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

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
September 2015
Edition Date: 
Thursday, September 3, 2015
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Getting to Know Ryan Gariepy

Interviewed by Jefferson Morley

Ryan Gariepy, shown in this 2014 photo, is co-founder of Clearpath Robotics. (Courtesy of Ryan Gariepy)“Getting to Know” is an occasional series that introduces Arms Control Today readers to interesting people active in the world of arms control.

Many people are worried about the prospect of lethal autonomous weapons systems, popularly known as “killer robots,” entering the battlefields of the world’s many armed conflicts. But not many of the critics of lethal autonomous systems know how to design and build high-tech robots. Enter Ryan Gariepy, the 28-year-old co-founder and chief technical officer of Clearpath Robotics, based in Kitchener, Canada. Last year, the fast-growing firm, with a workforce of 100, established a company policy of not accepting any work related to the building of robotics for lethal autonomous systems. In June, Gariepy was among 1,000-plus people from the world of artificial intelligence research and design, including famed physicist Stephen Hawking and inventor Elon Musk, who signed a statement calling for a ban on lethal autonomous systems. Gariepy is perhaps the first high-tech entrepreneur to make that position part of his business plan.

Arms Control Today caught up with Gariepy by telephone at his office in Kitchener. The interview, conducted by Jefferson Morley, has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did Clearpath come from?

From the University of Waterloo, a very strong engineering and math school in Ontario. Three of us were on a student robotics team, and we just saw a lot of potential in the things we were building. So after we graduated, we started a company.

It says on your website “The Future is Autonomous.” What are you getting at there?

The promise of unmanned systems, or autonomous systems or artificial intelligence systems, is to really free people from what is known, in the robotics community, as “dull, dirty, and dangerous” jobs.

Is the future of warfare autonomous?

We recognize the value that unmanned systems can bring to service members and keeping people out of harm’s way. The question is, can we not make sure that there is always an element of human involvement when a system decides to take lethal force?

How did you get interested in this issue?

We are always out there trying to extol the benefits of autonomous systems to companies and governments worldwide. But sometimes you run into a use case where you say, “Maybe this isn’t the best place for robotics.” It might not make business sense; or in this case, it may not be a humane thing to do, and it may be an incredibly risky way to deploy autonomous systems. Just like we look at the impact of our systems in a positive aspect, we also look at the negative aspect.

We saw the issue coming up more and more. In 2013 there was the “Losing Humanity” report by Human Rights Watch. Previous to that, you had Peter W. Singer’s book “Wired for War.” Before that, you had Ron Arkin’s textbook, “Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots.”

We are also seeing that robotics research is no longer being primarily driven by the military. People are approaching the issue as if the governments have the most say on what research is done. But robotics these days is quickly being dominated by private industry.

So if governments do not recognize the potential, good or bad, for this technology, then you might see that the technology is going to exist in a short time frame, certainly shorter than the international community can act on.

Does Clearpath have contracts with the U.S. or Canadian military?

We do work with the Canadian government and with the research arms of the U.S. Navy, Army, and Air Force.

What do you think of the term “killer robots”?

The term certainly brought the public’s eyes to the issue. The impact of that should not be underestimated. Personally, I prefer to say “lethal autonomous weapons systems,” but that’s because I’m an engineer.

What has been the reaction to Clearpath’s position on lethal autonomous systems?

Many of the skilled people, the engineers applying for jobs with us, have expressed interest in the issue, and we weren’t expecting that. We are expecting that the company might have a partial loss in military contracts at some point. We didn’t expect the level of public support we’ve gotten.

Congress Considers Iran Deal

By Kelsey Davenport

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew (left), Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz (center), and Secretary of State John Kerry appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing on the Iran nuclear deal on July 23. (State Department photo)The Senate’s top two Democrats are split on supporting the nuclear deal reached by Iran and six world powers in July, but with Democratic support solidifying behind the agreement over the past month, it appears unlikely that Congress will be able to block the White House from implementing the deal.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced his support for the deal Aug. 24, saying he will do “everything in his power” to defend it. But Senate Democratic Whip Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said in an Aug. 7 statement that he would vote against the deal because of what he perceived as “serious weaknesses” in it.

Iran and the six powers, known collectively as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), reached the July 14 agreement after 20 months of negotiations.

In an Aug. 4 speech at American University, President Barack Obama said that the deal “cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb” and contains the “most comprehensive inspection and verification regime ever negotiated” to monitor Tehran’s nuclear activities (see box). In return, Iran will receive relief from U.S., EU, and UN nuclear-related sanctions.

Congress has until Sept. 17 to review the deal and decide if it will vote on a resolution of approval or disapproval. A congressional vote to disapprove the deal would prevent the president from waiving certain sanctions on Iran that the United States committed to waiving as part of the agreement. (See ACT, June 2015.)

Passage of a resolution of approval or disapproval requires a simple majority. Overriding a presidential veto, which Obama has said he will exercise if Congress votes down the deal, requires a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate.

As of Aug. 31, 29 Democrats and two independents have publicly said they would support the agreement, three shy of the 34 necessary to sustain a veto in the Senate. Of the 15 remaining Senate Democrats, two have opposed the deal, Schumer and Robert Menendez (N.J.), and the other 13 have not publicly indicated their position. None of the 54 Senate Republicans have endorsed the deal.

If implementation of the deal proceeds according to schedule, Iran and the P5+1 will begin taking steps to implement their respective commitments in October. 

A Better Deal?

Some lawmakers opposing the deal, including Menendez, argue that a stronger deal is possible. In an Aug. 18 speech at Seton Hall University announcing his opposition, Menendez said the United States could still get a better deal by leaving the November 2013 interim agreement in place and strengthening sanctions to put more pressure on Iran to further reduce its nuclear program.

But in an Aug. 23 e-mail to Arms Control Today, an official from a European country involved in the negotiations dismissed the argument that the P5+1 can return to the negotiating table. He said it is “ludicrous for the U.S. Congress to think Europe will meekly follow Washington” and impose harsher sanctions if the deal is rejected. He said it is “even more ludicrous” to assume that Iran will be willing to re-engage in talks after the international community endorsed the deal.

The UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the agreement on July 21 in a resolution that laid the groundwork for lifting UN sanctions when the deal is implemented and set up a mechanism for reimposing sanctions if Iran violates its commitments.

The European official said that the deal is the “best chance to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.” Washington’s “credibility is on the line,” he said, and a rejection of this deal could “damage the prospects of future negotiations with Iran.” 

