“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004

The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Not Necessarily a Sure or a Good Thing

November 2021
By Trevor Findlay

In June 1987, Canada announced that it intended to build 10 to 12 nuclear-powered submarines, based on a French or UK design and fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU) possibly of Canadian origin. Faced with insurmountable strategic, political, financial, logistical, and nonproliferation obstacles, the idea sank without trace within two years.1 Although the Australian nuclear-powered submarine proposal, announced 34 years later on September 16, is different in several respects, it faces equally strong headwinds that may deliver the same result.

A Royal Australian Navy diesel and electric-powered Collins Class submarine sits in Sydney Harbour in 2016. That naval weapon is to be replaced by nuclear-powered submarines that the United Kingdom and the United States recently agreed to provide Australia as part of the new AUKUS defense cooperation announcement. (Photo by Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)Much about the Australian project is speculative. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, U.S. President Joe Biden, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson simply released a one-page statement launching “an enhanced trilateral security partnership” called AUKUS aimed at fostering “deeper integration of…security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains.”2 The headline-grabbing item was the announcement of a trilateral effort to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, beginning with an 18-month study to seek “an optimal pathway to deliver this capability.” No numbers were announced, no likely design was suggested, and no nuclear fuel type or acquisition plan was outlined. Although all three partners committed themselves to “the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures to ensure the non-proliferation, safety and security of nuclear material and technology,” the length of this list alone suggests that complex and profound questions arise not just for the three governments, but for the international community, particularly the global regime governing the use of nuclear energy.

Knowns and Unknowns

At this stage, the unknowns of the project are Rumsfeld-esque in their tortuousness and interrelatedness. Yet, there are some knowns or likely knowns to guide preliminary analysis.

First, for parochial political reasons, the submarines must be built in Australia for the most part, specifically in Adelaide, in the state of South Australia. Australia’s conventionally powered submarines have been built there for decades, resulting in a skilled, specialized workforce. One of the smallest and economically challenged of Australia’s states but electorally important, South Australia has relied on government-funded projects to boost employment and capacity in its industrial sector. The joint project with France to produce conventionally powered submarines that was unceremoniously cancelled seemingly minutes before the AUKUS announcement, required 50 percent Australian “content,” down from the originally expected 75 percent. Australia’s purchase of U.S. or UK submarines off the shelf, as some have suggested, would seem politically untenable.

A second known factor is that Australia cannot produce enriched uranium itself whether low-enriched or highly enriched, for submarine propulsion or any other purpose, despite having among the largest deposits of uranium in the world. It does not have the industrial, technical, or financial capacity or political license to build and operate a standard gas-centrifuge plant. Australia sold off its domestically invented SILEX laser-enrichment technology to the United States two decades ago.3 In any case, Australian federal law prohibits uranium enrichment in the country. Enriched uranium for submarines would need to be imported.

A third certainty is that Australia does not have any current or likely future capacity to build a nuclear reactor, especially for submarine propulsion. Unlike Canada, which developed and operates CANDU reactors, Australia has no experience with nuclear reactors beyond research units based at Lucas Heights in Sydney. The latest model, devoted largely to producing medical radioisotopes, was imported from Argentina. Therefore, Australia would need to buy the reactor and its fuel from the United Kingdom or the United States. If HEU is chosen, the reactors will contain “lifetime cores,” which will operate for around 30 years and require no refueling, a much prized characteristic of HEU-powered vessels. The sealed reactors would presumably be transported by ship to Adelaide to be encased in the submarine hulls and returned to the provider at the end of the submarines’ lifetime for dismantlement and disposition of the spent fuel.

A final important area of clarity is that Australia is seeking to arm its submarines with conventional weapons, presumably sea-launched cruise missiles, not nuclear weapons. For decades, Australia has been a dedicated supporter of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and more recently of the global nuclear security architecture. After initial reservations, Australia signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in February 1970, just before it entered into force, and ratified it in 1973. It has subsequently become one of the strongest champions of the treaty and of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its safeguards system.

Australia not only has a comprehensive safeguards agreement as required by the NPT, but also imposes bilateral safeguards on Australian-origin uranium exports. It was the first country to sign an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and was the first to receive the so-called broader conclusion, indicating that it has accounted for all nuclear material subject to safeguards in its territory. Australia was instrumental in negotiations on the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga, which created a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific. It is also an active member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other export control arrangements.

In the nuclear security realm, Australia’s track record is also impressive. It is party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 amendment, along with all other nuclear governance conventions. It has consistently been rated number one by the Nuclear Threat Initiative in the annual Nuclear Security Index and has enthusiastically contributed to continuing efforts to strengthen nuclear security resulting from the four nuclear security summits between 2010 and 2016.

One might imagine, then, that if any country were to become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, Australia’s would be the safest pair of hands. Indeed, some have argued that Australia could use its submarine acquisition plan to strengthen global nuclear governance. Better Canberra than Brasilia or, at worst, Tehran. Even so, the implications for the nonproliferation regime are far-reaching, overlapping, and complex.

Disturbing the Nonproliferation Zeitgeist

The NPT and the collection of other treaties, arrangements, and organizations that compose the nonproliferation regime do not exist in a vacuum, but are profoundly affected by states’ attitudes, perceptions, and actions. As a nonproliferation “white knight,” Australia’s announcement that it is considering acquiring nuclear-powered submarines in partnership with two nuclear-weapon states portends a further roiling of the political atmosphere around a regime that is already being buffeted by numerous gales. The worst of those include the ongoing noncompliance cases of Iran and North Korea; the absence of India, Israel, and Pakistan from the NPT; the continuing nonfulfillment of undertakings by the nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT to achieve nuclear disarmament; the modernization and expansion programs of almost all of the states with nuclear weapons; the decades-long lack of progress at the Conference on Disarmament, especially in negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty; and the non-entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The AUKUS submarine proposal will undoubtedly be added to this litany of woes at the 10th NPT review conference, originally scheduled for 2020 but now deferred to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is not that anyone suspects Australia of seeking nuclear weapons through the backdoor of nuclear submarine propulsion, but rather that the idea reeks of the hypocrisy that has always plagued a regime built on the premise of a more or less eternal divide between nuclear haves and have-nots. Unlike the IAEA Statute, which envisaged no military use of nuclear material, the NPT carved out an exception for non-explosive military use, apparently at the suggestion of Italy, with U.S. and Soviet acquiescence.

The United States nonetheless has consistently refused to provide nuclear-propulsion technology to non-nuclear-weapon states, including to allies such as Canada, South Korea, and reportedly Japan, due to proliferation concerns. It has now made an exception for Australia as an exclusive member of the “Anglosphere,” whatever that means for three increasingly multicultural societies. Australia itself carved out an exception to its policy of not supplying uranium to non-NPT parties by doing a deal with India, a state with nuclear weapons that from the outset sought to undermine the treaty. The constant chipping away at the fundamentals of the nonproliferation regime, especially by erstwhile champions, can only increase cynicism and undermine confidence in its longevity.

