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
June 2007
Edition Date: 
Friday, June 1, 2007
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June 2007 - Vol. 37 Issue 5

Digital Magazine

Iran Continues Security Council Defiance

Paul Kerr

A May 23 report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei documents that Iran has continued work on its nuclear program in defiance of the UN Security Council. This lack of compliance sets the stage for the council to impose additional sanctions against Tehran.

The IAEA Board of Governors also is expected to discuss the report during its next meeting, which begins June 11.

Although Iranian officials continue to express their willingness to enter into negotiations with Germany and the five permanent members of the Security Council, they refuse to meet the Security Council’s repeated demands to suspend its nuclear program.         

Most recently, the Security Council on March 24 adopted Resolution 1747 requiring Iran to comply “without further delay” with Resolution 1737, which the council adopted last December, or face “further appropriate [nonmilitary] measures.” (See ACT, April 2007.) The March resolution requested ElBaradei to report on Iran’s compliance within 60 days.

Resolution 1747 also imposed new restrictions on Tehran and expanded the scope of existing sanctions. Those included a demand that Iran suspend all activities related to its uranium-enrichment program, as well as construction of a heavy water-moderated nuclear reactor. Iran says these programs are for peaceful purposes, but both also could be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. (See ACT, January/February 2007.) According to the report, Iran has not suspended either of these programs.

The resolutions require Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA’s investigation of its nuclear programs, as well as to ratify an additional protocol to its comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreement. Such safeguards agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the IAEA to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities. Iran has signed an additional protocol, which augments the IAEA’s authority to investigate possible undeclared nuclear activities, but has not ratified it.

Both French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Department of State spokesperson Tom Casey stated May 24 that their governments want the Security Council to impose additional sanctions against Iran.

Casey said that the council would “take a look at…enhancing” current UN sanctions and imposing new ones. Asked about the prospect for further sanctions, two European diplomats told Arms Control Today May 25 that whether and to what extent other council members are willing to sanction Iran is unclear.

Both diplomats added that there will be no formal discussions regarding further Security Council action until after the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, meets May 31 with Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Tehran’s lead nuclear negotiator. The relevant countries will discuss the contents of another council resolution if the talks “do not bear fruit,” one diplomat said.

Larijani and Solana last met in late April but did not reach an agreement. (See ACT, May 2007.)

Larijani told reporters May 30 that suspending Iran’s enrichment program is “not acceptable,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). He added, however, that a suspension agreement could be the “outcome of the talks.”

Similarly, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stated May 16 that Iran remains flexible on other aspects of a potential solution, according to IRNA. Tehran would “welcome” any proposal that officially recognized Iran’s right to produce nuclear fuel, he said.

But Larijani threatened that Iran would “use its levers” against the international community if the Security Council were to impose additional sanctions on Iran, the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported May 18. He did not elaborate.

Modest Enrichment Progress

Iran has continued work on its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Such centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. They can produce low-enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear reactors, and highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used in certain types of nuclear reactors and as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

Tehran has a pilot centrifuge facility located at Natanz and is constructing a larger commercial facility at the same site. Iran also has a facility for converting uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride.           

Discussing Iran’s nuclear progress, ElBaradei told reporters May 24 that Iran would need at least three to eight years before it could develop a nuclear weapon, Reuters reported.

Interviews with knowledgeable sources have provided a mixed picture of the program’s status. One European diplomat pointed out May 25 that the most important issue is whether Iran can keep its centrifuges “running for an extended period of time.” Tehran has not yet demonstrated that it can do so, he said.

Iran continued to operate the 10-, 20-, and 164-centrifuge cascades in its pilot facility but "disconnected" one of the 164-centrifuge cascades at an unspecified date. Iran fed 4.8 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride into single machines and the 10-machine cascade between Feb. 21 and March 17, ElBaradei reported.

As for Iran’s commercial enrichment facility, IAEA inspectors during a May visit found that Iran was “operating simultaneously” eight 164-centrifuge cascades. The report says Tehran has “two other similar cascades” which have not been tested with nuclear material. Three more such cascades are “under construction.” According to another European diplomat, the operating cascades are not linked together, a key element required to operate an enrichment facility at the scale necessary to produce large quantities of enriched uranium.

The number of operating cascades in the facility has not increased since mid-April, according to an April 18 letter from agency Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen. Iran had two cascades installed as of February.

Iran told the IAEA that it intended to “continue progressively with the installation of…18 cascades” into the commercial facility and “bring them gradually into operation by May,” according to a report ElBaradei issued in February. Although Iran failed to meet this target date, a diplomatic source in Vienna close to the IAEA told Arms Control Today April 25 that Iran is able to build one 164-centrifuge cascade every 10 days. At that rate, Iran will be able to install approximately 3,000 centrifuges by the end of June, the source said.

Tehran has said that it eventually plans to install more than 50,000 centrifuges in the facility. It will take Iran up to four years to do this, according to an April statement by Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who also heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

In addition to installing centrifuges, Iran has begun to enrich uranium in its commercial facility. Tehran has fed approximately 260 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride into those cascades, the report says. Iran appears to have begun doing this sometime after April 18. On that day, a knowledgeable source told Arms Control Today that Tehran was not actually enriching uranium but was instead injecting small amounts of feedstock into the centrifuges to ready them for operation.

Iran has declared that it has enriched uranium levels up to 4.8 percent uranium-235 at the commercial facility, a claim that the IAEA is in the process of verifying. The report does not specify the quantity of enriched uranium Iran has produced. ElBaradei reported in February that Iran produced in its pilot facility uranium containing a “maximum enrichment” of 4.2 percent uranium-235.

Whether Iran can produce centrifuges of sufficient quantity and quality is unclear. The Vienna diplomat said that Tehran can produce enough centrifuge components for its projected enrichment needs. But a knowledgeable source told Arms Control Today that Iran may not be “fully independent” in making such components.

Asked about the quality of Iran’s centrifuges, the Vienna source added that Iran “can make functional machines.” Separately, a European diplomat said that it is not clear that Iran can do so, explaining that “quite a high number” of centrifuges have crashed at rates “higher than one would expect.”

Iran also has apparently continued to operate its uranium-conversion facility. According to the report, Iran presented 269 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride to IAEA inspectors when they visited the facility in March. The agency is “evaluating the results” obtained during the visit. Mohammad Saeedi, deputy director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, claimed May 7 that Iran has 280 metric tons of feedstock, ISNA reported. Iran began the conversion campaign in June 2006.

Whether Iran’s uranium hexafluoride is of sufficient purity is unclear. The Vienna diplomat said that Iran is using its own feedstock, noting that the material is “good enough” to produce enriched uranium. But the two other European diplomats told Arms Control Today that Iran is probably using uranium hexafluoride obtained from China more than a decade ago.            

Regarding Iran’s conversion efforts, one diplomat said that Iran is now attempting to convert its own uranium oxide into feedstock but the “process has not been perfected.” Iran had previously been converting uranium oxide acquired from South Africa, he said.

Decreased Transparency

ElBaradei’s report states that although the IAEA is able to verify that Iran has not diverted any of its safeguarded nuclear material, the agency “remains unable to make further progress” in verifying “the scope and nature” of Iran’s nuclear program.

Since its investigation began in 2002, the IAEA has discovered that Iran engaged in secret nuclear activities, some of which violated Tehran’s safeguards agreement. Iran has provided explanations for some of these issues, but the agency says that several others remain unresolved. (See ACT, March 2006.)

ElBaradei reported that Iran has provided no new information regarding these matters, with one exception. Tehran has disclosed details regarding the HEU particles found at the Karaj Waste Storage Facility, a facility that Iran had not declared to the agency. The IAEA is currently analyzing the information, the report says. (See ACT, December 2006.)

The report emphasizes that the IAEA’s “level of knowledge of certain aspects” of Iran’s nuclear activities “has deteriorated” because Tehran has been providing less information than it did in the past. For example, Iran stopped adhering to its additional protocol in February 2006, the terms of which Iran had been observing since Fall 2003 even though the protocol was not yet in force. (See ACT, March 2006.)

According to ElBaradei, Iran has withheld a significant amount of data, including “information relevant to the assembly of centrifuges, the manufacture of centrifuge components…and research and development of centrifuges or enrichment techniques.” His report also notes that Iran has not allowed the IAEA to inspect its heavy water reactor site since Tehran’s March decision to end its compliance with a portion of the subsidiary arrangements for its IAEA safeguards agreement.

Russia, Burma Sign Nuclear Agreement

Paul Kerr

The United States has expressed concerns about an agreement Burma and Russia signed May 15 that could pave the way for the construction of a Russian nuclear research reactor in the Southeast Asian nation.

Department of State spokesperson Tom Casey told reporters May 16 that Burma lacks the necessary regulatory and management systems to operate a nuclear power facility safely. Washington “would be concerned about the possibility for accidents, for environmental damage, or for proliferation simply by the possibility of fuel being diverted, stolen, or otherwise removed,” Casey said. He did not argue that the project could be part of a nuclear weapons program.

Although the United States and Burma maintain diplomatic relations, Washington has a series of sanctions in place against Rangoon for such issues as its poor human rights record. The United States downgraded its level of representation in Burma from ambassador to chargé d’affaires after the government’s crackdown on democratic opposition in 1988.

According to a May 15 Russian Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) press release, the two governments signed an intergovernmental cooperation agreement in Moscow to establish a “nuclear studies” center in Burma, which will include a 10-megawatt, light water-moderated nuclear reactor.

The fuel for the reactor will contain uranium comprised of 20 percent uranium-235. Rosatom Press Secretary Sergey Novikov said May 15 that Russia is planning initially to supply 10 metric tons of fuel for the reactor, Gazeta.ru reported. Nuclear weapons use uranium containing more than 90 percent uranium-235.

The center also will include a medical isotope production laboratory and nuclear waste treatment and burial facilities. In addition, Russian universities are tasked with training 300–350 specialists for the center, according to Rosatom.

Moscow and Rangoon have been discussing a nuclear project for several years. Although Burma also has expressed interest in constructing nuclear power reactors, a Russian diplomat emphasized in a May 24 interview with Arms Control Today that the new agreement only concerns a research reactor. He added that Russian efforts, such as training Burmese personnel and providing assistance to establish proper regulatory procedures, would mitigate any risks posed by the reactor. (See ACT, May 2004.)

Many details of the agreement, which was signed by Rosatom head Sergey Kiriyenko and Burma’s minister of science and technologies, U Thaung, remain to be negotiated. Indeed, Novikov told the Moscow Times May 15 that the agreement “opens the door so a contract can be concluded.” Similarly, Irina Yesipova, spokesperson for Atomstroyexport, the project’s Russian contractor, said that it is “too early to talk about anything concrete, from timeline to location to expenses,” the Moscow Times reported.

On May 16, Atomstroyexport officials held the first negotiations on the agreement in Moscow with a Burmese delegation, according to a company press release, which provided no further details of the discussions. The next round of talks will take place in Burma in the second half of 2007.

The center will be placed under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, the Rosatom statement said. The research reactor is subject to IAEA safeguards as Burma is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has completed a comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreement. Such agreements allow the agency to ensure that parties to the NPT do not divert civilian nuclear programs to military purposes.

Burma also has signed the Treaty of Bangkok, which established a nuclear weapons-free zone in Southeast Asia when it entered into force in 1997.


