"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
September 2020

Arms Control Today September 2020

Edition Date: 
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
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Explaining Iran’s Nuclear Position: An Interview With Iranian Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi

September 2020

In May 2018, the Trump administration announced the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and reimposed U.S. sanctions waived by the deal. One year later, Iran announced it would begin reducing its compliance with the JCPOA in response. This August, the Trump administration sought more stringent sanctions against Iran, and Iran agreed to enable International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors access to two controversial sites.

As the sanctions debate was unfolding at the United Nations and the IAEA Director General prepared to travel to Tehran, Arms Control Today discussed these and other nuclear issues on August 6 with Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s permanent representative to the UN since April 2019. Prior to that, he served as deputy chief of staff for political affairs in the Iranian Office of the President beginning in 2017, and as deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs from 2013 to 2017. While serving as deputy foreign minister, Ravanchi participated in the multilateral negotiations on the JCPOA.

Iran's Ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi speaks to the media at UN headquarters in New York in June 2019. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)Arms Control Today: Iran announced in May 2019 that it would begin reducing compliance with limits imposed by the JCPOA in response to the deal’s failure to deliver on sanctions relief envisioned by the nuclear agreement after the United States. withdrew and re-imposed sanctions. In January 2020, Tehran announced that its nuclear program would no longer be subject to any limits. Does Iran intend to take any additional steps to breach its JCPOA obligations in the next several months? If so, what would be the intended purpose of those moves?

Amb. Majid Takht Ravanchi: The United States withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 in contravention of its obligations under international law because the JCPOA is part of Resolution 2231. It is an annex to the resolution. The resolution has endorsed the JCPOA, and Resolution 2231 was adopted unanimously by the whole Security Council. So that shows that the whole international community was behind Resolution 2231.

The U.S. move was against international law and against the international obligations of the United States. After the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA Iran waited for almost a year to see what the other members of the JCPOA could do in order to give Iran the benefits of the JCPOA. We were told by some members of the JCPOA that Iran would be compensated for the losses that it has received as a result of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. But unfortunately, after a year we did not receive any tangible benefits from implementing our obligations under the JCPOA. Then at that time in 2019, after a year, we were left with no other option but to reduce our commitments. This is in line with Articles 26 and 36 of the JCPOA, so our action is totally in line with our commitments in the JCPOA.

Regarding whether Iran is going to move further from what we have done, as you know after taking the fifth steps, Iran said it would no longer take any action, and that has been our position since. As far as our future action is concerned, it depends very much on the way that the JCPOA and Resolution 2231 are going to be treated. Our actions will be corresponding to whatever happens with Resolution 2231 and the JCPOA.

ACT: Until recently, Iran still benefited from cooperative nuclear projects in the JCPOA. However, in July, U.S. sanctions waivers for several activities required by the JCPOA, including modifications of the Arak reactor, were terminated. What is the status of the Arak conversion project? What are Iran’s plans for the future of the reactor?

Ravanchi: The U.S. move a few months ago was another act in contravention of U.S. obligations, as they put sanctions on the nuclear cooperation between Iran and other countries. So that is the basis of the U.S. decision to withdraw from the JCPOA. And then they started violating their obligations in May 2018. They just put aside the nuclear cooperation with other countries, and now they put the final nail in the way the JCPOA is being treated. So that shows the real intention of the United States when it really does not want Iran to have advancement in high technology, and that shows that the U.S. is not interested in seeing the Iranian people enjoy the benefits of scientific achievements. As far as the Arak nuclear facility is concerned, we are in talks with our partners, and the talks are ongoing. At the same time, we have said that if we are faced with a situation when Iran cannot advance this part of its nuclear facilities, we will go back to the old design, which was something of our creation. So that is an option for Iran, and we will decide at the right time when to go back to the old design. This is a very good option for Iran.

ACT: In July, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced that Tehran triggered the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism (DRM) to address what Iran views as a violation of the deal by the France, Germany and the United Kingdom. What specifically does Iran hope to achieve with this move?

Ravanchi: That was not the first time that we initiated the DRM. In fact, since 2016 we have invoked the DRM mechanism on different occasions that the JCPOA was violated. The last time that we invoked the DRM was in response to lack of commitments by the EU partners. So this is a mechanism that every member of the JCPOA can apply, and we have used our rights in accordance with the JCPOA to benefit from the dividends that are supposed to be given to Iran. Our main purpose is to show that we have a complaint and the Joint Commission of the JCPOA has to study this complaint. We have sent our letter to the head of the EU Commission, and we hope that our concerns and our complaints will be taken into account by the Joint Commission.

ACT: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued two reports in 2020 detailing its investigation into past, possible undeclared nuclear activities and materials and its unmet requests to inspect two facilities in Iran. After these reports were issued, the agency’s Board of Governors passed a resolution calling on Iran to cooperate with the agency’s inquiries. Iran told the agency in June it is “willing to satisfy the agency’s requests” but certain “legal ambiguities” must be addressed first. What are the specific legal ambiguities that Iran wants addressed and how?

Ravanchi: First of all, Iran has continuously cooperated with the IAEA. Just look at the figures the IAEA produces. In 2019 almost 20 percent of all inspections, all over the world, have been done in Iran. That figure shows by itself that Iran is cooperating with the IAEA, so inspectors can go and visit different places in Iran. To say Iran is called to cooperate is not really an interesting argument, because Iran is cooperating with the IAEA. As for those specific places that they wanted to see, we were discussing with IAEA people in Iran, in fact the deputy director-general was in Iran, and we were discussing the issue with him. And our talks were advancing, and all of a sudden we witnessed a move in the IAEA Board of Governors to issue a resolution against Iran. That was very counterproductive because we were about to resolve the issue of the visits.

We have said time and again that the IAEA is a technical body. It should not be politicized, but unfortunately some countries, headed by the United States, are politicizing this organization. We think that the best way to address the problem is to adhere to the technical nature of this body. We are in contact with the IAEA, we are in contact with members of the Board of Governors in Vienna, and we hope that we can resolve this issue.

There are certain principles that we need to adhere to. We cannot rely on fake information or fake intelligence to conduct the business of the IAEA. Information given to the agency by the Israeli regime cannot be relied on because they have been very adamant in providing fake information, particularly with regards to Iran. So that is something that needs to be considered by the agency. If the agency has its own evidence, it has to show its evidence to Iran, not just duplicating what it was given by others.

Another point is that we have already closed the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) file back in 2015. We cannot allow this file to open again because we have already closed that, and the agency has issued a resolution on this. The Board of Governors has already issued a resolution for the closure of PMD. And alleged activities going back to 17 years ago is not something that the Board of Governors should be spending time to issue a resolution on. So these are the politicized activities I was referring to. Therefore, we think that we should continue our talks with the agency and with the members of the Board of Governors so that we can find a solution to the problem.

ACT: As you know, the Trump administration is seeking to extend the UN restrictions on Iran’s conventional arms sale that are set to expire in October per Security Council Resolution 2231 and U.S. officials say they will use the snapback mechanism in that resolution if necessary. A number of countries, including those still party to the JCPOA, oppose U.S. efforts and disagree with the U.S. legal interpretation that it is still entitled to use snapback. How do you expect this debate will play out in the Security Council? How would Iran respond if the Council agrees to extend the arms embargo or if the United States tries and somehow succeeds in snapping back UN sanctions under UNSC 2231?

Ravanchi: First of all, any move by the security Council to impose sanctions, military sanctions against Iran, is illegal, is against Resolution 2231. So, there's no legal room for the adoption of any resolution by the security Council to impose sanctions on Iran. The second issue is that the U.S. attempt is going to fail because the members of the Security Council are not prepared to accept the violation of Resolution 2231. As I said before, 2231 was adopted by consensus, by unanimity, in the Security Council, and that is part of international law. So, members of the Security Council today should be the last ones to adopt something against international law.

U.S. President Donald Trump displays his order reinstating sanctions on Iran after he announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Room at the White House on May 8, 2018.  (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)As far as the snap-back is concerned, it is really a very ridiculous proposition to consider the United States as a JCPOA participant because the U.S. is not a member. It has already said that it ceased its participation in the JCPOA, and it said this at the highest level. Just look at the announcement by the White House on May 8, 2018. It says the U.S. has ceased participation in the JCPOA. And high officials in the United States government have said that they are not going to refer to the JCPOA because they are not members of the JCPOA. At times the U.S. officials claimed that JCPOA and Resolution 2231 are two separate documents. While the U.S. has withdrawn from the JCPOA, it still claims to be a member of 2231. Apparently, they have not read resolution 2231. Resolution 2231 endorses the JCPOA, and the JCPOA is an annex to Resolution 2231. We are not talking about two separate documents. We are talking about one document and that is resolution 2231.

Resolution 2231 talks about JCPOA participants. It is not talking about 2231 participants, it talks about JCPOA participants. There are certain rights and certain obligations for JCPOA participants. Because the U.S. has withdrawn from the JCPOA, it cannot be considered a JCPOA participant. So, there is no legal basis for the U.S. claim to be a JCPOA participant. We believe that the United States cannot invoke the relevant provision in 2231 for bringing back the old resolutions. We have said very clearly that if arms embargoes are going to be back against Iran, Iran’s reaction will be harsh. We have different options available to us, and we do not rule out any political options that are available to Iran

ACT: Iran maintains that it will return to compliance with the JCPOA, if other parties meet their obligations. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has said he would reenter the JCPOA. If Biden is elected, or if the Trump administration were to express interest in rejoining the JCPOA, how quickly could such a return to compliance be accomplished once and if both sides agree to such an approach? Would Iran be open to follow-on talks with Washington and other JCPOA parties regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear program and other issues of mutual concern? What is the range of issues would Iran be willing to discuss in such a scenario?

Ravanchi: First of all, we are not interested to involve ourselves in U.S. domestic politics, so it is for the American people to decide who the next president should be. What is important for Iran, and for other countries, is the respect for international agreements, international law, that should be provided for by the U.S. government. It doesn't matter if it’s a Republican government or a Democratic government in the White House, the U.S. obligations should be respected by all U.S. governments. So, Resolution 2231 is part of international law, and the U.S. government has a legal obligation to observe the provisions of Resolution 2231. If the next administration, whoever that might be, is going to accept Resolution 2231 and implement the provisions of the JCPOA in all honesty, I believe there is room for the United States to join the other members of the JCPOA within the context of the Joint Commission to talk about different issues related to the Iran deal. That is something that we have to wait and see whether the U.S. will take that decision or not.

Another point I also have to emphasize is that Iran has suffered a lot after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. In the last couple of years, we have suffered a lot in terms of losing precious Iranian lives as a result of the U.S. sanctions, even on food and medicine. We have lost a lot in terms of economic issues. So, there is a good argument by Iran to seek compensation from the United States. There are the things that have to be borne in mind when we were talking about future moves by the United States to join the JCPOA again.

ACT: The rescheduled 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is planned for early 2021 and many states believe that this is a key opportunity to reaffirm international support for the treaty and the full and timely implementation of its goals and objectives. Will Iran use this opportunity to reaffirm its commitment as an NPT state party to forswear nuclear weapons and to meet its NPT safeguards obligations?

Ravanchi: Iran was the first country back in 1974 to initiate a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly calling for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. Iran has also been observing its International obligations based on the NPT, so Iran is in good standing in terms of its respect for international law. We are going to have the opportunity in January 2021 to discuss different aspects of the NPT within the review mechanism. Definitely, Iran and other non-nuclear-weapon states will stress the fact that nuclear-weapon states have not been up to their obligations based on the relevant provision of the NPT.

Another point is in regard to the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone and free from other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. As you know for the last couple of years, the UN General Assembly has been seized of this matter. Last year we had the first conference on this important issue. But unfortunately, Israel, with a known stockpile of nuclear warheads, has not shown any interest to join the effort to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. I believe the next NPT review conference is also a good opportunity for all member states to call on the Israeli regime to join others in putting all of their unsafeguarded nuclear facilities under the supervision of the IAEA.