Inspector Access

Tero Varjoranta (left), the top safeguards official at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Yukiya Amano, the agency’s director-general, attend a special meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors on Iran on August 25 in Vienna. (Dean Calma/IAEA)Other members of Congress say they oppose the deal because it is not strong enough. Schumer pointed to the inspections regime, which he says should give “anytime, anywhere” access to inspectors, as a reason to oppose the deal.

Under the terms of the agreement, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will continuously monitor some of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran is required to provide them with access to all declared nuclear sites in as little as two hours.

Iran also is to implement and then ratify the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, which, among other things, allows the IAEA to request access to any area, including military sites, to investigate evidence of illicit nuclear activities. In these cases, Iran can take some steps to protect sensitive information.

As an additional measure to ensure that Iran complies with any IAEA request for access to an undeclared site, the nuclear deal gives Iran and the IAEA 14 days to work out an access arrangement to allow inspectors to visit a site. If Tehran and the agency are unable to do so, a commission set up under the deal will have seven days to consider the access request and issue a decision.

The commission is made up of eight members representing the P5+1 countries, Iran, and the European Union. Five of the eight members must agree for the commission to issue a decision on access.

If Iran does not implement the commission’s ruling within three days, any of the P5+1 countries can go to the Security Council to reimpose sanctions. Thus, under this process, inspectors would be granted access within 24 days.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a July 22 interview with Politico that it is “essentially impossible” for Iran to clean up illicit activities involving nuclear materials with any degree of confidence during the time before IAEA inspectors are able to visit a site. As part of its technical work to support the negotiations, the Energy Department conducted experiments with uranium and “unsuccessfully probed the limits of trying to clean it up” within 24 days, Moniz said.

Another reason for confidence in the deal’s ability to constrain Iran is the monitoring and verification regime it establishes, Moniz said. Under that regime, he said, Iran would have to replicate an entire nuclear supply chain to pursue an illicit program, and only “one weak link” is needed to indicate undeclared nuclear activities.

Information Delivered

An IAEA press release announced that Iran had submitted information on Aug. 15 to answer questions and provide information for the agency’s investigation into Iran’s past work that is suspected of having been related to nuclear weapons development.

Iran maintains that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

The Aug. 15 deadline for the submission of information by Iran was established in a July 14 Iran-IAEA agreement that is separate from the deal between Iran and the P5+1, but the text of that deal says sanctions relief is dependent on Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA probe.

At a special Aug. 25 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors to discuss monitoring and verification of Iran’s adherence to that deal in Iran and request funding for carrying out the measures, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said that Tehran provided “explanations in writing, and related documents, for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues.”

Under the Iran-IAEA agreement, the agency has until Sept. 15 to evaluate the information recently provided by Iran and ask additional questions. Iran will have until Oct. 15 to respond. By Dec. 15, the IAEA aims to complete its assessment of the past Iranian activities allegedly related to nuclear weapons development.

Although the Senate’s top two Democrats are split on supporting the nuclear deal with Iran, Congress appears unlikely to be able to block the White House from implementing the deal.

Islamic State Chemical Arms Use Alleged

By Daniel Horner and Jefferson Morley

An Iraqi soldier checks for chemical weapons in Tikrit on April 9 after the Iraqi city was recaptured from Islamic State fighters. (John Moore/Getty Images)Increasing reports of chemical weapons use in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State group are prompting concern at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and elsewhere amid conflicting assessments of what the agent in question might have been.

In an Aug. 17 press release, the OPCW cited reports of chemical weapons use by “non-State actors” in Iraq and called the reports “a matter of serious concern.” The OPCW said it had been in contact with the Iraqi government and “would examine any substantive reports it receives including pertinent information that might be shared” by other states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The OPCW statement came several days after unnamed U.S. officials were quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying that Islamic State militants appeared to have used chemical munitions, possibly mustard agent, on Kurdish fighters in Iraq in early August. Other media reports cited German officials as saying there were indications that the militant group had used chlorine weapons.

A number of independent experts have said they doubt that the Islamic State has mustard agent and that the group is more likely to be using chlorine, which is easier to obtain. The group has previously been accused of using chlorine weapons. (See ACT, December 2014.)

Support for the claim of mustard-agent use appeared to come from U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, the chief of staff of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. name for the military effort against the Islamic State. In an Aug. 21 video teleconference with reporters, he said that a few days after the Aug. 11 mortar attack by Islamic State fighters on Kurdish forces in Iraq, “a presumptive field test” on fragments from some of the mortar rounds “showed the presence of HD, or what is known as sulfur mustard,” according to a Pentagon summary of the press conference. He added that the test is not conclusive and that “a couple of weeks” would be needed “to do the full testing on those fragments,” the summary reported.

But in an Aug. 27 e-mail exchange with Arms Control Today, Maj. Roger Cabiness, a Defense Department spokesman, said he and his colleagues had “seen the most recent reporting and allegations regarding use of chemicals as weapons by elements of [the Islamic State]—in these instances, possibly a blistering agent—in Syria and Iraq” but that he was “not going to comment further on these allegations, nor attempts by some to have them adjudicated publicly.”

When asked how his comments squared with Killea’s, Cabiness said, “While we appreciate Brig. Gen. Killea’s comments in trying to get as clear an understanding as possible for the public regarding the situation on the ground, we are still awaiting further review of the details of these events, and should continue to exercise care in characterizing these details any further.”

Cabiness disputed widespread speculation that if the Islamic State did have chemical agents, they had originated in Syria or Iraq. When Syria joined the CWC in 2013, it declared more than 1,300 metric tons of chemical agents, but U.S. officials and others have expressed concern that the declaration was not complete. Iraq, which joined the CWC in 2009, has two sealed chemical weapons bunkers that are remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime.

In an Aug. 24 interview, Andy Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs in the Obama administration, said it was “very unlikely” that the Islamic State would have obtained any chemical agent from the Syrian stockpile. The U.S. government had “very good insight” into the composition of that stockpile, he said.

He said it also was implausible that any Islamic State chemical agents would have come from remnants of Hussein-era stockpiles. The Islamic State has “good chemists,” and the likeliest scenario for the group’s alleged acquisition of chemical weapons is “small-scale production by their own personnel,” he said.

New allegations of chemical weapons use by the Islamic State are coming from a number of sources.

ATT Parties Hold First Conference

By Jefferson Morley

Former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias addresses the first conference of states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty in Cancún, Mexico, on August 24. (Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images)Representatives of 130 countries last month adopted measures to implement the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which seeks to regulate the estimated $100 billion global trade in weapons.

Held in the Mexican city of Cancún, the first conference of states-parties to the ATT picked Geneva as the site of the organization’s headquarters, chose Simeon Dumisani Dladla of South Africa as the interim leader of the treaty’s secretariat, and decided that major decisions about implementation will require a two-thirds majority.

