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“It will take all of us working together – government officials, and diplomats, academic experts, and scientists, activists, and organizers – to come up with new and innovative approaches to strengthen transparency and predictability, reduce risk, and forge the next generation of arms control agreements.”
– Wendy Sherman
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
Daryl Kimball

The Logic of Restoring Compliance with the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal

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Volume 14, Issue 2, Feb. 16, 2022

Six years and a month ago, Jan. 16, 2016, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) went into effect. The JCPOA, which was concluded in July 2015 after years of intensive negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), verifiably blocked Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons and provided incentives for Tehran to maintain an exclusively peaceful nuclear program.

Taken together, the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions dramatically rolled back Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity and blocked its route to nuclear weapons using plutonium. It put in place an unprecedented multi-layered international monitoring regime that keeps every element of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle under surveillance. The combination of restrictions and limits extended to at least one year the time it would take for Iran to amass a significant quantity of bomb-grade enriched uranium to fuel one bomb. The point was to ensure that if Iran decided to cheat, the international community would have enough time to detect it and take remedial action.

The relief from nuclear-related sanctions that Iran received in return for adhering to the nuclear restrictions and nonproliferation commitments were a strong incentive for Tehran to follow through on its obligations. Iran was complying with the JCPOA until the administration of former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed and widened U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Trump’s exit from the JCPOA and his campaign to increase sanctions pressure on Iran ostensibly was intended to achieve a “better” or “more comprehensive deal.” Tragically, it not only failed to produce the promised results; it also opened the way for Iran to take steps beginning in 2019 to exceed the JCPOA’s nuclear limits and accelerate its capacity to produce bomb-grade nuclear material.

As a result of Trump’s policies, it is estimated that the time it would take Iran to produce a significant quantity (25 kg) of bomb-grade uranium (enriched to 90 percent U-235) is down from more than a year under the JCPOA, to approximately 60 days or less today.

Unless U.S., European, Russian, and Chinese negotiators can broker a deal to restore Iranian and U.S. compliance with the JCPOA, Tehran’s capacity to produce bomb-grade nuclear material will grow even further.

Unfortunately, some in Congress are threatening to try to block President Joe Biden and European allies from implementing the steps necessary to bring Iran back under the nuclear limits set by the JCPOA. If these opponents succeed, it is possible, and maybe even probable, that Iran would become a threshold nuclear-weapon state.

A prompt return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA is the best way to deny Iran the ability to quickly produce bomb-grade nuclear material. It would reinstate full international monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear facilities, thus ensuring early warning if Iran were to try to acquire nuclear weapons—and become the second state in the Middle East (in addition to Israel) with such an arsenal.

Trump’s Disastrous Policy Experiment

Trump campaigned against the JCPOA in 2016 and abruptly withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018 on the mistaken belief that if the United States rejected the agreement and increased sanctions pressure on Iran, it could coerce leaders in Tehran to renegotiate a “better deal.”

Two weeks after Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s  (IAEA) quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program found that Iran was implementing its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.

In a speech at the Heritage Foundation in May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised to "apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime," work with allies to deter Iranian aggression, and pursue a new deal based on 12 demands. These included requirements that Iran stop all uranium enrichment, end the proliferation of ballistic missiles and the development of nuclear-capable missile systems, and allow the IAEA to have "unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country."

Four years later, it is clear that Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA in an attempt to coerce Iranian leaders into a new deal that was more comprehensive and more favorable to the United States was an abject failure.

Iranian leaders, not surprisingly, refused to renegotiate the JCPOA. Worse still, Trump’s policy experiment isolated the United States from its European allies and opened the door for Iran to increase its capacity to enrich uranium.

In 2019, Iranian leaders began taking steps to improve the country’s nuclear capacity in violation of key limits set by the JCPOA. Among these were the accumulation of significant stockpiles of 20 percent and 60 percent enriched uranium-235, the deployment of significant numbers of advanced centrifuges, and the execution of some experiments, such as with uranium metal, that are relevant to weapons production. By 2020, Iran also began to impede the IAEA access necessary to monitor some of its sensitive nuclear activities.