Iranian workers stand at the heavy water production plant in Arak when it opened in August 2006. The plant was to provide heavy water for the site's research reactor, which was later modified by the terms of 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. (Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)ACT: Back to the question of Iran’s approach to the 10th NPT Review Conference, do you plan to use this particular conference—an important one, the 10th review, 50 years after the treaty’s entry into force—to reaffirm Iran’s commitment to the NPT and all of its goals and to Iran’s future safeguards obligations. And on the zone issue, there will also be another meeting on the UN conference in November convened by the secretary-general. What specifically do you believe could and should be achieved at that November meeting and at the NPT review conference in the context of the objective of advancing the discussions toward the zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East?

Ravanchi: On the first question, Iran’s position remains the same that there are certain obligations that nuclear-weapon-states have to honor. And the non-nuclear-weapon states are of the conviction that the nuclear-weapon-states have not observed their obligations. This is an important issue for non-nuclear-weapon states, and that issue will be brought up in the review conference. Regarding the nuclear-weapon-free zone, I believe that while we have a conference dealing specifically with this issue, we are of the opinion that the NPT review conference is also another avenue that should be considered to discuss this important issue because some countries were not eager to participate in or support the conference for the establishment of such a zone in the Middle East. Therefore, in the NPT review conference there is another opportunity for all members to discuss this important issue and try to support the establishment of such a zone and first and foremost to force the Israeli regime to accept joining others to discuss the establishment of such a zone in the Middle East.

ACT: Is it your expectation that the 10th review conference will still be taking place in January?

Ravanchi: It's too early to predict what exactly will happen in January. It depends on the situation at the time, because nobody can predict what the situation related to the pandemic is in January. If the situation is the same as what we had in March, I believe we can expect another postponement. But I suppose the way things are developing in New York City, I think and hope that the conference will convene as scheduled.


Iran’s UN ambassador sets out the case against U.S. actions in the Security Council.

A Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone: Are We Any Closer Now?

September 2020
By Tomisha Bino

The goal of establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East has received new life after 22 nations met in New York in November 2019 for the first formal session of a long-awaited conference process that will hold annual meetings. The session’s outcome was considered positive by most observers, with reactions ranging from calling it a success to some being pleasantly surprised that it went much better than expected.

Sima Bahous, Jordan's ambassador to the United Nations, presided over the November 2019 meeting on establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. (Photo: Manuel Elias/UN)A closer examination of those assessments reveals that the bar for approval was not very high. Nearly all states in the region participated in the conference, 21 members of the Arab League and Iran; significantly, Israel chose to stay away. The discussion included general and thematic debates that allowed states to express their positions on core issues related to the zone, and the conference concluded by issuing a short political declaration. This is what success looks like for a process that has barely seen any progress since its inception in 1974. To sustain and grow the meeting’s momentum, the regional states that have committed to create a successful process to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East must agree first on the scope of such a treaty and securing the participation of all regional states.

Several Milestones, Little Progress

The pursuit of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East dates back decades and has moved slowly, with a variety of states creating periodic initiatives to revitalize the process. The first major milestone took place in 1974, when the UN General Assembly approved a resolution titled “Establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region of the Middle East.”1 That resolution was proposed by Iran and Egypt, and the assembly has since adopted it without a vote from 1980 to 2018.

Little happened in the initial years, until the 1991 Madrid peace conference created the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) Working Group to complement bilateral discussions between Israel and its immediate neighbors. The working group met from 1992 to 1996, and it aimed to foster regional security by discussing conceptual and operational confidence-building and arms control measures applicable to the Middle East. Yet, due to continuing disagreements over the purpose of the process and the focus of the discussions, the dialogue collapsed in 1995 and ultimately was suspended the next year.

The next significant milestone occurred at the 1995 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review and Extension Conference, where NPT states-parties adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of an “effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their delivery systems.”2 The resolution was co-sponsored by Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States.

In 2010 the NPT review conference also adopted a consensus action plan containing a number of practical steps meant to create “a process leading to the full implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East,” which included the convening of a conference in 2012 “on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon states.” In addition, the action plan included the appointment of a facilitator and host government for the conference, with the co-sponsors of the 1995 resolution acting as co-conveners. In November 2012, due to divergent views about the conference agenda and desired outcomes, the conference was postponed with no new date being fixed. Following the postponement, the appointed facilitator, Jaakko Laajava of Finland, convened five informal consultations in Switzerland with all regional states and the co-conveners to discuss the conference modalities, agenda, and other relevant elements. Yet, the previous points of divergence could not be bridged.

Six years later, in December 2018, the General Assembly adopted a new decision, based on an Arab Group draft resolution, to entrust the UN secretary-general to convene a conference, beginning in 2019 and annually thereafter, “until the conference concludes the elaboration of a legally binding treaty establishing a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”3 In explaining its reasons behind putting forth the draft decision, Egypt, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, described the move as “long overdue” and a way to break the stalemate on the implementation of 1974 resolution and the 1995 resolution.4

The Arab Group’s frustration with the lack of progress on the zone had been mounting, especially after the postponement of the 2012 conference. The Arab Group was particularly dismayed by the United States blaming the group for the failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference to reach a final consensus document5 and by U.S. officials asserting in 2018 that the next NPT review conference would be “ill-suited” for discussing the zone and “cannot be the primary mechanism for progress on a Middle East WMD-free zone.”6 These reasons could be seen as some key motivators behind the Arab Group’s decision to find a new route to cement the position of the Middle Eastern zone in international forums.

As empowered by the 2018 resolution on the zone, the secretary-general made plans for the November 2019 conference and invited all states in the region, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Implementation Support Unit.

Israel and the United States announced they would not participate. Israel explained its decision by saying that the conference was yet another initiative aimed at singling out Israel and imposing a process on it that Israel was not involved or consulted in creating.7 The United States argued that the meeting was an Arab Group effort to dictate terms on and single out Israel, as well as an attempt to weaponize multilateral diplomacy.8

Without these key players, the five-day conference agenda began on November 18, 2019, and included official statements by all the participants followed by a thematic debate. Several sessions were devoted to negotiating the rules of procedure for the conference, where Egypt, in order to prevent any single country from holding the conference process hostage, took the position that only substantive decisions would be made by consensus, with procedural matters being put to a vote. For its part, Iran feared finding itself in an automatic minority among the 22 Arab participating states and insisted that all decisions should be made by consensus.

The participants failed to agree on the matter, leading conference president Sima Bahous of Jordan to issue a statement that “pending the final agreement on the text of the rules of procedure of the conference, consensus will be the only method of decision-making on procedural and substantive issues, except for rulings by the president on procedural motions related to points of order, and suspension or adjournment of meetings.”9 Although the rules of procedure will continue to be negotiated in future sessions, the conference was able to issue a political declaration and two decisions.

The political declaration reaffirmed the participating states’ commitment to pursue “a legally binding treaty to establish a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by consensus by the States of the region” and extended an “open-ended invitation to all states of the region…to join the process.”10 The first decision determined that the presidency of the conference would follow the English alphabetic order: Kuwait would assume the presidency for the next conference from Jordan.11 The second decision determined the timing of future conferences, which will be held annually in the third week of November.12

Fault Lines Revealed

A common feature of the WMD-free zone debate has been the seemingly consistent and common Arab position, spearheaded by Egypt or the Arab League. The November conference for the first time gave each Arab state the opportunity to present its positions on, concerns about, and expectations from the process. It also gave Iran the opportunity to engage with the process and elaborate on its position, which has changed very little since it co-sponsored the 1974 resolution, as Iran was not included in the ACRS Working Group and was present in only one of six informal consultations in the 2010s. Iran’s participation has already created a more transparent and credible process, highlighting diverse threat perceptions and positions among the Arab Group and moving away from the “Israel versus the rest” dichotomy.

The first session of the November conference showed two primary fault lines in the positions of the participating states: the scope of the resulting treaty and the impact of the continued absence of Israel from the negotiations on the prospects of establishing a treaty.

Scope of the WMD-Free Zone

The 1995 resolution defines the scope as a “zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.” The General Assembly decision that created the November conference process does not make an explicit reference to delivery systems, although it does take as its terms of reference the 1995 resolution, which does so. Indeed, some statements by the participating states seemed to challenge the 1995 definition of scope, with some suggesting a narrower scope for prohibitions and others hinting at the inclusion of new ones.

In its opening statement, Iran insisted that “the scope of the treaty…should merely cover nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.”13 The United Arab Emirates adopted a more open-ended approach, saying that the obligations required under a future treaty should include but not be limited to “renouncing the development of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction…and related activities.”14

Danny Danon, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations speaks to the Security Council on Nov. 20, 2019. A meeting to discuss establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East was held the same week, but Israel did not participate. (Evan Schneider/UN)Adding to the debate over which weapons would be prohibited in the zone is uncertainty over how these prohibitions would be implemented, including questions on how resulting obligations will be verified. Can verification be conducted by the existing three global nonproliferation and disarmament treaties, namely the NPT, Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and BWC? Will these need to be supplemented by additional, regional measures or by creating a unique regional regime?

Significantly, not all Middle Eastern states are members of these three existing regimes. Israel is the only state in the region that is not party to the NPT. Egypt has not signed the CWC, and Israel has signed but not ratified it. Israel has also not signed the BWC, while Egypt has signed but not ratified it. How a WMD-free zone treaty will address these discrepancies in treaty membership is not clear.

Iran and Syria demanded that Israel’s accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state should be the first step toward realizing a zone, and Iraq further demanded that Israel join the CWC and BWC.15 The UAE, on the other hand, said it expected that all states of the region would “join and reiterate their commitments to international treaties and conventions” related to the WMD-free zone.16

In subsequent days, it became clear that inclusion of delivery systems in the scope of the future treaty is a sticking point. During the general debate, Egypt put forth an interpretation of the scope, saying that once nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons were eliminated, then the question of delivery systems resolves itself due to the absence of the payload. No state pushed to resolve this issue during the first session. Given this was the first conference, states shared their positions on the matter, leaving how to address them for future meetings.

Ballistic missile and WMD considerations are linked in the Middle East, and several states in the region have pursued ballistic missile and WMD capabilities to respond to asymmetries in conventional weapons capability and to deter attacks from the outside.17 Therefore, it is almost certain that the issue of delivery systems generally and ballistic missiles in particular will remain contentious. Eleven Middle Eastern countries possess ballistic missiles, and some of them consider these as a main pillar of their defense and deterrence strategy.18 Including delivery systems in the treaty’s scope might decrease the security of some of these states, creating a disincentive for these states to join the zone. For example, following the heavy Iraqi missile attacks on Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988, Iran saw it as crucial for it develop its own ballistic missile capabilities.19 Today, Iran possess the largest and most diverse arsenal in the region, while Israel’s is the most sophisticated.

Some of the statements from the first session of the November conference also reflect diverse positions about the security of regional states. Some noted concerns that go beyond the WMD threat, such as rising regional tensions and the threat of terrorism and the need for a regional security framework to address all issues that were raised.

Addressing Israel’s Absence

Israel’s absence from the negotiations and the unlikelihood that it will join the 2020 session of the conference present challenges to the sustainability of the process. If Israel continues to boycott the conference, it will be difficult for the conference to remain a credible process and might run the risk of losing the buy-in of some of the participating states.

Participating states made clear their commitment to the inclusivity of the process and even kept a seat open behind a nameplate that read “Israel” throughout the conference. From Israel’s point of view, however, its exclusion started with its exclusion from consultations on the resolution that created the November conference process. Israel therefore opposes the entire process.

To address the possible adverse effects of Israel’s continued absence in future sessions, Egypt pointed out that other treaties have been negotiated and have entered into force without all the states that would subsequently sign and ratify the treaty being present from the outset.20 Most notably, this happened with the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which created a nuclear weapons-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This argument, however, was not accepted by all participating states. In its statement, Algeria said that “the full participation, in good faith, by all the states in the Middle East, without exception in this negotiation is a key condition to ensure the credibility of the treaty.”21 The Iranian view was that the U.S. and Israeli nonparticipation in the conference “is a major hurdle in its success. Practically, any possible treaty on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East will be meaningless and ineffective in the absence of an entity” possessing all WMD types.22

Given the close coordination among the Arab states on this issue through the Arab League Senior Officials Committee, especially in the lead-up to the first session of the November conference, there are arguably still differences among the Arab League states on the approach to the negotiation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Israel has already ruled out participating in the November conference process. In a response to the 2018 Arab Group draft resolution on convening the zone conference through the UN General Assembly, Israel voted against it. The move broke the consensus on this resolution, which had stood since 1980. Explaining its vote, Israel said that “by imposing a new unilateral and destructive resolution entitled ‘Convening a Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction,’ the Arab group has altered the status quo” and that “from now on Israel will not cooperate with regional arms control initiatives.”23

Israel has always argued that a WMD-free zone in the Middle East must emanate from the region, should be based on arrangements freely concluded, and involve direct, regional talks on arms control and regional security. Such a zone, Israel says, cannot be mandated by states outside the region at organizations such as the NPT review conference or the UN General Assembly. From Israel’s viewpoint, the November conference process does not satisfy either of these conditions.

