the imprimatur of the working group. See Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Working Paper Submitted by the Chair of the Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Recommendations to the Preparatory Committee That Would Improve the Effectiveness, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability, Coordination and Continuity of the Review Process of the Treaty,” NPT/CONF.2026/PC.1/WP.34, August 3, 2023.

9. For a useful summary of the debate on these issues, see Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández, Jupiter Kaishu Huang, and Daryl Kimball, “NPT Meeting Underscores Chronic Divisions,” Arms Control Today, September 2023.

10. The United States, by contrast, was represented at the meeting by three ambassadors.

11. In 2000, the New Agenda Coalition consisted of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden. Sweden subsequently withdrew from the coalition.

12. The composition of the Non-Aligned Movement always has been diverse, but never more so than with the recent addition of the Russian Federation as an observer.

13. Although Iran almost certainly would have lost a vote on the right of the preparatory committee chair to issue a working paper on his own authority, many states likely would have been reluctant to force a vote because they recognized that, in the future, they might be in the minority. Several key diplomats who were furious about Iran’s behavior nonetheless indicated privately that they were reluctant to call for a vote because of the precedent it would set.

William C. Potter is founding director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He has participated as a delegate at every nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review process meeting since 1995, including the two held in Vienna in July-August 2023.

The manner in which negotiations collapsed at two key nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty events bodes poorly for the future of multilateral nuclear diplomacy.

The Chemical Weapons Convention Is Stronger Than You Think

October 2023
By Stefano Costanzi 

On July 7, the United States announced that it had destroyed the last of its massive stockpile of chemical weapons.

The final munition in the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile, an M55 rocket containing GB nerve agent, was destroyed safely on July 7, 2023 at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Kentucky. It marked the total elimination of more than 30,000 tons of chemical agent in the original U.S. stockpile. (Photo by U.S. Army)Yet, the milestone extends far beyond this one country. It also marks the elimination of all of the world’s publicly declared chemical weapons. As reported by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which oversees implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), all 72,304 metric tons of declared chemical weapons stockpiles that CWC states-parties had accumulated before they ratified or acceded to the convention have now been destroyed.1

This remarkable achievement is testimony to the success of the CWC, an international treaty that imposes a complete ban on chemical weapons. Before the CWC entered into force in 1997, the main arms control treaty on chemical weapons was the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of these weapons but not their development and stockpiling. Most countries interpreted the protocol as a “no first use” ban, meaning they could reserve the right to use chemical weapons in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack. As a result, chemical weapons were still produced and stockpiled. When the CWC took effect, things changed drastically because the treaty clearly mandated states-parties to declare and verifiably destroy their chemical weapons arsenals.

Even so, the chemical weapons threat has not been eradicated completely. A few countries did not sign the treaty, and some that did, such as Syria, appear to have retained undeclared stocks. This contributed to a tense atmosphere as states-parties held the fifth CWC review conference at The Hague in May.2 In addition to a troubled geopolitical situation, predominantly due to the war in Ukraine, states-parties have had to grapple with the fact that the treaty has been violated many times in recent years.3

In the Syrian civil war, chemical weapons were used more than 300 times between 2012 and 2019. Most of these attacks were attributed to the Syrian government and the rest to the Islamic State group. In February 2017, Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was assassinated in Malaysia with the nerve agent VX. In March 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia, were the targets of an assassination attempt in the United Kingdom. The attack was carried out using a nerve agent of the Novichok class, a group of highly toxic chemicals developed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.4 Three months later, Dawn Sturgess, a woman who lived not far from the Skripals, died after serendipitously coming into contact with a discarded perfume bottle filled with the same Novichok agent, which had been found in a dumpster by her boyfriend. Following investigations, prosecutors from the British Counter Terrorism Division authorized charges against three members of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service.5 In August 2020, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was the target of another assassination attempt in Russia, with a different Novichok agent. Unsurprisingly, these incidents are regarded in strikingly different ways by different states, amid accusations, denials, and disinformation campaigns.

Despite the fact that the world is not yet completely free of chemical weapons and notwithstanding the tension that characterized the last review conference, the CWC undoubtedly is a very strong treaty that has significantly reduced the threat posed by this horrific category of weapons. Some work is still needed to keep the treaty and the organization that governs it current. This process risks being slowed down by the geopolitical situation, but a planning document produced by the OPCW Technical Secretariat indicates that constructive steps are being taken.6

A Strong Treaty

Fundamentally, the strength of the CWC as a robust disarmament and nonproliferation treaty rests on several pillars.7 Chemical weapons exploit the toxicity of chemicals to intentionally cause harm or death to humans or animals.8 The CWC is a comprehensive international treaty that poses a complete ban on chemical weapons, prohibiting not only the use of these weapons but also their development, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, and transfer. The CWC also prohibits military preparations to use chemical weapons, as well as the provision of assistance or encouragement to anyone to engage in activities prohibited by the convention.

One of the convention’s pillars is qualitative universality: the treaty is of unlimited duration and designed to be flexible enough to maintain its relevance in spite of changing circumstances. Above all, this is achieved through the so-called general purpose criterion under Article II, which establishes that any toxic chemical, unless intended for purposes not prohibited by the convention, is to be regarded as a chemical weapon. That means that the CWC prohibits all chemical weapons, present and future, including those that were unknown when the treaty was negotiated. Whenever a toxic chemical is developed into a chemical weapon, that weapon is automatically subject to the comprehensive ban posed by the treaty. In this sense, the CWC is similar to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which poses an analogous comprehensive and general ban on biological weapons.