Based on U.S. intelligence assessments, senior Biden administration officials are now warning that Iran could soon reach a “nuclear breakout” threshold, meaning that it could produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb in a matter of a weeks. At that point, Iran would need still to master several additional, complicated steps to build a deliverable nuclear arsenal that would likely take an additional year or more to complete. Nevertheless, Iran effectively would become a nuclear-weapon threshold state.

As Tamir Pardo, former director of the Israeli Mossad from 2011-2016, described Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA at a Nov. 23, 2021, conference at Reichman University in Tel Aviv: “What happened in 2018 was a tragedy. It was an unforgivable strategy, the fact that Israel pushed the United States to withdraw from the [Iran nuclear] agreement 10 years too early. It was a strategic mistake.”

Meanwhile, Senator Chris Murphy said in a speech in the Senate Feb. 9: “… to the extent there was any silver lining of President Trump's decision [to exit the JCPOA], it's that it allowed us for four years to test the theory of the opponents, the theory of the critics … of the JCPOA.”

“It was a spectacular failure. It was a spectacular failure in multiple respects,” Murphy said.

Last Best Chance to Block Iran’s Path to a Bomb

Biden has vowed to try to repair the damage from Trump’s disastrous decision to exit the JCPOA. During the 2020 campaign, Biden pledged that “if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

Now, after nearly a year of on-and-off indirect multilateral negotiations to restore U.S. and Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, the parties may be nearing a win-win solution. According to senior U.S. officials, the United States and Iran "are in the ballpark of a possible deal" to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Other diplomats involved in the talks are also sounding more positive. “My assessment: we can finalize the exercise by the end of February, maybe earlier if nothing unexpected happens,” Russian negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov was reported to have said Feb. 11.

An agreement on an understanding to restore mutual compliance with the original terms of the JCPOA represents the most effective way to block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. Under a restored deal, Iran would have to down blend and ship abroad the vast bulk of its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent and 60 percent of U-235, dismantle most of its more advanced centrifuge machines, and limit the stockpile of enriched uranium to no more than 300 kilograms enriched to 3.67 percent U-235 until 2031, among other measures.

A return to mutual compliance with the original 2015 deal would reestablish long-term, verifiable restrictions on Iran's sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities; many of the restrictions are scheduled to last for 10 years (until 2026), some for 15 years (until 2031), and some for 25 years or longer.

As importantly, the agreement would fully restore the layered international monitoring regime, including robust IAEA inspections under Iran's additional protocol to its comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreement. This will ensure that international inspectors have access indefinitely to any Iranian facility that raises a proliferation concern, including military sites. Under the JCPOA, Iran is required to provide early notification of design changes or new nuclear projects by Iran. (For a detailed assessment, see the August 2015 Arms Control Association report Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.)

Summary of Nuclear-Related Commitments and Limitations of the JCPOA

A return to full compliance with the JCPOA would also provide a basis for further negotiations on a long-term framework to address Iran’s nuclear program and create space to engage Iran on other areas of concern, such as regional tensions and its ballistic missile program.

Most of Iran’s violations of the JCPOA are reversible and could be undone within a few months. However, some escalatory breaches--research and development, the operation of advanced centrifuge cascades, experiments with uranium metal--have resulted in Iran’s acquisition of new knowledge and expertise that cannot be reversed.

Consequently, if, under a restored JCPOA, Iran ever decides in the future to “breakout” and try to amass a significant quantity of fissile material for a nuclear weapon, it may take less than the 12-plus month timeline that existed in January 2016 when the deal was formally implemented.

The new “breakout” time would likely be between six months and somewhat less than 12 months, which is still far more than it will be if an understanding to restore compliance is not achieved.

As a result, a restored JCPOA would provide more than enough time to respond to an overt Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons. And with the intrusive IAEA monitoring and inspection regime mandated by the 2015 deal, Iran’s ability to attempt a covert dash for nuclear weapons would also be very limited and run a high risk of being detected.

In other words, a restored JCPOA would ensure months of warning if Iran ever decided to try to amass enough bomb-grade material for just one device; without the JCPOA, there likely would be no such warning time.

For these reasons and more, it is in the interests of the United States and the international community to achieve a prompt return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.—DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director

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The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) verifiably blocked Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons and provided incentives for Tehran to maintain an exclusively peaceful nuclear program.

