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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
News Briefs

U.S. Will Not Rejoin Open Skies Treaty

June 2021

The Biden administration has officially notified Russia that the United States will not seek to rejoin the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.

A U.S. OC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. (Photo: Department of Defense)Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman informed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov of the administration’s final decision on May 27, the Associated Press reported. A State Department spokesperson later confirmed the news and attributed the decision to “Russia’s failure to take any actions to return to compliance” with the treaty.

Washington had raised concerns that Moscow is in violation of the treaty because it has limited the distance for observation flights over the Kaliningrad region to no more than 500 kilometers from the border and prohibited missions over Russia from flying within 10 kilometers of its border with the conflicted Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Ryabkov criticized the U.S. decision as “another political mistake, inflicting a new blow to the European security system” in remarks on Friday to the Russian news agency Tass. “We gave them a good chance, but they failed to take it. They continue to circulate fallacies about Russia’s alleged violations of the treaty, which is completely absurd,” Ryabkov said.

When the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the accord in November 2020, President-elect Joe Biden condemned the withdrawal and expressed support for the treaty, although he stopped short of committing to reenter the agreement. Once he took office, the Biden administration opened a review of “matters related to the treaty” and held consultations with U.S. allies and partners earlier this year. (See ACT, March 2021; December 2020.)

Moscow, meanwhile, launched domestic procedures in January for withdrawing from the treaty. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, approved legislation supporting the move May 19; the upper house, the Federation Council, is expected to vote on the bill June 2. The bill will require Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature. Once submitting official notice to states-parties, Moscow would kick-start the six-month period before the withdrawal takes place.

Entering into force in 2002, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.—SHANNON BUGOS

The Biden administration has officially notified Russia that the United States will not seek to rejoin the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.

Biden, Putin to Meet in June

June 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on June 16 in Geneva, the two countries have announced.

“The leaders will discuss the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on May 25. “We expect they will spend a fair amount of time on strategic stability, where the arms control agenda goes following the extension” of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), she said.

The Kremlin statement also emphasized that the two will discuss “problems of strategic stability.”

Washington and Moscow agreed in February to extend the treaty for five years. (See ACT, March 2021.)

Biden expressed in April his hope that, after the two leaders meet, “the United States and Russia could launch a strategic stability dialogue to pursue cooperation in arms control and security” that would build on the New START extension. 

The United States will pursue “arms control that addresses all Russian nuclear weapons, including novel strategic systems and nonstrategic nuclear weapons,” Robert Wood, U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament, told the conference on May 11. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented the same day that discussions must “consider the problems of strategic stability, taking into account all factors and systems without exception, offensive and defensive, which have a direct influence on this strategic stability.”

Biden first proposed the idea of a summit with Putin in April. (See ACT, May 2021.) A May 19 meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lavrov in Reykjavik and a May 24 meeting between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev in Geneva helped pave the way for the official summit announcement.—SHANNON BUGOS 

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on June 16 in Geneva, the two countries have announced.

Iran Agrees to Extend Inspections of Nuclear Sites

June 2021

Iran has agreed to extend a critical temporary monitoring arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for one month, the agency reported May 24. The agreement will expire June 24, leaving 30 days for Iran and the other members of the 2015 nuclear deal to restore that accord. 

Rafael Mariano Grossi (R), Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi (L). (Photo: /POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Iran suspended implementation of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement on Feb. 23, marking an escalatory step in its scheme to intensify activities in violation of the nuclear deal. Iran is obligated to implement the additional protocol in accordance with the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But it decided to suspend compliance pursuant to a December 2020 Iranian law designed to pressure the United States to deliver on sanctions relief. Tehran has demanded that Washington reverse all sanctions imposed since the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) 

An additional protocol is a voluntary arrangement that allows IAEA inspectors increased access to sites and information related to a country’s nuclear program. The aim is to verify that nuclear materials are not diverted for malign purposes. 

The special monitoring arrangement reached by Iran and the IAEA on Feb. 21 preempted Tehran’s suspension of its additional protocol and alleviated mounting concerns over the possibility of losing visibility into Iran’s nuclear activities. 