Henk Cor van der Kwast of The Netherlands (R), chairperson of the fifth Chemical Weapons Convention review conference, confers with Fernando Arias, director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons during the conference in May in The Hague. (Photo courtesy of OPCW)Another pillar is the convention’s quantitative universality: with 193 states-parties, the CWC enjoys near universal adherence. Israel has signed the convention, but has not ratified it. Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan have not signed the treaty. According to the OPCW, “98 percent of the world’s population lives under the protection” of the CWC.9

The convention’s third pillar is its verification regime, which the BWC lacks. Chemical weapons destruction programs, as well as industrial activities, are subjected to a scrupulous process of declarations and verification.10 States-parties are required to submit annual declarations of yet-to-be destroyed stockpiles, production facilities, and activities that are not prohibited by the convention but involve chemicals that could pose a risk. Some of these declarations trigger on-site inspections by the OPCW Inspectorate. The verification regime is supported by three schedules of toxic chemicals and precursors for their synthesis that have been recognized as posing a chemical weapons threat.11

The Syrian Civil War

As paradoxical as it may seem, the Syrian civil war is perhaps the most evident example of the success of the CWC. The largest chemical weapons attack that occurred after the convention entered into force was in Ghouta on August 21, 2013. Surface-to-surface rockets hit this suburb of Damascus, releasing the deadly nerve agent sarin and causing the deaths of at least 1,200 people and perhaps more than 1,400, according to some sources. Many were civilians.12

Following these events, diplomatic initiatives led by Russia and the United States resulted in a framework for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Syria then requested to accede to the CWC, and inspections of the Syrian declared stockpiles—more than 1,300 metric tons of chemical warfare agents and precursors—began in October 2013. Finally, through an international effort spearheaded by the United States, the destruction of declared Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles was completed in January 2016.13

This did not end the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war. The Global Public Policy Institute, an independent think tank based in Berlin, counted a total of 349 confirmed chemical weapons incidents between 2012 and 2019, most of which occurred after Syria acceded to the CWC. According to the institute, almost all of these attacks are attributable to the Syrian government, while a handful is attributable to the Islamic State group.14 At first glance, this may seem like a treaty failure, but a closer look at the data reveals that the deaths caused by chemical weapons attacks decreased significantly after Syria joined the CWC.

A mother and father weep over the body of a child who was killed in a suspected chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, on August 21, 2013. (Photo by NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images)According to the institute’s data, 1,444 people were killed in 38 chemical weapons attacks in Syria between December 2012 and October 2013, prior to the country’s CWC accession. The great majority of these deaths occurred in the 2013 Ghouta attack. Although many chemical attacks occurred after Syria became a CWC state-party, these attacks were significantly smaller in caliber, causing a total of 517 deaths in 311 attacks. This suggests that the OPCW-verified destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenal had a profoundly positive impact on reducing the number of chemical weapons deaths.

Notably, the majority of the chemical weapons attacks after 2013 were perpetrated with chlorine, a toxic chemical that has vast legitimate applications, including for water sanitization. Its use as a weapon is indeed a flagrant violation of the CWC mandates, but due to chlorine’s legitimate uses, Syria was not restricted from accessing this material after joining the CWC. This explains its availability for use as a weapon throughout the war.

Nonetheless, unresolved and less than clear issues in Syria remain a cause of great concern. The OPCW has three active missions dedicated to investigating Syria’s compliance with the CWC: the Declaration and Assessment Team, which is working with the Syrian government to address issues that have been identified in the initial CWC declaration; the Fact Finding Mission, which is investigating alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria and assessing whether they have actually occurred; and the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which is identifying the perpetrators of specific chemical weapons incidents in Syria.15

The IIT, which was established in 2018, has generated considerable controversy, with Syria and a minority of other states-parties, including Russia, claiming that its creation has overreached the OPCW mandate. In 2021, the CWC conference of states-parties suspended certain rights and privileges of Syria under the convention. These rights and privileges will be reinstated only after Syria satisfactorily complies with all measures requested by the conference. A minority of states-parties has asserted that Syria is in full compliance with the CWC mandates.

The Fifth Review Conference

The fifth CWC review conference, which took place May 15 to 19 in The Hague, provided an opportunity to highlight the successes of the convention in the last five years, and they were well summarized by the Canadian delegation’s statement.16 In addition to the fact that the destruction of the stockpile of chemical weapons under the CWC was about to be completed, these achievements include the construction of the OPCW Chemistry and Technology Center, a state-of-the-art facility that will help the OPCW keep up with chemistry developments and address emerging threats; the identification of perpetrators of several chemical weapons attacks; and the first amendment of the CWC schedules, or lists of treaty-regulated chemicals, since the convention’s entrance into force, with the addition of highly toxic Novichok and carbamate agents in 2019. In addition, in 2021 the conference of states-parties adopted a decision that clarifies that it is incompatible under the treaty to use aerosolized chemicals that act on the central nervous system, such as opioids, for law enforcement purposes.

Some of the more substantive issues raised at the review conference were covered by statements produced by representatives of nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, think tanks, and advocacy groups.17 Importantly, the conference dedicated an entire hour to joint statements on topics coordinated by the CWC Coalition, an umbrella organization of civil society organizations.18 These issues included the need to maintain a world free of chemical weapons after completion of the destruction of the stockpiles declared by states-parties; strengthen the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons; prevent the acquisition of chemical weapons by nonstate actors, including terrorists and criminal organizations; promote full national implementation of the CWC mandates by all states-parties; and address problems caused by old chemical weapons that were discarded by dumping them at sea.

