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April 2014
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Rough Seas Ahead: Issues for the 2015 NPT Review Conference

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

From April 28 to May 9, states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will gather in New York for the third and final meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference.[1] Although it is unlikely that states will try to negotiate substantive recommendations for the review conference, the preparatory meeting is still an opportunity to take stock of developments and assess the condition of the regime as the treaty approaches the 45th anniversary of its entry into force.

More than a year away, the 2015 review conference is promising to be highly contentious, with the Middle East and nuclear disarmament at the center of tensions among the parties and progress on both issues viewed as a test of the treaty’s credibility. The rapidly evolving initiative centered on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons is reshaping the traditional NPT debate, challenging the incremental approach to disarmament. The events unfolding in Ukraine may yet have a serious impact, reaffirming the belief among some that nuclear weapons or protection of a nuclear alliance are necessary for national security and further diminishing the possibility of any progress on disarmament. On the other hand, the crisis might help re-energize the discourse on the risks of escalation and use of nuclear weapons.

The Action Plan

The 2010 review conference came after the utter failure of the 2005 meeting and 10 years of deepening disagreements, which necessitated the search for new solutions. The 2015 review conference, on the other hand, will follow what was widely hailed as a success and will have the 2010 action plan to serve as the basis for review. The 2010 conference’s final document contains 64 action items across the NPT’s three “pillars”—nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—and practical steps on implementing the 1995 Middle East resolution. Although the action plan was a product of an effort to achieve balance, so often emphasized by the NPT parties, it is clear that disarmament and the Middle East were priority issues, as those sections are phrased in more concrete, actionable terms.

Having such a basis does not mean that the review will be easy. For the most part, the action plan lacks clear targets and deadlines, leaving significant room for interpretation and disagreement over what constitutes sufficient progress and what actions states expect to be implemented by 2015. This is particularly true for nuclear disarmament, as nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states have divergent views on the acceptable pace of implementing those action items, and the gap has only been growing. Some diplomats and observers are already debating the desirability of repeating the 2010 experience and forgoing consensus adoption of the “backward-looking” review section of the final document.[2]

With regard to setting a forward-looking agenda, the 2015 conference might try to reaffirm the 2010 action plan and build on it, updating some action items and adding new ones. Nuclear-weapon states would prefer the reaffirmation of the plan, along with a strengthening of the nonproliferation part of it. The rate of implementation of disarmament actions, however, has been so disappointing that at least some of the non-nuclear-weapon states are bound to ask whether the action plan only creates the appearance of progress and whether a new approach is needed.

On a more modest scale, non-nuclear-weapon states may want to add deadlines to some of the action items. Factors that would likely influence positions in this regard include progress on and outcomes of the consultations among the five nuclear-weapon states on disarmament and other NPT-related issues, known as the “P5 process,”[3] as well as further development of the discourse on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

Iran’s Nuclear Program

The crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and suspicions that Tehran has been pursuing development of nuclear weapons have been high on the NPT states’ agenda for a decade. The outcome of current negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on a long-term solution will therefore be significant for the 2015 review conference.

The Iran issue has contributed for years to the disagreements between developing and developed states over the former’s commitment to nonproliferation, the need for more-stringent verification measures, and infringement of the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.[4] Reaching an agreement that places reasonable limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and provides for the lifting of sanctions would not eliminate those disagreements overnight. Yet, it would improve the atmosphere—an important factor for diplomatic conferences—and help alleviate the tensions that often rise when states discuss compliance issues in the NPT context. A comprehensive deal also would help strengthen the NPT regime overall, restoring confidence that proliferation crises can be resolved through diplomacy and reaffirming the verification authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Nevertheless, a deal with Iran is not likely to significantly change the conversation on recognizing the Model Additional Protocol as the verification standard under Article III of the NPT, an issue that the Western states promoted in 2010 and will likely bring up again.[5] Western countries argue that an additional protocol should become a requirement for all NPT non-nuclear-weapon states, supplementing the comprehensive safeguards agreement, while many Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) members and observers believe it should remain a voluntary, even if useful, measure. Although Iran might be less vocal on the subject, other NAM member states and observers, such as Egypt and Brazil, almost certainly would continue to object, especially if there is a lack of progress on their priority issues: the Middle East and disarmament.

If the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 are unsuccessful, the effect on the review conference is likely to be quite negative. Should the talks break down, one might expect Iran to resume enrichment of uranium to 20 percent uranium-235 and construction of the heavy-water research reactor at Arak, activities that Iran suspended pursuant to the Joint Program of Action concluded with the P5+1 in November 2013. The West would further increase sanctions, and Israel and the United States could be expected to revive the talk of military options. NPT parties would once again face a crisis. Because the current administrations in Iran and the United States are seen as having the best chance of reaching an agreement, their failure might lead to an even greater sense of hopelessness than the collapse of earlier talks.

Middle East WMD-Free Zone

The 1995 Middle East resolution, co-sponsored by the three NPT depositaries (Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), calls on states in the Middle East to take steps toward the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and calls on other NPT parties, particularly nuclear-weapon states, to “exert their utmost efforts” to ensure the establishment of the zone.[6] Adoption of the resolution was an essential condition to gain the Arab states’ support for extending the NPT indefinitely and remains the main benchmark by which Egypt, in particular, measures the success and credibility of the treaty.

The lack of any progress in implementing the 1995 resolution has caused great acrimony at NPT meetings and was one of the main reasons for the failure of the 2005 review conference. The 2010 final document therefore was a breakthrough, for the first time laying out concrete steps to be taken by the NPT depositaries and states in the region. That document mandated Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the UN secretary-general to convene in 2012 a conference to be attended by all states in the region on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. It also called for the appointment of a facilitator to undertake preparations for the 2012 conference and assist in the implementation of the follow-on steps to which the conference participants would agree.[7]

Reaching this compromise on the Middle East was crucial to the successful outcome in 2010, and failure to convene the regional conference, could be disastrous for the 2015 review conference. Because many NAM member states share the view that steps toward the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East are a priority, resentment would not be limited to the Arab states. The negative effect would be further amplified by a lack of progress on disarmament commitments.

Progress on the Middle East conference since 2010 has been excruciatingly slow. It took more than a year to appoint the facilitator, Jaakko Laajava, Finnish undersecretary of state for foreign and security policy, and designate Finland as host. Although Laajava and his team have conducted hundreds of consultations with relevant actors, there is not yet an agreement on the agenda and on the follow-on steps the conference should adopt. Israel has neither agreed to attend the conference nor has it definitively refused. It is seeking assurances that discussions at the Helsinki meeting will cover not only nonconventional weapons, but also regional security and confidence-building measures. In November 2012, the co-conveners separately announced the postponement of the regional conference without indicating a new date, drawing criticism from many NPT parties and leading to a walkout by the Egyptian delegation from the 2013 NPT preparatory meeting.

The Arab states and some of the other NPT parties have blamed the United States for the slow progress, accusing it of a lack of commitment to implementing the 1995 resolution and 2010 review conference decisions. Although it has reaffirmed its commitment to the goal of establishing the zone, the United States also has expressed doubts about the feasibility of holding the regional conference, citing the political turmoil in the Arab world, lack of regional dialogue, and concern that Israel would be unfairly singled out.[8] The United States also has emphasized that conference attendance cannot be imposed on any state. Russia bolstered the perception of U.S. backtracking from the NPT promises by publicly stating that the United States had unilaterally decided to postpone the Middle East conference when it had no right to do so.[9] If the conference is not convened within a year, the United States can expect to receive a large share of the blame in 2015, even if its influence on the outcome is less than it is widely perceived to be.

Convening the Middle East conference will take more than U.S. commitment, and both Israel and the Arab states will need to make concessions if they want to seize the opportunity and establish a meaningful process. There have been recent signs of progress in this regard, as representatives of Egypt, several other Arab states, and Israel have met in Glion, Switzerland, for three rounds of informal consultations organized by Laajava and the co-conveners in October 2013, November 2013, and February 2014. The parties reportedly made progress in discussing the agenda and arrangements for the Middle East conference and began addressing potential outcomes and next steps to be adopted.[10] Still, they have not reached an agreement, and the facilitator cannot yet set a new date for the conference. More consultations are expected to take place in Geneva after the NPT preparatory meeting. It is particularly important for Egypt, the main promoter of the WMD-free zone, to show flexibility and leadership at this time and not let the progress achieved in recent months slip away.

Iranian officials attended the first round of consultations in Glion, but found it difficult to return due to the negotiations with the P5+1 and the domestic criticism they faced for participating in a meeting that involves Israeli officials outside the UN premises. Iran announced its intention to attend the Middle East conference in the fall of 2012 and reportedly remains committed to this decision. It is necessary, however, for Laajava’s team and the Arab states to continue engaging Iran to secure its buy-in on the decisions regarding the agenda and outcomes of the meeting. If the Middle East conference convenes and establishes a process addressing WMD issues and regional security involving all relevant actors, including Iran, it would be an unprecedented development for the region and a boost for the credibility of the NPT.

Achieving a substantive and constructive outcome at the 2015 NPT Review Conference without a Middle East conference appears all but impossible, but a successful Middle East meeting may not necessarily mean a harmonious review conference. Other issues also are critical, perhaps most notably the changing discourse on nuclear disarmament. That discussion has been taking center stage during this review cycle, highlighting the differences between states calling for bolder and more urgent action on disarmament and those who argue for a more cautious approach.

Which Way to Zero?

NPT discussions of nuclear disarmament tend to follow a fairly standard script. Non-nuclear-weapon states bemoan the lack of progress and call on the nuclear-weapon states to accelerate implementation of Article VI and fulfill good on promises made at previous review conferences.[11] Nuclear-weapon states reaffirm their commitment to the goal of nuclear disarmament and then remind others about security concerns and proliferation challenges, highlight past achievements, and insist that only an incremental, step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament makes sense. In a good review-conference year, some nuclear-weapon states also bring recent if not last-minute “gifts,” such as new arsenal reductions and transparency measures; and, after painful negotiations, the parties adopt a final document with more promises of future actions.

The usual script may not work in 2015. Over the past two years, along with the usual frustration with the state of nuclear disarmament, non-nuclear-weapon states have been bringing more energy and initiative on the subject to the NPT meetings and other forums, potentially changing the parameters of the debate for the next review conference. The two processes that developed since 2010—the nuclear-weapon-states’ consultations and the humanitarian initiative —are broadly reflective of the divergence of views on the best approach toward nuclear disarmament.

So far, nuclear-weapon states have little to show in terms of implementation of the 2010 disarmament action plan, and the situation is not likely to change significantly by 2015. The United States and Russia are reducing their deployed strategic nuclear weapons under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but discussions on further steps are at a standstill.[12] The United Kingdom is the only nuclear-weapon state that has announced unilateral reductions since 2010.[13] The Conference on Disarmament remains famously paralyzed, so no negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty, much less negative security assurances or nuclear disarmament, are forthcoming there. U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 pledge to “immediately and aggressively” pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has not gotten off the ground and would face tough partisan opposition in the Senate if it did. Meanwhile, China will not ratify the CTBT until the United States does. Particularly significant from the perspective of the non-nuclear-weapon states is that the role of nuclear weapons in national and alliance doctrines remains largely unchanged and hundreds of U.S. and Russian weapons can be launched on warning. Furthermore, all five nuclear-weapon states are modernizing their arsenals, signaling continued reliance on nuclear weapons for many decades to come.