Under the temporary technical understanding, Iran agreed to continue recording and collecting certain information and committed to transfer that data to the IAEA once sanctions are eased. But the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said in a Feb. 21 statement that all recorded and collected data would be completely erased if the JCPOA sanctions were not removed by the May 21 deadline. (See ACT, March 2021.)

Although the arrangement has now been extended, the original deadline weighed heavily on diplomats in Vienna, who are entrenched in negotiations toward restoring the JCPOA. Originally agreed for three months, the arrangement was intended to provide diplomatic space so parties to the nuclear deal could reach consensus on the steps needed for a complete return to JCPOA compliance by Iran and the United States. For Iran, those steps would include a recommitment to its additional protocol, thus negating the need for the temporary monitoring arrangement. 

The IAEA will regain access to all information collected since Feb. 23 once the JCPOA is restored and sanctions are lifted. Certain details regarding Iran’s decision to extend the arrangement remain private, but it does not appear there was any gap in monitoring between the May 21 expiration and May 24 extension of the temporary agreement. 

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s representative to international organizations in Vienna, commended the extension on May 24, tweeting that “it will help maintain businesslike atmosphere at the Vienna talks . . . and facilitate a successful outcome of the diplomatic efforts to restore the nuclear deal.”

As the May 21 deadline drew near, the European members of the deal—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—emphasized the importance of extending the monitoring arrangement. “IAEA access will of course be essential to our efforts to restore the [JCPOA], as the deal cannot be implemented without it,” they said. 

Iran implicitly pledged under the extended monitoring arrangement to continue implementing its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, which it is required to uphold as a state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Despite a modest decline in inspector presence resulting from the suspension of Iran’s additional protocol and the unique parameters of the temporary monitoring agreement, regular safeguards on Iran’s nuclear program have continued without disruption. 

Regular monitoring reports by the IAEA provide transparency into Iranian nuclear activities and assurance that, despite its violations of the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear program remains entirely peaceful in nature.—JULIA MASTERSON

Iran has agreed to extend a critical temporary monitoring arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for one month, the agency reported May 24.

UN: Biological, Chemical Agents Tested on Iraqi Prisoners

June 2021

The Islamic State group tested biological and chemical agents on Iraqi prisoners, some of whom died, according to a May 2021 UN report.

Although the existence of the extremist group’s rudimentary chemical weapons program has been known for several years, the report by the UN Investigation Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (UNITAD) revealed previously unknown experiments on human subjects.

Evidence collected by the investigation team showed that the Islamic State group “tested biological and chemical agents and conducted experiments on prisoners…causing death,” the report said. It added that “[w]eaponized vesicants, nerve agents and toxic industrial compounds are suspected to have been considered under the programme.”

A UN press release said thallium and nicotine were identified as two of the toxic lethal compounds that proved fatal when used on live prisoners in the tests, which took place after the Islamic State group seized control of Mosul in 2014. 

UNITAD obtained evidence from Islamic State electronic devices that led to the opening of the new investigation into the development, testing, and deployment of the group’s indigenous chemical and biological weapons program, said Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, who heads the team, at a UN Security Council briefing on May 10. 

Preliminary findings of that investigation, which is still ongoing, were published in the May report and “confirmed the repeated deployment of chemical weapons by [the Islamic State group] against civilian populations in Iraq between 2014 and 2016, as well as the testing of biological agents on prisoners.”

The investigation is centered on the 2014 Islamic State takeover of the University of Mosul, the 2016 attack against the Mishraq sulfur field and processing facility, and the 2016 attack on the town of Taza Khurmatu. After the university takeover, the Islamic State group repurposed the university’s laboratories for its chemical weapons program. According to Khan, domestic and international scientists and medical professionals initially worked to weaponize chlorine from water treatment plants seized by the militants. 

Islamic State laboratories also developed a “sulfur mustard production system that was deployed in March 2016 through the firing of 40 rockets at the Turkman Shia town of Taza Khurmatu,” Khan said. According to the report, these attacks “resulted in civilian deaths and injuries, including by asphyxiation and other chemical and biological weapons-related symptoms.” 

In 2017, Iraqi security forces regained control of the university, driving the Islamic State group from the campus. 