But the conference postponed a decision on the key issue of what participating countries will be required to report about their arms transfers, disappointing activists seeking to curb the weapons that fuel civil conflict and crime worldwide.

The ATT, adopted by the UN General Assembly in April 2013, entered into force in December 2014. A key requirement of the pact is that countries develop national reporting systems on the import, export, and diversion of conventional arms.

The ATT “offers the promise of a more peaceful world,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a video message on Aug. 24, the first day of the conference. “I commend those states that are promoting responsible arms transfers, and I salute civil society for pushing this process from the very beginning.”

The differences between the governments seeking to regulate the often lucrative arms trade according to international norms and the governments and civil society groups seeking to curtail the arms transfers that stoke deadly conflicts around the world emerged in opening statements from attendees.

“I am concerned about the gap...between the duty to ensure respect for international humanitarian law in arms transfers and the actual transfer practices of too many states,” said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, in another Aug. 24 video address to the conference.

“Every year, millions of ordinary people have their lives devastated by conflict in war-torn countries such as Yemen and South Sudan, as well as in areas of high armed violence such as Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Anna Macdonald, director of Control Arms, a global coalition of civil society groups seeking to control the weapons trade.

But in an Aug. 25 statement, Thomas Countryman, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation and leader of the U.S. delegation, said the roles of governments and civil society at the Cancún meeting were not the same.

“We are here to breathe life into this Treaty by standing up its international operation,” he said. Countryman added that the ATT “contains obligations for States Parties, not for other entities. The decisions made here must reflect this fact. Civil society and industry played important roles during the negotiation, but neither one can join the Treaty. Only States Parties can.”

Civil society groups could not persuade treaty participants to agree on a common template for reporting arms transfers or on mandatory disclosure of the reports. Activists said a failure to adopt those elements would undermine the treaty’s goals.

“Without having external eyes looking on the [arms] trade, you have the risk of setting up a cozy club where everybody agrees not to rock the boat too much,” said Roy Isbister of Safer World, a UK group that seeks to prevent violent conflicts, in an Aug. 19 interview with Arms Control Today.

The treaty requires all parties to submit an initial report by December on their efforts to comply with the treaty and to file an annual report on their arms imports and exports and their efforts to prevent diversion.

The ATT, first proposed by a group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates in 1997, has been ratified by 72 countries, including five of the world’s top 10 arms exporting countries. The United States, by far the largest arms producer and exporter, is among 58 additional countries that have signed but not ratified the treaty. 

The first conference of states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty grappled with practical measures intended to curb diversion of weapons that fuel deadly conflicts.

How the Iran Deal Prevents a Covert Nuclear Weapons Program

By Richard Nephew

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left), French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (third from left), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (fifth from left), EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (center), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (third from right), UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (second from right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (right) sit at a table at the Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna on July 6. The officials were representing the group known as the P5+1 in the final stages of negotiations with Iran on the country’s nuclear program. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)On July 14, Iran and the six-country group known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that promises to end the 13 years of escalating tensions that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions have caused.

The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is an impressive collection of restrictions, restraints, and monitoring provisions applied to the Iranian nuclear program. Under the deal, Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon using declared facilities is effectively closed for at least 10 years and in some respects longer. Tehran could attempt to produce nuclear weapons material via the declared nuclear program, but to do so would be to risk almost immediate detection and response. This is a result of a combination of measures that constrain Iran’s capabilities and ensure their monitoring.

Although media and public attention has often focused on the known nuclear program, experts generally agree that it is the possibility of a covert program that causes them most concern. Iran has a history of building nuclear facilities in secret and admitting to a range of sensitive nuclear activities only after the fact. The agreement needed to address this problem.

At a fundamental level, this is tremendously difficult. It is difficult to prove the absence of something, particularly in a country as large as Iran. Deliberate evasion of monitoring and transparency measures, which any covert program would involve, naturally makes this job even more difficult.

The subtle effectiveness of the agreement may be most pronounced in the provisions dealing with potential covert activities. Critics have latched on to the issue of how much time it would take for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to gain access to undeclared sites, but this is largely a straw-man complaint based on an erroneous assumption that “anytime, anywhere” inspections would be achievable in anything short of a postwar environment, such as the one in Iraq in the 1990s.

By focusing on this particular issue, skeptics miss the fact that the rest of the agreement is geared to ensure that no significant undeclared facilities can exist. This article will describe in detail the various provisions of the deal that serve as a check against the possibility of covert sites by forming concentric circles of protection. The article also will address the few scenarios in which a potential failure of the system could take place. In doing so, it will demonstrate that the likelihood of these scenarios is sufficiently small as to be implausible and therefore does not constitute a sound reason to reject the deal. 

Defeating the Covert Option

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at a press conference at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport on July 15. Zarif and Ali Akbar Salehi (not pictured), head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, spoke after returning to Tehran from Vienna, where they reached an agreement with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)In order to have a covert nuclear weapons program, Iran must address three needs: access to nuclear materials, access to the equipment and technology to transform nuclear materials into weapons-usable materials, and time. Iran also would need to have a proven nuclear weapons design and viable means of delivery, but the longest lead time and greatest complication are associated with the production of the nuclear weapons material itself. To be truly covert, such a program should have minimal interactions with declared Iranian facilities, which will be subject to inspections and monitoring. Thus, it is likely that an entirely separate nuclear fuel cycle would have to be created for this endeavor, in which there might be a sharing of knowledge between the declared and covert programs but little else that would risk the exposure of illicit activities.           

Among the needs of a covert proliferator, the first and foremost is finding a way to obtain nuclear materials. The uranium-monitoring provisions of the comprehensive agreement will make it very difficult for Iran to do this without being caught. Under the terms of the deal, Iran will permit the IAEA to “monitor, through agreed measures that will include containment and surveillance measures, for 25 years, all uranium ore concentrate produced in Iran or obtained from any other sources.”1 As a result, Iran will not be able to produce a secret stockpile of uranium from its existing mines because such a move would be detected by means of the containment and surveillance measures that exist, which can be loosely described as a combination of seals and cameras.

Theoretically, Iran could seek to procure uranium illicitly, but this would be contrary to UN Security Council actions taken before and since the July 14 deal. These restrictions dictate that any uranium coming into Iran go through a procurement mechanism that is enshrined in the deal. This procurement mechanism will govern the transfer of any Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) controlled or dual-use items or materials to Iran, as well as any items that a potential exporting state may determine could contribute to an illicit Iranian nuclear program. Under the deal, a transfer is considered illicit if it does not come through this mechanism.