What About the NPT?

Following the 2018 decision to create the November conference process, a key question emerged: What will this mean for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, which has now been postponed to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic? In most review conferences, the Middle East issue has been contentious and has been blamed or used as a scapegoat, depending on the narrator, for the failure to reach consensus on a final document. When the November conference process was established, many hoped that it would relieve the pressure on the NPT review conference. Whether this will be the case is not quite clear yet. In fact, the Arabs suggested that precisely because they were accused of preventing a final document in the 2015 NPT Review and Extension Conference, they turned to the UN General Assembly.

Frustrated by the lack of progress on creation of the zone, the Arab Group has always turned to international forums to seek progress. These forums include the UN General Assembly, the NPT review conferences, and the IAEA general conferences. An indication this approach may persist can be found in a September 2019 Arab League Ministerial Council resolution, which “reasserts the need to continue working toward holding the [November] conference and working in parallel in other relevant international forums to establish the zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”24 As for how the Arab states view the link between the November conference and the NPT review conference, it is important to remember that the Arab Group regards the 1995 resolution as an achievement in internationalizing the process. Although generally satisfied by the 2019 November conference, the Arab Group will not want to lose the leverage it acquired in other international forums. The final declaration of the Arab League consultative meeting prior to the 2019 November conference “requested the UN secretary-general to submit a report to the next NPT review conference on the results of the first conference on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and to reaffirm the responsibility of the NPT depositary states and the regional states of ensuring the success of the free zone conference and establishing the zone.”25

The November conference is a space dedicated to negotiating a treaty for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, but the zone will likely feature prominently at NPT review conferences, albeit to a lesser extent. The November conference does not take the zone issue out of the NPT, but it could ease some of the pressure the zone issue usually creates at the review conference. The dynamic between both forums possibly could be like that between the zone in the NPT and the IAEA General Conference agenda item on Israeli nuclear capabilities: if the issue struggles in one forum, the Arab Group can increase the pressure in another. The participation of the nuclear-weapon states in the November conference, especially the NPT depositary states, could also have a positive effect on the NPT review conferences by giving the former legitimacy and signaling support.

The 2020 NPT Review Conference’s postponement to 2021 means that it will probably take place after the November conference process has convened two meetings, in 2019 and 2020. In addition, a three-day virtual workshop on good practices and lessons learned of existing nuclear-weapon-free zones was organized in July 2020 by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and in consultation with the president of the first session. If the second session can maintain or even build on the good faith atmosphere of the first, then this could further ease pressure on the postponed NPT review conference. It can be expected, however, that the Arab Group will demand that the final document take note of the process and its so-called success.

The Road Ahead

Momentum for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, particularly demonstrated by the interest of the states that participated in the first session of the November conference and the informal workshop, is promising, and Middle Eastern states have shown that they are committed to engaging substantively with the issue.

The November conference participants should heed some of the lessons learned from previous milestones in the history of the zone, where some progress seemed possible, such as with the ACRS and the informal consultations in Switzerland. In both instances, progress was possible because they were conducted through direct, regional dialogue and there were at least attempts, albeit ultimately unsuccessful in the case of the informal consultations in Glion and Geneva, to have a broader agenda that included arms control and regional security matters.

The Arab Group can be expected to continue its support for the November conference process. It sees the conference as an important achievement and one toward which it has worked for a long time. The 2018 UN General Assembly resolution ensured that the process pushed forward in part by closing previous loopholes, such as the one that allowed postponing indefinitely the 2012 conference that was mandated by the 2010 NPT Review Conference action plan.

If success in the November conference is ever to mean progress toward realizing a zone treaty in which all regional members would be members, the process will have to take into account the threat perceptions of all regional states by creating a process that addresses their concerns and interests. If a parallel process were to be established, possibly even taking place in the region, to cover concrete regional security concerns, this could create an incentive for Israel to participate in a process on regional security that includes the creation of a WMD-free zone, demonstrating that there is a desire to address shared security challenges and this new process is not designed merely to single out Israel. That being said, convincing Israel that such a parallel process was initiated in good faith will be difficult.

The current international and regional security and disarmament climate is not the most opportune for a new process on the Middle East, but the November conference process creates a space for the states of the region to lay some groundwork for a future WMD-free zone until the right combination of timing and personalities can help facilitate its realization.


1. UN General Assembly, “Request for the Inclusion of an Item in the Provisional Agenda of the Twenty-Ninth Session: Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Region of the Middle East,” A/9693/Add.2, August 22, 1974.

2. 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document: Part I,” NPT/CONF.1995/32 (Part I), 1995, annex (“Resolution on the Middle East”).

3. UN General Assembly, “Convening a Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction,” 73/546, n.d. (decision of December 22, 2018).

4. UN General Assembly, “Thematic Discussion on Specific Subjects and Introduction and Consideration of Draft Resolutions and Decisions Submitted Under All Disarmament and International Security Agenda Items,” A/C.1/73/PV.12, October 19, 2018, pp. 13-14 (Hassan remarks).

5. Rose Gottemoeller, “Remarks at the Conclusion of the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference,” May 22, 2015, https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/us/2015/242778.htm.

6. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Establishing Regional Conditions Conducive to a Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Delivery Systems: Working Paper Submitted by the United States of America,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.11/WP.33, April 19, 2018.

7. UN General Assembly, “Explanation of Vote by Mr. Ofer Moreno, Director, Arms Control Department, Division for Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel.”

8. Christopher Ashley Ford, “Whither a Middle East WMD-Free Zone?” (remarks, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, August 2, 2019), https://www.nonproliferation.org/assistant-secretary-ford-on-efforts-toward-a-middle-east-wmd-free-zone/.

9. UN General Assembly, “Report of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Work of Its First Session,” A/CONF.236/6, November 28, 2019.

10. Ibid., annex (“Political Declaration Adopted at the First Session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction”).

11. UN General Assembly, “Presidency of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction,” A/CONF.236/DEC.4, November 22, 2019.

12. UN General Assembly, “Dates of the Annual Sessions of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction,” A/CONF.236/DEC.3, November 22, 2019.

13. Majid Takht Ravanchi, Statement before the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, November 18, 2019, http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23557431/iran.pdf (hereinafter Ravanchi statement).

14. Hamad Alkaabi, “Statement by the United Arab Emirates,” November 18, 2019, http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23557439/uae.pdf.

15. Ibid.; Bashar Jaafari, Statement before the First Session Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, November 19, 2019, http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23557434/syrian.pdf (in Arabic); Mohammed Hussein Bahr Aluloom, Statement before the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, n.d., http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23557428/egypt-oda.pdf (in Arabic).

16. Alkaabi, “Statement by the United Arab Emirates.”

17. Mohamed Kadry Said, “Missile Proliferation in the Middle East: A Regional Perspective,” Disarmament Forum, No. 2 (2001), https://www.peacepalacelibrary.nl/ebooks/files/UNIDIR_pdf-art75.pdf.

18. The states are Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

19. Nasser Hadian and Shani Hormozi, “WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East: Iran’s Security Imperatives,” in A WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East: Regional Perspectives, ed. Paolo Foradori and Martin B. Malin, Discussion Paper no. 2013-09, November 2013, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/dp_2013-09.pdf.

20. “Statement by the Delegation of the Arab Republic of Egypt at the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction,” n.d., http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23329566/egypt-final.pdf.

21. “Statement by H.E. Ambassador and Permanent Representative Mr. Sofiane Mimouni,” November 18, 2019, http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23557436/algeria.pdf (in Arabic).

22. Ravanchi statement.

23. UN General Assembly, “Explanation of Vote by Mr. Ofer Moreno.”

24. League of Arab States Ministerial Council, “Establishing the Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East,” Resolution 8419, September 2019, http://www.lasportal.org/ar/councils/lascouncil/Documents/%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA%20152.pdf (in Arabic).

25. League of Arab States, “Closing Statement of the Consultative Meeting of the League’s Ministerial Council,” September 23, 2019, http://www.lasportal.org/ar/councils/lascouncil/Documents/%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%86%20%D9%86%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%8A%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8317%2010.pdf (in Arabic).

Tomisha Bino is a program analyst with the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone project at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research.

A long-awaited process shows promise on creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

Ceasefires and Conventional Arms Control in the COVID-19 Pandemic

September 2020
By Simon Yazgi, Hardy Giezendanner, and Himayu Shiotani

The coronavirus disease COVID-19 has spread at an exponential rate since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in March 2020. The United Nations voiced its concerns early about the grave burden that the pandemic placed on people in conflict-affected environments, including its effects on already fragile and vulnerable health care, food security, and other essential services. Recognizing this, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on March 23 for a global ceasefire to support the response to the pandemic: “To warring parties, I say silence the guns, stop the artillery, end the airstrikes.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaks outside UN headquarters in New York in March, the month he called for a global ceasefire. (Photo: EuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images)Five months later, armed conflicts continue to rage in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and other countries while insecurity persists on all continents. As the spread of the pandemic escalates and fighting continues, conventional arms, ammunition, and explosives continue to flow, sometimes in greater quantities, into conflict and other environments affected by armed violence. Conventional arms, in particular their availability and misuse, remain a common denominator in situations affected by the pandemic and armed conflicts.

At this critical juncture, it is timely to explore if conventional arms control has a role in supporting the call for a global ceasefire. How does arms control fit in the UN Security Council’s toolbox? What more can be done by arms control actors to contribute to saving lives in the midst of the pandemic?

Ceasefires and Pandemics

Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic has garnered considerable support, and more than 180 UN members have backed it, as have more than 20 armed movements and other entities and more than 800 civil society organizations.1 Consensus was difficult to reach in the UN Security Council, and it was only on July 1 that it added its voice to the appeal, with the adoption of Resolution 2532. In addition to echoing the secretary-general’s demand for “a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations on its agenda,” the council also called on “all parties to armed conflicts to engage immediately in a durable humanitarian pause for at least 90 consecutive days.”2

Whereas the ceasefire appeal had broad support, its limited impact was recognized by the secretary-general in his briefing to the Security Council on July 2. Referring to the more than 20 ceasefires announced since his appeal, he noted that “the call yielded some positive results, but these have since expired or in some cases broken down.”3

In the COVID-19 context, ceasefires are a traditional peacemaking tool that is being used to counter a phenomenon that, in UN parlance, is a “nontraditional threat.” In this case, ceasefires are being used in a manner similar to how they might be leveraged in peacemaking. Ceasefires do not address the underlying causes of a conflict, just the symptoms, which are the violence and the tools that fuel it, that is, the weapons. Ceasefires can support peace talks by demonstrating parties’ willingness to show restraint, stop the fighting, and establish favorable conditions for talks. Currently, their use is similar: they do not directly address the pandemic, but could provide some respite in the fighting and allow others to do so.

The majority of the ceasefires announced since the appeal have been unilateral, only engaging the party that declared them and with an expiration date. For example, in Yemen the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen “determined to create a conducive environment” for the UN envoy’s efforts by announcing a two-week pause in the fighting “to allow for appropriate conditions…to discuss [the secretary-general’s] proposals on steps and mechanisms to implement a permanent ceasefire in Yemen.”4 Similarly, in the only response that made reference to the Security Council’s resolution, the Colombian Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) rebel movement suggested talks with the government on a 90-day bilateral ceasefire, noting that “if this bilateral cessation [of hostilities] is agreed, a climate of humanitarian détente would be created, favorable to restart the peace dialogue between the Colombian government and the ELN.”5

In the Philippines, simultaneous unilateral ceasefires were declared by the government and the New People’s Army (NPA) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These were not negotiated between the parties, and although unilateral, they overlapped in time, demonstrating a shared desire to deescalate violence in the face of the pandemic. The NPA, “by way of direct response to the call of UN secretary-general,”6 mirrored a governmental ceasefire declared from March 19 to April 15. The NPA then unilaterally extended it by two weeks, but allowed it to lapse on May 1, accusing the government of continuing operations against its forces.