The investigation team is relying on a range of evidence from battlefield records, detainee and victim testimonies, satellite imagery, remote sensing techniques, and analysis of other related materials and videos. Since 2017, UNITAD has worked with Iraq on efforts to hold the Islamic State group accountable and deliver justice for the victims and survivors of its crimes. 

The report was published against the backdrop of the increasing use of chemical weapons worldwide. From assassination attempts in Malaysia, Russia, and the United Kingdom to repeated chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the global norm against chemical weapons use is eroding. Much has been done to eliminate declared national stockpiles, but experts say preventing the reemergence of chemical weapons as a tool of war by state and nonstate actors is becoming more challenging.—LEANNE QUINN

The Islamic State group tested biological and chemical agents on Iraqi prisoners, some of whom died, according to a May 2021 UN report.

Two of Three Missile Defense Tests Fail

June 2021

Two out of three flight tests, which aimed to integrate the Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile systems, failed because of software problems, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in April. 

A THAAD anti-missile battery. (Photo: Lockheed Martin via Getty Images)The Patriot weapons system is an air and missile defense system that can intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in their terminal stage at low altitudes. The THAAD system is a mobile ground-based system that can defend against short-, medium-, and certain intermediate-range ballistic missile attacks at the end of their midcourse and terminal flight stages, thereby allowing interceptors to engage their targets at higher altitudes than the Patriot system would allow.

This integration has important implications for regional security, the United States, and its allies. The United States has been attempting to improve its THAAD batteries around the world, including one deployed to South Korea to deter threats from North Korea, by adding advanced radar and integrating the system with Patriot missiles. 

The flight tests, conducted jointly in October 2019, February 2020, and October 2020 by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and the Army, were intended to support what the MDA called an “an urgent regional capability called Patriot Launch-on-Remote (THAAD).” The aim was to launch the Patriot’s interceptor using THAAD radar tracking data before the Patriot system uses its own radar, which catches missiles at a lower altitude than the THAAD radar, to execute the interception. This capability would increase the coverage area of the Patriot batteries. 

The first two tests, labeled FTX-39 and FTP-27 Event 2, received “no test” and failed marks, respectively. The GAO diagnosed the problem as software related. A third test, the FTP-27 Event 1, which took place in October 2020, performed successfully by having Patriot interceptors use THAAD radar data. 

The Patriot Launch-on-Remote capability would allow the Army to use the “right missile for the right threat at the right time against North Korean submarine-launched ballistic missiles” and is supported by operational need, according to Army Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the commander of combined Korean-U.S. forces.

Although South Korea and the United States have argued that the THAAD system’s purpose is purely defensive against the threat of North Korean missiles, China has consistently opposed THAAD deployment in South Korea, arguing that the weapon undermines China’s nuclear deterrence and regional security through enhanced early detection. In retaliation for the THAAD deployment, China imposed sanctions on South Korea, targeting major industries and entitles such as the Lotte Group conglomerate, for 14 months until the two countries renormalized relations.

The THAAD system remains controversial in South Korea, where local residents and civic activists staged a sit-in on April 28 and tried unsuccessfully to block vehicles heading into the base with the system.—SANG-MIN KIM

Two out of three flight tests, which aimed to integrate the Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile systems, failed because of software problems, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in April. 

U.S. Arms Sales to Israel Challenged

June 2021

A proposed $735 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Israel drew intense scrutiny from Congress as fighting in that country escalated last month. 

A fire rages at sunrise in Khan Yunish following an Israeli airstrike on targets in the southern Gaza strip, on May 12, 2021. The Israeli retaliatory bombardment in May struck military and civilian targets. (Photo:  Youssef Massoud/AFP via Getty Images)A day before a cease-fire was declared on May 20, Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) introduced a House joint resolution of disapproval for the sale. “Approving this sale now, while failing to even try to use it as leverage for a ceasefire, sends a clear message to the world—the U.S. is not interested in peace, and does not care about the human rights and lives of Palestinians,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a press statement.

The next day, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a similar resolution in the Senate. It marked the end of a 15-day review period during which lawmakers could take action to block the administration from issuing licenses for the deals. 

According to news reports, the State Department issued those licenses on May 21. No vote is now expected on these particular resolutions. But at any point until delivery, expected to Israel next year, Congress could pass legislation blocking arms sales. 