Iran also can receive uranium as part of a swap of its enriched-uranium stockpile, but any such swap would be declared by Iran and known to other parties in the agreement. Skeptics may argue that Iran is capable of evading sanctions and could similarly evade the rules established in the agreement. Yet, there is some historical evidence indicating that success at evasion should not be assumed. UN Security Council Resolution 1737, adopted in 2006, was the first resolution that prohibited Iran from importing uranium. During the nine years since the adoption of that resolution, although there have been occasional concerns that Iran could obtain uranium or that its partial ownership of a uranium mine in Namibia gives it license to import uranium from that mine, there has not been any verified transfer of uranium to Iran aside from fuel for the Bushehr power reactor.

Assuming that Iran is able to procure the uranium needed to begin its clandestine program, it must be able to modify the uranium into a form useful for weaponization—the second condition that clandestine proliferators must meet. Generally speaking, this means Iran would have to convert the uranium from its raw form into material capable of being enriched or into fuel for a reactor. This step would require the construction of a new, covert uranium-conversion plant.

For the next step, it is most likely that Iran would seek to utilize centrifuge-based uranium enrichment in its covert program. Iran has experience in uranium enrichment with centrifuges and in the covert construction of facilities for such enrichment, albeit with facilities that were exposed long before they ever became operational. In addition, centrifuge plants have fewer detectable signatures than nuclear reactors or spent fuel reprocessing plants.

Covert uranium enrichment would require the construction of a new covert enrichment facility, which is prohibited under the deal with the P5+1, and outfitting with centrifuges. The easiest supply of these is the stockpile of centrifuges removed pursuant to the deal. Fortunately, the deal addresses the possibility of centrifuges being removed from storage, requiring continuous monitoring, including containment and surveillance measures, of Iran’s stored centrifuges and associated components and infrastructure for 15 years. With this kind of monitoring in place, the IAEA would notice any attempt to divert these centrifuges well before a plant could be built.

Instead of taking centrifuges out of its declared centrifuge stockpile, Iran could instead decide to build new centrifuges. To do so, it would need to produce new rotors and bellows for these centrifuges, among other parts and pieces. Because the agreement requires containment and surveillance of the existing inventory of both rotors and bellows for 20 years, Iran would have to produce new centrifuge components using specialized equipment.

Yet, the deal guards against this route as well by requiring Iran to provide a declaration of all locations where centrifuge component production could take place and to permit access to those locations to verify that illicit production is not ongoing. Furthermore, the deal requires Iran to provide access to the flow-forming machines, filament-winding machines, and mandrels that are used for production of centrifuge rotor tubes and bellows. This equipment is subject to continuous monitoring, including containment and surveillance. If the equipment were to be diverted or misused, the IAEA would know. This access will persist for 20 years.

In sum, to have a covert enrichment path, Iran would have to have a clandestine supply of uranium, a covert uranium-conversion plant, a covert means of producing centrifuges, and a place to install and operate them. This would require essentially replicating its current enrichment program, which is a costly, complicated, and detectable enterprise.

With respect to the covert-reactor path, there are reactor designs that could permit Iran to maximize plutonium production for use in a covert bomb. One such design is the heavy-water research reactor currently being built at Arak, but under the agreement, it will be modified to produce as little as one-eighth of the annual plutonium output of its present design. It is reasonable to suspect that Iran would seek to build a new heavy-water reactor like the present Arak design, given that it has some experience with it. Yet, Iran’s experience with the construction of the heavy-water reactor at Arak does not give any credence to the notion that such a facility could be constructed without being noticed, due to the long lead time required for construction and fact that the Arak reactor was itself observed long before it was completed, as was the heavy-water production plant located next door.

Reactors themselves require specially designed parts and materials, at least some of which Iran would probably have to procure from non-Iranian sources. In addition, reactors have unique construction signatures that can be spotted with intelligence satellites. It is not impossible to construct a reactor clandestinely—the North Korean-built al Kibar reactor in Syria that was destroyed in 2007 by Israel is a case in point—but it is more difficult. The Israeli ability to spot and destroy the reactor before it was operational supports the idea that even a carefully concealed reactor facility can be stopped before coming online.

Assuming Iran could build a new reactor that produces weapons-grade plutonium, Iran still would have to extract the plutonium from spent fuel. The absence of a spent fuel reprocessing capability in Iran and Iran’s inexperience with spent fuel reprocessing technology make it unlikely that Tehran would seek this path for a covert weapons program. In fact, it could take Iran the full 15 years that the reprocessing and associated spent fuel restrictions of the deal are in place to learn enough about the technology and to construct facilities capable of performing the operation, minimizing its value to Iran while maximizing risk.

As noted above with respect to uranium enrichment, Iran would need to have a way of procuring items that it needs for work on a covert reactor program. To a large extent, the procurement channel established as a result of the deal ought to guard against this. Iran will be prohibited from engaging in any procurement of items especially designed or prepared for nuclear uses without going through the procurement channel. Iran will likewise be prohibited from procuring dual-use items listed by the NSG, as well as any items that a potential exporting state determines could contribute to illicit nuclear activities, unless Tehran obtains these items through the approved channel. Any identified procurement outside the channel would be an immediate red flag once detected. (The issue of undetected nuclear procurements is discussed below.)

Even if Iran obtained illicit uranium, illicit uranium-conversion equipment, and illicit uranium-enrichment equipment and constructed the necessary facilities, it still would not be invulnerable to detection. This points to the last requirement on the list cited above: time. Every day an illicit facility operates is another day for a spy, a wiretap, or a satellite image to catch the proliferator in the act.

The construction and operation of these facilities and their associated activities require time to achieve their desired results; one weapon’s worth of highly enriched uranium (HEU) is not made in a day. A proliferator must have enough time to ensure its facilities fulfill their function. If the proliferator fails to have enough time, it runs the risk of being caught early and having the attempt curtailed by diplomatic action or military strikes. The United States and its partners have thus far detected the Natanz facility, the Arak facilities, and the Fordow facilities before they were completed, without much of the access to be provided under the terms of the comprehensive agreement. Should another such facility be detected, the comprehensive agreement provides yet another tool to address it: required provision of access.

Under the terms of the deal, Iran is required to provide access to undeclared facilities if the IAEA requests such access and suitable alternative arrangements cannot be identified. This requirement is based on the implementation of Iran’s additional protocol, which Iran will begin implementing provisionally when implementation of the deal begins.2

The agreement specifies a process that the IAEA request would set in motion once the agency has learned of a potential covert site or undeclared nuclear-related activities. This process includes the provision of information by the IAEA to Iran on the nature of the suspicions prompting the access request. The request could trigger a 24-day clock under which Iran would provide the requested access or the issue would be sent to the dispute resolution process stipulated in the agreement. Iran could head off a request for access only if four of the eight parties to the agreement—Iran, the P5+1, and the European Union—opposed granting access. Even then, the complaining state could still take up the matter in the dispute resolution process. The end result of that process could be the reimposition, or “snapback,” of UN Security Council, U.S., and EU sanctions and a resumption of the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.

