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– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Iran Deal Scenarios and Regional Security

October 2021
By Farzan Sabet

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

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

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

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

The Situation at Year Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Future Scenarios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The JCPOA and Middle Eastern Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooperation on Nontraditional Security Issues

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2021

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

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

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

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The CTBT at 25 and Beyond

September 2021
By Francesca Giovannini

This year marks a major milestone for the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). The multilateral body was founded to support implementation and compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which established a prohibition on all nuclear weapons test explosions anywhere. After a protracted and combative election process against incumbent Lassina Zerbo, Australian candidate Rob Floyd prevailed with a convincing majority; and as of August 1, he has taken over as the CTBTO’s fourth executive secretary.

View of infrasound station array at infrasound station IS49, Tristan da Cunha, U.K. (Photo by CTBTO )This change in leadership is expected to breathe new ideas into the management of the organization and could open new avenues for cooperation with countries in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. At the same time, Floyd and the organization face daunting challenges during a year that also marks the 25th anniversary of the CTBT’s opening for signature in 1996. Although the treaty has successfully halted nuclear testing for a quarter-century, the door to renewed testing and, with it, an accelerated expansion of global nuclear weapons capability remain open because the treaty has not yet formally entered into force.

Despite political and legal uncertainty, the CTBTO and its member states have shown remarkable ingenuity in establishing a successful global monitoring network—the International Monitoring System (IMS)—of unprecedented scale and sophistication. The system relies on superb and still unsurpassed technical capabilities for monitoring and verifying the global nuclear test ban. Nevertheless, serious technical and political challenges to the long-term sustainability of the organization and the monitoring system are slowly emerging. Consequently, although this would be undesirable and politically costly, the international community should consider taking steps to decouple the IMS from the treaty’s fate in order to maintain and expand on the extraordinary technical investments that the monitoring system represents.

Indispensable but Ignored for Too Long

For 25 years, experts in academia and the nuclear policy community have written and argued about the CTBT’s indispensable role as an instrument for preventing nuclear proliferation, including the geographical spread of nuclear weapons to additional states and the qualitative improvement or expansion of existing nuclear weapons arsenals. Nuclear testing is crucial in the acquisition of nuclear weapons and in the improvement of such weapons.1 Because of the vital role played by the CTBT in nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, efforts to achieve its entry into force have gone in all directions, from public outreach initiatives to advocacy campaigns and youth mobilization. These laudable activities have helped to elevate the treaty’s visibility and involve a new generation of arms control scholars in the organization’s mission. Yet despite all efforts, the treaty remains in a legal vacuum.

One complication is the CTBT ratification process, which is unique and obtrusive. It requires ratification by 44 countries (the so-called Annex II states) that at the time of the negotiations were deemed nuclear capable. Today, eight of those countries—China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States—have still failed to ratify the treaty and thus are preventing its entry into force.

Each of these countries faces distinct security challenges, operating within specific security dynamics marked by military, technological and ideological entanglements (table 1).

Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, advocacy campaigns promoting the treaty’s entry into force focused mostly on building political coalitions within the U.S. Senate,2 moved by the untested but rational belief that ratification by the United States would incentivize other holdout countries to follow suit.3 That assumption might have sounded plausible then, but it appears far too simplistic today in a time of great-power competition, shifting regional loyalties, and a revival of a global arms race. Although U.S. ratification would very likely elicit positive support from other Annex II countries, it will not be sufficient to bring the treaty to the finish line.

The uncertain destiny of the CTBT has reinforced the view among many non-nuclear-weapon states that incremental strategies to advance nuclear disarmament, such as the CTBT, will inevitably continue to be subjected to power procrastination games among nuclear-weapon states and will never be able to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.

Other CTBT advocates counter that even though the CTBT has not formally entered into force, it has succeeded in bringing about a global nuclear testing halt, which is the central purpose of the treaty, on a de facto basis. They note that the only country that has clearly engaged in nuclear explosive testing in this century is North Korea, and for now, even that country has halted nuclear explosive testing. These advocates caution that the taboo against testing cannot be taken for granted and that, until such time as the CTBT enters into force, thus allowing for short-notice on-site inspections, or new confidence-building measures are established, concerns about clandestine nuclear test explosions, particularly at low yields, will linger.4

These narratives capture tangible fears and disillusionment among many countries squeezed between a new global arms race and the paralysis of multilateral arms control and disarmament institutions. They also reinforce a growing sense of doubt regarding the CTBT’s fate.

Another, not so visible yet equally important concern relates less to the treaty’s entry into force and more to the sustainability of the actual organization and the monitoring system it has created. As the treaty’s entry into force lags, critical questions surface. How long will the international community support the work of an organization operating in the absence of a legally binding treaty? How long will member countries pour resources into a monitoring system that, at best, will continue to operate provisionally for the foreseeable future? How long will the IMS remain capable of attracting top-notch scientific and technical talent?

The International Monitoring System

The IMS is an impressive and unmatched global monitoring system with features that make it a marvel of science diplomacy and international technological cooperation. It is the only global verification system concurrently employing four main technologies: radionuclide, which detects atmospheric nuclear explosions and determines the source of underwater and underground nuclear explosions; seismic, which detects underground explosions; hydroacoustic, which detects underwater explosions; and infrasound, which focuses on the atmosphere (table 2).

The need to adopt a multitude of technologies stemmed from the treaty’s broad mandate to ban all nuclear explosions by everyone, everywhere, and in all environments—underground, underwater, and in the atmosphere. Most treaties are not so comprehensive.

The work is carried out by a world-class scientific team of experts located in Vienna and at the CTBTO monitoring stations and technological hubs across Africa, Asia, South America, and beyond.

Although it is 92 percent complete, the system is operating on a provisional basis. That means that data originating from IMS operating stations are transmitted to the CTBTO’s Vienna headquarters through a satellite communications network. Once there, data is analyzed and screened by analysts with the CTBTO International Data Centre. Their findings are sent back to signatory states. Because of the provisional nature of the system, member states transmit the raw data on a voluntary basis. If suspicious activities are detected in the analysis of the data, members cannot make use of the treaty-enshrined follow-up mechanisms, such as consultations, clarification, and request for on-site inspections.

Regardless of its value, in the absence of a binding treaty, the provisional standing of the IMS raises important legal questions. As Masahiko Asada, professor of international law at Kyoto University, has remarked, “This presents a really unique situation in legal terms. Both the construction of the IMS network and its provisional operations have been carried out without the CTBT entry into force. What then is the legal basis for these developments?”5 For years, Article IV of the CTBT has been assumed to provide the authority for establishing the IMS in the absence of a legally binding treaty by stating that “[a]t the entry into force of this treaty, the verification regime shall be capable of being the verification requirements” of the CTBT.

Radionuclide Station RN73 Palmer Station Antarctica. (Photo by CTBTO)This formulation allowed the organization to establish the IMS in preparation for the treaty’s entry into force. Construction began immediately, propelled by a sense of optimism that the treaty would enter into force without delay. After all, on September 24, 1996, the United States was the first nation to sign the CTBT. President Bill Clinton cast himself as an active promoter of the treaty, which he called “historic” and reflective of a “decades-old dream that no nuclear weapons will be detonated anywhere on the face of the earth.” At a time of U.S. economic and military supremacy, many believed that, despite significant political hurdles,6 CTBT ratification was within reach.

To sustain momentum behind the ratification process, member states poured money into developing the IMS. By the time a nascent network of stations began to operate, however, the geopolitical landscape had changed dramatically. India and Pakistan conducted nuclear test explosions in 1998, the U.S. Senate rejected ratification in 1999, and the war in Kosovo had soured relations between Russia and the United States. Consequently, the build-up of the IMS slowed, but was never halted.

Two main drivers kept momentum going: First, many countries, including the United States, came to appreciate the value of the monitoring system as a provider of global data that national technical means could not match. Second, treaty supporters believed that by demonstrating the effectiveness of the system, negotiations on bringing the treaty into force would be revamped. As Zerbo remarked in 2016, “There is no better way to convince people to ratify the CTBT than showing them that they have a sustainable international monitoring system and the verification regime that can serve their purpose.”7

Despite its provisional status, the IMS has been consistently praised for exceeding expectations in detecting capabilities and enabling cross-domain scientific collaboration. The UN Security Council has officially recognized the effectiveness of the monitoring system and its role in enhancing peace and security by stating that “even absent entry into force of the treaty, the monitoring and analytical elements of the verification regime…contribute to regional stability as a significant confidence-building measure, and strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.”

In addition, the system has spurred enthusiasm for science and technology cooperation around the world and has democratized access to scientific data and know-how in unprecedented ways. Nations hosting IMS stations have concrete incentives to invest in their national scientific capacities to operate and maintain the stations and to benefit from the data. From Africa to Asia, a new global scientific community has emerged largely because of the IMS and the extensive investments by CTBTO in capacity building to sustain and expand the pool of scientific talent.

The IMS also represents a towering achievement in the democratization of science. As then-CTBTO Executive Secretary Tibor Tóth noted,

[T]he CTBT verification regime is a truly democratic and participatory system. The data and products of the CTBTO Preparatory Commission are made available to every signatory state, regardless of size or wealth or technological prowess, making sure that transparency is not limited to the few states who possess the necessary technical and financial resources. The credibility of our verification system does not only reside in its technical performance but also in the open and equal access of all signatory states.8

Challenges Facing the IMS

Although the capabilities of the IMS are often publicly praised, its emerging challenges are discussed in closed-door meetings among diplomats concerned about the future of the treaty and the organization. Like any technological system, to remain effective the IMS needs to attract and retain scientific talent, identify emerging technologies that could hinder or strengthen its operational capabilities, and attract the necessary resources to keep functioning even if only on a provisional basis.

These challenges would be complex to manage and address for any technological system, but the enduring legal limbo of the treaty could fatally undermine the ability to address these inherent vulnerabilities.

The race to secure scientific talent, for instance, is accelerating in all technical domains and across all continents. It is made more difficult by the rise in technonationalism and the pursuit of primacy and domination in strategic sectors, including artificial intelligence and space. Unsurprisingly, given the level of specialization required, the CTBTO has struggled to fill key technical positions and retain highly qualified experts as several national delegations have apprehensively noted.

As Mitsuru Kitano, Japan’s ambassador to the CTBTO, remarked, “[W]e appreciate the Provisional Technical Secretariat’s [PTS] continuous efforts to improve the system of recruitment. At the same time, we are concerned about the fact that there is still the issue of vacancies. It is essential to fill the vacancies as early as possible to provide a sound basis for a sustainable working environment for the organization to fulfil its mandate. We hope that the PTS will take appropriate measures to improve the situation.”9

Namibia’s Simon Madjumo Maruta, the representative of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), further underscored that the NAM, “while recognizing the difficulties faced by the PTS, reiterates its principled position that striving for equitable geographic distribution as well as gender balance in the overall composition of the PTS is of utmost importance. The [NAM] is encouraged by the renewed impulse given by the Executive Secretary to addressing the Human Resources issues that have been outstanding these past years.”10

There is also the threat of the IMS losing its technological edge. Because the treaty text is concluded but not entered into force, no technical changes or modifications can be made to the IMS design at this stage, including the adoption of new technologies that could make operating the system smarter and more cost effective. Meanwhile, national technical means continue to evolve and mature, potentially overtaking the IMS and making it redundant. For example, at the time of the treaty negotiations, satellite technology was deemed too costly and therefore not listed among IMS technologies. Today, the commercial satellite industry is flourishing, making the technology not only viable and accessible but ubiquitous and extraordinarily cheap. Nuclear expert George Perkovich once noted that the costs of verifying the transition to a world free of nuclear weapons would be substantial, exceeding initial forecasts. That is also proving true with the CTBTO. In fact, according to CTBTO sources, the costs incurred to build and run the IMS nears $1 billion, far exceeding initial estimates of roughly $80 million.

Most importantly, although initial investments to build the IMS might not have been especially high the costs of maintenance remain largely underestimated or, worse, unbudgeted. Building IMS stations around the world initially generated much enthusiasm, political visibility, and media attention. Yet, these stations need to be maintained and repaired, and the political fanfare that once accompanied their construction has waned. That is because it is relatively easier to sell something new than to convince domestic constituencies of the continued value of spending money to underwrite a treaty that has no viable prospects of entering into force soon.

Experts associated with the CTBTO's international system for monitoring nuclear testing gather gas samples from the ground to be examined for traces of the noble gas Argon as evidence of an underground nuclear explosion. (Photo by CTBTO)The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, making it imperative for countries to be more frugal about their own investments. As a result, negotiations to secure the funding to repair and maintain operating stations are becoming difficult and compromises more difficult to reach. In the most recent CTBT report, Zerbo encouraged CTBTO member-states to embrace “a holistic approach to establish and sustain the complex global network of the IMS. This is achieved through testing, evaluating, and sustaining what is in place and then further improving on this. Sustainment covers maintenance through necessary preventive maintenance, repairs, replacement, upgrades, and continuous improvements to ensure the technological relevance of the monitoring capabilities.”11

Decoupling the IMS From the Treaty

Throughout the past decade, as the prospect for the treaty’s entry into force became more remote, proposals emerged to shake up the status quo and revive the political process. All of them are incomplete, possibly implausible, and unquestionably suboptimal, betraying the ultimate spirit that inspired the international community to negotiate the CTBT. Nonetheless, these ideas reveal a sense of urgency and pragmatism as CTBT proponents desperately seek to prevent institutional paralysis from turning into institutional collapse and a multilateral crisis.

A few of the proposals have sought ways to bypass the cumbersome ratification process. In an excellent analysis on the prospects for rescuing the treaty, John Carlson, former director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, suggests four possible paths. They are: negotiate a new treaty, replicate the existing CTBT but with revised entry-into-force provisions, waive Annex II by adopting a protocol or a resolution by which ratifying states declare the CTBT is in force and waive the Annex II provision, or agree to have part of the CTBT enter into force provisionally, for instance, some technical and verification measures, pending the ratification by all Annex II states.12

These options have been rejected by powerful states, including the Russian Federation and the NAM members, because they fundamentally undermine the “comprehensive nature” of the CTBT by failing to bind nuclear-weapon states that do not join the treaty. Such options would thus perpetuate power asymmetries and the unfair bargain between the nuclear haves and the nuclear have-nots.