Reviewing the CWC Schedules

One of the joint statements coordinated by the CWC Coalition covered the need to realign the CWC schedules with the 21st century chemical weapons landscape.19 Under the treaty, any toxic chemical is considered a chemical weapon unless it is intended for a purpose that is not prohibited by the convention. Nevertheless, chemicals listed on the CWC schedules have a special status because they are subject unequivocally to declaration requirements and are the primary focus of OPCW inspectors and OPCW designated laboratories. The problem is that the CWC schedules, crafted when the convention was negotiated, are focused on toxic chemicals and precursors that had been relevant for 20th century chemical warfare. Although some chemicals were added to the schedules in 2019, action is needed to realign these lists with the current threat.

One problem area is the existence of chemical weapons agents and precursors for their synthesis that are currently unscheduled, including some Novichok agents and precursors for the synthesis of Novichoks and carbamates.20 Toxic chemicals that act on the central nervous system are another area of concern. Although many of these chemicals, such as opioids, are highly toxic, only a single central nervous system-acting chemical is currently listed on the CWC schedules: the hallucinogenic chemical BZ.

Biological toxins and bioregulators are also a concern.21 Biological toxins are toxic chemicals produced by living organisms, such as microorganisms, animals, or plants. Bioregulators are chemicals produced by the human body that have an effect on its functioning, for instance by affecting neurotransmission. Biological toxins are only minimally covered by the CWC schedules, while bioregulators are not covered at all.

UN arms experts arrive to inspect a site suspected of being hit by a deadly chemical weapons attack on August 28, 2013 in the Ghouta area near Damascus. (Photo by Mohamed Abdulla/AFP via Getty Images)The joint statement noted that the CWC schedules could be strengthened by improving the balance between the individual chemicals and families of chemicals that are listed, as well as revisiting the scope of some families of chemicals. Some entries in the CWC schedules identify families of related chemicals rather than individual chemicals. This approach contributes to the strength of the schedules, setting them apart from lists of chemicals exclusively based on the enumeration of individual chemicals. Listing families of related chemicals makes the CWC schedules more proactive and resilient to the passage of time, bringing under their coverage not only currently known chemicals but also related ones that could be developed in the future. The CWC schedules could be strengthened by replacing with families of chemicals some of the entries that currently identify single chemicals.22

At the same time, the CWC schedules could be streamlined by reducing the size of some of the listed families of chemicals that currently extend beyond chemicals that trigger chemical weapons concern. Such unnecessarily large families pose an avoidable burden on inspectors, laboratories that are tasked with conducting forensics analysis, export control officers, customs officials, and the chemical industry.

Circumscribing the scope of some families of chemicals is in line with a proposal presented by the U.S. delegation at a side event on the margins of the review conference. The proposal aims to streamline the verification regime for the largest family of chemicals in the CWC schedules. This would allow resources currently devoted to inspecting plants that work with chemicals that are recognized as not posing a threat to the mission of the CWC to be redirected toward more relevant issues. For example, resources spent to inspect textile industry plants that work with organophosphorus flame retardants that do not appear to have a role as precursors for the synthesis of nerve agents could be redirected to other, more pressing tasks.

Looking Ahead

As the review conference ended, there was no consensus on a final document to establish OPCW priorities for the next five years. Given the unstable geopolitical context, this was hardly a surprise. The fourth review conference, in 2018, also failed to reach consensus on a final document. The last review conference to produce a consensus document was the one held in 2013.23 All states-parties expressed regret at this year’s outcome. Russia blamed the stalemate on a lack of flexibility from some states-parties. The United States blamed states that still use chemical weapons.

Many participants, including the conference chair, Henk Cor van der Kwast of the Netherlands, attributed this outcome to the lack of time. Two weeks were allotted for previous review conferences, but only five days were given to this year’s meeting. Nevertheless, delegates praised the work Lauri Kuusing of Estonia, who chaired the working group responsible for preparing the conference, and José Antonio Zabalgoitia of Mexico, who chaired the committee of the whole, which provided the main forum for state-party efforts to reach consensus on a final document.

Although a final document proved elusive, it was clear from the closing statements of most national delegations that there was indeed consensus on most of the draft document. Despite the divergences, many states-parties expressed hope that the OPCW Executive Council and the conference of states-parties could follow up on issues on which there appears to be general agreement. They include strengthening the verification regime, which is fundamental to supporting chemical weapons disarmament and nonproliferation; increasing geographical representation within the OPCW; expanding the dialogue between states-parties and civil society; and expanding capacity building and international cooperation efforts.

It is encouraging that all these issues are addressed in the medium-term plan of the OPCW for the years 2024 to 2028 as prepared by the Technical Secretariat for the October 2023 meeting of the Executive Council. Even in the absence of a review conference consensus document, it is likely that the work that was done in preparation for the conference and during the conference itself can be leveraged and actualized by the states-parties during the next five years. The CWC mission has progressed significantly in the last five years, and that needs to continue.



1. Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), “OPCW by the Numbers,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/media-centre/opcw-numbers (accessed September 25, 2023).

2. OPCW, “RC-5: Fifth Review Conference,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/calendar/rc (accessed September 25, 2023).

3. Rebecca Hersman and William Pittinos, “Restoring Restraint: Enforcing Accountability for Users of Chemical Weapons,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2018, https://www.csis.org/analysis/restoring-restraint; Stefano Costanzi and Gregory D. Koblentz, “Updating the CWC: How We Got Here and What Is Next,” Arms Control Today, April 2020; Stefano Costanzi and Gregory D. Koblentz, “Strengthening Controls on Novichoks: A Family-Based Approach to Covering A-Series Sgents and Precursors Under the Chemical-Weapons Nonproliferation Regime,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 28, Nos. 1-3 (2021): 95-113.

4. Marcin Kloske and Zygfryd Witkiewicz, “Novichoks: The A-Group of Organophosphorus Chemical Warfare Agents,” Chemosphere, Vol. 221 (2019), pp. 672-682.