Within the P5 process, carried out in part pursuant to Action 5 of the 2010 action plan, the nuclear-weapon states are working on three core issues: transparency and reporting, verification, and nuclear terminology.[14] Scheduled to report on the progress of this engagement at the upcoming preparatory meeting, the five have been lowering expectations. Although Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have briefed the group on their verification experiences and initiatives, there are no new joint disarmament verification projects coming out of the P5 process.

The five have reportedly agreed on a standard reporting form, covering such areas as nuclear doctrine, arms control and disarmament activities, and fissile material, and will issue reports on the basis of this form at the upcoming meeting. Yet, views on transparency still differ among the nuclear-weapon states, with China particularly wary of releasing information on its arsenal. Because each nuclear-weapon state will provide as much information as it is comfortable with sharing, reporting is not expected to be uniform.[15]

The working group on terminology, chaired by China, is developing a glossary of arms control, nonproliferation, and nuclear security terms on which the five states have agreed. As of late 2013, the group was reportedly considering 200 to 300 terms, but that number might decrease by 2015. Although it is indeed important to have common terminology for any future arms control and disarmament agreements, presenting a glossary as a significant achievement in 2015 will be a hard sell.

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The nuclear-weapon states, however, seem unperturbed by such modest results, an attitude that springs from the very long-term view they take of the action plan. Often referring to it as an NPT “road map,” the five countries seem to suggest that the action plan is the only acceptable path and that its full implementation is decades away. In this context, any attempt by non-nuclear-weapon states to start a different conversation to highlight the urgent need for more-ambitious measures is described as an attempt to undermine the NPT itself. Non-nuclear-weapon states could not realistically expect the action plan to be implemented by 2015, but they certainly did not adopt it with the intention of observing slow movement for another half a century. Non-nuclear-weapon states are indeed dissatisfied with the lack of concrete outcomes of the P5 process, and some wonder whether the newly forged “P5 solidarity,” which leads to lowest-common-denominator positions, is more detrimental than conducive to progress. Many non-nuclear-weapon states also do not appreciate being shut out of the discussion on the grounds that nuclear weapons are essential to the security of nuclear-weapon states and that how to proceed on disarmament is up to those states alone.

Non-nuclear-weapon states are beginning to reclaim their stake in the issue, most significantly through the focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The 2010 NPT Review Conference expressed its “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”[16] The conferences in Oslo in March 2013 and in Nayarit, Mexico, in February 2014 highlighted the devastating immediate impact and longer-term consequences of any nuclear weapons use, driving home the message that the risks and potential costs are shared by all states, nuclear armed or not. Conference presentations also have underscored the vulnerability of the poor, developing countries, and the lack of response capacity among international organizations. The humanitarian initiative is shifting the focus away from perceived national security needs of a few states to the nature and effects of the weapons themselves and posing the question of whether continued existence of these weapons can be acceptable for humanity at all.

The appeal of the message is evident in the growing number of states endorsing joint statements on humanitarian impact. What began with 16 countries at the 2012 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting grew to 125 states at the 2013 session of the UN General Assembly First Committee. At the same time, the initiative is exacerbating tensions within the NPT, exposing divergent views between nuclear and non-nuclear-weapons states and among states in and outside nuclear alliances. Nuclear-weapon states have responded harshly to the humanitarian initiative and the two conferences on the subject as a “distraction” from the NPT and the action plan. They have questioned the true motivations of those who lead the initiative, apparently disagreeing that the evolving discourse is meant to strengthen the treaty. Although they continue to advocate nuclear disarmament and express concern about humanitarian consequences, states in nuclear alliances now face uncomfortable questions about how their position in favor of disarmament is compatible with allowing the possibility of a “legitimate” use of nuclear weapons.

Juan Gómez Robledo, Mexican undersecretary for multilateral affairs and human rights and chair of the Nayarit conference, stated in his summary that “the path to achiev[ing] a world without nuclear weapons” is to outlaw them and identified the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as the “appropriate milestone” for achieving this goal.[17] The summary, presenting the view of the chair rather than an agreed outcome, seems to have overstated the readiness of most states to launch negotiations on an instrument banning nuclear weapons. It has served, however, to further aggravate concerns among states that had suspected that the goal of the humanitarian initiative is to start a process parallel to and in competition with the NPT. The third humanitarian-impact conference, scheduled to take place in Austria later this year, is expected to identify next steps for the initiative, which would help clarify implications for the 2015 NPT Review Conference and beyond.

Broken Promises on Ukraine

Events in Ukraine are unfolding rapidly and drawing any conclusions at this stage would be premature. Nevertheless, the crisis is beginning to cast a shadow over a number of issues of significance for the 2015 review conference and the nonproliferation regime more broadly.

The Ukraine crisis might worsen threat perceptions of central and eastern European countries and reinforce their support for keeping NATO a nuclear alliance. That would further impede any progress on reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the alliance’s security concept.

Although the P5+1 reportedly remains united in its negotiations with Iran, solidarity among the nuclear-weapon states in their NPT-related consultations might be more seriously affected by the rapidly deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. This could compromise any progress in transparency and verification discussions.

It is difficult to see how the prospects for U.S.-Russian strategic arms control can get much worse than they currently are. Hopes for an announcement of a new round of bilateral arms reductions at the next NPT review conference already were dim, primarily due to Russian unwillingness to engage in negotiations on the subject. Russia’s annexation of Crimea can now strengthen the domestic opponents of arms control and disarmament in the United States, making it even more difficult for the Obama administration to pursue unilateral reductions if it were even to try. At the same time, it is useful to keep in mind that the United States and Soviet Union were able to maintain a dialogue on arms control during the Cold War. Thus, Russia and the United States might continue discussions on nuclear weapons issues, at least as a way to preserve a communication channel.

A more profound challenge to the international nonproliferation regime is Russia’s violation of the 1994 Budapest memorandum,[18] in which Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in return for Ukraine joining the NPT and giving up nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union. Russian actions call into question the value and credibility of negative security assurances issued unilaterally by any of the nuclear-weapon states. So far, the nuclear-weapon states have been pointing to unilateral policies and legally binding nuclear-weapon-free-zone protocols as evidence of commitment not to use nuclear weapons under most circumstances against those who do not have them. There might now be a perception of more-urgent need for an international treaty on negative security assurances. Furthermore, some observers have already started to question the wisdom of Ukraine’s 1994 move, and the NPT parties would need to handle this discussion very carefully.[19]


Much can change in a year. Rather than being a prediction, this article has sought to review what today seem to be the main issues for the 2015 NPT Review Conference. Key states might yet go into a crisis-management mode and attempt to reverse some of the negative trends and improve the atmosphere ahead of the conference.

It would be very important to convene the Middle East conference before 2015, and prospects for this seem to have improved in recent months. Many countries look to the United States for continued commitment to holding the conference and help in bringing Israel to the table. The Arab states, however, should play their hand carefully and make sure insistence on long-standing principles does not derail a unique opportunity.

The nuclear-weapon states collectively appear unlikely to make significant progress in their consultations, which puts a greater burden on individual countries, especially the United States, to deliver some good news on disarmament. For example, the Obama administration might revisit the option of unilateral nuclear reductions. The United States and possibly the United Kingdom might attend the next humanitarian-impact conference in Austria and diffuse the tension. Such a move may not translate into concrete steps on nuclear doctrines and postures, but would serve to improve the atmosphere and distinguish the policies of these countries from the more uncompromising positions of France and Russia. The United States was reportedly considering attending the Nayarit conference, so consultations between Austria and the United States would be useful in this regard.[20]

Developments in Ukraine and Russia’s next steps there remain a wild card with potentially far-reaching effects. Some countries might be tempted to use the example of Ukraine to bolster and justify their own misgivings about nuclear disarmament. As NPT parties, however, they should keep in mind that such argumentation undermines nonproliferation efforts and the NPT itself.

Finally, the humanitarian initiative has clearly become a very important factor since 2010, and it is likely to continue to evolve in the year ahead. Championed by the non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society, the initiative is bringing renewed energy into the NPT debates. Although it highlights the divergence of views among states-parties in the short term, it might well be the most useful development for the long-term health of the treaty and the regime.

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova is a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She is a principal author of the periodic CNS report monitoring implementation of the action plan adopted at the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.


1. Treaty parties have an option of convening a fourth preparatory meeting if necessary, but this is not likely to happen.

2. The creative solution in 2010 was for the president of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference to issue the review section under his own responsibility, while the forward-looking “Conclusions and Recommendations for Follow-on Actions,” containing the action plan, were adopted by consensus.

3. The five countries that the NPT recognizes as nuclear-weapon states coincidentally also are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

4. Certainly, other factors have been significant, such as the 2004 U.S. proposal to limit uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities only to countries where they already existed, the debate on the desirability of multilateral fuel-cycle arrangements, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s 2008 decision to grant India an exception from the group’s policy of exporting nuclear materials and technology only to those non-nuclear-weapon states that accept full-scope safeguards. See William C. Potter and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, “Nuclear Politics and the Non-Aligned Movement: Principles vs. Pragmatism,” Adelphi Series, Vol. 51, No. 427 (2011).

5. An additional protocol, a voluntary legally binding agreement between a state and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), allows the IAEA to use additional verification tools to provide assurances that all declared nuclear materials in the state are used for peaceful uses and that there are no undeclared nuclear materials and facilities.

6. 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document, Part I: Organization and Work of the Conference,” NPT/Conf.1995/32 (Part I), 1995, annex.

7. 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document, Volume I, Part I,” NPT/Conf.2010/50 (Vol. I), 2010 (hereinafter 2010 NPT Action Plan).

8. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement by the National Security Advisor, General James L. Jones, on the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference,” May 28, 2010, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/statement-national-security-advisor-general-james-l-jones-non-proliferation-treaty-; Peter Crail, Daniel Horner, and Daryl G. Kimball, “Pursuing the Prague Agenda: An Interview With White House Coordinator Gary Samore,” Arms Control Today, May 2011.

9. Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office and Other International Organizations in Geneva, Statement by Mikhail Ulyanov at the second session of the 2015 NPT Review Conference Preparatory Committee, April 22, 2013, http://papersmartv4.unmeetings.org/media/1274254/Russia_English.pdf.

10. Various officials, conversations with author, December 2013, February 2014, and March 2014.

11. Article VI of the NPT commits all states-parties to pursue good-faith negotiations “on measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament,” as well as a treaty on general and complete disarmament.