Critics have argued that 24 days is far too much time to grant for this procedure because Iran would be able to use the time to cover up its activities. Olli Heinonen, the former head of the IAEA Department of Safeguards, has cited Iran’s renovation of the Kalaye Electric Company facility in 2003 as proof that Iran can rapidly dispose of the evidence of misdeeds.3 Heinonen noted that, two weeks after the IAEA requested access to the facility, where Iran engaged in undeclared centrifuge experiments, it had been completely renovated, with new floors, walls, and air-handling systems.

The problem with this example is twofold. First, Iran did not have only two weeks to sanitize the facility. The initial public revelation of Iran’s clandestine enrichment program was in August 2002 by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which subsequently identified the location of the Kalaye facility in February 2003. The IAEA was denied access at that time and permitted only limited access in March 2003. In May 2003, the agency gained full access to the facility but without the right to take environmental samples from the site.4 Iran granted permission to do this in early August 2003, at which time inspectors noted that further modifications had been made to the site since March 2003.5 Even under the most liberal of interpretations of the comprehensive agreement, within six months, UN Security Council sanctions would have snapped back against Iran for such behavior.

Second, although six months had passed since the Kalaye facility was first identified publicly, with extensive modifications made to the workshop, traces of enriched uranium still were found in the facility. Heinonen’s own example tends to underscore the likelihood that Iran will not be able to guard against contamination of every room of every facility in which undeclared uranium work takes place if it is carrying out such work. It was probably for this reason that when confronted in 2004 with incriminating evidence about undeclared work at the Lavisan site, Iran decided to destroy the facility completely. Satellite images taken before and after the destruction underscore that Iran was sufficiently concerned about IAEA access and environmental sampling to essentially remove the location from the face of the earth, taking three feet of topsoil with it.6 Iranian sanitization activities at Parchin show a similar dedication to eradicating facilities rather than granting access for fear of what would result.7

Possible Failure Scenarios

Centrifuges found by an International Atomic Energy Agency team in a warehouse near Tuwaitha, Iraq, during the team’s inspections following the 1991 Persian Gulf War are shown in this undated photo. (Action Team 1991-1998 / IAEA)As the preceding section outlines, although a theoretical opportunity exists for Iran to engage in a covert program, the comprehensive agreement was designed to make this opportunity far more difficult than it currently is. If the agreement functions as designed, then a covert program is likely to be detected very early in the process. Iran’s awareness of this risk creates deterrence for a covert path being pursued in the first place.

Scenarios predicting an Iranian covert program assume that having worked hard to achieve a deal with the P5+1, Iran would be prepared to risk the consequences of that deal being torn apart by its actions, consequences that could include sanctions or military action. Although this is conceivable in the event of a near-term, regional security threat to Iran, no such threat exists at present, with the possible exception of Israel. Yet, as the existence of a covert program is one of the most likely prompts for an Israeli military strike, it would not be logical for Iran to tempt fate by engaging in such an activity. It is also possible that detection of a covert site during the deal would provide the impetus for U.S. military action against Iran.

Nevertheless, it is worth considering possible covert-path scenarios to identify potential points of breakdown and to account for the possibility that Iranian decision-making does not follow rational or logical lines. Three scenarios are worth evaluating here: a catastrophic failure of the agreement, the current existence of an undeclared nuclear program in Iran, and the possibility that Iran could seek to acquire nuclear weapons material or an assembled weapon from another state.

Catastrophic failure. It is possible that each individual element of the agreement fails catastrophically. In such a scenario, Iran would be able to obtain the materials and equipment it needs and to do so without being detected by the IAEA or the intelligence apparatus of the United States and those of its partners. In such a scenario, Iran would not be subject to any particular constraints and could engage in a breakout at its leisure.

This is theoretically possible yet difficult. Iran is one of the most watched intelligence targets for the United States, let alone U.S. partners in the region and in Europe. Moreover, past successes in detecting such activities in Iran long before they reached fruition should provide some confidence that the size and scope of what Iran would have to do to make the attempt would lend itself to detection. The access granted under the comprehensive agreement will help matters by assisting analysts in sorting legitimate activities from illicit ones. For example, if Iran were detected procuring goods for an enrichment plant outside the authorized procurement channel, then it would be a rather good bet that the procurement is intended to support a clandestine effort. For intelligence analysts, eliminating legitimate activities as explanations could be very helpful in forming judgments on intent, as well as in establishing priorities for further investigation.

Notably, it would be a challenge for Iran to procure for and construct the relatively large covert program needed during the 10 to 15 years of the main restrictions of the deal.

Existing covert program. Iran may already have a fully constructed covert program and merely be awaiting the removal of sanctions to reveal it. This is theoretically possible but unlikely. Iran has had a difficult enough time sustaining its now-declared program, as has been demonstrated by reports of material shortages in Iran’s nuclear program for several years.

Moreover, asserting the possibility of an existing covert program offers no guidance on handling the deal because such an allegation can never be satisfactorily disproven. Policymakers can act only on what they know and what they have good cause to believe. To do otherwise is to repeat the mistakes of U.S. policy in Iraq in 2003, when it was assumed that the Iraqis must have had a covert program because they were not adequately assisting UN inspectors to demonstrate that no such program existed. With the benefit of hindsight, one can say that there was very little Iraq could have done to prove that something did not exist. The only way out of this conundrum was by offering robust access, which the Iraqis were loath to do. If properly implemented, the comprehensive agreement will remedy this problem in Iran.

Buying a bomb or bomb material. It is also theoretically possible that Iran could contract for its nuclear weapons program by buying a nuclear weapon or the material for one. One such theory postulates that Iran and North Korea, which have a long history of collaboration on ballistic missiles, could collaborate to mutually develop nuclear and missile capabilities, with each providing access to resources that the other cannot. For Iran, this could include the covert acquisition of HEU or plutonium from North Korea.

This scenario is an interesting possibility but, as with an existing covert program, offers nothing by way of guidance for how to interpret the deal. At a minimum, the deal prohibits such transfers, as would Iran’s commitments under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which it joined in 1970.

If one is convinced that Iran would be prepared to undertake such an adventure, there is nothing in the public domain that can provide irrefutable and unambiguous assurance that no such activity would ever be contemplated. One might as easily suggest that Iran could have a nuclear weapon already designed and built, ready to be mounted on a missile tomorrow. It cannot be proved that this has not happened, just that no such activity has been detected and that, circumstantially, it would not make much sense. The same argument could be made about other countries but without proof that it has happened. Policymakers rarely have complete knowledge; they have to make their decisions on the basis of what intelligence reveals and what logic suggests.