5. UK Counter Terrorism Policing, “Salisbury & Amesbury Investigation,” September 21, 2021, https://www.counterterrorism.police.uk/salisbury/.

6. OPCW Executive Council, “Note by the Technical Secretariat: Medium-Term Plan of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons 2024-2028,” EC-104/S/1, C-28/S/1, August 14, 2023, https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2023/08/c28s01%20ec104s01%2B%28e%29_0.pdf.

7. Jean Pascal Zanders, “The Chemical Weapons Convention and Universality: A Question of Quality Over Quantity?” Disarmament Forum, Vol. 4 (December 2002), pp. 23-31.

8. Stefano Costanzi, “Chemical Warfare Agents,” Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, 2020, pp. 1-32.

9. OPCW, “Achieving Universality: Ensuring a Truly Global Treaty,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/our-work/achieving-universality-convention (accessed September 25, 2023).

10. Ron G. Manley, “Verification Under the Chemical Weapons Convention: A Reflective Review,” Pure and Applied Chemistry, Vol. 74, No. 12 (2002): 2235-2240; OPCW, “Eliminating Chemical Weapons: Committed to Complete and Verifiable Destruction,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/our-work/eliminating-chemical-weapons (accessed September 25, 2023).

11. Stefano Costanzi et al., “Lists of Chemical Warfare Agents and Precursors From International Nonproliferation Frameworks: Structural Annotation and Chemical Fingerprint Analysis,” Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling, Vol. 60, No. 10 (2020): 4804-4816.

12. Tobias Schneider and Theresa Lütkefend, “Nowhere to Hide: The Logic of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria,” Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI), February 2019, https://www.gppi.net/2019/02/17/the-logic-of-chemical-weapons-use-in-syria.

13. Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons - UN Joint Mission, “Background,” n.d., https://opcw.unmissions.org/background (accessed September 25, 2023); Paul F. Walker, “Syrian Chemical Weapons Destruction: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead,” Arms Control Today, December 2014; Arms Control Association, “Timeline of Syrian Chemical Weapons Activity, 2012-2022,” February 2022, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Timeline-of-Syrian-Chemical-Weapons-Activity.

14. GPPI, “The Specter of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria,” n.d., https://chemicalweapons.gppi.net/ (accessed September 25, 2023).

15. OPCW, “Syria and the OPCW,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/media-centre/featured-topics/opcw-and-syria (accessed September 25, 2023).

16. “Statement of Canada to the Fifth Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2023/05/Canada%20-%20CWC%20RC5%20National%20Statement.pdf.

17. For nongovernmental organization statements to the fifth Chemical Weapons Convention review conference, see OPCW, “Fifth Review Conference,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/resources/documents/conference-states-parties/fifth-review-conference#NGO (accessed September 25, 2023).

18. CWC Coalition, “NGO Joint Statements,” n.d., https://www.cwccoalition.org/revcon5-ngo-statements/ (accessed September 25, 2023).

19. Stefano Costanzi, Michael Crowley, and Malcolm Dando, “NGO Joint Statement; The CWC Schedules: Addressing Scientific and Technological Advances in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2023/05/Joint%20NGO%20Statement%20-%20Statement%20on%20CWC%20Schedules%20.pdf.

20. Costanzi and Koblentz, “Strengthening Controls on Novichoks.”

21. Michael Crowley and Malcolm R. Dando, Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons: Preventing the Misuse of the Chemical and Life Sciences (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).

22. Costanzi and Koblentz, “Strengthening Controls on Novichoks.”

23. OPCW, “Third Review Conference Concludes With Consensus Final Document and Political Declaration,” April 19, 2013, https://www.opcw.org/media-centre/news/2013/04/third-review-conference-concludes-consensus-final-document-and-political.

Stefano Costanzi, a professor of chemistry at American University, directs the university’s chemistry graduate programs and the Science and Policy Undergraduate Certificate.

Even though the world is not yet completely free of chemical weapons, the CWC has significantly reduced the threat.

Managing U.S. Nuclear Operations in the 21st Century

October 2023

A New Touchstone for Discussing U.S. Nuclear Policy

Managing U.S. Nuclear Operations in the 21st Century

By Charles Glaser, Austin Long, and Brian Radzinsky, eds.
Brookings Institution
October 2022

Reviewed by Amy F. Woolf

The original volume of Managing Nuclear Operations, published by the Brookings Institution in 1987, served as an anchor on many bookshelves in the U.S. nuclear weapons community and became an irreplaceable source for the details of U.S. nuclear operations. Its comprehensive review of the U.S. nuclear force posture provided thorough and unclassified insights into the policies, processes, and technologies used to develop and implement U.S. nuclear war plans.

A few years after the book’s publication, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War ended. The United States and the Soviet Union and then Russia signed arms control treaties and implemented unilateral measures that reduced their numbers of deployed nuclear weapons. With the Clinton administration’s 1994 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the United States began to reconsider the shape of its nuclear arsenal and the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy. Additional reviews in subsequent administrations further refined U.S. nuclear policy, programs, and force structure. Published reports explained many of the assumptions and recommendations of these studies, but the changes adopted in U.S. nuclear operations often remained opaque. Outside government, think tanks and advocacy groups engaged in debates about the strategy, size, and shape for the U.S. nuclear arsenal and offered their own recommendations.

As Charles Glaser and Brian Radzinsky note in their introduction to Managing Nuclear Operations in the 21st Century, many of the topics addressed in the original volume remain relevant to the ongoing debates. Although the United States has maintained a measure of consistency in some of the foundational concepts of its nuclear strategy, it has adopted significant changes in the processes used to develop U.S. targeting and employment plans; in the policies governing the acquisition, maintenance, and use of nuclear weapons; and in the technologies that might support or impinge on nuclear operations.

