"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
November 2013
Edition Date: 
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
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Syria Meets Key Chemical Arms Deadline

Daniel Horner

Syria last month met one of the major deadlines for destroying its chemical arms program by “rendering…inoperable” its facilities for producing chemical weapons and for readying the weapons for use, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Oct. 31.

Under a plan issued by the OPCW Executive Council and endorsed by the UN Security Council in late September, Syria was to complete “the destruction of chemical weapons production and mixing/filling equipment” by Nov. 1. Mixing and filling equipment is used to load chemical agents into munitions.

Government officials and independent experts welcomed the news, but added notes of caution.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the OPCW-UN team that is overseeing and verifying the Syrian chemical disarmament effort for “work[ing] with unprecedented speed to accomplish the first milestone in eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons and reducing the possibility that they will ever be used again.” He emphasized that Syria must continue to comply with its obligations under the OPCW Executive Council and UN Security Council decisions.

Under the timetable of the OPCW-UN plan, Syria is to “complete the elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.” In Oct. 31 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said that the United States “continue[s] to approach this process with [its] eyes wide open” and “expect[s] that the path ahead will not be smooth, given the unprecedented scope and timelines for the mission.” Nevertheless, the “positive developments” in the early stages of the process “confirm that [the mission’s] timely completion is achievable,” he said.

In a Nov. 1 e-mail to Arms Control Today, one expert summarized the progress to date by saying, “[S]o far[,] so good.” Charles Duelfer, who headed the Iraq Survey Group, the U.S.-led task force charged with coordinating the search for Iraqi nonconventional weapons after the 2003 invasion of that country, said that “Syria seems to be seeking to fulfill its obligations.” But he added that “[t]he paucity of details revealed leaves many questions unanswered.” Among those questions, he said, are, “What munitions were declared? What equipment was destroyed? Which equipment did Syria wish to retain?”

Syrian Holdings

Another important early deadline was the one for Syria’s submission of a comprehensive declaration of its chemical weapons program. Under the OPCW-UN timetable, the declaration, which is required by Article III of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), was due Oct. 27. Syria submitted the document Oct. 24, the OPCW said in an Oct. 27 press release. The document, which was not made public, includes a “general plan of destruction” for Syria’s chemical weapons, the OPCW said.

The OPCW is responsible for implementing the convention. Syria formally became a party to the CWC on Oct. 14, but was provisionally adhering to the treaty for a month before that.

In his Oct. 31 testimony, Countryman said the destruction plan was “informed by technical-level conversations among U.S. and Russian experts and the OPCW Technical Secretariat.” Russia and the United States “believe the plan to be feasible,” he said.

The OPCW Executive Council is to spell out detailed requirements, including intermediate milestones, for the destruction plan by Nov. 15.

In an Oct. 25 report to the Executive Council, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü, citing information that Damascus had provided, said that Syria has “approximately 1,000” metric tons of Category 1 chemical weapons. Category 1 weapons are based on chemicals and precursors that pose a “high risk to the object and purpose” of the CWC. That category includes sulfur mustard and the nerve agents VX and sarin. Üzümcü’s report said the 1,000 metric tons were largely in the form of “binary chemical weapon precursors,” meaning that they had not been mixed as they would be when loaded into munitions for use. Precursor chemicals are easier to destroy and to transport than chemicals in the form of so-called live agents.

Separately, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Oct. 16 announced that he had appointed Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands as special coordinator of the OPCW-UN mission. Kaag had been working for the UN Development Programme.

The Question of Removal

Officials and independent analysts have consistently said that the mid-2014 deadline is ambitious, and some of them have said it is unfeasible unless the disarmament plan includes the removal of much of Syria’s chemical arsenal for destruction in other countries.

Article I of the CWC bans countries from “transfer[ring], directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone” or from “acquir[ing]” them. (See ACT, October 2013.) The September UN Security Council resolution, however, authorizes UN member states to “acquire, control, transport, transfer and destroy” Syrian chemical weapons “consistent with the objective of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to ensure the elimination of the Syrian Arab Republic’s chemical weapons programme in the soonest and safest manner.”

In an e-mail exchange with Arms Control Today last month, a U.S. official said the resolution provides sufficient legal authority for transfers of the weapons out of Syria because Article 103 of the UN Charter says that, “[i]n the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail.”

In an Oct. 30 interview, Jean Pascal Zanders, a former research fellow with the European Union Institute for Security Studies, said he was not necessarily opposed to the idea of removal but was “concerned about the ease with which this proposal has taken root in Washington, with no one questioning the fundamentals.”

The September decision by the OPCW Executive Council does not include a reference to transfer or removal. If the council does not create an exception to Article I, which is a “pillar” of the CWC, Zanders said, “how is it possible for the Technical Secretariat to engage in scenarios in which it has no authorization?”

In an Oct. 31 posting on his blog, The Trench, Zanders wrote that one of the issues to be discussed at a Nov. 5 Executive Council meeting was “whether it is technically, logistically and legally feasible to move the [chemical weapons] inventory in part or wholly outside of Syria.”

Varying lists of countries, mostly made up of western European states, have been reported to be candidates for the role of receiving Syrian weapons. As of press time, however, none had publicly volunteered for that specific task. Zanders and Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability at Green Cross International, named Albania, Belgium, Denmark, and France as top contenders. Norway had been seen as a leading candidate, but in an Oct. 25 statement by its foreign ministry, it ruled itself out.

In an Oct. 25 interview, Walker said shipping the Syrian chemical weapons for destruction would be feasible because they are in the form of precursors and that doing so could increase the chances of meeting the mid-2014 deadline.

Most countries in western Europe have experience with handling toxic waste, but they also have environmental laws and established processes for obtaining permits, which can be time consuming, said Walker, a former House Armed Services Committee staffer and current member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors. Norway’s Oct. 25 statement cited “time constraints and external factors, such as capacities [and] regulatory requirements” as reasons for declining.

Sending the chemicals to a less-developed country could raise issues of environmental justice by placing unfair environmental burdens on poorer populations, he said. Walker emphasized the need to adhere to sound environmental and public health practices in the destruction process, whether it takes place in Syria or elsewhere.

Syria met one of the major deadlines for destroying its chemical arms program by “rendering…inoperable” its facilities for producing chemical weapons and for readying the weapons for use.

Iran, P5+1 Hold ‘Substantive’ Talks

Kelsey Davenport

Negotiations over Iran’s controversial nuclear program were “substantive and forward looking,” according to a joint statement released by officials representing Tehran and six world powers after talks Oct. 15-16 in Geneva.

Wendy Sherman, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs and the leader of the U.S. delegation, said in an Oct. 16 interview with CNN that the parties held a “detailed, substantive discussion with a candor” she had not heard during the past two years of negotiations with Iran.

The new negotiating team appointed by recently elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met for the first time with representatives from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known collectively as the P5+1, to resume talks on reaching an agreement on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The parties had agreed to resume negotiations after they met in New York on Sept. 26 and Rouhani spoke on the phone with U.S. President Barack Obama on Sept. 27. (See ACT, October 2013.)

After Rouhani took office in August, he called for more-serious talks with the P5+1 to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Talks between Iran and the P5+1 broke down in April. (See ACT, May 2013.) Tehran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the international community is concerned that Iran may choose to build nuclear weapons.

At an Oct. 16 press conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led his country’s delegation and presented the Iranian proposal on the first day of talks, said he believed that the P5+1 “exhibited the necessary political will” to move forward on the negotiations. Now the parties have “to get to the details,” he said.

Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the leader of the P5+1 negotiating team, issued a joint statement at the end of the Geneva talks on behalf of the parties, stating that Iran had presented the outline of a plan “as a proposed basis for negotiation” that is being “carefully considered” by the P5+1 as “an important contribution.”

The Oct. 16 statement also said that the delegations held “in-depth bilateral and joint consultations” on elements of the plan and agreed to meet again Nov. 7-8 in Geneva. In the interim, experts from each side are to meet to “address differences and to develop practical steps.” The technical-level talks were held Oct. 30-31 in Vienna.

Sherman said that the discussions were direct and specific but that “many more details” remain to be resolved and there are “areas of great difference.” During the Geneva meeting, Sherman met with her Iranian counterpart in a bilateral meeting, the first such meeting to take place during nuclear negotiations since 2009.

In a separate press conference Oct. 16, Ashton said that the parties agreed not to release details of the Iranian proposal before the next round of negotiations. But the proposal is reported to include a discussion of a comprehensive agreement and an interim confidence-building measure to be implemented in the next three to six months. Sherman touched on this in her Oct. 16 CNN interview, saying that the two days of talks were “an important predicate” to reaching agreement on a confidence-building step and a final deal.

No steps were taken to relieve sanctions, Sherman said, adding that there is “a lot of work to do” before those steps can be taken. Sanctions experts accompanied the U.S. negotiating team to Geneva because Tehran needs to understand “what it takes to implement sanctions relief,” she said.

Challenges Ahead

Former government officials and other experts said it will be a challenge to negotiate the scope of an interim step to build confidence as both sides work out the conditions of a final deal.

The United States will likely look for Iran to suspend enrichment activities that bring the level of the uranium-235 isotope to 20 percent. Iran also enriches uranium to 3.5 percent. Uranium enriched to 20 percent can be more easily enriched to weapons-grade levels. Suspending 20 percent enrichment was part of the P5+1 proposal at the talks held in February and April in Almaty, Kazakhstan. (See ACT, March and May 2013.)

Iran’s most pressing concerns are sanctions relief and a recognition of its right to enrich uranium, according to Iranian officials.

The Iranian team did not go to Geneva “to seal a deal or take an interim step,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said during an Oct. 18 conference call with reporters.

Vaez, who was in Geneva during the negotiations, said that progress must first be made on a common understanding of the end state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Speaking during the Oct. 18 call, Robert Einhorn, a former State Department special adviser on nonproliferation and arms control, said that although the recent Geneva sessions were “purposeful” and the Iranians are serious about reaching a deal for the first time, it is “not clear if real progress has been made” during the talks.

Einhorn, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that “fleshing out” a framework for the interim steps will be a “real challenge.”