As the situation continues to stagnate, another approach that focuses more narrowly on the survivability of the monitoring system deserves consideration. Until the treaty enters into force, the IMS could be decoupled from the treaty and established as a separate international body, namely an independent, international observatory on nuclear testing, committed to certain specific principles. One principle would be neutrality in data collection and delivery of the analysis. The other principle would be inclusive, international representation with governmental institutions and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in securing the necessary technical and human resources.

Observatories have historical roots dating to 16th century Europe. They have traditionally been spaces of science and technology discoveries but also avenues for public engagement and social dialogue.

There are several advantages to this approach. It would allow more flexibility in introducing and adopting new technologies and enable the observatory to remain abreast of technical changes in nuclear verification. It would foster greater collaboration and elicit more direct involvement by academia, the private sector, and NGOs. It would promote data sharing among scientific institutions and would elevate further the importance of the IMS as a global hub for scientific and technological advancements in nuclear test verification. Finally, it would continue to serve as a technical avenue for cooperation among nuclear-weapon states invested in the establishment and maintenance of the IMS.

There is no question that such a proposal is at best suboptimal and at worst risky and undesirable. Decoupling the IMS from the treaty could undermine its symbolic and political standing vis-à-vis many of the countries that invested in the treaty in the first place. It also could set a dangerous precedent. Ratified treaties are a fundamental pillar of the modern, rule-based global order. Shifting to an easier yet less permanent cooperative mechanism could bring further instability and opportunism to an already unpredictable international environment. Finally, the proposal could turn into an observatory for rich nations only, thus further losing the universality that the treaty aspires to achieve.

Yet, the trade-offs that the international community might soon be forced to face between a treaty in limbo and a fully operational monitoring system capture a broader and more worrisome trend. In the face of growing global competition, achieving the entry into force of universal treaties will become increasingly difficult and unlikely. Hence, regional and global nuclear cooperation will have to take different forms from the ones they have taken in the past. Compromises will have to be made and suboptimal solutions, however distasteful and imperfect, will have to be accepted.

As the international community considers its options for defending, strengthening, and sustaining the CTBT regime, pressure is certain to build from those who argue that the treaty is not going anywhere and that no major initiatives are needed to secure its entry into force. Given that the CTBTO has matured into an effective operation over the past 25 years, the world will be able to muddle through uncertain times for another quarter of a century, or so that argument goes. That risky approach assumes member states will somehow continue to have the political will to stick with this treaty to a fading finish line. It also ignores the likelihood that new priorities will arise, that emergencies will take precedence, and that political support for the CTBT and financial support for the effective operation of the IMS will dwindle.

No path will be pain free. The international community is operating in a difficult period in which pragmatism should prevail and investments must be protected. For those who have been working on the CTBT for years, this observatory proposal might not be welcome, but the available alternatives could be much worse.


1. Sergio Duarte, “The Future of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty,” UN Chronicle, n.d., https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/future-comprehensive-nuclear-test-ban-treaty.

2. Daryl G. Kimball, “Learning From the 1999 Vote on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” Arms Control Today, October 2009, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2009-10/learning-1999-vote-nuclear-test-ban-treaty.

3. Rizwan Asghar, “The Future of the CTBT,” CTBTO Spectrum, No. 22 (August 2014), p. 17,

4. Daryl G. Kimball, “U.S. Claims of Illegal Russian Nuclear Testing: Myths, Realities, and Next Steps,” Arms Control Association Policy White Paper, August 16, 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/sites/default/files/files/PolicyPapers/ACA_PolicyPaper_CTBT_DK_2019.pdf.

5. Masahiko Asada, “CTBT: Legal Questions Arising From Its Non-entry Into Force,” Journal of Conflict and Security Law, Vol. 7, No. 1 (April 2002): 104.

6. Barbara Crossette, “UN Endorses a Treaty to Halt All Nuclear Testing,” The New York Times, September 11, 1996, https://www.nytimes.com/1996/09/11/world/un-endorses-a-treaty-to-halt-all-nuclear-testing.html.

7. Andreas Persbo, “Compliance Science: The CTBT Global Verification System,” Non-Proliferation Review, Vol. 23, Nos. 3-4 (2016): 1.

8. “Statement of the Executive Secretary, Mr. Tibor Tóth, on the Occasion of the Scientific Symposium,” August 31, 2006, https://www.ctbto.org/fileadmin/content/reference/symposiums/2006/0831tothspeech.pdf.

9. Mitsuru Kitano, statement at the 45th session of the CTBTO, November 16, 2015, https://www.vie-mission.emb-japan.go.jp/itpr_en/PC45_statement_EN.html.

10. Simon Madjumo Maruta, statement on behalf of the Group of 77 and China at the 46th session of the CTBTO, June 14, 2016, https://www.g77.org/vienna/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/CTBTOMatters_46th-Session-of-the-CTBTO-PrepCom-13-17-June-2016.pdf.

11. Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), “Advancing Verification Capabilities: Annual Report 2019,” September 2020, p. 12, https://www.ctbto.org/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/Annual_Report_2019/English/00-CTBTO_AR_2019_EN.pdf.

12. John Carlson, “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: Possible Measures to Bring the Provisions of the Treaty into Force and Strengthen the Norm Against Nuclear Testing”, VCDNP, March 2019, https://vcdnp.org/ctbt-possible-measures-to-bring-the-provisions-of-the-treaty-into-force-strengthen-the-norm-against-nuclear-testing/


Francesca Giovannini is the executive director of the Harvard Belfer’s Initiative on Managing the Atom and the research director of the Nuclear Deterrence Research Network funded by the MacArthur Foundation. She is an adjunct associate professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Prior to her Harvard appointment, she served as strategy and policy officer to the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), based in Vienna. In that capacity, she oversaw a series of policy initiatives to promote CTBT ratification as a confidence-building mechanism in regional and bilateral nuclear negotiations.

Although the CTBT has halted nuclear testing for a quarter- century, the door to renewed testing and an expansion of global nuclear weapons capability remains open because the treaty has not yet formally entered into force.

North Korea and the Proof of Nuclear Adherence

September 2021
By Ankit Panda and Toby Dalton

In May 2021, the Biden administration announced its intention to pursue a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy” with North Korea. The intention was to distance its approach from those of President Joe Biden’s two immediate predecessors. As White House spokesperson Jen Psaki emphasized, “[O]ur policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience.”1

In a subtle but potentially transformative decision, the administration also signaled it would seek “practical progress” with North Korea in ways that could increase “the security of the United States, our allies, and deployed forces.” This statement acknowledges the obvious: that U.S. and allied interests could be served by measures that fall short of the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which remains a long-term objective.

Although the administration does not use the phrase “arms control” in describing its North Korea policy, achieving any “practical progress” would require limiting the quantitative growth and qualitative improvement of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Among the many difficult issues that U.S. negotiators would have to address with Pyongyang, if and when negotiations resume, is how North Korean compliance with such limits could be verified and monitored.

Practical Verification for Practical Progress

In the past, verification has proved a source of considerable tension when implementing nuclear agreements with North Korea. Under the 1994 Agreed Framework, long before North Korea gained the range of nuclear capabilities it has, U.S. inspectors successfully obtained on-site access to suspected sites2 but only after protracted negotiation with North Korean officials. The North’s fundamental mistrust of the United States, other major powers, international organizations, and the entire, highly intrusive verification process complicated these efforts.3 In late 2008, Pyongyang’s misgivings about a verification protocol to the 2007 six-party talks4 gave way to a slow-simmering crisis that eventually boiled over, resulting in the expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors in April 2009. A month later, North Korea carried out its second nuclear test.5

Despite this, Pyongyang understands that verification and monitoring are a sine qua non of any potential nuclear agreement. For instance, after the Trump administration rejected North Korea’s proposed concessions at the February 2019 summit in Hanoi, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho emphasized that Pyongyang’s offer to dismantle “nuclear material production facilities in the Yongbyon area”6 entailed doing so “in the presence of U.S. experts.” The Pyongyang Declaration of September 2018,7 agreed between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, similarly included a clause whereby the North would dismantle its Dongchang-ri (or Sohae/Yunsong)liquid-propellant engine test stand “under the observation of experts from relevant countries.”8Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant and other facilities at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex in 2007.  (Image: Google Earth, © 2021 Maxar Technologies)

By 2021, the Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant had been renovated and expanded. Nuclear expert Olli Heinonen wrote for the 38North website that commercial satellite imagery shows that since 2009 "substantial changes" have taken place "indicating the gradual repurposing of this facility." Now known as the Uranium Enrichment Plant, it "has become the backbone of North Korea’s ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons," he wrote. (Image: Airbus Defence & Space, 38 North, and “Pleiades © CNES 2021, Distribution Airbus DS”)

Now that Biden administration officials have unambiguously stated9 that denuclearization is a “long-term objective” rather than the singular and immediate goal demanded by President Donald Trump, U.S. policymakers should begin working on creative, practical, perhaps even unorthodox approaches to verification and monitoring.

The U.S. government has considerable experience and expertise in monitoring and verifying nuclear and missile restraints. Yet, the shift in assumptions implied by the Biden policy, from a one-shot denuclearization agreement to incremental steps, means that verification experts will confront unprecedented challenges that will require new tools and approaches. If the administration does not plan for these situations now, negotiators may be inhibited in the types of progress they may be able to clinch when negotiations resume.

North Korea is likely to reject orthodox and invasive verification measures, such as “anytime, anywhere inspection,” at least at the beginning of a denuclearization process. With an ever-growing arsenal that includes an estimated 20 to 60 nuclear warheads and an expansive inventory of nuclear delivery systems, Pyongyang’s negotiating leverage is far greater than it has been in the past. As a result, “practical progress” is highly unlikely to begin with the return of IAEA inspectors to the Yongbyon nuclear complex or, more ambitiously, with on-site inspections at missile operating bases that North Korea has refused to acknowledge.

Even so, negotiators can and should seek to maximize the verifiability of any potential agreements. That will be critical to the political viability of these agreements and will ensure that progress toward denuclearization is observable and measurable. In this way, verification and monitoring will serve as a means toward the ultimate goal of denuclearization, rather than an end in themselves.

Novel Approaches to Verification and Monitoring

As the Biden administration began its North Korea policy review, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace convened a group of international technical experts to study potential new approaches to verification and monitoring. Part of the group analyzed novel approaches to verifying declared items in a potential future agreement, such as missiles, missile launchers, fissile material, and, eventually, nuclear warheads. Others explored conceptual, technical, and methodological approaches to building a layered monitoring system. This included an examination of probabilistic verification and compliance assessment, the applicability of open-source intelligence tools, and the promise of a nodal monitoring system.

The group also considered approaches to an export-import regime that might limit North Korea’s ability to procure critical goods for its weapons of mass destruction programs or to sell such items to third countries. Finally, despite the considerable differences between the cases of North Korea and Iran, the group assessed the applicability of some of the innovative verification and monitoring provisions that were included in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.10

These studies offer some suggestions for how the Biden administration could seek to verify and monitor prospective practical agreements with North Korea, such as a missile freeze, fissile material controls, and limitations on deployed missiles.

Missile Test Freezes and Beyond

North Korea has made important qualitative strides in its missile capabilities in recent years, particularly under Kim, and now possesses several types of missiles assessed to be nuclear capable. There is some precedence for Pyongyang to agreeing to negotiated, albeit temporary, missile restraints. With the goal of supporting then-ongoing diplomacy, the Berlin agreement in September 1999 formalized a nearly seven-year-long freeze on long-range missile tests by North Korea. The Leap Day deal in February 2012 established a moratorium on long-range missile launches, although it collapsed in less than two months over differences between the United States and North Korea on whether it covered space launches. Most recently, during the Trump administration’s diplomatic outreach with North Korea in 2018 and 2019, Kim voluntarily announced a moratorium on long-range missile testing, which has since been rescinded.

By 2021, the Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant had been renovated and expanded. Nuclear expert Olli Heinonen wrote for the 38North website that commercial satellite imagery shows that since 2009 "substantial changes" have taken place "indicating the gradual repurposing of this facility." Now known as the Uranium Enrichment Plant, it "has become the backbone of North Korea’s ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons," he wrote. (Image: Airbus Defence & Space, 38 North, and “Pleiades © CNES 2021, Distribution Airbus DS”)Pyongyang has never submitted to intrusive verification and monitoring of its missile capabilities and missile-related industrial complex, so whatever the form of future negotiations, this issue is sure to be contentious. Even so, missile freeze agreements could take various forms, with implications for how they might be verified.

By any measure, a test freeze remains the easiest objective for negotiators. It could cover the flight testing of fully assembled missile systems and the testing of certain subsystems, including static ground testing of rocket boosters. Both types can be verified remotely through the use of U.S. space-based infrared sensors, which are optimized for the detection of the hot plumes associated with missile launches and ground testing. North Korean testing of nuclear-capable cruise missiles, however, may present certain problems for space-based monitoring. Cruise missiles that have been tested are not known to be nuclear capable, but Kim has indicated that a new intermediate-range cruise missile under development may be nuclear capable.

The value of a test freeze decreases as North Korea generally becomes more sophisticated and experienced with missile technologies. Under a test freeze, for instance, there would be no restraints on North Korea producing more missiles of types that have already been proven or attempting other qualitative upgrades to existing missiles, such as improved guidance.

Because of this limitation, policymakers may choose to seek two considerably more ambitious objectives: a freeze on missile production or on missile deployments. Neither has any precedent with North Korea, but each would represent marked progress toward subsequent denuclearization steps. A production freeze would cap the growth of North Korea’s nuclear force. A deployment freeze would limit and perhaps, over time, degrade the size and readiness of North Korea’s deployed arsenal. Both freezes could be observed with some confidence via remote sensing capabilities, but verification and monitoring would benefit considerably from on-site inspections or other types of intrusive on-the-ground monitoring.

Although freezes on production and deployment would be infinitely preferable, a freeze on testing, implemented properly, could facilitate the conditions for further diplomatic progress with North Korea and open the door to the more complex verification arrangements required to support production and deployment freezes.

Applying Flexible Safeguards

Traditionally, U.S. and international efforts to restrain and reverse North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have focused on freezing the production of weapons-grade fissile material, as in the 1992 North-South Joint Declaration on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the 1994 Agreed Framework, and the agreements of 2005 and 2007 stemming from the six-party talks. Although the IAEA monitored the freezes, its activities fell well short of applying traditional IAEA safeguards to relevant facilities at the Yongbyon complex.