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U.S., German, Russian Experts Outline Plan for Defusing Russia-NATO Crisis Through Arms Control

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For Immediate Release: Feb. 11, 2022

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Association 1-202-463-8270, ext. 107; Oliver Meier, +49 171 359 2410, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy Hamburg

(WASHINGTON, D.C)—In a joint statement issued today, a senior group of American, European, and Russian security experts warn that: “The tensions between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO create the potential for a disastrous war that can and must be avoided through serious and deft diplomacy.”

“Among other steps, NATO and Russia should pursue agreement on common sense arms control instruments to help move away from the brink of disaster and promote stability and security in Europe,” they write. The experts are members of a 24-member group of leading nuclear arms control and risk reduction experts known as the Deep Cuts Commission.

“NATO and Russia have advanced different ideas on conventional and nuclear arms control. Yet, the two draft agreements put forward by Moscow in December 2021 as well as the U.S. and NATO responses to these texts submitted in January 2022 indicate there is room for negotiations designed to resolve mutual security concerns,” the Commissioners note.

“Both sides have stated that they are ready to engage in talks on risk reduction and confidence-building concerning offensive and defensive missile deployments in Europe, transparency on conventional weapons and military exercises, as well as on conventional forces posture and arms control,” the Commissioners point out in their Feb. 11 joint statement.

Among other steps, the Commission recommends negotiations on a balanced agreement between the United States and Russia on a verifiable moratorium on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles between the Atlantic and the Urals and an arrangement between NATO and Russia for reciprocal transparency visits to NATO’s Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and Poland and Russia’s 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile sites.

Other recommendations include agreements, guidelines, and notifications designed to scale back major military exercises and avoid close military encounters between Russian and NATO forces.

“Substantive discussions on these important issues as well as information exchanges and confidence-building steps offer a path to stabilize the current crisis and enhance European security in the longer term,” the Commissioners say.

The full statement from the Deep Cuts Commission, “Defusing the Ukraine Crisis through Arms Control, Transparency and Risk Reduction,” is available online.

The Deep Cuts Commission was established in 2013 and is based at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH). The Commission was established to provide decision-makers with concrete, practical policy options to enhance international security by reducing the number and risks of nuclear weapons. The Arms Control Association (ACA) and the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO, RAN), are the U.S. and Russian project partners.

 

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A senior group of American, European, and Russian security experts warn that "tensions between Russia, Ukraine and NATO create the potential for a disastrous war that can and must be avoided through serious and deft diplo­macy.”

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The Role of Arms Control in U.S.-Russian Relations

Inside the Arms Control Association February 2022 The Role of Arms Control in U.S.-Russian Relations The ongoing major Russian military buildup around Ukraine creates the potential for a catastrophic war that can and must be avoided through serious and deft diplomacy. Among the many factors that have led us to this point is the breakdown of important conventional and nuclear arms control agreements that helped bring an end to the first Cold War. These crucial guardrails, including the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty , the ABM Treaty , and the INF Treaty , are no...

Talks to Restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: Background and Resources

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For Immediate Release: Jan. 31, 2022

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director (202-463-8270 x107); Julia Masterson, research associate (202-463-8270 x 103)

Multilateral negotiations to restore U.S. and Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal are reportedly making progress. According to senior U.S. officials, the United States and Iran "are in the ballpark of a possible deal" to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement.

On Jan. 28, negotiators paused work to consult with capitals ahead of what could be a final push to reach a common understanding on a win-win outcome. The next few days and weeks may be critical if the talks are to succeed in resurrecting the accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The United States and its partners are concerned that “the pace at which talks are progressing is not catching up with the pace of Iran’s nuclear advances,” which have accelerated throughout negotiations. U.S. officials have warned that Iran could soon reach a ‘nuclear breakout’ threshold, meaning that it could produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb. At that point, although Iran would need to master several additional, complicated steps to build a viable nuclear weapon, the White House has alluded that the United States might consider alternative strategies.

The JCPOA, which was concluded in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), verifiably blocked Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons and provided incentives for Tehran to maintain an exclusively peaceful nuclear program.

Following the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal in May 2018 and Iranian retaliatory measures that began in 2019, however, the agreement’s future is in jeopardy as Iran’s nuclear capacity continues to increase.

Promptly and simultaneously restoring U.S. and Iranian compliance with the JCPOA would help stabilize the current situation and prevent a major nuclear proliferation crisis in the region.