12. The disagreement between the United States and Russia has centered on U.S. plans for deploying ballistic missile defenses in Europe. Russia argues that missile defenses in Europe are aimed against Russia and undermine strategic stability. The United States has refused to provide legally binding assurances that European missile defenses will never target Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. In addition, Russian officials have repeatedly stated that it was too early to negotiate further bilateral reductions and the focus should be on implementing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

13. For more on the implementation of disarmament action items, see Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, “Implementation of the Conclusions and Recommendations for Follow-on Actions Adopted by the 2010 NPT Review Conference,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, April 2013, http://cns.miis.edu/stories/130405_2013_cns_npt_monitoring_report.htm.

14. Andrea Berger and Malcolm Chalmers, “Great Expectations: The P5 Process and the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” Whitehall Report, No. 3-13 (August 2013), p. 14, https://www.rusi.org/downloads/assets/WHR_3-13_Web.pdf.

15. Various officials, conversations with author, March 2014.

16. 2010 NPT Action Plan.

17. Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, “Chair’s Summary,” February 14, 2014, http://www.sre.gob.mx/en/index.php/humanimpact-nayarit-2014.

18. UN General Assembly and UN Security Council, A/49/765, S/1994/1399, December 19, 1994, annex 1 (“Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection With Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons”).

19. See, for example, Elaine M. Grossman, “Should Ukraine Have Gotten Rid of Its Cold War Nukes?” Global Security Newswire, March 3, 2014, http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/should-ukraine-have-gotten-rid-its-nukes/?mgs1=5a24eVhS72; “Ukraine and Nuclear Proliferation,” The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2014.

20. Various officials, conversations with author, December 2013, February 2014, and March 2014.

The 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference is promising to be highly contentious. 

Advancing the Arms Trade Treaty: An Interview With U.S. ATT Negotiator Thomas Countryman

Interviewed by Daniel Horner and Daryl G. Kimball

Thomas Countryman took office as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation on September 27, 2011. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1982. He was lead negotiator for the United States in the talks that produced the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) last year.

Arms Control Today spoke with Countryman in his office on March 12. Countryman was joined by William Malzahn, senior coordinator in the Office of Conventional Arms Threat Reduction. In the interview, Countryman explained the reasons that the United States signed the ATT, addressed domestic criticism of the pact, and looked ahead to the challenges that the treaty faces.

The interview was transcribed by Ashley Luer. It has been edited for clarity.

ACT: Thank you for doing this. If you could just start out by telling us, what does the Arms Trade Treaty set out to do, and why do you think it is needed?

Countryman: The United States has long believed that we have a responsibility to support friends around the world in the security sphere, but only to do so with a responsible policy. That’s why the United States has long had among the highest standards in the world for making decisions about exports of arms to other countries. We think that that has contributed to the net security of the world, and we believe strongly that other nations have an equal responsibility to do the same. What the Arms Trade Treaty does is to set minimum standards—not as high as the standards the United States has for arms exports but some minimum standards—for every country in the world that is going to do arms exports. As a consequence, we believe that once [the treaty] is faithfully implemented by countries around the world, it will reduce the illicit international trade in weapons in the world. It will reduce the capability of groups to sustain armed conflict, and it will better protect the human rights of individuals around the world. It won’t be 100 percent successful in all of those areas, but it will make a contribution in all of those areas. That is why it is necessary.

ACT: Could you give a little bit more detail about what impact it will have on the United States in terms of security, economic, humanitarian, and other policies, other issue areas?

Countryman: Everything that we try to do in our foreign policy around the world seeks both to advance U.S. economic and security interests and, to put it most simply, to make the world a better place. We think that the Arms Trade Treaty, [if] well implemented, will do both. First, it will advance the economic interests of the United States because it will reduce the possibility of unfair practices in arms trade and reduce the illicit arms trade around the world.

Second, it will better protect American citizens. We never forget our responsibility to American citizens who are overseas as soldiers, as diplomats, as businessmen, as missionaries, as tourists. If we can make even a small contribution to their safety by reducing the ready availability of illicit weapons around the world, we help to protect American citizens.

At the same time, we help to make the world a little bit safer for citizens of other nations. The Arms Trade Treaty by itself will not end the kind of violent ethnic and other conflicts that bedevil Africa today, but if it can reduce the intensity and increase the incentive for negotiated solutions, we will have done an important thing as Americans in cooperation with others to make the world a safer place. At the same time, the Arms Trade Treaty will have no effect upon American citizens exercising their constitutional rights within the United States. Zero. None whatsoever, despite a lot of misinformation to the contrary.

ACT: And, on that last point, could you elaborate why you think it won’t?

Countryman: Well, first, even though I’m happy to speak to Arms Control Today, we do not consider the Arms Trade Treaty to be an arms control treaty. It is a trade regulation treaty. Arms, armaments are a legitimate international commodity for trade, and they should be subject to the same kind of standards and regulations as other goods. To use the example so many have cited, whether it is an iPod or a banana,[1] weapons ought to have the same minimum standards before they go into international commerce.

The Arms Trade Treaty does not create in any form whatsoever any body, any entity that can dictate to the United States its internal laws and regulations on trade and possession of handguns. It can’t do it. There is nothing in the treaty that comes close to doing that.

At the same time, the treaty affirms that each state has the obligation to make its own decisions within its borders in accordance with its legal and constitutional system. The United States will continue to do that. What the United States’ regulations and laws about firearms are is not a matter in any way for the Arms Trade Treaty. It is a matter strictly for the Congress and the 50 U.S. states to decide.

ACT: Some in Congress have suggested that the control lists that the ATT references are some sort of registry. How would you respond to that charge?

Countryman: Some in Congress have repeated, unfortunately, a deliberate misrepresentation of the terms of the treaty made by some U.S. organizations. It is absolutely clear in the treaty, for anyone who has read more than two words of it, that the lists referred to are lists of categories, types of weapons that are to be controlled by each state for the purpose of import and export. There is no list whatsoever of gun owners that any state is required to make, that any state is required to report to anyone else. It is in the category of simply deliberate falsification of the clear terms of the treaty

ACT: So, you mentioned that weapons are commodities; they are traded as commodities. I know that as the ATT was negotiated, you were in consultations with the defense industry on the negotiations. How would you characterize their reaction to the final product? And how would you characterize how this will affect their ability to engage in their commerce going forward?

Countryman: [Companies in the U.S.] defense industry not only ha[ve] grown used to the very complex, high-standard legislation that the U.S. uses in export decisions; they embrace it. They realize that it’s there for the important purpose of protecting American national security interests, and in that sense, it is good for their own business as well. The industry representatives that we consulted with before, during, and after the negotiations believe as strongly as I do that there is nothing in the treaty that requires the United States to change any of our strong regulations concerning arms exports. So, a concern that some of them may have had before the negotiations—that this would make exports of weapons from the United States more difficult—has not materialized, and they are satisfied by that fact. If anything, and I wouldn’t exaggerate this effect, I believe there will be a positive effect in this way. By requiring other states and companies that compete with the U.S. defense industry to be more transparent and set a higher standard for their exports, to a degree, it begins to level the playing field between U.S. firms that play by the highest standards—the highest, tightest rules—and companies in other countries that will be required to begin playing by some rules.

ACT: I want to go back to the issue of the benefits, both specifically and more generally. You talked about lessening the intensity of conflict and reducing incentives. Can you give some specific examples of countries that have the kind of civil conflict you are talking about—the Central African Republic or South Sudan or other examples you might choose? What kinds of effects might the ATT have there?

Countryman: Well, I don’t want to get too hypothetical. The roots of any of the conflicts that afflict Africa today are deep. The conflicts are not caused by the availability of weapons, but they are sustained by the availability of weapons. If not only exporting countries but, crucially, the African countries themselves implement fully the Arms Trade Treaty, including not only the export provisions but the import provisions; if African countries make a determined effort to control their own stockpiles of legitimate weapons for the police and the army; and if African countries come under greater scrutiny as to which governments are actively exporting weapons to fuel civil conflicts in neighboring countries, if we can do all of those things, then the potential is great for reducing the level of violence in these various civil conflicts. Now, note that the Arms Trade Treaty and its requirements are only one part of that formula. But it is very much my hope that the existence and the implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty will provide the impetus for all of those steps that Africans and others can take to reduce violence.

ACT: It’s both the establishment of the standards and the transparency, the reporting requirement, things like that?

Countryman: Yes, and it is also taking advantage of the tools that are built into the ATT that encourage and facilitate cooperation among states against gray-market and black-market trade in weapons. These are measures that we should take full advantage of.

ACT: Can you talk a bit about the bigger picture? How does the ATT fit into some of the larger policy goals of the Obama administration?

Countryman: In foreign policy, again, the Obama administration is dedicated to reducing and solving conflicts around the world wherever we can. Our policies on arms exports are aimed not at enriching American companies or providing American jobs, though those are important. Rather, they are aimed at helping countries to establish the rule of law within their own borders and to secure their borders against any external threats. In general, we are proud of the record of American military sales and military assistance to friends and allies around the world.

Those efforts are undermined if the trade in weapons is utterly unconstrained, and if manufacturers and exporters have no controls whatsoever, no standards whatsoever, that increases the threat to legitimate democratic governments around the world that we are trying to support. So in that sense, I think that the interests of the Obama administration are exactly the same as the interests of the vast majority of governments around the world. The target here is not any particular country. It is, rather, those individuals who participate in this trade without any ethical standards, and those few governments around the world that actively use weapons to kill their own people and their neighbors.

ACT: How do you think the U.S. signature on the treaty will help shape the evolution of the ATT? Do you think that U.S. actions in particular will encourage other countries to join?

Countryman: Well, there are two different questions there: one is the coming into force of the ATT, and the second is the evolution. On the second point, evolution, we don’t see a need for the treaty itself to evolve in the near future. In fact, the treaty contains provisions that say it can’t be amended within the next few years. We need to see how it works—and by “we,” I mean the world, not just the U.S.—before we can consider whether it needs to be strengthened or loosened or amended in some way. It needs to get into practice, and that is a matter of national implementation rather than an international discussion of tinkering with the treaty. So in that sense, evolution is postponed. In the sense of coming into force, I think we have a dozen countries that have now ratified. We may get several more this year, which means that it is likely we meet the standard of 50 by the end of this year or early next year [for bringing] the treaty in[to] force.

The fact that the United States has signed the treaty is significant in several ways. First, it provides an incentive for other states that are major arms exporters to go ahead and sign the treaty rather than to hide behind a lack of signature from the United States. Secondly, it signals to the rest of the world that we didn’t simply accept this treaty at the negotiations last year; we embrace it. It is not a panacea for all the world’s violence, but it is a step forward in many ways, and we wish to see as many states [as possible] in the world sign it and ratify it.

Third, by signing it, we enable the United States to be represented in the discussions about international cooperation, including the mundane things such as setting up this very tiny implementation support unit for the ATT and holding annual meetings to review its operation.[2] We give ourselves a seat at the table in that sense, so for all those reasons, the U.S. signature is important for the early history of the ATT.