Vaez said that the “biggest challenges” will be negotiating the details on the limits of the enrichment activities that Tehran will be permitted and the verification measures to be put in place to monitor Iran’s nuclear program.

Future Sanctions Unclear

Reactions on Capitol Hill to the Geneva talks were mixed, with some members calling for further sanctions against Iran while negotiations are ongoing.

In a joint statement released Oct. 18, Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said that the United States “should not suspend” moving forward on new sanctions or release Iranian assets that have been tied up in other countries by existing restrictions until Tehran “suspends its nuclear enrichment activities.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that he would be open to “freezing further legislative action” on new sanctions if Iran quickly takes “concrete and fully verifiable steps,” including suspending all enrichment activities and allowing for comprehensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, said in an Oct. 15 statement that the United States “must continue to increase the sanctions against Iran” until Tehran has taken “clear and verifiable steps to halt and dismantle its nuclear program.”

Prior to the Geneva negotiations, in Oct. 3 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sherman said that if Iran did not come to Geneva with a “substantive plan that is real and verifiable,” the administration would support “looking at what pressure needs to be added.”

After the Geneva talks, however, in an Oct. 25 interview with Voice of America, Sherman said that it is time for a “pause” in passing new sanctions so that the negotiations can “gain traction.”

The House of Representatives passed additional sanctions legislation, H.R. 850, in July. If enacted, this law would result in a de facto oil embargo on Iran.

A Senate staffer said on Oct. 24 that similar legislation is being considered in the Senate Banking Committee, but did not provide details

After negotiations in Geneva over Iran’s controversial nuclear program, Iran and six world powers issued a joint statement calling the talks “substantive and forward looking.”

U.S., Vietnam Initial Civil Nuclear Pact

Daniel Horner

The United States and Vietnam last month initialed an agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation in what may be an indicator of future U.S. policy governing the nonproliferation requirements for such agreements.

The text of the agreement, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Bình Minh initialed Oct. 10 in Brunei, has not been made public. Sources said it contains a Vietnamese commitment, although not a legally binding one, to refrain from pursuing uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing.

The Obama administration has been conducting an internal policy review for at least three years on the question of how hard the United States should press its potential nuclear trade partners to forgo enrichment and reprocessing activities, which are considered sensitive because they can be used to produce nuclear explosive material.

Backers of a U.S. ban on enrichment and reprocessing say such an approach is critical to nonproliferation efforts and that the United States should demonstrate leadership in that area.

Opponents argue that a policy of barring enrichment and reprocessing would be unacceptable to most countries, stymie prospects for U.S. companies to sell nuclear goods, and drive potential buyers into the arms of nuclear supplier countries such as France and Russia, which have less-rigorous nonproliferation requirements than the United States does.

In its 2009 nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said it would not pursue an indigenous enrichment or reprocessing program. (See ACT, June 2009.) Nonproliferation advocates on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have argued that other cooperation agreements should meet that “gold standard,” as a State Department spokesman characterized it during an August 2010 press briefing.

In an Oct. 24 interview, a State Department official said that Vietnam made a commitment in the agreement to rely on international fuel markets for nuclear fuel services rather than acquiring enrichment or reprocessing technology. The commitment is political rather than legal, the official said, but “in Vietnam’s case, we are satisfied that [its] political commitment is sufficient, based on its lack of intent and capability” to pursue sensitive nuclear activities.

Vietnam is “acting like a responsible nuclear partner,” the official said, noting that Vietnam has taken steps such as bringing into force an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, getting rid of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, and ratifying the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and an amendment that broadens its scope.

The official declined to say what form the political commitment took, but two other sources said it was in the preamble to the agreement.

In an Oct. 17 interview, a House staffer who had received a briefing on the agreement characterized the commitment as a statement by Vietnam that it is “not planning to do anything now” with regard to enrichment and reprocessing. On the basis of the information provided at the briefing, it appears that the Vietnamese have promised to refrain from doing something that they were not intending to do anyway, the staffer said. But they could change their minds, and the decision is “100 percent up to them,” he said.

According to the State Department official, the agreement does not include language saying that Vietnam maintains its right to pursue sensitive nuclear activities at a later date.

The official noted that the Vietnam accord has only been initialed and therefore is not necessarily finalized. Like other nuclear cooperation agreements, the pact with Vietnam must go through a review by several U.S. government agencies. Once President Barack Obama approves the agreement, it would be signed and submitted to Congress with supporting documents, including a Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement.

At a March 2011 nuclear policy conference, Richard Stratford, the State Department official who has primary responsibility for U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements, said the unresolved policy debate over the gold standard was preventing progress on the Vietnam agreement. But in the Oct. 24 interview, the State Department official said the initialing of the Vietnam agreement did not mean that the policy review had concluded. The review “is still ongoing,” the official said.

After an earlier stage of the policy review, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman and Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said in a Jan. 10, 2012, letter to Congress that the United States would conduct negotiations on nuclear cooperation agreements “on the basis of a case-by-case review.” Referring to a meeting that month with Vietnam about a potential agreement, Poneman and Tauscher said U.S. negotiators would “lay out a spectrum of options for addressing enrichment and reprocessing.” (See ACT, March 2012.)

The United States is in various stages of discussion of new and renewed nuclear cooperation agreements with a number of other countries, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Taiwan.

In an Oct. 28 letter to Kerry, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed “deep concerns” about the administration’s policy, calling it “inconsistent and confusing.” One of Corker’s requests of Kerry was that the administration provide briefings on the agreement with Vietnam “prior to the president’s submission [of the agreement] for congressional consideration later this year.” The State Department official declined to provide a timetable for the submittal, but the House staffer said the administration was expected to send it to Congress “this year.”

In its nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, Vietnam is said to have made a political commitment to refrain from uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing.

The Humanitarian Consequences Of Nuclear War

Ira Helfand

In March, 130 nations gathered in Oslo for a two-day conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. The five countries that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes as nuclear-weapon states staged a coordinated boycott, arguing that a meeting that discussed what will actually happen if nuclear weapons are used would somehow distract them from the important initiatives they are pursuing to lower the number of nuclear weapons that they possess.

Next February, there will be a follow-up conference in Mexico to further delineate the medical effects of nuclear war as they are now understood and to consider the circumstances under which nuclear war might occur.

Far from being a distraction, these meetings are helping to create the conditions necessary for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The United States and the four other NPT nuclear-weapon states should participate in the Mexico conference and actively promote the process launched in Oslo to educate policymakers and the general public about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war.

This task is particularly urgent in view of the new data that have emerged over the last few years. This information indicates that even a very limited nuclear war, confined to one region of the globe, would have devastating effects worldwide.

In 2006, climatologist Alan Robock; Brian Toon, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences; and four colleagues examined the consequences of a potential limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan.[1] They chose to examine the effects of this scenario because of the two countries’ long history of conflict and the ongoing risk of a nuclear exchange. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they gained independence in 1947 and have come close to war twice when armed with nuclear weapons. During one crisis in the 1990s, it was reported that Pakistani planes armed with nuclear bombs were kept on the runway with their engines running 24 hours a day so they would be ready for takeoff on a few minutes’ notice.[2] It is easy to imagine events, such as an increase in tension over the disputed territories in Kashmir or another terrorist attack like those at the Indian parliament in 2001 or in Mumbai in 2008, that could escalate into full-scale warfare and the use of nuclear weapons.

In their study, Robock and Toon assumed that each country used 50 nuclear bombs, each with an explosive power of 15 kilotons—the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945—against urban targets in the other country. The weapons involved represent less than one-half of the current Indian and Pakistani arsenals and less than 0.5 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenals. The local effects were devastating: 20 million dead in the first week from blast effects, burns, and acute radiation exposure. Even more disturbing were their findings concerning the far-reaching disruption to global climate conditions that this conflict would cause.

The scientists found that the firestorms generated by these nuclear explosions would loft about 5 million tons of black soot high into the atmosphere. The soot would block out sunlight, dropping surface temperatures across the planet by an average of 1.3 degrees Celsius. The cooling would be much more severe in the internal regions of the major continents, shortening the growing season in areas where much of the world’s grain is produced. In addition, the cooling would lower total precipitation worldwide as less water evaporated from the oceans to fall back as rain or snow, and there would be significant changes in precipitation patterns.

Further, by heating the upper atmosphere, the soot particles would cause a major decrease in stratospheric ozone. By allowing substantially more ultraviolet light to reach the earth’s surface, this would further reduce crop yields. The soot particles would be injected so high in the atmosphere that they would not be washed out by rainfall. Their effects would persist for a full decade until they gradually settled back to earth.

The climate disruption predicted by the Robock-Toon study has been independently confirmed in separate studies done by climatologists Michael Mills2 and Andrea Stenke,[3] each of whom considered the same limited war scenario but used a different climate model.

In the last two years, a number of studies have attempted to look at the effect this climate disruption would have on food production. Environmental scientist Mutlu Özdogan looked at soybean production and corn production in the U.S. Corn Belt and found an average decline of 7 percent in soybean production and 12 percent in corn production in the decade following a limited war in South Asia.[4] Crop specialist Lili Xia and Robock examined the impact on middle-season rice production in China and found a 15 percent decline from the prewar level for the 10 years following this conflict.[5]

The world is not prepared to deal with this kind of significant decline in food production. World grain reserves amount to less than 70 days of consumption and would not offer a significant buffer against a sharp and sustained reduction in grain harvests.[6] In addition, 870 million people in the world today already are malnourished.[7] They receive less than the 1,800 calories per day required for the average adult to maintain his or her body mass and do a small amount of physical work to gather or grow food. Even a 10 or 15 percent decline from these levels of food consumption, sustained over a full decade, would be catastrophic. The decline in food consumption, however, probably would be much larger than the decline in food production. Market forces would magnify the impact with large rises in food prices, making even the available food inaccessible to the poor, who are already malnourished precisely because they cannot afford enough food at current prices.

Furthermore, some 300 million people live in countries where, although most people enjoy adequate nutrition today, much of the food is imported. Most of the countries of North Africa and the Middle East and many of the wealthy industrial countries of East Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, fall into this category. In the face of significant declines in food production, it is probable that grain-exporting countries would suspend exports. This has happened repeatedly, for limited periods of time, over the last decade in response to local crop shortfalls. Thus, these 300 million people also would face severe food insecurity.