By Daryl G. Kimball

Five years ago at the signing ceremony for the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), President George W. Bush claimed the agreement “liquidates the Cold War legacy of nuclear hostility” between the United States and Russia. Think again. Although SORT calls for deeper reductions in deployed strategic nuclear warheads, to 1,700-2,200 each by 2012, it has not liquidated the weapons nor mutual nuclear suspicions.

The treaty’s emphasis on flexibility detracts from its predictability, lessening its value in building a more stable and secure U.S.-Russian relationship. Unlike the earlier Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) approach, SORT does not require the destruction of strategic delivery systems. SORT also allows each side to store nondeployed warheads. The treaty fails to establish new verification mechanisms, relying instead on those contained in START.

Now, news reports indicate that neither government wants to extend START past its scheduled expiration on Dec. 5, 2009. Although the 1991 treaty may require adjustments to reflect present-day realities, it serves as an important foundation for deeper, faster, and irreversible reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals that would head off renewed strategic competition.

U.S. plans to install missile interceptors in Poland have added to Russian concerns that the United States might redeploy its reserve nuclear forces and utilize leftover nuclear delivery systems for conventional strike missions. In response, President Vladimir Putin has authorized new strategic missile systems and plans to increase the number of warheads carried by certain missile systems. Putin also has threatened to withdraw from the 1987 U.S.-Russian treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear forces.

The loss of START would complicate an increasingly complicated relationship. START was a breakthrough agreement that helped end the Cold War. It slashed strategic nuclear forces from approximately 10,000 warheads each to no more than 6,000 apiece by December 5, 2001. The accord also limits each side to 1,600 strategic delivery vehicles (land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles, plus heavy bombers).

In addition, START established a far-reaching system of notifications and inspections that provides an accurate assessment of the size and location of each side’s forces. In 2002, the intelligence community warned that its ability to monitor SORT would be significantly compromised in the absence of START. If no new verification mechanisms are established, a former U.S. verification official told Arms Control Today in 2005 that the two countries would be “flying blind” in their nuclear relationship.

U.S. and Russian experts began discussions in March on follow-on measures to START, but the two sides are at odds over several core issues. Russia favors negotiating a new treaty that would reduce strategic nuclear warheads to less than 1,500 each, with additional limits on delivery systems. The Bush administration rejects further weapons limits and prefers new, informal transparency and confidence-building measures.

Both sides want some verification measures after START. But Russia claims that more intrusive measures, such as on-site inspections, would need to be included in a legally binding agreement as required by Russia’s domestic laws. U.S. negotiators argue for understandings that would allow for “visits” to each other’s weapons storage sites.

What should be done? Informal transparency measures may be helpful but provide too little certainty and do nothing to achieve deeper and more lasting force reductions. On the other hand, given the Bush administration’s antipathy toward arms control treaties, the prospects for a new legally binding agreement before the end of 2008 look dim. The next U.S. president will have limited time to work out a new arrangement before START lapses.

Rather than allow the pact to expire or mask long-simmering differences with halfway measures, Bush’s and Putin’s successors should agree to continue to observe START until they can enter into a new agreement that achieves what SORT did not: permanent and verifiable reductions of excess U.S. and Russian Cold War nuclear forces. A new treaty with streamlined START-style verification protocols is necessary to restore confidence that each country will actually dismantle, not simply warehouse, warheads and missiles originally deployed to destroy the other.

Such an agreement should map out permanent, phased reductions of all strategic nuclear warheads, deployed and reserve, to a level of 1,000 or less and establish ceilings on the number of non-nuclear strategic missiles. As the two sides’ strategic arsenals shrink, they must also account for and agree to scrap Russia’s residual arsenal of at least 3,000 tactical nuclear warheads, as well as the smaller U.S. stockpile, which includes 480 warheads stationed in Europe.

The year 2009 will mark two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The United States and Russia are no longer enemies, yet their still massive nuclear arsenals continue to engender distrust and worst-case assumptions. What is required is a new push for real nuclear reductions based on the proven principles of START.

Five years ago at the signing ceremony for the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), President George W. Bush claimed the agreement “liquidates the Cold War legacy of nuclear hostility” between the United States and Russia. Think again. Although SORT calls for deeper reductions in deployed strategic nuclear warheads, to 1,700-2,200 each by 2012, it has not liquidated the weapons nor mutual nuclear suspicions.

The treaty’s emphasis on flexibility detracts from its predictability, lessening its value in building a more stable and secure U.S.-Russian relationship. Unlike the earlier Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) approach, SORT does not require the destruction of strategic delivery systems. SORT also allows each side to store nondeployed warheads. The treaty fails to establish new verification mechanisms, relying instead on those contained in START. (Continue)

Panel Endorses U.S. Global Strike Initiative

Wade Boese

An independent panel recently provided a boost to a coolly received Pentagon initiative that would convert some long-range, submarine-launched ballistic missiles to deliver conventional warheads instead of nuclear ones.

In a May 11 report to Congress, the 19-member panel of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) National Research Council stated the initiative, if proven effective, “would be a valuable addition to U.S. military capabilities.” The initiative is intended to enable the United States to conduct non-nuclear strikes worldwide in less than an hour.

The general concept is known as prompt global strike. Under the Conventional Trident Modification program, each of the dozen deployed U.S. ballistic missile submarines would have two of their 24 Trident nuclear-armed ballistic missiles converted to carry conventional payloads.

The panel recommended that lawmakers sufficiently fund research and development of the program so an “initial operational capability” will be ready in three years. But it also urged postponing full-scale production and deployment until some policy issues are settled.

The experts said policymakers should explore alternatives and deal with the “ambiguity issue,” which is the possibility that other countries, particularly Russia, might mistake a conventional Trident launch as a nuclear attack. This danger has been a central concern of lawmakers, leading them last year to cut inaugural funding for the program from $127 million to $25 million and commission the NAS study. The Bush administration asked Congress in February for an additional $175 million. (See ACT, April 2007. )

Congressional caution toward the program remains widespread. On May 17, the House passed a fiscal year 2008 defense authorization bill that prohibits any spending to deploy conventional Tridents. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, which initially proposed the restriction, said the move reflected a “need for additional effort to ensure that a conventional missile launch from a Trident submarine is not misinterpreted.”

The Senate has yet to pass its version of the defense authorization bill, which will then need to be reconciled with the House measure, but some senators share similar sentiments. At an April 11 hearing, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said the proposed conversion “is a very destabilizing idea in the minds of many of us.”

The NAS panel suggested that “cooperative measures” with other countries might help reduce misunderstandings and recommended that any prompt global strike effort, including the Trident conversion, “be designed in both hardware and operational terms to minimize the possibility of misinterpreting intent.” Yet, the panel noted, “the ambiguity between nuclear and conventional payloads can never be totally resolved.”

Still, the experts asserted that a prompt global strike capability is worth pursuing. “Given the pace of terrorism’s spread and the consequent uncertainty about where terrorist operations will occur, coupled with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, a truly global capability may soon be required, if it is not required today,” the panel stated.

In addition to being used against terrorists, the panel said prompt global strike systems could be employed at the outset, or “leading edge,” of major combat operations. In such a scenario, the panel cautioned that misinterpretation risks would rise.

The brief time frames associated with prompt global strike also present difficulties, according to the panel. It stated that getting accurate and reliable short-notice data on a target would be a “daunting challenge” and warned that decision-makers would have to rapidly weigh potential collateral damage and other risks.

The panel predicted that the actual use of prompt global strike weapons would be rare, numbering “at most a few dozen” instances during their first decade of service. It calculated that “only a few terrorist leaders would merit use of such a weapon.”

Other prompt global strike options mentioned by the panel include conventionally armed U.S.-based ICBMs, intercontinental-range hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, and higher-speed cruise missiles launched from bombers. These and the Trident conversion program will be analyzed more fully in a second report the panel is supposed to supply Congress early next year.

Albert Carnesale, who most recently served as chancellor of UCLA, chairs the panel. Other panel members include retired General Eugene Habiger, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command; James Woolsey, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency; and Walter Slocombe, former undersecretary of defense for policy.

Corrected online September 3, 3008. See explanation.

Russia Casts Doubt on Conventional Arms Pact

Wade Boese

President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian leaders recently ratcheted up warnings that Moscow might freeze or end participation in a treaty limiting conventional weapons in Europe if some long-running disputes with NATO are not soon resolved.

In an annual address to Russian lawmakers, Putin said April 26 that Moscow would “declare a moratorium on its observance” of the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which restricts the number and location of battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, and heavy artillery that states-parties can field in Europe. Putin added that if talks with the 26-member NATO alliance did not yield results, Russia will “examine the possibility of suspending our commitments” under the CFE Treaty.

For days and weeks after the speech, there was confusion about when the moratorium would take effect and whether Putin was threatening that Russia might pull out of the treaty.

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted a Kremlin source April 26 as saying Russia would withdraw from the treaty if nothing changed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov similarly told reporters the same day in Oslo, Norway, that Russia’s “withdrawal from [the] CFE [Treaty] will become imminent” if Moscow’s concerns go unmet.

Still, on May 9, NATO spokesperson James Appathurai told reporters, “I don’t think the full details of what President Putin meant are fully clear yet.”

Appathurai’s comment came a day before Russian General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the general staff, visited NATO headquarters in Brussels. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta quoted Baluyevsky as telling reporters there that lawyers in Russia’s foreign and defense ministries were analyzing “legitimate opportunities for a moratorium.”

A Russian official told Arms Control Today May 21 that the “moratorium is not immediate.” Without mentioning a possible treaty withdrawal or termination, the official further explained that Russia would “suspend implementation if NATO does not respond positively.”

U.S. and other NATO-member government officials said in May Arms Control Today interviews that Russia had not altered its behavior under the CFE Treaty since Putin’s speech. They noted Russia has made some regular treaty notifications and agreed to a treaty inspection.

The accord does not allow a state-party to suspend implementation. A treaty withdrawal option exists if a country feels that “extraordinary events…have jeopardized its supreme interests.” A minimum 150-day advance notice of an intended withdrawal is required by the treaty.

Consequently, a Russian move to suspend implementation would likely be judged by other states-parties as noncompliance. Compliance issues are supposed to be resolved in the treaty’s Joint Consultative Group.

Putin’s speech came amid increased sparring by Washington and Moscow over a U.S. plan to deploy 10 strategic missile interceptors in Poland (see page 30 ), but Russian officials deny any tie between the recent CFE Treaty policy and the interceptor base.

For several years, Moscow has been seeking to have the 1990 accord replaced by a November 1999 “adapted” CFE Treaty that imposes less stringent restrictions on Russia. Unlike the original treaty, the updated version also permits additional countries to join and adopt weapons limits. This appeals to Russia because it is upset that some newer NATO members, particularly Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, currently have no arms constraints.

The adapted treaty cannot enter into force and legally replace the original accord until all of its 30 states-parties ratify the revised version. Only four—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine—have completed this step.