The new volume offers insights into many of these changes. In addition, with chapters written by officials who have served inside the nuclear enterprise since the late 1980s, the volume captures the personal reflections of many of the participants in the process used to review and alter U.S. nuclear operations after the Cold War. With fewer chapters that focus exclusively on technology and the processes used to implement nuclear operations, this book lacks some of the depth and detail that made the original volume unique and valuable for the research community. Nevertheless, several chapters serve a similar purpose in educating readers on the basics of nuclear planning and operations. For example, Michael Elliot describes the analytic and bureaucratic processes used to translate broad policy statements into the specific targeting and employment options included in the nuclear war plan. John Harvey and John Warden describe the technologies and processes used to detect an incoming attack, assess the size and scope of the attack, support the president’s deliberations and decision to retaliate in response to that assessment, and swiftly execute that decision.

The volume’s contributors recognize that analysts outside government have offered alternatives to the current U.S. nuclear posture and nuclear operations. In some chapters, they seem to debunk the outsiders’ assumptions and disagree with their conclusions. For example, several authors describe the complexity of U.S. nuclear planning and explain the range of considerations that determine how many and which weapons are assigned to different types of targets. This explanation contrasts with outside recommendations for changes in the U.S. force structure that seem to assume that nuclear targeting is an exercise in simple arithmetic. Several chapters review the role of “launch on warning” in U.S. strategy. The authors explain why the president has the option to order a prompt launch of U.S. weapons and dispute the view that such options increase the risk of an inadvertent or accidental launch of nuclear weapons.

A military aide (L) carries the “nuclear football,” which contains launch codes for nuclear weapons, while departing the White House with U.S. President Joe Biden as he heads to Europe for a NATO meeting in 2022. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)In the volume’s first chapter, Glaser and Radzinsky provide a basic overview of nuclear deterrence, with a focus on the role that the credibility of deterrent threats plays in a successful deterrence strategy. They describe the types of nuclear delivery systems in the U.S. force posture and highlight how the survivability of U.S. weapons and U.S. command and control systems helps maintain a credible deterrent. They explain that limited nuclear options, which envision proportionate responses to attack and the possibility of restoring deterrence after a nuclear exchange, have been included in U.S. nuclear strategy since the 1960s and are a part of the effort to bolster the credibility of deterrence. This contrasts with public discussions that often suggest these options support a war-fighting doctrine rather than a deterrence posture that promises retaliation after an attack.

Several authors reflect on the question, often central to public debates over U.S. nuclear strategy, of whether the United States should pursue a purely retaliatory deterrence strategy or a counterforce approach that would target military capabilities to limit damage to the United States. Franklin Miller argues that this debate has never animated U.S. nuclear planning because U.S. plans have always included a mix of military, leadership, and industrial targets. James Miller notes that, even after the Obama administration’s review of employment guidance, the United States did not adopt a countervalue, minimum deterrence strategy. U.S. employment guidance continues to focus on holding at risk an adversary’s relevant military targets.

Several of the volume’s authors highlight the value of civilian-military cooperation in developing nuclear targeting and employment plans. Franklin Miller notes that such collaboration during the late 1980s demonstrated that “a collegial dialogue involving policymakers and target planners was hugely beneficial” not only in the development of more rational targeting and employment plans, but also in the development of working relationships that helped the United States adjust its nuclear posture in an era of striking change in the international security environment. James Miller notes that the Obama administration’s review allowed for “serious discourse among knowledgeable civilians and military personnel” and that the process was successful because it was conducted by a small group of “like-minded people” committed to reviewing strategy and assessing military requirements before developing proposals for arms control reductions. Elliot also acknowledges the value of civilian-military cooperation, noting that the “the habitual relationship developed among key leaders…during development of policy and subsequent plan review activities are key to this outcome.”

Several authors emphasize that U.S. arms control proposals have represented an outcome from, not an input to, changes in nuclear strategy and targeting. Franklin Miller describes how a targeting review in the late 1980s determined that the United States could meet its deterrence requirements with 5,888 warheads, a result that advised the U.S. negotiating position in the talks on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. He also argues that a reverse process that began with proposals to change nuclear strategy so that the United States could negotiate deeper reductions in arms control agreements would “undo the trust and confidence” between the military and civilian officials who work together to develop nuclear employment plans. James Miller offers a similar assessment, noting that the early stages of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review in 2009 reassessed U.S. nuclear requirements and validated that the United States could meet those requirements with 1,550 warheads, thus setting the force level negotiated in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. According to Miller, the civilians sought the best advice from the military on these force levels, but they did not pressure
the military to support a specific path to reductions.

Among other things, Managing U.S. Nuclear Operations in the 21st Century examines the types of weapons in the U.S. force posture and how survivability features and command & control systems affect a successful deterrence strategy. Here, an Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bomber takes off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in 2018. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)Linton Brooks notes that presidential guidance and the resulting nuclear employment plan set the force structure limitations acceptable in any given arms control treaty. Moreover, according to Brooks, from the standpoint of nuclear operations, a good arms control agreement is not necessarily one that lowers nuclear forces the most, but one that contributes to strategic stability and enables those forces to operate more safely and effectively.

Several authors offered their views on why civilian participation and oversight led to the successful revision of the U.S. nuclear war plan, reduced the requirements for nuclear weapons, and supported the negotiations of arms control treaties that codified those reductions. They assert that the process worked because the participants knew each other well and were all deeply knowledgeable about the issues at hand. In essence, the civilians from the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense and the military officers working in the planning process accepted each other as insiders in the nuclear weapons community. Experts with less conventional views about U.S. nuclear posture have found a less welcoming, less collaborative environment, thus limiting the range of alternatives that find their way into U.S. nuclear operations.