In April 2012, at the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit in Chicago, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and its U.S. affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility, released a report, “Nuclear Famine,” examining this potential catastrophe.[8] The report concluded that more than one billion people might starve as a result of a limited, regional nuclear war.

Since then, Xia and Robock have generated new data examining the impact of a limited nuclear war in South Asia on grain crops other than rice in China. Their findings, which will be published later this year, show that these other grains are affected much more severely than rice. In particular, production of the second-largest grain crop, winter wheat, is projected to fall 31 percent.

These new findings suggest that the “Nuclear Famine” report may have seriously underestimated the extent of the catastrophe that would follow a regional nuclear conflict and that arms control advocates need to fundamentally rethink their assumptions about limited nuclear war. The report assumed that China, along with most of the rest of the industrial world, would be spared actual famine. The latest studies suggest that there might be widespread starvation in China, putting another 1.3 billion people at risk. At the very least, the predicted food shortfalls would create a decade of severe economic and social instability in China, which is the largest country in the world and has the world’s second-largest and most dynamic economy. China also has a large nuclear arsenal of its own, estimated to be nearly 300 warheads, about 50 to 75 of which are deliverable by land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

There are no simulations examining whether there will be similar shortfalls in other temperate-zone grain producers such as Canada, Russia, the United States, and Europe except for Özdogan’s study of corn and soybeans in the United States. In the absence of such studies, it seems prudent to assume that these countries might well suffer the same major food shortages that are now predicted for China.

Regional War, Global Impact

In the 1980s, there was a general understanding that large-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would be a disaster, not just for those countries but for the whole planet.[9] From the studies described above, it is clear that even a much more limited nuclear war would be a global catastrophe, with severe humanitarian consequences extending far beyond the countries directly involved in the conflict.

These findings have significant implications for nuclear weapons policy choices in South Asia and for the policies of other states toward India and Pakistan. Yet, the issue extends well beyond South Asia. The arsenals of China, France, Israel, and the United Kingdom are all capable of causing the same or greater degrees of climate disruption.

More worrisome are the arsenals of the nuclear superpowers. Each U.S. Trident submarine can carry 96 warheads, each of which is 10 to 30 times more powerful than the weapons that were considered in the South Asia study. That means that each of these submarines can cause this nuclear famine scenario many times over. The United States has 14 of them, as well as an arsenal of land-based missiles and a fleet of strategic bombers armed with cruise missiles and gravity bombs. The Russian arsenal has a similar degree of overkill capacity.

The danger of nuclear war is often dismissed as a low-probability event and therefore not a cause for concern. The vast majority of the population, including people who were intensely aware of the nuclear danger during the Cold War, behaves as if this were true. Yet, the danger of nuclear war did not go away when the Berlin Wall came down. The arsenals remain, and the chance of nuclear war is not at all remote. As the number of nuclear-armed states increases, especially as nuclear arsenals grow in areas of chronic and seemingly intractable conflict, such as South Asia and the Middle East, the danger becomes even greater.

The possibility of war between the nuclear superpowers also still exists. Even if the likelihood of a deliberate nuclear war between the United States and Russia has declined, there remains the very real possibility of an accidental nuclear war. There have been at least five incidents since 1979 in which Moscow or Washington was prepared to start a nuclear war in the mistaken belief that it was already under attack by the other side.[10] The most recent known incident occurred in January 1995, a full five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The conditions that existed then have not changed fundamentally.

Human error, a computer failure, or perhaps a cyberattack launched by a terrorist group all could lead to the unintended launch of nuclear weapons. The new understanding of the climatic consequences of nuclear war makes it clear that even a very limited use of these weapons would be disastrous.

In his June speech in Berlin, President Barack Obama called for further reductions in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, suggesting a new target of 1,000 warheads on each side. This is a useful and important step in the right direction, but only if it is indeed a step toward further reductions designed to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. If these reductions serve to legitimize the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons at an “acceptable” level, they will not fundamentally reduce the nuclear threat, for arsenals of this size would still pose an existential threat to human civilization.

During the Cold War, there was a widespread understanding of the medical consequences of nuclear war. That understanding and the further understanding that nuclear war was a real and immediate possibility fostered the development of a large movement in civil society that played an important role in convincing the leadership of the nuclear superpowers to stop and then reverse the arms race.

Unfortunately, the problem of nuclear war did not end when the Berlin Wall came down. Many of the 70,000 nuclear weapons that existed at the height of the Cold War have been dismantled, but nearly 20,000 remain. Although the weapons did not go away, an understanding of their terrible destructive power faded from the world’s consciousness. Today, the medical consequences of nuclear war are not widely known, and there is inadequate appreciation of how dangerous it is to formulate nuclear policy without this knowledge.

A generation has come of age since the end of the Cold War, young people who have never been taught about the destruction that nuclear weapons can cause. People who lived through the Cold War, including many policymakers in nuclear-weapon states, have largely forgotten what will happen if these weapons are used and are completely unfamiliar with the new data on the catastrophic global effects of a “limited” nuclear war.

Attention Needed

An example of the dangerous inattention to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war is the report released in January by the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the U.S. Department of Defense.[11] The report argued that “while the manifestation of a nuclear and cyber attack are very different, in the end, the existential impact to the United States is the same” and concluded that “the situation today is such that the ultimate U.S. deterrent, including response against a catastrophic full spectrum cyber attack, is the nuclear triad—intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and nuclear-capable heavy bombers.” Even the most worrisome estimate of the potential damage caused by a cyberattack does not envision anything like the death of a billion people. U.S. policy that equates these threats and considers nuclear war in retaliation for a cyberattack betrays a profound and dangerous failure to understand fully the threat that nuclear weapons pose.

This lack of information is not confined to the Defense Department. Senior officials at the Department of State have privately acknowledged that they have not been aware of the nuclear famine data and that this information has not factored into policy decisions.[12]

Fortunately, there is a growing movement to promote understanding of the actual consequences of nuclear war and of the need to make these consequences the starting point from which future nuclear policy flows.

In November 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross called for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and called on all national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to launch educational campaigns on “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear war and the inability of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to respond in a meaningful way if nuclear weapons are used.[13] In the nongovernmental community, the IPPNW has launched a new campaign, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which has grown far beyond the medical community to encompass a broad swath of civil society.

At an April 22-May 3 meeting in Geneva of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference, South Africa presented a statement on behalf of 80 countries citing the impossibility of responding adequately to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war and calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.[14] By October 21, a similar statement at the United Nations had gained the signatures of 125 countries.

On September 26, there was a high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly on nuclear disarmament. Statements delivered by a wide range of states reflected the same focus on humanitarian effects rather than security doctrines and power politics. These statements emphasized how such a focus leads to an understanding of the urgent need for nuclear abolition.

As Austrian President Heinz Fischer said,

“[T]he discourse on nuclear weapons has been dominated by traditional national security considerations.... [I]t is overdue to move beyond such a narrow perspective. … Any nuclear weapons use would cause severe humanitarian emergencies and have global consequences for the environment, global health, the climate, the social order, human development and the economy. … Nuclear weapons should be stigmatized, banned and eliminated before they abolish us.”[15]

All of these threads will come together at the upcoming meeting in Mexico. Perhaps this time, the United States and the other nuclear-armed states will choose to attend and use this important forum to build further international support for the complete elimination of these weapons. Some of the countries that will attend the Mexico meeting are discussing a possible treaty to ban nuclear weapons, a treaty that will make the use or possession of nuclear weapons illegal.[16] Such a treaty would not take the place of a nuclear weapons convention, an agreement among the nuclear-armed states that spells out the concrete steps and timeline for actual dismantlement of their nuclear arsenals and the verification and enforcement measures that will be needed to assure adherence to the convention.

A treaty banning nuclear weapons would help to further delegitimize nuclear weapons and put pressure on those nuclear-weapon states that are reluctant to meet their obligations under Article VI of the NPT. The Obama administration, which “seek[s] the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,”[17] should embrace this initiative.

A first principle of the medical community is that health care decisions must be based on informed consent: patients need to understand the consequences of proposed treatment and the consequences of declining that treatment. Yet, the world today continues to maintain arsenals of nuclear weapons that threaten its existence, and the public’s continued consent to this profoundly dangerous situation cannot be considered informed. Indeed, even many decision-makers do not seem to be aware of the consequences that could arise from the policies they are pursuing.

It is the central belief of the physicians’ movement that when the global community does become informed, it will again demand that nuclear weapons be eliminated. The movement for nuclear disarmament secured a great but partial victory in the closing years of the Cold War. The new data on the consequences of nuclear war underscore the importance of finishing the job.

Ira Helfand is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and a past president of the organization’s U.S. affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility. He is an internist and emergency medicine physician practicing at the Family Care Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.


1. Alan Robock et al., “Climatic Consequences of Regional Nuclear Conflicts,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vol. 7, No. 8 (2007): 2003-2012.

2. Michael Mills et al., “Multi-Decadal Global Cooling and Unprecedented Ozone Loss Following a Regional Nuclear Conflict” (copy on file with author).

3. Andrea Stenke et al., “Climate and Chemistry Effects of a Regional Scale Nuclear Conflict,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vol. 13, No. 19 (2013): 9713-9729.

4. Mutlu Özdogan, Alan Robock, and Christopher J. Kucharik, “Impacts of a Nuclear War in South Asia on Soybean and Maize Production in the Midwest United States,” Climatic Change, Vol. 116, No. 2 (January 2013): 373-387.

5. Lili Xia and Alan Robock, “Impacts of a Nuclear War in South Asia on Rice Production in Mainland China,” Climatic Change, Vol. 116, No. 2 (January 2013): 357-372.

6. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “World Food Situation,” http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/wfs-home/csdb/en/ (release date July 11, 2013).

7. FAO, “The State of Food Security in the World 2013,” 2013, p. 8, http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3434e/i3434e.pdf.

8. Ira Helfand, “Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk,” International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, April 2012, http://www.ippnw.org/pdf/nuclear-famine-ippnw-0412.pdf.