Unsurprisingly, the initial ceasefires did not last. Their purpose was never to end a conflict, but at best to signal a party’s goodwill to facilitate responses to the pandemic by demonstrating restraint from fighting and, in some cases, their willingness to engage in peace negotiations. This could change if states commit and implement Resolution 2532 to provide a unique framework to help sustain the monitoring and implementation of global ceasefires and the 90-day humanitarian pause. This is where arms control has a role to play.

An Entry Point for Arms Control

Embedded within Resolution 2532 is an invitation by the Security Council to the secretary-general to report on measures that relevant UN mechanisms, from peace operations to special political missions and UN country teams, have taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic. This call empowers the secretary-general to monitor and report on measures taken by the UN to address the pandemic “in countries in situations of armed conflict or affected by humanitarian crises” ranging from support in the areas of humanitarian access and sanctions to arms control and related confidence-building measures.7

Children walk near damaged buildings in Benghazi, Libya in 2019. Conventional arms control measures in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and many other spots could support the implementation of ceasefires in those areas. (Photo: Giles Clarke/UNOCHA/Getty Images)Seizing this entry point is crucial for arms control. It provides a clear opportunity to establish the relevance and utility of arms control as an essential tool to address security and humanitarian risks arising in situations of armed conflict that are also affected by the pandemic. Conventional arms control measures could be monitored and reported by the UN and other relevant stakeholders in supporting the call for a global ceasefire.

The short- and long-term success of any peace process can be bolstered by technical security-related measures to build confidence and manage situations. These often include activities related to regulating weapons and ammunition that are defined largely by the nature of the conflict, the arms and tactics used, and the types and disposition of forces. These measures may vary depending on when they are instituted in a peace process. For example, at the beginning of a peace process, when parties are trying to build momentum toward peace talks or early in negotiations, ceasefires are primarily about building confidence, showing restraint, and creating space for negotiations to proceed.

Most of the ceasefires announced during the pandemic fit this description. Because they are declared rather than negotiated, such arrangements tend to be light in concrete commitments, but various responses to the COVID-19 ceasefire appeal have included specific arms control activities.

  • A prohibition on certain types of attacks or the use of certain types of weapons. For example, in a non-COVID-19 related ceasefire between the government and separatist groups in Ukraine, “measures to strengthen the ceasefire” that were agreed on July 27 included a ban on the use of “any types of aerial vehicles” and on “the deployment of heavy weapons in and around settlements.”8
  • Refraining from moving troops and weapons to avoid being seen as taking advantage of a situation. Further to the secretary-general’s appeal, the Southern Cameroons Defence Force declared a unilateral ceasefire and requested government forces to “stand down and remain in their current position.”9
  • Refraining from offensive actions. In the Philippines, the NPA announced that it would “cease and desist from carrying out offensive military operations” and that “active-defense operations shall only be undertaken in the fact of clear and imminent danger and actual attack by hostile forces.”10 In Darfur the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army Abdul Wahid adopted a similar stance.11
  • No show of weapons or limitations on the movement of troops with weapons outside of duty. On March 21 in Mali, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad initiated Operation Tagaste with the stated aim of strengthening security and preventing the spread of COVID-19. This included the requirement for those carrying weapons to have an authorization to do so.12
  • When such activities bear fruit and allow for further measures to be taken to control the arms, a sequence of steps may be considered and, where appropriate, reported on.
  • Disengagement of forces usually by moving out of the direct line of fire or range of weapons. In Ukraine, this has previously involved the “disengagement of units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the armed formations of individual areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine.”13
  • Withdrawal of troops or weapons from certain areas. The Free Papua Organization offered the Indonesian government a ceasefire in an effort to contain the pandemic and conditioned this on the government withdrawing “non-organic” troops from Papua.
  • Redeployment of forces and arms from one tactical military position to another. In its initial offer of a ceasefire, the ELN asked that the government order the quartering of its troops.14

These measures can be further supported by the establishment of a variety of zones governed by rules on the presence and use of weapons in the designated areas.

  • Demilitarized zones, defined in the Fourth Geneva Convention as areas from which “all combatants, as well as mobile weapons and mobile military equipment, must have been evacuated”.
  • Restricted zones, where certain activities or certain types of weaponry or activities may be prohibited.
  • Coordination zones, where movement of the parties’ forces must be announced and coordinated, usually through ceasefire monitoring structures.

Although none of the COVID-19 ceasefires have progressed to this stage so far, such zones have been used in previous peace processes in Colombia, Western Sahara, Ukraine, and the Korean peninsula, among others.

Increasingly, transitional arms control measures are also being used to regulate arms during a predefined period, often as a part of ceasefires that accompany negotiations or a political transition. These seek to limit or control the parties’ use of certain weapons without necessarily removing their access to them. This can be useful in situations where there is a need to build trust, deescalate violence, or create a favorable environment for talks. They can include elements of transitional weapon and ammunition management15 as the parties are asked to strengthen oversight and governance over their arms and ammunition. For example, in Libya the Security Council has repeatedly asked that, in order to facilitate coherent international assistance and support, arrangements are made to secure uncontrolled arms, ammunition, and related material to ensure their management.16 Such efforts not only reduce the risk of accidental explosions, but also ensure that those materiel are not utilized by perpetrators and other unauthorized end users to fabricate improvised explosive devices.

These conventional arms control and related confidence-building measures contribute directly to support ceasefire implementation. As a part of efforts undertaken to address situations of armed conflict during the COVID-19 pandemic, they merit close monitoring and reporting by the UN and other relevant stakeholders.

Humanitarian Pauses and Arms Control

Another unique opportunity provided by Resolution 2532 is the call by the Security Council for a 90-day humanitarian pause to save lives in situations of armed conflict during the global pandemic. The UN defines this as “a temporary cessation of hostilities purely for humanitarian purposes. Requiring the agreement of all relevant parties, it is usually for a defined period and specific geographic area where the humanitarian activities are to be carried out.”17 Arms control is equally relevant in supporting this humanitarian pause.

First, arms control measures can support the humanitarian pause when parties to a conflict refrain from certain types of attacks and the use of specific weapons categories that may cause grave human suffering and an escalation of violence. More specifically, the humanitarian pause serves to remind all parties of their international humanitarian law obligations to strictly refrain from indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks. This includes disengaging or otherwise not using specific weapons categories and calibers that cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or affect civilians indiscriminately,18 such as certain types of heavy explosive weapons with wide-area effects and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), especially in populated or urban areas, where effects have reverberations, including on immediate access to health care and longer-term humanitarian recovery efforts.

In May, the secretary-general reported that, “for the ninth year running, 90 percent of people killed by explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians.”19 The use of such weapons by conflict parties have had devastating impacts on civilians and civilian objects and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, among others. Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, noted that a “change of behavior” is urgently needed20 and, in considering the humanitarian response to the pandemic in July, added that “the choices are there” for conflict parties to “choose to respect the ceasefire.”21

Second, the humanitarian pause provides an opportunity to further reduce risks to civilian populations from weapons and explosive hazards remaining after fighting ends, such as obsolete weapons, explosive remnants, and unexploded ordnances. These arms control measures include weapon and ammunition management; the clearance, collection, and disposal of arms and ammunition, mines, and other explosive remnants of war (ERW); and risk awareness and educational efforts on the ground to reduce the safety and security risks to people and communities posed by these weapons.

For example, in 2015 during the Colombian peace negotiations, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) and the government agreed to the joint clearance of mines. This was a strong confidence-building measure, and when the final agreement was signed in 2016, it included provisions that the FARC-EP contribute to the clearance of mines, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance or ERW to improve the safety and security of communities and provide humanitarian access.22A Colombian rebel stands by as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionares de Colombia-Ejercito del Pueblo ratifies a peace accord with the government on Sept. 23, 2016. The two sides agreed to undertake joint landmine clearance activities during the peace negotiations, and the final agreement included measures for removing explosives that endangered civilian communities. (Photo: by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Similar to “demilitarized” or “restricted” zones of ceasefire arrangements, local and initially time-bound weapons-free zones23 can be established to reduce arms-related risks to conflict- and armed violence-affected communities. Context-specific weapons-free zones have been used in many countries, including Colombia, El Salvador, the Philippines, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and the Solomon Islands. Some of these included the signing of official declarations, statutes, or commitments by parties. All of them have aimed to build peace in postconflict settings, reduce crime-related violence, or prevent election-related armed violence. More recently, a local weapons-free zone was established in an area heavily affected by armed and criminal violence in the Central African Republic capital Bangui to decrease intercommunal tensions and support a wider peace process.24

Unfortunately, the potential for the 90-day humanitarian pause has not been realized. It was initially hoped that conflict parties may be more receptive to the Security Council’s call, but more than a month after its request for an “immediate” humanitarian pause, none has been established. Despite this, parties in conflict can undertake arms control measures during the pause that can be supported or monitored by the UN and other relevant stakeholders.

Addressing the Supply Side

The success of the call for a global ceasefire and the 90-day humanitarian pause, respectively, is partly dependent on creating an environment where violence can be prevented or reduced while enabling conditions for talks to take place. This also requires steps to address the supply side of arms proliferation into conflict and at-risk situations.

The most applicable supply-side arms control measure to situations of armed conflict and the council’s agenda is adherence by all states, not just those party to a conflict, to UN arms embargoes. This would require full and complete state adherence to UN-mandated arms embargo regimes that prohibit or limit the direct or indirect supply, sale, transfer, or reexport of arms and related material to embargoed parties and individuals. It also involves monitoring of the implementation of such arms embargoes and reporting by Security Council-mandated entities of violations including the UN. When violations are found, the council should hold parties accountable.25

The strategic use of targeted arms embargos can support ceasefires and peace mediation efforts by preventing spoilers from accessing weapons. For example, in 2015 in South Sudan, the threat of sanctions was used to pressure parties to accept a ceasefire and agree to a negotiated settlement.26 Although an agreement was signed, following continuous violations, sanctions were eventually imposed, and an arms embargo was established in 2018. In Central African Republic, an arms embargo established in 2014 has aimed to impede individuals and groups from committing violence, lay down their arms, and implement peace agreements. Since then, the implementation of the arms embargo has served as one form of a benchmark to help the UN Security Council to monitor and reassess progress made by the government. In Libya, an arms embargo regime established in 2011 has aimed to bring parties to a ceasefire and an inclusive transitional process, as well as constrain all parties from undermining the peace process.27 Unfortunately, some of the very countries that authorized the embargo have been accused of violating it.

Above and beyond implementing and monitoring arms embargoes, there is the responsibility of all states to exercise responsible arms transfers and constraint when considering providing supplies into conflict and at-risk environments. This includes prohibiting transfers of arms when there is a risk that those supplies may be used to commit grave crimes that violate international human rights and humanitarian laws. Further, when a decision has been taken to supply an item, states have the responsibility to mitigate the risks of diversion to unauthorized recipients, that is, preventing that they fall in the “wrong hands,” through the conduct of comprehensive export and diversion risk assessments at pretransfer stages and, where substantial risks are identified, to restrict transfers including the reexport of arms, ammunition, and related material, as well as the enhancement and application of systems to better control their end users and uses.28 Such efforts have had better successes when postdelivery control measures, including postdelivery notification and verification mechanisms and, in cases where there is suspected diversion, tracing are instituted, as was done in Somalia to supplement supply-side export and transit controls.

Masks and Muzzling Guns

The COVID-19 pandemic and violent conflicts continue to create victims despite efforts to the contrary. Although the calls for global ceasefires and humanitarian pauses may appear to have done little to reduce the impact of the latter, steps have been taken in each case to avoid escalation while longer-term solutions are found. Just as social distancing or masks are concrete actions to inhibit the spread of the virus while a vaccine is sought, arms control measures can help prevent a conflict from intensifying while peace efforts get underway.