When told on May 21 that the sales had already been licensed, Sanders put a hold on all State Department nominees. He lifted the hold after the administration committed to providing humanitarian aid for Gaza. Sanders’ office told Arms Control Today on May 25 that Sanders and his colleagues “would continue to push for greater debate to make sure that U.S. arms sales do not support human rights abuses.”

The potential sale drew little attention when notified to Congress on May 5, in part because it was not done according to the foreign military sales (FMS) process, which centers on government-to-government agreements and provides for notifications that are publicly available on a website managed by the Defense Department. Instead, the joint direct attack munitions and small diameter bombs were notified as a commercial sale, for which there is less transparency.

News of the potential deal surfaced on May 17, a week after fighting in Israel had intensified and Israeli forces faced international criticism for bombing civilian areas in Gaza.

An informal notification process exists for communicating these sales to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before the formal notification occurs, but the lack of public awareness is endemic to the commercial sale process, which is becoming more common and is being used for transfers of more destructive weapons. Some key rules and procedures applicable to FMS sales do not apply or have been unevenly applied to commercial sales, raising the question of whether administrations are using the process to shield themselves from public scrutiny.

For example, these commercial sales are considered proprietary agreements. Under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the State Department withholds some information about such licenses unless the secretary of state determines “the release of such information . . . to be in the national interest.”

In recent years, votes on resolutions of disapproval have occurred most frequently in the Senate because the rules allow individual senators to ask the full Senate to consider them even if the Foreign Relations Committee does not act. For all commercial sales, senators must wait 10 days before invoking this privilege. But in the case of an FMS sale to Israel and other close partners, that waiting period is only five days. 

In 2014, Congress passed legislation that would allow for the chair and ranking member of the relevant Senate or House committee to concurrently request a predelivery notification of weapons sold under the FMS program, but did not extend that notification authority to commercial sales.

For sales to most countries, Congress has 30 days from formal notification to pass joint resolutions of disapproval that bar the president from concluding agreements. For Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and NATO and its member states, that timeline is 15 days.—JEFF ABRAMSON

A proposed $735 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Israel drew intense scrutiny from Congress as fighting in that country escalated last month.

U.S. Proposes Arms Control Dialogue With Russia


May 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden proposed during an April 13 call with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the two leaders hold a wide-ranging summit in the coming months. It could pave the way to a strategic stability dialogue on arms control and security issues.

The summit would take place in a third country—Austria and Switzerland have since offered to host—and feature discussions on “the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia,” the White House said in a statement after the call. A Kremlin official has said the summit may occur in June.

“Out of that summit—were it to occur, and I believe it will—the United States and Russia could launch a strategic stability dialogue to pursue cooperation in arms control and security,” added Biden on April 15. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented on April 16 that Moscow has “responded positively” to the proposal. “Now we are studying different aspects of this initiative,” he said. Since those statements, however, tensions between the United States and Russia have continued to rise over Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border, its treatment of political dissident Alexi Navalny, and the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Russia, creating new doubts about when a summit could reasonably be expected.

During their call, Biden and Putin discussed “the intent of the United States and Russia to pursue a strategic stability dialogue on a range of arms control and emerging security issues, building on the extension” of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), according to the White House. Washington and Moscow agreed in February to extend the 2010 treaty for five years, and both expressed a willingness to pursue further engagement on arms control. (See ACT, March 2021.)

The United States and Russia first met for a strategic stability dialogue in Helsinki in September 2017 and last held the dialogue in Vienna in August 2020. (See ACT, October 2017; September 2020.)—SHANNON BUGOS

U.S. Proposes Arms Control Dialogue With Russia

U.S. to Revise Landmine Policy


May 2021

Just two days after a Defense Department spokesperson said the Trump administration landmine policy remained in place and that landmines were a “vital tool,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on April 8 that President Joe Biden “intends to roll back this policy, and our administration has begun a policy review to do just that.”

A U.S. Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa 19.2, Marine Forces Europe and Africa, discusses explosive ordnance identification procedures with a member of the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces during training at Unite de Secours et Sauvetage’s Base, Kenitra, Morocco, April 22, 2019. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)That intention, was foreshadowed by Biden during the presidential campaign. It was reaffirmed after Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a long time anti-landmine champion, criticized the Defense Department statement and said on April 7 that he was “confident” that the Biden administration would “do the right thing and renounce these indiscriminate weapons that have no place in the arsenal of civilized nations.”