A return to full compliance with the JCPOA would also provide a platform for further negotiations on a long-term framework to address Iran’s nuclear program and would create space to engage with Iran on other areas of concern, such as regional tensions and its ballistic missile program.

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  • The comprehensive "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action" report (August 2015) includes:
    • a summary of the history and status of Iran’s nuclear program,
    • a detailed summary and explanation of the JCPOA,
    • answers to more than two-dozen frequently asked questions, and
    • annexes on “Understanding ‘Breakout’” and “Iran’s Ballistic Missiles and the Nuclear Deal.”

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Useful resources for media and others on the 2015 nuclear deal as talks progress in Vienna on restoring the agreement. 

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Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and the Government of Mexico Voted 2021 Arms Control Person(s) of the Year

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Recognized for Novel Initiative to Combat Illicit Arms Trafficking

For Immediate Release: Jan. 14, 2022

Media Contacts: Tony Fleming, director for communications, 202-463-8270 ext. 110; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, 202-463-8270 ext 107

(Washington, D.C.)—Mexico’s foreign minister, Mr. Marcelo Ebrard, and the government of Mexico were selected as the 2021 Arms Control Persons of the Year through an online poll that drew thousands of participants from dozens of countries. The annual contest is organized by the independent, nongovernmental Arms Control Association.

Mr. Ebrard and the government were nominated for their lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers and distributors that takes a novel approach to combat illicit weapons trafficking from the United States into Mexico that is fueling violence and criminal activity.

The lawsuit, filed in a Massachusetts federal district court, alleges that several major firearms manufacturers and wholesalers “design, market, distribute, and sell guns in ways they know routinely arm the drug cartels in Mexico,” and that contributes to a decline of life expectancy in Mexico. It said the named companies sell about 340,000 of an estimated half-million guns that illegally flow each year from “Massachusetts and other U.S. states to criminals south of the [U.S.-Mexico] border.”

“The Mexican Foreign Ministry’s lawsuit against the U.S. firearms companies represents an important new way to hold rogue actors accountable for their role in the violence caused by small arms trafficking across international borders,” according to Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

“The Arms Control Person(s) of the Year contest is a reminder of the diverse and creative ways that dedicated individuals and organizations from around the globe can contribute to meeting the difficult arms control challenges of today and the coming decades,” he said.

This year, eight individuals and groups were nominated by the Arms Control Association staff and board of directors. “All of the nominees demonstrated extraordinary leadership in raising awareness of and advancing effective arms control solutions for the threats posed by mass casualty weapons during the course of 2021,” Kimball said.

The runners-up in this year’s contest were Sébastien Philippe, an associate research scholar of the Princeton Program on Science and Global Security, and French journalist Tomas Statius, for their groundbreaking investigation that challenges the French government’s official public story of the health consequences of French atmospheric nuclear tests in the South Pacific. Their new findings suggest more than 100,000 people in Polynesia may be eligible to claim compensation from France for harm caused by the tests, which is about 10 times more than estimated by the existing French government.

Online voting was open from Dec. 8, 2021, until Jan. 12, 2022. A list of all of this year's nominees is available at https://www.armscontrol.org/pressroom/2021-12/2021-arms-control-persons-year-nominees-announced

Previous winners of the Arms Control Person of the Year are:

  • Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security for catalyzing support and action from leaders and practitioners in the national security and foreign policy communities to increase diversity into their ranks (2020);
  • Areg Danagoulian and colleagues at MIT for development of an innovative new nuclear disarmament verification process using neutron beams (2019);
  • 4,000 Anonymous Google Employees whose open letter to company leadership led to Google ending its work on “Project Maven” with the Pentagon (2018);
  • Diplomats from Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa, and Costa Rica who secured the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (2017) ;
  • Tony de Brum and the government of the Marshall Islands (2016);
  • Setsuko Thurlow and the Hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, (2015);
  • Austria's Director for Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Ambassador Alexander Kmentt (2014);
  • Executive-Secretary of the CTBTO Lassina Zerbo (2013);
  • General James Cartwright (2012);
  • Reporter and activist Kathi Lynn Austin (2011);
  • Kazakhstan's Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Umarov and Thomas D'Agostino, U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator (2010);
  • Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) (2009);
  • Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and his ministry's Director-General for Security Policy and the High North Steffen Kongstad (2008); and
  • Congressmen Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) and David Hobson (R-Ohio) (2007).
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Mr. Ebrard and the government were nominated for their lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers and distributors that takes a novel approach to combat illicit weapons trafficking from the United States into Mexico that is fueling violence and criminal activity.