Setting Unsettling Precedents

If the AUKUS project is realized and assuming that Brazil, which is building its own nuclear-powered submarines, does not get there first, Australia will become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine. The precedent will be set, paving the way for other states to demand similar capability, either as a legitimate defense asset or as cover for more alarming nuclear ambitions, such as nuclear weapons development. Unlike Australia, some of the states that have expressed interest in nuclear-powered submarines, including Brazil and South Korea, also wish to enrich their own fuel. Exhibit A on this list is Iran, which has long argued implausibly that it needs to enrich its own uranium for peaceful purposes, notably its Tehran Research Reactor and Bushehr nuclear power plant, currently supplied by Russia, but has now added nuclear-powered submarines to its list.

Australia would set another precedent by becoming the first state to take advantage of the “loophole” in comprehensive safeguards agreements that permits nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose to be removed from safeguards for the duration of that use. If Australia chooses the military-to-military option whereby the reactor and its HEU fuel are supplied by the U.S. or UK navies and returned to their control when the submarine is decommissioned, it might be assumed that there will be no requirement for removal or reapplication of safeguards because the material will originate from, remain in, and return to military use. Yet, allowing a non-nuclear-weapon state to import HEU outside of safeguards in this manner would make a mockery of the entire nonproliferation regime.

Fortunately, Australia’s safeguards agreement, like all others, requires that it notify the IAEA of its intention to acquire nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose and help devise suitable verification arrangements with the IAEA to ensure that the material is not diverted to nuclear weapons. In working with the IAEA on this challenging task, Australia would be setting a precedent, for good or ill, that other states will be able to exploit. The sensitivity of the technology and the inaccessibility of the reactor to inspectors preclude a traditional approach. Instead, new approaches and methods will have to be devised to satisfy the IAEA that no diversion of nuclear material to weapons purposes takes place, while protecting confidential, proliferation-sensitive information .

Australia has already notified IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi of its intentions and signaled its willingness to work with the agency, presumably along with the United States and the UK, to craft suitable arrangements. Grossi has responded publicly by noting that verification will be “very tricky.”4 For Australia itself, the situation may become even trickier. Under the strengthened safeguards system that Australia has long championed, the IAEA accords a state the broader conclusion when it is able to certify that, based on the information available to it, it has accounted for all nuclear material within the state. Just how this conclusion could be reached after Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines have begun operating, especially at sea, is unknown. Australia has insisted that the IAEA should not automatically reissue the broader conclusion for states without reassessing their current circumstances, as occurred for Libya when civil war prevented the agency from ensuring the continuity of safeguards in its territory. Australian officials will undoubtedly work in good faith with the IAEA to craft an effective arrangement to ensure verifiability to the extent possible, but there is an element of moral hazard for Australia. It may succeed in making the world “safe” for the proliferation of nuclear-powered submarines in the hands of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (fourth from left), French President Emmanuel Macron (second left) and other officials visit the Australian submarine HMAS Waller in Sydney in May 2018 when France was still planning to sell submarines to Australia. That deal has now been upended by the AUKUS arrangement. (Photo by Brendan Esposito - Pool/Getty Images)A final precedent relates to nuclear security. The Australian project would see the acquisition of HEU by a non-nuclear-weapon state at a time when the United States and others, including Australia, are attempting to minimize global holdings of HEU, including by converting reactors to using low-enriched uranium (LEU) and repatriating HEU to the United States or Russia for disposition. Although the nuclear material in submarine reactors is relatively secure, albeit nonstationary, the use of HEU for naval propulsion by a country that has been HEU free goes against the grain of the impressive efforts in recent years to ensure that nuclear material does not fall into the hands of terrorists or other nonstate actors. Some observers have suggested that Australia use LEU for its submarines, perhaps in collaboration with France, which uses such fuel. This may assuage French fury at the cancellation of its contract to build Australia’s conventional submarines, whose design paradoxically was to be based on French nuclear-powered submarines at Canberra’s insistence. IAEA verification, however, would become more challenging because LEU-fueled submarines, at least those using existing technology, require periodic refueling.

Going Quietly Into the Deep?

Despite an opinion poll indicating immediate domestic support for the AUKUS announcement, there remains significant public skepticism in Australia about the use of nuclear energy for any purpose. It remains to be seen whether this will shift as the 18-month study proceeds, details emerge, and the political, diplomatic, military, economic, nonproliferation, security, and opportunity costs become clearer. Although the opposition Labor Party has felt it politically expedient to support the AUKUS announcement, this is conditional on nonproliferation concerns being assuaged. A general election is due within a year. The Australian nuclear-powered submarines could be destined to go the way of Canada’s. In the meantime, the AUKUS partners need to explain how they propose to deliver the gold standard safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures they have promised.



1. See Tariq Rauf and Marie-France Desjardins, “Opening Pandora’s Box? Nuclear Powered Submarines and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” Aurora Papers, no. 8 (1988).

2. “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,” Prime Minister of Australia, September 10, 2021, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/joint-leaders-statement-aukus.

3. “Message to the Congress Transmitting the Australia-United States Peaceful Nuclear Technology Transfer Agreement,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, William J. Clinton, 1999, Vol. 2 (Washington: U.S. Office of the Federal Register, 1999), pp. 1963–1965.

4. See John Carlson, “IAEA Safeguards, the Naval ‘Loophole’ and the AUKUS Proposal,” Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, October 8, 2021, https://vcdnp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Safeguards-and-naval-fuel-JC-211008.pdf; Laura Rockwood, “Naval Nuclear Propulsion and IAEA Safeguards,” Federation of American Scientists Issue Brief, August 2017, https://uploads.fas.org/media/Naval-Nuclear-Propulsion-and-IAEA-Safeguards.pdf. Francois Murphy, “AUKUS Submarine Deal ‘Very Tricky’ for Nuclear Inspectors—IAEA Chief,” Reuters, September 28, 2021.

Trevor Findlay is a principal fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His next book, Transforming IAEA Safeguards Culture: The IAEA, Iraq, and the Future of Nonproliferation, will be published in early 2022.

From an Australian perspective, there are lots of questions to be answered about the Australia-UK-U.S. submarine deal.

The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Mitigating Proliferation Concerns

November 2021
By Frank N. von Hippel

On September 15, U.S. President Joe Biden joined UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to announce an Australian-UK-U.S. security pact (AUKUS) under which the United States and the United Kingdom will assist Australia in building at least eight nuclear-powered attack submarines. The purpose is to strengthen the alliance trying to contain a growing Chinese navy. The first submarine is
not expected to be operational before 2040.