ACT: To pick up on a couple of points you made there: There is signing, and then there is ratification. So, could you describe the Obama administration’s efforts on plans for ratification of the ATT? For example, what is the timeline for preparing the supporting documents that you would transmit to the Senate and so on?

Countryman: The plan is to do it right. We are in the process right now of conducting an article-by-article review of the treaty and comparing it with all relevant U.S. legislation so that we can report accurately to the Congress on all the implications of the legislation. I’ve been satisfied throughout the negotiations and since that the treaty is already 100 percent consistent with existing U.S. legislation. In the end, that is not my call. It is something that has to be reviewed carefully by lawyers and reported on carefully to the Senate, and that is the process we are in now.

ACT: Do you think U.S. ability to influence the implementation of the ATT is weakened because the United States is not moving forward rapidly with ratification? I think that most people do not expect this to happen anytime soon. Can fill us in a little bit on that?

Countryman: I’ll put it conversely: our ability to influence it will be enhanced once we have ratified it.

ACT: Right, but the fact that it will not be ratified very soon, is that weakening your ability to influence it now?

Countryman: Why do you have to be so negative? (Laughter.) I gave it to you in a positive way.

ACT: Do you want to add to your answer?

Countryman: Look, I do mean to phrase it positively because we do intend to seek ratification. The reason I don’t want to phrase it in the negative way that you posed the question is because it is not that issue that is driving the speed with which the ratification process proceeds. We will do our job as thoroughly as we need to before we submit it to the Senate for [advice and consent]. We won’t be pushed by anything happening among those states that have already ratified it. We believe we have a seat at the table by logic and necessity, if not by fact of ratification.

ACT: So, you don’t see any obstacle at the conference of states-parties from the fact that you are not a state-party? You think you will be still able to participate fully, as fully as if you were a state-party?

Countryman: I have known very few situations where the U.S. has not been able to make its views known.

ACT: Under recently passed legislation, the U.S. government cannot spend any funds to implement the ATT.[3] What effect will that legislation have on your actions?

Countryman: In my view, none. We will, of course, honor all legislation passed by the Congress, including the legislation passed by the Congress that requires us to carefully review every arms export according to standards that are not only fully consistent with the ATT, but higher standards than the treaty requires. So, we don’t need to do anything differently to honor, to be in compliance with the legislation you mention, and at the point of ratification, we won’t need to do anything differently to meet our requirements under the ATT.

ACT: So, there is no tension, there is no difficulty, in meeting the requirements both of the legislation and your obligations as a signer of the treaty?

Countryman: That’s the beauty of the system designed by the Congress and implemented consistently by successive administrations. We believe in high standards, and we are going to continue to implement those high standards, regardless of the particular debate about this treaty.

ACT: The United States recently issued a new policy on arms transfers. Could you briefly explain the policy, particularly the new elements of it?

Countryman: Only very briefly. The first articulation of the conventional arms transfer policy, the CAT policy, was made by the Clinton administration in 1995. In the Obama administration a few years ago, we realized the need to update it in order simply to review what has changed. I think the changes more clearly indicate the emphasis that the United States places upon humanitarian concerns, human rights concerns, and international stability in the decisions that we make on arms exports. In that way, it better reflects the reality of how successive administrations have implemented a conventional arms transfer policy.

ACT: To what extent was the new policy influenced by the ATT, and the United States’ status as a signer of that treaty?

Countryman: I don’t think there was an influence in either direction. They are independent exercises that happened to occur at the same time. Of course, we checked carefully to make sure that we were being consistent in each exercise, but there is nothing in the CAT policy that is affected by the terms negotiated at the ATT conference. As I said, we already have higher standards for ourselves than we ever could have accomplished in the ATT negotiations.

ACT: So, the two processes went on completely parallel tracks without real interaction other than what you just said—checking to make sure that they were consistent?

Malzahn: You did have some of the same people working on both exercises, so they were certainly aware—each side was aware of what was going on. It wasn’t exactly the same people, but some of the same people worked on both the CAT policy update and worked on the ATT. So they weren’t independent in the sense that they were functioning in a vacuum, independently.

Countryman: The point is that both of them are guided by what has been consistent policy passed by the Congress, enforced and implemented by successive administrations of both parties. What we have actually done [by having carried out established U.S. policy] is what influenced both the new CAT policy and the ATT negotiations. There wasn’t a need to go dream up a new concept in order to influence both of them.

ACT: Okay, maybe I’ll just make a statement and you can tell me if it’s correct, and if not, you can change it: There is a changing sense of what is an appropriate regime for the arms trade. It is reflected globally by the Arms Trade Treaty, and the U.S. arms trade policy is also a reflection of that. Is that true?

Countryman: No, no. The fact that there has been a change outside of the U.S. in what is appropriate in arms transfer is what led to the impetus to negotiate an arms trade treaty, and we were happy to participate in a negotiation that resulted in a treaty that goes halfway towards meeting the high standards of the United States and that is fully consistent with our constitutional requirements and our security and economic interests. That happened outside the U.S. Our guidance for negotiation is the high-standard policy that we have implemented for decades.

What your statement implied is that the world changed, and this had an effect on U.S. policy. I don’t see it that way. Our policies are consistent, consistently stronger decade by decade. And if the rest of the world came around to the point that they are willing to embrace some of what the U.S. does, great, but it doesn’t change the U.S. approach to these issues.

ACT: You’ve worked many, many months on this treaty, you and your team, and have talked with many of your diplomatic colleagues. The treaty is now negotiated. It may enter into force in a year or so. What do you see as the biggest challenges for this treaty over the next, let’s say, five years in terms of ensuring that it is as effective as it can be both in terms of what individual nations need to do and in terms of what all the nations together need to do? What would you list as or describe as some of the key challenges we need to watch out for and the states-parties need to maintain focus on?

Countryman: Well first, we did work hard, and it was not just the State Department. It was a strong interagency team that looked at our negotiating approach and at the text submitted from every possible angle, whether it’s Department of Justice, Department of Defense, the White House, the State Department, and many others—the Department of Commerce crucially. There’s a couple of genuine heroes who did this work. One is right here, Bill Malzahn, who has been recognized by the secretary [of state] for his contribution, especially intellectual contribution, to this effort ever since it was first discussed in the international arena. And the other is our dear friend Don Mahley, who passed away earlier this month, who was the key negotiator on all of these points. These were the two who really made an amazing contribution to the ultimate success last year.

You asked, “What is a challenge?” If I could give you a very general answer: the challenge will be that too many countries read the letter of the treaty rather than the goals of the treaty, that there is a focus on writing export control laws even for countries that don’t do any exports, and that countries don’t pay enough attention to the requirements for strong import legislation and enforcement and that they don’t pay enough attention to the possibilities within the treaty for multilateral cooperation against illegal arms trade. For some countries, I would worry that the requirement to take into account human rights, humanitarian law, and other considerations becomes a box-checking rather than a serious risk assessment.

I have no doubt that countries that sign and ratify the treaty will implement the minimum requirements. The challenge will be for countries to look beyond the minimum bureaucratic requirements and actually focus on the promise, the potential that this treaty offers the world.

ACT: Do you have anything else you want to say?

Malzahn: The challenge that we face is making sure that this treaty doesn’t become just another piece of paper out there. Unfortunately, in the small arms area in particular, there are a number of treaties out there that were signed and as soon as states—some states—signed the treaty, that was the end of their involvement with the treaty. They said, “Our obligation is now done; we’ve signed this,” and they’ve made no efforts to actually implement the treaty.

ACT: What treaties are you talking about, for example?

Malzahn: Whether it’s things like the International Tracing Instrument[4] or some of the other things related—this is, again, particularly true on small arms and light weapons. If you look at Africa, there are number of regional agreements among the Southern African Development Community[5] and some of the other African countries where they agree, for example, on a total ban on imports of small arms and light weapons. Yet, the countries that have signed it are still importing small arms and light weapons into their region even though there is a regional ban on it. So, what we need to do on the ATT is to have states—as [UK lead negotiator] Jo Adamson said during the negotiations, we negotiate as if implementation mattered. We need to follow through and make sure that states actually implement the treaty, the exporting states as well as the importing states. That is what Tom was getting at, the balance of obligations on the exporters and the importers. It is on both sides, and we cannot just focus on one side.

On small arms and light weapons in particular, which was one of the major driving forces for this treaty, it is important to have this treaty actually implemented and carried out by the people who signed the treaty. In some cases, it’s going to require assistance to build capacity to implement the treaty, and other things, international cooperation.

ACT: Few states have the capacity to regulate the arms trade like the United States does.

Malzahn: With this treaty, for the first time, there is now an international obligation that each state that joins the treaty assumes national responsibility for the arms that leave its territory, as well as the arms that enter its territory. Some of these states that don’t have these kinds of things in place are going to want help in doing what they haven’t been able to do on their own.

Countryman: The United States, specifically this bureau, has extensive programs in more than 60 nations around the world in which we help states design strategic trade control laws and improve their border security capabilities. We do that in conjunction with the departments of Defense and Homeland Security and others. The European Union has similar programs to help states around the world. An example of the thing we have to keep an eye on is that the U.S. or the European Union doesn’t simply help a state in Africa or Asia write a new law. That’s insufficient. We not only have to help them write a new law if they ask for the help, we have to help them build the capacity to enforce the laws. With the ATT, we can’t stop at a half-measure of just meeting the letter of the law. We’ve got to help states have the capacity to make it real.

Malzahn: As part of that national control system when states pass the law, we want the laws to not just be a piece of paper, we want them actually to make a difference and to actually result in positive action.

ACT: Thank you, gentlemen.




1. See “Why We Need a Global Arms Trade Treaty,” Oxfam International, n.d.., http://www.oxfam.org/en/campaigns/conflict/controlarms/why-we-need-global-arms-trade-treaty.

2. Article 18 of the treaty describes the secretariat, which is to have a “minimized structure.” For the text of the treaty, see https://unoda-web.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Ch_XXVI_08.pdf#page=22.

3. Under Section 7075 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2014, “None of the funds appropriated by this Act may be obligated or expended to implement the Arms Trade Treaty until the Senate approves a resolution of ratification for the Treaty.” For the text of the act, see http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113hr3547enr/pdf/BILLS-113hr3547enr.pdf.

4. The International Tracing Instrument commits UN member states to a series of measures designed to improve the traceability of small arms and light weapons in crime and conflict situations.

5. The members are Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation explains why the United States signed the ATT, addresses domestic criticism of the pact, and looks ahead to the challenges that the treaty faces.

A Win-Win Solution for Iran’s Arak Reactor

Ali Ahmad, Frank von Hippel, Alexander Glaser, and Zia Mian

In November 2013, Iran and the P5+1 group of countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) agreed on a six-month Joint Plan of Action to enable negotiations on a final settlement to contain the proliferation risks from Iran’s nuclear program.

This interim agreement freezes Iran’s enrichment capacity, thereby preventing a further shortening of the time Iran would require to produce weapons quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) if it wished.1 This enrichment capacity has expanded greatly over the years since it first came to international attention in 2002.