Arms control needs to be better understood by conflict prevention and management actors as being one of the fundamental components to prevent and reduce violence and create a conducive environment for peace talks. Agreement on and implementation of such concrete arms control actions—not words or promises—may not bring immediate peace, but it can help build it. Reducing weapons-related risks will not only bolster any ceasefires or humanitarian pauses, it can provide impetus to go beyond a temporary deescalation in violence and open the “precious windows for diplomacy” to which Guterres referred in his original appeal.


1. António Guterres, "Remarks to Security Council Open Video-Teleconference on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Implications of COVID-19," July 2, 2020, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2020-07-02/remarks-security-council-maintenance-of-international-peace-and-security-implications-of-covid-19.

2. UN Security Council, S/RES/2532, July 1, 2020.

3. Guterres, "Remarks to Security Council Open Video-Teleconference on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security.”

4. “The Joint Forces Command of the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen: Announcing a One-Month Extension of a Comprehensive Ceasefire in Yemen," Saudi Press Agency, April 24, 2020.

5. Comando Central Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), “Propuesta del ELN al Presidente Iván Duque Cese el Fuego Bilateral,” July 7, 2020.

6. Communist Party of the Philippines Central Committee, “Ceasefire Order: 00.00H of 26 March 2020 to 23.59H of 15 April 2020," March 24, 2020, https://cpp.ph/statement/ceasefire-order-00-00h-of-26-march-2020-to-23-59h-of-15-april-2020/.

7. See Richard Gowan and Ashish Pradhan, “Salvaging the Security Council’s Coronavirus Response,” International Crisis Group, August 4, 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/salvaging-security-councils-coronavirus-response.

8. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), “Press Statement of Special Representative Grau After the Regular Meeting of Trilateral Contact Group,” July 22, 2020.

9. Southern Cameroons Defence Force, statement of April 8, 2020.

10. Communist Party of the Philippines Central Committee, “Ceasefire Order.”

11. Abdul Wahid al Nur, “Response by Sudan Liberation Movement to UN Secretary-General and UNAMID on COVID-19 Crisis and Security Conditions in Darfur,” April 4, 2020, https://katakata.org/response-by-sudan-liberation-movement-to-un-secretary-general-and-unamid-on-covid-19-crisis-and-security-conditions-in-darfur/.

12. Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad, “Décision N˚ 006/2020/CD/CMA portant mise en place de l’opération dénommée TAGASTE,” March 21, 2020, http://mnlamov.net/oeil-sur-lazawad/605-decision-n-006-2020-cd.html.

13. “Framework Decision of the Trilateral Contact Group Relating to Disengagement of Forces and Hardware,” OSCE, September 21, 2016, https://www.osce.org/cio/266266.

14. ELN, “El ELN Frente a la Pandemia por el coronavirus COVID-19,” March 28, 2020.

15. UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), “The Role of Weapon and Ammunition Management in Preventing Conflict and Supporting Security Transitions: Preliminary Findings and Key Policy Considerations,” 2019, https://unidir.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/the-role-of-weapon-and-ammunition-management-in-preventing-conflict-and-supporting-security-transitions-en-773.pdf.

16. See UN Security Council, S/RES/2144, March 14, 2014, para. 6(c); UN Security Council, S/RES/2213, March 27, 2015, para. 9(b); UN Security Council, S/RES/2323, December 13, 2016, para. 2(iv); UN Security Council, S/RES/2376, September 14, 2017, para. 2(iv).

17. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Glossary of Terms: Pauses During Conflict,” June 2011, https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/dms/Documents/AccessMechanisms.pdf.

18. See “Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects as Amended on 21 December 2001,” https://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/40BDE99D98467348C12571DE0060141E/$file/CCW+text.pdf.

19. See António Guterres, “Remarks to the Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” May 27, 2020, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2020-05-27/protection-of-civilians-armed-conflict-remarks-security-council-debate.

20. See International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), “Amid COVID-19, We Must Not Lose Focus on Violations and Abuses of War,” May 27, 2020, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/amid-Covid-we-must-not-lose-focus-violations-and-abuses-war.

21. See ICRC, “Six Essential Lessons for a Pandemic Response in Humanitarian Settings,” July 2, 2020, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/six-essential-lessons-pandemic-response-humanitarian-settings.

22. “Final Agreement to End the Armed Conflict and Build a Stable and Lasting Peace,” November 24, 2016, pp. 67, 113, 134, 184, http://especiales.presidencia.gov.co/Documents/20170620-dejacion-armas/acuerdos/acuerdo-final-ingles.pdf.

23. See “Guidelines: How to Establish and Maintain Gun-Free Zones,” UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, 2014, https://unoda-web.s3-accelerate.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/assets/publications/more/gfz-guidelines/gfz-guidelines.pdf.

24. Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique, “PK5 officiellement déclarée ‘zone sans armes,’” December 31, 2019, https://minusca.unmissions.org/pk5-officiellement-d%C3%A9clar%C3%A9e-%E2%80%9Dzone-sans-armes%E2%80%9D.

25. Ibid. See also UN Security Council, S/RES/2117, September 26, 2013, para. 3.

26. UN Department for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, “Subsidiary Organs of the United Nations Security Council: 2020 Fact Sheets,” August 14, 2020, p. 30, https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sites/www.un.org.securitycouncil/files/subsidiary_organs_factsheets.pdf. See Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Targeted Sanctions Initiative, Sanctions App, South Sudan, Ep. 1, summary (accessed July 30, 2020).

27. Global Governance Centre, Graduate Institute Geneva, “Targeted Sanctions Initiative,” n.d., https://graduateinstitute.ch/research-centres/global-governance-centre/targeted-sanctions-initiative (accessed August 21, 2020).

28. See UNIDIR, “Enhancing the Understanding of Roles and Responsibilities of Industry and States to Prevent Diversion,” August 29, 2019, https://www.unidir.org/sites/default/files/2019-09/enhancing-the-understanding-of-roles-and-responsibilities-of-industry-and-states-to-prevent-diversion-en-819.pdf; UNIDIR, “A Menu of Options to Enhance the Common Understanding of End Use/r Control Systems to Strengthen their Role in Preventing Diversion,” January 31, 2019, https://www.unidir.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/a-menu-of-options-to-enhance-the-common-understanding-of-end-use-r-control-systems-to-strengthen-their-role-in-preventing-diversion-en-737.pdf.

The authors work in the Conventional Arms Programme (CAP) of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. Simon Yazgi is a senior researcher, leading research into conventional arms control in conflict prevention and management. Hardy Giezendanner, a researcher, also works on arms control in conflict prevention and management. Himayu Shiotani is the CAP program lead. This article expands on a commentary, “Does Arms Control Matter: Enabling a Ceasefire in the Fight Against the COVID-19 Pandemic,” available on Unidir.org

The adoption of concrete arms control measures, combined with UN monitoring and reporting, could enable the UN secretary-general’s call for a global ceasefire to take hold.

Nuclear Security Summits: A History

September 2020

Learning Lessons From the Nuclear Security Summit Process

Nuclear Security Summits: A History
By Amandeep S. Gill
Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, 293 pp

Reviewed by Manpreet Sethi

During his eight years in office, U.S. President Barack Obama maintained a sharp focus on the issue of nuclear security. He clearly identified nuclear terrorism as the most important challenge for the United States and placed it above the nuclear-weapon risks posed by China and Russia. Given his risk assessment, it is not surprising that he put his personal weight behind the creation of a new multilateral mechanism to address the threat. Thus, the nuclear security summit process was established, and Washington hosted the first summit in 2010 during Obama’s first year as president.

The summit process emerged in a particular geopolitical context in which great power relations allowed it the space to collectively address a difficult global challenge. It was also fortuitous that the national leaders of the moment enjoyed a certain cordiality in their mutual relations. For such efforts to succeed, a convergence of views between major stakeholders is necessary.

The United States and the Soviet Union showed such a confluence on the issue of horizontal nonproliferation in the 1960s, facilitating the birth of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Similarly, when U.S. and Russian threat perceptions converged on nuclear terrorism between 2010 and 2015, it contributed to the success of the summit process. By 2016, however, as U.S.-Russian relations soured Moscow refused to participate in the final summit, and the process concluded with the end of Obama’s second term.

A recent book by Amandeep Singh Gill tells the summit process story as the four summits were convened in The Hague, Seoul, and twice in Washington. The book, however, does not merely document the achievements of the summits, nor does it confine itself to enumerating the actions taken by participating nations. Rather, the treatise is far more academic and analytical as Gill uses the lens of nuclear learning to explain the evolution and achievements of these high-level meetings.

As an experienced diplomat, scholar, and an international civil servant, Gill provides a unique insight into the summits, thanks particularly to his work as a “sherpa” for India, taking the point in managing the nation’s participation in the summits. His book is further strengthened by its collection of annexes that include key documents, such as accounts of sherpa meetings, chairmen’s summaries of such meetings, and nonpapers presented by different countries. All will serve well as a useful primary source of information for readers.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (left) meets with U.S. President Barack Obama on April 11, 2010, before the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. The reviewed book's author served as India's "sherpa" for the summit.  (Photo: Olivier Douliery/pool/Getty Images)Initially, the summit process was narrowly conceived to address the risk of nuclear terrorism by persuading nations to secure vulnerable nuclear material in a period of four years. The idea was “to force the pace of change in the area of nuclear security by bringing international peer pressure and a whole-of-government approach to preventing nuclear terrorism,” Gill writes. During the process, however, other urgent issues emerged. For instance, the 2011 nuclear accident in Japan led the second summit to address the interface between nuclear safety and security. Subsequently, the agendas of the next two summits were expanded to embrace radiological material and orphan sources, as well as the cybersecurity of nuclear plants and facilities.

Despite this expansion of topics, the overall focus of the summits remained narrowly framed around the sole issue of security of civilian nuclear material and facilities. Washington did not allow nuclear nonproliferation or disarmament issues to spill into the restricted frame. This ensured the success of the summit process. Also useful was the flexibility of the format of the summits, which allowed for including emerging issues and accommodation of new members. In this aspect, the summit process stands out in stark contrast to an instrument such as the NPT, which is frozen in time and has not shown the malleability to adjust to the geopolitical or technological changes that have taken place over the 50 years since it came into being.

Providing key background, Gill maps the progression of the idea of nuclear security from 1945 to 2006. He devotes a chapter each to the description and evaluation of the four summits in which he also provides a tabular description of nuclear learning, or what was not learned, against four parameters: abandonment of position, policy compromise or adjustment, development of new ideas and shared understanding, and the putting into practice of policy compromises. This effectively captures and compares the highlights of the four summits to trace the path of nuclear learning throughout the process. By the fourth summit, interactions between national knowledge makers had evolved, and it was decided to preserve a core group at the official level in the form of the Nuclear Security Contact Group that would keep the learning alive and quickly enable a future summit if necessary.

Among the many innovations that the summit process tested, three particularly stand out. The first of these is the utilization of sherpas, or national representatives who were involved in the summit preparation process. Sherpa teams included experts from various disciplines who ensured a whole-of-government approach. Their informality, flat hierarchy, and interdisciplinary nature was conducive to resolving contentious issues and enabling learning. The second unique dimension was the idea of bringing “house gifts” by individual nations or “gift baskets” by a group of nations to the summit. Summit process participants used the summits to announce their tangible nuclear security accomplishments, such as removing dangerous materials from unused facilities or establishing more rigorous border controls. This was a “valuable tool in pushing the learning envelope: the pressure generated by the expectation of what to bring to the table at the next summit accelerated learning,” Gill says. Third, the heads of governments had a huge dose of learning from a scenario-based exercise played out at the third summit when they had to think through policy responses to the simulated loss of a radioactive device. The book thus highlights some important lessons that can be drawn from the design and working of the summit process.

The momentum built around nuclear security, as well as the nuclear learning achieved through the summit process, should not be allowed to go to waste. Since the fourth summit, the Nuclear Security Contact Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency have been engaged in the implementation of national and international action plans. The Trump administration has continued active U.S. participation in the contact group, but the issue does not appear to have figured among the top U.S. priorities. Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, expressed a goal in 2017 that nuclear security tasks “become regularized, routinized, and systematized,” but this has yet to happen. The danger of nuclear terrorism has not gone away. It must be recognized that nuclear security is a journey, not a destination, or in Gill’s words, an “enduring mission.”