Brazil, a non-nuclear-weapon state with a program to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines, plans to power its first submarine with LEU fuel but has not forgone the right to use HEU. Photo from 2019 shows ceremony in Rio de Janeiro celebrating Brazil's French-designed, Brazilian-built Humaita submarine, which runs on diesel-electric propulsion. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images)The AUKUS countries said that it would take 18 months to work out the specifics of the deal, but obvious candidates for the submarine designs to be provided to Australia are the U.S. Virginia-class attack submarine and the UK Astute-class submarine, in production since 1999 and 2001, respectively.

Both submarine classes are fueled with U.S. weapons-grade uranium enriched to more than 90 percent uranium-235 that was declared excess to weapons needs following the drastic downsizing of the U.S. Cold War nuclear warhead stockpile. Both submarine types have life-of-ship cores, which means they should not have to be refueled during their design lives of approximately three decades.

The deal replaces one that Australia reached with France in 2016 under which Australia would have received 12 French Suffren-class submarines equipped with conventional propulsion rather than the nuclear propulsion used by France. In 2016, Australia did not wish to develop the infrastructure required to supply fuel for a nuclear-powered ship.1 France refuels its nuclear submarines every 10 years.

Life-of-ship cores could enable Australia to avoid having to produce its own nuclear fuel, refuel its submarine reactors, and dispose of the spent fuel. The United States or UK could simply sell Australia the reactor cores and then take them back for disposal when the submarines are decommissioned.

A Troublesome Precedent

The proposed AUKUS submarine plan, however, would set an important precedent of a nuclear-weapon state selling nuclear submarines to a non-weapon state. The use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel makes the AUKUS precedent especially troublesome from a nonproliferation perspective.

HEU can be used directly by nations to make nuclear weapons. It also could be used by terrorists to make a simple gun-type nuclear weapon like the Hiroshima bomb.

Because HEU is so easily weaponized, the United States has spent $2 billion since the September 11 terrorist attacks to eliminate it as a research reactor fuel and replace it with low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, containing less than 20 percent U-235, which cannot be used to make a nuclear explosive.2 As part of this effort, the United States has converted most of its own research reactors to LEU use and has cleared HEU from 33 of 55 countries down to a level of less than one kilogram, a small fraction of the amount required to make a nuclear weapon.3

At the same time, U.S. and UK naval reactors are the world’s largest consumers of HEU. Annually, about three tons of weapons-grade uranium, enough for more than 100 nuclear weapons, are being fed into their naval reactors. In contrast, Chinese and French submarines are fueled with LEU, while India and Russia are believed to use HEU enriched to 21–45 percent U-235.4 HEU in this enrichment range is considered weapons usable, but has a critical mass much larger than weapons-grade uranium.

The United States and UK should be designing their future naval reactors to use LEU fuel. They certainly should not be setting the precedent of spreading HEU-fueled naval reactors to non-nuclear-weapon states such as Australia, especially when Iran and a few other non-nuclear-weapon countries are considering fielding their own nuclear-fueled submarines. Whether to fuel research reactors or naval reactors, expanding the use of HEU increases the risk of this material being diverted to nuclear weapons use.

Nuclear Submarines and Non-Nuclear-Weapon States

Nuclear-powered attack submarines have been of interest to non-nuclear-weapon states for some time. In the late 1980s, Canada explored buying some from France or the UK to reinforce its sovereignty in its northern waters, but with the end of the Cold War, abandoned the project as too costly.5

Brazil has a program to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines that dates to the 1970s.6 It is learning from France how to build conventional submarines and is assembling a land-based prototype reactor inside a mockup of a hull section of a future nuclear submarine. The Brazilian navy developed and controls Brazil’s uranium-enrichment plants. This was a major proliferation concern for the United States when Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship in 1964–1985 and before it entered a nuclear transparency agreement with Argentina in 1991 and joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1998. Brazil plans to fuel its first submarine with LEU, but has not forgone the right to use HEU fuel if that proves advantageous.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in and his administration have expressed a sustained interest in developing nuclear-powered submarines.7 The United States has refused to change the two countries’ nuclear cooperation agreement to allow South Korea to enrich uranium. Therefore, South Korea may look to Russia, which has offered Seoul an icebreaker propulsion reactor design that can be fueled with 19.75 percent-enriched LEU.8 Russia’s existing nuclear agreement with South Korea covers only “peaceful uses of atomic energy.”9 If the United States can change its agreement with Australia,10 however, Russia can change its agreement with South Korea.

In the past, Japan has not expressed an interest in nuclear submarines. After the AUKUS deal was announced, however, two of the four candidates for prime minister declared their interest,11 although not Fumio Kishida, who won the Liberal Democratic Party’s support and was sworn in as prime minister in October.

There is also the case of Iran. In 2013, during the hard-line administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran suggested Tehran might require uranium enriched to 45–56 percent U-235 for a nuclear submarine program.12 In April, as U.S.-Iranian negotiations stalled on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran began producing 60 percent-enriched HEU.13

After the AUKUS deal was announced, two journalists from The New York Times interviewed aides accompanying Iran’s new hard-line foreign minister to the United Nations and reported that the aides noted that HEU “could be used in naval reactors, suggesting they might want to use it for that purpose. And they cited Mr. Biden’s new deal with Australia, which calls for [the United States and the UK] to supply Australia with the technology for nuclear-propelled submarines,” which use HEU.14

HEU and Naval Fuel

The United States and UK are creating a dangerous precedent by proposing to export HEU naval fuel to a non-nuclear-weapon state. Other countries are likely to see the deal as creating a more permissive environment to acquire their own HEU-fueled nuclear submarines and, in the absence of a willing supplier, make HEU fuel themselves as Iran threatens to do. The world does not need HEU in more places and more being produced in more countries.

IrFour torpedo tubes in the bow of a Suffren-class nuclear attack submarine, under construction in north-western France in 2017, during a visit by French Defence Minister Florence Parly and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Australia would have bought 12 Suffrens equipped with conventional propulsion from France under a deal Australia abrogated in favor of buying nuclear submarines from the United Kingdom and the United States. (Photo by Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Imges)onically, the nuclear version of France’s Suffren-class attack submarine, which Australian leadership insisted in 2016 should be converted to diesel-electric power, is fueled with LEU containing an average of only 6 percent U-235.15

To make LEU weapons usable, a country would have to run it through an enrichment plant to produce HEU. In a non-nuclear-weapon state, especially one that has an additional protocol to its safeguard agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency would have a good chance of detecting such an activity. Therefore, if non-nuclear-weapon states feel they need nuclear submarines and to have their own enrichment plants to fuel them, the fuel should be LEU.


Congressional Interest in LEU Fuel

Since 1994, reducing the risk of proliferation of naval HEU fuel has been the primary driver behind efforts by some members of Congress to require the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Office of Naval Reactors to develop LEU fuel for future U.S. submarine and aircraft carrier propulsion reactors.