Iran and the P5+1 also have agreed on the need to constrain Iran’s option to produce plutonium for weapons using the reactor that is under construction near the city of Arak and that will be under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

Under the Joint Plan of Action, Iran has agreed to freeze the Arak reactor project for six months.2 It also has committed not to separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel or construct a facility capable of doing so. These are important interim commitments.

According to Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the Arak reactor is intended for radioisotope production and testing of nuclear fuel and materials. In response to the P5+1 proposal that Iran scrap the Arak reactor project, Salehi stated that “we see no point stopping the work on this reactor.” He has acknowledged, however, the international community’s concerns about the Arak reactor and offered the possibility of design changes “in order to produce less plutonium in this reactor and in this way allay the worries and mitigate the concerns.”3

This article proposes technical steps that would provide assurance that Iran could not quickly make sufficient plutonium for a nuclear weapon with the Arak reactor while at least maintaining the reactor’s performance in peaceful applications.

The solution proposed here involves changing the fueling and operating power of the Arak reactor to make it less of a proliferation concern. The case of Algeria’s Es-Salam research reactor provides a useful precedent.

The U.S. discovery in 1991 that China was building a reactor in Algeria that, like the Arak reactor, would be fueled with natural uranium and use heavy water as a neutron moderator caused a diplomatic crisis. Based on satellite imagery, the United States estimated that the reactor’s power could be as high as 50 megawatts thermal (MWt), in which case, if it were fueled with natural uranium, it would be able to produce as much as “10 to 13 kilograms per year” of plutonium—more than enough for a simple nuclear weapon. China informed the United States, however, that the reactor’s design power would be 15 rather than 50 MWt and that the fuel provided would be enriched to 3 percent in the chain-reacting isotope uranium-235 rather than natural uranium, which contains only 0.7 percent U-235. The United States calculated that, with that fuel and power, the reactor would produce in its spent fuel “slightly less than 1 kilogram of plutonium per year.”4 With the additional commitment that the reactor would be placed under IAEA safeguards, the crisis was resolved. A similar solution is available for the Arak reactor.

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Click image to enlarge.

The Arak Research Reactor

The 40-MWt Arak research reactor is a proliferation concern in part because other countries have used this type of reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons (see box). Reactors that use natural uranium fuel are especially well suited for plutonium production because virtually all of the neutrons they produce that are excess to the requirements for maintaining the fission chain reaction are absorbed in the uranium-238, which constitutes 99.3 percent of the fuel. The addition of the neutron turns U-238 into uranium-239, which quickly decays into plutonium-239. Very few neutrons are left over for use in research and radioisotope production. To gain more neutrons, heavy-water reactors are designed to operate at high power, which requires more nuclear fuel and larger reactor cores.

Assuming that the Arak reactor operates at full power about 300 days per year, natural uranium fuel could be kept in its core for about 3.5 years. The analysis in this article assumes that during this period, the reactor would be refueled three times with one-third of the fuel in the reactor core replaced at each refueling. The discharged fuel would be placed in an on-site, water-filled cooling pool.

Under this scenario, the pool would contain 27 kilograms of unseparated plutonium after the third discharge. The fuel still in the reactor core could contain up to another 20 kilograms. Therefore, the plutonium inventory on the reactor site, including the amount in the reactor, would be up to 50 kilograms.5 Most of this plutonium would not be weapons grade, but it would be weapons usable.6 Using the IAEA estimate of 8 kilograms of plutonium for a first-generation nuclear weapon, 50 kilograms would be enough for about six weapons.

Before it could be used for a weapon, however, the plutonium in the spent fuel would have to be separated out in a remotely operated chemical reprocessing plant behind heavy shielding. Iran has repeatedly stated that it has no intention of building a reprocessing plant, and there is no evidence or even claim that it is doing so. Yet, there is the theoretical possibility that a small “quick and dirty” reprocessing plant could be constructed clandestinely. The IAEA assumes for the purpose of designing its safeguards that it would take one to three months to separate enough plutonium for a weapon.7

Furthermore, the Arak reactor is not the only potential source of plutonium in Iran. The Bushehr 3,000-MWt power reactor has much more plutonium in its core and in its spent fuel pool than Arak is likely to have. If an annual fuel reload were discharged early from the Bushehr reactor after the fuel achieved about 15 percent of its design burn-up (several months), it would contain about 50 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium.8 The relatively large amount of plutonium in irradiated fuel at the Bushehr reactor is one reason why the IAEA is inspecting it quarterly.

The Light-Water Alternative

In 2005, because of their proliferation concerns about the Arak reactor, France, Germany, and the UK—the group that was the predecessor to the P5+1—offered to help Iran obtain a light-water research reactor instead.9 This is still the proposal of the P5+1 in its talks with Iran.

Such a reactor would most likely be a higher-power, more modern version of the Tehran Research Reactor, which the United States provided Iran in 1960 under the Atoms for Peace program. The Tehran facility is a 5-MWt, pool-type reactor whose fuel today is 19.75 percent enriched in U-235. This is just below the 20 percent threshold above which uranium is considered to be weapons usable. The core of the Tehran reactor is a small rectangular cuboid that sits at the bottom of a deep pool of “light” (ordinary) water. The water is pumped through the core to cool it and provides radiation shielding for workers using the reactor.

Research Reactors and Nuclear Weapons Programs

Reactors that are fueled with natural uranium and use heavy water as a neutron moderator have been used to produce plutonium for use in weapons since the Manhattan Project. Almost all of the neutrons that are produced beyond those required to sustain the uranium-235 fission chain reaction in the fuel are absorbed by uranium-238 to produce plutonium. U-238 is 140 times more abundant in natural uranium fuel than is U-235. The first heavy-water reactor, Canada’s 40-megawatt thermal (MWt) NRX, on which construction began in 1944, was originally designed to provide plutonium for the wartime U.S. nuclear weapons program.1 India, Israel, and Pakistan currently use reactors of this basic type to produce their weapons plutonium, and other countries have built such reactors for that purpose.

  • Israel’s Dimona reactor, which was supplied by France, was originally rated at 26 MWt when it came online in 1963, but is believed to have been uprated to at least 70 MWt.2
  • India’s 40-MWt CIRUS reactor, based on the NRX design, produced enough plutonium on average for about one bomb per year during its operating life from 1963 to 2010. In 1985, India completed a second, larger 100-MWt heavy-water “research” reactor, Dhruva, to increase the rate of growth of its stockpile.3
  • Pakistan began operating a 40- to 50-MWt reactor at Khushab in 1998 to produce plutonium for its nuclear weapons program. Since then, it has built two more reactors of this type, and work is under way on a fourth.4


1. D.G. Hurst and A.G. Ward, “Canadian Research Reactors,” Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd., 1956.

2. International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Global Fissile Material Report 2010,” December 2010, ch. 8, http://fissilematerials.org/library/gfmr10.pdf.

3. Ibid., ch. 9.

4. Ibid., ch. 10.

    Pool-type light-water research reactors are attractive because they are simple and their compact cores are intense sources of neutrons. Of the nine isotope production reactors worldwide in the power range of 10 to 30 MWt whose construction began in 1980 or later, eight are light-water pool-type reactors.10 The ninth is Algeria’s Es-Salam heavy-water reactor.

    Light-water research reactors fueled with 19.75 percent-enriched uranium produce much less plutonium than reactors fueled with natural uranium because there are only about four U-238 nuclei in their fuel for every U-235 nucleus, a proportion much lower than the 140-to-1 ratio in natural uranium fuel. As a result, a 20-MWt light-water research reactor operated 300 days a year would produce only 0.7 kilograms of plutonium a year and would have on average about 1 kilogram of plutonium in its core.11 The IAEA must monitor the use of such reactors to ensure that natural uranium targets are not placed in or around the core to produce more plutonium.

    At the same time, because such a small fraction of their neutrons is wasted on the production of plutonium, relatively low-power light-water research reactors can produce large quantities of medical radioisotopes. The operators of Australia’s multipurpose 20-MWt OPAL reactor, for example, plan to produce and mostly export 2,700 six-day curies per week of molybdenum-99, the primary radioisotope used in medicine.12 Iran currently imports from Russia 100 six-day curies of this product per week to supplement the production by the Tehran Research Reactor.13

    Iran recognizes the efficiency of pool-type light-water reactors for research and radioisotope production. In February, Iran informed the IAEA that a “10 MW light water pool type research reactor with 20 percent enriched uranium oxide fuel, is planned to be constructed in order to fulfill the national demand on educational nuclear research, material testing, medical radio isotopes production and other beam line application.”14 It appears, however, that Iran intends to build this new reactor in addition to the Arak reactor rather than as an alternative.

    The Arak reactor perhaps could be converted into a light-water pool-type reactor. If the pressure vessel were removed, it might be possible to flood the radiation shield chamber with water and install the core of a pool-type reactor at the bottom.

    Iran takes pride in the Arak reactor, however, and is unwilling to scrap it in exchange for a light-water research reactor. Salehi emphasized its importance as a scientific and technological achievement.15 As he suggested, however, there exist plausible options for modest changes in the operation of the Arak reactor that would dramatically reduce its plutonium production without reducing its performance as a research reactor. These changes could be a basis for a mutually acceptable solution.

    Reducing Plutonium Production

    The amount of plutonium produced in the Arak reactor could be reduced drastically with the implementation of two complementary measures.

    • Convert the reactor from using natural uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium fuel. For a given reactor power, the total quantity of U-235 in the fuel would not change because using less-dense fuel would compensate for the increased enrichment. The quantity of U-238, however, would be greatly reduced, and the quantity of plutonium produced would be reduced almost in proportion.16
    • With low-enriched fuel, the power could be reduced to 20 or even 10 MWt, further reducing plutonium production. With a proportionately smaller core, the reactor still would have at least as large a capacity to produce neutrons for medical isotopes and for scientific research as the current design, a 40-MWt reactor fueled by natural uranium.

    These options were examined for variations of Arak’s current core design (fig. 1 [Core A]). Because Iran has not publicly released the full design details of the Arak reactor, the 40-MWt design created by a group of Norwegian researchers, based on descriptions in Iranian publications, is used for reference here.17 The core contains 8.7 metric tons of natural uranium in the form of 10 metric tons of uranium dioxide.18

    The analysis below compares the performance of this design with that of two possible alternative smaller cores in the same reactor vessel with heavy water as a moderator but with the power level reduced to 20 or 10 MWt and the fuel at each power level enriched to 5 or 19.75 percent U-235.

    Converting the Arak reactor to 5 percent-enriched fuel might be preferable to converting to 19.75 percent-enriched fuel. If Iran produces its own fuel for the Arak reactor, it would be better that it not have a reason, in the near term at least, to produce more uranium that is enriched to almost 20 percent. Uranium enriched to that level requires much less additional enrichment to reach weapons grade (an enrichment level of 90 percent or more). Iran has produced enough uranium enriched to almost 20 percent to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor for several years at least and has suspended further production as a confidence-building measure under the Joint Plan of Action.