From this perspective, the transfer of a nuclear warhead or weapons-grade material would be a risky proposition for all concerned. The transfer could be detected, prompting almost immediate calls for military strikes against Iran at a minimum. The associated signatures of such moves probably would be observed through intelligence channels. Given the existence of the Proliferation Security Initiative—a program launched by President George W. Bush to increase cooperation among states in interdicting transfers of weapons of mass destruction and their materials and components—and the widespread presence of the U.S. Navy and partner navies in the sea lanes between North Korea and Iran, such transfers could be met with a military response of boarding any ship involved.8

As noted above, Iran already has made a commitment not to seek to acquire nuclear weapons, including weaponization-related components, in perpetuity. Iran also has agreed not to seek to obtain uranium or plutonium metal for 15 years. Under such a scenario, it is highly doubtful that there would be any defense of Iran in the international community. Tehran would be inviting attack by pursuing this option. Moreover, there is enough intelligence focus on Iran and North Korea that it is highly speculative to assume that either could pursue such an arrangement without detection.

Finally, this threat does not diminish the value of the deal, except if one assumes that the only way to address the problem is to change the regime. If that is one’s outlook, then it is fair to suggest that the deal is poorly equipped to handle this challenge. In making that argument, however, one would have to explain how any reasonably conceivable deal could prevent that.

The Status Quo

A fair estimate of the value of the comprehensive agreement in addressing the problem of an Iranian covert program must include a comparison to the status quo. There is no comparison possible between the comprehensive agreement and the two most extreme failure scenarios—the existence of a covert program at present and an Iranian purchase of weapons-usable materials or a bomb itself. No deal could definitively address these current threats.

The more interesting point of comparison is the status quo—or, more precisely, the situation that persisted prior to the interim deal of November 2013 because that would likely be the situation in the event of a collapse of the comprehensive agreement—against the risk of a catastrophic failure of the comprehensive agreement.

  • Without the interim and comprehensive deals, Iran’s provision of information on its uranium production would not be required. Iran also would not be required to permit the IAEA to undertake any monitoring activities concerning uranium production.
  • Without the interim and comprehensive deals, Iran would not permit IAEA inventorying, let alone monitoring, of its centrifuge components and the tools for producing more of them.
  • Without the interim and comprehensive deals, Iran would not restrain its production of heavy water and might not restrain research on spent fuel reprocessing or construction of a reprocessing facility. Construction of the Arak reactor would be restarted, giving Iran valuable experience that could be applied to a covert nuclear program.
  • Without the interim and comprehensive deals, there would be no procurement channel monitoring what would come into the country that could aid a covert effort.
  • Without the interim and comprehensive deals, Iran would not be forthcoming with respect to access requests, and skeptics could look back fondly at an opportunity for required access within 24 days. 

Although none of these activities would be permitted as a legal matter under the UN Security Council resolutions adopted prior to July 2015, the entire discussion of a covert program assumes that Iran is not fulfilling its legal or political commitments. Notwithstanding these facts, some opponents would argue that the status quo remains preferable because, without the deal, Iran’s nuclear program would remain largely illegal under the Security Council resolutions. Yet, Iran has not fulfilled its obligations under these resolutions since 2006. Practically, the legal prohibition has had little value in stopping Iran from having a covert program. The deal, on the other hand, does much to prevent such covert efforts.

Similarly, many opponents would argue that without the comprehensive deal, international sanctions would not have been relaxed on Iran, and Iran would find itself under continued economic strain. Yet, there is no compelling evidence that such pressure has precluded covert activities in the past. Moreover, it is precisely such strain that could convince Iran’s leadership that its only opportunity for regime survival is to concentrate on establishing a nuclear deterrent.

The goal of the sanctions, which they achieved, was to bring Iran to the table. Nothing in the last 12 years of negotiating history with Iran suggests that sanctions alone will compel Iranian capitulation.


It is inarguable that a covert path to Iranian nuclear weapons would present the United States and its partners with a tremendous security challenge. It would undermine the terms of the comprehensive agreement and consequently prompt a re-establishment of intense sanctions pressure on Iran, if not military action. Moreover, a covert program could spur additional proliferation in the region and beyond. These are threats Iran would have to anticipate and manage before proceeding with a covert option, probably precluding it.

The agreement is a material improve-ment over the status quo across the board, offering at worst an improved opportunity to detect such activities. In doing so, the agreement will deter Iranian cheating and make succeeding at it a virtually impossible task.

Richard Nephew is a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was a member of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran and director for Iran at the National Security Council. He served as the Middle East team chief and senior Iran nuclear officer in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the Department of State from 2006 to 2011 and before that as special assistant for nonproliferation policy at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.


1.  “Annex I - Nuclear-Related Measures,” n.d., para. 68, http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/docs/iran_agreement/annex_1_nuclear_related_commitments_en.pdf

2.  The Model Additional Protocol is a nonproliferation agreement developed by the international community after revelations about the extent of clandestine Iraqi nuclear weapons-related work after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. There is a standard format for the additional protocol for all non-nuclear-weapon states that are parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). See International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “Model Additional Protocol to the Agreement(s) Between State(s) and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards,” INFCIRC/540, September 1997.

3.  Bill Gertz, “Ex-IAEA Leader: 24-Day Inspection Delay Will Boost Iranian Nuclear Cheating,” Washington Free Beacon, July 21, 2015, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/ex-iaea-leader-24-day-inspection-delay-will-boost-iranian-nuclear-cheating/

4.  Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), “ISIS Imagery Brief: Kalaye Electric,” March 31, 2005, http://isis-online.org/publications/iran/kalayeelectric.html

5.  IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” August 26, 2003, GOV/2003/63, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/gov2003-63.pdf.

6.  ISIS, “Nuclear Sites: Lavisan-Shian (Lavizan-Shian),” n.d., http://www.isisnucleariran.org/sites/detail/lavisan-shian/

7.  ISIS, “Nuclear Sites: Parchin,” n.d., http://www.isisnucleariran.org/sites/detail/parchin/

8. Air transfer would present different challenges, given that the air routes would involve flight over China. Yet, it is not in the interest of China to permit nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons material to transit its airspace. If such a transfer were detected, interdiction cooperation from China could be arranged.


On July 14, Iran and the six-country group known as the P5+1 reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that promises to end the 13 years of escalating tensions that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions have caused.