NATO members are refusing to ratify the adapted treaty until Russia fulfills promised military withdrawals from Georgia and Moldova. These pledges are known as the Istanbul commitments, after the summit at which they were made. The adapted CFE Treaty was finalized at the same gathering. (See ACT, November 1999. )

The Russian military is belatedly making progress in leaving Georgia, but a similar effort in Moldova halted unfinished in March 2004. (See ACT, January/February 2007. )

Kremlin officials frequently criticize the NATO linkage and complain about being bound by what they deride as an obsolete agreement. In his Oslo remarks, Lavrov stated that Russia “finds itself in a situation where it simply does not want to participate in a theater of the absurd.”

Washington and other NATO capitals are urging Russia to uphold its obligations. Referring to the CFE Treaty as “one of the most important treaties of the 20th century,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a May 15 interview with the Russian radio station Ekho Movsky that Russia should address its concerns “in the context of the treaty rather than trying to get out of the treaty.”

NATO governments also are reiterating that they will continue to delay ratifying the adapted CFE Treaty until the Russian military is out of Moldova and Georgia. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said April 26 that “the allies attach great importance to ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty, but we have things like the Istanbul commitments which have to be fulfilled.”

Not Going Nuclear: Japan’s Response to North Korea’s Nuclear Test

Hajime Izumi and Katsuhisa Furukawa

Since North Korea’s nuclear test on October 9, 2006, there has been considerable foreign speculation that the explosion might prompt Japan to develop its own nuclear weapons arsenal. These views do not reflect the relatively restrained reaction in Japan itself. Although the test helped break a public taboo on discussing the possibility of a Japanese nuclear capability, there is little serious desire to replace the U.S. nuclear umbrella with a homegrown nuclear option.

Indeed, the discussions themselves may have been aimed in part at shoring up the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence. Rather than relying on nuclear weapons, Japan’s security policy seems more geared toward strengthening cooperation with the United States while shoring up global nonproliferation efforts.

North Korea’s nuclear test certainly shocked the Japanese public. Just after the test, an Asahi Shimbun poll found that 82 percent of the respondents were “concerned.” Some 44 percent of those polled felt a “strong threat” from North Korea, and 38 percent felt “some level of threat.” It seems, however, that such concerns were neither deep nor sustained. The Japanese public in general did not demonstrate active interest in taking any specific measures, such as establishing underground shelters. Rather the Japanese media focused primarily on the radioactive contamination risks the test might pose to Japan. Having recognized that such risk was almost nonexistent, the public interest on this issue faded away promptly.

After November 2006, the Japanese media’s coverage of North Korea focused more on Pyongyang’s decades-old abduction of Japanese citizens than concern over North Korea’s current nuclear weapon programs. There is a view among some experts that the Japanese public’s “sense of loathing” toward the Kim Jong Il regime may have overridden its perception of the threat emanating from North Korea’s missiles and nuclear-weapon programs.

The Japanese government also has been restrained in several regards in its response to the tests. First, although it imposed sanctions on North Korea, Tokyo appears to place a higher priority on the abductions matter. Following his 2006 inauguration, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly established within his cabinet an office to manage the abductions issue. Abe did not create an equivalent office to address Pyongyang’s nuclear or missile programs, despite his repeated statements that North Korea’s nuclear weapons presented the gravest threat to Japan, nor was any voice raised among the Japanese media in support of establishing such an office.

Second, Tokyo remains reluctant to negotiate with North Korea on ballistic missile development and deployment, although Japan is the country that should be most concerned about Pyongyang’s medium-range ballistic missile programs.

Third, despite North Korea’s nuclear testing and missile firings, Japan has not seriously discussed or received strong domestic pressure to increase the defense budget. The reduction of the government’s accumulated deficit, almost 150 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP), still remains one of Tokyo’s top priorities, and the defense budget remains at less than 1 percent of GDP. Each military service branch of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, for instance, has been forced to cut back on personnel and procurement.

Fourth, soon after North Korea’s nuclear test, Japanese officials discussed the need to enact new legislation to enable interdiction and inspection of North Korean ships with suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related cargoes on the high seas, but such discussion has faded. Similarly, Japanese officials also weighed procuring and deploying an offensive weapon system to take out North Korea’s missile launching sites. This discussion has faded as well.

To be sure, Tokyo has speeded up deployment of proposed anti-missile systems, and a limited number of politicians and experts have argued in favor of Japan pursuing a nuclear option. It is difficult, however, to find convincing evidence that the Japanese public feels so gravely threatened by North Korea’s nuclear program that they want to take concrete action as a response. Most Japanese regard foreign countries’ concerns about Japan’s nuclear future as exaggerated. In fact, the Japanese media rarely conducts any extensive or serious discussion about Japan’s nuclear weapons capability or what might constitute Tokyo’s nuclear doctrine if it were to pursue such an option.

Changing Regional Security Environment

Speculation that Japan might pursue nuclear weapons surfaced first in the aftermath of China’s initial nuclear tests in the 1960s and then during the North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993-1994, as well as at the time of the international negotiations over the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) both in the 1970s and in 1994-1995. With the 2006 North Korean test, those concerns have been renewed, especially in the United States and a few Asian countries. Some countries fear North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons might lead to a potential tsunami of nuclear proliferation in Asia that would engulf Japan and force it to shift its position on nuclear armament.

This overstates the influence of North Korea on the thinking of Japanese defense authorities. Although North Korea’s WMD programs certainly represent one of the gravest threats to Japan’s national security, the North Korean challenge is not necessarily regarded as the sole determinant factor shaping Japan’s national security strategy.

 Other problems Tokyo is concerned about include:

• The increasing capabilities of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), particularly its ballistic missiles capabilities that can strike targets in Japan;

• The activities of the PLA Navy (PLAN) that have been conducted in a manner inconsistent with the Law of the Sea treaty, occasionally even violating this pact;

• The uncertain future of a reviving Russia;

• Ongoing territorial disputes with China, Russia, South Korea, and Taiwan;

• Nontraditional security threats, including natural disasters, infectious diseases, man-made accidents, and terrorism; and

• Japan’s perceived vulnerability to an energy supply cutoff because it depends heavily on oil from the Middle East.

Indeed, there is even a widespread view among Japanese security experts that North Korea’s provocations provide Japan with legitimate cover to advance its defense posture and capability in order to meet these threats and uncertainties, especially those related to China.

As it weighs the North Korea threat, Japan also has to place equal if not greater value on strengthening its bilateral alliance with the United States. Perhaps even more importantly, Tokyo today aspires to enhance its diplomatic standing in the world in order to balance against China’s rising political influence. To do so, Japan is seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and trying to foster regional integration and institutionalization in Asia, with the aim of shaping rather than reacting to the global and regional security environment.

The changing geopolitical landscape in Asia is prompting Japan to resort to a new diplomatic principle of “value-oriented diplomacy,” emphasizing the adoption of universal values and disciplines as major diplomatic instruments, such as democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy.

Japan is currently embarking on a new major diplomatic initiative to build an “arc of freedom and prosperity” around the outer rim of the Eurasian continent through diplomacy that emphasizes values.[1] Tokyo decision-makers regard Japan’s international reputation as an asset the country has nurtured since the end of World War II. They regard it as too valuable to throw away simply for the sake of establishing its own nuclear deterrent against North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

Debating Japan’s Nuclear Option

To be sure, since North Korea expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in December 2002, there has been some open debate in Japan about whether to acquire nuclear weapons. This discussion has been fairly marginal, however, and included several consistent characteristics.

First, a limited number of conservative politicians have for decades argued for a vision of Japan with an independent military capability.

Second, it still remains very difficult and controversial for many Japanese politicians to advocate nuclear weapons. Careless comments by Cabinet members on this matter can trigger a huge controversy. For example, Shoichi Nakagawa, chairman of the Policy Research Council of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), made public remarks on Japan’s nuclear option repeatedly after North Korea’s nuclear test, which made world headlines. He continued to repeat this remark despite strong pressures from the other LDP leaders to retract his comments. Even he, however, did not go beyond saying that Japan needed open discussions on its nuclear option.

Third, as noted, a majority of the Japanese public does not yet seem to perceive neighboring countries’ nuclear weapons as an issue of the highest priority. In fact, the presence of nuclear weapons on the neighboring continent is nothing new to Japan. Since the 1960s, Japan has learned to “peacefully” co-exist with Chinese nuclear weapons. (In a sense, this may be a reflection of the public’s tacit confidence in the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence.)

Fourth, it is no longer taboo to discuss nuclear strategy and the hypothetical possibility that Japan could require such weapons. Although a nuclear option is still unacceptable to the general public, there is recognition that such an option should be discussed openly. Within the national security community, experts are raising voices to call for pragmatic debate on Japan’s nuclear option, but no one dares to take the lead in such a discussion because the issue is still relatively sensitive. Leading this kind of discussion could negatively affect the government’s funding of an individual researcher’s work.

Overall, a majority of the Japanese public does not support the possession of nuclear weapons, at least so far, and there is only limited support for even examining whether Japan’s nuclear weapons would contribute to strengthening deterrence against any adversary and whether Japan would actually be able to develop nuclear weapons if it should decide to do so.

The Utility of Japan’s Nuclear Armament

Technically, experts have long contended that Japan possesses the basic capabilities to produce crude nuclear weapons. Indeed, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said last fall that “Japan is capable of producing nuclear weapons.” But he added, “We are not saying we have plans to possess nuclear weapons.”

Japan has nuclear fuel-cycle programs that produce reactor-grade plutonium, although in the form of mixed-oxide fuel, for civilian purposes. Japan also has the M-V and H2-A rockets, which have potential intercontinental capabilities.

Japan has not yet established the warhead control technology necessary for operational missiles. In addition, Japan does not have the basic infrastructure that would be essential for nuclear weaponry, including a nuclear doctrine, a stringent legal framework to protect classified information, a unified command and control system, or a unified intelligence system.

Moreover, Japan’s use of any nuclear material has been strictly regulated by bilateral and international treaties. It is illegal for Japan to use its plutonium for weapons purposes without the consent of its treaty counterparts, unless Japan dare follow the brinksmanship strategy of North Korea. Even the proponents of Japan’s nuclear armament acknowledge that Japan would not be able to develop nuclear weapons without the approval and cooperation from other countries, most importantly the United States, because of Japan’s obligations under bilateral treaties to use imported nuclear materials, equipment, facilities, and technologies for peaceful purposes.

Furthermore, Japan’s scientific and academic communities still remain within the pacifist tradition despite the general trend toward Japan becoming a more “normal country.” It would take enormous effort to establish a working relationship between these communities and the national security community. This would invariably make it difficult to mobilize resources essential for the construction of any sophisticated nuclear weapon.

Additionally, under Japan’s democratic government, selecting the location of nuclear weapons facilities could prove a painstaking process. Over the past decades, for instance, the selection of a location for a radioactive-waste storage site has faced strong opposition from local communities nationwide.

The Japanese government has quietly re-examined its nuclear option several times, most poignantly in the 1960s when China conducted its first nuclear test. All such examinations have reached the same conclusion: Japan’s possession of its own nuclear arsenal had little strategic merit. These studies have determined that a nuclear Japan could motivate a number of other countries to pursue nuclear development, and Japan could not secure a location to store nuclear weapons safely given its geographic limitations. Even the option to base nuclear weapons on submarines could not be completed before a decade and would require an enormous amount of investment, a challenge given Japan’s current budget deficit.