Several chapters address concerns about the policies and operations governing the launch of U.S. nuclear weapons. Central to these concerns is the belief that, by retaining weapons on alert and an option for the president to launch those weapons on short notice, the U.S. posture creates risks that ambiguities and misperceptions in attack assessments could lead to an inadvertent or mistaken launch. Elliot disputes this view, noting that preplanned options provide the president with the option to order a prompt launch but does not require such a response. Harvey and Warden note that this posture was designed to ensure that the United States could retaliate in the Cold War’s most stressful scenario if the Soviet Union launched a first strike but that this scenario is no longer the most likely path to nuclear war. Retired Air Force General Robert Kehler states that redundancy, resilience, and survivability ensure that an adversary cannot neutralize the U.S. nuclear deterrent by attacking command and control. Thus, the president would have time to consider options before choosing how and when to respond. Moreover, as Harvey and Warden note, the system would use two distinct types of sensors for launch detection and attack assessment, which would minimize the risk that a U.S. launch would be based on faulty warning or mistaken attack assessment.

Kehler also notes that U.S. targeting and employment plans are subject to legal review during their development to ensure that they are consistent with the requirements for necessity, distinction, and proportionality under the laws of armed conflict. On the issue of the president’s role in ordering the launch of nuclear weapons, he recognizes that some are uncomfortable with the president’s sole authority, but questions the implications of expanding command authority to include other decision-makers, concluding that the “chain of command is not a debating society.”

Elaine Bunn addresses an issue that has gained heightened visibility in recent years as the United States and its allies contend with regional security challenges. She reviews U.S. extended deterrence goals and operations, describing how NATO has elevated the role of nuclear weapons in its security architecture in the past decade and highlighting the need for the alliance to maintain this focus in the current fraught security environment. She offers details on the consultative process for nuclear operations in NATO and describes the consultative mechanisms used to extend deterrence and reassure allies in Asia. She notes that it is inherently difficult to maintain the credibility of extended deterrence. Although some have suggested that the United States deploy new types of weapons systems to support extended deterrence, Bunn argues that the political and security relationships between the United States and its allies are more important than the numbers and types of deployed weapons. She observes that, “to be assured, the allies must trust U.S. judgment, and, in the case of nuclear weapons, that comes down to trusting the President.”

Managing Nuclear Operations in the 21st Century provides a solid foundation for future conversations about alternative approaches to nuclear operations. It not only offers valuable information to those outside government who often rely on simplistic assumptions about current plans and processes, but also gives those who have worked inside government the opportunity to offer clear explanations in their defense of those policies and processes. Janne Nolan, who initiated the project that produced this volume and whose memory and legacy are recognized in its pages, would have encouraged both sides to engage in this dialogue with a respectful, fact-based, and collegial conversation. Continuing that conversation within the nuclear policy community would truly serve as a tribute to her memory.

Amy F. Woolf, a consultant in nuclear weapons and nuclear arms control policy, served for more than 30 years as a specialist at the Congressional Research Service of the U.S. Library of Congress focusing on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons policy, the U.S. domestic politics of arms control, monitoring and verification of arms control agreements, and the future of U.S.-Russian arms control.

The book provides a solid foundation for future conversations about alternative approaches to nuclear operations.

October 2023 Book of Note

October 2023

Unparalleled Catastrophe: Life and Death in the Third Nuclear Age
By Rhys Crilley
Manchester University Press
September 2023

In this book, Rhys Crilley chronicles and critically analyzes how and why “the world is racing towards unparalleled catastrophe.”

He opens with an overview of the history and characteristics of two distinctive eras of nuclear norms and cultures: the emergence and use of nuclear weapons and the normalization of nonuse of nuclear weapons. The book argues that Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States ushered in a “third nuclear age,” one characterized by the erosion of norms against nuclear use, an increase in global nuclear stockpiles, the emergence of new technologies and several other complexities.

The author makes the case for a critical approach to the study and understanding of nuclear weapons by drawing together a range of interdisciplinary scholarship. He argues that the current nuclear age is “shaped by our lived experience of nuclear culture” and thus must be studied as such. Throughout the book, he analyzes his personal memoirs and other unique sources such as pop songs, tv shows, movies and social media posts in addition to official documents, statements, and news. The book depicts the intersection of nuclear weapons and societal problems such as militarism, racism, sexism, and colonialism. It also studies nuclear weapons in relation to climate change, global pandemics and the future of democracy. The author portrays the very existence of nuclear weapons and “nuclear culture” as a civilization-ending challenge and suggests what can be done to avoid catastrophe. —CHRIS ROSTAMPOUR

Unparalleled Catastrophe: Life and Death in the Third Nuclear Age

Iran Sends Mixed Messages on Nuclear Activities

October 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran slowed its production of highly enriched uranium over the past three months and released five imprisoned Americans as part of a prisoner swap with the United States, but its failure to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could spoil further efforts to deescalate tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Morad Tahbaz (L) and Emad Shargi arrive at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia on Sept. 19, one day after they and three other Americans imprisoned by Iran were released in a deal with the United States that gives Tehran access to $6 billion in frozen funds. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)After months of negotiations, Iran released the Americans on Sept. 18 in exchange for five Iranians in U.S. custody and access to $6 billion in frozen assets. The money, which was held in South Korean banks in payment for oil purchased from Iran, was transferred to Qatar. Iran can access the funds through a humanitarian channel to pay for goods exempt from U.S. sanctions, such as food and medicine.