Date Set for 2016 Nuclear Security Summit

By Kingston Reif

The fourth and final nuclear security summit will take place next March 31-April 1 in Washington, D.C., the White House said Aug. 10.

The summits are the most visible feature of an accelerated international effort to prevent nuclear terrorism. U.S. President Barack Obama launched the effort as part of his speech in Prague in April 2009. Summits have been held in Washington in 2010, Seoul in 2012, and The Hague last year.

At the summits, participating countries have announced steps they would take individually and collectively to increase the security of fissile materials. These steps have included the removal of nuclear materials, enhancement of capabilities to counter nuclear smuggling, creation of centers to improve nuclear security and training, and ratification of international agreements that govern nuclear security.

In an Aug. 10 press release announcing the summit date, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the 2016 meeting “will continue discussion on the evolving [nuclear terrorism] threat and highlight steps that can be taken together to minimize the use of highly-enriched uranium, secure vulnerable materials, counter nuclear smuggling and deter, detect, and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism.”

As the United States prepares to host the final summit, Laura Holgate, Obama’s top adviser for nuclear security, was nominated on Aug. 5 as U.S. representative to the Vienna office of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

For the last six years, Holgate has served in the position of special assistant to the president and senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism and threat reduction on the National Security Council staff, where she has played a central role on the U.S. negotiating team for the summits. The White House has not named a successor for Holgate.

In an Aug. 5 statement, national security adviser Susan Rice praised Holgate as “the life blood” of the summit process. 

The fourth and final nuclear security summit will take place next March 31-April 1 in Washington, D.C., the White House said Aug. 10.

France Pays to Settle Mistral Dispute

By Jefferson Morley

Ending a 10-month-long impasse, French President François Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Aug. 5 to sever a 2011 contract in which France had committed to selling Russia two Mistral-class amphibious landing ships.

The contract is worth 1.2 billion euros (about $1.3 billion), according to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. It became controversial after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and began arming separatists fighting the Ukrainian government. On the eve of a meeting of NATO allies in September 2014, Hollande demanded that Russia agree to a ceasefire and a political settlement as a condition for scheduled delivery of the first ship in November 2014.

When no ceasefire materialized, France and Russia entered into negotiations early this year to dissolve the financial arrangement.

“The price in the [termination] agreement, which is the best possible, will be less as Russia will be repaid to the nearest euro the advance payments that have been made,” Le Drian told a radio reporter Aug. 6.

Reuters reported that France had offered a settlement of $866 million. Russia has asked for compensation of $1.28 billion, according to the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant.

A French official told Arms Control Today in an Aug. 18 e-mail that the exact amount of the settlement is not public information but will be shared this fall with the French Parliament, which has to ratify the settlement. The official said the French compensation “will be inferior to what Russia has spent” and therefore less than $1.3 billion.

Hollande’s statement on the cancellation agreement made no mention of Russian military intervention in Ukraine. The French president said he and Putin agreed that the negotiation took place in “a warm, open climate of partnership,” adding that he and Putin “agreed that the matter was now closed.”

Next Steps on Disarmament Uncertain

By Kingston Reif

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström speaks at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations on April 27. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)In the aftermath of a contentious review conference earlier this year, key states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) differ on the best way to pursue disarmament as they look to the UN General Assembly session that opens Sept. 15 and the treaty’s next review conference, in 2020.

The recent review conference ended May 22 without agreement on a final document due to unbridgeable differences over the process for convening a conference on ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction. In addition, countries clashed over the pace of the nuclear-weapon states’ disarmament efforts. (See ACT, June 2015.)

Although nuclear disarmament was not the “deal breaker” that prevented consensus at the meeting, differences on the issue are “severe and intensifying,” Adam Scheinman, President Barack Obama’s special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, said during a July 16 panel discussion at the U.S. State Department.

Speaking on the same panel, Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, said that the longer the negotiations on disarmament at the review conference went on, the deeper the divide became.

The conference’s draft final document did not represent “anything close” to a consensus, he said.

Scheinman said countries can take a number of steps before the 2020 review conference. For example, he emphasized the importance of finding a way to bring Russia back to the negotiating table on arms control although he did not suggest how that might be possible in light of U.S.-Russian tensions over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and alleged violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

In addition, Scheinman urged the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to begin negotiations on a global ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, which has effectively been blocked by Pakistan (see, "UN Disarmament Body Still Stalemated"). Scheinman said it would not be possible to move toward much lower numbers of nuclear weapons without a verified cap on fissile material production.

He also called for the development of better lines of communication on nuclear disarmament issues between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states as a way to bridge some of the gaps that persist. He specifically mentioned the possible creation by the UN General Assembly of “an open-ended working group”—a forum in which all UN members can participate—as a “first-order opportunity to have a serious dialogue among the various parties.”

Scheinman expressed hope that there would be progress “quite soon” on the steps he listed.

The U.S. State Department’s Adam Scheinman (left) and Alexander Kmentt of the Austrian foreign ministry (right) discuss the recent NPT review conference during a July 16 panel of the Generation Prague conference at the State Department. At center is moderator Sharon Squassoni of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)The working group was a recommendation in the draft final document from the NPT review conference. According to the document, the purpose of the working group would be “to identify effective measures for the full implementation of Article VI” of the NPT and to do so on the basis of consensus. Under Article VI, the treaty parties are to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

The General Assembly last established an open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament in 2012. (See ACT, December 2012.) In that group, which met in Geneva in August 2013, about 80 states discussed ways to advance multilateral disarmament negotiations, but the nuclear-weapon states declined to participate. The group produced a final report that summarized the content of the discussion.

Kmentt questioned the approach touted by Scheinman, noting that disarmament steps such as a fissile material cutoff treaty have been on the international agenda for nearly two decades, but no progress has been made. He called such a step-by-step approach “extremely incredible” and said it has been “discredited.”

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also criticized the step-by-step approach and expressed skepticism about the idea of an open-ended working group.

In an Aug. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today, she called the idea of a working group based on consensus “useless” and said the states seeking faster disarmament progress are not pushing this idea.

Fihn said the main issue at the UN General Assembly will be how the 114 signatories of the “Humanitarian Pledge” will seek to take action to fill this gap. The document, which originated at the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use, held in Vienna last December, calls on states “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said in an Aug. 19 interview that it would be “interesting to watch” if an open-ended working group is established at the upcoming General Assembly meeting and if the humanitarian initiative’s leaders, such as Austria, Mexico, and Norway, are able to move the disarmament discussion beyond where it ended at the review conference.

Mukhatzhanova said that the diplomats representing the leading countries of the humanitarian movement are “regrouping.” It is unclear what they will do to advance their agenda at the General Assembly and if they will seek to hold a fourth humanitarian-impact conference, she said. 