Furthermore, Japan believes that the credibility of the international nonproliferation regimes is still intact. These regimes are certainly imperfect, but Japan believes they have established legitimacy in the international community. As a result, Japan has intensified its efforts to strengthen these regimes by complementing them with various national, bilateral, and multilateral measures. Japan assesses that the relative costs associated with noncompliance with the treaties outweigh and should continue to outweigh the relative costs associated with observing the regimes.

Lastly, most of the pragmatic thinkers who support examining, though not necessarily pursuing, Japan’s nuclear option favor a strong Japanese-U.S. alliance. For example, former Japanese ambassador to Thailand, Hisahiko Okazaki, one of Japan’s most prominent strategic thinkers, argues that Japan’s nuclear armament should proceed in tandem with the strengthened bilateral alliance with the United States, while recognizing that the potential utility of Japan’s own nuclear weapons could be fairly marginal. In his view, the real utility of Japan’s discussion of a nuclear option may lie in its utility to indirectly press the United States to continue its nuclear commitment to protect Japan.[2]

Indeed, this also has been the line of thinking among some of Japan’s key strategic thinkers over the past decades. In the 1970s, Takuya Kubo, then bureau director of defense policy of Japan’s Defense Agency, wrote an article articulating Japan’s defense posture: “[I]f Japan prepares latent nuclear capability by which it would enable Japan to develop significant nuclear armament at anytime…the United States would hope to sustain [the] Japan-U.S. security system by providing [a] nuclear guarantee to Japan, because otherwise, the U.S. would be afraid of a rapid deterioration of the stability in…international relations triggered by nuclear proliferation.” [3] Even today, the authors have met several journalists and officials who have also expressed similar views, although privately.

Japan’s Deterrence Posture

Given those relative merits and demerits, Tokyo’s decision-makers have been pursuing another option as a response to North Korea’s nuclear testing, in contrast to the political rhetoric surrounding the nuclear option. These policymakers are determined to continue efforts to strengthen deterrence on multiple fronts by further institutionalizing the bilateral alliance with the United States and by developing a comprehensive national security posture. In fact, over the past years, Japan has been developing a comprehensive national security strategy to cover and integrate a wide range of areas, including assurance, dissuasion, deterrence, denial, defense, and damage confinement as well as crisis management, in order to keep up with the changing security environment.

The strongest indirect supporter of these efforts has been North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Since the 1990s, Japan’s national security policy and the Japanese-U.S. alliance have consistently evolved every time when there was a crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

After the North Korean crisis in 1993-1994, Japan decided to redefine its roles and missions within the alliance, announced a Japan-U.S. Joint Declaration on Security in 1996, and created the new Japanese-U.S. defense guidelines in 1998. When North Korea launched the Taepo Dong missile over Japan that same year, Japan decided to embark on joint research into missile defenses with the United States. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the new North Korean crisis since 2002, Japan has strengthened its alliance with the United States by demonstrating its support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and for the reconstruction of postwar Iraq. In addition, in the aftermath of the October 2006 North Korean nuclear test, Japan has launched a new initiative to cooperate with NATO and other U.S. allies and friendly countries to tackle issues of global security jointly so that Japan will be regarded as a responsible global stakeholder.

Japan has also been steadily strengthening its deterrence capability, as defined by its “National Defence Program Guidelines (NDPG) for FY 2005 and After.” In contrast to the previous NDPG, which defined Japan’s national security almost solely in terms of Japan’s homeland defense, it has clearly introduced protecting the international security environment as an essential component that defines Japan’s national security. This document offers three approaches to achieve Japan’s national security: Japan’s own defense efforts, Japan’s cooperation with the United States, and Japan’s cooperation with the international community. The last element provides the basic rationale for Japan Self-Defense Forces actively to participate in operations abroad in coordination with the United States and the United Nations.

Traditionally, the Japanese-U.S. alliance has focused primarily on bilateral cooperation at a strategic level, that is, Japan’s reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, without any specific definition of the two militaries’ roles and missions and without any concrete joint military planning. The alliance was not really structured to deal effectively with security problems at tactical or theater levels. As Sugio Takahashi, senior fellow of the Japan National Institute of Defense Studies, argues, the current process of strengthening the bilateral alliance would enhance the credibility of deterrence by filling in the “blank spot” in the escalation ladder from the tactical and theater levels to the strategic level.

The strengthening of the Japanese-U.S. alliance has been implemented in tandem with a U.S. effort to forge an alliance network in the Asia-Pacific region consisting of multiple bilateral alliance systems. For example, U.S. allies and friendly countries have conducted regular multilateral joint exercises. The strengthened Japanese-U.S. alliance, supplemented by multilateral security dialogues, is expected to constitute an indispensable basis for constructing this dense alliance network in the Asia-Pacific region. It also is expected to serve as an essential confidence-building tool among Asian-Pacific nations to enhance the credibility of deterrence and even to enable adoption of coercive measures against hostile countries or WMD proliferators when inevitable. In addition, Japan has been striving to initiate cooperation with NATO with the intention of attaching a global horizon to its bilateral alliance with the United States.

Japan also is accelerating deployment of a two-tiered integrated missile defense system that consists of sea-based systems to be deployed on Aegis destroyers and a land-based Patriot system. After North Korea’s July 2006 missile launches and its October 2006 nuclear weapons test, the Japanese government has decided to shorten the system’s deployment schedule. The entire architecture of the missile defense system is scheduled to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2011. The Japanese government decided in early 2006 that the missile defense interceptor (the SM-3 missile) was already deployable because it had demonstrated a reasonable record of interceptions. The SM-3 missiles are scheduled to be introduced on Japan’s Aegis destroyers in this fiscal year. The infrastructure on the Aegis destroyers also has been improved in order to perform the missile defense mission.

The primary immediate objective of the anti-missile system is to defeat incoming medium-range ballistic missiles, particularly North Korea’s Nodong missiles. Japanese defense officials have demonstrated increasing confidence in the system’s ability to intercept medium-range ballistic missiles, a capability that is improving steadily. There is an emerging view among Japanese defense officials that as Japan increases the number of deployed interceptors in the coming years, the system could be expected theoretically to negate an adversary’s missiles, such as North Korea’s Nodong missiles, by outpacing their speed of deployment. Whether this will occur depends on the resources available for Japan’s anti-missile system versus that of its adversary.

Simultaneously, the missile defense system is expected to complicate an adversary’s strategic calculation about the probability of a successful attack on Japanese targets, thereby creating uncertainty regarding the relative merits of launching such a missile toward Japan. This would further strengthen deterrence.

The current plan is to have Japan’s system operate autonomously, independent from the U.S. system against longer-range missiles. As such, it remains unclear to what extent the Japanese government’s and the U.S. government’s command and control systems will be integrated when these systems are deployed or what level of interoperability can be achieved between the two militaries. Additionally, it is unclear whether Japan can legally intercept any long-range ballistic missiles heading toward the United States because doing so could violate the Japanese government’s interpretation of its constitution, which prohibits itself from engagement in the act of collective self-defense. Abe has launched a commission to examine these issues.

Japan’s Strategic Push

In addition to the above efforts, Japanese officials would like more detailed discussions with their U.S. counterparts on U.S. nuclear doctrine and strategy, including its operational details, as an additional measure to sustain the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence. There have been few bilateral discussions on such matters so far. Although Japan must establish stringent mechanisms for information protection before discussing such sensitive matters with the United States, once it does so, the Japanese government may want to have a regularized bilateral mechanism to discuss the strategic details, somewhat similar to the institutional framework of the Nuclear Planning Group of NATO.

In fact, Japanese government officials and experts have recently been discussing the possibility of establishing a Japan-U.S. Nuclear Planning Group. As Michael Green, former senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council in the Bush administration, has said, Tokyo may want to have “some control of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.”

Certainly, Japanese security experts and officials have expressed frustration over the ambiguous nature of U.S. declaratory policy about its nuclear umbrella. There is an emerging view in Japan that it should ask for a more explicit statement of policy from the U.S. government, for example, by revising the bilateral defense guidelines to state that the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapons if Japan were to be attacked by an adversary’s nuclear weapon. Indeed, as they manage the alliance, U.S. policymakers would be well advised to consider how to manage Japan’s increasing aspiration to be consulted in the formation of the U.S. nuclear posture and to participate in the operation of U.S. extended deterrence. This should capture more attention than worries that Japan will pursue a nuclear weapons option.


As noted, Japan’s domestic reaction to North Korea’s nuclear test has been much more restrained than predicted by some foreign experts, particularly in the United States. Similar predictions followed China’s nuclear tests in the 1960s and the North Korea nuclear crisis of 1992-1994. Then, as now, these predictions have proven ill founded.

It is difficult to find in Japan any major public leader who strongly advocates Japan’s pursuit of its own nuclear option or who questions the credibility of U.S. nuclear deterrence. Shifts in Japan’s regional security environment and strategic culture from pacifism to realism in recent years have ended the taboo on discussing publicly the hypothetical possibility that Japan might pursue a nuclear option. After North Korea’s October 2006 nuclear test, Japanese media highlighted remarks by a limited number of Japanese politicians, including Cabinet members, who argued in favor of a public discussion about Japan’s nuclear option. Others countered that such a discussion could invoke regional concerns about Japan’s nuclear intentions. Tokyo’s decision-makers are concerned that such a discussion might undermine the trust it has fostered with its neighbors since the end of World War II. These political leaders deem retaining this trust to be of greater value to Japan than developing a nuclear deterrent against North Korea.

Thus, the consensus in Japan today favors continued reliance on the Japanese-U.S. alliance, the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and missile defense to negate North Korea’s nuclear capability. Of course, the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence is key here. Certainly, Japanese political leaders and strategic planners aspire to secure the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence. In the minds of Japanese political leaders and strategic planners, the answer to this challenge is not whether to pursue Japan’s nuclear option, but rather how to secure some control or participation in the process of shaping and sustaining U.S. extended deterrence. The focus is to examine what type of bilateral mechanism may be appropriate to conduct regularized dialogue with the United States on nuclear strategy issues, whether in official or unofficial channels, and what agenda Japan may want to discuss as well as what type of information the United States may want to share with Japan under what conditions. In a way, Japan and the United States now have a unique opportunity to shape each other’s priorities in the realm of nuclear strategic affairs.

Hajime Izumi is a professor at the University of Shizuoka in Shizuoka, Japan. Katsuhisa Furukawa is a research fellow at the Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society at the Japan Science and Technology Agency in Tokyo.


1. Taro Aso, “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity: Japan’s Expanding Diplomatic Horizons,” Speech at the Japan Institute of International Affairs Seminar, November 30, 2006, Tokyo.

2. Hisahiko Okazaki, “Time to Consider a Nuclear Strategy for Japan,” Daily Yomiuri, April 8, 2007.

3. Takuya Kubo, “Boueiryoku Seibi no Kangaekata [A framework to consider the arrangement of Japan’s defense capabilities],” February 20, 1971, found at http://www.ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp/~worldjpn/documents/texts/JPSC/19710220.O1J.html (in Japanese).

Crossing the Threshold: The Untold Nuclear Dimension of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and Its Contemporary Lessons

Avner Cohen

Forty years ago, war dramatically transformed the Middle East. Six memorable days, known by Israelis as the Six-Day War and by Arabs and others as the 1967 War, redrew the landscape of the Arab-Israeli conflict in fundamental ways. In those six days, Israel defeated three Arab armies, gained territory three times its original size, and became the dominant military power in the region. From a nation that perceived itself as fighting for its own survival, Israel became an occupier.