Bret McGurk, U.S. National Security Council adviser for the Middle East and North Africa, told The Washington Post on Sept. 18 that the money will be used to pay the vendors and “no funds
whatsoever are going into Iran.” He said the money in Qatar is subject to more restrictions than it was in South Korea.

Prior to the swap, the IAEA reported on Sept. 4 that, over the past two months, Iran decreased its production of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235 by two-thirds when compared to the previous quarter. In addition, Iran blended six kilograms of 60 percent U-235 down to a purity of 20 percent. According to the IAEA report, Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 is about 121 kilograms.

Uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 poses a greater proliferation risk because it can quickly be enriched to weapons-grade level, or 90 percent U-235.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran was limited to enriching uranium to 3.67 percent U-235, a level suitable for power reactors.

Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, noted the reduction in a Sept. 12 statement to the IAEA Board of Governors, but urged Iran “to halt all such production” and said the material has “no credible peaceful purpose.”

The United States and Iran discussed capping the stockpile of 60 percent U-235 during indirect talks in Oman in the spring. But neither party announced a specific cap, and those talks appeared to be on hold while the prisoner swap was finalized.

McGurk emphasized that U.S. efforts to free the hostages in Iran “was not linked to nuclear diplomacy,” but said that the Biden administration made clear that “diplomacy cannot meaningfully advance if American citizens are being wrongfully detained.”

It is unclear if the prisoner swap will open the door to further actions to deescalate tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. The reduction in production of 60 percent U-235 may have been intended to send a signal that Iran is committed to taking steps to reduce nuclear risk, but Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s comments during the UN General Assembly and Tehran’s failure to work with the IAEA to enhance monitoring of its nuclear program and implement its safeguards agreement overshadowed the gesture.

During his UN General Assembly address, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called on the United States to “change their course” away from sanctions.  (Photo by Iranian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)During his address on Sept. 19, Raisi said the United States violated the JCPOA and “must build trust to demonstrate its good intentions and genuine willingness to fulfill its commitments and conclude the path,” referring to a restoration of the agreement. Given Iran’s nuclear advances and the changing geopolitical landscape, it is unlikely that the Biden administration is interested in restoring the JCPOA at this point.

Raisi called on the United States to “change their course” away from sanctions that “have not yielded the desired results.”

He accused the West of interfering in Iranian domestic politics by supporting the protests that broke out last year after Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being beaten for violating the country’s dress codes. He suggested that Tehran will take further action to avenge the death of Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike during a visit to Iraq in 2020.

If Iran does take action against the United States, it would put at risk the fragile steps both sides have taken to mitigate tensions. Similarly, tensions between Iran and the IAEA could spoil efforts to stabilize the current nuclear crisis.

Iran agreed in March to enhance IAEA monitoring of its nuclear program. After modest progress installing surveillance cameras at one centrifuge production facility in early May, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the IAEA board on Sept. 11 that there has been “no further progress” in implementing the agreement.

The IAEA report noted that Iran on Aug. 28 rejected the agency’s requests to install cameras at another site where centrifuge components are manufactured and to access data recorded from surveillance equipment that operated from February 2021 to June 2022. (See ACT, July/August 2022.) The IAEA has not had access to these locations or surveillance data since February 2021, when Iran reduced IAEA monitoring and inspections. (See ACT, March 2021.) The report said access to the data recordings are “indispensable” to reestablish a “satisfactory understanding” of Iran’s inventories of centrifuge components. The IAEA also will need to establish baseline inventories for verifying limits under a restored JCPOA or, more likely, a new nuclear agreement.

Holgate said Iran’s cooperation “remains significantly lacking overall.”

The report noted that Iran’s stockpiles of uranium enriched to 20 percent U-235 and 5 percent U-235 grew over the past quarter and that Iran installed an additional cascade of advanced IR-4 centrifuges at the nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz.

In response to these advances and the lack of cooperation with the agency, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom announced that they would continue to implement sanctions originally set to expire in October under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.

In a Sept. 4 statement, they said the decision to maintain “nuclear proliferation-related measures on Iran, as well as arms and missile embargoes” is a “direct response to Iran’s consistent and severe non-compliance.” Maintaining the sanctions is “fully compliant” with the 2015 nuclear deal, the statement said. The three states also noted their efforts to resolve Iran’s breaches through the dispute resolution mechanism set up by the nuclear deal.

In a Sept. 15 statement, the Iranian Foreign Ministry accused the three countries of “malicious intentions” and said the decision to retain sanctions “creates tensions” and violates the JCPOA. Iran defended its decision to breach the JCPOA limits, calling its actions a “completely legal” retaliatory response to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

In apparent retaliation for the European decision to retain sanctions, Tehran informed the IAEA that it would not allow certain agency inspectors to conduct safeguards inspections in Iran. Prior to this announcement, Iran had rejected at least one other inspector.

Under a safeguards agreement, a state can refuse to allow certain inspectors from conducting safeguards, but Grossi suggested that Iran is abusing this right. He condemned Iran’s decision in a Sept. 16 statement and said Iran has “effectively removed about one-third of the core group of the agency’s most experienced inspectors designated for Iran.” Grossi described the decision as an “unnecessary blow to an already strained relationship” between Iran and the agency and said that “shutting out” inspectors affects the agency’s verification mandate. He urged Iran to “correct course.”

Despite Tehran’s decision to release five jailed Americans and slow a key nuclear activity, it is unclear if Iranian-U.S. tensions will deescalate.