    The need to produce 5 percent-enriched uranium for Arak could not be used by Iran to legitimize a large enrichment capacity. About 1,300 of Iran’s first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1, could produce enough material to fuel the Arak reactor operating at 20 MWt.19 It would take twice as much enrichment capacity to provide enough 19.75 percent-enriched uranium to fuel a light-water research reactor with the same power.

    With regard to plutonium production in the fuel of the various cores, the analysis conducted for this article found that when fueled with 5 percent-enriched uranium, the Arak reactor, operating at 20 MWt, would produce no more plutonium in its fuel than a light-water research reactor of the same power fueled with 19.75 percent-enriched uranium (table 1). If the Arak reactor were fueled with 19.75 percent-enriched uranium, the amount of plutonium produced in its fuel would be one-quarter the amount produced in the core of a light-water research reactor with the same power.

    It is well understood how to change the enrichment of a research reactor’s fuel without changing the geometry of the fuel or core. Between 2001 and 2010, 20 research reactors were converted from using weapons-grade uranium fuel to 19.75 percent-enriched fuel.20 That was a reduction of fuel enrichment rather than the increase for Arak discussed here, but the approach is the same. The analysis for this article has examined the effect of reducing the concentration of uranium in the fuel while the enrichment is increased so that the amount of U-235 in the fuel stays constant. This would require Iran to make a different kind of fuel for Arak than the uranium dioxide fuel that is currently planned.

    Fuels currently used in most research reactors are made by dispersing uranium-containing material in aluminum to make the “meat” of the fuel and then sealing that meat inside aluminum cladding to isolate the uranium and its fission products from the cooling water. Iran already is producing one such fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in which the uranium is in the form of the uranium oxide U3O8.21 This fuel can be produced with uranium densities as high as 3.2 grams of uranium per cubic centimeter.22 Five percent-enriched fuel for the Arak reactor would require a uranium density of about 1.3 grams per cubic centimeter, which would be relatively straightforward to fabricate.

    Converting to enriched uranium fuel would make more neutrons available for radioisotope production and other purposes. Arak reportedly is designed with eight channels reserved for purposes such as irradiating radioisotope production targets and test fuel.23 A much smaller 5 percent-enriched core could produce as many neutrons for such purposes operating at 10 MWt as could the large natural uranium core operating at 40 MWt.24

    In summary, any of the redesigns of the Arak reactor suggested here would reduce plutonium production to less than 1 kilogram per year, comparable to the reduction that would be accomplished by replacing the Arak reactor with a light-water research reactor. At the same time, these redesigns would not reduce the usefulness of the reactor for making radioisotopes and conducting research. Thus, this approach would meet Iran’s needs and would address the concerns of the international community as reflected by the P5+1.

    To prevent the accumulation of large amounts of plutonium-bearing spent fuel at Arak, the spent fuel could be shipped out after a few years. Russia already has agreed to remove the spent fuel from Iran’s Bushehr reactor after it has cooled sufficiently. Ordinarily, spent fuel from light-water power reactors is not shipped until it has cooled for five years, but it can be shipped sooner with a reduced loading of fuel per transport cask. The Bushehr reactor will discharge about 27 metric tons of spent fuel a year. It would be a minor matter to add to the shipments of its spent fuel the approximately 0.1 to 0.2 metric tons of 5 percent-enriched spent fuel that would be discharged annually by the Arak reactor operating at 10 to 20 MWt.

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    Breakout Potential

    The overarching goal of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran is to limit Iran’s potential to quickly produce enough plutonium or HEU for a weapon. A relevant question is how the breakout potential of an Arak reactor fueled with enriched uranium and operating at reduced power would compare with the proliferation risk from Iran’s uranium-enrichment program.

    The small amount of plutonium in the 5 percent-enriched spent fuel means that, to make a weapon quantity of plutonium in a hurry, Iran first would have to manufacture about 2,700 natural uranium fuel rods for the reactor. It then would replace its enriched fuel with this natural uranium fuel and operate the reactor at 40 MWt continuously for nine months. These actions would be quickly detected by IAEA inspectors. The fabrication of the natural uranium fuel would provide additional warning unless Iran had established a clandestine fuel-fabrication plant. After that, it would take months to separate the plutonium even if Iran had clandestinely constructed a reprocessing plant. The total breakout time would be at least a year.

    For comparison, the Institute for Science and International Security estimates it would take Iran’s enrichment program significantly less than six months to produce one weapon’s worth of HEU.25 To increase this breakout time to six months, Iran would have to reduce its enrichment capacity from the equivalent of the approximately 19,000 IR-1 centrifuges it had operating or installed in early February to the equivalent of only 4,000 IR-1 centrifuges.26

    Thus, if the Arak reactor is converted to operate on enriched uranium at reduced power, it is likely to be less of a breakout threat than Iran’s enrichment program.

    The conversion steps described above are technically feasible and would not reduce Arak’s usefulness for civilian purposes. They provide a sound basis for resolving one of the key points of contention in the talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

    Ali Ahmad, Frank von Hippel, Alexander Glaser, and Zia Mian are members of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.


    1. See International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “Communication Dated 27 November 2013 Received From the EU Representative Concerning the Text of the Joint Plan of Action,” INFCIRC/855, November 27, 2013 (contains the Joint Plan of Action as an attachment) (hereinafter Joint Plan of Action); Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Summary of Technical Understandings Related to the Implementation of the Joint Plan of Action on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program,” January 16, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/16/summary-technical-understandings-related-implementation-joint-plan-actio.

    2. Joint Plan of Action, fn. 3.

    3. “Arak Heavy Water Reactor Is for Peaceful Research: Dr. Salehi (Part 2),” Press TV, February 5, 2014, www.presstv.ir/detail/2014/02/05/349340/false-allegations-wont-stop-arak-reactor/.

    4. U.S. Department of State, “Talking Points on Algerian Nuclear Developments for Delivery to Senators Glenn and Roth (SGA), Senators Pell and Helms (SFRC), and Congressmen Fascell and Broomfield (HFAC),” July 29, 1991, http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb228/Algeria-18.pdf.

    5. It would be 47 kilograms with a full core in the pool and just before discharge of an additional one-third of a core.

    6. The plutonium isotope produced by neutron capture in U-238 is plutonium-239. If this isotope absorbs a second neutron, there is about a 27 percent chance that it will not fission but rather turn into plutonium-240. In the United States, weapons-grade plutonium is defined as containing less than 7 percent plutonium-240. See U.S. Department of Energy, “Plutonium: The First 50 Years,” DOE/DP-0137, February 1996, p. 17. The fuel discharged from the Arak reactor after 3.5 years would contain 21 percent plutonium-240. With regard to the weapons usability of non-weapons-grade plutonium, the Department of Energy has written,

    At the lowest level of sophistication, a potential proliferating state or subnational group using designs and technology no more sophisticated than those used in first-generation nuclear weapons could build a nuclear weapon from reactor grade plutonium [containing at least 19 percent plutonium-240] that would have an assured reliable yield of one or a few kilotons (and a probable yield significantly higher than that). At the other end of the spectrum, advanced nuclear weapon states such as the United States and Russia, using modern designs, could produce weapons from reactor-grade plutonium having reliable explosive yields, weight and other characteristics generally comparable to those of weapons made with weapon-grade plutonium.

    U.S. Department of Energy, “Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Disposition Alternatives,” DOE/NN-0007, January 1997, pp. 38-39.

    7. IAEA, “IAEA Safeguards Glossary, 2001 Edition,” International Nuclear Verification Series, No. 3 (2002), p. 22, table 1.

    8. These calculations assume 2 grams per kilogram of uranium in 27 metric tons of fuel with an average burn-up of 5 MWt-days per kilogram.

    9. IAEA, “Communication Dated 8 August 2005 Received From the Resident Representatives of France, Germany and the United Kingdom to the Agency,” INFCIRC/651, August 8, 2005.

    10. The eight pool-type light-water reactors are OPAL (Australia, 20 MWt, 2002), FRM-II (Germany, 20 MWt, 1996), ETRR-2 (Egypt, 22 MWt, 1992), HANARO (South Korea, 30 MWt, 1987), JRR-3M (Japan, 20 MWt, 1985), RSG-GAS (Indonesia, 30 MWt, 1983), IRT-1 (Libya, 10 MWt, 1980), and RP-10 (Peru, 10 MWt, 1980). IAEA, “Research Reactors,” http://nucleus.iaea.org/RRDB/RR/ReactorSearch.aspx?rf=1.

    11. Alexander Glaser, “On the Proliferation Potential of Uranium Fuel for Research Reactors at Various Enrichment Levels,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2006): 10, table 4 (assuming 40 percent burn-up of the U-235 in the fuel).

    12. National Research Council, “Medical Isotope Production Without Highly Enriched Uranium,” January 14, 2009, p. 44; “Australia Greenlights ‘Mega Moly’ Project,” Nuclear Engineering International, January 1, 2013, www.neimagazine.com/features/featurebox-australia-greenlights-mega-moly-project/. Six-day curies measure the quantity of molybdenum-99 left a week after it has been produced in a reactor. Assuming 10 percent losses and one day of decay during extraction from the neutron “target,” 15 percent of the molybdenum-99 in the target would remain after an additional six days of decay during shipping and use at a hospital.

    13. “Russia Ready to Supply Iran With Medical Isotopes Molybdenum and Iodine,” Interfax Azerbaijan, February 22, 2011, http://interfax.az/view/458081 (in Russian).

    14. IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” GOV/2014/10, February 20, 2014.

    15. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, in response to the question, “Why do you want this thing, why do you want this whole international, Western dispute over this particular issue [the Arak reactor]?” said, “First of all it is a scientific achievement, it is a technological achievement.” “Arak Heavy Water Reactor Is for Peaceful Research.”

    16. The reduction is not exactly in proportion because, with a lower density of U-238, the nuclei shield one another from neutrons to a lesser degree.

    17. Thomas Mo Willig, Cecilia Futsaether, and Halvor Kippe, “Converting the Iranian Heavy Water Reactor IR-40 to a More Proliferation-Resistant Reactor,” Science & Global Security, Vol. 20, Nos. 2-3 (October 2012): 97-116. For more detail, see Thomas Mo Willig, “Feasibility and Benefits of Converting the Iranian Heavy Water Reactor IR-40 to a More Proliferation-Resistant Reactor,” Norwegian University of Life Sciences, 2011. This group also examined the possibility of converting the Arak reactor to low-enriched uranium but limited itself to uranium dioxide fuel.

    18. Willig, “Feasibility and Benefits of Converting the Iranian Heavy Water Reactor IR-40 to a More Proliferation-Resistant Reactor,” p. 66.

    19. This assumes that the capacity of the first-generation centrifuges is 0.9 separative work units per year, the depleted uranium produced has an assay of 0.4 percent, the core contains 600 kilograms of 5 percent-enriched uranium, and the fuel life in the reactor is three years.