In recent years, new historical research has taught us more about the war and its profound impact on the psyche of Israelis and Arabs alike.[1] Yet, one important aspect of the war and the crisis that preceded it has remained obscure and largely untold: the nuclear dimension of the war. On this issue, both sides still seem to bond together by layers of taboo, silence, and secrecy.

Some bits and pieces of additional historical information have emerged in recent years that permit a more comprehensive and daring reconstruction of the nuclear aspect of the 1967 war, at least on the Israeli side. This new evidence indicates that prior to that war, Israeli leaders were still unsure about their ultimate goals for the program and deeply concerned about world reaction if they were to move forward. The May 1967 crisis, however, also was a critical turning point in Israel’s nuclear history. It was then, in a crash and improvised initiative, that Israel assembled nuclear devices to be ready for the unthinkable.

This narrative not only allows us to understand the past better, but also it may suggest insights into the dynamics of nuclear proliferation, including possible implications for Iran’s nuclear program. It is likely that Iran today, like Israel before the 1967 war, has taken important technological steps toward a nuclear weapons capability but has delayed making the essential political decision to move forward with such arms. Creative diplomacy may still be able to prevent Tehran from going nuclear.

In the year prior to the 1967 war, Israel was moving fast toward wrapping up separate research and development efforts on fissile material production and weapons design and nearing a complete nuclear option. This convergence brought the Israeli nuclear project to a major junction that required a new set of political decisions. For all previous nuclear proliferators, this phase had ended with a full-yield nuclear test. Such a test not only demonstrated technical capability but also indicated that the state has made a nuclear commitment; testing was a membership claim to the nuclear club, a way to acknowledge the state’s new international status and remove political ambiguity.

Israel was in a position to conduct a full-yield nuclear test in the second half of 1966, had its leaders so chosen. Had Israel conducted a test that year, even a so-called peaceful nuclear explosion, it could have declared itself the world’s sixth nuclear state, and subsequently, it could have joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a declared nuclear-weapon state. As a matter of international law, there was nothing illegal about following that path; China and France had just tested a few years earlier. Israel’s strategic situation and unique relationship with the United States, however, made it fundamentally different from previous proliferators. Because of these considerations, Israel’s political leadership was profoundly hesitant about the degree of its nuclear intentions and commitment.

One thing was clear: Prime Minister Levi Eshkol ruled out conducting a nuclear test on political grounds. “Do you think that the world would congratulate us for our achievement?” Eshkol used to ask sarcastically of those people around him who entertained the idea of a test. He had good reasons to reject a test outright.

First, Eshkol knew that a nuclear test would be a blatant violation of Israel’s “nonintroduction” commitment, the pledge that Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. This formula had been used orally in 1962 by Israel’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion, and then a year later by Deputy Minister of Defense Shimon Peres, who used it in a response to a query from President John F. Kennedy. Eshkol, in a memorandum of understanding he signed with the United States in March 1965, made it a key pillar in U.S.-Israeli security relations. Israel left the exact meaning of “nuclear introduction” vague, and the United States did not press then for clarifications; but in those days, nonintroduction meant, at the minimum, nontesting, nonpossession, and nonproduction of nuclear weapons.[2]

In addition, Eshkol was aware that the superpowers were leading negotiations on a global treaty aimed at preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Conducting a nuclear test would not only be a catastrophe for U.S.-Israeli bilateral relations, relations that Eshkol had invested so much political capital to cultivate, but also an act of defiance against the entire world community.

Furthermore, the nonintroduction pledge meant more than a pledge to the United States. It reflected an Israeli consensus on the nation’s nuclear program. In the eyes of Eshkol’s closest political allies, in particular Ministers Yisrael Galili and Yigal Allon, both of whom had strong views on the nuclear issue, the nonintroduction pledge was not viewed as a concession to the United States but a genuine Israeli strategic interest, that Israel’s own ultimate interest lay in opposing the introduction of nuclear weapons to the Middle East. They thought that Israel should keep ahead of the Arab countries in nuclear research but should avoid initiating any move that would nuclearize the region.

Then, of course, there was the Egyptian factor. Eshkol knew that an Israeli test would be disastrous from a regional point of view. It would surely bring to an end all the friendly probes he was trying to initiate to the Arab world. In fact, it could well provoke Egypt into an all-out war, as Egyptian leader and Arab nationalist Gamal Abdul Nasser had publicly threatened in early 1966 and as many Israelis feared.

Putting the test issue aside, Israel needed to figure out its response to a set of complicated issues involving the future of its nuclear project:

• What should be the strategic role of the nation’s nuclear option for the post-research and development period? What should be Israel’s real desire: to possess nuclear weapons secretly or to obtain the political assets that nuclear weapons could buy?

• Could the nuclear program be used as a bargaining chip in a larger political deal, either with the United States or Egypt? Should Israel pursue such a bargain?

• What does Israel actually mean when it commits itself to nonintroduction of nuclear weapons? Was this a genuine Israeli interest or just a convenient formula to deflect U.S. pressure?

• How should Israel operationalize its nuclear option? Should it include weaponization and deployment?

• Should Israel move the Dimona nuclear infrastructure to a mode of production? Would that be compatible with the declaratory stance of nonintroduction?

• What should be the future of the missile project?

In 1966-1967, Israel had no clear-cut answers to these questions. Ben-Gurion had left those long-term issues unsettled for years, even untouched; now the project was approaching the threshold point, and they had to be addressed. The challenge was to find the right balance between the two opposite horns of the state’s nuclear dilemma, between technological resolve and political caution. In a way, it was a moment of truth for the national nuclear project.

Of course, the project’s leaders pushed for moving forward. For them, it was almost inconceivable to bring the project to a pause at such a critical junction. The very ethos of the project, as they understood it, was that the nuclear option meant an operational capability available for the existential moment of last resort. Freezing the program in a nondeployable mode was unthinkable. Israel must retain a real nuclear option, not something virtual and amorphous.

New historical evidence suggests that Eshkol and some of his political and military associates saw things differently. While Eshkol generally did not intervene in the project’s development work, there are indications that he was cautious, hesitant, and even ambivalent about its future. During 1965-1967, Eshkol, along with the leadership of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), increasingly worried about the potential Egyptian reaction to the completion of the Dimona complex, especially if the Egyptians concluded that Israel was indeed getting the bomb. Israel was especially concerned about a scenario of an Egyptian surprise aerial attack on the facilities. In “Eshkol, Give the Order!,” a new study based on exclusive IDF archival material, Israeli historian Ami Gluska revealed how deeply engraved those concerns were among the IDF leadership.[3] Specifically, they were concerned that Dimona’s lack of international “legitimacy” would tempt Egypt to attack it while making it difficult for Israel to respond. In a top-level meeting in 1965, IDF Chief of Staff General Yitzhak Rabin expressed this very concern: “If Egypt bombs Dimona, and we want to wage a war, we could be issued an ultimatum from the entire world.”[4]

Although Nasser’s threats of “preventive war” were not perceived as practical in the eyes of Israeli senior intelligence officers, an attack aimed solely at Dimona was something else. It was viewed as a realistic threat.[5] In late 1966, Rabin cited concerns over a possible Egyptian attack on Dimona to explain why Israel should limit its military actions against Syria. “There is one vital object in the south,” Rabin reminded his colleagues, “which is an ideal object for a limited attack, and of which Egypt may have the support of the entire world.”[6]

Those concerns were most critical in shaping the fundamental Israeli perceptions and responses when Egypt massed troops on the Sinai peninsula in May 1967.[7] One could not understand the gravity with which Israel viewed this move without taking into account Israeli apprehensions that the Dimona nuclear complex may have been the motivation for the crisis and that Egypt was planning to attack it.[8] There were high-altitude reconnaissance flights over Dimona on May 17 and May 26 that the Israeli air force was unable to intercept, and those flights had dramatic effects on Israeli perceptions of the situation. [9] Indeed, Egypt may have been very close to launching an aerial attack on Dimona on May 26 or May 27, but it was called off by Nasser on a few hours’ notice.[10]

There are other indications of Israeli apprehensions on the nuclear issue. In the year and a half prior to the Six-Day War, Mossad Chief General Meir Amit promoted the establishment of a direct, secret channel with Egypt. It started as a humanitarian effort—releasing Israeli imprisoned spies—but Amit was pushing to turn the probe into a channel for diplomacy aimed at transforming relations between the two states. Although the nuclear issue was not the trigger that led to the Ikaros initiative (the Mossad code name for that probe) in 1966, there is little doubt that it was a stimulating factor in Amit’s overall interest. By 1966, Amit knew that Israel was fast approaching the nuclear threshold and understood the grave implications of a nuclearized Middle East. He was troubled that the advent of Israel’s nuclear capability could lead potentially to war or to the Soviet Union enfolding Egypt in its nuclear umbrella.

Amit recognized that the period from 1966 to 1968 was a critical time, perhaps the last chance for Israel to reach out to Egyptian leaders on the nuclear issue before the situation became irreversible. The Ikaros initiative could have been put to the test when Amit was invited for a secret visit to Cairo, including a possible meeting with Nasser, but the Eshkol government was afraid to take the risk. Amit continued with efforts to keep Ikaros alive until the 1967 war but without much success.[11]

Another indication of Israel’s nervousness on the nuclear issue came from a different direction. In December 1966, a major industrial accident occurred in one of the “hottest” areas in the Dimona complex. An employee was killed, and a sensitive working area was contaminated. It took weeks of cleanup to decontaminate the area. The accident left Israel’s nuclear chiefs shaken, including Eshkol. Three months later, in a cable to Washington, U.S. Ambassador Walworth Barbour reported that he never saw Eshkol so uncertain about the future of the nuclear project, suggesting that it was time for innovative diplomacy on the nuclear issue. In correspondence in March 1967, Barbour dismissed U.S. intelligence reports that asserted Israel was only weeks from the bomb and noted that Dimona was “not running at full blast.”[12]

The final evidence is extracted from an interview I conducted in 1996 with Dr. Floyd Culler, the team leader of most of the U.S. annual visits at Dimona in the mid- to late 1960s. In that interview, Culler revealed that, at the end of his last visit at Dimona in April 1967, Professor Amos de-Shalit, the official Israeli host, took him aside to raise with him some “nonconventional” ideas how to prevent nuclearization in the Middle East. Culler refused to tell me what exactly those ideas were but noted that he wrote a special report on the topic to the Department of State. De-Shalit presented his ideas as “private,” but Culler took it as if de-Shalit had launched a balloon trial on behalf of Eshkol.[13]

The general picture from the bits and pieces of evidence is that Israel was quickly reaching the threshold point, but its political leadership was still unsure whether doing so would really serve its true interests. I believe Eshkol was open to political solutions that would have allowed him not to do so.

Then came the crisis of May 1967, which dramatically changed the nuclear situation in the Middle East. As the likelihood of war intensified and some Israelis contemplated the need to have temporary burial sites for thousands, even tens of thousands, of Israeli causalities in case of an Egyptian attack, Israel did something it never had done previously. Israeli teams assembled virtually all the components, including the handful of nuclear cores it had, into improvised but operational explosive devices. Preliminary contingency plans were even drawn up for how such improvised devices could be used in a manner that would demonstrate nuclear capability short of a military use. An unpopulated site was even chosen. The idea behind it was highly indicative of Israel’s anxious state of mind in those days of May and June 1967. If all else failed and Israel’s national existence would be in peril, the state would still have its doomsday capability.