9. Mark A. Harwell, Nuclear Winter: The Human and Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1984).

10. Benjamin B. Fischer, “A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare,” Center for the Study of Intelligence, July 7, 2008, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/a-cold-war-conundrum/source.htm.

11. Defense Science Board, “Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat,” January 2013, http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/ResilientMilitarySystems.CyberThreat.pdf.

12. U.S. Department of State official, conversation with author, Washington, DC, September 10, 2013.

13. International Committee of the Red Cross, resolutions of the 2011 Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and of the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, October 2012, http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/publications/icrc-002-1130.pdf.

14. Government of South Africa, “Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” April 24, 2013, http://papersmart.unmeetings.org/en/secretariat/unoda/second-session-of-the-preparatory-committee-2013/statements/ (statement by South Africa on behalf of the Humanitarian Initiative during the second session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons).

15. Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations, statement by President Heinz Fischer at the High Level Meeting of the General Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament, September 26, 2013, http://www.un.org/en/ga/68/meetings/nucleardisarmament/pdf/AT_en.pdf.

16. Ray Acheson and Beatrice Fihn, “Preventing Collapse: The NPT and a Ban on Nuclear Weapons,” Reaching Critical Will, October 2013, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Publications/npt-ban.pdf.

17. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009.

Recent studies have provided extensive data on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war, but the five recognized nuclear-weapon states are boycotting efforts to focus attention on this issue.

Missile Defense Against Iran Without Threatening Russia

Jaganath Sankaran

All recent U.S. efforts after the conclusion of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to move ahead on bilateral nuclear arms reductions with Russia have stalled over Russian concerns regarding the capabilities of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as the Obama administration’s missile defense policy in Europe is formally known, and its effect on Russian nuclear retaliatory potential.

Since the early stages of the phased adaptive approach, Russian officials have cited it as an obstacle to further nuclear arms reduction. Last March, however, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced a restructuring of the approach, canceling the planned implementation of its fourth phase, which had prompted the strongest Russian complaints.[1] The key feature of that phase was the deployment of the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB interceptors in Poland. The SM-3 IIB, with a planned velocity of 5.5 kilometers per second, would have had the ability to fly further and faster than any other missile in the system.

Cancellation of the fourth phase has removed any capability that the fully deployed system would have had to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). As described below, Russia should be able to independently verify that, under the restructured plans, the system will not be able to intercept Russian ICBMs even when fully deployed. At the same time, proponents of the phased adaptive approach can be confident that the cancellation of the planned deployment of the SM-3 IIB interceptors did not diminish the ability of the system to intercept Iranian missiles. This restructuring should now pave the way for more-productive U.S.-Russian negotiations on nuclear arms reduction.

The U.S.-Russian Discourse

The phased adaptive approach was originally viewed by many as an attempt to ease Russian concerns over the previous administration’s missile defense plans in Europe. In 2007 the Bush administration proposed deploying a ground-based midcourse defense system in Europe to defend against Iranian missile threats. That system would have included 10 interceptors in Poland, a radar in the Czech Republic, and another transportable radar deployed in a country close to Iran. This proposal raised strong opposition from Russia.[2]

On September 17, 2009, the Obama administration announced it would cancel the Bush-proposed European missile defense program. Instead, the plan was to develop and deploy a missile defense capability based on SM-3 interceptors on land and on ships equipped with the Aegis missile defense system. The interceptors to be deployed in a phased manner, adapting to the threat posed by Iran. Moscow initially welcomed this decision with caution.[3] As details on the phased adaptive approach emerged, however, Russia argued that this missile defense system still posed threats to Russian ICBMs. Russian political leaders have claimed that the phased adaptive approach, particularly the now-canceled fourth stage of the system involving advanced high-velocity interceptors and possibly advanced missile-tracking satellites, was a threat to its strategic nuclear deterrent and a potentially destabilizing element.[4]

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Russia has asked for legally binding “military-technical” guarantees from the United States and NATO that the missile defenses that they are deploying in Europe will not be aimed against Moscow’s strategic nuclear forces.[5] The only publicly available explanation of what constitutes military-technical guarantees describes them as making certain changes to the algorithms of the operation of missile defense radars, refraining from bringing Aegis-equipped ships into areas that are in direct proximity to the potential trajectories of Russian ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, stationing Russian observers at U.S. and NATO missile defense installations, and formulating a mechanism to monitor the implementation of such measures.[6]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that his government would contemplate further bilateral nuclear arms reductions only if the United States addressed concerns about the evolving ballistic missile system. “Russia is open to new joint initiatives” in arms control, Putin said in an August 2012 statement. “At the same time, their realization is clearly possible only on a fair mutual basis and if all factors affecting international security and strategic stability are taken into account.” Among the factors, according to Putin, is the “unilateral and totally unlimited deployment of a global U.S. missile defense system.”[7]

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, had expressed similar views. Speaking at the 2011 summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries, Medvedev said, “If we do not reach an agreement by 2020, a new arms race will begin.”[8] He further suggested that “a European missile defense system can only be genuinely effective and viable if Russia participates in an equal way.”

Initially, the Kremlin had demanded that Europe be divided into two sectors, with NATO taking responsibility for providing missile defenses for one and Russia for the other. Under this arrangement, the two sides would have equal authority in decision-making for interceptor launches.[9]

The United States and other NATO countries did not agree to Russia’s proposals for such sectoral missile defense. Citing Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which says that an attack on any member “shall be considered an attack against them all” and that each member “will assist” the attacked country, they claimed that NATO alone bears responsibility for defending the alliance from ballistic missile threats.[10]

The constant U.S. response to Russian claims of vulnerability has been that the interceptors to be deployed under the phased adaptive approach would not pose a threat to Russian missile forces. Responding to such concerns in late 2011, Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said, “We have worked at the highest level of the United States government to be transparent about our missile defense plans and capabilities and to explain that our planned missile defense programs do not threaten Russia or its security.”[11]

The United States has declined to engage in negotiations on any formal agreement with Russia on the phased adaptive approach. In March 2012, Ellen Tauscher, U.S. special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense, said Russia was seeking a “legal guarantee” with a set of military-technical criteria that would limit the ability of the United States to deploy future missile defense systems. Tauscher said Russia also was asking for data on when U.S. Aegis-equipped ships entered certain waters and when an interceptor achieved a certain velocity. The United States “will not accept limitations on the capabilities and numbers of our missile defense system” or on where it deploys the Aegis-equipped ships, she said. Those vessels are “multi-mission ships that are used for a variety of missions around the world, not just for missile defense,” she said.[12]

Nevertheless, the U.S. government has expressed a willingness to accept a political agreement affirming that U.S. missile defenses are not aimed at Russia. Tauscher explained that any such statement would be politically but not legally binding and would publicly proclaim Washington’s intent to work with Moscow in charting a course for cooperation on missile defense.[13]

Russia has continued to insist on a legally binding agreement with limits on U.S. missile defense operations. Such a legally binding agreement seems very difficult to achieve given the strong Republican animosity to it in Congress. The Senate resolution supporting ratification of New START, for example, specifically stated that the Senate would not accept any limitations on missile defense.

System Capabilities

Russian concerns, as well as the U.S. responses to those concerns, are closely tied to the location and capabilities of the various elements of the phased adaptive approach. Under that approach, interceptors would be stationed in phases on Aegis-equipped ships in the Mediterranean Sea and at land sites at Deveselu, Romania, and Redzikowo, Poland, to defend against a variety of current and future Iranian missile threats. The first phase of the approach is already in place with a command center in Germany, a forward-based radar in Turkey, and an Aegis-equipped ship with SM-3 IA interceptors deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. Phase II, consisting of SM-3 IB interceptors deployed in Romania, and Phase III, consisting of SM-3 IIA interceptors deployed in Poland, are to begin in 2015 and 2018, respectively (fig. 1). The previously planned fourth phase, consisting of the SM-3 IIB interceptors, was to be deployed in Poland.[14]

The major Russian concern with the system has been with the capability of the SM-3 IIB interceptors that were to be deployed as part of the fourth phase at the Polish site around 2022. The Russians have suggested that the interceptors would be able to intercept Russian ICBMs. Yet, modeling done by this author using minimum energy trajectories of the missiles and interceptors shows that interceptors at that site do not pose a viable threat to Russian ICBMs.[15] Under the original conception of the phased adaptive approach, an SM-3 IIB interceptor launched even with an idealized “zero time delay”—that is, immediately after the launch of the target ICBM—would be able to intercept Russian ICBMs from only five missile sites in western Russia. Modeling demonstrates that, even under these conditions, Russia would be able to launch its ICBMs from at least nine other launch sites without being intercepted.

In reality, interceptors can never be launched without some delay. It takes nearly 30 seconds for an ICBM to rise above cloud cover and for early-warning missile tracking satellites to recognize the launch of an ICBM.[16] After that, depending on the location of tracking radars, it can take as long as a couple of minutes for the system to calculate the point at which it will intercept the target missile. It seems that the closest radar that can track Russian ICBMs is the Fylingdales upgraded early-warning radar located in the United Kingdom. This radar would start tracking Russian ICBMs just as their powered flight ends, approximately three minutes after being launched.[17] Some Russian experts, however, have indicated that the Globus II X-band radar in the city of Vardo, Norway, which is much closer to Russia, also could be utilized in missile defense operations against Russia.[18] These Russian experts claim that the Norwegian radar will begin tracking Russian ICBM flight trajectories 140 seconds after launch.

In order to account for these real-world operational delays, the same modeling described above was repeated with a delay of 155 seconds. That time period was chosen because an additional time of at least 15 seconds is needed from the start of tracking (140 seconds) to calculate an intercept point and launch the interceptor. The interceptors in Poland have no capability to intercept Russian ICBMs with a time delay of 155 seconds. This would have been the case even if the SM-3 IIB interceptors were in place. Because of the distance of Russia from the Polish site, a time delay greater than 45 seconds would guarantee that interceptors from that site could not hit Russian ICBMs.