IAEA safeguards remain the standard for verifying that nuclear materials are not diverted to weapons use. Yet, future attempts to monitor and safeguard North Korean facilities at Yongbyon and elsewhere need not begin with demands for complete access to these facilities, records, and, most critically, nuclear material. Instead, utilizing traditional safeguards tools through more flexible and gradual approaches to monitoring negotiated fissile material controls would initially make sense.

For example, rather than insisting that North Korea present a complete declaration of nuclear materials to be verified, a more practical agreement could stipulate a piecemeal approach involving the monitoring of specific facilities, such as the uranium-enrichment hall at Yongbyon; of materials, such as separated plutonium, not in weapons form; or stages of the fuel cycle, such as uranium conversion. Safeguarding declared waste materials, such as spent fuel, could also serve as a useful, early stepping-stone to more comprehensive safeguards.

Meanwhile, monitoring could initially be focused on verifying the nonoperational status of facilities or the presence of specific materials. As North Korea complied with such limited safeguards activity, more intrusive access could become feasible. A flexible approach along these lines would avoid the problem of placing high hurdles, such as a demand for a complete declaration or full access, too early in a negotiation, yet would still permit the IAEA to begin to assemble a more complete picture of the North Korean nuclear enterprise.

Broken seals that had been used to tag nuclear equipment under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. North Korea ceased cooperating with the IAEA in April 2009 and international monitors withdrew after removing all IAEA seals and switching off surveillance cameras. (Photo by IAEA)This piecemeal approach to safeguards need not preclude the IAEA’s eventual return to traditional verification and monitoring activities in North Korea. To the contrary, such an approach would be central to the final goal of complete denuclearization. Despite its lack of a presence in North Korea since 2009, the IAEA has continued to use open sources and a variety of analytical techniques to maintain its readiness for an eventual return to the country.

Monitoring Missile Bases

Introducing restraints on North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons would be an important means of reducing the threat to the security of the United States and its allies. No prior agreements with North Korea dealt with nuclear weapons as such, only with fissile materials and missiles. Pyongyang seems especially unlikely to permit inspections or other means of intrusive transparency at nuclear missile bases, none of which it has even declared, so how can meaningful restraints be implemented and monitored?

One approach could be to confine North Korean missiles to certain declared bases and monitor the perimeters of those bases to ensure that missiles do not leave. This type of restraint would not diminish the quantitative threat to the United States, but it could address it qualitatively by affecting North Korea’s nuclear posture and the readiness of its nuclear forces.

For this type of restraint, a nodal monitoring system could prove useful. Similar to perimeter portal monitors used in other nuclear security and arms control applications but making use of advanced sensor and network technologies, such a system would monitor the movement of specified items. Nodes consisting of a variety of sensors would be placed at specific ingress and egress points. This would require inspectors to have physical access to the perimeter of such a facility but not necessarily a persistent on-site presence. In a case where on-site presence might be tolerated by North Korea, for instance, at a well-known and declared complex such as Yongbyon, additional nodes could be arrayed in order to confine specific items to an individual building.

Although this approach could make verification more technologically complex, it would also be more flexible. It may be initially more acceptable to North Korea than intrusive inspections. With time and deeper implementation of restraints, Pyongyang may allow for the progressive expansion of nodal monitoring at certain sites.

The technology base for nodal monitoring is well developed, but building a robust networked system, especially one that could be left unattended, would require additional research, development, and testing. Beyond providing for multiple types of sensors, a ready-to-deploy node should include a secure, reliable, and encrypted data relay, in situ power generation, and the ability to operate without excessive maintenance. To assuage Pyongyang’s concerns about a nodal system facilitating unsanctioned intelligence gathering and to build trust, North Korean technical experts could participate in the testing and development of these nodes, subject to export control restrictions.

New Approaches and Tools

As the above examples indicate, verifying and monitoring the various elements of North Korea’s increasingly vast nuclear weapons and missile enterprise will require new approaches. Even a modestly successful process of denuclearization will require policymakers to cope with an expanding array of North Korean facilities, materials, and processes. Obstacles are likely to emerge as verification grows more complex and Pyongyang remains reluctant to permit international access. Meanwhile, political concerns about North Korean secrecy and noncompliance are certain to persist under any agreement. To make practical progress, policymakers must avoid letting perfect verification become an enemy of sufficient verification.

One way policymakers could address these issues would be to adopt a framework of probabilistic verification. In situations where high-confidence monitoring of the few key facilities or activities of interest is unavailable or infeasible, which is manifestly the case in North Korea, negotiators could instead seek to verify compliance by monitoring a broader range of facilities and activities with lower confidence levels. As long as enough of North Korea’s total nuclear and missile complex is covered by such an agreement, Pyongyang would be unlikely to gain a meaningful advantage even if it is able to successfully evade monitoring at one single facility.11

Similarly, to support verification, negotiators could rely more heavily on open-source intelligence. An often-overlooked set of tools with growing contemporary relevance, it involves information that is not derived from classified sources and is already a major source of analytical insight into North Korean activities among civil society organizations and journalists. Although governments have traditionally favored national technical means and other proprietary tools, the use of open sources in the North Korean context could usefully augment verification and monitoring, especially in the case of a limited agreement that may be likely to emerge early in a longer negotiating process.

By their very nature, open sources are shareable, which can help build confidence in compliance among parties to an agreement. This could also allow for reciprocity, whereby North Korea, despite lacking any national remote sensing capabilities, could use commercially available satellite imagery to verify, for example, certain types of U.S. military activities covered under an agreement. Although open-source intelligence methods may fall short of national technical means, they can complement proprietary verification tools and more readily be shared with the international community, especially when some parties to an agreement, such as Beijing and Washington, are unlikely to cooperate with each other. In particular, as commercial open-source sensors broaden to include thermal, near-infrared, and other nonvisible spectrum sensors, their role in verification can grow. Several North Korean facilities of interest to negotiators, including missile test stands, the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, and heavy-military-vehicle manufacturing plants, can already be usefully monitored with commercially available sensors.

Planning Ahead

At the moment, diplomatic momentum for any negotiated agreement with North Korea remains low. The United States and North Korea have had no meaningful bilateral interactions since the fizzled 2019 Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim. A working-level meeting in Stockholm in October 2019 was terminated almost immediately by the North Korean side, just days after Pyongyang carried out the inaugural launch of the Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile, making clear its disinterest in diplomacy.

Moreover, weeks before North Korea locked down its borders in January 2020, citing a threat to its “national survival” from the emerging COVID-19 virus, Kim disavowed his earlier April 2018 self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear testing in an address to the Workers’ Party of Korea plenum. With the apparent end of the diplomatic charm offensive that began with Kim’s outreach to South Korea ahead of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in early 2018, North Korea’s self-restraint has waned. Two military parades, in October 2020 and January 2021, further exhibited the fruits of Pyongyang’s accelerated nuclear force modernization.

Against this backdrop, the task of verifying and monitoring prospective agreements to restrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities presents no shortage of challenges. Innovative and even unorthodox approaches and tools can help render these challenges more manageable. With realistic expectations about what is feasible given persistent mistrust between North Korea and the outside world, the Biden administration, along with allies South Korea and Japan and other international partners, could meaningfully realize its objective of near-term threat reduction. Traditional verification remains the preferred standard, but practical progress in the near term will require novel methods for verification and monitoring in North Korea.



1. “Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jen Psaki Aboard Air Force One en Route Philadelphia, PA,” The White House, April 30, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/04/30/press-gaggle-by-press-secretary-jen-psaki-aboard-air-force-one-en-route-philadelphia-pa/.

2. Howard Diamond, “U.S. Says N. Korea Site Nuclear Free; Perry Visits Pyongyang,” Arms Control Today, April 1999, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1999-04/press-releases/us-says-n-korea-site-nuclear-free-perry-visits-pyongyang.

3. Joel Wit, “What I Learned Leading America’s 1st Nuclear Inspection in North Korea,” NPR, January 22, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/22/681174887/opinion-what-i-learned-leading-americas-1st-nuclear-inspection-in-north-korea.

4. Peter Crail, “Six-Party Talks Stall Over Sampling,” Arms Control Today, January 2009, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2009_01-02/sixpartytalksstall.

5. Choe Sang-hun, “North Korea Claims to Conduct 2nd Nuclear Test,” The New York Times, May 24, 2009.

6. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, press conference, Hanoi, February 28, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-NWGHQt_rk.

7. “Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018,” The National Committee on North Korea, September 19, 2018, https://www.ncnk.org/node/1633.

8. This test stand remains in place.

9. Colin Kahl, Keynote address at 2021 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, June 23, 2021, https://ceipfiles.s3.amazonaws.com/pdf/Colin+Kahl+Keynote_Transcript.pdf.

10. For summaries of each of these concepts, tools, and approaches to verification and monitoring, see New Approaches to Verifying and Monitoring North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal, eds. Ankit Panda et al. (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2021), https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Pandaetal_NorthKoreaNuclear1.pdf.

11. For a detailed discussion of probabilistic verification in the North Korean context, see Mareena Robinson Snowden, “Probabilistic Verification: A New Concept for Verifying the Denuclearization of North Korea,” Arms Control Today, September 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2019-09/features/probabilistic-verification-new-concept-verifying-denuclearization-north-korea.


Ankit Panda is the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). Toby Dalton is a co-director and senior fellow in the program. With Thomas MacDonald and Megan DuBois, they are editors of New Approaches to Verifying and Monitoring North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal (2021), on which this article is based.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities present huge challenges. Nevertheless, innovative and even unorthodox approaches and tools can help render these challenges more manageable.

Syria, Russia, and the Global Chemical Weapons Crisis

September 2021
By Kenneth D. Ward

For much of its early history, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was a little-known international organization quietly verifying the destruction of Cold War-era stockpiles as required by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Today, the OPCW is the epicenter of a global chemical weapons crisis and a front line in a broader confrontation between the West and Russia.

A bulletproof vest worn by staff of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague. For two decades, the OPCW has been key to the painstaking task of trying to eliminate the world's CW stockpiles. More recently, it has worked to hold Russia and Syria, instigators of the current CW crisis, to account. (Photo by John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)When the CWC entered into force in 1997, it seemed that all that remained to achieve a world free of chemical weapons was to verifiably destroy declared stockpiles and universalize membership. Instead, the international norm against chemical weapons use is under siege, most prominently by Syria and Russia, two states-parties to that very treaty. The world is now precariously perched on the knife’s edge of a new era of chemical weapons use.

Once the chemical weapons crisis erupted in Syria, the OPCW was forced to make a historic transformation, moving from being solely a standard arms control monitoring body to becoming an indispensable instrument of international peace and security, as recognized when the organization was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. This new role must be strengthened to address the chemical weapons threat that has metastasized globally as a result of recent chemical weapons use in the United Kingdom, Russia, Iraq, and Malaysia.

Ghouta: The Ieper of the 21st Century

The hope that chemical weapons use had been consigned to the 20th century was shattered on August 21, 2013, when the Syrian military launched a barrage of rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin against the opposition-controlled town of Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Soon afterward, a UN investigation team confirmed the worst: 1,400 people were killed from exposure to sarin. The images of the Ghouta victims were seared into the collective conscience of humanity alongside Ieper, the site of the first major use of chemical weapons in World War I, and Halabja, where Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1988 perpetrated a devastating nerve agent attack against the Kurds.

As the world reeled in horror from the Ghouta attack, Western powers considered military intervention to deter further carnage, but when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva to discuss the crisis on September 14, they achieved a diplomatic breakthrough known as the Joint Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons. The United States and Russia found common ground on only one point, namely that the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile needed to be removed and destroyed. To this end, Russia tacitly assumed responsibility as the guarantor, ensuring that its Syrian ally would not use chemical weapons and would fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile so it could be destroyed under international oversight. Syria initiated the process to formally join the CWC just 24 days after the Ghouta attack. During that brief period, the Assad regime certainly had not undergone a moral conversion, but rather bowed to pressure from the Western powers and Russia.

By the end of September 2013, the international community had legally anchored the U.S.-Russian joint framework in a decision of the OPCW Executive Council and in a UN Security Council resolution, which included measures to address any Syrian failure to comply with the resolution’s provisions or with the prohibitions of the CWC.

False Declaration and Chemical Weapons Attacks

In the spring of 2014, while Syria’s declared chemical weapons stocks were being removed from its territory for destruction, the first signs appeared that Damascus did not intend to comply fully with its commitments under the CWC and the UN resolution. The unraveling of the historic joint framework had begun.

Widespread reports emerged of chemical weapons attacks involving chlorine gas barrel bombs dropped by helicopters on opposition-controlled towns, resulting in injuries and fatalities. The claims prompted the OPCW director-general to establish a fact-finding mission, which later determined that chlorine had been used as a weapon in Syria repeatedly and systematically from April to August 2014.

During that same period, there were indications that Syria had not fully disclosed its chemical weapons program in its October 2013 declaration to the OPCW. The OPCW Technical Secretariat, after a detailed examination of the declaration and site visits in Syria, identified troubling discrepancies, prompting the organization’s director-general to establish a dedicated group, the Declaration Assessment Team, to continue engagement with Syrian authorities until the declaration could be fully verified as accurate and complete. To date, that group has conducted more than 20 rounds of consultations with Syria, yet 19 issues still remain unresolved.

Renewed concern over chemical weapons use in Syria prompted the adoption of another UN resolution in which the Security Council unanimously established the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). Since the fact-finding mission mandate was limited to determining only whether chemical weapons use occurred in Syria, the JIM was established as a panel of experts charged with identifying those individuals, groups, or governments involved in their use. In the fall of 2016, the JIM reported its findings, concluding that the Syrian military had been involved in the use of toxic chemicals (chlorine gas) as weapons in three attacks in 2014 and 2015.

Although Moscow refused to accept the JIM findings that its Syrian ally was using chemical weapons in violation of the CWC and the Security Council resolution, it begrudgingly agreed in November 2016 to renew the JIM’s mandate for another year and endorsed a new panel of experts to lead the effort. Within months, the JIM would become seized with the most devastating chemical weapons attack since Ghouta. On April 4, 2017, the Assad regime launched a sarin nerve agent attack against the opposition-controlled town of Khan Shaykhun. Damascus and Moscow quickly flooded the media with disinformation and outright fabrications, claiming the opposition itself had launched the attack to falsely accuse the Assad regime. To deter further chemical weapons use, the United States launched cruise missiles against the Syrian airfield where the attacking aircraft originated.