Meanwhile, besides nuclear security-specific learning gained through the summit process, a much wider understanding has also been achieved on what enables the successful functioning of multilateral forums. For instance, Gill points out how the summits served as “vehicles for propulsion and population of ideas, which mutate as they are contested, reframed, and adopted.” This could serve as a valuable lesson at a time when trust deficits bedevil major nuclear power relations and adjustments and compromise of ideas will be necessary as and when similar such exercises are attempted in multilateral settings.

The issue of nuclear risk reduction is one subject that would benefit from the summit process. Given that nuclear risks, particularly those related to inadvertent use of nuclear weapons due to misperceptions or miscalculations, are rapidly on the rise, the time could be ripe for major nuclear powers to initiate a summit process that brings together political leaders to evolve a shared sense of risks and measures to address them. Just as the summit process drew attention to the challenge of nuclear terrorism, a nuclear risk reduction summit could help address nuclear use risks and thus contribute to international security and global stability. Gill makes clear that the experience and knowledge of the summit process will make it easy to refresh nuclear learning whenever the need arises.

Manpreet Sethi is a distinguished fellow and head of the Nuclear Security Project at the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi.

An examination of the nuclear security summit process offers lessons for addressing other issues as well.

Bruce Blair (1947–2020), Ann Hallan Lakhdhir (1932–2020)

September 2020

Bruce Blair (1947–2020)
Making Good Trouble in the Anti-Nuclear Movement

By Meredith Horowski

Not many have successfully modeled what it meant to get into John Lewis’ brand of “good, necessary trouble.” There are perhaps fewer who have given others the courage to do it themselves. Bruce Blair did both. His sudden passing in July leaves behind a remarkable legacy and an enormous void in the anti-nuclear community.

Photo: Global ZeroI spent four formative years of my career with Global Zero, the international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons. In my work to rally the public behind our ambitious agenda, which was equal parts exhilarating and challenging, I had the honor and privilege to work with Bruce, Global Zero’s co-founder and inimitable leader.

Other pens have eloquently described the unrivaled contributions Bruce made to the field of nuclear policy and disarmament. From his MacArthur “genius” grant (you would be hard-pressed to find someone more deserving of that title) to his groundbreaking op-eds to his rigorous technical analysis and policy leadership, Bruce did more than perhaps anyone in the last 50 years to bring the enormity of the nuclear threat into urgent focus. As a former nuclear launch officer, Bruce was haunted by our current reality while resolute about the future we needed. His passion lit a fire under activists, policymakers, and international leaders alike to achieve a world free from the nuclear threat.

More impressive than his awe-inspiring resume, however, were the rare dualities of character that made him a most remarkable person. Bruce was a visionary and a pragmatist. He was witty and kind. He was direct and empathic. He was focused and curious. He was unfailingly passionate and exceedingly humble. He was the kind of person who simultaneously made you believe in yourself and made you believe, as he did, that you were capable of much more.

He had a soul-deep knack for getting into the good kind of trouble. He enjoyed describing his time as a launch officer and the unsanctioned activities he and his fellow officers undertook to maintain their alertness during their 36-hour shifts below the ground. Bruce’s days in that Montana silo shaped what became a lifetime of whistle-blowing and the necessary kind of troublemaking that he modeled for so many who knew him. With his characteristic quiet confidence, he spoke truth to power, taking on military brass and “political hacks” as he half-jokingly referred to them, in commentaries and congressional testimonies. Bruce infamously outed the fact that, for years, the codes to the locks in all Minuteman launch control facilities were set to “00000000.” He exposed the fragility of our nuclear launch processes and the asinine logic of our $1 trillion nuclear “modernization.” He consistently ignored those protectors of the status quo who accused him of being too impertinent or unrealistic.

Bruce’s example to take risks with courage and conviction in the face of naysayers emanated throughout the organization he led and the leaders he developed. He gave us the confidence to believe in ideas that were just crazy enough to work. A 50-foot inflatable nuclear weapon on the White House lawn? “Great! Let’s talk turkey,” he told me. When many doubted my team’s recommendation to engage in the 2016 election, using the president’s unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons as a wedge issue, Bruce leaned in with his full support and grit. A few months later, our campaign took center stage in front of 96 million Americans during the presidential debates. Bruce embraced bold thinking and championed those who fought for it.

In subtler ways, too, Bruce showed how to disrupt power structures with his steadfast moral compass. He quietly refused to participate in the navel-gazing that so often characterizes nonprofits and social-change work. Bruce had little patience for egos, credit, and internal politics. He was exceedingly wary of the Beltway echo chamber and had a certain amount of impatience for the self-congratulatory and incremental policy agendas that represented detours from the bold path toward zero. His example rippled. He supported young leaders to find their voices in demanding more from the anti-nuclear space itself: more women and people of color in leadership, more funding for grassroots organizing, and more focus on the bold agendas that get us to zero.

As I have moved on to other jobs in other fields, my appreciation has only grown for Bruce’s big, systems-level thinking. In its vision, pragmatism, and unapologetic rejection of incrementalism and the status quo, Global Zero emanates Bruce. As an organization and a mandate, it paints a future for how the world must be if we are to live up to our collective potential. Yet, it does not relegate that vision to starry-eyed dreams. With rigorous policy analysis, real world expertise, and years of grassroots organizing, it has brought unlikely bedfellows from four-star generals to ardent anti-capitalists together around an agenda that stands to revolutionize our political and economic systems for a more just and safer world.

It is that kind of audacity, pragmatic leadership, and necessary troublemaking that embodies Bruce’s legacy and what the world he left behind needs in spades today. Together we stand at the precipice of our democracy: trust and faith in government is at an all-time low. A global pandemic exposes the deep cracks in our economic system. A racial reckoning reminds us that the institutions we rely on every day were only ever built for some of us. If we are to survive the next 100 years or even the next decade, we need a lot more of what Bruce demonstrated: a bold and unapologetic vision for a safer, more just, more humane world married with his characteristic humility, heart, and grace.

Meredith Horowski is the senior director of the Network at Code for America. Previously, she served for four years as the global campaign director at Global Zero and later founded Beyond the Bomb. She is a board member of Beyond the Bomb and of the Scoville Peace Fellowship.

Ann Hallan Lakhdhir (1932–2020)
Tireless Disarmament Activist

By Randy Rydell

Ann Lakhdhir’s valiant efforts over almost half a century to advance the causes of disarmament, peace, education, and women’s rights came to an end on May 7, 2020. Denied a position in the U.S. Foreign Service in 1957, probably because she admitted she hoped someday to marry—an automatic disqualification for women in the Foreign Service in those days—she proceeded to devote her life to the service of others. Her career as a citizen activist to advance the public good offers a model for enlightened political action, especially in our current time of great domestic and international instability.

Ann was a former president of the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security, which monitors and lobbies the United Nations in these fields. She worked to sustain and promote the committee’s quarterly publication, Disarmament Times, which remains widely read, especially in the UN and NGO disarmament communities.

She organized and moderated countless NGO disarmament forums in New York at the UN, then quietly compiled the transcripts and edited them for publication by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and its predecessor, the Department for Disarmament Affairs, which mailed 11 such reports to about 3,000 individuals and organizations worldwide.

She was the UN representative of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, which she also helped to run with founder Randall Forsberg and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

She was active in encouraging the League of Women Voters (LWV) nationally and locally to address disarmament and arms control issues, ultimately succeeding in getting the LWV to launch a nationwide study of these issues, and was then a member of its Arms Control Task Force. She was proud of her 50-year certificate of her work with the LWV in her hometown of Westport, Connecticut. In 2019, she wrote that she was “again trying to get the national League of Women Voters to ask federal candidates whether the U.S. objective should be to reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons” and to “facilitate verification” of their elimination.She was a tireless advocate of regional nuclear-weapon-free zones, notably in the Middle East, and for peace and security goals in South Asia. She was also a strong supporter of the Iran nuclear deal.

In the 1960s, Ann was instrumental in desegregating two schools in Brooklyn by controversially merging two schools on either side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where she lived. She then rolled up her sleeves, qualified as a teacher, and taught in those schools; from that early experience, she maintained a lifelong commitment to promoting education at all levels. For more than 15 years, beginning in the 1990s, she and husband Noor worked to found or supply libraries in India, the country of her husband’s birth. In 2014 the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan named its library after Ann and her husband in gratitude for their support.

Ann had an undergraduate degree from Radcliffe College and two master’s degrees from Columbia University. She also mentored several generations of young students through the NGO Committee’s internship program.

Ann cared passionately for the causes she promoted and was never disenchanted by setbacks, although there were many, especially in disarmament. She preferred to avoid the limelight, and many of her contributions were behind the scenes and without personal attribution or credit. Her life and career fully embodied Gandhi’s sage reflection that “[t]he best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

In a world of superpowers and superproblems, Ann was a superperson: an indefatigable champion of disarmament, multilateralism, the rule of law, humanitarian principles, women’s rights, and the fundamental norms of the UN Charter. She embodied some of the best qualities that civil society can bring to the advancement of international peace and security and the sustainable development of all. She will be missed by all who knew her and forgotten by none.

Randy Rydell is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors. He served as a senior political affairs officer in the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs from 1998 to 2014.

With unusual credentials, Bruce Blair was a leading voice in seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons. 

Ann Lakhdhir devoted the bulk of her 50 years of activism to nuclear disarmament.

Leaders Issue Calls to Action on the 75th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombings

September 2020

Hidehiko Yuzaki, governor of Hiroshima Prefecture, Aug. 6

Why...has the call of the [atomic bomb] victims and of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the abolition of nuclear weapons been betrayed for such a long time?

The situation surrounding nuclear weapons. There are still more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with the nuclear-weapon countries continuing to modernize their nuclear forces. Today, as nuclear disarmament continues to stagnate, the situation concerning the elimination of nuclear weapons is extremely bleak. This is indicated by the lapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); Iran’s suspension of the fulfillment of some JCPOA requirements; and the issue of the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is scheduled to expire next year.

Even though no country formally opposes the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, no practical progress has been recently seen in nuclear disarmament. To ensure that nations are seriously committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons, discrediting the enigmatic nuclear deterrence theory—the primary rationale for the reliance on nuclear weapons—is of vital importance.

As with the case of the deplorable system of slavery, which was widely believed to be acceptable but is now absolutely unacceptable, the national security system relying on nuclear weapons can be changed, because nuclear deterrence theory is in fact a common myth created and shared by people.

UN Undersecretary-General Izumi Nakamitsu, delivering remarks for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Aug. 9

I want to pay tribute to the hibakusha, the survivors who have endured decades of health, economic, and social tribulations. Rather than be held captive by that suffering, you have transformed your plight into a warning about the perils of nuclear weapons and an example of the triumph of the human spirit.

Your example should provide the world with a daily motivation to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Sadly, three-quarters of a century after this city was incinerated by an atomic bomb, the nuclear menace is once again on the rise.

The prospect of nuclear weapons being used intentionally [or] by accident or miscalculation is dangerously high. Nuclear weapons are being modernized to become stealthier, more accurate, faster, and more dangerous. The relationships between nuclear-armed states are precarious, defined by distrust, a lack of transparency, and dearth of dialogue. Nuclear sabers are being rattled, with bellicose rhetoric not seen since the Cold War.

The international community must return to the understanding that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. There is an urgent need to stop the erosion of the nuclear order. All countries possessing nuclear weapons have an obligation to lead.

Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue, Aug. 9

Exactly 75 years have passed since the day our city was assaulted by a nuclear bomb. Despite the passing of three-quarters of a century, we are still living in a world where nuclear weapons exist.

In order to see that no one else ever goes through such a hellish experience, the hibakusha, or atomic bombing survivors, have fervently striven to inform us about what went on underneath that mushroom cloud. However, the true horror of nuclear weapons has not yet been adequately conveyed to the world at large. If, as with the novel coronavirus, which we did not fear until it began spreading among our immediate surroundings, humanity does not become aware of the threat of nuclear weapons until they are used again, we will find ourselves in an irrevocable predicament.

I appeal to the leaders of countries around the world.