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The March 15 decision by the Obama administration to cancel the planned deployment of SM3-IIB interceptors, the fourth phase of the phased adaptive approach, has effectively removed any possibility that these interceptors based in Poland and Romania could be a threat to Russia. Russia, however, also has expressed concerns that Aegis-equipped ships with the SM-3 IIA interceptors, which have a velocity of 4.5 kilometers per second, located in the North Sea and the Barents Sea could pose a threat to its deterrent. Under a number of ideal and therefore unrealistic conditions, including immediate launch of the interceptors in response to the launch of the target missiles, ships located at these two positions would be capable of intercepting some ICBMs traveling on trajectories from Russia toward the United States. The threat dissipates again if one assumes a time delay of 155 seconds (fig. 2). Furthermore, during a real attack, Russia would be able to deploy multiple missiles and countermeasures that would make interception even more difficult. If the interceptors are not able to hit Russian ICBMs without taking these factors into account, as the modeling shows, then the interceptors will not be able to do so when they come into play in a real-world scenario.

Some experts within Russia support the argument presented above. In a number of articles, these experts have said that, in a hypothetical strike against U.S. territory, Russian ICBMs cannot under any circumstances end up within reach of the missile interceptors in Romania and that ICBMs from Kozelsk in western Russia can be intercepted by the missile interceptors in Poland only if they are aiming for the U.S. East Coast. Furthermore, these experts have said that other missile divisions in western Russia, such as those deployed at Vypolzovo, Teykovo, Tatishchevo, Yoshkar-Ola, and Dombarovskiy, could possibly be threatened only by ship-based missile defense systems from the waters of the Baltic, Barents, and Norwegian seas. Yet, the farther east the Russian missile division is located, the more hypothetical this threat becomes. According to these Russian analysts, inasmuch as it is the midcourse, or space, phase of ICBM trajectories that will pass over those seas, even the ship-based missile defense systems in present form are incapable of reaching these missiles.[19]

Although the cancellation of the planned deployment of the SM-3 IIB interceptors has removed the possibility that interceptors deployed under the phased adaptive approach would pose a threat to Russian missiles, it has not diminished the missile defense system’s primary mission of intercepting an array of current and potential future Iranian missiles (fig. 3). The restructured missile defense system would still theoretically be able to handle these Iranian missile threats, even if one factors in a comfortable amount of time for detecting and tracking them.

Moving Forward

The phased adaptive approach in its currently planned form would not have any effect on Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Nevertheless, a number of policy actions to ease Russian concerns have been suggested by experts in Russia and the United States. Giving Russia access to interceptor data, such as burnout velocity, is one of the prominent suggestions.[20] Given the now-reduced maximum velocity of the current system, however, it is not clear what data the United States could provide to the Russians that they could not discern on their own and that would provide them with a greater reassurance about the capabilities of the interceptors deployed under the phased adaptive approach. Russia possesses, among other means, its own early-warning satellites that it can use to monitor and estimate the characteristics of interceptors deployed under the phased adaptive approach.[21] Also, as described above, even under ideal conditions, the currently planned U.S.-NATO system does not pose any potential threat to Russia. Additional data are not needed to determine this.

It might be necessary to reassure Russia about the future evolution of U.S. missile defense systems in order to convince Moscow to engage in negotiations on further bilateral nuclear arms reduction. It is conceivable that Russia is concerned about the possibility of a very ambitious and hostile U.S. effort to employ missile defenses against it in the future. Earlier this year, Medvedev said, “We do not want next generations of politicians in 2019 or 2020 to take decisions which would open a new page in the arms race. But such a threat exists and everyone in Russia and the United States should understand this, that’s why we still have chances to come to an agreement.”[22]

In order for the phased adaptive approach to threaten Russia in a meaningful fashion in the future, not only would the United States have to deploy Aegis-equipped ships at difficult-to-operate locations such as the North Sea and Barents Sea, but it also would have to succeed in some of its ambitious plans for the development of space-based missile defense sensors.

In particular, the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS) that was planned for launch in 2017 was touted as a sensor that would have been able to provide more-precise missile tracking much earlier in flight than current systems. If the PTSS sensors had been able to reduce interceptor response times to less than 155 seconds, the Aegis-equipped ships equipped with SM-3 IIB interceptors located in the North Sea and Barents Sea would have had the ability to intercept Russian ICBMs.[23] The PTSS, however, has been canceled because of its “significant technical, programmatic, and affordability risks.”[24] Without these advanced sensors, it would not be possible for the United States to reduce the time delays to values small enough to successfully intercept Russian ICBMs. Also, the initial SM-3 IIB conceptual designs with liquid-fueled boosters were unsafe for deployment on Navy ships.[25]

Yet, it might still be prudent to reassure Russia that future U.S. missile defense systems will not affect its deterrent. The United States could bolster the offer of a political agreement that U.S. missile defenses are not aimed at Russia by voluntarily limiting the operational scope and reach of its future space-based missile defense sensors and missile defense interceptors. Developing a joint data exchange center[26] focused on monitoring missile launches might be useful, particularly if it will demonstrate to Russia the limitations of current U.S. early-warning and missile tracking systems.

In conclusion, the U.S. policy decision to eliminate the planned deployment of SM-3 IIB interceptors from plans for missile defense in Europe has removed any potential capability to intercept Russian ICBMs bound for the continental United States. The two countries should utilize the opportunity provided by this policy decision to begin discussions on further bilateral nuclear arms reduction.

Jaganath Sankaran is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He obtained his doctorate in public policy at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. The research for this article was done while serving as a Stanton nuclear security postdoctoral fellow at the RAND Corporation. A more detailed version of this article is forthcoming. The views expressed in this article are the author’s.


1. Tom Z. Collina, Daryl G. Kimball, and Greg Thielmann, “What Does DoD’s Missile Defense Announcement Mean?” Arms Control Now, March 15, 2013, http://armscontrolnow.org/2013/03/15/what-does-dods-missile-defense-announcement-mean/; Eliot Marshall, “A Midcourse Correction for U.S. Missile Defense System,” Science, March 29, 2013, pp. 1508-1509.

2. At a February 2007 security conference in Munich, Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly criticized the ground-based midcourse defense system, maintaining that it would lead to “an inevitable arms race.” Russia had threatened to abrogate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. For details, see Steven A. Hildreth and Carl Ek, “Long-Range Ballistic Missile Defense in Europe,” CRS Report for Congress, RL34051, September 23, 2009.

3. Kevin Whitelaw, “Obama’s Missile Plan Decision: What It Means,” NPR, September 27, 2009, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112909735; Robert Golan-Vilella, “NATO Approves Expanded Missile Defense,” Arms Control Today, December 2010.

4. “Moscow Takes Harder Line, but NATO Chief Still ‘Hopeful’ on Missile Defense,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 3, 2012; “Russia Warns U.S. Against Deploying Final Phases of Missile Shield,” Global Security Newswire, October 1, 2012. Some Russian leaders also see the act of placing interceptors close to Russian territory more as a betrayal rather than as an actual threat. See Oleg Vladykin, “Missile Defense Push Seen by Russians as Latest in Long Line of U.S. Deceptions,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, December 2, 2011 (in Russian).

5. “Russia Restates Demand for Pledge on NATO Missile Shield,” Global Security Newswire, September 14, 2011; Titus Ledbetter III, “U.S. Invites Russia to Monitor Aegis Missile Intercept Test,” SpaceNews, March 30, 2012; Robert Bridge, “Moscow Looking for NATO Cooperation, Missile Defense Guarantees,” RT, February 19, 2013, http://rt.com/politics/russia-missile-defense-nato-security-document-566/.

6. For details, see Sergey Rogov et al., “Russia: Experts—Missile Defense Compromise Dependent on Obama Reelection,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, September 20, 2012 (in Russian).

7. “New Russian Nuke Cuts Will Depend on U.S. Missile Defense Moves: Putin,” Global Security Newswire, August 24, 2012.

8. Peter Topychkanov, “Missile Defense: Not Joint, but Cooperative,” Russia Beyond The Headlines, June 24, 2011.

9. “NATO Missile Shield Needs to Include Russia, Medvedev Says,” Global Security Newswire, May 16, 2011.

10. Frank A. Rose, “Reinforcing Stability Through Missile Defense” (remarks made at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Forum for Security Cooperation, Vienna, June 6, 2012), http://osce.usmission.gov/may_6_12_fsc_rose.html; Frank A. Rose “Growing Global Cooperation on Ballistic Missile Defense” (remarks, Berlin, September 10, 2012), http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/197547.htm. For the text of the North Atlantic Treaty, see http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_17120.htm.

11. “Obama Administration Defends Antimissile Plan,” Global Security Newswire, September 15, 2011.

12. Ellen Tauscher, “Ballistic Missile Defense: Progress and Prospects” (remarks at the 10th Annual Missile Defense Conference, Washington, DC, March 26, 2012), http://www.state.gov/t/186824.htm.

13. Ibid.; Ledbetter, “U.S. Invites Russia to Monitor Aegis Missile Intercept Test.”

14. For a review of the evolving architecture of the phased adaptive approach, see Tom Z. Collina, “The European Phased Adaptive Approach at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, May 2013, http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Phasedadaptiveapproach.

15. In order to evaluate the capabilities of the various SM-3 interceptors against Russian ICBMs, a computer model was developed in the engineering software Matlab. The modeling was done using impulsive minimum energy trajectories of the missile and interceptor. Given the performance of a particular combination of missile and interceptor, the lowest required burnout velocity for interception was calculated.

16. David K. Barton et al., “Report of the American Physical Society Study Group on Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense: Scientific and Technical Issues,” Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 76, No. 3 (October 2004).

17. Yousaf Butt and Theodore Postol, “Upsetting the Reset: The Technical Basis of Russian Concern Over NATO Missile Defense,” FAS Special Report, No. 1 (September 2011); Dean A. Wilkening, “Does Missile Defense in Europe Threaten Russia?” Survival, Vol. 54, No. 1 (February-March 2012).

18. Colonel-General Viktor Ivanovich Yesin and Major-General Yevgeniy Vadimovich Savostyanov, “Russian Experts Conclude European BMD Will Have No Significant Effect on RVSN,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, April 13, 2012 (in Russian).