Despite Russian and Syrian efforts to bury the truth of what happened in Khan Shaykhun, the JIM determined that the Syrian military had used sarin in the attack. It was evident at the United Nations and the OPCW, however, that Russia would seek to block any international action against its Syrian ally, no matter how damning the evidence. Indeed, it was in direct reaction to the JIM’s competence that Russia vetoed three renewal resolutions at the UN, and the JIM ended in November 2017.

Deepening Chemical Weapons Crisis

Two chemical weapons attacks in the spring of 2018 escalated the threat to the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. In March, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, now a UK citizen living in Salisbury, and his daughter were poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent known to have been developed by the Soviet Union. The UK blamed Russia for the assassination attempt, underscoring the terrible risk the use of a such a nerve agent had posed to the local community. Indeed, a resident of the adjacent town of Amesbury later died. The UK requested a technical assistance visit by OPCW experts who confirmed that a nerve agent was used in the attack.

On April 18, 2018, the OPCW Executive Council met to address the experts’ findings. In the wake of the expulsion of Russian diplomats by the UK, the United States, and others, the meeting immediately escalated into high politics with Russia unleashing absurd counteraccusations and protesting that it was the victim of a Western smear campaign.

Before the day was over, it was clear that a front line in a broader international confrontation had opened up and that, in addition to the Syrian crisis, there was now an even more ominous Russian problem. Russia was no longer just an enabler of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, protecting it at the OPCW and the UN Security Council; it was itself a perpetrator, signaling to the world that it still illicitly possessed its own dangerous chemical weapons agent. Moreover, Moscow now viewed the OPCW Technical Secretariat as an adversary. Just a week earlier, as reported by the Dutch government, agents from the Russian military intelligence branch, the GRU, were deported from the Netherlands for attempting to conduct a cyberoperation against OPCW headquarters in The Hague from an adjacent hotel.

A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad adorns a wall as a United Nations vehicle carrying inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons leaves a hotel in Damascus, in October 2013.  (Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images)As the chemical weapons threat widened to the European continent, the crisis in Syria deepened. On April 7, multiple chlorine-filled barrel bombs were dropped on the Damascus suburb of Douma, killing dozens of civilians. Again, a highly charged special meeting of the OPCW Executive Council was convened on April 16, just two days after joint military strikes against Syrian government facilities by France, the UK, and United States. Russia and Syria falsely claimed that the UK and the United States “staged” the Douma chlorine attacks with the help of the White Helmets, an organization of volunteer first responders in Syria that Russia has tried to label as terrorists. Within weeks, OPCW fact finders went to Douma to further its investigation, which ultimately concluded that chlorine was used.

The OPCW also faced a grim new reality extending beyond Syrian and Russian transgressions. The Islamic State group had used chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, North Korea, although not a party to the CWC, was advertising its chemical weapons capabilities by assassinating the stepbrother of leader Kim Jong Un with VX nerve agent in a Malaysian airport.

OPCW Response to Widening Chemical Weapons Use

With increasing use of chemical weapons undermining the CWC, seriously eroding the international norm, and putting the world at risk of a new era of chemical weapons threats, the OPCW had to act or succumb to irrelevance.

Deeply aggrieved by Russia’s use of chemical weapons on its territory and concerned with a worsening chemical weapons crisis, the UK initiated a special session of CWC states-parties to forge an international response. After Russia and Syria tried unsuccessfully to block adoption of the agenda, the fourth special session of the conference of CWC states-parties on June 27, 2018, with broad international support took unprecedented steps to address the crisis by adopting the historic decision titled “Addressing the Threat From Chemical Weapons Use.”

Most importantly, the decision dealt with Syria’s continued possession and use of chemical weapons. To remedy the termination of the JIM, the conference directed the OPCW Technical Secretariat to “put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons” in Syria. Director-General Fernando Arias implemented that directive by establishing the Investigation and Identification Team, which, in April 2020, found reasonable grounds to conclude that Syria conducted three chemical weapons attacks against opposition-controlled areas in March 2017. In response to these findings, the conference of states-parties in April 2021 suspended Syria’s voting rights at the OPCW.

The decision further clarified the mandate of the OPCW Technical Secretariat in the context of the CWC. The director-general, if requested by a state party investigating a possible use of chemical weapons on its territory, was expressly authorized to provide technical expertise to help identify the perpetrators of any chemical weapons attack.

The decision also authorized the release of OPCW information to any entities established under the auspices of the UN investigating chemical weapons use in Syria. This provision would aid the ongoing investigation efforts of two such entities: (1) the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) established to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for committing war crimes in Syria, and (2) the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.

The Fight for a Future Free of Chemical Weapons

Threats to the CWC and the international norm against the use of chemical weapons remain ominous and unabated as evidenced by Russia’s attempted assassination of opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent in August 2020.

Russia’s contempt for and repeated violation of the convention are appallingly evident. Moscow has enabled and protected its Syrian ally by relentlessly wielding its veto at the UN Security Council, opposing action by the OPCW, and engaging in a calculated global campaign of disinformation and distortion. In two assassination attempts against opponents, Russia has advertised to the world that it illicitly maintains a chemical weapons program, possesses Novichok nerve agents, and has no compunction about using such outlawed weapons against its adversaries. There should be no expectation that Russia’s contempt for the convention will ebb in the foreseeable future. Indeed, Moscow’s continued embrace of chemical weapons is not an isolated affront, but rather part of a much larger challenge to the West.

The Assad regime also remains a long-term threat to the convention and the international norm against chemical weapons use. It views chemical weapons as a vital tool of survival and as a strategic counterweight to Israel. There should be no expectation that Syria will finally comply with its CWC obligations once the conflict there is over. Rather, it should be expected that Syria will seek to produce and deploy chemical weapons as long as the Assad regime remains in power.

The fourth special session of the conference of CWC states-parties in June 2018 began an effort to push back against these threats and avoid a return of the chemical weapons horrors of the 20th century. This must continue and intensify as it will be a long-term struggle.

The United States must accord high priority to defending the CWC and lead an international effort to hold perpetrators accountable in all relevant forums. What would this entail? Chemical weapons use by North Korea and the Islamic State group are surely of concern, but they are not parties to the treaty and thus not a primary factor in the current crisis, which is largely a Russian problem. It is important to recognize that deterring Moscow from possessing or using chemical weapons or enabling their use by others is a challenging task. Increased pressure through sanctions and initiatives at the OPCW and UN General Assembly will continue to play a role. Just as importantly, the United States and its allies must mount a diplomatic and public messaging campaign to counter Russian disinformation and deprive Moscow of any credibility or support. This would include further isolating Russia from the international community by encouraging key states in Africa and Asia that have been sitting on the sidelines to join efforts to condemn chemical weapons use by Syria and Russia.

To be clear, the near-term prospects for deterring further Russian chemical weapons affronts are not favorable. The Russian chemical weapons problem is fundamentally rooted in Moscow’s broader confrontation with the West, and it should be expected that any progress would ultimately be dependent on the broader political landscape. In 2013, Russia worked constructively with the United States to diplomatically address the Syrian chemical weapons crisis. In the years that followed, however, Russia chose to abet rather than dissuade its Syrian ally from chemical weapons use and then went beyond that by targeting the Kremlin’s own opponents for assassination with chemical agents prohibited by its treaty obligations. All these premeditated decisions helped to precipitate the wider strained situation and are symptomatic of Moscow’s intractability.

Justice and deterrence require that a diplomatic strategy to defend the convention also ensure personal accountability for those individuals who ordered, enabled, or carried out chemical weapons attacks. Much of the groundwork for such an effort has been laid, but its promise may not be realized for years.

Internationally, two UN-established entities—the IIIM and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic—are mandated to investigate violations of international law and have reported on incidents involving chemical weapons use. France has spearheaded a multilateral initiative, launching in January 2018, called the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, with the mission of gathering and sharing information to facilitate national and international prosecution of chemical weapons perpetrators. Currently, 40 states and the European Union are members.

The United States and its allies should intensify efforts to substantially expand support for the partnership. Although prosecutions could take years, these cooperative efforts signal the international community’s determination to ensure that those who use chemical weapons will someday face a reckoning and their victims will see justice done.

To successfully weather the assault on the convention and the norm, diplomacy must be paired with concerted international investment in the OPCW. The Technical Secretariat must remain the calm eye of the political storm. The convention does not endow the OPCW with enforcement authority, but it does provide the secretariat with the ability to assess the accuracy of state party declarations, to investigate chemical weapons use, and to provide technical assistance to states parties. Indeed, in the Syrian case, the secretariat’s reports underscored that objective analysis from an independent organization is the best antidote to false claims from the perpetrator of a chemical weapons attack.

It is essential that the Technical Secretariat remain fit for its mission in an increasingly challenging environment. That will require annually increasing the budget to adjust for inflation. For almost a decade, the OPCW budget has remained virtually unchanged at about $85 million. Meanwhile, the international community has asked the organization to do more when inflation has left it with 25 percent less purchasing power than in 2009. States-parties have responsibly provided the secretariat with many millions in voluntary contributions to fund Syria-related operations, the 2016 removal of chemical weapons precursors from Libya, and other important initiatives. Yet, such donations are not a reliable or sustainable way to maintain the organization’s core activities and staffing. The OPCW is the best bargain in the international system and should be treated the same as the International Atomic Energy Agency, which in effect has been held to roughly zero real growth, with an annual increase reflecting inflation.

Keeping the Technical Secretariat highly capable and operationally agile will also require establishing a long-term training program and a dedicated training directorate to ensure that the next generation of inspectors, investigators, laboratory technicians, chemical weapons experts, and analysts are fully trained and prepared to face future challenges.

Given that the OPCW is regularly detecting increasingly sophisticated hacking attempts, another priority must be securing the organization’s computer network. The Technical Secretariat has initiated remedial measures to enhance security, but a broader revamp of the computer network along with additional cybersecurity resources are needed. These should be funded through the regular budget and voluntary contributions by states parties.

The final requirement is to ensure the OPCW continues to be well led. The director-general should always be a highly skilled, experienced diplomat with expertise in chemistry being optional. Since the beginning of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis in 2013, the OPCW has been ably led by successive directors-general who have exemplified these attributes, faithfully implementing the convention while deftly navigating the diplomatic landscape.

To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is needed for the evil of chemical weapons to triumph is for responsible nations to acquiesce. The CWC is a remarkable achievement in the progress of humanity, and the international community must continue to fight for it or risk losing it. The OPCW is an indispensable partner in this fight. With the broad support of its membership, the organization has taken unprecedented action to expose all perpetrators—countries, groups, and individuals—who use chemical weapons. More broadly, the world must redouble its efforts to ensure chemical weapons remain reviled and those who use them are held accountable. What was started with the signing of the convention must be finished, finally turning the page on an ugly chapter in history.

Kenneth D. Ward is a senior advisor in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance at the U.S. Department of State. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from December 2015 to August 2020.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons transformed from a standard arms control monitoring body into an indispensable instrument of international peace and security. This role must be strengthened to address a chemical weapons threat that has metastasized.

The Biden Administration’s North Korea Challenges

July/August 2021

In 1985, North Korea acceded to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which, in theory, meant it had forsaken nuclear weapons. In January 1992, it signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with South Korea, thus committing both countries not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” By the end of that year, however, there were growing concerns about Pyongyang’s ambitions that in time proved all too real and spurred a decades-long push for increasingly stricter sanctions and some kind of negotiated solution.

In this photo, released on July 4, 2017 by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is reported to be inspecting the test-fire of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, at an undisclosed location. What Kim sees today in terms of possible engagement with the Biden administration is anybody's guess.  (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)The 1994 Agreed Framework between Washington and Pyongyang, concluded during the Clinton administration, froze the North’s plutonium program until the deal unraveled in 2002. Despite repeated diplomatic efforts by the United States and other countries in the intervening decades to check North Korea’s capabilities, Pyongyang today possesses the fissile material for an estimated 40 to 50 nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Moreover, the arsenal continues to expand in size and sophistication.

President Barak Obama’s hands-off “strategic patience” approach to North Korea was not successful at reversing the trend. Neither was President Donald Trump’s unorthodox, effusive embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The nuclear program remains a threat to stability on the Korean peninsula and to East Asia more generally. The question today is, can President Joe Biden do any better?­—CAROL GIACOMO


The Biden Administration’s North Korea Challenges

The Future of the Global Norm Against Chemical Weapons: An Interview With Susanne Baumann, German Commissioner for Disarmament and Arms Control

July/August 2021

World War I taught the horrors of using chemicals against adversaries, but it was not until 1997 that the international community agreed to a treaty that aimed to outlaw this entire category of weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) took effect in 1997, and today, 193 countries count themselves as adherents. The treaty encompasses 98 percent of the global population and has resulted in the destruction of more than 98 percent of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles.

Susanne Baumann, the German Commissioner for Disarmament and Arms Control, says in an interview with Arms Control Today that it is essential for the UN Security Council to continue to deal monthly with the issue of Syria's use of chemical weapons.  (Photo by German government)Yet, concerns are rising that some desperate leaders have become newly emboldened to use chemical weapons, which generally cause slow, agonizing deaths. Russia, for instance, has been accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, opponents of President Vladimir Putin. In 17 cases, Syria was found to likely or definitely have used chemical weapons, according to the head of the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Arms Control Today interviewed Susanne Baumann, German commissioner for disarmament and arms control, by email on the status of the global norm against chemical weapons and how it can be strengthened.

Arms Control Today: The global norm against chemical weapons use is eroding. In the past five years, chemical weapons have been used in violation of the CWC in the poisoning of political dissidents or high-level officials and in numerous and indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Violators of the treaty have done so with relative impunity. What is the reason for this trend? Has the world become numb to such weapons? Are nuclear weapons viewed as so much more lethal that chemical weapons are dwarfed?

Commissioner Susanne Baumann: Nuclear and chemical weapons are both weapons of mass destruction that could cause horrible human losses and suffering. At the same time, chemical weapons are in many respects different from nuclear systems. Access to chemical weapons is easier, and their manufacturing, handling, and use are technically less demanding compared to nuclear weapons. In addition, correct and rapid attribution can be a challenge if chemical weapons are used in asymmetric conflicts or for the targeted assassination of individuals. In my view, it is exactly these characteristics of chemical weapons that have led to their use in a number of cases in recent years, ranging from the notorious and appalling chemical attacks in the Syrian civil war to the infamous cases of Skripal and Navalny. These incidents come with new challenges for the international community and the rules-based order. It is now extremely important that we strengthen the notion that the CWC is not only about banning the use of chemical weapons in international conflicts. On the contrary, the CWC is based on the principle that the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, and under any circumstances constitutes a violation of international law. That is why the German government cooperated very closely with the OPCW after the attack on Navalny. That is also why we actively support the efforts of the OPCW to shed light on chemical weapons use cases in Syria.