As the office has made clear, however, its priority has been to achieve life-of-ship cores. In fact, it believes it has done so for the Virginia-class attack submarine, which began production in 1999, and for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the first of which began construction in 2020. The design lives of these submarines are 33 and 42 years, respectively. This means that, after the older classes of U.S. submarines have had their midlife refueling, there will be no need for routine refueling of submarines. Refueling equipment and capabilities will be retained only on a standby basis for core repair or replacement following potential fuel-element failure.

The Office of Naval Reactors’ first report in response to Congressional interest in LEU fuel was in 1995.16 It stated that because the U-235 chain reaction provides almost all of the fission energy from the fuel, if the U-235 were diluted to just below 20 percent U-235, which is the top of the LEU enrichment range, it would be necessary to increase the volume of the core threefold to achieve the same core life. This would require a larger, heavier pressure vessel and a bigger hull.

The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN-783), shown under construction in 2012, is among the class of submarine that could be sold to Australia. (U.S. Navy Photo)For Virginia-class submarines, the Office of Naval Reactors found that a life-of-ship core would require the diameter of the submarine to be increased from 10 to 11 meters. The office did not expect a significant impact on the sizes of the larger ballistic missile submarine and aircraft carrier. If, as reported,17 the SSN(X) next-generation U.S. attack submarines are to have hull diameters significantly larger than the Virginia-class, they too could accommodate larger LEU cores.

In 2012, Congress asked for an update and this time, the response was more encouraging. The Office of Naval Reactors reported it was developing a new higher uranium-density fuel that might not require as large a core volume increase for an LEU life-of-ship core.18 Yet, it was testing the new fuel design with weapons-grade uranium to pack more U-235 into the core and to increase U.S. submarines’ lifetime energy budgets for higher-speed transits across the Pacific Ocean and other uses. The energy requirement for potential LEU cores was therefore a moving target.

Congress asked for a research and development plan for developing and testing the new fuel design with LEU.

The Office of Naval Reactors delivered the outline of a plan in July 2016. The report emphasized that the R&D would cost about $1 billion and take “at least 15 years” and that “success is not assured.” It also said that providing LEU cores for aircraft carriers would cost an additional “several billion dollars,” including the cost of a land-based prototype aircraft carrier propulsion reactor.19 This would be comparable to the cost of an additional nuclear-powered submarine.

The Office of Naval Reactors also asked JASON, an elite technical group of mostly academic consultants for the Department of Defense, the NNSA, and other agencies, to review its proposed program for developing LEU fuel. The JASON report, which was partially declassified three years later was supportive. It emphasized, however, that there is only a limited opportunity to make sure that the follow-on to the Virginia-class submarine, the not-yet-named SSN(X) that is scheduled to be procured starting in the early 2030s,20 will be able to accommodate an LEU core. “If the reactor compartment is not designed to accommodate a life-of-ship LEU core, and if later re-design to accommodate such an LEU core is impractical, then HEU cores will be required for all [SSN(X)s], the last of which will launch in the 2060s. On the other hand, if design parameters and fuel development allow an LEU reactor…then it is possible that the Navy's final HEU core will be built in the 2040s.”21

Unfortunately, the Navy came to oppose even conducting that R&D. The simplest explanation is that the Navy does not view minimizing HEU use as its responsibility. Members of Congress sympathetic to this perspective inserted into the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) the requirement that “the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of the Navy shall jointly submit to the congressional defense committees the determination of the Secretaries as to whether the United States should continue to pursue research and development of an advanced naval nuclear fuel system based on low-enriched uranium.”

At the beginning of 2018, the Trump administration responded that it saw no benefits to the Navy incurring the cost of shifting to LEU fuel use.22

Despite this opposition, Congress has appropriated funding for Navy LEU fuel development every year since fiscal year 2016, starting at $5 million and rising to $20 million in fiscal year 2021.23 Given the Office of Naval Reactors’ resistance, congressional advocates of LEU fuel for naval reactors shifted the funding for LEU fuel development to the NNSA Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation.

The executive branch, however, has never requested funding for this program. For fiscal year 2022, the House of Representatives voted to appropriate another $20 million, but the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended in the 2022 NDAA a provision that would “prohibit the obligation or expenditure of any fiscal year 2022 funds [by the NNSA] to conduct research and development of an advanced naval nuclear fuel system based on low-enriched uranium unless the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Energy, and the Secretary of the Navy communicate certain determinations to the congressional defense committees.”24

What Is Next

Recently, a group of nonproliferation experts, including the author, wrote to the Biden administration stressing the importance of designing future U.S. naval reactors to use LEU fuel.25 The AUKUS deal highlights the fact that the United States and UK are undermining the nuclear nonproliferation and anti-terrorism regimes by fueling their naval reactors with weapons-grade uranium. Now they propose to export these reactors to a non-nuclear-weapon state.

If the United States does not switch to using LEU naval fuel by about 2060, when its excess stock of weapons-grade uranium is projected to run out, it will have to restart production of weapons-grade uranium for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The United States and UK should instead exploit the opportunity created by the furor over the AUKUS deal to commit to design their future naval propulsion reactors to use LEU fuel. They also should use the planned 18-month period of study and evaluation of the technical and policy details of the proposed AUKUS submarine deal to do their utmost to design any submarines built by or leased to Australia to use LEU-fueled propulsion reactors rather than the more problematic HEU-fueled option. Otherwise, the three AUKUS countries, long-time leaders in efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, may well find themselves on a path that would undermine global nonproliferation norms and long-standing nonproliferation objectives.



1. Malcolm Turnbull, “Address to the National Press Club,” 29 September 2021, https://www.malcolmturnbull.com.au/media/address-to-the-national-press-club-september-2021.

2. U.S. Department of Energy, “Budget & Performance,” https://www.energy.gov/budget-performance (accessed October 22, 2021).

3. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “NNSA Removes All Highly Enriched Uranium From Nigeria,” December 7, 2018, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-removes-all-highly-enriched-uranium-nigeria.

4. Frank von Hippel, “Banning the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium,” International Panel on Fissile Materials Research Report, no. 15 (March 2016), https://fissilematerials.org/library/rr15.pdf.

5. Adam Lajeunesse, “Sovereignty, Security and the Canadian Nuclear Submarine Program,” Canadian Military Journal, Winter 2007–2008, pp. 74–82.

6. Andrea de Sá, “Brazil’s Nuclear Submarine Program: A Historical Perspective,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2015): 3.

7. Jun Ji-hye, “South Korea Moving to Build Nuclear-Powered Submarines,” The Korea Times, September 5, 2017.

8. “Russia May Help South Korea to Build Nuclear Reactor for Maritime Vessels,” Sputnik International, August 7, 2018; Atomenergomash JSC, “Solutions for the Shipbuilding Industry,” n.d., https://aem-group.ru/static/images/buklety/2020/Booklet_sudostroenie_en.pdf.

9. Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, May 28, 1999, 2396 U.N.T.S. 43273.

10. Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Australia Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, May 4, 2010, T.I.A.S. no. 10-1222, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/10-1222-Australia-Atomic-Energy-Peaceful-Uses.pdf.

11. Steven Stashwick, “Japan’s Kono Says He Supports Building Nuclear Submarines,” The Diplomat, September 28, 2021.

12. “Iran May Need Highly Enriched Uranium in Future, Official Says,” Reuters, April 16, 2013.

13. International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Directors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015),” GOV/2021/39, September 7, 2021, p. 6.

14. David Sanger, Michael Crowley, and Rick Gladstone, “Rebuking Biden, Iran’s Chief Diplomat Demands More Sanctions Relief,” The New York Times, September 24, 2021.

15. Sébastien Philippe and Frank von Hippel, “The Feasibility of Ending HEU Fuel Use in the U.S. Navy,” Arms Control Today, November 2016, p. 15.

16. Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion, U.S. Navy, “Report on Use of Low Enriched Uranium in Naval Nuclear Propulsion,” June 1995, https://fissilematerials.org/library/onnp95.pdf.

17. Sam LaGrone, “BWXT CEO: Navy’s Next-Generation SSN(X) Attack Boat Will Build Off Columbia Class,” USNI News, November 2, 2020, https://news.usni.org/2020/11/02/bwxt-ceo-navys-next-generation-ssnx-attack-boat-will-build-off-columbia-class.

18. Office of Naval Reactors, U.S. Department of Energy, “Report on Low Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactor Cores: Report to Congress,” January 2014.

19. NNSA, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel: Report to Congress,” July 2016.

20. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Next-Generation Attack Submarine (SSN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service In Focus, IF11826, September 15, 2021.

21. JASON, “Low-Enriched Uranium for Potential Naval Nuclear Propulsion Applications,” JSR-16-Task-013 (November 2016), https://irp.fas.org/agency/dod/jason/leu-naval.pdf (declassified portions).

22. Richard V. Spencer and Rick Perry to Deb Fischer, March 25, 2018, https://fissilematerials.org/library/usn18b.pdf. The same letter went out to the ranking Democratic senator and to the chair and ranking member of the counterpart House of Representatives subcommittee.

23. “Navy LEU Fuel R&D,” Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, January 2, 2021, https://sites.utexas.edu/nppp/files/2021/02/Navy-LEU-Fuel-RD-2021-Jan-2.pdf.

24. Senate Committee on Armed Services, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, S. Rep. No. 117–39 at 354.

25. Joe Biden from Robert Gallucci et al., “Mitigate the Proliferation Impact of Offering Submarines Fueled With Weapon-Grade-Uranium to a Non-Nuclear-Weapon State by Committing to Design Future US Naval Reactors to Use Low-Enriched-Uranium Fuel,” October 6, 2021, https://sgs.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/2021-10/AUKUS-Letter-2021.pdf.

Frank N. von Hippel is a senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.

The proposed AUKUS submarine plan would set a precedent of a nuclear-weapon state selling nuclear submarines to a non-weapon state. The use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel is especially troublesome.

Back to the Future: Reviving U.S.-Russian Lab-to-Lab Cooperation

November 2021
By Noah C. Mayhew

An era of remarkable cooperation between two Cold War adversaries started in 1988 with a controlled detonation of a nuclear device at the Nevada Test Site. Teams of U.S. and Soviet scientists looked on, hoping that the heavy instrumentation they had jointly designed would accurately measure the yield of the explosion in support of verification of the 1974 Threshold Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.1 The exercise, known as the Joint Verification Experiment, was a success. It was also the first concrete manifestation of official laboratory-to-laboratory cooperation on nuclear treaty verification between the two nuclear superpowers.

A controlled nuclear test and a joint verification experiment between U.S. and Soviet scientists at this test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, in 1988 and a similar exercise at the Nevada Test Site in the United States opened the door to decades of laboratory-to-laboratory cooperation between the two nuclear superpowers.  (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)This exercise and an analogous test at the Semipalatinsk site in Kazakhstan four weeks later would open the door to decades of intensive collaboration between U.S. and Soviet scientists, and later Russian scientists, on reducing the legacy nuclear dangers born of the Cold War. During this unprecedented period of cooperation, lab-to-lab projects became a constructive tool in the bilateral diplomatic tool belt. They transformed the old adage “trust but verify” into “trust and benefit” and provided a parallel track for advancing mutual security alongside traditional governmental diplomatic channels.

Due to the serious downturn in U.S.-Russian relations in the last decade, however, lab-to-lab cooperation has all but disappeared. A crushing blow came in 2016 when Russia, under the pressure of intensifying U.S. sanctions, suspended a 2013 agreement on scientific cooperation that built on the landmark 1992 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.2

That history is relevant now as the United States and Russia pursue strategic stability talks at a moment of intense animosity and distrust. The summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June opened a window to begin to stabilize the bilateral relationship; reviving lab-to-lab cooperation could be a relatively easy first step on that difficult path.

The two leaders articulated a clear-eyed vision of their national priorities and met without any pretense that the summit would be, as Biden put it, a “kumbaya moment.” The outcome was modest: an agreement to launch a series of talks on strategic stability that will be “deliberate and robust” and will seek to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”3

With no treaty yet lined up to replace the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and two other treaties—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, which were undermined by the withdrawal of Washington and Moscow—U.S.-Russian relations are at a crossroads, and success at these talks is sorely needed. If the dialogue, which started in July and September, devolves into toxic accusations, bilateral relations would become even more hostile and could result in New START expiring in 2026 with nothing to replace it.

On the other hand, productive talks could advance relative stability and predictability in the U.S.-Russian security domain by facilitating new treaties, a reduction in deployed and maybe nondeployed nuclear weapons, and perhaps further cuts in fissile material stockpiles. Without a doubt, any agreement with a realistic chance of entering into force requires verification and a mechanism to resolve disputes. These components are no panacea—they did not save the INF Treaty, for example—but without them, no agreement is possible at all.

As the two sides move to discuss verification, they need to consider the rich history in which the U.S. and Russian national laboratories worked together on technical solutions to one of the core challenges of any arms control agreement: verifying that both sides are adhering to their commitments. Reviving and expanding formal lab-to-lab cooperation and technical cooperation between the national academies of sciences would be an easy way for the White House and the Kremlin to test their commitments to ensuring that strategic stability talks make progress.

The Urgency

Success will depend heavily on the confluence of political will and technical verification capability. As political will can be fleeting, cooperation at the technical level needs to be put in place to support the critical verification aspects of a potential agreement. Commencing formal lab-to-lab cooperation on nuclear verification now will make it more likely that a potential agreement can be operationalized immediately.