19. For details, see Aleksandr Khramchikhin, “Russia: Khramchikhin Answers Criticism of His Earlier Article on Missile Defense,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, July 22, 2011 (in Russian); Yesin and Savostyanov, “Russian Experts Conclude European BMD Will Have No Significant Effect on RVSN.”

20. Jim Wolf, “Exclusive: U.S. Dangles Secret Data for Russia Missile Shield Approval,” Reuters, March 13, 2012.

21. For example, Russian radars detected the recent Israeli test-firing of the Sparrow missile in September. Available public information suggests that Russia was able to determine the launch direction and impact point. Given this, it is reasonable to conclude that Russia would also be able to monitor and estimate the velocity of the SM-3 interceptors independently. For a review of current Russian early-warning satellites and radars, see Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, “Early Warning,” August 22,,2013, http://russianforces.org/sprn/. For details on the detection of the Israeli missile launch, see Dan Williams and Steve Gutterman, “Unannounced Israel-U.S. Missile Test Fuels Jitters Over Syria,” Reuters, September 3, 2013.

22. “‘No Flexibility’ in U.S. Missile Talk—Medvedev,” RIA Novosti, January 27, 2013. Although rarely considered seriously in the U.S. debate, this ambitious vision does emerge from time to time. See Jon Kyl, “Missile Defense Is Self-Defense,” The Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2012.

23. For details on how the Precision Tracking Space System can be combined with land-based radars to intercept ICBMs in boost phase and early post-boost phase flight, see Jaganath Sankaran, “Debating Space Security: Capabilities and Vulnerabilities” (Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, August 2012), pp. 148-225, http://www.cissm.umd.edu/papers/files/sankaran_debating_space_securitycapbilities_and_vulnerabilities.pdf.

24. SpaceNews, “PTSS Canceled Before Analysis of Alternatives, Report Says,” July 29, 2013.

25. ACTMedia News Agency, “U.S. Defence Official: The Deveselu Base Will Be Equipped With SM3 IB Interceptors by 2015, Later On to Be Upgraded,” March 25, 2013, http://actmedia.eu/daily/us-defence-official-the-deveselu-base-will-be-equipped-with-sm3-ib-interceptors-by-2015-later-on-to-be-upgraded/45087.

26. Steven Pifer, “NATO-Russia Missile Defense: Compromise Is Possible,” Brookings Institution, December 2012, http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2012/12/us-russia-nato-arms-pifer.

Cancellation of the planned fourth phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach has removed any capability that the fully deployed system would have had to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles but does not diminish the system’s capability against Iranian missiles.

Ridding Syria of Chemical Weapons: Next Steps

Jean Pascal Zanders and Ralf Trapp

Preventing further use of chemical weapons in Syria will be achieved by their elimination rather than punitive airstrikes. Selective airstrikes, as repeatedly threatened by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, would not have altered the military situation in the civil war, as the Syrian opposition forces and their backers had hoped.

The airstrikes would most certainly not have degraded Syria’s chemical weapons capacity to the point it would have become useless, and further chemical attacks would have remained a distinct possibility. Targeting chemical weapons storage sites risked releasing toxic clouds affecting combatants and noncombatants alike. Destroying other types of targets would have just added to the tally of conventional weapons casualties.

As the situation developed, within a mere seven weeks after the chemical weapons attacks in the Ghouta district just outside Damascus on August 21, Syria became the 190th party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Following months of deteriorating bilateral relations, elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacity offered Russia and the United States common cause to rekindle security cooperation. On September 14, after three days of intense negotiations in Geneva, the two countries jointly presented to the world a very ambitious framework agreement.[1] Syria announced its accession to the CWC on the same day, the best indicator thus far that it was a behind-the-scenes partner to the deal.[2] Two weeks later, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) adopted the foundation of the framework agreement, including the ultimate destruction deadline of mid-2014.[3] Syria, which by then had already submitted two sets of documents relating to its initial declaration, declared itself bound by the CWC and the Executive Council decisions even before the CWC had entered into force for it. A few hours after the Executive Council decision, the UN Security Council endorsed it in Resolution 2118, which created the mandate for the UN secretary-general to support the disarmament project.[4] To cap two months of extraordinary twists and turns, the OPCW won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.[5]

Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war continues to rage. The insurgent forces have by and large rejected the September 14 framework agreement and subsequent decisions because of the international legitimacy they feel these documents bestow on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government. Together with their continuing fragmentation and ideological realignments, this position may pose security and safety risks to the chemical weapons elimination project that exceed by far the technical and logistical challenges resulting from the very short time frames.

The tasks facing the OPCW and United Nations are unprecedented. Never before has the international community attempted to secure and destroy a chemical weapons stockpile in a war, let alone a civil war in which multiple factions are fighting each other for territorial and ideological control. Besides the challenges of collecting and eliminating the chemical weapons and the specialized equipment and facilities for producing them, the primary concern of both organizations will be the safety and security of their personnel.

This article reviews the events that led to the decisions to eliminate Syria’s chemical warfare capacity. It discusses the legal and practical consequences of the U.S.-Russian bilateral agreement and the OPCW and UN decisions, as well as the areas of uncertainty or ambiguity they have engendered. The final section outlines how this sequence of decisions may actually benefit longer-term peace and security in the Middle East and offer a starting point for inclusive discussions to end the Syrian civil war.

Chemical Weapons Use

Early on August 21, several major chemical warfare incidents occurred in the Ghouta district. Hundreds of people died from the effects of poisonous gases. Many more will suffer from the long-term consequences of exposure to a neurotoxicant, now known to have been sarin.

The Ghouta attacks followed several other allegations of chemical weapons use since the end of 2012. In particular, a chemical incident near Aleppo on March 19 prompted the Syrian government to formally ask UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to launch an investigation. France and the United Kingdom promptly called for an expansion of the investigative team’s mandate to include earlier incidents, which they attributed to government troops rather than the insurgents. After months of diplomatic haggling, the UN team, headed by Swedish scientist Åke Sellström and comprising experts from the OPCW and the World Health Organization (WHO), finally began its mission in Syria on August 19.

Although deaths and other casualties were reported before the Ghouta strikes, the total image of these incidents never fully added up to one of chemical warfare. The nature of the attack on the Ghouta district differed in many fundamental ways: the parallel mounting of several strikes into different areas, the number of victims, and the volume and immediacy of video footage, pictures, and corroborating witness accounts all immediately pointing to the seriousness of the event.

The investigative team presented its preliminary report to the UN General Assembly and Security Council on September 16.[6] Although the authors do not identify the culprits—to preserve their impartiality, that was never part of the mandate—the document independently confirms chemical weapons use in the Syrian civil war. The report’s undeniable conclusions rest on multiple types of samples, interviews with victims and medical doctors that had treated them, investigation of munition remnants and impact zones, and laboratory analyses. The investigators established and preserved the integrity of the chain of custody from the moment they obtained the samples to the time they handed over the evidence to the laboratories in accordance with formal operating procedures and protocols. Syrian government representatives were present until the handover and reportedly monitored work in the laboratories.

Nevertheless, the UN investigative report does not fully clarify certain elements relating to those attacks. Among the issues that have not been resolved beyond a reasonable doubt are those dealing with types of delivery systems and their ownership, the quality of the sarin and whether the agent was produced using an industrial or improvised process, and the high number of exposed people who seem to have made it to medical stations combined with the virtual absence of images of instantaneous death at the sites of impact. With Syria’s detailed declarations of weapon holdings and the verification of their accuracy by OPCW inspectors, these uncertainties should be completely removed in the near future.

From Bombing to Disarmament

Now well into its third year, the Syrian civil war reportedly has cost more than 110,000 lives. Many times that number have been injured or maimed for life. Millions have fled into neighboring countries or are internally displaced. Despite pressure to act from humanitarian law or doctrines such as the responsibility to protect, no single incident in conventional warfare has been a sufficient trigger for action. After Ghouta, however, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande, and U.S. President Barack Obama intensified their rhetoric to justify punitive military strikes against Syrian military assets with or without Security Council approval.

In an attempt to prepare public opinion for military strikes, the three leaders invoked many emotive images of women and children suffering from exposure to the toxicants. By overselling the limited evidence to implicate the Assad regime in the Ghouta strikes and asserting its responsibility for earlier alleged uses of chemical weapons, they accorded data fragments higher evidentiary value than these actually merited.[7] This was the principal concern with the intelligence summaries published by the French, UK, and U.S. governments at the end of August.[8] A document outlining the UK government’s legal position for punitive attacks further illustrated the complex logic to link the Ghouta chemical weapons victims to overall humanitarian concerns.[9]

Pressing for military action while the UN investigative team was still on the ground in Syria was another psychological error. These investigators were working in accordance with procedures negotiated and approved by the international community in order to ensure impartiality in the findings.

For many observers, these factors, taken together, carried too many echoes of the highly selective and misleading evidence provided to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Cameron’s failure to persuade the House of Commons to endorse military retaliation against Assad’s forces took the wind out of the French and U.S. calls for military intervention. Obama, in particular, was caught between his political rhetoric of a year earlier—chemical weapons use marked a redline—and his reluctance to get the United States embroiled in yet another Middle Eastern war.

A change of direction was needed, and to be viable, Russia needed to be on board. Russia seized on a September 9 remark by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to place chemical weapons disarmament in Syria at center stage. The remark was seemingly offhand but might have been previously agreed between Washington and Moscow.

Disarmament involving two or more parties by definition requires international cooperation and is possible because of the almost exclusive focus on the weapons technology. Negotiators and experts are consequently focused more on the most threatening implements of war than on the motivations and objectives of their respective leaders. This was very clear from the way Russia and the United States were able to thrash out a joint framework agreement after intense negotiation and persuade Syria to join the CWC. Meanwhile, it is equally clear that the Syrian civil war requires a political solution that addresses its underlying causes. It appears that the disarmament route may renew peace negotiations, as well as inadvertently lead to opportunities to resolve wider regional political and security issues.

Complex Framework

The U.S.-Russian framework agreement, Syria’s accession to the CWC on the same day, and subsequent decisions by the OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council have created a complex legal and operational framework. Several questions must be addressed to ensure the effective and complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Security. Syria’s civil war poses the most extraordinary of circumstances for a chemical weapons disarmament project. All verification and disarmament activities require special arrangements to protect the members of the UN-OPCW joint mission and any other personnel involved. At the same time, the chemical weapons and specialized equipment need to be protected from unauthorized access, diversion, and attack.