ACT: What specific steps could be taken within the next five years to reinforce the global norm and strengthen compliance with the CWC?

Baumann: It is obvious that norms have to be enforced in order to really be effective. In today’s international environment, this is often easier said than done. Yet, the recent cases of chemical weapons use clearly show that the international community is not willing to accept the erosion of the CWC. Within the OPCW framework, a number of new mechanisms have been established in order to clarify the circumstances of the chemical attacks in Syria and to attribute responsibility. This evolution has not been self-evident. The OPCW became the central player on the Syrian file because Russia vetoed several decisions at the UN Security Council that would have allowed further clarification and investigation into the issue of responsibility for the attacks. As a consequence, a growing majority of OPCW state-parties supported the creation the OPCW’s own investigative instruments.

ACT: Moving forward, how can the treaty be strengthened to provide for stronger accountability mechanisms against CWC violators?

Baumann: With the new mechanisms, the OPCW has successfully started not only to determine whether, when, and where chemical weapons were used in Syria, but also, based on reports of the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), to identify the guilty parties. Given the circumstances, that is an almost revolutionary step forward for the CWC and, in more general terms, for the international rules-based order. In times of hybrid warfare and disguised attacks, the notion of accountability and impunity becomes increasingly central. That is also why initiatives like the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons are of great importance for raising international awareness and generating support for international bodies like the OPCW. It is also essential that the UN Security Council continues to deal with chemical weapons use in Syria on a monthly basis despite opposition from some Security Council member states.

ACT: What additional steps could be taken to deter would-be CWC violators?

Baumann: Deterrence is closely linked to the concept of individual accountability. The OPCW has investigative mechanisms at its disposal but no judicial means to penalize individuals. To this end, states-parties are required by the CWC to put effective national legislation in place, explicitly penalizing any activity banned by the CWC. Roughly two-thirds of OPCW states-parties, including Germany, have translated the CWC into their respective national legislation. Although having laws on paper is an important first step, what counts is implementation. Training and education of experts is key. In this field, international cooperation, including with the OPCW, remains essential. Here too, Germany is supporting the organization very strongly.

ACT: CWC states-parties have voted to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under CWC Article XII, which states that a noncompliant state’s rights and privileges may be suspended until it returns to full compliance under the treaty. Syria has been called on to declare the entirety of its chemical weapons stockpile and affiliated facilities to regain its rights and privileges. In your view, what next steps should the CWC states-parties and the international community writ large take if Syria fails to cooperate with the OPCW and return to compliance with the CWC?

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny walks to his airplane seat on a January 2021 trip to Moscow from Berlin, where he was treated for a poisoning attack that he said was carried out under orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Navalny was arrested upon arrival in the Russian capital and remains imprisoned. His case has exacerbated concerns about the eroding global norm against chemical weapons use. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)Baumann: With the decision to suspend Syria's rights and privileges under the CWC, the conference of states-parties in April 2021 for the first time made use of the sanctions mechanism provided for by the CWC, thus making clear that chemical weapons use is not tolerated by the international community and will not avoid consequences. In a next step, this decision will be submitted to the UN Security Council and General Assembly through the secretary-general. If Syria does not return to compliance with the CWC, the international community might decide on further steps in the UN framework. It should not be overlooked that the European Union, as a consequence of the chemical attacks in Syria, established a sanctions mechanism specifically to react to violations of the CWC. The EU used this mechanism to impose sanctions on Syrian individuals and institutions and, more recently, on Russian individuals and institutions in connection with the Navalny case.

ACT: In the latest progress report, the OPCW identified a new issue with Syria’s stockpile declaration, which was described as an undeclared chemical warfare agent. As the OPCW works to clarify inconsistencies with Syria’s dossier, how can the organization ensure the completeness of Syria’s stockpile declaration?

Baumann: Ensuring the complete declaration of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is the mandate of the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team. The team has worked in a very thorough way since its inception in 2014. There have been numerous rounds of consultations with Syria. The next visit to Syria is planned for early this summer. The detection of a newly undeclared chemical warfare agent by the team in samples taken in September 2020 shows that there are still open questions and, what is even worse, there are new inconsistencies. What is also obvious is that the team experts are extremely able and cannot be easily fooled by Syria. Even if progress is very slow and not without setbacks, the work has to continue. The Syrian case cannot be closed. The more imminent worry remains, of course, to ensure that the Syrian regime does not embark on the use of chemical weapons again.

ACT: Nearly nine months have passed since Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, was poisoned in Russia with a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent. Despite strong evidence of Moscow’s involvement, the Kremlin has yet to be held accountable for violating the CWC’s prohibition on developing, possessing, or using chemical weapons. What can be done to ensure that Russia is held accountable for violating the CWC?

Baumann: The use of a chemical nerve agent against Navalny, a Russian citizen, represents an outrageous breach of the taboo against using chemical weapons. The attack happened on Russian territory. It is up to Russia to clarify the circumstances of this attack, which raises a number of questions on Russia’s compliance with the CWC. Russia has all necessary evidence to start criminal investigations into this attack. In this regard, it is also regrettable that Russia has so far not cooperated with the OPCW, which stands ready to provide technical assistance to Russia. The pressure has to be maintained by CWC states-parties in order to assure that Russia actually fulfills its obligations under Article VII of the CWC.

ACT: Can the CWC ever really be a credible restraint on chemical weapons use if Russia, a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, violates it?

Baumann: International efforts on disarmament and arms control are uphill battles by nature. Enforcing arms control norms is the biggest challenge. Arms control and nonproliferation arrangements like the CWC provide only limited tools for sanctioning or penalizing the guilty party. That is why concerted action taken by different international organizations and bodies is needed. In the case of the poisoning of Navalny, the EU has reacted very rapidly by imposing sanctions. We have to uphold this pressure together, with and through other international forums like the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, the UN International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, and human rights bodies. Progress is possible when we put the necessary commitment to the task and cooperate with one another. The latest decisions at the OPCW on creating investigative mechanisms and taking measures against Syria show a growing support for the concept of attribution or the notion of accountability. This is encouraging.

ACT: The OPCW IIT is an important mechanism to ensure that instances of chemical weapons use in Syria are properly attributed and that the perpetrators of those attacks are identified. In your view, are there benefits to expanding the IIT’s mandate beyond Syria to investigate instances of chemical weapons use on the territory of any CWC state-party?

Baumann: The decision of the conference of states-parties in 2018 already foresees support by the OPCW for investigations of chemical weapons use beyond Syria. The director-general, if requested by a state-party to investigate possible chemical weapons use on its territory, can provide technical expertise to identify those who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors, or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons. Hence, there is a path to broadening the mandate of the IIT for other cases. It would require further detailing and, first of all, the consent and the cooperation of the state-party concerned.

ACT: What role do you see the IIT playing in future efforts to strengthen compliance and accountability under the CWC?

Baumann: The IIT plays an essential role because it identifies those responsible for the use of chemical weapons and thus prepares the ground for holding them accountable. Professional, independent investigations and the identification of perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks send out a clear message: chemical weapons use will not be without consequences. More IIT reports are to come, as only four of nine incidents that the IIT planned to investigate have been addressed up to now.

ACT: During a recent UN Security Council Arria Formula meeting, several nations, including Russia, expressed concern over what they view as “politicization” of the OPCW, despite offering little concrete evidence. Those states reiterated their concerns during the CWC Conference of States Parties and voted against the call to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the treaty. How would you respond to this and similar remarks that the OPCW’s work is politicized?

Baumann: Claims of a politicization of the OPCW have been pronounced by states-parties who apparently fear naming and shaming and, quintessentially, fear attribution and the establishment of accountability. In a very blunt and absurd manner, they try to question the professionalism and the impartiality of the OPCW experts. The current problem in this respect is the state-sponsored chemical weapons use by Syria. Very few allies of Syria seem determined to shield Syria against consequences in international forums. The camp of those who want to slow down the evolution toward stronger attribution and stronger norms remains small. The Syria attacks and the cases involving Skripal and Navalny have shown the growing strong support for the OPCW and the CWC.

ACT: What is your view on the role of the OPCW in identifying perpetrators of chemical weapons use?

Baumann: The OPCW has the necessary instruments and expertise at its disposal to identify guilty parties, including individuals. Yet, it does need the cooperation of the respective state-party to fulfill its mandate. Moving from attribution to judicial accountability remains one of the biggest challenges in fighting the use of chemical weapons. But again, here the OPCW and the states-parties have made significant progress over the last decade, which gives reason for optimism that the OPCW can become a driving force in the overall fight for more accountability.




International reaction to the recent cases of chemical weapons use clearly shows that the world is not willing to accept the erosion of the Chemical Weapons Treaty, Baumann tells Arms Control Today.          

Understanding the Risks and Realities of China’s Nuclear Forces

June 2021
By Gerald C. Brown

In its recent annual threat assessment, the U.S. intelligence community described how China is pursuing “the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history” and is intending to “at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile during the next decade.” Although deeply concerning, this description should be put in context. 

China recently deployed the D-17, a new kind of medium-range ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle, that may be nuclear-capable. Because they fly at low altitude, hypersonic gliders may cause problems for U.S. missile defense systems. (Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)The U.S. Department of Defense estimates China’s deployed nuclear forces to number in the low 200s. Even if doubled, this is substantially lower than the approximately 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear forces the United States maintains on alert daily under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Despite the rising numbers, China seems unlikely to quantitatively outpace U.S. nuclear forces in the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, China’s capabilities represent a substantial threat that must not be ignored. Quantitative comparisons of nuclear arsenals are a relatively crude manner of understanding nuclear risks and, in the case of the U.S.-Chinese relationship, wholly insufficient. More than ever, U.S. policymakers need to understand Chinese nuclear strategy. In the U.S.-Chinese context, policymakers should be more focused on how conventional weapons and related strategies could impact the nuclear calculus between the two countries. 

Chinese Nuclear Strategy

Unlike Russia and the United States, China has found nuclear weapons to be of rather limited utility in war-fighting. It built what it describes as a “lean and effective” nuclear deterrent, with the intentions of deterring a nuclear attack and preventing nuclear coercion.1 Strategists in Beijing have long thought that the destructive force of nuclear weapons limits their utility, while conventional forces are more flexible and usable in conflict. Conventional forces are thought to be where wars are won or lost.2 In that sense, China’s nuclear forces are intended to check U.S. nuclear dominance while winning conventional conflicts at lower levels of escalation. To make that happen, China is seeking to build a nuclear force capable of surviving a nuclear first strike and retaliating with an unacceptable level of damage. Experts have perhaps best described China’s nuclear strategy as one of “assured retaliation.”3 Instead of seeking parity with other nuclear states and being able to engage in counterforce campaigns, China finds it sufficient to maintain a more modest, secure, and survivable force. If China can sufficiently absorb a first strike and retaliate, even with only a few warheads, Beijing believes an adversary is unlikely to decide that the risk of attacking China is worth the benefit.

Since China’s first nuclear test in 1964, it has consistently maintained a public, declaratory no-first-use policy, adhering to what it describes as a “self-defensive nuclear strategy” that would anticipate using nuclear weapons only as a “counterattack in self-defense.”4 Western analysts have rightfully pointed out that a no-first-use pledge may not be entirely credible on its own. Although the pledge may be sincerely held, during a crisis, escalation could be unpredictable. Additionally, a small number of Chinese analysts have suggested that what China defines as a counterattack may be ambiguous under certain, limited conditions, such as conventional attacks seeking to neutralize China’s nuclear forces.5 

Despite Western doubts, the fact remains that Chinese strategists believe that the pledge holds true. An unambiguous no-first-use stance remains the official stance of the Chinese government, and China’s nuclear strategy is built around this concept. Authoritative texts on Chinese military thinking have described three major missions for Chinese nuclear forces. In peacetime, they seek to deter enemies from launching a nuclear war with China. In wartime, they constrain the scope of war, preventing a conventional conflict from escalating to a nuclear exchange. If war does escalate to nuclear conflict, they serve to conduct nuclear counterattacks.6 The texts consistently describe only one envisioned use of nuclear weapons, the nuclear counterattack operation, in response to a nuclear strike.7 

Operational practices have reinforced this. Beijing maintains a highly centralized nuclear warhead storage and handling system, with warheads typically thought to be stored unmated from their delivery vehicles rather than loaded and ready for launch.8 Further, training for nuclear brigades reflects the practice of counterattacking under nuclear conditions. Yet, there are indications of evolution. Recent U.S. government reports have suggested that some People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) brigades may spend time on higher alert and may seek to shift to a launch-on-warning posture in the future in order to increase survivability under nuclear attack. China has been developing a space-based early-warning system with assistance from Russia that could support this.9 

Nuclear Force Projections

As the U.S. annual threat assessment noted, there are signs of recent substantial changes in Chinese nuclear forces. The most important changes have been primarily qualitative, but notable quantitative changes are also occurring. These are understandably alarming to U.S. policymakers. Although the size of Chinese nuclear forces may still be dwarfed by the U.S. arsenal, its growth represents a substantial complication for the United States. Further, although the United States and Russia are modernizing their arsenals, they have been reducing their stockpiles over the past few decades slowly but significantly. China’s nuclear expansion represents a concerning shift away from its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to reduce its arsenal, and that is likely to impact U.S. and Russian decision-making.

Chinese military officers, shown here at a 2019 parade in Beijing, operate under a doctrine that assumes conventional forces, not nuclear forces, win wars, author Gerald Brown writes. (Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)Yet, understanding these changes in the context of China’s nuclear strategy is important. Instead of trying to reach parity with or exceed the U.S. nuclear arsenal, China seems intent on ensuring that it has an assured retaliatory capability following U.S. strikes. Given U.S. nuclear and technological superiority, China likely has never had a sufficiently survivable nuclear deterrent against the United States, a goal that was more aspirational than anything else. Revolutions in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies, coupled with advances in conventional precision weapons, have long rendered China’s nuclear forces vulnerable. The U.S. ballistic missile defense program threatens to intercept any surviving retaliatory force, further jeopardizing China’s retaliatory capability.