The Trump policy, announced in January 2020, permitted the use of victim-activated anti-personnel landmines anywhere in the world, citing great-power rivalries and a need to counter near-peer competitors. (See ACT, March 2020.) The Obama administration policy, announced in 2014, had banned production and acquisition of such landmines and halted their use outside the Korean peninsula. It also set a goal of eventually acceding to the Mine Ban Treaty, which today has 164 states-parties, including every NATO member except the United States.

The United States remains the world’s largest contributor of funds to support demining and related efforts to prevent new victims and aid those harmed by the weapons. The multifaceted approach is collectively known as humanitarian mine action. The April 5 release of the State Department’s annual report that details this support, titled “To Walk the Earth in Safety,” combined with the annual International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action on April 4, drew attention to U.S. landmine policy and prompted the initial Defense Department statement.—JEFF ABRAMSON

U.S. to Revise Landmine Policy

TPNW States to Meet in January in Vienna


May 2021

The first formal meeting of the states-parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will be convened at UN facilities in Vienna on Jan. 12–14, Austria announced on April 15.

Alexander Kmentt, one of the diplomatic drivers of the treaty, has been named the president-designate for the conference, which will be the first since the treaty entered into force in January 2021. The decision on the date and location for the meeting was made April 15 by unanimous consent following the second round of informal consultations on the meeting.

“We are embarking together on setting up a brand-new treaty regime in challenging times,” Kmentt wrote in a message to states-parties in March outlining plans for a series of informal consultations ahead of the first meeting of the states-parties.

“[T]he current limitations of physical meetings also provide us with the opportunity to discuss and coordinate across continents in the most inclusive way with modest cost implications. It also allows us to draw in leading expertise to advise us on all the decisions before us and take them in the most informed manner possible,” Kmentt said.

On Jan. 22, the TPNW formally entered into force following the 50th state ratification of the treaty last year. The treaty bans nuclear weapons development, production, possession, use, and threat of use and the stationing of another country’s nuclear weapons on a state-party's national territory. The TPNW will also require states to provide assistance to those affected by nuclear weapons use and testing. Review conferences are to be held every six years. To date, 86 states have signed the treaty, and 54 have ratified it.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

TPNW States to Meet in January in Vienna

U.S., Japan Reaffirm Alliance in White House Meeting


May 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly reaffirmed the U.S.-Japanese alliance during Biden’s first in-person meeting as president with a foreign leader, at the White House on April 16, calling it a “cornerstone of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world.” The leaders also described a “shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific [region] based on our commitment to universal values and common principles and the promotion of inclusive economic prosperity.”

U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga take part in a joint press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C. on April 16. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)In a press conference after the meeting, Biden emphasized U.S. commitments to Japan’s defense and “ironclad support for…our shared security.”

The leaders’ formal joint statement focused on many strategic concerns, including global threats from COVID-19 and climate change, human rights in Hong Kong and among the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region, and the denuclearization of North Korea.

They expressed “their concerns over Chinese activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order, including the use of economic and other forms of coercion.” They said they “oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” underscored the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and objected to China’s “unlawful maritime activities” in the South China Sea. They pledged to work jointly on the rapid development, security, and openness of fifth-generation communications technologies and “to rely on trustworthy vendors.” They also recognized the need for cooperation with China “on areas of common interest.”

Their vision of strengthening the U.S.-Japanese alliance relies on having Japan bolster its national defense capabilities as part of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security that the two countries signed in 1960. The leaders committed “to deepen defense cooperation across all domains, including cyber and space, and to bolster extended deterrence.”

This would involve following through on plans to relocate some U.S. Marine Corps troops from Okinawa to Guam and working with allies and partners such as the Quad, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the trilateral alliance with South Korea.

In a statement, the Chinese Embassy in Washington described the Biden-Suga comments on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea as “harmful” and going “far beyond the scope of normal development of bilateral relations.” Taiwan Presidential Office spokesman Xavier Chang embraced the joint statement and underscored “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”—SANG-MIN KIM

U.S., Japan Reaffirm Alliance in White House Meeting

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