Article II of the relationship agreement between the United Nations and the OPCW forms the basis for their mutual cooperation.[10] It allows for detailed bilateral arrangements similar to the one worked out for investigating alleged chemical weapons use. In addition, Security Council Resolution 2118 contains certain provisions that will affect security management during the joint mission:

  • A stipulation that Syria was already legally bound by the basic undertakings of the CWC even before becoming a party.
  • A request to the UN secretary-general and the OPCW director-general to cooperate closely, including on the ground.
  • A reference to the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations and the privileges and immunities of OPCW-designated personnel set out in Part II of the CWC Verification Annex, which create a Syrian legal obligation to ensure the safety of the UN and OPCW personnel.
  • A request to all Syrian parties and interested UN member states with relevant capabilities to work closely with the OPCW and the UN to arrange for the security of the monitoring and destruction mission.
  • A recognition of the primary responsibility of the Syrian government to ensure the security of the mission.
  • A stipulation that the Security Council will promptly consider OPCW reports under Article VIII of the CWC concerning referrals of noncompliance.[11]

Syria’s submittals. Syria disclosed the size and nature of its chemical weapons program to the OPCW even before it had become a party to the CWC. It also submitted a request for technical assistance. This approach raises several interconnected issues.

The first is the legal status of Syria’s disclosure. The Executive Council decision recalled that Syria had already submitted information on September 19, gave it seven more days to submit additional information,[12] and reiterated the requirement under Article III of the CWC that Syria submit its initial declaration. The disclosure was a first step in a process of submitting a complete and accurate initial declaration, but not the declaration itself. It nevertheless constituted the basis for verification planning and informing CWC states-parties about the details of the Syrian chemical weapons program. Such informal processes have been utilized in the past, albeit on a voluntary basis.[13] In the Syrian case, such cooperation was portrayed as an obligation. Although this is consistent with the general principle of cooperation set out in the CWC, it also owes to the extraordinary circumstances of the case.

Second, the Executive Council decision includes a requirement that Syria submit information on “chemical weapons production facilities, including mixing and filling facilities, and chemical weapons research and development facilities, providing specific geographical coordinates.”[14]

The reference to “mixing…facilities” perhaps reflects the configuration of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile, most of which has been reported to be in precursor form.[15] Mixing machines meet the criterion, under Article II.1(c) of the CWC, of equipment specifically designed for use in connection with the deployment of chemical weapons and thus fall under the CWC definition of chemical weapons. Therefore, their explicit inclusion in the Executive Council decision comes as no surprise.

The reference to “research facilities” is interesting because the CWC is silent on chemical weapons research. Also, the issue of what exactly constitutes a chemical weapons development facility remains to be determined by the OPCW.[16] It is not clear whether this provision in the Executive Council decision attempted to create a new legal requirement for Syria, which would raise a number of questions, or was merely a clarification to avoid situations whereby facilities involved in the early stages of chemical weapons development could be left undeclared because ostensibly they were research facilities.

A third issue, concerning the completeness of Syria’s disclosure, is addressed below.

Verification. Verification of the Syrian declarations and chemical weapons destruction operations will essentially be carried out according the procedures detailed in the CWC. Nevertheless, several issues in the area of verification deserve further analysis:

  • Ensuring that the tight timelines can be met under the given circumstances will require effective and timely decision-making. It remains to be seen whether the OPCW’s consensus approach can deliver on this.
  • Circumstances may demand frequent inspections or even a permanent in-country presence. Past verification practice may not be an appropriate guide in the Syrian case, given the recent chemical weapons use and the unique security context.
  • It may not be possible to ensure that all destruction operations are conducted in the presence of inspectors. If not, what are acceptable alternatives?
  • The Executive Council decision stipulates that the OPCW Technical Secretariat must “inspect as soon as possible any other site identified by a State Party as having been involved in the Syrian chemical weapons programme, unless deemed unwarranted by the Director-General, or the matter resolved through the process of consultation and cooperation.” In general, this follows the cooperation concept of Article IX. In procedure, it is a departure from the CWC’s challenge inspection mechanisms. Whether these stipulations were within the powers and functions of the Executive Council may not matter in practice, given that the subsequent Security Council resolution sanctioned this mechanism.[17]

Destruction. The tight timelines for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program and the conditions inside the country will likely lead to certain practical and legal issues:

  • The Security Council resolution foresees the possibility of removal of bulk agent and precursors from Syrian soil for destruction elsewhere. If this option were to be executed, it would need to be reconciled with the prohibition on chemical weapons transfer under Article I of the CWC. The Security Council resolution recognizes this and “authorize[s] Member States to acquire, control, transport, transfer and destroy chemical weapons identified by the Director-General of the OPCW, consistent with the objective of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to ensure the elimination of the Syrian Arab Republic’s chemical weapons program in the soonest and safest manner.”[18] The legal authority for this decision does not emanate from the CWC itself, but from Articles 24 and 103 of the UN Charter. Some members of the Executive Council have expressed their reservations with regard to this part of the Security Council resolution. It may be prudent for the CWC states-parties conference to recognize the legality of any removal of Syrian chemical weapons for destruction abroad in order to avoid future time-consuming legal debates that could obstruct decision-making.[19]
  • If chemical weapons destruction were undertaken abroad or foreign mobile destruction facilities were deployed within Syria or near its borders, it needs to be established who bears responsibility for the timeliness, completeness, and safety of destruction and for the costs of destruction and verification. Under the CWC, Syria is responsible, but Syria does not own or operate this type of facility and may not have the expertise to make informed decisions. Chemical weapons destruction in Albania with technical assistance from the United States and other states-parties may be a useful precedent in this regard.[20] Albania received technical and financial support from several CWC parties (Germany, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States). U.S. program managers and a German contractor designed and equipped a small chemical weapons disposal facility in Germany, then transported it to Albania where it was operated by the contractor on behalf of the Albanian government.[21]
  • Although some destruction operations in Syria could be improvised along lines similar to the ones followed before the 1997 entry into force of the CWC by the UN Special Commission that operated in Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, there are limits to such improvisation. In the Syrian case, CWC rules on destruction apply—no open-pit burning, sea dumping, or land burial.[22] For example, partial chemical destruction at storage locations by manually mixing the agent with decontamination solution may be acceptable as a first step of putting the agent beyond use, but explosive destruction of chemical weapons in the open clearly would not. The question is whether CWC rules could be eased, for example, with regard to the destruction of certain precursor chemicals.

The OPCW-UN Relationship. The UN and the OPCW each have mandates and responsibilities for Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament, a situation that raises the question of who ultimately is in charge of what. That issue may become more complex if other states assume responsibility for aspects of Syria’s destruction program, as allowed by the Security Council resolution.

The resolution contains key building blocks for the design of the coordination and cooperation mechanisms needed. In addition, the Executive Council decision contains a stipulation that Syria is to designate an official as the main point of contact for the OPCW and provide him or her with the authority necessary to ensure that the decision is fully implemented. It will be important to develop effective arrangements for coordination between the UN and the OPCW in the joint mission to avoid operational friction and uncertainties in decision-making.

Glimmers of Hope for the Future

The Syrian civil war continues to bring the greatest devastation onto civilians by means of conventional weapons. Many commentators from the Middle East and representatives of human rights organizations fear that the individuals responsible for the carnage, most notably Assad, will escape justice for the gross violation of the laws of war as a consequence of the chemical weapons agreements. Yet, it is far from established that the limited, punitive military strikes advocated by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States could have bought more justice for the Ghouta victims and survivors.

Disarmament involves removing a discrete weapons category from the military doctrine of a political entity. Weapons destruction is one aspect, but losing the doctrinal capacity to deploy and employ those weapons is by far the most important factor in preventing future rearmament with those weapons. Once the weapons category has been removed from military doctrine, there is no longer any testing of munitions and delivery systems or any training of troops in the use of these weapons.

Disarmament is also about preventing the outbreak of war. Because particular weapons technologies are considered to be destabilizing to international relations, people view their elimination as a contribution to peace and security. Even if war breaks out, disarmament prevents their use in combat or escalation of hostilities.

Translated to the U.S.-Russian framework agreement and the OPCW and UN Security Council decisions, forcing Syria to give up its chemical weapons arsenal will prevent a future Ghouta from occurring during the civil war. By bringing about Syria’s accession to the CWC and by identifying a central role for the OPCW, Russia and the United States have made chemical disarmament in Syria a longer-term responsibility of the global community rather than a temporary, ad hoc reaction to a pressing problem by a few.

If successful, those disarmament decisions may inject a fresh dynamic into the so-called Helsinki process on eliminating nonconventional weapons from the Middle East. The final document of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference still requires the convening of a meeting on that subject. Nevertheless, some of the core assumptions about regional security, in particular, with regard to the strategic relationships among Egypt, Israel, and Syria, will have to be revisited in terms of the doctrinal relationships between their respective weapons holdings. Thus, for example, Syria’s chemical weapons served a doctrinal function similar to Israel’s nuclear weapons as an instrument of last resort in case of an existential threat to the state. As the former will soon be eliminated, this could have an impact on current regional security postures or on the prospects of other countries joining the CWC or the Biological Weapons Convention. If Israel were to join the CWC after the completion of Syria’s disarmament, Egypt would become wholly isolated, globally and within the Arab League, as a CWC nonparty.[23] If Egypt were to join the CWC under international pressure, how would this affect its bargaining position within the NPT context?

The standoff over Iran’s nuclear program may acquire a different dynamic. U.S. and Iranian statements on the margins of and to the UN General Assembly in late September suggest a newfound willingness to address concerns and desires in constructive ways. The first meeting in Geneva between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Iran ended with a positive joint declaration and commitment for speedy follow-on discussions. The Iranian presidential election in June may prove to have been a watershed event in reconnecting Tehran with the world in mutually beneficial ways. These outcomes will benefit the disarmament of Syria and possibly the Geneva negotiations attempting to end the civil war. Iran is set to play important roles in both processes.