Past arms control agreements, including New START, have been verified through on-site inspections, notifications on the movements and status of nuclear armaments subject to the agreement, and data exchanges, including on telemetry information related to intercontinental ballistic missile and submarine-launched ballistic missile launches. Today, the nuclear arms control community is facing new challenges in verification, and emerging technologies could help address them.

For instance, it may be desirable to use remote sensing or monitoring technology, paired with jointly trained machine-learning algorithms to augment the work done by inspectors. This could increase confidence in implementing an agreement at a time when trust is virtually nonexistent. Given the U.S. intelligence community reports of rising Russian cyberattacks against the United States, joint development of such a tool could be a useful way to shield a future agreement from accusations of cheating or more efficiently deal with them should they arise.

If lab-to-lab cooperation is not prioritized early, it may lead to a situation where political will to conclude an agreement will not be matched by the technical capability to verify it. As demonstrated by the demise of the Trilateral Initiative, which was envisioned by the United States, Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to remove excess fissile material from weapons programs and place it under IAEA safeguards without exposing proliferation-sensitive information, the technical capability often takes longer to develop and authenticate than the political will lasts.4

The initiative was active from 1996 until 2002. Although U.S. and Russian scientists continued to jointly develop the technical aspects of verification after the project ended, they did not demonstrate a prototype that would satisfy U.S. and Russian security officials until 2010, long after the political will to implement the initiative had dissipated.5

The Benefit

Lab-to-lab and other technical cooperation, such as through the national academies of science, do not just help avoid pitfalls in treaty verification. Research into new and emerging technologies could be used to strengthen a verification regime, perhaps by identifying options to verify provisions that once were considered unverifiable. Verification is about the balance between transparency and secrecy. Each side must disclose enough information to ensure effective verification but not more than is absolutely needed. New technologies can expand options available to negotiators as they search for that balance.

As they are developed and authenticated, new approaches could include machine learning to better analyze large data sets and enhanced use of satellite imagery. Utilizing these technologies would not come without challenges. Machine-learning algorithms require extensive development before deployment, and their application would likely be limited to open-source data. They would not replace on-site inspections as both sides would surely wish to keep their own “boots on the ground,” but they may provide an extra layer of confidence that both sides are adhering to an agreement. They could also enable a jointly managed technical basis for addressing potential discrepancies or suspicious activities should they arise.

Similarly, satellite imagery is already used as national technical means, but the quality is much higher than in the past and can now provide more data. If used for treaty verification, however, more work will need to be done to ensure mutual access to data from satellite imagery and to assure both countries that no one has tampered with the data.

Another possibility for cooperation is distributed ledger technology (DLT), commonly known as blockchain, which is used to establish a digital, cryptographically verified, tamper-evident, shared ledger that could record data related to arms control verification activities.6 DLT could be used to share data in a more secure way, inspiring confidence that data exchange logs are genuine and have not been altered while avoiding complete disclosure of sensitive data. The tamper-evident feature of the technology is particularly salient, considering the allegations of Russian cyberattacks.

These and other tools are already being researched for application in IAEA safeguards, but could also have applications in arms control verification if the parties to an agreement can authenticate them for use. Emerging technologies cannot replace any existing part of arms control verification, such as on-site inspections or radiation measurements, but they could augment existing capabilities and increase confidence that all parties to an agreement are in compliance.

U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (L) and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze signed the Joint Verification Experiment Agreement in Moscow in 1988, providing the first opportunity for scientists from the two nuclear superpowers to cooperate on measuring nuclear test yields. (Photo by Stanford University)Revitalized scientific cooperation would also be beneficial in advancing existing techniques, such as radiation measurements using neutron multiplicity counting and high-resolution gamma spectrometry. They have been used for verifying fissile material, including warheads, for decades.7 Could these techniques be used more effectively? Might they be reconfigured to suit new verification challenges? U.S. and Russian scientists have worked together in this domain before and could do so again.

In this regard, scientific cooperation serves not just as a supporting mechanism for treaty negotiations, but also as a mechanism to lay the groundwork for future cooperative endeavors. Over the years, the experience of implementing joint projects provided the United States and Russia a view into each other’s nuclear thinking. They cooperated not just on nuclear safety, security, and other defense-related fields, but also on the fundamental sciences. It proved that cooperation did not threaten national security, but rather strengthened it.

The Challenge

Lab-to-lab cooperation is not an arms control panacea, nor is it as simple as flipping a switch for it to resume. Although immensely beneficial to the United States and Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, such collaboration is very sensitive and requires a level of trust that is now absent in the U.S.-Russian relationship. That is why one of the first tasks of the strategic stability talks must be establishing a minimum level of confidence that would allow scientific cooperation to proceed.

History has proved that such cooperation is possible, and the field of nuclear arms control would be well served to capitalize on the experience of those who have already participated in these activities.

The bilateral relationship is at a critical juncture. If the talks go well, a period of more stable relations could ensue, even as certain tensions persist. If talks do not go well, the already poisonous state of U.S.-Russian relations could worsen.

Both governments must invest now in new confidence- and transparency-building measures to keep their delicate relationship from breaking. As with the nuclear age itself, that starts with cooperation among the scientists and engineers who command the technical nuclear expertise.



1. See Siegfried S. Hecker, ed., Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian Scientists Joined Forces to Avert Some of the Greatest Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers (Los Alamos, NM: Bathtub Row Press, 2016).

2. Government of the Russian Federation, “Suspending the Russian-U.S. Agreement on Cooperation in Nuclear- and Energy-Related Scientific Research and Development,” October 5, 2016, http://government.ru/en/docs/24766/.

3. The White House, “U.S.-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability,” June 16, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/16/u-s-russia-presidential-joint-statement-on-strategic-stability/.

4. Thomas E. Shea and Laura Rockwood, “IAEA Verification of Fissile Material in Support of Nuclear Disarmament,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, May 2015, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/iaeaverification.pdf.

5. Sergey Kondratov et al., “Testing the AVNG,” Los Alamos National Laboratory, LA-UR-10-02626, July 11, 2010.

6. Cindy Vestergaard and Maria Lovely Umayam, “Complementing the Padlock: The Prospect of Blockchain for Strengthening Nuclear Security,” Stimson Center, June 2020, https://www.stimson.org/2020/complementing-the-padlock-the-prospect-of-blockchain-for-strengthening-nuclear-security/.

7. Edward M. Ifft, “Verifying Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament,” in Verification Yearbook 2001, n.d., https://www.vertic.org/media/Archived_Publications/Yearbooks/2001/VY01_Ifft.pdf.

Noah C. Mayhew is a research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation focusing on nuclear non-proliferation, safeguards and verification, arms control, and U.S.–Russian relations. He is a commissioner on the trilateral Young Deep Cuts Commission and the co-chair of the Emerging Voices Network’s nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty Working Group.

Scientific cooperation could offer a relatively easy way to begin stabilizing troubled ties.