For the first time in history, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seems to be moving toward a survivable nuclear force capable of executing a second strike. Research suggests that Chinese nuclear expansions and modernization are oriented toward creation of a more mobile and redundant force that can survive U.S. counterforce capabilities, including conventional systems such as the Conventional Prompt Global Strike system, and its missiles being able to penetrate U.S. missile defense systems.10 Consequently, although China’s nuclear force size will expand, it does not appear likely to expand to the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the near future.

There is understandable doubt about the claim of China doubling its nuclear arsenal, but it does not appear to be out of the question. China is fielding an increasing number of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle weapons, such as the DF-5B deployed in 2015 and the recently deployed DF-5C and DF-41, that improve the ability of China’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal to penetrate the U.S. missile defense system.11 Defense Department estimates do not appear to include the DF-41, which is just starting to be deployed. Installing multiple warheads on these weapons will quickly expand the number of nuclear weapons in China’s arsenal. Further, PLARF brigades have been increasing at an unprecedented rate. The number of PLARF brigades reportedly increased from 29 to 40 between 2017 and 2020, and brigades continue to be added as new missile types are fielded.12

China’s shift to a nuclear triad will further increase the number of its nuclear warheads as these new systems are equipped. China is creating a more survivable nuclear submarine force, expanding the number of Type 094 ballistic missile submarines and developing the quieter Type 096 submarine with the JL-3 sea-launched ballistic missile as a complement. The PLA Air Force is also adopting a nuclear mission by developing a new air-launched ballistic missile that may be nuclear capable, as well as the nuclear-capable H-20 strategic bomber.13

Significantly, not all of China’s nuclear weapons are intercontinental forces capable of striking targets located in the continental United States. China has invested in nuclear weapons that specifically threaten the immediate region. Its new air capabilities, along with recently deployed midrange and intermediate-range ballistic missiles such as the DF-21E and the DF-26, hold regional adversaries and U.S. overseas bases at risk. China also recently deployed a new hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17, that may be nuclear capable. Importantly, although China’s nuclear expansion may be oriented toward a strategy of assured retaliation, that does not prevent Beijing from orienting its expanding nuclear capabilities toward a more threatening posture in the future. As China’s capabilities expand, its operational doctrine may well follow suit.

Emboldened Conventional Operations

China’s nuclear forces can be considerably more concerning when not considered in isolation from other tools of war. Analysts and policymakers need to look at how nuclear weapons can affect the broader picture of warfare, including how they impact PLA conventional operations and the type of wars China envisions fighting. 

China’s military strategy is focused on “winning informationized local wars,” effectively local, high tech wars in which the information domain will play a dominant role. Although the PLA’s reach is increasingly global, it has oriented itself toward local conflicts, with a particular emphasis on maritime conflicts, as the main war-fighting domain. This primarily concerns Taiwan but also the East and South China seas among others.14 In 2015, the PLA made a drastic change to its command structure, orienting itself into joint war-fighting theater commands, directly geared to fighting in these regions. The PLA seeks to deter the United States from intervening in these local wars or to defeat the United States locally if it does. 

In these local wars, nuclear overmatch against the United States is hardly necessary. Instead, China is more concerned with preventing U.S. nuclear coercion and intervention and constraining the scope of any war that may erupt. PLA strategists appear to believe that the United States would not intervene in a conflict that did not directly threaten the United States if there was a risk that the conflict could escalate to the nuclear level.15 As Zhao Xijun, former deputy commander of the Second Artillery Force, has said, states “become very cautious” when contemplating military intervention against other nuclear-armed states.16

Evidence suggests that a secure second-strike force may even embolden the PLA in local conventional conflicts, allowing them to accept greater risks at lower levels of escalation. That especially holds true when considering that all sides in China’s multiple territorial claims perceive themselves as defending the status quo.17 Research has revealed the PLA’s overconfidence in its ability to control conventional escalation. Unlike in the case of nuclear weapons, Chinese documents emphasize “seizing the initiative” early in conventional conflicts. They envision using tools such as cyberwarfare and conventional missiles early, hard, and fast, even preemptively.18 Although the focus of these writings is not nuclear weapons use, conventional operations could be emboldened by perceptions of nuclear stability. 

Entanglement Risks

Another complication is that firebreaks between conventional and nuclear forces are increasingly blurred in modern warfare, and substantial risks exist when conventional strategies affect nuclear forces. One notable example involves discussions on space weapons. PLA assessments have highlighted the increasing importance of this domain, and the asymmetric weakness represented by U.S. overreliance on space in conflict. Critiques of Chinese military writings point toward the offense-dominant nature of such operations and the need to control the space domain early in conflict. They further assert that attacks against U.S. satellites would carry relatively low escalation risks and could even deescalate a conflict.19 

U.S. satellite systems, however, are dual use, enabling a wide range of conventional and nuclear operations. Attacks against U.S. satellites would not only affect the country’s conventional capabilities, they would jeopardize the heart of the U.S. nuclear command, control, and communications and early-warning capabilities.20 Further, although Chinese military analysts highlight the advantages of engaging in satellite attacks during conventional conflicts, the same actions would likely be taken prior to a nuclear conflict in order to degrade the effectiveness of U.S. missile defenses and ensure the effectiveness of a nuclear strike. As a result, Washington would view any Chinese attack on its satellites as profoundly destabilizing, potentially inciting a U.S. nuclear response.

Similar entanglement risks exist with Chinese forces. PLARF bases all appear to host conventional and nuclear missile brigades. These are geographically separated from each other, but most of the weapons are on mobile platforms, creating overlapping risks when deployed. Conventional and nuclear forces seem to rely on the same supply and logistics infrastructure. Although command and control infrastructure are ostensibly separate, the extent of this separation is not fully understood, and overlap seems likely to exist.21 Additionally, China’s nuclear submarine force appears to share the same onshore communications systems with Chinese conventional submarines.22

DF-26 missiles are featured in the military parade in Beijing, China, Sept. 3, 2015. (Photo: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)Furthermore, an increasing number of midrange to intermediate-range weapons systems are dual use. Although the DF-21 maintains distinct conventional and nuclear variants that are typically not co-located, they are likely indistinguishable when deployed. In the case of the DF-26, conventional and nuclear warheads are likely co-located. Reports have highlighted DF-26 brigades, equipped with conventional and nuclear weapons, that hold drills in which units launch a conventional attack and then reload with a nuclear warhead to prepare for nuclear counterattacks.23

In conflict, attacks against China’s shore-based communications systems that are directed at China’s conventional submarine force would cut off its nuclear-armed submarine force as well. Campaigns against China’s vast conventional missile force would almost certainly degrade China’s nuclear force too. The fixed bases supporting PLARF brigades would be likely targets as the dual nature of these bases means conventional and nuclear forces share the same base headquarters, resulting in severed communications and logistics networks for PLA nuclear forces. Even if China’s nuclear and conventional command and control networks were sufficiently separate, it would be challenging to distinguish between them. Conventional and nuclear midrange to intermediate-range weapons would likely be indistinguishable in conflict. 

How would China respond to attacks against these dual-use systems and the degradation of its nuclear force? It is somewhat comforting that China’s ICBM force is relatively distinguishable from its dual-use weapons, and the majority of the force is located deeper within the Chinese mainland. What is not obvious is how strikes against regional-range nuclear forces would be perceived by Beijing in the middle of armed conflict. If China’s nuclear forces were degraded in any way, authorities could conclude that they no longer have a survivable deterrent. In the heat of a conflict, it is difficult to assess how Chinese decision-makers would react to this. 

Further, a degraded Chinese nuclear force, in the middle of a crisis, could provide a tempting counterforce target for the United States. In such a case, there would be a challenge of perceptions, with neither the United States nor China truly knowing the other’s intentions. In conflict, with the ability to destroy China’s nuclear force or at least limit damage to itself should China opt for nuclear use, would the United States decide that a counterforce strike is worth the risk? The United States would understand that if it failed to strike, China could opt to use its remaining nuclear forces and inflict substantial damage. Similarly, knowing the United States faced such a dilemma and that it could face a disabling counterforce strike, China would be faced with strong use-it-or-lose-it pressures. All of these circumstances would be exacerbated by the fog of war, a degraded information environment, and the speed required to make decisions. 

Some Western analysts have speculated that China’s conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities have been intentionally entangled to heighten the risks facing adversaries and to deter conflict. There is little evidence that this was a motivator. Instead, the PLA likely sought to take advantage of economies of scale. It is far cheaper and more logical for China to use the same designs for conventional and nuclear variants to its weapons, allowing for savings on manpower, production, maintenance, and research costs. Even so, this is hardly comforting and may leave the PLA less aware of risks resulting from a comingled system. States that entangle forces intentionally are likely better prepared for the risks involved. When such entanglement arises from nonstrategic reasons, as seems likely in China’s case, states are less aware of the escalatory risks, which may exacerbate escalatory pressures in a conflict.24

War Control and Inadvertent Escalation

There is little evidence that technological entanglement is a direct, strategic choice, but there are some limited indications that China could use nuclear signaling to constrain the extent of conventional conflicts and contribute to escalation control.25 Nuclear signaling includes such actions as test launches, release of the locations of targets, an increase in readiness levels, missile deployments, or other actions to demonstrate resolve. The goal would not be necessarily to use nuclear weapons. Instead, the signaling would aim to raise fears that a conflict could credibly escalate to the nuclear level, thus “causing the enemy to dread that the possible consequences of its actions will be that its losses will exceed its gains, thereby causing the enemy to change its plans for risky activities and achieving the goal of restricting the war to a certain scope.”26 In this way, China could capitalize on the uncertainty of a potential nuclear conflict to deter intervention and constrain escalation in conventional conflicts in the Pacific region. Such risks are compounded by China’s use of purposeful ambiguity as an integral component of its approach to nuclear deterrence.27

One major problem is that such signaling by the Chinese may be indistinguishable from preparations for a nuclear attack. Yet, writings by experts on deterrence and signaling operations fail to acknowledge that these provocative actions could be misinterpreted by an adversary. In general, Chinese experts seem to believe that nuclear escalation is unlikely to be effectively controlled, but are overconfident that conventional conflict can be controlled without escalating to the nuclear level.28 Lack of awareness about escalation risks could very well make the PLA more aggressive in local conflicts. 

Finally, the concept of an “existential threat” may be different in China than many perceive it to be. The PLA is not China’s professional military so much as it is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party, a point drilled into PLA members and emphasized in the era of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the party.29 In that sense, destruction of the party may be synonymous with destruction of the state. Such conflation of ideas could come into play in the face of a humiliating conventional defeat by China over Taiwan or another dispute that China considers central to its sovereignty. If there were a perceived risk, irrational or not, that such losses could fracture the legitimacy of the Communist Party, drastic actions could become more likely. If Beijing perceived that nuclear weapons use would ensure victory in a conflict, it might escalate to using nuclear weapons in a last-ditch effort.


For all the concern from U.S. policymakers about China’s nuclear expansion, relatively little attention has gone into adequately examining the country’s military and nuclear strategies. There is a tendency among many U.S. policymakers to blindly equate the challenge of China with the strategies faced by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War or to mirror image their own strategic thinking onto Chinese strategists. That is insufficient and dangerous. 

China’s thinking on escalation and war-fighting often differs substantially from that of the Americans and Soviets. The authoritative literature on these subjects within the Chinese system does not represent errant thoughts of lone strategists. It represents doctrinally informed guidance that culminates the work of dozens of China’s top strategists, originating from China’s most authoritative institutions with ties directly to China’s decision-making bodies, and is used to educate and inform PLA officers. Although written for an internal audience, several of the most important of these texts, such as “Science of Military Strategy” and “Science of Campaigns,” have been translated into English by U.S. scholars and need to be mined thoroughly by U.S. planners for insights.30 

There is also a need for greater engagement and crisis management measures between U.S. and Chinese officials. Varying levels of formal and informal dialogues between Chinese and U.S. officials directly or between delegations of recently retired officials help alleviate misperceptions and enhance understanding of escalation triggers and redlines. Although there have been some talks at the unofficial level in recent years, Beijing remains reluctant to pursue official talks on nuclear weapons. Given the substantial misperceptions in the relationship, regular engagements are critical. Similarly, crisis management mechanisms would be to the advantage of both sides in communicating intentions and alleviating misperceptions during a crisis. Thus far, the pursuit of new initiatives has met limited success, and Beijing tends to eschew the methods that are in place. Although arms control agreements appear to be unfeasible between the United States and China for the time being, official talks and better crisis management measures would be a strong first step. 

Finally, the United States needs to look at deterrence and escalation more holistically. The primary risks of nuclear escalation stemming from the U.S.-Chinese relationship do not come from nuclear weapons alone. Warfare is increasingly complicated; a greater appreciation of how conventional and nuclear strategies intersect is needed. In the Indo-Pacific theater, conventional forces may play a greater role in deterrence than many in the nuclear community acknowledge. U.S. Admiral Phil Davison, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, recently observed that “the greatest danger the United States and our allies face in the region is the erosion of conventional deterrence vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China.” Increasingly, this erosion affects conventional and nuclear strategies. Organizational separation within the U.S. military establishment may leave conventional and nuclear planners ill-informed of escalation risks stemming from areas outside their purview. Better integration of conventional and nuclear communities, a more holistic understanding of the risks and challenges, and a bolstering of regional conventional forces could play a significant role in managing and deterring conflict that could otherwise escalate to the nuclear level.



1. M. Taylor Fravel, Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 243–247.

2. Michael Chase, “PLA Rocket Force: Executors of China’s Nuclear Strategy and Policy,” in China’s Evolving Military Strategy, ed. Joe McReynolds (Washington: The Jamestown Foundation, 2017), p. 144; Liu Chong, “The Relationship Between Nuclear Weapons and Conventional Military Conflicts,” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, ed. Li Bin and Tong Zhao (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), 2016), pp. 153–159. 

3. M. Taylor Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure,” International Security, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Fall 2010): 48-87; Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation: China’s Nuclear Posture and U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” International Security, Vol. 40, No. 2 (October 2015): 7–50. 

4. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in 2006,” December 2006, http://www.andrewerickson.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/China-Defense-White-Paper_2006_English-Chinese_Annotated.pdf

5. Christopher P. Twomey, “China’s Nuclear Doctrine and Deterrence Concept,” in China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems, ed. James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2021), pp. 51–55.

6. Chase, “PLA Rocket Force,” p. 142; Fravel, Active Defense, p. 242.

7. Cunningham and Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation,” pp. 12–15; Chase, “PLA Rocket Force,” pp. 148–149.