Given that the capability was real, there was an inevitable need to contemplate the circumstances under which it could be used or, more accurately, the circumstances under which decision makers would be willing to consider using it. Clearly, such contingencies were incompatible with IDF plans for war that were based on aerial preemption followed by an Israeli armor attack deep into the Sinai. Efforts to rationalize atomic use illustrated the eeriness involved in thinking about the unthinkable. They involved doomsday scenarios of a colossal failure of the IDF and a decisive strategic surprise by Egypt, say, massive use of missiles tipped with chemical warheads against Israeli cities.

As far as can be determined, these improvised activities were not a response to any specific political or military request that came from the top, surely not in a response to any specific operational need. These steps were taken because it would have been inconceivable not to take them. The nuclear project was at a historical junction, and it was simply unthinkable for its leaders that, at such a national dire moment, when Israel was facing existential threats, they would sit idle and do nothing. If the capability could be made available, it must be made available.

In the minds of the project’s leaders, the actual assembly of all the components into one system was momentous because it signified that Israel had became a nuclear power.[14] From their perspective, it was also an irreversible moment. They could not conceive a future Israeli prime minister who would give up this capability for any political assets, except perhaps a real peace. Indeed, while Eshkol may have kept open the option to sign the NPT until mid-1968, he never did do. His successor, Prime Minister Golda Meir, ultimately decided not to join the treaty and Israel’s retention of these weapons was firmly established.[15]

The Israeli nuclear situation in 1966-1967 is intriguing because of the apparent tension between technology and politics, between technical capability and political commitment. Judging by technology, Israel was reaching the nuclear threshold and appeared to have made a commitment to possess nuclear weapons.

Yet, this was not the case. Politically, Israel in 1966-1967 was still far from making a firm political commitment to nuclear weapons, let alone on nuclear strategy. Not only was Eshkol reluctant to take the nuclear plunge, but he was apparently leaning to keep the option open yet not necessarily to go beyond it. At that time, Eshkol probably thought that the country would eventually sign the NPT and position itself on the non-nuclear side of the threshold rather than on the nuclear side. Israel was ambivalent, hesitant, and sitting on the fence on the nuclear issue; the Israeli nuclear case was still undetermined. I would even make the counterfactual suggestion that had the 1967 war not broken, and the NPT had been presented for signature in that year and not a year later, Israel would have signed the NPT and opted for a substantial nuclear infrastructure, including nuclear power, but not pursued actual nuclear weapons. Technology is important and provides options to policymakers, but in itself, it does not determine the course of action.

This account is at odds with the realist picture of the dynamics of nuclear proliferation. Realists often refer to Israel as the purest case of nuclear proliferation, a case of a state determined to go nuclear because of security reasons, a case where soft issues such as prestige, domestic, or bureaucratic politics play a very limited role. The realist picture tends to view the state in deterministic and monolithic terms.

As the Israeli case shows, this realist picture is no more than a poor caricature of the real world of nuclear proliferation. The reality of nuclear proliferation is inherently fluid, tentative, fuzzy, and ultimately undeterministic in its nature. Key proliferation decisions are never solid commitments. It takes states many years, often a decade and longer, to establish full nuclear weapons capability. Given the time frame and complexity of the proliferation reality, decisions tend to be tentative, hesitant, and reversible.

Moreover, states can even complete the research and development phase without forming such clarity, as the Israeli case in 1966-1967 illustrates. By that time, Israel still had no clue how far it would be able to go, how far the world would allow it to go, or how far it would like to go for its own sake. After Israel crossed the nuclear threshold, however, after the dramatic events in late May 1967, the situation changed. At that point, it became much more difficult, perhaps close to impossible, for Israel to roll back what it had achieved.

I would dare to suggest that these historical lessons may be of some relevance even when we consider the current Iranian nuclear situation. It would be a mistake to think about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as irreversible.

One can reasonably make the case that Iran’s nuclear project today is at a similar juncture to Israel in 1963-1964 as it started to operate the Dimona reactor. Iran is commonly believed to be two to three years away from the ability to produce weapons-grade fissile material on an industrial scale, a threshold that Israel crossed sometime in 1966. If Israel in a world without the NPT and without political and economic sanctions was hesitant about its nuclear future, Iran today should be viewed with an even stronger sense of uncertainty and indeterminism.

Notwithstanding the obvious domestic differences between Israeli democracy and Iranian theocracy, Iran’s governing system is more similar to Israel than Iraq was under Saddam Hussein in terms if its national decision-making process. In Iran, significant decisions cannot be made by a sheer dictate without some degree of public support or without considerable consensus within the national elite.[16] Although there is a great and visible popular support in Iran for the notion that it has the right to full industrial enrichment, there is no public support for producing nuclear weapons, nor for leaving the NPT. Furthermore, hurtful sanctions could make more Iranians realize that they would pay a price for defying world opinion on the nuclear issue.

Nothing is inevitable at this point about the Iranian bomb, and it would be a grave mistake to perceive it as such. At the same time, the West must be resolute not to allow Iran to establish “facts on the ground” as a perceived negotiating tactic for, as the Israeli case shows, once established, such capabilities are difficult if not impossible to reverse.

Avner Cohen is a senior research scholar with the Center of Security and International Studies at the University of Maryland and author of Israel and the Bomb (1998), from which some of the material in this article is derived. His new book, Israel’s Last Taboo, will be published in 2008 by Columbia University Press.


1. Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Tom Segev, 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 2007).

2. Indeed, in his speech in the Knesset in May 1966, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol confirmed that interpretation when he stated plainly that Israel had no nuclear weapons.

3. Ami Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order! (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense, 2004) (in Hebrew).

4. Ibid., p. 71. IDF Chief of Staff General Yitzhak Rabin’s statement sounds off-course to contemporary readers, but it reveals how Israelis thought about the nuclear project in those days. Ironically, Israel took the initiative 16 years later and attacked the Iraqi Osiraq reactor, which was under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

5. There was even some vague concern as to possible Soviet reaction to the discovery that Israel was approaching the nuclear threshold. In retrospect, it appears that Israel should have been even more concerned about Soviet reaction to Dimona. In a new book, Israeli researchers Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez make a circumstantial case that the Soviets instigated the false reports that led to the Six-Day War as part of a larger plot aimed at Israel’s nuclear program. Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, Foxbats Over Dimona (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

6. Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, p. 71.

7. Ibid., pp. 70-71, 73, 225, 227-230, 234, 244, 245, 250-251, 253, and 285.

8. Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, pp. 300-301 and 495, n. 17. In Foxbats Over Dimona, Ginor and Remez make a claim that those reconnaissance flights were made by Soviet MiG-25s (Foxbats) flown by Soviet pilots.

9. Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, pp. 227-230, 300-303, and 495, n. 17. The second flight, on May 26, was reported to Israeli decision makers as they were attending a special cabinet meeting. During a consultation between Eshkol and Rabin, following the first report, Rabin told Eshkol that Israeli intelligence intercepted “a strange and worrisome transmission indicating possible coordination between interceptors and bombers.” The high-altitude flight was initially interpreted as a possible prelude to a full aerial attack on Dimona. Decades later, a participant in that cabinet meeting revealed the sense of shock among the ministers when they were notified that “a squadron” of Egyptian aircraft was flying over Dimona.

10. Egyptian Chief of Staff General Muhammad Fawzi alluded to an Egyptian aerial attack in his memoirs. See William B. Quandt, Peace Process (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993), p. 512, n. 38; Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, pp. 288-289 and 492-493, nn. 51-52.

11. Meir Amit, Head to Head: A Personal View of Great Events and Clandestine Operations (Or Yehuda: Hed Artzi, 2000) (in Hebrew); Ronen Bergmann, “Peace, Try After: How Peace Was Missed on the Eve of the Six Day War,” Yediot Achronot, June 6, 2005 (interview with Meir Amit).

12. Walworth Barbour letter to Rodger Davies, March 9, 1967, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-68, Vol. XVIII, p. 391.

13. Floyd Culler, interviews and correspondence with author, May-June 1996. Culler declined in 1996 to specify the details of the de-Shalit message but suggested that I talk to him again a few years later. Culler died in late 2004.

14. One of them recalls, as he told me decades later, that he proposed after the war to seize the moment and to conduct a test with one of those cores. His proposal was never seriously considered. “It was a total taboo to them,” he recalled years later. It shows the strength of nuclear caution at the political level, but one can only speculate the outcome had that proposal been accepted.

15. Avner Cohen and William Burr, “Israel Crosses the Threshold,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 62, No. 3 (May/June 2006), pp. 22-30.

16. Michael Herzog, “Iranian Public Opinion on the Nuclear Program: A Potential Asset for the International Community,” Policy Focus, No. 56 (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2006).

Forty years ago, war dramatically transformed the Middle East. Six memorable days, known by Israelis as the Six-Day War and by Arabs and others as the 1967 War, redrew the landscape of the Arab-Israeli conflict in fundamental ways. In those six days, Israel defeated three Arab armies, gained territory three times its original size, and became the dominant military power in the region. From a nation that perceived itself as fighting for its own survival, Israel became an occupier. (Continue)

The Proliferation Security Initiative: A Glass Half-Full

Mark J. Valencia

As we approach the fourth anniversary of President George W. Bush’s May 31, 2003, launch of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), it is appropriate and fair to compare rhetoric with reality, assess the effort’s effectiveness, and attempt to divine the way forward. The PSI was announced with considerable fanfare in Krakow, Poland, as an activity designed to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), their delivery systems, and related materials from entering or leaving states “of proliferation concern.”

The focus was to be on interdiction because of the fear of rapid growth in states and groups pursuing WMD programs, worries of an expanding nexus between weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, and gaps in the existing nonproliferation architecture.[1] It was thought that interdiction could fill the gaps by ensuring commitments are kept and by stopping proliferation-related exports from states whose activities fall outside existing source-based nonproliferation regimes. At the least, it was assumed that it would deter suppliers and customers and make proliferation more costly and difficult. Although interdiction was not novel to the PSI, the focus on this tool elevated consideration of its use at borders, in ports, in the air, and at sea. 

The Bush administration clearly had high hopes and expectations for the PSI. On the first anniversary of its initiation, John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, proclaimed that the PSI would evolve to the point where it “will have shut down the ability of persons, companies, or other entities to engage in this deadly trade.”[2] He claimed that the PSI was “succeeding because it is based on practical actions that make maximum use of each country’s strengths to counter proliferation. The partnerships being forged, the contacts being established, the operational readiness being enhanced through [the] PSI are all helping to create a lasting basis for co-operative action against proliferation.” The administration made the PSI a key foreign policy and defense goal in 2005, and Congress approved $50 million to help states support the initiative.[3]

On the PSI’s second anniversary, in May 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed that the United States and its PSI partners had undertaken 11 successful intercepts since its inception, including the prevention of two WMD-related deliveries to North Korea as well as the transfer of ballistic missile-related and nuclear program-related materials to Iran.[4] A 12th successful PSI interdiction was subsequently announced, although the details of these interdictions were left vague. These claims of success were repeated by Robert Joseph, Bolton’s replacement, who subsequently increased the figure to “more than 30.”[5

A few weeks after the PSI’s third anniversary, representatives of 65 states met anonymously behind closed doors in Krakow to discuss its political, policy, and legal issues. The chairman of the conference, Polish Ambassador Tadeusz Chomicki, reiterated the claims of the PSI’s success, including providing a “platform” for impeding traffic in weapons of mass destruction and related materials, enhancing numerical and geographic support, and improving national capacities to interdict shipments of proliferation concern.[6] Detailed information to support these claims or even a list of countries attending the meeting were not made available. 