    20. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, “Primarily Positive Perceptions: A Survey of Research Reactor Operators on the Benefits and Pitfalls of Converting From HEU to LEU” (paper presented at the European Research Reactor Conference, Ljubljana, Slovenia, April 1, 2014).

    21. IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” para. 58 and annex 2, tables 5 and 6.

    22. Argonne National Laboratory, “Currently-Qualified Fuels,” July 29, 2008, http://www.rertr.anl.gov/QualFuel.html.

    23. Mehdi Hashemi-Tilehnoee, Ali Pazirandeh, and Saman Tashakor, “HAZOP-Study on Heavy Water Research Reactor Primary Cooling System,” Annals of Nuclear Energy, Vol. 37, No. 3 (March 2010): 428-433.

    24. The cumulative yield of 2.74-day half-life molybdenum-99 from thermal fission of U-235 is 6.11 percent. T. R. England and B. F. Rider, “Evaluation and Compilation of Fission Product Yields, 1993,” ENDF-349, LA-UR-94-3106, October 1994. For 20 percent-enriched uranium metal targets 0.5 millimeters thick irradiated for seven days, a one meter-high stack of targets containing 116 grams of uranium in the central channel would produce 1,800 six-day curies a week.

    25. Assuming a large stock of 3.5 percent-enriched uranium and 68 kilograms of 19.75 percent uranium (equivalent to 100 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride) as feedstock. Institute for Science and International Security, “Defining Iranian Nuclear Programs in a Comprehensive Solution Under the Joint Plan of Action,” January 15, 2014, http://www.isisnucleariran.org/assets/pdf/Elements_of_a_Comprehensive_Solution_20Jan2014_1.pdf.

    26. For the numbers of Iran’s installed centrifuges as of February 2014, see IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” To get the number of first-generation equivalents, it has been assumed that each second-generation IR-2M centrifuge is the equivalent of five first-generation IR-1 centrifuges.

    There are plausible options for modest changes in the operation of the Arak reactor that would dramatically reduce its plutonium production without compromising its performance as a research reactor. These changes could be the basis for the resolution of a potentially divisive issue between Iran and its negotiating partners.

    S. Korea, U.S. Extend Pact for 2 Years

    Daniel Horner

    South Korea and the United States have brought into force a two-year interim extension of the their agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation, the State Department said in a March 18 press release.

    President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced last year that they had agreed on a two-year extension of the pact. (See ACT, May 2013.) The two sides are negotiating a longer-term agreement, but have not been able to resolve key issues, notably South Korea’s interest in treating spent fuel through a technique called pyroprocessing.

    The United States has said it considers pyroprocessing to be a type of spent fuel reprocessing, and therefore a proliferation concern. But Seoul argues that pyroprocessing is more proliferation resistant than conventional reprocessing because in pyroprocessing, the plutonium separated from the spent fuel is mixed with other elements.

    South Korea also says it needs to develop a domestic capacity to enrich uranium.

    The 1974 U.S.-South Korean agreement was to expire last month. Congress cleared the way for the two-year extension in January.

    The legislation approving the extension includes a number of findings. One of them states that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, including uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies, undermine security on the Korean peninsula” and that South Korea and the United States “have a shared interest in preventing further proliferation.”

    South Korea and the United States have brought into force a two-year interim extension of the their agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation, the State Department said in a March 18 press release.

    Cancel Russia Copter Deal, Lawmakers Say

    Jefferson Morley

    While President Barack Obama seeks economic sanctions against Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine, the Defense Department is continuing to fulfill a $554 million contract with Russia’s arms export agency to supply military helicopters to the government of Afghanistan.

    Some members of Congress are objecting. In a March 19 letter, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and four other House members urged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to cancel the contract with Rosoboronexport, citing a recent executive order by Obama that imposes sanctions on persons “in the arms or related material sector of the Russian Federation” in response to the Russian invasion of Crimea.

    In the past, the Pentagon has supported the Afghan military’s use of the Russian-made, battle-tested Mi-17 helicopter. In 2012, James Miller, acting undersecretary of defense for policy, said the Russian-made aircraft had “proven operational capabilities in the extreme environments of Afghanistan.” Cancellation of the contract would “complicate the maintenance, sustainment, and supply systems required to support the fleet” of the embattled Afghan armed forces, the Pentagon said in response to criticism from Congress and human rights advocates over Rosoboronexport supplying weapons to the Syrian government as it waged a bloody civil war.

    When Congress prohibited dealings with Rosobornonexport in 2013, the Pentagon invoked a national security waiver provision in the law and extended the contract, triggering more criticism from Congress.

    In November, the Defense Department dropped plans to purchase 15 to 20 additional helicopters from Rosoboronexport. Pentagon officials said at that time they would fulfill the original contract, calling for 30 helicopters to be delivered in batches of six. The second batch arrived in Afghanistan in late February, according to the Itar-Tass news agency, with three more deliveries scheduled before the end of 2014.

    When asked for comment, a Defense Department spokesman said in a March 21 e-mail that “the government ensures that termination is authorized in all contracts by including the appropriate termination clauses in each contract” and cited the “requirement to use those termination clauses,” suggesting that termination because of Rosoboronexport’s trade with Syria or Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is not permitted under the contract.

    While President Barack Obama seeks economic sanctions against Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine, the Defense Department is continuing to fulfill a $554 million contract with Russia’s arms export agency to supply military helicopters to the government of Afghanistan.

    Report: China May Have New ASAT Weapon

    Timothy Farnsworth

    A report by the Secure World Foundation has presented new evidence that a Chinese rocket launch last May was actually a test of a new anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon.

    In a press release shortly after the event, the Chinese Academy of Sciences originally characterized it as a scientific launch originating from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in western China. A high-altitude sounding rocket carried a scientific payload 10,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface to study the magnetosphere, according to the press release.

    Drawing on open-source materials and commercially available satellite images, the report by Brian Weeden, a technical adviser to the foundation, finds that the evidence, although not conclusive, appears to show that China is testing a rocket component of a new ASAT weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile that could reach geostationary orbit, about 36,000 kilometers above the earth. Weeden said in a March 27 e-mail to Arms Control Today that, from a U.S. military perspective, “the altitude has some very important implications because [the United States] has some very important national security space assets at those higher altitudes.” Some of these assets include satellites that provide early-warning launch notifications or communications for nuclear forces or help fly drones. Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force space analyst, said in his e-mail that the United States has considered these systems safe and probably could not defend them from deliberate attacks.

    According to the report, no other country has tested a direct-ascent ASAT weapons system that could hit satellites higher than 2,000 kilometers. A direct-ascent weapon is launched from the earth’s surface with the goal of hitting a target in space, but the weapon itself does not remain in orbit.

    Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Monica Matoush told the Air Force Association on May 15, 2013, that “[t]he launch appeared to be on a ballistic trajectory nearly to geosynchronous Earth orbit.”

    A ballistic trajectory typically means that a rocket is on a suborbital flight path and neither it nor its payload stays in orbit. Rockets that are used for space launches follow a different trajectory in order to keep the payload in orbit after flight.

    According to the report, data suggest that the apogee of the rocket—the point at which it was farthest from the earth—was higher than the 10,000 kilometers that China claimed.

    In the report, Weeden said that satellite images of the Xichang launch site approximately a month before the launch point toward a new weapons system because sounding rockets, typically used for scientific tests and research of the upper atmosphere, generally are launched from fixed structures on launch pads. None of the satellite images show a “viable sounding rocket” on any of the pads, the report says. That fact, in combination with other information, further puts the Chinese claims in question, the reports says.

    The report notes that none of China’s current ballistic missiles could reach the altitude of the May 2013 test, leading Weeden to speculate the test could be China’s new Kuaizhou solid-fueled rocket space-launch vehicle. The Kuaizhou rocket was launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in September 2013, and amateur imagery of that launch shows it to be based on a mobile launch platform, Weeden said in his e-mail.

    The State Department and the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency did not respond to inquiries by Arms Control Today regarding details of Weeden’s report.

    A report by the Secure World Foundation has presented new evidence that a Chinese rocket launch last May was actually a test of a new anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon.

    GOP Presses Obama on INF Treaty Concerns

    Tom Z. Collina

    Republicans in the House and Senate introduced identical resolutions March 25 calling on President Barack Obama to hold Russia accountable for “being in material breach of its obligations” under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

    Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), David Vitter (R-La.), and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) introduced the Senate resolution. Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), Ted Poe (R-Tex.), and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) introduced the bill in the House.

    The resolutions come in response to what Republican lawmakers say was the Obama administration’s weak action in following up on U.S. suspicions that Moscow has tested cruise missiles banned by the INF Treaty. The accord prohibits the United States and Russia from testing or fielding ballistic or cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The Obama administration confirmed these concerns in January, but has not publicly concluded that a violation has taken place. (See ACT, March 2014.)

    The possibility of the treaty violation has been an issue in the confirmation process for some Obama administration nominees (see).

    In light of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, “Russian cheating cannot be interpreted in anything but the most sinister terms,” Rubio and the House members said in a March 25 press release. “Cheating is not a separate issue, but is rather recognized as an equal part of [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin’s long-term plan for a resurgent Russia.”

    The resolutions call on Obama to demand that Russia “completely and verifiably eliminate” the missiles in question, not to reduce U.S. nuclear forces further or engage in arms control negotiations with Russia until this elimination has occurred, and to consider whether the United States should remain a party to the INF Treaty if Moscow is still in violation a year from now. The United States and Russia are currently reducing their nuclear forces under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and Obama had been proposing an additional round of negotiated arsenal cuts.

    “We have introduced this resolution because the viability of future arms control agreements depends on the reliability of current ones,” Rubio and his colleagues said. “There is simply no point in having treaties unless both sides treat them with the utmost fidelity, and act in a manner binding to the agreement.”

    Republicans in the House and Senate introduced identical resolutions March 25 calling on President Barack Obama to hold Russia accountable for “being in material breach of its obligations” under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

    In Memoriam: John B. Rhinelander (1933-2014)

    Daryl G. Kimball

    John B. Rhinelander, a key figure in the negotiation of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and a long-time member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, died unexpectedly on March 2.

    Those who worked with John or saw him in action will remember him as a powerful and persistent champion for sensible, bipartisan nuclear risk reduction measures and respect for international treaty obligations.

    A Boston native, Rhinelander graduated from Yale University in 1955 and the University of Virginia School of Law in 1961, where he was editor-in-chief of the law review. He clerked for a year with Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan and worked with the law firm now known as Davis Polk and Wardwell.

    In 1966 he moved to Virginia to serve as special civilian assistant to Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze, the first of many positions he held in the executive branch.

    From 1971 to 1972, Rhinelander was the legal adviser for President Richard Nixon’s SALT/ABM negotiating team. The SALT/ABM accords, concluded in the spring of 1972, established the first constraints on the fast-growing U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear arsenals and set limits on further research on and development and deployment of ABM systems, which both sides understood at the time could alter the balance of offensive forces and thereby undermine strategic stability.