8. Mark A. Stokes, “China’s Nuclear Warhead Storage and Handling System, ” Project 2049 Institute, March 12, 2010, https://project2049.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/chinas_nuclear_warhead_storage_and_handling_system.pdf

9. U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” 2020, pp. 88-89, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF.

10. Cunningham and Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation,” pp. 15–23.

11. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2020,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 76, No. 6 (November 1, 2020): 445.

12. P.W. Singer and Ma Xiu, “China’s Missile Force Is Growing at an Unprecedented Rate,” Popular Science, February 25, 2020. 

13. Hans M. Kristensen, “China’s Strategic Systems and Programs,” in China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems, ed. James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2021), pp. 108–112.

14. M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s New Military Strategy: ‘Winning Informationized Local Wars,’” China Brief, Vol. 15, No. 13 (July 2, 2015): 3–7.

15. M. Taylor Fravel and Fiona Cunningham, “Dangerous Confidence: Chinese Views on Nuclear Escalation,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Fall 2019): 79–81.

16. Eric Heginbotham et al., “China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major Drivers and Issues for the United States,” RAND Corp., 2017, pp. 17–18, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1628.html.

17. Thomas J. Christensen, “The Meaning of the Nuclear Evolution: China’s Strategic Modernization and U.S.-China Security Relations,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (August 29, 2012): 463–466.

18. Burgess Laird, “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict,” Center for a New American Security, 2017, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/war-control; Alison A. Kaufman and Daniel M. Hartnett, “Managing Conflict: Examining Recent PLA Writings on Escalation Control,” CNA, February 2016, pp. 81–82, https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/DRM-2015-U-009963-Final3.pdf.

19. Kevin Pollpeter, “Space, the New Domain: Space Operations and Chinese Military Reforms,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 39, Nos. 5-6 (September 18, 2016): 709–727; Zhao Tong and Bin Li, “The Underappreciated Risks of Entanglement: A Chinese Perspective,” in Entanglement: Russian and Chinese Perspectives on Non-Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Risks, ed. James M. Acton (Washington: CEIP, 2017), pp. 63–66; Laird, “War Control,” pp. 17–19. For a Track 1.5 talk between U.S. and Chinese officials in which anti-satellite strikes were proposed to deescalate conflict, see David Santoro and Robert Gromoll, “On the Value of Nuclear Dialogue With China: A Review and Assessment of the Track 1.5 ‘China-U.S. Strategic Nuclear Dynamics Dialogue,’” Issues and Insights, Vol. 20, No. 1 (November 2020): 19.

20. James M. Acton, “Escalation Through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War,” International Security, Vol. 43, No. 1 (August 2018): 63–66.

21. Caitlin Talmadge, “Would China Go Nuclear? Assessing the Risk of Chinese Nuclear Escalation in a Conventional War With the United States,” International Security, Vol. 41, No. 4 (April 2017): 73–79.

22. Zhao Tong, “Tides of Change: China’s Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines and Strategic Stability,” CEIP, 2018, pp. 42–43, 83-84, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Zhao_SSBN_final.pdf.

23. Joshua Pollack and Scott LaFoy, “China’s DF-26: A Hot-Swappable Missile?” Arms Control Wonk, May 17, 2020, https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1209405/chinas-df-26-a-hot-swappable-missile/

24. David C. Logan, “Are They Reading Schelling in Beijing? The Dimensions, Drivers, and Risks of Nuclear-Conventional Entanglement in China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, November 12, 2020, pp. 30–38.

25. Christopher T. Yeaw, Andrew S. Erickson, and Michael S. Chase, “The Future of Chinese Nuclear Policy and Strategy,” in Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age, ed. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012), pp. 53–64; Heginbotham et al., “China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent,” pp. 26–31.

26. Yu Jixun, ed., Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (Beijing: PLA Press, 2004), pp. 273–274 (in Chinese).

27. Chase, “PLA Rocket Force,” p. 156.

28. Fravel and Cunningham, “Dangerous Confidence,” pp. 101–104.

29. David Finkelstein, “Breaking the Paradigm: Drivers Behind the PLA’s Current Period of Reform,” in Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms, ed. Phillip C. Saunders et al. (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2019), pp. 48–51.

30. See China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), “Science of Military Strategy (2013),” In Their Own Words, n.d., https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/CASI/documents/Translations/2021-02-08%20Chinese%20Military%20Thoughts-%20In%20their%20own%20words%20Science%20of%20Military%20Strategy%202013.pdf; CASI, “Science of Campaigns (2006),” In Their Own Words, n.d., https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/CASI/documents/Translations/2020-12-02%20In%20Their%20Own%20Words-%20Science%20of%20Campaigns%20(2006).pdf. Additionally, for an excellent assessment by U.S. scholars of “Science of Military Strategy (2013)” and related texts, see Joe McReynolds, ed., China’s Evolving Military Strategy (Washington: The Jamestown Foundation, 2017).

Gerald C. Brown is an analyst with Valiant Integrated Services focusing on nuclear deterrence and East Asian security.


More than ever, U.S. policymakers need to understand Chinese nuclear strategy.

Nuclear Launch Authority: Too Big a Decision for Just the President

June 2021
By David S. Jonas and Bryn McWhorter

As it has been since the dawn of the atomic age, the president possesses the sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons by the United States. Not since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II has the United States or any other power launched a nuclear attack. In recent years, however, interest in ending this exclusive control over the most lethal weapons on earth has increased demonstrably. 

A military aide to then-President Donald Trump carries a briefcase known as the "nuclear football" that contains the codes needed to launch a nuclear war through the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, in 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)Calls for sharing this authority escalated during the last administration, when President Donald Trump made a habit of unilaterally changing national policy at the speed of a tweet. The calls have continued into the Biden presidency,1 even among anti-Trump Democrats who have come to understand that no one leader should have unilateral control of nuclear launch authority. Various politicians,2 along with legal and national security experts,3 have called for a new process requiring the involvement of multiple parties before a nuclear attack is authorized, rather than continuing to allow the decision to be controlled by a single individual. 

In general, these proposals differentiate between the first use and second use of nuclear weapons. Most experts would leave untouched the president’s sole authority in instances of second use, that is, when the United States is already under nuclear attack and must respond rapidly in self-defense. The primary concern is when a president intends to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons. In that instance, when there is time to involve others in the decision, it is necessary and justifiable for the president’s power to be appropriately and reasonably curtailed. 

Options for Constraining the President

There are several proposals to constrain the president. One would require consensus among the president, vice president, and speaker of the House of Representatives4—the two individuals next in line in the constitutionally mandated presidential chain of succession. Another proposal would have the president involve the attorney general and secretary of defense in his decision-making.5 Advancing one of the more ludicrous ideas, others have even advocated a role for the Supreme Court.6 Some experts have called for a consultation,7 rather than consensus, requirement in which the president would discuss the momentous decision with an array of high-level national security advisers prior to authorizing the launch of nuclear weapons but not be bound by what they advise. Finally, some politicians have advocated for laws prohibiting the president from authorizing a nuclear attack in the first instance absent a declaration of war by Congress.8 None of those options are realistic or acceptable. 

The first proposal should fail because it would require the approval of the speaker of the House, an individual outside the executive branch. Often, this person will be of a different political party than the president. On one level, that could be viewed as a benefit. Because of the magnitude of the decision, requiring consensus among individuals on opposing sides of the political aisle seems reasonable on the face of it. As the specifics become clear, however, the matter could result in political horse trading. Additionally, the importance of operating from a basis of national unity cannot be overstated given the profound consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons. 

Although salient, such considerations are not compelling in this context. The launch of a nuclear weapon must remain a national security decision. It must not be subject to political games in what could well be a life-or-death situation for the United States. Could anyone imagine Trump seeking approval for a nuclear first strike from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)? The current poisonous political atmosphere in U.S. politics will hopefully subside, but decisions of such existential consequence must always reflect the primacy of national security over politics.

Moreover, the addition of congressional participation in such a vital national security decision would violate the separation of powers principle. The president alone is vested with the powers of commander in chief. That is not to demean the congressional role in military matters. Congress holds the power to declare war, even though it has not formally done so since World War II; authorizes military use of force short of war through statute; and is charged with authorizing and appropriating funds for the armed forces and setting rules for the administration of military justice. Nevertheless, the power to select the methods of waging war should remain solely with the executive branch. 

The second proposal deviates too far from the presidential chain of succession by excluding the vice president and incorporating the attorney general. Currently, in the event that the vice president must assume the presidency, that individual will also presumably rapidly gain control over the nuclear launch codes. Any attempt to reform this decision-making process should not exclude the first person to whom that responsibility falls. The attorney general, although certainly within the executive branch and frequently involved in legal aspects of national security matters, has no day-to-day involvement in military affairs. It seems nonsensical to make the person holding this position party to one of the most consequential military decisions ever made. That is not to discount the virtue of involving legal counsel in the process; such participation is crucial to ensuring that all applicable laws are observed. Yet, it is more prudent to incorporate lawyers who are well versed in assessing the legality of the use of force. 

A Supreme Court Role?

The third proposal, involving Supreme Court participation, suffers from the same separation of powers issues and expertise deficiencies that would arise in the proposals just discussed. Indeed, even the Supreme Court itself is unlikely to find its own involvement permissible. In Smith v. Obama,9 the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia relied on Supreme Court jurisprudence when declining to resolve the question of whether Congress authorized the use of force against the Islamic State group through the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force on the grounds that it constituted a political question. The court found matters of foreign policy and national security to be textually committed to the political branches of government, meaning allocated to the executive or legislative branches by the Constitution itself. It found inappropriate this kind of judicial second-guessing of the executive branch’s application of the authorizations to facts on the ground during ongoing combat operations. Following that line of case law and reasoning, the Supreme Court would also likely find the question of the use of nuclear weapons to be one that it lacks the expertise to handle and that is surely a political question meant for resolution by the two political branches of government. 

Even if the justices were integrated into the decision-making more in their personal capacities as lawyers and scholars, thereby averting the legal issues of precedent and political question, it would be imprudent to extricate the justices from their roles on the court. Although litigation may not be a particularly pressing concern following a massive nuclear attack, smaller-scale uses of nuclear weapons could certainly generate lawsuits as nuclear testing has done in the past. If such suits did arise, those justices who participated in the authorization decision would have a conflict of interest necessitating their recusal. 

Although justices recuse themselves from cases periodically, there has never been an entire category of case for which the underlying subject matter would necessarily preclude the Supreme Court from sitting in full. If the justices participated in the proposed manner, it would preclude the court from considering in its entirety a full subject matter, namely the authorization of a nuclear attack and its consequences. Given the importance of this issue, any cases arising from it should receive the consideration of the entire court. 

Those proposals calling for consultation with various national security advisers do not provide a sufficient constraint on this critical decision-making process. The underlying premise of the need for reform is to prevent the arbitrary or unwarranted authorization of the use of nuclear weapons. Consultation alone simply does not go far enough in checking the president’s power in cases of nuclear first use, and such discussions would probably occur anyway. Moreover, there is ambiguity in the concept of consultation that further denigrates its utility in this vital national security context. Requiring consensus provides a clear check on the president’s power, one that mere consultation cannot. 

Lastly, although Congress’s role in the waging of war is crucial, its involvement in the decision to use nuclear weapons is untenable. Apart from the reasons previously mentioned as to why congressional participation is inappropriate in this circumstance, one of the most compelling reasons for its exclusion is practicality. Any discussion regarding the potential authorization of nuclear attack is of the utmost sensitivity and requires complete secrecy. The size of Congress alone makes it a poor keeper of secrets. If information concerning decision-making on the use of nuclear weapons leaked, the United States would likely face attack first, making this option simply unworkable.

The war room of the iconic 1964 black comedy "Dr. Strangelove," which embodied Cold War fears about a first strike nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. Six decades later, those fears remain and calls are growing for Congress to rein in the unilateral authority possessed by U.S. presidents to launch such existential attacks.  (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Untenability of Unilateral Action

Yet, there is surely merit in taking this potentially apocalyptic decision out of the hands of one individual. History shows that, at times, prior presidents acted while impaired, be it John Kennedy under of the influence of pain killers or Richard Nixon intoxicated from alcohol. In the case of Trump, many questioned his decision-making processes, viewing him as emotional and acting on impulse, often ignoring his advisers. Because of Joe Biden’s age—at 78 years old, he is the oldest man to be elected president—some people wonder how long he will be able to bring clarity and stamina to the job. That is enough to merit bringing in others for concurrence on a momentous nuclear weapons decision, but the issue extends far beyond even these examples. No single individual, no matter how wise and temperate, should hold the sole power to potentially initiate the destruction of the world. 

In situations where the United States or its allies have been attacked with nuclear weapons, when a decision about retaliating must be made within minutes, the president should retain the sole power to authorize their use. In instances of first use, when the United States has time to decide whether to initiate an attack, the authorization to launch nuclear weapons should require the unanimous consent of the president, vice president, and the defense secretary. 

Requiring the approval of the vice president makes sense because that individual is first in the presidential line of succession. Should the president die, resign, become incapacitated, or be removed from office, the vice president assumes the responsibility for the nuclear launch codes and is presumably already familiar with the process. That would also ensure political accountability from the only other U.S. official elected by the entire nation.

Requiring the concurrence of the defense secretary is prudent for several reasons. First, the person in that position is presumed to have the necessary military knowledge to understand the utility and consequences of deploying a nuclear weapon. That individual is also presumed to understand the practicalities of armed conflict and should be involved in assessing this kind of escalation. 

Second, the use of force requires compliance with the law of armed conflict. Certainly, in the event that the United States has already suffered or faces an imminent nuclear attack, there would likely be little political resistance to the country’s use of nuclear weapons in self-defense. The trickier analysis would be the legality of the first use of nuclear weapons against an adversary attacking or thought to be preparing an imminent attack against U.S. territory, U.S. forces abroad, U.S. allies, or U.S. interests through conventional means.

Department of Defense lawyers, whether civilian or uniformed judge advocates, regularly make legal compliance assessments regarding the use of force and targeting with conventional weapons. Should the United States find itself contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, it should leverage the expertise of these lawyers. To ensure that the involvement of these lawyers is not subject to the potentially arbitrary inclinations of the defense secretary, the reform process should include a stipulation that the secretary must solicit legal counsel and share those assessments with the president and vice president. 