    U.S., Russia Must Elevate Action on Arms Control in Strategic Stability Dialogue

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    Volume 14, Issue 1, Jan. 13, 2022

    As U.S. and Russian diplomats engage in a high-stakes negotiation on a broad range of challenging European security and nuclear arms control issues, it is in the interest of both sides to ensure that progress on new nuclear arms control arrangements does not fall victim to deep, and perhaps irreconcilable, differences over NATO’s relationship with Russia and the delays on the implementation of the Minsk II agreement, which was designed to avoid further conflict over Ukraine.

    It has been nearly a year since U.S President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the only remaining treaty limiting their massive nuclear arsenals, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits each side to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery platforms.

    It has been more than six months since Biden and Putin agreed in June 2021 to restart a Strategic Stability Dialogue (SSD) in order “to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”

    Since then, too little progress has been achieved to negotiate a new agreement or agreements before New START expires in early 2026.

    On Monday, Washington and Moscow concluded the third round of the bilateral strategic stability dialogue, which was focused on Russia’s new and broader package of proposals on mutual security guarantees. The initial two rounds of the SSD were held in July and September 2021.

    Russia’s decision to inject additional demands on “security guarantees” has, unfortunately, further complicated the equation. As we and other U.S., Russian and European experts have suggested, the two sides can and need to develop new understandings on four sets of nuclear arms control issues through this process:

    • deeper verifiable cuts in the bloated U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals,
    • achieving new understandings designed to limit and account for Russian and U.S. non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons,
    • new measures to prohibit or limit the reintroduction of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and
    • new understandings on how to limit strategic missile defense capabilities.

    On Jan. 10, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman noted, correctly, that “these kinds of arms control negotiations – as President Putin himself has said – don’t happen in just a day or even a week. They’re generally quite complex, very technical, and take some time. But we’re certainly ready to move as expeditiously as one possibly can in these circumstances.”

    Concluding durable, new arrangements to supersede New START will ensure there are verifiable limits on the massive and deadly U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles, which are critical to U.S. and Russian national, as well as for international, peace and security. Without such guardrails, U.S.-Russian relations will become even more dangerous.

    We call on the two sides to redouble their efforts to keep their nuclear disarmament discussions moving forward so new, follow-on nuclear disarmament agreements can be concluded no later than 2025, and preferably sooner.

    INF Missile Restriction Options

    While some Kremlin demands, including Putin’s call for legally-binding assurances regarding NATO expansion, may reflect serious Russian concerns, they are non-starters. On the other hand, some other Russian proposals on arms control challenges are quite serious and deserve a substantive response from the United States.

    For instance, Russia has reiterated its concept for a moratorium on U.S. and Russian deployment of missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Putin first proposed in 2019 and expanded in 2020 to include mutual verification measures.

    Russia’s INF missile proposal needs further work, but it can serve as a starting point for negotiations on a deal with the United States that can help avert a new Euromissile race.

    It is incumbent upon the Biden administration, in coordination with NATO, to put forward a constructive counterproposal regarding an INF-range missile moratorium.

    One approach would be for U.S./NATO leaders to pledge not to field any INF Treaty-prohibited missiles in Europe so long as Russia does not deploy treaty-prohibited systems where they could hit NATO territory.

    Other options that might be considered include agreeing to a verifiable ban on all nuclear-armed ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles of intermediate range (500-5,500 km) or a prohibition on ground-launched ballistic missiles of intermediate range. This would require a return to an INF Treaty-like verification system and would require Russia to move or destroy its currently deployed 9M729 missiles, which violated the terms of the original INF Treaty.

    The U.S. and Russian presidents could codify these INF missile restrictions through an executive agreement. Progress on this issue could build momentum in other areas of nuclear arms control and improve the climate for talks broader security matters.