    In the mid-1980s, as a member of the ACA Board of Directors, Rhinelander was a leading critic of the Reagan administration’s attempt to reinterpret the ABM Treaty to allow expanded research for a “Star Wars” strategic defense system to intercept Soviet missiles. In an article in the September 1987 issue of Arms Control Today, he noted that Nixon instructed the U.S. delegation “to reach agreement on the broad principle that the agreement should not be interpreted in such a way that either side could circumvent its provisions through future ABM systems or components.”

    When President George W. Bush decided to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, Rhinelander pointed out in December 2001 that “there was no compelling reason to do so” given that the ABM systems intended for deployment to counter limited missile threats from third parties could be accommodated by the treaty or through modifications that could be negotiated with Russia. Moreover, he accurately predicted that “it will be at least a decade before the Pentagon knows whether it can build anything that is effective.”

    As general counsel of the Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare from 1973 to 1976, he played a key role in several major domestic policy issues. He was involved in drafting the implementing regulations for the landmark Title IX section of the 1972 Education Amendments, which mandates equal spending for female and male collegiate athletics, and in efforts to pass legislation that would have established a system of national health insurance.

    After leaving government, John was a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm now known as Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and was an active member in ACA and the Lawyers Alliance for World Security.

    Often teaming up with his friend and fellow veteran of the Department of State’s arms control legal team, George Bunn, Rhinelander spoke and wrote forcefully on a wide range of key topics, often in Arms Control Today. For instance, in 1991, Rhinelander and Bunn tackled the question of who is bound by the former Soviet Union’s arms control treaties; in 1995, they helped sort out the legal and political options for extending the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); and in 1996, they called on Washington and the other NPT nuclear-weapon states to take steps to reinforce the legal effect of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty pending ratification and entry into force.

    In his later years, John enjoyed life away from Washington at his home by the sea in Gloucester, Mass., spending time with his wife of 51 years, Jeanne; his four children; and his adoring grandchildren.

    Rhinelander, who was a life-long Republican, was always seeking to find commonsense, common-ground solutions on arms control challenges facing the United States and the world. ACA members, staff, and fellow board members thank him for his enormous contributions, his wise counsel, and his solid friendship through the years.

    John B. Rhinelander, a key figure in the negotiation of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty ...

    Drone Proliferation Tests Arms Control

    Jefferson Morley

    As the U.S. government winds up an interagency review of rules governing the export of large drones, the conflicting goals of nonproliferation and commerce are creating a new test of the 27-year-old Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

    Observers do not expect big changes to the MTCR, which seeks to prevent the proliferation of unmanned systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. The MTCR, a voluntary arrangement that now includes 34 countries, originally was intended to curb the spread of ballistic missiles and unmanned vehicles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. In 1993 it was amended to control systems carrying any weapons of mass destruction. It has become Washington’s chief tool for controlling the spread of armed drones.

    “It’s quite unlikely that we will see any radical change in the MTCR,” Eric McClafferty, an attorney at Kelley Drye and Warren, a law firm in Washington that represents UAV manufacturers, said in a March 19 interview. “That said, there’s a lot of pressure on the U.S. government to liberalize controls to make sure the U.S. doesn’t get left behind in this market.”

    The conflict has played out in a series of closed-door meetings over the last two months among the State, Defense, and Commerce departments as officials seek to update U.S. policy toward the burgeoning UAV market. Industry representatives have made their views known via technical committees that advise policymakers in these departments.

    “It’s a pretty contentious fight” between the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation and the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration, said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a March 17 interview. The State Department says that “if you pull at the thread of MTCR, you will weaken the nonproliferation regime as a whole. The other side says the international market is going to supply these UAVs anyway,” Zenko said.

    The heart of the issue is what kind of UAVs U.S. manufacturers can sell overseas. The MTCR imposes a “presumption of denial” for the export of so-called Category 1 UAV’s, which are drones that can travel more than 300 kilometers with a payload of more than 500 kilograms. Drones that do not have those capabilities are classified as Category 2 UAVs and are not subject to such restrictive criteria.

    Two drones currently classified as Category 1—the Reaper, formerly known as the Predator, and the Global Hawk—have played a central role in U.S. aerial attacks on suspected Islamic militants in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Washington has approved the sale of an armed drone to only one country, the United Kingdom, although unarmed versions of these drones have been sold to Italy and South Korea.

    The stakes of the MTCR review process are large politically and economically, observers say.

    “UAVs makes the use of lethal force easier,” Zenko said. “We did 375 drone strikes in Pakistan. We never would have done 375 manned aircraft missions or 375 Special Forces operations.” Independent observers say many civilians were killed in those strikes.

    The proliferation of armed drones to other countries could lead to more attacks on civilians and more armed conflict, and, if the drones fell into the wrong hands, could pose a threat to U.S. security, arms control advocates say.

    In November, the German government suspended plans to acquire armed drones. In a public statement, the government said, “We categorically reject illegal killings by drones. Germany will support the use of unmanned weapons systems for the purposes of international disarmament and arms control.”

    Although governments and policymakers worry about the consequences of drone proliferation, U.S. manufacturers look forward to new opportunities for business.

    The global market for high- and medium-altitude UAVs, which include Category 1 drones, was worth $2.2 billion in 2013, according to Phil Finnegan, senior analyst at the Teal Group, which monitors the defense industry. The Teal Group projects that these types of drones will generate $24.9 billion in business over the next 10 years.

    The United States and Israel now dominate the large-drone export market, but other countries are marketing or developing UAVs with similar capabilities, Siemon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said in a March 19 interview.

    “The Chinese have developed a drone like a Predator. The exact capability is unclear, but they are definitely interested,” Wezeman said. “The French, Spanish, and Swedes have a consortium that is considering building this kind of UAV. The British have a design, and the Russians have shown a mock-up of a similar system.”

    U.S. manufacturers have responded by seeking changes to the definition of Category 1 or by modifying Category 1 drones by reducing their payload under 500 kilograms and changing their design so that they cannot be weaponized. Industry representatives say they need liberalization of the MTCR rules to stay competitive.

    “A lot of people feel that these markets are starting to close out, that foreign competition is going to capture market share,” McClafferty said.

    The solution is not to relax the criteria for export, but to persuade other drone-producing countries to join the MTCR, Dennis Gormley, professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, said in a March 15 interview.

    He emphasized the importance of getting China to join the MTCR. Beijing has pledged to adhere to the MTCR, but has not formally signed on to its terms. Becoming a full member of the MTCR would commit China to establishing the same export control processes that other signatory countries have.

    “It is in our interest to bolster the capacity of China and other governments to monitor the changes in the market,” Gormley said.

    Gormley disputed claims that the MTCR hurts the U.S. manufacturers, saying only two companies produce Category 1 drones: General Atomics, which sells the Reaper, and Northrop Grumman, which sells the Global Hawk. These large UAVs only account for 2 percent of the global UAV market, Gormley said. Continuing to limit the sales of Category 1 drones, he said, “is not going to have a big impact on America’s industrial base.”

    The completion of the interagency review process, expected later this year, will not end the challenges facing the MTCR, Zenko said.

    “The Obama administration recognizes that UAVs are a distinct platform that has destabilizing possibilities,” he said. Given the rapid evolution of drone technology, the United States “has a shrinking window to shape international norms.”

    The original version of this article incorrectly reported the year when the MTCR covered unmanned aerial vehicles. It was 1987.

    In the face of pressure to reduce military budgets, the Obama administration is planning to increase spending on nuclear weapons significantly over the next five years.


    Iran, P5+1 Hold ‘Constructive’ Talks

    Kelsey Davenport

    Iran and six world powers held “constructive and useful” talks on a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program, according to a March 19 joint statement released by the parties.

    A main topic of the talks between Iran and the six-country group, known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), was Iran’s uranium-enrichment program.

    The March 17-19 talks in Vienna were the second set of meetings between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program after the parties reached an interim agreement in November. Implementation of the initial actions began Jan. 20 and is to last six months. If an agreement is not reached, the interim deal can be extended by mutual consent of the two sides. U.S. officials have said they hope to reach a final deal within the first six months.

    Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but some countries are concerned that Iran could use its nuclear capabilities to develop nuclear weapons.

    During the first round of meetings on the comprehensive deal, which were held Feb. 18-20 in Vienna, the two sides agreed on a framework and timetable to guide the first four months of negotiations on a comprehensive deal. (See ACT, March 2014.) Technical experts from Iran and the P5+1 met in the first week of March in advance of the political-level negotiations to begin discussions of the issues identified during the February talks.

    The two sides are scheduled to hold lower-level talks on technical issues April 3-5, followed by another round of higher-level negotiations April 7-9 in Vienna.

    During a March 19 press conference in Vienna after the most recent round of talks, a senior Obama administration official described them as “extensive” and said that each side understands the “concerns” and “concepts” of the other.

    At a separate March 19 press conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the head of his country’s negotiating team, said that the talks provided clarification on issues and were “constructive.”

    One of the areas in which the sides remain “far apart” is the issue of uranium enrichment because Iran has “far-reaching demands” in this area, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said in a March 19 statement.

    At the press conference, the senior Obama administration official said that the issue of Iranian enrichment activities encompasses “a lot of elements” ranging “from facilities to stockpiles to research and development to monitoring and transparency” and that the discussions on that subject were “extensive.”

    According to the Nov. 24 Joint Plan of Action, Iran’s enrichment capacity will be determined according to its “practical needs.”

    Although Iran’s current need for enriched uranium is very small because its only civilian nuclear power plant is fueled by Russia, Tehran has said it plans to build 16 new nuclear power reactors and a research reactor. The timelines for these projects, however, have not been made public.

    The P5+1 is concerned about Iran retaining an extensive enrichment capacity and large stockpiles of enriched uranium because that would allow Tehran to build a nuclear weapon more quickly if it decided to do so.

    Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on March 20 issued its second special report on Iran’s implementation of certain aspects of the interim deal. The first report was released Jan. 20, when implementation of the initial agreement began.

    According to the March report, Iran is complying with its obligations under the deal. The IAEA confirmed that Iran is continuing to down-blend and convert its stockpiles of uranium that had been enriched to 20 percent. The Jan. 20 report confirmed that Iran had begun these activities.

    As part of the initial deal, Iran agreed to dilute half of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium to an enrichment level of less than 5 percent. Last month’s report confirmed that Iran completed half of the dilution before the March 20 deadline for that task.

    The remaining half is being converted to a powder form that can be used to make fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes.

    Uranium refined to 20 percent is more easily enriched further to weapons grade than if it begins as reactor-grade uranium, which is enriched to less than 5 percent. Iran’s stockpile of the 20 percent-enriched material was a key concern for the international community.

    The March 20 report also confirmed that the agency now has daily access to Iran’s two enrichment sites, Natanz and Fordow, and that Iran has not begun operating or installed any additional centrifuges at either site.

    Iran and six world powers held talks on a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program, with both sides afterward describing the talks as “constructive.”


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