To be sure, the PSI and other U.S.-driven supportive efforts have improved the awareness of the danger and urgency of the problem. The focus on interdiction also has no doubt constrained some trade in weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems and related materials or at least forced rogue traders to change their tactics. PSI exercises have increased national capacities for coordinated detection and interdiction of suspect shipments. With the United States having successfully negotiated ship-boarding agreements with the countries whose flags fly on the bulk of the world’s ships, flag-state consent for boarding to search for weapons of mass destruction has become an expectation for and of many states (but not a legal obligation). Most importantly, the PSI has evolved and metamorphosed from a focus on interdiction of ships at sea to inspection in ports, to carriage of weapons of mass destruction by aircraft, and for the United States, to disruption of financial networks involved or supporting such trafficking.

However, much water has flowed under the stern since the PSI’s early heady days of full steam ahead. The PSI’s architects and principal champions, Bolton and Joseph, are no longer in the U.S. government. Moreover, the PSI has been criticized for lack of transparency and public accountability, stretching if not violating the principles of international law, impeding legal trade, weakening the UN system, being politically divisive, diluting other nonproliferation efforts, and for all these reasons, having limited effectiveness. 

Rhetoric Versus Reality 

Because PSI interdictions are cloaked in secrecy, an assessment of the PSI must rely on an examination of publicly available information regarding specific claims for the PSI made by the U.S. government and PSI advocates. In many cases, the reality does not appear to match the Bush administration’s rhetoric.

The Limits of Support

The Bush administration claims that nearly 80 countries support the PSI, but it is unclear what “support” means.[7] The “concrete steps” for contribution to the PSI listed on the Department of State’s website[8] are rather vague and conditional. First and foremost, participating states are encouraged to commit formally to and endorse publicly, if possible, the PSI’s Statement of Interdiction Principles. Follow-up steps are also replete with conditional language such as “indicate willingness,” “as appropriate,” “might contribute,” and “be willing to consider.”

Although the State Department has posted a list of some 81 nations that have participated in PSI meetings or exercises, it is not at all clear that “participation” equates with “support” as defined by the State Department. Indeed, apparently some participating states have not publicly (or even privately) endorsed the PSI Principles. Reasons given include not perceiving the PSI as a top security priority and wanting to avoid possible reprisals as well as domestic criticism for cooperating with the United States. This reluctance in itself indicates less than stalwart support. Further, given the flexibility of cooperation, many if not most of these 80 so-called supporters would not be obligated to interdict vessels or aircraft at the behest of the United States and might well decline doing so. Thus, in a pinch, such “support” could easily evaporate.

Weak Support in Asia

Although there is indeed a growing list of nations willing to associate themselves with different aspects of the PSI on a case-by-case basis, support in Asia, a major focus of proliferation concern, is weak. Despite considerable U.S. pressure to participate fully and publicly, key countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and South Korea remain outside the “coalition of the willing.” The cooperation of others, such as Japan and Russia, is lukewarm at best.

Unsupported Claims of Success

There is insufficient public information and no objective measure of PSI success or failure. Thus it is unclear how the much-touted 12 or even 30 PSI interdictions in three years compares to efforts prior to the initiative or if an increase in successful interdictions is due to an increase in proliferation activity. The reported interdictions could actually be considered a rather poor result compared to the Stanford Database estimate of an average of 65.5 nuclear trafficking incidents per year. Furthermore, the much-touted October 2003 interdiction of WMD-related materials bound for Libya was most likely not due to the PSI, contrary to assertions by some U.S. officials. Rather, it was the result of an unrelated effort to get Libya to abandon its ambition to possess weapons of mass destruction.[9]

Limited Support Under International Law

PSI critics contend that the United States should seek specific backing for the initiative under international law, but its supporters say several measures already provide such a legal foundation. They include UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1718, amendments to a relevant international maritime convention, a series of ship-boarding agreements, and the right to self-defense under the UN Charter.

Resolution 1540

In March 2004, the United States and the United Kingdom began an effort to obtain a UN Security Council resolution specifically authorizing states to interdict, board, and inspect any vessel or aircraft if there is reason to believe it is carrying weapons of mass destruction and/or their means of delivery. This was a difficult tacit admission by the United States that it needs a UN mandate to legitimize high-seas PSI interdictions. It was hoped that such a resolution would also prohibit UN member states from purchasing, receiving, assisting, or allowing the transfer of weapons of mass destruction from specified states.

The resolution that passed, Resolution 1540, was a much watered-down version of the original. For example, under a veto threat from China, the United States dropped a provision specifically authorizing the interdiction of vessels suspected of transporting weapons of mass destruction. China has questioned the efficiency and legality of the PSI as it involves interdictions, arguing that the best way to prevent WMD proliferation is through dialogue, not force.[10]

The resolution does not specifically mention the PSI and does little to strengthen its effectiveness against state-supported trafficking because it focuses on nonstate actors. Moreover, large gaps exist between obligations incurred under the resolution and the number of countries that have taken steps to meet those obligations, i.e., strengthening their domestic laws criminalizing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and enhancing their export and border controls.[11]

Finally, some states consider Resolution 1540 imbalanced because it does not address disarmament and it obliges governments to devote resources to problems they do not consider a high priority. In other words, they view Resolution 1540 as another example of U.S. hegemony and are therefore not likely to be robust in their application of it.

Resolution 1718

This resolution, drafted by the United States and Japan, prohibits the transfer to and from North Korea of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons; their means of delivery (ballistic missiles); and related materials. This language is very similar to that used in the principles guiding PSI implementation. The United States clearly wanted to conflate the PSI with Resolution 1718 and thereby legitimize it. The resolution does require all UN member states to prevent the transfer of such material to North Korea on their flag vessels or aircraft, in theory a boost for the PSI. For compliance with these requirements, however, it merely “calls upon” states to take cooperative action to prevent illicit trafficking in such materials. It does not require them to do so.

Moreover, it clearly states that measures must be taken under UN Charter Chapter VII, Article 41, which specifically does not authorize the use of armed force. Such use of armed force would probably be necessary if a country operating under the PSI tried to interdict and board a vessel that refused to stop. Thus, the use of force in such a situation could still be interpreted as an act of war. Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 conceded that the PSI “has holes in it,” including the lack of a legal basis for interdiction of vessels and aircraft and confiscation of their cargo on the high seas.[12]

China was again the main obstacle to a more robust resolution. At China’s and Russia’s insistence, the authority to use military force was dropped from the draft resolution as was the requirement to check all cargo bound to or from North Korea. Although China voted for the resolution, it immediately ruled out its participation in interdiction of vessels or aircraft on or over the high seas, saying that it was not required. South Korea also demurred. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and leading hawks in his administration support such interdictions on the high seas or in Japanese territorial waters, even though there are many inconvenient legal obstacles to Japan’s direct involvement. There have been several inspections of North Korean vessels in foreign ports under Security Resolution 1718, but there have been no reports of interdictions at sea.

Amendments to Maritime Convention

In October 2005, the International Maritime Organization approved U.S.-proposed and British-supported amendments to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation. The convention already obligates states-parties to incorporate into their domestic laws the offenses it identifies. The amendments broadened the covered offenses to include the use of a vessel as an instrument of or platform for terrorist activity; the transport of weapons of mass destruction and “any equipment, materials or software or related technology that significantly contribute to [WMD] design, manufacturing or delivery;”[13] and the transport of a person who has committed a terrorist act. Direct consent from the flag state is still required to board, inspect, or take any other action.

Moreover, there must be evidence of knowledge of intent that the material in question will be used for terrorism. Finally and most importantly, the convention and its amendments apply only to states-parties, and most states of proliferation concern are not states-parties. Moreover, few countries have yet taken legislative action to turn the amendments into domestic law.

Ship-boarding Agreements

Some argue that bilateral agreements between the United States and other states make interdiction and boarding of suspect vessels allowable under customary international law. The United States has entered into seven PSI ship-boarding agreements, with Belize, Croatia, Cyprus, Liberia, Malta, the Marshall Islands, and Panama. Together with PSI “core supporters,” these agreements cover perhaps 70 percent of the world’s commercial fleet by tonnage. The agreements use language from the PSI principles and make it easier for the United States to board and inspect vessels from these flag states reasonably suspected of transporting weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials. All the agreements respect flag-state consent for boarding on the high seas, although in four such agreements a lack of response by the flag state in two or four hours authorizes boarding and search for weapons of mass destruction.

Nevertheless, such interdiction, boarding, and search would not apply to flag states not party to these agreements. Freedom of the high seas and its corollary, the flag-state consent regime, remain fundamental principles of international law and cannot be overturned or eroded by the practice of a few countries over such a short period of time.

The UN Charter

A final legal argument for PSI interdictions relies on the right of self-defense in Article 51 of the UN Charter. Preemptive self-defense includes anticipatory self-defense and preventive self-defense.[14] For an action to be compatible with current international legal interpretations of anticipatory self-defense, the United States and its coalition partners would probably have to demonstrate not only that the interdicted cargo required such action because it posed a specific and imminent threat of attack on the United States or one of its allies but also that the necessity of self-defense was instant and overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no time for deliberation.[15] In other words, a response was necessary, proportional to the threat, and the threat was imminent.[16] Otherwise, such action and rationale would be greatly expanding the traditional definition of self-defense to include preventive self-defense regarding nonimminent threats and would set a dangerous precedent that could undermine the very foundations of the United Nations.

In fact, Article 51 provides the right of self-defense only in the case of an armed attack and only until the UN Security Council “has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”[17]

The PSI’s Limited Effectiveness

Reflecting the Bush administration’s philosophical disdain for the UN, the PSI was conceived, originated, and implemented outside the UN system. In reality, it remains a U.S.-initiated and ­ driven ad hoc activity designed primarily to deter trade in WMD components and “related materials” to and from North Korea and now Iran. It is far from clear that 12 successful interdictions in two years or even 30 in three years[18] mean that the PSI is effective. State and nonstate actors that want to avoid PSI interdictions can still transport WMD components on their own flag vessels or aircraft or on those of nonparticipating states, such as Cambodia. This is particularly applicable to warships and government ships operated for noncommercial purposes, which under Article 32 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea have immunity from other state’s jurisdiction.

 Moreover, countries that are key to an effective PSI, such as China, India, Indonesia, and South Korea, have not publicly joined the activity despite U.S. pressure to do so, and Japan and Russia seem to be rather reluctant participants. Some states feel that the United States is applying double standards[19] and are concerned by the lack of clarity in some PSI definitions, such as what determines which states are “of proliferation concern” and what constitutes “good cause” (for interdiction), as well as the obligations linked to these vague and subjective definitions.