The Power of Women Strike for Peace

November 2021
By Kathy Crandall Robinson

On November 1, 1961, an estimated 50,000 women in 60 U.S. cities answered a call to join a one-day strike with the rallying slogan “End the Arms Race—Not the Human Race.”1 Astonishing observers and participants with its success, the strike sparked momentum that could not be contained in a single event. Women Strike for Peace (WSP) was launched, drawing even more women into a whirlwind of action to address the threat of nuclear war and stop atmospheric nuclear tests and the attendant radioactive fallout.

Dagmar Wilson and Coretta Scott King lead a march at the United Nations in New York on November 1, 1963, the second anniversary of Women Strike for Peace, and celebrate the Limited Test Ban Treaty. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)After less than two years of prodigious activity, the WSP shared a significant victory when the Limited Test Ban Treaty, banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere and outer space and under water, entered into force on October 11, 1963. President John Kennedy’s science adviser, Jerome Weisner, later gave specific credit for persuading Kennedy to support the treaty “not to the arms controllers inside government” but to the WSP, along with the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and Linus Pauling.2

The initial call for the strike went out after a small September 22 meeting convened by Dagmar Wilson at her Washington home. Wilson and the strike organizers were alarmed by escalating nuclear dangers and dismayed by the lack of urgent response from primarily male leaders in government and peace organizations.3 They sent the strike call via informal networks using phone trees and chain letters. This impressive low-tech organizing in less than six weeks—imagine if these women had cell phones, email, and social media—reached a receptive audience ready to act.

As Ethel Taylor, who organized the Philadelphia strike, explained,

When I received the letter from Dagmar asking me to organize a strike for peace in the Philadelphia area, I immediately went into action. Her view that radioactive fallout was an emergency, not merely an issue, expressed my feelings exactly. I called a meeting at my home and invited women.… I told them what I knew of Dagmar’s motivation for calling the strike: simply put, nuclear weapons testing was dangerous to our children’s health, and could only escalate the arms race.4

Many women and more than a few men were similarly alarmed and motivated. The moment was ripe for several reasons. The danger of nuclear war felt imminent. Throughout the 1950s, bomb shelters were built, and children routinely practiced “duck and cover” drills in school. Although some people may have been falsely reassured that these activities would protect them, everyone, including young children, knew that nuclear war was a real threat.

In the weeks before the organizers planned the strike, the nuclear threat grew. On August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall went up along with U.S. and Soviet tensions. In August and September, the Soviet Union, followed by the United States, broke the testing moratorium that had been in place for almost three years. Over the next 16 months, the two countries conducted more nuclear tests than in the 16 preceding years, causing a spike in global radiation levels. On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union conducted “Tsar Bomba,” the largest ever nuclear weapons test, with a yield of 50 megatons.5

On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union conducted “Tsar Bomba,” the largest ever nuclear weapons test, with a yield of 50 megatons. Today, the weapon sits in a museum. (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)Along with driving the arms race, atmospheric nuclear testing produced radioactive fallout, a known and alarming public health concern. In fact, some parents were so concerned that they sent their children’s baby teeth to be checked for harmful levels of strontium-90.6

The women who launched the WSP wanted more urgent action in response to this perilous situation. Kennedy had come into office promising an end to nuclear testing and spoke of challenging the Soviet Union to a “peace race,”7 yet he deployed more nuclear weapons, increased Pentagon spending, and resumed nuclear tests.8

Many of the women strikers were involved in key peace organizations, particularly SANE. They felt hamstrung by SANE’s hierarchal structure and by male leaders who the women perceived as “less agitated, more deliberate, and more slowly moved to action.”9 Also, SANE and other peace organizations, including Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), had been targeted by anti-communist red-baiters. This did serious damage to the organizations’ reputations, hindering their effectiveness. It was another frustration for the WSP leaders who felt compelled to leave or distance themselves from SANE and the WILPF.10

WSP leaders took deliberate steps to avoid similar red-baiting. Following the strike, they formed a “non-organization” network that had no membership dues or information that could be collected by entities such as the House Un-American Activities Committee. Also, in 1962, the WSP adopted an intentionally inclusive national policy statement decreeing that “we are women of all races creeds and political persuasions.”11

Wilson summed up the feelings driving the women to act when she wrote, “We were worried. We were indignant. We were Angry.”12 They channeled that emotional commitment into relentless bold action. This included picketing, marching, and various creative demonstrations. For example, one group rented a fallout shelter, parked it in shopping center, and converted it into a “Peace Center” from which the activists distributed educational materials and called attention to the false security promised by fallout shelters.13

There were also persistent lobby activities, or as Amy Swerdlow, WSP member and historian, described, “an uninterrupted stream of visits to congressional representatives, to public officials…and to government agencies.”14 The activism extended internationally; a delegation of 50 women went to Geneva in 1962 to make the case for a test ban at the 17-nation Committee on Disarmament.15

The harmful effects of atmospheric nuclear fallout were a particular focus of education and action with “Pure Milk Not Poison” a commonly used slogan. Concerns about milk contamination included calls for boycotts of fresh milk and instructions on how to use powdered milk as a substitute. One campaign recommended that people threaten to cancel home milk deliveries if efforts to decontaminate milk were not undertaken.16

In 1961 the strikers were predominately white, middle-class women of the early Cold War era.17 They embraced traditional motherhood activities and self-identified as “ordinary housewives.” They wore skirts, hats, and white gloves to demonstrations and brought along their children. In 1962, The New York Times reported that, “[f]or the most part, they stress femininity rather than feminism.”18 In part, this feminine, maternal image helped the women garner media coverage and enabled them to push for radical change while clothed according to the expected norms of society. Although these women started out at the nadir of feminist consciousness, they became part of the rising tide of feminism’s second wave. They were empowered by working together and by the effectiveness of their actions.

Women Strike for Peace gained clout and self-confidence when activists testified at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee on December 11, 1962.  (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)In December 1962, 14 WSP leaders were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee for hearings that marked the group’s transformative moment. In a masterful theatrical display, numerous WSP activists showed up with children in tow. They cheered the witnesses and handed them roses. The first witness, Blanche Posner, lectured the committee on the women’s maternal motivation, stating, “This movement was inspired and motivated by mothers’ love for children.… When they were putting their breakfast on the table, they saw not only the Wheaties and milk, but they also saw strontium 90 and iodine 131.… They feared for the health and life of their children.”19 The WSP effectively rebutted the committee’s charges, making the congressional accusers look foolish while empowering the women and strengthening the WSP.20

Throughout the 1960s, the WSP evolved with the times, participated in growing movements, and expanded to be what today would be called more intersectional. Key leaders joined and led the “women’s liberation,” or second wave of feminism, movement. Most prominent was Bella Abzug, the WSP national legislative leader who won a seat in Congress in 1970 and was a key voice for women’s rights and political empowerment. Coretta Scott King was also a WSP participant and was in the delegation that traveled to Geneva in 1962.