Please aim to break down the growing climate of distrust and instead build trust through dialogue. At this very time, please choose solidarity over division. At the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, which is scheduled for next year, I ask that you show a workable way toward nuclear disarmament, which includes reductions in such weapons by the nuclear superpowers.I now appeal to the government of Japan and members of the Diet.

As a country that has experienced the horrors of nuclear weapons, please sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and see to its ratification at the earliest possible date. In addition, please examine the plan to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Northeast Asia; and please adhere for eternity to the peaceful principles of the Japanese constitution, which includes the determination not to wage war.

Furthermore, in addition to providing increased support for hibakusha who are suffering from atomic bombing aftereffects, I ask that relief measures be extended to those who experienced the atomic bombings but have yet to be officially recognized as bombing survivors.

In recognizing the 75th anniversaries of atomic bombings in Japan, on Aug. 6 in Hiroshima and Aug. 9 in Nagasaki, world leaders called for revitalized efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear war.

Nations Rebuff U.S. on Iran

September 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

UN Security Council members dismissed the Trump administration’s August attempt to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran, saying that the United States has no standing to do so after Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal that capped Iran’s nuclear activities.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25, 2019. Zarif recently criticized U.S. efforts to snap back UN sanctions that have eased as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)Iran threatened to take action if the Trump administration attempted to snap back UN sanctions, but Tehran might refrain from doing so after a number of council members, including the remaining parties to the nuclear deal, rejected the U.S. move as illegal.

On Aug. 20, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified UN Security Council President Dian Triansyah Djani of Indonesia that the United States was demanding all UN sanctions on Iran be reimposed under a mechanism in the Security Council resolution that supports implementation of the nuclear deal.

Resolution 2231, passed unanimously by the council in July 2015, endorses the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and modifies UN sanctions on Iran, including an arms embargo that is set to expire in October. It contains a provision that allows participants in the nuclear deal to snap back sanctions on Iran within 30 days if Tehran is not meeting its obligations under the agreement. The provision is written in such a way that the snapback cannot be vetoed.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an Aug. 20 letter to Djani that “the reckless and unlawful U.S. position disregards well-established rules of international law,” requesting that Djani “refrain from receiving and circulating the inadmissible U.S. notification” on snapback.

The Trump administration notified the Security Council of its intent to snap back sanctions after a U.S. resolution extending the arms embargo on Iran failed to pass the council on Aug. 14. Only the Dominican Republic voted with the United States. Russia and China voted against the resolution. The remaining 11 members abstained, including JCPOA participants France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, who have traditionally supported the United States in security matters.

Pompeo said the council’s failure to pass the resolution is “inexcusable,” whereas Zarif described the vote as “miserable failure of U.S. diplomatic malpractice.”

Pompeo said in an Aug. 20 press briefing that triggering the snapback of UN sanctions is now necessary because the United States will “never allow” Iran to freely buy and sell conventional weapons. He said the United States is confident that the sanctions will come back into effect in 30 days and that “we’re going to do everything we can to enforce them.”

Pompeo cited Iran’s violations of the accord as the rationale for the snapback.

Iran announced in May 2019 that it would “reduce compliance” with its obligations under the JCPOA in response to the U.S. withdrawal and reimposition of sanctions in May 2018.

Iran’s breaches have been well documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the European parties to the JCPOA triggered the deal’s dispute resolution mechanism to try and address them in January. However, the remaining parties to the nuclear deal argued that the United States does not have standing to reimpose UN sanctions using Resolution 2231.

In an Aug. 20 letter to Djani, the three European participants in the JCPOA—France, Germany, and the UK, known as the E3—said they do not consider the U.S. notification effective because the United States “ceased to be a JCPOA participant in 2018.”

They argued that the U.S. notification is “incapable of having legal effect” and that any outcome from the U.S. request to snap back “would also be devoid of any legal effect.”

Vassily Nebenzia, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, said on Aug. 20 that Russia “will challenge” the Trump administration because the United States does not have “the legal right or the reason” to initiate snapback.

An Aug. 20 statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the United States has “no legal ground” to reimpose sanctions, and therefore China does not consider the snapback to have been invoked. The move is “nothing but a political show,” it said.

The Trump administration argues that it is entitled to snap back because the United States is still listed as a JCPOA participant in the text of Resolution 2231 even though the United States is no longer party to the nuclear deal.

When U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, however, he said that the United States is no longer a participant. Then-National Security Advisor John Bolton also dismissed a snapback as an option, noting that the United States is no longer in the JCPOA. He reiterated his opposition to a snapback in a Wall Street Journal commentary on Aug. 16, saying that “[i]t’s too cute by half to say we’re in the nuclear deal for purposes we want but not for those we don’t.”

In May, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promised a “crushing” response if the arms embargo is extended. Iran views the lifting of the arms embargo as one of the few remaining benefits of staying in the JCPOA.

Yet, at an Aug. 20 press conference, Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iranian ambassador to the UN, appeared to downplay the likelihood of Iran responding by taking further action on its nuclear program. Although he said Iran has legal options on the table to respond to a snapback, he noted that the United States is isolated within the Security Council on this issue and expressed confidence that the U.S. request for reimposition will be rejected.

The E3 did express “serious concerns about the implications for regional security” when the arms embargo expired and said they are ready to work with the Security Council to address those concerns. The E3 sought a compromise solution to the arms embargo issue, but Brian Hook, U.S. special representative for Iran, appeared to rebuff those efforts in June, saying the U.S. position was that the embargo needed to be extended indefinitely.

Pompeo accused the E3 of choosing to “side with ayatollahs” in his Aug. 20 remarks and said their actions “endanger” people in the region and their own citizens.

Trump also turned down a proposal from Russian President Vladimir Putin for a virtual heads-of-state meeting to “in order to outline steps that can prevent confrontation” at the UN and to “facilitate the emergence of reliable mechanisms in the Persian Gulf region for enduring security and confidence building.”

Bloomberg revealed in August that Iran informed the IAEA of its intention to install three cascades of advanced centrifuges at its underground fuel-enrichment facility at the same location.

A July 21 report from the IAEA seen by the Arms Control Association stated that the three cascades in question were being moved from the pilot plant at Natanz. Iran has installed and is operating advanced machines in violation of JCPOA limits, but given that these machines were already enriching uranium, the move does not appear likely to increase the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program.


U.S. Names New Special Representative for Iran

Elliott Abrams will take over as U.S. special representative for Iran following the departure of Brian Hook, who will be leaving the State Department soon, according to an Aug. 6 statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Appointed to the position more than two years ago, Hook has “achieved historic results countering the Iranian regime,” Pompeo said, setting in motion “a range of new strategies that advanced the national security interests of the United States.” Hook played a prominent role in pushing the U.S. maximum pressure campaign against Iran, which has not led to new negotiations with Tehran, the stated aim of the policy.

Abrams currently serves as special representative for Venezuela, a role he will retain in addition to his responsibilities on Iran. Abrams served as deputy national security advisor during the George W. Bush administration and worked at the State Department during the Reagan administration. While at the State Department in the 1980s, he became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved a secret attempt to sell arms to Iran, which was subject to an embargo, and divert funds from the sale to Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

In 1991, Abrams pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.

Seyyed Mousavi, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, tweeted on Aug. 7 that there is “no difference” between Hook and Abrams regarding U.S. policy toward Iran.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

The United States found nearly no support in its efforts to sanction Iran.

U.S. Modifies Arms Control Aims with Russia

September 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The Trump administration has softened its demand that China immediately participate in trilateral nuclear arms control talks with the United States and Russia and says it is now seeking an interim step: a politically binding framework with Moscow that covers all nuclear warheads, establishes a verification regime suitable to that task, and could include China in the future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump speak at the 2019 G20 summit in Japan. U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien recently said "we'd love to have Putin" come to the White House to sign a nuclear arms control accord, but the lead U.S. arms control negotiator said the two nations "remain far apart on a number of key issues." (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)Still, the administration continues to oppose an unconditional five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and wants Moscow’s support for limiting all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads and strengthening the New START verification regime as a condition for prolonging the treaty.

Russia supports an unconditional extension and says that it will not agree to any changes to New START.

The impasse continues to cast an ominous shadow over the future of the last remaining arms control agreement limiting the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals five months before it is slated to expire.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea said on Aug. 18, following a round of talks in Vienna with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, “that New START is a deeply flawed deal negotiated under the Obama-Biden administration, and it has significant verification deficiencies.”

According to Billingslea, these deficiencies include the absence of sufficient exchanges of missile telemetry and the limited frequency of on-site inspections.

He said that he would recommend that President Donald Trump consider extending the treaty only “if we can fix” the flaws “and if we can address all warheads, and if we do so in a way that is extensible to China.”

“[I]f Russia would like to see that treaty extended, then it’s really on them to come back to us,” he added, citing a mandate from Trump. “The ball is now in Russia’s court.”

New START expires next February but can be extended by up to five years if the U.S. and Russian presidents agree to do so. The treaty caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.

Billingslea met with Ryabkov in Vienna from Aug. 17–18. A July 23 call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and as working group discussions between U.S. and Russian technical experts later that month, paved the way for the August meeting, according to Billingslea.

The working groups met in Vienna from July 28–30 to discuss issues such as nuclear doctrine, unconstrained nuclear warheads, transparency, and verification.

Trump said on July 30 that the United States is in “formal negotiations with Russia on arms control.” Although the U.S.-Russia discussions this summer have marked the most sustained period of dialogue on arms control issues since the Trump administration took office, they would be more accurately described as the continuation of a longer standing, less concrete dialogue on strategic security.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien suggested on Aug. 16 that Putin could visit the White House to seal a new bilateral arms control understanding. “We’d love to have Putin come here to sign a terrific arms control deal that protects Americans and protects Russians.”

Billingslea, however, said that the two sides “remain far apart on a number of key issues.”

Ryabkov told the Russian news agency Interfax following his meeting with Billingslea that “any additions” to New START “would be impossible both for political and procedural reasons.”

He added that Russia would not support an “extension at any cost.”

“If the U.S. embellishes its possible…decision in favor of extension with all sorts of preconditions and burdens this work with all possible additional requirements, then I think the problem of extending the treaty won’t be that easy to resolve,” he said.

When Billingslea and Ryabkov last met on June 22 in Vienna, the United States pressured China to join, but Beijing declined and remains strongly opposed to trilateral talks with the United States and Russia. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

China’s unalterable opposition appears to have convinced the administration that the only hope for progress lies in bilateral engagement with Russia, at least at the outset.

Trump told reporters on July 30 that “China right now is a much lesser nuclear power…than Russia.” He said that he would focus on arms control talks with Russia and then “go to China together.”

Billingslea said in Vienna that “we’re not going to negotiate another bilateral arms control treaty.”

He added that “the framework that we are articulating” with Russia “will be the framework going forward that China will be expected to join.”

The Trump administration has yet to detail its specific objectives for arms control with China, a fact that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized on July 29. “Let them at least document what they have in mind,” he said.

CBO Weighs Cost of New START Expiration

The U.S. Defense Department could incur modest to staggeringly high costs if the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires in February 2021 and the United States increases its arsenal above the treaty limits, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found in an August report.

On the modest end, expanding forces to reach the limits set by the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) would not increase the Pentagon’s cost relative to its current plans, since the New START limits are comparable to the SORT limits.

At the high end, the Pentagon could pay $410 billion to $439 billion as a one-time cost and $24 billion to $28 billion annually in pursuit of a more flexible approach that involves buying more delivery systems.

CBO estimated the cost if the United States increases its deployed strategic nuclear forces to the levels of three previous arms control treaties: the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which capped warheads at 6,000 for each side; the 1993 START II agreement, which sought to limit warheads to 3,000 to 3,500 but was never entered into force; and SORT, which limited warheads to 1,700 to 2,200.

New START limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles. The Trump administration’s plans to sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal are likely to exceed $1.5 trillion over the next several decades after including the impact of inflation.

CBO examined two approaches for expanding U.S. forces to reach each of the three treaty’s levels. The lower-cost and less flexible approach would involve increasing the number of warheads allocated to each missile and bomber and minimize any potential purchase of additional delivery systems. The more flexible yet more expensive approach would purchase more delivery systems to reach the number of desired warheads.