 The secrecy surrounding PSI interdictions and the methods employed make it difficult to evaluate its effectiveness or its legitimacy and, more importantly, the garnering of support from countries suspicious of U.S.-driven endeavors. Some fear that the United States would like to change existing international law to allow PSI interdictions on or over the high seas or to erode the regimes of freedom of the high seas and innocent passage. Others were alarmed by Bolton’s argument that such interdictions are warranted by a right to preemptive self-defense. Indeed, they do not want to see the PSI lead to instability or the weakening of the international prohibition against the unilateral use of force outside the constraints of the UN Charter. Moreover, public support for the PSI by some countries would be a domestic public liability as it would make the government appear to be the handmaiden of the United States and reliant on U.S. intelligence. 

Because finding and interdicting suspected WMD-related cargo is so difficult, the PSI relies heavily on intelligence sharing. Unfortunately, U.S. intelligence failures have been all too common and are not new. The 1993 detention of the Chinese vessel Yinhe, which was suspected of carrying chemical warfare precursors to Iran, is a specific example of faulty intelligence resulting in an unjustified interdiction.[20]

Intelligence sharing has constraints both for the provider and the receiver. For the provider of intelligence, there will have to be a careful trade-off between providing sufficient intelligence to show “good cause” and protecting intelligence methods and sources.

For the receiver that is requested to interdict, it would have to decide if the WMD material in the hands of the intended recipient constitutes a threat significant enough to warrant action.[21] It would also want to know if the intended recipient has a legitimate civilian use for the material. Further, the intelligence will probably have to pass different thresholds regarding its ability to support a decision for interdiction.[22] These thresholds will likely vary between and even within nations and with the action intended (e.g., interdiction, boarding, inspection, diversion or seizure).

In sum, the United States is unlikely to trust all PSI participant nations equally with its intelligence, and given past U.S. intelligence failures, some countries may not be willing to act on skimpy or suspect intelligence.

As is often stated by its proponents, the PSI is an activity rather than an organization, and thus it lacks an independent budget or coordinating mechanism. Although these features may enhance its flexibility, as well as the speed of decision-making and resultant action, they also constrain its capacity. Moreover, placing such emphasis on interdictions may undermine other nonproliferation efforts. 

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to PSI effectiveness is the dual-use nature of WMD materials and technologies. Few if any countries export “turn-key” weapons of mass destruction. The harsh reality is that countries and nonstate actors can build their own weapons of mass destruction from items that have civilian application. This means that it is very difficult to make decisions regarding “good cause” for interdiction and that such decisions will inevitably be politically influenced and based on who is sending or receiving the shipment. Moreover, a proliferation of interdictions of dual-use materials may hamper legitimate commerce and thus engender opposition, even from allies. 

Enhancing PSI Effectiveness

The PSI obviously has some way to go before it becomes the widely supported, effective tool its founders envisioned and its advocates desire. Indeed, for the PSI to be fully successful will require near universal support. Even if global support is forthcoming, inadequate resources, intelligence, and capacity may ensure that a significant portion of WMD-component shipments will avoid detection and air or sea interdiction.

 Most of the PSI’s shortcomings stem from its ad hoc, U.S.-driven nature outside the UN structure. Bringing it into the UN system and providing a budget for it, as advocated by a recent House of Representatives-approved bill,[23] would rectify many of these shortcomings and in the long run improve its effectiveness. One way to do this would be to seek a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force for interdiction on or over the high seas and in territorial waters of weapons of mass destruction and related materials, either in specific cases or in general.

The PSI’s reach and effectiveness could also be improved by eliminating double standards, increasing transparency, and establishing a neutral organization to assess intelligence, coordinate and fund activities, and make recommendations or decisions regarding specific or generic interdictions. Such an organization, perhaps built on the 1540 Committee, if seen to be neutral, transparent, fair, and objective, could answer key questions, such as what combinations of actors and materials represent threats and what is good cause. It would also help avoid erroneous judgments and disagreements that might impede legitimate commerce or delay action. The organization would also give the PSI a concrete structure with a consistent strategy and modus operandi, as well as a budget to fill gaps in interdiction and intelligence-collection efforts. Moreover, it could ensure that PSI activities stay within existing international law or serve as a vehicle for changing it. Last but not least, it would also ensure that the effort complements other nonproliferation efforts rather than undermines them.

Mark J. Valencia is a visiting senior fellow at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia and author of The Proliferation Security Initiative: Making Waves in Asia (2006).


1. Mark T. Esper and Charles A. Allen, “The PSI: Taking Action Against WMD Proliferation,” The Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2004), p. 4.

2. John Bolton, Remarks to the First Anniversary Meeting of the Proliferation Security Initiative, Krakow, Poland, May 31, 2004.

3. “U.S. Wants Greater Co-operation in WMD Interdiction,” Middle East Newsline, March 9, 2005.

4. Donna Miles, “Proliferation Security Initiative Marks Second Anniversary,” American Forces Press Service, June 1, 2005; “U.S. Intercepts Two Deliveries of Nuclear Material for North Korea,” The Korea Herald, June 2, 2005.

5. Robert Joseph, speech, July 18, 2006.

6. Proliferation Security Initiative High-level Political Meeting, Warsaw, June 23, 2006, found at http://www.psi.msz.gov.pl/.

7. Sharon Squassoni, “Proliferation Security Initiative,” CRS Report for Congress, June 7, 2005.

8. Bureau of Nonproliferation, U.S. Department of State, “Proliferation Security Initiative, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ),” May 26, 2005.

9. Wade Boese, “Key Interdiction Initiative Claim Misrepresented,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2005, p. 26-27.

10. Andreas Persbo and Ian Davis, “Sailing Into Uncharted Waters? The Proliferation Security Initiative and the Law of the Sea,” BASIC Research Report 2004, June 2, 2004.

11. Richard T. Cupitt, “UNSC Resolution 1540 (2004) and Its Implications,” Presentation given at American University, April 2006.

12. Burt Herman, “Searches of N. Korean Ships Sticky Issue,” Associated Press, October 19, 2006.

13. 2005 Suppression of Unlawful Acts Amendments, Article 3.

14. Anticipatory self-defense is an attack on another state that actively threatens violence and has the capacity to carry out the threat but has not yet done so. Preventive self-defense is an attack against another state when a threat is feared or suspected but there is not evidence that the threat is imminent. Daniel H. Joyner, “The PSI and International Law,” The Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 7-9.

15. Gerald S. Seib, “A Bush Doctrine Is Put in Jeopardy by Weapons Hunt,” Asian Wall Street Journal, Oct. 9, 2003; Robert A. Hamilton, “International Maritime Expert: Law Supports War on Terror,” The Day, Nov. 9, 2003.

16. Ibid.

17. UN Charter, Chap. VII, Art. 51.

18. “Container Ships: The Next WMDs?” The Caltrade Report, Sept. 30, 2006.

19. The United States apparently exempts suspect shipments to and from India, Israel, and Pakistan for political reasons.

20. Ye Ru’an and Zhao Qinghai, “The PSI: Chinese Thinking and Concern,” The Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2004), p. 23.

21. Based on UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Art. 106 (“Liability for Seizure Without Adequate Grounds”).

22. Ibid.

23. “It is the sense of Congress...that the President should strive to expand and strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)…with a particular emphasis on...working with the United Nations Security Council to develop a resolution to authorize the PSI under international law.” “A Bill to Provide for the Implementation of the Recommendations of the National Commission of Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States,” Subtitle B - “Proliferation Security Initiative,” Sec. 1221, 110th Cong., 1st sess.

Security Council May Close Iraq Inspection Unit

Paul Kerr

The United States and other permanent members of the UN Security Council are drafting a resolution that would officially terminate the mission of UN inspectors tasked with verifying and monitoring Iraq’s disarmament, Ben Chang, a spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, told Arms Control Today May 22.

Speaking to reporters May 15, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. permanent representative to the UN, did not mention a resolution but did say that “the time has come to move to bring this to a close appropriately. And I believe that there is an emerging consensus to do that.”

The United States is working with the United Kingdom and other council members on a resolution, Chang said, adding that the process “is taking a while because there is a lot of complexity” surrounding the issue.

For example, numerous Security Council resolutions governing the question of Iraq’s disarmament remain in effect. Ewen Buchanan, a spokesperson for the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), pointed out in a May 21 interview with Arms Control Today that these resolutions contain restrictions, such as a prohibition on Iraqi missiles with ranges exceeding 150 kilometers, that the council must address.

Both U.S. and UNMOVIC officials explained that the Security Council also needs to decide the fate of the commission’s archives, which contain proliferation-sensitive material that could aid other countries in developing nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the UN Security Council tasked the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), UNMOVIC’s predecessor, with verifying and supervising the destruction of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles exceeding UN-permitted ranges. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were charged with verifying and supervising the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. The UN withdrew the inspectors in December 1998, but they returned in November 2002 with Iraq’s consent. (See ACT, December 2002.)

The UN inspectors found no evidence that Iraq was pursuing illicit weapons programs but still had some unanswered questions about the country’s past weapons programs.

The inspectors left Iraq just before the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion. Since then, UNMOVIC, which includes staff in New York and teams of inspectors from UN member states, has remained on standby and has not been able to conduct in-country inspections.

At least one Security Council member still remains skeptical of the resolution. Russian Foreign Minister Aleksandr Yakovenko charged that a draft resolution “breaches established [Security Council] regulations,” according to a May 11 press account.

Yakovenko also stated that UNMOVIC and the IAEA should present a report to the council “on the state of affairs connected to disarmament programs in Iraq.” Acknowledging that neither organization is “in a position to do this on their own,” he suggested that the United States “officially present to the UN the findings of its own search teams.”

A U.S.-led postinvasion investigation found that Iraq did not have prohibited weapons programs. But the United States has never briefed the UN on the investigation’s classified findings, Buchanan said.

Yakovenko also argued that the problem of Iraqi illicit weapons “has acquired added acuity” because of the lack of security at Iraqi facilities that could be used to produce such weapons.

For its part, Iraq would like UNMOVIC’s mission to end. In an April 24 letter to the Security Council, Iraqi Foreign Minster Hoshyar Zebari reiterated Baghdad’s past requests that the council “terminate the mandate” of the UNMOVIC and IAEA inspectors. Zebari argued that their mission is no longer relevant because “there are no longer any legal or technical grounds for continuing their mandate” and because Iraq no longer has prohibited weapons or related programs.

Zebari’s letter also described several steps that Iraq has taken to provide assurance that it is not pursuing such weapons, including drafting a law that would permit Iraq to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Iraq declared in 2004 that it would accede to the convention. (See ACT, July/August 2006.)

He also wrote that “preparations are underway” for Iraq to ratify an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement. Such agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, allow the agency to monitor non-nuclear-weapon states-parties’ declared nuclear activities. An additional protocol augments the agency’s ability to discover undeclared nuclear activities.

The United States and other permanent members of the UN Security Council are drafting a resolution that would officially terminate the mission of UN inspectors tasked with verifying and monitoring Iraq’s disarmament, Ben Chang, a spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, told Arms Control Today May 22.

Speaking to reporters May 15, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. permanent representative to the UN, did not mention a resolution but did say that “the time has come to move to bring this to a close appropriately. And I believe that there is an emerging consensus to do that.” (Continue)


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