Making progress on these multiple fronts will require a move toward an inclusive process of political transition in Syria. That transition could benefit from progress being made with Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament if it built on some of the practical arrangements and dialogue that the disarmament process is establishing and the political transition process will require. At the same time, key steps in the disarmament process will depend on cooperation by the different parties of the Syrian conflict or at least their commitment not to derail it. If one accepts that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict, then it would be shortsighted to portray chemical weapons disarmament as a tactical victory for the Assad regime. It should be seen as a step toward de-escalation enabling political dialogue aimed at a political transition.

Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent disarmament and security researcher at The Trench, a research initiative focusing on disarmament and arms control. He was a senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. Ralf Trapp is an independent disarmament consultant and was a senior planning officer with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and secretary of the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board.


1. Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” 2013/1121, September 14, 2013.

2. UN News Centre, “Secretary-General Receives Syria’s Formal Accession to Treaty Banning Chemical Weapons,” September 14, 2013, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45852#.Uk_0ARamTiw.

3. The framework was presented to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in a joint U.S.-Russian paper. See OPCW Executive Council, “Joint National Paper by the Russian Federation and the United States of America: Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” EC-M-33/NAT.1, September 17, 2013. The destruction deadline was included in the subsequent Executive Council decision. See OPCW Executive Council, “Decision: Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” EC-M-33/DEC.1, September 27, 2013.

4. UN Security Council, S/RES/2118, September 27, 2013.

5. The OPCW’s role in the chemical disarmament of Syria was not the sole reason that the organization received the prize. See Norwegian Nobel Committee, “Announcement: Nobel Peace Prize for 2013,” October 11, 2013, http://nobelpeaceprize.org/en_GB/laureates/laureates-2013/announce-2013/.

6. UN Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, “Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013,” n.d., http://www.un.org/disarmament/content/slideshow/Secretary_General_Report_of_CW_Investigation.pdf.

7. Jean Pascal Zanders, “When Is Evidence Proof?” Observatoire de la Non-Prolifération, No. 81 (June 2013), http://www.cesim.fr/documents/onp/fr/81.pdf#page=1.

8. See Republic of France, “Synthèse nationale de renseignement déclassifié: Programme chimique syrien—Cas d’emploi passés d’agents chimiques par le régime—Attaque chimique conduite par le régime le 21 août 2013” [National synthesis of declassified intelligence: Syrian chemical program—Cases of past employment of chemical agents by the regime—Chemical attack conducted by the regime on 21 August 2013], n.d., http://www.gouvernement.fr/sites/default/files/fichiers_joints/syrie_synthese_nationale_de_renseignement_declassifie_02_09_2013.pdf; UK Joint Intelligence Organisation, “Syria: Reported Chemical Weapons Use,” JP 115, August 29, 2013; “U.S. Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013,” n.d., http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/782080/u-s-government-assessment-on-syria.pdf.

9. Government of the United Kingdom, “Chemical Weapon Use by Syrian Regime—UK Government Legal Position,” August 29, 2013, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/235098/Chemical-weapon-use-by-Syrian-regime-UK-government-legal-position.pdf.

10. For the full text, see http://www.opcw.org/about-opcw/un-opcw-relationship/.

11. UN Security Council, S/RES/2118, September 27, 2013, paras. 4, 8, 9, 11, and 13.

12. OPCW Executive Council, “Decision: Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” para. 1(a).

13. An example was Libya. When Libya joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2004, the OPCW already had put in place a mechanism to assist nonparties that were in the final stages of ratifying or acceding to the CWC. See OPCW, “Report of the Director-General to the Ninth Session of the Conference of the States Parties on the Implementation of the OPCW Action Plan on Universality,” C-9/DG.4 EC-38/DG.21, October 4, 2004, para. 11. The OPCW assisted Libya, among others, with preparing a comprehensive initial declaration, preparing for inactivation and subsequent elimination of its chemical weapons production capability, and securing its chemical weapons prior to destruction and with national implementation measures in other areas such as legislation and implementation within the chemicals industry. See also OPCW Media and Public Affairs, “Libya to Adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention,” December 22, 2003, http://www.opcw.org/news/article/libya-to-adhere-to-the-chemical-weapons-convention/; OPCW Media and Public Affairs, “The Chemical Weapons Convention Enters Into Force in Libya,” February 2, 2004, http://www.opcw.org/news/article/the-chemical-weapons-convention-enters-into-force-in-libya/.

14. OPCW Executive Council, “Decision: Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” para. 1(a).

15. Joby Warrick, “Most of Syria’s Toxins Can Be Destroyed More Easily Than Officials Initially Thought,” The Washington Post, September 27, 2013.

16. CWC, art. III, para. 1(d).

17. UN Security Council, S/RES/2118, September 27, 2013, para. 6.

18. Ibid, para. 10.

19. Although day-to-day decisions on the operations of the CWC are the prerogative of the OPCW Executive Council, responsibility for matters that affect the interpretation of the provisions of the treaty, such as the manner in which the prohibition on chemical weapons transfers under Article I applies to the special circumstances of Syrian chemical weapons disarmament in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 2118, belongs to the OPCW Conference of the States Parties. See CWC, art. VIII.

20. For details, see Defense Threat Reduction Agency, USSTRATCOM Center for Combating WMD, and Standing Joint Force Headquarters-Elimination, “Albania Eliminates Chemical Weapons Stockpile,” n.d., http://www.dtra.mil/Missions/Nunn-Lugar/Albania.aspx.

21. See Jonas Schöll, “Giftgas landet im Wunderofen” [Poison gas ends up in miracle oven], Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, October 7, 2013, http://www.mz-web.de/politik/chemie-waffen-giftgas-landet-im-wunderofen,20642162,24557560.html.

22. CWC, verification annex, part IV(A), para. 13.

23. Israel has signed but not ratified the CWC. Egypt has not signed it.

The two international organizations overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons face an imposing assortment of legal, political, and logistical challenges. But if successful, the effort could spur longer-term peace and security in the Middle East and offer a starting point for inclusive discussions to end the Syrian civil war.

A Nuclear Deal With Iran

Daryl G. Kimball

The United States and its “P5+1” negotiating partners are scheduled to resume talks with Iran on Nov. 7-8 in Geneva to seek a lasting resolution to the high-stakes standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program. These ongoing talks represent the best chance in years to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran. A framework deal could be achieved by early next year.

Neither side can or will get everything it wants. If one or both sides miscalculate and demand more than the other side is willing to deliver, the negotiations will fail.

For instance, it is counterproductive to demand, as nuclear-armed Israel suggests, that Iran permanently halt all enrichment work and dismantle its key nuclear facilities. “Zero enrichment,” which would be ideal from a nonproliferation standpoint, might have been attainable a decade ago when Iran’s program was in its early stages. Today, however, it is not realistic, and insisting on it is a recipe for failure.

In the absence of a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program, Iran will continue to increase its capacity to enrich uranium, and the risk of Israeli military strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites will increase. Further sanctions will not halt or eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons potential. Military strikes would only delay, not stop, Iran’s nuclear pursuits and would likely push Iran’s leaders to openly seek the bomb.

Negotiating a sound nuclear agreement will be difficult, but it is clearly the most effective course of action. The first priority must be to halt Iran’s production of 20 percent-enriched uranium and verifiably remove or down-blend its existing stockpile in exchange for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor or alternative sources of medical isotopes produced by the reactor.

Iran says it is prepared to limit the overall uranium-enrichment capacity of its two declared and safeguarded facilities, Natanz and Fordow. In principle, Iran’s enrichment capacity and stockpile of material should not exceed the fuel supply needs of its nuclear power reactor program, which for now are close to zero. Consequently, the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) should seek an immediate halt to the further expansion of Iran’s enrichment program, and later secure a very significant reduction of its current installed enrichment capacity, which is about 19,000 IR-1 centrifuges.

The P5+1 should also press Iran to halt work on its Arak heavy-water reactor or agree that any spent fuel from Arak shall be exported for disposal. Arak, which is nearing completion, could provide Iran with a second path for producing fissile material for nuclear weapons if Tehran could extract the plutonium from its irradiated fuel.

To further guard against a secret weapons program at undisclosed sites and to provide additional warning time, Tehran must join the vast majority of other nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) member states in providing more-timely information to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about its nuclear projects under the standards of IAEA Code 3.1 and allow more-extensive inspections through adoption of an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement.

With these restrictions in place, Iran would find it extremely difficult to make a dash to build nuclear weapons before the international community would detect such activities and could act to block such an outcome.

To motivate Iran to take these confidence-building steps, President Barack Obama can and must be prepared to use his authority to temporarily waive certain U.S. sanctions on Iran, including some key financial and oil restrictions. Congress must refrain from pushing ahead with a new round of sanctions, which would severely undermine the prospects of a negotiated solution and increase the chances of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Most international and national sanctions will remain in place until Iran takes the final steps necessary to give the international community confidence that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons. But Iran will not likely agree to limits on its nuclear program if there is no prospect for serious sanctions relief.

To secure a deal, the P5+1 must also recognize Iran’s right under the Article IV of the NPT to pursue peaceful nuclear activities under certain conditions. As Obama said in his Sept. 24 address to the United Nations, such recognition requires that Iran adequately and satisfactorily respond to the international community’s concern about the nature of its program.

To do so, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani must follow through on his pledge for “greater transparency” by implementing the additional protocol and fully cooperating with the IAEA to resolve questions about suspected weapons-related experiments that may have been conducted over a decade ago.

Iran has the technical capability to build nuclear weapons if it wants to do so. In the assessment of senior U.S. intelligence officials, Iranian leaders have not made such a decision and are more than a year away from being able to produce nuclear weapons.

But in the absence of a negotiated solution, Iran’s capabilities to produce material for nuclear weapons will only improve. Now is the time to finally secure a meaningful agreement on the basis of realistic and achievable goals.

The United States and its “P5+1” negotiating partners are scheduled to resume talks with Iran on Nov. 7-8 in Geneva to seek a lasting resolution to the high-stakes standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program. These ongoing talks represent the best chance in years to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran. A framework deal could be achieved by early next year.


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