    On Jan. 3, the United States, Russia, France, China, and the United Kingdom issued a rare joint statement reiterating the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

    Now, the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals can start to put these words into action by empowering their negotiators to reach new agreements that sharply reduce nuclear risks and the number of nuclear weapons. —SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst, and DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director

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    It is in the interest of both the United States and Russia to ensure that progress on new nuclear arms control arrangements does not fall victim to deep, and perhaps irreconcilable, differences. 

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    On Nuclear Weapons, Actions Belie Reassuring Words


    January/February 2022
    By Daryl G. Kimball

    On Jan. 3, the leaders of the five nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) issued a rare joint statement on preventing nuclear war in which they affirmed, for the first time, the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

    (Photo by Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament/Henry Kenyon)The U.S., Chinese, French, Russian, and UK effort was designed in part to create a positive atmosphere for the 10th NPT review conference, which has been delayed again by the pandemic. It also clearly aims to address global concerns about the rising danger of nuclear conflict among states and signals a potential for further cooperation to address this existential threat.

    The question now is, do they have the will and the skill to translate their laudable intentions into action before it is too late?

    U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price hailed the statement as “extraordinary.” A more sober reading shows that it falls woefully short of committing the five to the policies and actions necessary to prevent nuclear war. In fact, the statement illustrates how their blind faith in deterrence theories, which hinge on a credible threat of using nuclear weapons, perpetuates conditions that could lead to nuclear catastrophe.

    The statement asserts that “nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.” Yet, such broad language suggests they might use nuclear weapons to “defend” themselves against a wide range of threats, including non-nuclear threats. Given the indiscriminate and horrific effects of nuclear weapons use, such policies are dangerous, immoral, and legally unjustifiable.

    At the very least, if the leaders of these states are serious about averting nuclear war, they should formally adopt no-first-use policies or, as U.S. President Joe Biden promised in 2020, declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter or possibly respond to a nuclear attack.

    Even this approach perpetuates circumstances that could lead to nuclear war by accident or miscalculation. The only way to ensure nuclear weapons are never used is “to do away with them entirely,” as President Ronald Reagan argued in 1984, and sooner rather than later.

    But on disarmament, the statement only expressed a “desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.” This vague, caveated promise rings hollow after years of stalled disarmament progress and an accelerating global nuclear arms race.

    A year ago, Russia and the United States extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but they have not begun negotiations on a follow-on agreement. Meanwhile, both spend billions of dollars annually to maintain and upgrade their nuclear forces, which far exceed any rational concept of what it takes to deter a nuclear attack.

    China is on pace to double or triple the size of its land-based strategic missile force in the coming years. Worse still, despite past promises “to engage in the process leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” Chinese leaders are rebuffing calls to engage in arms control talks with the United States and others. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, announced last year it would increase its deployed strategic warhead ceiling.

    Fresh statements by the five NPT nuclear-armed states reaffirming their “intention” to fulfill their NPT disarmament obligations are hardly credible in the absence of time-bound commitments to specific disarmament actions.

    At the same time, the five, led by France, have criticized the good faith efforts by the majority of NPT non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to advance the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Contrary to claims by the nuclear-armed states, the TPNW reinforces the NPT and the norm against possessing, testing, and using nuclear weapons.

    Rather than engage TPNW leaders on their substantive concerns, U.S. officials are pressuring influential states, including Sweden, Germany, and Japan, not to attend the first meeting of TPNW states-parties as observers. Such bullying will only reinforce enthusiasm for the TPNW and undermine U.S. credibility on nuclear matters.

    The leaders of the nuclear five, especially Biden, can and must do better. Before the NPT review conference later this year, Russia and the United States should commit to conclude by 2025 negotiations on further verifiable cuts in strategic and nonstrategic nuclear forces and on constraints on long-range missile defenses. China, France, and the UK should agree to join nuclear arms control talks no later than 2025 and to freeze their stockpiles as Washington and Moscow negotiate deeper cuts in theirs.

    Instead of belittling the TPNW, the five states need to get their own houses in order. Concrete action on disarmament is overdue. It will help create a more stable and peaceful international security environment and facilitate the transformative move from unsustainable and dangerous deterrence doctrines toward a world free of the fear of nuclear Armageddon.

    On Jan. 3, the leaders of the five nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) issued a rare joint statement on preventing nuclear war in which they affirmed, for the first time, the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

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