Following the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Vietnam War became the WSP’s major concern. Initiatives such as the Jeannette Rankin Peace Brigade later in the decade brought together activist strands advocating for women’s liberation, anti-racism, anti-poverty, and anti-war policies. Eventually, the WSP embraced a broader peace and human rights agenda, although for key leaders in the group, ending all nuclear testing and the nuclear arms race remained core goals.

In 1988, at a press conference marking the 25th anniversary of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, I was inspired to hear Taylor talk about her experience with the WSP and the effort to secure what she called the unfinished business of a comprehensive test ban treaty. I wondered why, even as a student of U.S.-Soviet relations and arms control, I had never heard anything about mothers who had sent their children’s teeth to be checked for strontium-90 or this huge women’s strike in 1961.

The WSP played a significant role in advocating for nuclear disarmament and in pushing forward the second wave of feminism. Sadly, this story is not told often among peace activists, feminists, or anyone else. It is a history that provides needed inspiration and proof that bold, unrelenting activism can accomplish remarkable change.

Grassroots movements ebb and flow. In recent decades, disarmament progress has continued but mostly at a slower and less momentous pace. Passionate activism has decreased, and nuclear disarmament advocacy has become more the bailiwick of a professional niche community. In the process, too much of the WSP-style sense of urgency has been lost.

Even in today’s very different environment, when atmospheric testing has ended and the threat of nuclear weapons use is not quite as imminent, we could learn from the WSP and recognize that nuclear weapons dangers are not just issues to be discussed, but emergencies that require action.

In the early 1960s, there was little question that nuclear weapons posed an existential threat. When Silent Spring was published in 1962, the harmful effects of nuclear weapons fallout described in the book were well known, although environmental harms from pesticides and other toxins were not yet understood.21 Ironically, people are now keenly aware of the harm done by environmental contaminants and climate change, but are oblivious to the health and environmental damage caused by nuclear weapons production and underground testing and to the fact that nuclear weapons use could wipe out humanity in an afternoon. To revive an old slogan, it is still true that nuclear weapons are bad for children and other living things. Those of us who know this reality should say so more clearly.

We could also take a few lessons from the first years of the WSP. That means devising a strategy with an understanding of the zeitgeist—what issues and events will get media coverage, where to find intersections on key concerns with various partners, how to build political power. There also needs to be coordinated, focused, and dogged action. Ending atmospheric nuclear testing was not the only thing women strikers wanted, but ending testing was their single most urgent goal, and it was clearly understood by most Americans.

Following the first strike, it was evident that the media and policy leaders were paying attention. By the time the bullies on the House Un-American Activities Committee came for the WSP, the women had built power and were executing their game plan. They could not be derailed as other peace organizations had been. They confidently pushed forward for the human race. Now it is our turn to pick up the pace and finish what they started.



1. Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 247. Swerdlow, a historian and Women Strike for Peace (WSP) member who wrote its comprehensive history, notes that this number “became part of the founding legend” of the WSP based on estimates of organizers that she could not independently verify.

2. Andrew Hamilton, “MIT: March 4 Revisited Amid Political Turmoil,” Science, March 13, 1970, p. 1476.

3. Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace, pp. 16–21, 47–48.

4. Ethel Barol Taylor, We Made a Difference (Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1998), p. 1.

5. Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, “30 October 1961 − The Tsar Bomba,” n.d., https://www.ctbto.org/specials/testing-times/30-october-1961-the-tsar-bomba (accessed October 14, 2021); Arms Control Association, “Nuclear Testing and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Timeline,” July 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/NuclearTestingTimeline.

6. Jeffrey Tomich, “Decades Later, Baby Tooth Survey Legacy Lives On,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 1, 2013, https://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/health-med-fit/health/decades-later-baby-tooth-survey-legacy-lives-on/article_c5ad9492-fd75-5aed-897f-850fbdba24ee.htm.

7. John Kennedy, “Address Before the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 25, 1961,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, n.d., https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/united-nations-19610925 (accessed October 14, 2021).

8. “Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, n.d., https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/jfk-in-history/nuclear-test-ban-treaty (accessed October 14, 2021); John Kennedy, “Special Message to the Congress on the Defense Budget, March 28, 1961,” The American Presidency Project, n.d., https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/236195 (accessed October 14, 2021).

9. Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace, p. 48.

10. Ibid., pp. 45–47; Taylor, We Made a Difference, pp. 5–7 (recounting frustrations with the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy in their dealing with anti-communist witch hunts and how this shaped the WSP development); Harriet Hyman Alonso, Peace as a Women’s Issue (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1993), pp. 157–192, 202 (addressing the struggles of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and noting how the WSP was in part “born directly out of the discontent with WILPF’s hierarchical structure and anti-Communist stance”).

11. Taylor, We Made a Difference, p. 7.

12. Ibid., p. 9.

13. Ibid., pp. 12–13.

14. Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace, p. 81.

15. Ibid., pp. 192–198.

16. Ibid., pp. 81–84.

17. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2017) (describing the context of the Cold War in the 1960s).

18. Jean Molli, “Women’s Peace Group Uses Feminine Tactics,” The New York Times, April 19, 1962, p. 26.

19. Communist Activities in the Peace Movement (Women Strike for Peace and Certain Other Groups): Hearings Before the United States House Committee on Un-American Activities, 87th Cong. 2074 (1962) (testimony of Blanche Posner).

20. Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace, pp. 97–124; Taylor, We Made a Difference, pp. 19–21.

21. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: First Mariner Books, 2002), pp. 6, 234. See also Mark Stoll, “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a Book That Changed the World,” Environment and Society Portal, July 8, 2020, https://www.environmentandsociety.org/sites/default/files/rachelcarson_silentspring_version2_1.pdf.


Kathy Crandall Robinson is the chief operating officer at the Arms Control Association. For decades, she has advocated for nuclear disarmament and related policies, working with a variety of organizations, including Women's Action for New Directions, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, and Women Strike for Peace.


Time to take a page from the women who, in the 1960s, put a spotlight on disarmament and helped force action on the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

New Iran Leadership Complicates Negotiations

October 2021
By Sina Azodi

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

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

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

The Consequences of Choices

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

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

The View in Washington

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

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

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

The View From Tehran

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

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

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

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

The Value of Missiles

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

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

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

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

Raisi and the Future of Talks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reaching a Consensus

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Iran Deal Scenarios and Regional Security

October 2021
By Farzan Sabet

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

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

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

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

The Situation at Year Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Future Scenarios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The JCPOA and Middle Eastern Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooperation on Nontraditional Security Issues

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2021

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

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

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

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2021

Nuclear Revolution Theory Survives Attack

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

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

Reviewed by George Perkovich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

5. Ibid., pp. 58–59.

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

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

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

October 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Phil Coyle was a rare and magnificent bird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.


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