Kim, Putin Meet to Discuss Military Ties

October 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and pledged to support Moscow’s war against Ukraine despite U.S. warnings that North Korea will pay a price if it transfers munitions to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before they inspect the spaceport Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's Amur region on Sept. 13. Kim says that relations with Russia are “the very first priority” for his country. (Photo by Kremlin Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)It is not clear if Kim and Putin reached any agreements during their five-hour meeting at a cosmodrome in eastern Russia on Sept. 13. But Russian and North Korean media reported that the leaders called for strengthening cooperation between the two countries and emphasized their shared struggle against what they called imperialist powers.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that, during his lunch with Putin, Kim reiterated North Korean support for the Russian war in Ukraine and expressed confidence that Russia will “win a great victory” against hegemonic forces.

The military focus of Kim’s itinerary, which included tours of the space port, a naval frigate, and a fighter aircraft production facility, further suggest that the two countries are deepening military ties.

Kim did not say specifically that North Korea will ship munitions to Russia, which would be a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. But Moscow is facing shortages of the munitions it is using against Ukraine, and certain North Korean artillery and rockets are compatible with Russian systems.

In a Sept. 10 interview with CBS, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris called Putin’s decision to meet with Kim an “act of desperation” and said that it would be a “huge mistake” for North Korea to provide arms to Russia.

But U.S. warnings and UN restrictions are unlikely to stop either Moscow or Pyongyang from engaging in illicit weapons and technology transfers, particularly if both sides perceive the cooperation as benefiting their national security interests.

Putin said on Sept. 13 that Russia “complies with all the restrictions,” but when asked directly about military support for North Korea’s military and space program, he replied that “all questions will be discussed” and that there are “prospects” for cooperation. Russia has purchased drones from Iran in violation of UN Security Council sanctions, a sign that it may be willing to take a similar risk with North Korea. Russian news agency TASS reported that, at the end of Kim’s trip, Russia presented North Korea with six surveillance drones, which would violate Security Council restrictions.

A week before Kim’s trip, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the United States has not seen North Korea “actively supply” a large amount of munitions or other military supplies to Russia, but that discussions about military support are “advancing.”

Sullivan said in a Sept. 6 press briefing that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Shoigu’s trip to North Korea in July was “in essence” to ask for weapons. Shoigu attended a military parade with Kim and visited several munitions factories. (See ACT, September 2023.)

Sullivan said North Korea will “pay a price” if it provides Russia with weapons to use on the battlefield against Ukraine and that the Biden administration will continue to “look for opportunities to dissuade the North Koreans from taking this step.”

Shoigu met again with Kim and other North Korean military officials during their trip to Russia. The KCNA reported that Kim and Shoigu discussed “practical issues” related to strengthening “cooperation and mutual exchange between the armed forces of the two countries” during a meeting in Vladivostok.

Kim’s trip came amid efforts by Pyongyang to further advance its nuclear weapons program and develop its struggling space program. Kim’s activities in Russia, which included a briefing on Russian space launch vehicles, suggest that Pyongyang is looking for Moscow’s assistance with its space program. After visiting the spaceport, North Korean media reported that Kim called Russia a “space power” and said he was pleased to have a more detailed understanding of Russia’s capabilities.

In August, North Korea again failed to launch a satellite into orbit using the three-stage Cholima-1 space launch vehicle. Similar to the attempt made in June, the Cholima-1 exploded before delivering a satellite to orbit. (See ACT, July/August 2023.) North Korea announced that a third attempt is planned for October.

Putin suggested that Russia is willing to assist North Korea with its space program, saying that North Korea “shows great interest in space” and Russia has “good expertise” and infrastructure.

It is unclear what specific assistance Russia may be willing to provide. States are prohibited from assisting North Korea’s space program under Security Council resolutions because space launch vehicles use technologies applicable to ballistic missiles, but Russia no longer supports tightening sanctions on North Korea as it advances its illegal nuclear and missile programs.

Russia blocked recent efforts at the Security Council to condemn North Korea’s illicit activities and strengthen sanctions. (See ACT, July/August 2023.) During Kim’s visit to the spaceport, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his government supported past sanctions during a different geopolitical environment. He accused the United States of refusing to support Security Council resolutions that would meaningfully address tensions on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea is also expanding its nuclear weapons program. Kim oversaw the inauguration of a new “tactical nuclear attack submarine,” according to a Sept. 8 statement from the KCNA.

The news agency said that the launch of the Hero Kim Kun Ok submarine represents a “new chapter for bolstering up the naval force” and the country’s “steadfast will…to further strengthen the state nuclear deterrence in both quality and quantity.”

The Hero Kim Kun Ok is a modified Soviet-era submarine. Photos suggest that North Korea expanded the missile deck, which now includes 10 vertical launch tubes. In an analysis for 38 North, missile expert Vann Van Diepen said that four of the launch tubes appear large enough for submarine-launched ballistic missiles that North Korea tested in the past, the Pukguksong-1 and Pukguksong-3. The smaller tubes likely are intended to hold Hwasal-2 land-attack cruise missiles, he said.

But South Korea expressed doubt over whether the submarine is ready for deployment. In a Sept. 8 statement, the South Korean military said the submarine does not “look capable of normal operation.”

Even if the submarine is operational, the Soviet-era diesel design will be noisy and easier to track than more advanced nuclear-armed submarines with nuclear power reactors operated by countries such as the United States.

Although the submarine will be vulnerable, it gives North Korea additional options for deploying nuclear weapons and would be more difficult for South Korea and Japan to defend against.

Hirokazu Matsuno, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said that the announcement demonstrates that North Korea’s military poses a “graver and more imminent threat.”

During the submarine inauguration ceremony, Kim said that North Korea plans to remodel additional submarines to carry tactical nuclear weapons.

The North Korean and Russian leaders called for stronger cooperation during a meeting that had a heavy focus on military issues. 


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