The United States could also take an approach that lies between those two approaches, CBO noted.

CBO said that the projected cost to increase the arsenal could be even higher, as the office’s estimates did not include the cost of producing additional warheads by the Energy Department, any new operating bases or training facilities if needed, or an expansion in delivery system production capability.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, requested the report in September 2019.

The CBO report comes on the heels of a July 30 report by the Government Accountability Office, which found that the Defense Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have not considered how the potential expiration of New START may affect their nuclear modernization plans and spending.

“DOD is basing its plans on the assumption that New START will be extended, and it currently has no plans to change its force structure,” the GAO said in a July 30 report.

“NNSA similarly has not considered the implications of the potential expiration of New START on the assumptions underlying its overall program of record and future-years funding projections as described in the fiscal year 2021 budget justification,” the GAO noted. (See ACT, March 2020.)

Following U.S.-Russian arms control talks in Vienna in mid-August, Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, Deputy Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said that the U.S. military is “agnostic” on the question of whether extending New START is in its best interests.

Bussiere added, “We do believe, however, that it does provide increased international security.”—SHANNON BUGOS

Billingslea claimed that many “countries have already called out the Chinese for their failure to negotiate with us in good faith, and that chorus of calls…would accelerate dramatically once we have created an architecture to control all nuclear weapons.”

Fu Cong, China’s director general of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament, said on July 8 that “it is unrealistic to expect China to join the two countries in a negotiation aimed at nuclear arms reduction” given the differences in the sizes of nuclear arsenals of three countries. The United States and Russia have about 6,000 total nuclear warheads each, China is believed to have about 300.

Fu also accused the United States of using Beijing’s refusal to join trilateral talks as “a ploy to divert world attention and to create a pretext under which they could walk away” from New START.

Fu added “that China stands ready to discuss all issues related to strategic stability and nuclear risk reduction in the framework of P5, i.e. among China, Russia, U.S., UK, and France.”

Russia continues to say that it will not force China to come to the table and that if a multilateral nuclear agreement is to be negotiated then nuclear-armed France and the United Kingdom must be part of it as well.

Although the Trump administration is now willing to negotiate with Russia before bringing China into talks at a later date, it has not specified what a politically binding framework with Russia should contain and what it would be willing to put on the table to incentivize Russia’s agreement.

Billingslea told Axios on Aug. 20 that Russia raised “a range of issues with U.S. capabilities” in Vienna, but that Moscow’s non-nuclear concerns about for example U.S. missile defenses are not on the table as part of a possible framework deal.

Billingslea has offered few clues about how a new agreement should capture U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons that have never before been limited by arms control, such as shorter-range tactical nuclear warheads and warheads held by each country in reserve.

He hinted, however, that the preferred U.S. approach would not necessarily hinge on counting individual unconstrained warheads.

“What we likely will see is a hybrid approach that would maintain limitations on the strategic systems but which would provide for a method of ensuring that the overall inventory of warheads writ large is static,” he said.


Committee Advances Billingslea Nomination

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced Marshall Billingslea’s nomination to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security on July 29. The committee voted in favor of the nomination on a 11–10 party line vote, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) abstaining. The full Senate has yet to schedule a date to consider Billingslea’s nomination.

Billingslea, currently the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control, sat before the committee on July 21 for his nomination hearing.

In his opening remarks, Billingslea touted his “support for arms control that advances U.S. security, and which is both enforceable and verifiable.”

Billingslea was formerly an adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ardent opponent of many arms control agreements.

Committee Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho) asked Billingslea for his “thoughts on the fact that” the administration’s arms control efforts are “probably going to be bilateral as opposed to trilateral,” referring to the administration’s desire for a new nuclear arms control agreement with not only Russia but also China.

Billingslea responded that efforts with Russia and China “need to converge in the direction of a trilateral arms control arrangement that brings back many of the most effective verification mechanisms that we once had in the original [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] and which also address the unconstrained warheads that Russia is now building.”

Asked about the Trump administration’s view on extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), due to expire in February 2021, Billingslea said, “We have not arrived at a decision one way or another on extension of the agreement and, if so, for what period of time.”

In addition to New START, Billingslea also faced questions about hypersonic weapons from Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

Billingslea said that some of the new strategic nuclear weapons Russia is developing, such as the hypersonic glide vehicle called Avangard, would be covered under New START. “But other of these weapons, I would not want to say they should be captured because we frankly don’t think these weapons should exist at all,” he said, referring to weapons such as the nuclear-powered cruise missile named Burevestnik.

Billingslea also said the United States would not “restrict” its missile defense options in any arms control negotiations. Moscow has previously said it would only limit its nonstrategic nuclear weapons if Washington were to limit its missile defenses.

Addressing his earlier Pentagon service, when the George W. Bush administration promoted interrogation techniques that Congress later banned as torture, Billingslea said, “I never advocated for any technique that was characterized to me as torture.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) cited Billingslea’s record on torture as a major concern with him potentially taking up the top arms control job at the State Department.

“When I come to ask you in your new position whether you argue for taking human rights into account before approving the export of more bombs to Saudi Arabia to drop on Yemen or whether you advocated for stronger U.S. protections in an arms treaty with Russia, I’m wondering whether we’ll get the truth,” said Menendez.—KINGSTON REIF and SHANNON BUGOS

The Trump administration eases demand for Chinese participation in new arms control talks.

UN Experts See North Korean Nuclear Gains

September 2020
By Julia Masterson

North Korea’s production of nuclear weapons continues despite aggressive sanctions, according to an article by CNN on Aug. 4 of an unreleased report by a UN panel of experts. The new report says Pyongyang has likely developed the capability to manufacture miniaturized nuclear devices that can fit on its ballistic missiles.

North Korea tests its Hwasong-14 ICBM on July 28, 2017. A UN panel of experts recently assessed that the nation has probably succeeded in miniaturizing its nuclear warheads enough to fit on long-range missiles. (Photo: Getty Images)The UN report also details one member state’s independent conclusion that North Korea “may seek to further develop miniturisation in order to allow incorporation of technological improvements such as penetration aid packages or, potentially, to develop multiple warhead systems.”

Mastery of warhead miniaturization suggests that North Korea could ostensibly deliver a nuclear weapon via its ballistic missiles, including its long-range systems. Although North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon since September 2017, the experts who contributed to the report assessed that the country’s six nuclear tests likely aided its development of miniaturized warheads.

As they continue to advance, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities increasingly threaten the security of its neighbors in the region. Japan’s 2020 Defense White Paper, released in July, acknowledged for the first time that North Korea possesses the ability to attack Japan. The Japanese Defense Ministry noted that, in addition to miniaturized warheads, “North Korea is presumed to have acquired atmospheric re-entry technologies required for the operationalization of Nodong and Scud-ER ballistic missiles, within whose range Japan lies.” According to the ministry, this suggests North Korea “already has the ability to attack Japan with nuclear weapons fitted to these ballistic missiles.”

Pyongyang slammed Japan’s white paper as “a stream of nonsense on our possession of nuclear weapons,” according to a July 15 foreign ministry statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un touted the country’s nuclear weapons program during a July 28 speech. “Thanks to our reliable and effective self-defense nuclear deterrence, the word ‘war’ would no longer exist on this land, and the security and future of our state will be guaranteed forever,” he said. In May, Kim presided over a meeting of North Korean military officials who pledged to implement “new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country.” (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

North Korea is also accelerating its fissile material production, the UN panel report finds. According to an Aug. 4 analysis by Oliver Hotham at NK News, who saw the report, the enrichment facility at Yongbyon is operational, and an experimental light-water reactor located within the complex is under construction. Once completed, that reactor may be used to produce plutonium. As of now, North Korea’s five megawatt-electric gas-graphite reactor is the country’s only known source of plutonium, but that reactor is believed to have remained inoperative since 2018.

The report also examines the topic of unconfirmed enrichment activities at Kangson, which has been identified by several open-source analysts but has never been addressed by Pyongyang. Ankit Panda, a researcher with access to the classified report, wrote in NK Pro on Aug. 7 that the report says the states that have inquired about Kangson “do not have information to confirm that the facility in Kangson is for the uranium enrichment.” In 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that the facility at Kangson is “not inconsistent” with an enrichment plant, and also said that the “timeline of [the facility’s] construction is not inconsistent” with North Korea’s reported uranium-enrichment program.

On a broad scale, the UN panel report exemplifies the extent to which a global sanctions campaign has failed to stifle North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs, in particular its development of nuclear weapons and advanced ballistic missiles. The report identifies several instances in which North Korean entities may have succeeded in circumventing UN sanctions to engage with sanctioned groups in China and Russia.

In one case, the report details Pyongyang’s Second Economic Committee’s attention to undertaking sustained “efforts to procure dual-use ‘choke point items’ from foreign sources.” Panda explained that these dual-use items could include the large, liquid-propellant engines in Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile fleet, for example. Because the report has not been made public, it remains unclear whether the referenced foreign groups transferred actual materials or equipment, or whether the transfer to North Korea consisted of technical know-how only. According to Panda, the UN report cites concerns about North Korean technicians that may be involved in collaborative international scientific and technical research.

The United States has not openly acknowledged the report. But U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft said on Aug. 5 that North Korea’s nuclear program continues to jeopardize security in the region. It is “something we keep a very close eye on,” she said.


Sanctions have failed to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear warheads for missiles.

North Korea Sets Conditions for Diplomacy

September 2020
By Julia Masterson

Despite intermittent efforts by the Trump administration to negotiate with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program, talks between the two countries remain stalled, and there is little indication they will resume before the U.S. presidential election in November. Addressing a potential summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before the election, Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, said on July 4 that the United States “is mistaken if it thinks things like negotiations would still work on us.”

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un (left) and his sister Kim Yo Jong attend the April 2018 Inter-Korean Summit in Panmunjom, South Korea. Kim Yo Jong, who heads the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea recently said North Korean denuclearization "is not possible at this point in time." (Photo: Getty Images)“We do not feel any need to sit face to face with the U.S., as it does not consider the…dialogue as nothing more than a tool for grappling [with] its political crisis,” she added.

But the prospect for future diplomacy between the United States and North Korea is not entirely moot. In a July 10 statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, Kim Yo Jong, who heads the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea, said that the previous “theme” of North Korean-U.S. negotiations, “‘denuclearization measures versus lifting of sanctions,’ should change into a formula of ‘withdrawal of hostility versus resumption’” of negotiations.

Kim Yo Jong is the sister of North Korea’s leader.

“I am of the view that the…summit talks are not needed this year and beyond,” she said, adding that her position “does not necessarily mean the denuclearization is not possible. What we mean…is that it is not possible at this point in time.”

“I remind the U.S. that denuclearization on the Korean peninsula can only be realized when there are major changes made on either side, i.e., the irreversible, simultaneous major steps to be taken in parallel with our actions,” she noted.

She did not elaborate on North Korea’s negotiating position, but said that Pyongyang’s previous offer to permanently dismantle the nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon complex in exchange for partial sanctions relief is no longer on the table. That offer was withdrawn after the Trump administration demanded an additional concession by North Korea during the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, in February 2019. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Kim Yo Jong’s statement is consistent with earlier sentiments by officials in Pyongyang suggesting that the United States must reform its approach to North Korea if it seeks a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis at hand. The Trump administration has engaged in negotiations with North Korea on an intermittent basis since 2018, but Washington continues to demand that North Korea fully denuclearize before yielding any benefit of doing so. Washington also continues to hold the threat of mounting sanctions over Pyongyang in an attempt to economically force North Korea’s denuclearization. To this, Kim Yo Jong said in her statement, “we are fully capable of living under sanctions, so there is no reason for us to be driven” by the United States.

Rather, she said that U.S. sanctions have little influence over North Korea’s decision-making. She stated that, in her reference to “major changes from the other side,” she did “not mean the lifting of sanctions.”

Kim Yo Jong’s address clearly outlines North Korea’s conditions for renewed diplomacy with the United States, but it remains unclear whether negotiations will resume ahead of the election. The Trump administration has not commented on her statement, but during a July 10 visit to Japan, Steve Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, emphasized the “continued U.S. readiness to engage in dialogue” with North Korea.

A key North Korean official told the Trump administration to adjust its goals for diplomacy to succeed.


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