To the extent possible, the secretary of state, who is the most senior cabinet member, should be involved in consultations; but actual approval of the decision should rest with the president, vice president, and defense secretary. Although the secretary of state negotiates nuclear weapons treaties and monitors compliance with these agreements, the Department of State works to prevent conflict rather than to wage war. 

In the event that time is of the essence and the vice president and defense secretary are dead, injured, or cannot be contacted, the deputy secretary of defense and the next person in the presidential line of succession in the executive branch—the secretary of state—should have to make a joint decision. The goal should be to give a priority role to the official with the most direct responsibility for nuclear weapons, the defense secretary or deputy secretary. 

The gravity surrounding any potential use or even the threat of the use of nuclear weapons necessitates greater constraints on the president’s ability to authorize such action in a first-use scenario. Given that magnitude, these changes should be accomplished through bipartisan legislation. Congress should make it a priority this year.



1. Steve Herman, “Democrats Want Biden to Relinquish Sole Authority for Nuclear Launches,” Voice of America, February 26, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-politics/democrats-want-biden-relinquish-sole-authority-nuclear-launches

2. Geoff Brumfiel, “Pelosi Asks Military to Limit Trump’s Nuclear Authority. Here’s How That System Works,” National Public Radio, January 8, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/insurrection-at-the-capitol/2021/01/08/955043654/pelosi-asks-military-to-limit-trumps-nuclear-authority-heres-how-that-system-wor

3. Ernest J. Moniz and Sam Nunn, “The President and Nuclear Weapons: Implications of Sole Authority in Today’s World,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, December 2019, https://media.nti.org/documents/The_President_and_Nuclear_Weapons_Implications_of_Sole_Authority_in_Todays_World.pdf

4. Lisbeth Gronlund et al., “An Expert Proposal: How to Limit Presidential Authority to Order the Use of Nuclear Weapons,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 8, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/01/an-expert-proposal-how-to-limit-presidential-authority-to-order-the-use-of-nuclear-weapons

5. Richard K. Betts and Matthew Waxman, “Safeguarding Nuclear Launch Procedures: A Proposal,” Lawfare, November 19, 2017, https://www.lawfareblog.com/safeguarding-nuclear-launch-procedures-proposal

6. Michael E. O’Hanlon, “Going It Alone? The President and the Risks of a Hair-Trigger Nuclear Button,” Brookings Institution, March 1, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2016/03/01/going-it-alone-the-president-and-the-risks-of-a-hair-trigger-nuclear-button/

7. Bruce Blair, “Strengthening Checks on Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2018, pp. 6–13. 

8. Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2019, H.R. 669, 116th Cong. (2019). 

9. Smith v. Obama, 217 F. Supp. 3d 283, 298–300 (D.D.C. 2016).

David S. Jonas is a partner at FH+H Law Firm in Tysons, Virginia. After retiring as a Marine Corps officer, where he served as nuclear nonproliferation planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he served as general counsel of the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. He teaches a course he created on nuclear nonproliferation law and policy as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and the George Washington University Law School. Bryn McWhorter graduated from the George Washington University Law School in 2021. She has studied and written on nuclear nonproliferation.

Calls have escalated for a new process requiring the involvement of multiple parties before a nuclear attack is authorized.

Is There a New Chance for Arms Control in the Middle East?

June 2021
By Marc Finaud, Tony Robinson, and Mona Saleh

Regional rivalries have long bedeviled the Middle East, and as a result, true arms control and security negotiations have never taken place. Several recent developments offer hope that the momentum for regional progress on nonproliferation and disarmament can be revived, provided some conditions are met. 

Despite the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, there are hopes that the Abraham Accords, signed at the White House last September by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, could revive disarmament efforts. (Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images)The Abraham Accords formalized new relations between Israel and several Arab countries. Talks on restoring the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are making headway while Iran and Saudi Arabia have resumed bilateral engagement thanks to mediation by Iraq. A return to full compliance with the JCPOA by the United States and Iran could be followed by broader discussions on regional security and missile programs. 

In fact, a historic window of opportunity could be opening, all centered around the decades-old effort to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East that was relaunched by a UN conference in 2019. Any optimism must be tempered by the latest surge in fighting between Israel and Hamas, but the diplomatic building blocks of future disarmament progress may be falling into place. 

The Abraham Accords 

The Abraham Accords,1 concluded in August 2020 by Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States and followed by the normalization agreements extended to Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco with the door open for other Arab and Islamic states to join, are a potential game changer in the future of the region. Even if the main incentives for such agreements appear to be the prospect of major U.S. arms sales and an emerging coalition against Iran and despite their rejection by the Palestinians, the accords break the long-standing Arab taboo on normalizing relations with Israel. 

Indeed, the accords dealt a heavy blow to the Arab consensus on the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative of 2002,2 which conditioned normalization with Israel on the establishment of a Palestinian state. They also upended the joint Arab position on the WMD-free zone, which required Israel to get rid of its nuclear weapons at an early stage in exchange for recognition and normalization under the “disarmament first” rubric. In that sense, the accords have divided Arab states due to their negative implications for the Palestinians and the two-state solution. The recent violence between Israel and the Palestinians put the Arab signatories of the accords in an embarrassing situation, underscoring the lack of support for normalization from the Arab “street” and the non-existent leverage of the Persian Gulf countries on Israel. In fact, the current situation demonstrates the centrality of the Palestinian issue that was recklessly ignored by the conclusion of the accords.

The accords are not as detailed as the peace treaties with Egypt from 1979 and Jordan from 1994 precisely because there is no history of direct armed conflict between the states-parties to the accords and Israel. Yet, they are a signal that the region is apparently moving beyond the old Arab-Israeli conflict and away from the refusal of most Arab states to recognize or engage openly in talks with Israel. Discreet trade relations between Israel and some Gulf countries had been laying the ground for normalization for years. The accords, particularly the agreement with the UAE3, list “spheres of mutual interests,” including investment, trade, science and technology, civil aviation, tourism, and energy, but their security dimension is the dominant one. They signal a willingness to enter into a new defense relationship and eventually possibly an alliance with Israel under U.S. auspices in order to counter “the Iranian threat.” This strategic ambition was reinforced when U.S. President Donald Trump shifted Israel out of the U.S. military’s European Command and to the U.S. Central Command, which includes other Middle Eastern countries.4

Rapprochement between Israelis and Arab countries, particularly the UAE, is in full swing on various levels from exchanging diplomatic missions to agreeing to visa-free travel and cooperating on maritime and civil aviation issues. The countries are collaborating on trade and banking matters and negotiating science and innovation deals. The UAE recently announced a $10 billion investment fund for strategic sectors in Israel.5 The accelerated collaborations, particularly in the maritime and aviation fronts, open the door to strengthening the security alliance between Israel and individual Gulf countries. The Israeli defense minister recently suggested that Israel intends to develop a “special security arrangement” with new Gulf allies who share common concerns about Iran.6 

These developments are enhanced even more by the al-Ula Reconciliation Declaration of January 2021, in which all Gulf states agreed to solve the dispute between the “Quartet” (Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) and Qatar and to improve their “resistance” to Iran.7

Iran-Saudi Engagement

Recent reports about the first direct talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia since diplomatic ties were cut four years ago are extremely interesting and offer another glimpse of hope.8 They are a sign that an Iraqi mediation effort, initiated and brutally interrupted in January 2020 by the targeted killing by the United States of Major General Kassem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian commander, has regained momentum. After U.S. President Joe Biden announced the end of U.S. support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen, Riyadh probably understood that, unlike during the Trump administration, it would not have everything its own way and might benefit from exploring a new political dynamic with Iran to stop a war it was not winning. 

In the last months of Trump’s presidency, there was a clear impetus, led by Washington’s Gulf allies, to form an alliance in the region, including with new “friend” Israel, against Iran. It is likely that the Biden administration will not allow that to happen if it interferes with rescuing the faltering Iran nuclear deal, a key priority for Washington with widespread security implications for the region. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visit to Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait in April 2021 and his announced visit to the UAE reinforce the perception of warming ties in the Gulf and the prospects, at a minimum, of a positive impact on the conflict in Yemen where Iran is backing Houthis fighting Saudi-led forces with UAE assistance.

The Zone Itself

The question now is whether the Abraham Accords can have a direct impact on the ongoing efforts at negotiating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Despite a boycott by Israel and the United States, this process gained traction in 2019 at a UN General Assembly conference after the cancellation of the conference planned in 2012.9 When the conference, tentatively set for November 2021, reconvenes, one could logically expect a rift among states that have recently normalized relations with Israel, implicitly accepting Israel as a nuclear-armed state, and those still vocally against it. It is likely, however, that the unity of language on the zone will be preserved by the Arab League and that the accords will be largely ignored, in part because of the Arabs’ inevitable return to a more vocal pro-Palestinian stance.

It is clear that the Israeli nuclear weapons program, estimated to include 80 to 90 nuclear warheads, and its long-held policy of opacity were not on the table while the Abraham Accords were negotiated. Yet, they remain the elephant in the room. Indeed, the accords open the door for a de facto military alliance or “security arrangement,” for which the Israeli defense minister advocated, with the only nuclear-armed state in the region. Will this possible alliance be perceived by Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey as a pretext to join the nuclear arms race? Could such a military alliance cause Israel to risk its military and technological edge? Will the lucrative arms exports to Gulf countries that Israel is contemplating contribute to making those countries faithful clients, willing to ignore Israel’s nuclear capability?10 There are no easy answers at this stage.

In the 47 years since the zone project has been under discussion, the Arabs have been calling for disarmament first. In contrast, Israel has consistently advocated peace first and avoided any talk of nuclear disarmament, arguing that the regional states need to travel down a “long corridor” of concrete actions for Israel to be reassured by mutual recognition, normalization, peace, and the establishment of a regional security architecture.11 Of course, Israel can claim that threats from Iran still justify maintaining nuclear deterrence. Yet, the reality of normalization with the Gulf states, a restored JCPOA followed by regional security talks, and the prospect of Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians, which could be encouraged by Biden given the surge of Israeli-Palestinian violence, may cause Israel to feel that the long corridor has shortened after all. Such improvement in the way Israel views its threat environment is hypothetical at this point and could be significantly affected by the military exchanges between Israeli and Hamas forces, the worst violence in seven years.

The Way Forward

The new Arab-Israeli and Gulf-Iranian rapprochements should be viewed as a fresh opportunity to engage regional parties to pursue serious arms control negotiations. The moment has come to call out the Abraham Accords for what they do not say and urge their signatories to make the links among peace, recognition, and normalization with Israel more explicit and for Israel to make a serious commitment toward negotiations on a region free of weapons of mass destruction.

Although the arms deals that come with the Abraham Accords may contribute to an aggravation of instability in an already overarmed region, they do have one silver lining: they test the validity and credibility of Israel’s commitment to the long corridor approach. The international community and civil society are now in a position to challenge Israel, as the accords show that the Arabs have taken several strides down the long corridor and it is Israel’s turn to take serious steps toward disarmament given that it has already accepted, since 1980, the long-term goal of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.

The wider regional security concerns, such as ballistic missiles and the involvement of some regional states in military conflicts beyond their borders, can be discussed within the framework of the zone negotiations given that Israel and its new Arab allies share the need to enhance their own security. Israel, despite its technological advantage, nuclear capability, and alliance with the United States, still feels threatened and in need of recognition by regional states. Some Arab states feel threatened by Iran and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and need the United States as a security guarantor.

Any serious negotiations on wider regional security issues should not exclude or single out Iran. Tehran has hinted that such an inclusive framework would be acceptable once the nuclear deal is restored.12 The JCPOA is the best guarantee to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Given long-standing complaints by Israel and key Arab states that the deal does not address wider regional security issues, such as ballistic missiles or regional conflicts, they should be eager to use the UN General Assembly-mandated zone process to start multilateral negotiations on those contentious issues. 

All stakeholders have decisive roles to play. The United States must ensure that recent Israel-Palestinian violence is stopped and that the JCPOA is restored; more actively support engagement and reconciliation between parties still in conflict, such as Iran and the Arab countries, Israel and the Palestinians, and eventually Iran and Israel, in order to reduce external intervention in regional disputes; and provide security guarantees to the countries that seek them. Iran can only benefit from reintegration into a regional security framework if it does its part to restore the JCPOA. The other parties to the JCPOA—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union—should not only facilitate full compliance with the Iran nuclear deal but also actively support regional security talks. Israel should seize this opportunity to invest in and advance the regional security architecture it says it wants. That should at some point include peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The Arab states should seek security assurances from the United States and Israel that could avoid a nuclear arms race in the region. Finally, civil society should take advantage of this fragile rapprochement to convince their governments that the region needs less armaments and more human security.



1. See Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State, “The Abraham Accords,” n.d., https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/ (accessed May 19, 2021).

2. “Arab Peace Initiative: Full Text,” March 28, 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/mar/28/israel7.

3. U.S. Department of State, “Abraham Accords Peace Agreement: Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel,” https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/UAE_Israel-treaty-signed-FINAL-15-Sept-2020-508.pdf.

4. Brian W. Everstine, “Pentagon Shifts Israel to CENTCOM Responsibility,” Air Force Magazine, January 15, 2021.

5. “UAE Announces $10 Billion Fund for Israel Investments,” The Arab Weekly, March 12, 2021. 

6. Dan Williams, “Israeli Defense Chief Sees ‘Special Security Arrangement’ With Gulf States,” Reuters, March 2, 2021.

7. Tuqa Khalid, “Full Transcript of the AlUla GCC Summit Declaration: Bolstering Gulf Unity,” Al Arabiya English, January 6, 2021.

8. “Saudi and Iran Held Talks Aimed at Easing Tensions, Say Sources,” Reuters, April 18, 2021. 

9. Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, Report of the first session, A/CONF.236/6, November 22, 2019]

10. Arie Egozi, “Israeli Defense Minister Goes Slow on Arab Weapon Sales,” Breaking Defense, April 2, 2021.

11. Eitan Barak, “The Beginning of the End of the Nuclear Age,” Haaretz, January 26, 2021.

12. Negar Mortazavi, “What It Will Take to Break the U.S.-Iran Impasse: A Q&A With Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif,” Politico, March 17, 2021.

Marc Finaud is head of arms proliferation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. Tony Robinson is director of the Middle East Treaty Organization. Mona Saleh is a doctoral research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies.

Any optimism must be tempered by the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, but the diplomatic building blocks of future disarmament progress may be falling in place.


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