In the aftermath of a contentious review conference earlier this year, key states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty differ on the best way to pursue disarmament.

UN Disarmament Body Still Stalemated

By Kingston Reif

Kim Won-soo (center, on dais), acting UN high representative for disarmament affairs, addresses the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on July 7. (UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)As the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) nears the end of its annual session, the body mandated to negotiate multilateral disarmament treaties remains stalemated.

Nevertheless, some member states say they think progress is being made toward a global ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

For the third year in a row, an informal working group could not reach consensus on any of the CD’s four core issues: nuclear disarmament, a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), the prevention of an arms race in outer space, and negative security assurances.

The CD, which operates on the basis of consensus, has not negotiated a disarmament agreement since the completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996.

Although some member states praised the efforts of this year’s iteration of the working group, other delegations lamented the recent trend of establishing informal discussion forums.

In an Aug. 17 statement, Mexico said the three years of effort by the working groups “had not left the Conference any closer to the adoption of a programme of work” and had produced “useless outcomes.”

Similarly, Austria said that although it was open to approaches that could advance negotiations on legally binding arrangements on disarmament, it would not “accept any future attempts to lower the expectations for the CD to conduct such negotiations.”

Austria warned that it would “assess…more carefully” the wisdom of continuing to use “scarce resources for informal discussions and activities.”

Since the end of negotiations on the CTBT in 1996, Russia, the United States, and many Western countries have sought a mandate at the conference to negotiate an FMCT. But Pakistan continues to oppose the start of FMCT talks unless the negotiating mandate explicitly includes existing stockpiles of materials in addition to new production. Russia, the United States, and others oppose that approach.

In 2009 the CD approved a preliminary work plan, but the plan collapsed after Pakistan withdrew its support. Pakistan says that it has a smaller stockpile of fissile materials than India and that a production freeze would put Islamabad at a disadvantage.

In an effort to break the FMCT deadlock, the UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with disarmament, in 2012 approved a resolution by Canada to establish a group of governmental experts to discuss how to advance negotiations on an FMCT.

The group, which consisted of 31 experts and diplomats from 25 different countries, met in Geneva over eight weeks during 2014 and 2015 under the auspices of the United Nations. The group submitted its final report to the General Assembly in May.

The group was mandated to make recommendations on the key elements of a notional FMCT. The final report summarized the group’s deliberations and outlined a range of views on a possible FMCT, most notably on the issues of existing stocks versus future production, verification, governance, entry into force, and the definition of “fissile material.”

The members of the group expressed confidence that their report and the deliberations that were the basis for it “can serve as a valuable reference for States and should be a useful resource for negotiators of a future treaty.”

Most CD members applauded the work of the group of experts, with some members characterizing the intergovernmental assessment as a potential turning point on the issue of a fissile material production ban.

In an interview with Arms Control Today last October, Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that although an FMCT “has been a great source of tension and anxiety,” the group of governmental experts “open[ed] the floodgates for substantive discussions on this matter” and “renewed the issue for the arms control community in the Conference on Disarmament in a very positive way.”

But Pakistan, which declined an invitation to join the group, said in a June 23 statement that the group “had been an ill-conceived experiment, which had failed to produce any consensus recommendation with any substance.” 

Pakistan also said another “downside” of the group was that not all nuclear-weapon states “had been represented in that forum” and that it “rejected [the group’s] report and assertion that the report could form the basis for further consideration” of an FMCT in the CD. 

As the Conference on Disarmament nears the end of its annual session, the body remains stalemated although some member states say they think there has been progress toward a fissile material cutoff treaty.

No End in Sight for Space Code

By Timothy Farnsworth

Yury Fedotov, director-general of the UN office in Vienna, addresses the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space on June 18.  (UNIS Vienna)After eight years of drafting and negotiating the text of a code of conduct for activities in outer space, officials from several key countries indicated last month that they have no timetable for finalizing the agreement and opening it for signature.

Delegates from 109 countries met at the United Nations from July 27 to 31 in what was described prior to the meeting as the beginning of a formal negotiating process. (See ACT, December 2014.) But according to a summary of the meeting by the chairman, Sergio Marchisio of Italy, the agenda was amended at the beginning to include issues related to finalizing the process for negotiating the code, such as deciding on the appropriate venue.

Through a spokesman, a senior U.S. State Department official said in an Aug. 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today that
“[t]here were no negotiations on specific language used in the Code, but there were significant discussions regarding the substance of the [draft] Code text, which clarified a number of key points.”

According to Marchisio’s summary, participants discussed issues related to the code, including the purpose, scope, and general principles.

The goal of the proposed code is to establish guidelines for responsible behavior in space that would reduce the risk of events that create debris in space and would increase transparency in space operations in order to avoid collisions between space assets and debris.

One of the main points of contention among countries is the scope of the code. According to an Aug. 4 posting by Stimson Center co-founder Michael Krepon on the blog Arms Control Wonk, China, Russia, and some states from the Non-Aligned Movement believe that the code should deal only with peaceful uses of outer space. Krepon said those countries “expressed grave reservations” over the code’s language “reaffirming every country’s inherent national or collective right to self-defense.” He said that “critics [of that language] warned that its reaffirmation in this context would open a backdoor to the weaponization of space.”

But many countries, including the United States, have said the code should include language prohibiting any purposeful act of creating debris, including the use of anti-satellite weapons.

Another issue that remains is the venue for continuing negotiations on the proposed code. According to Marchisio’s statement, participants discussed various options, including the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), the UN General Assembly, and an ad hoc diplomatic process that would be endorsed by the UN. In the statement, Marchisio said it was his assessment that “the most supported way forward would be the pursuit of negotiations within the framework of the United Nations through a mandate of the General Assembly.”

The summary lists drawbacks for each of the UN bodies it mentions. It says the CD is challenging because it is typically a forum for negotiating arms control treaties, but the code of conduct is a nonbinding political agreement. As Marchisio’s summary states, membership in the CD is restricted, and the body has been slow to make any real progress on its current agenda, most notably negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty (see page 35).

COPUOS, according to the summary, was supported by many of the meeting participants, but is also seen as having an exclusive membership because participation is limited to countries that currently have space programs.

According to the senior State Department official, there was “no clear agreement at the meeting as to which UN body could conduct negotiations” on the code. “While we believe it is important to continue to discuss these issues, we will consult closely with our allies and partners before making a decision on next steps.”

According to Krepon’s posting, China, Russia, and a few other countries were responsible for the delay in negotiating by insisting that the EU process for drafting the code was not inclusive enough.

In an Aug. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Jacek Bylica, principal adviser and special envoy for nonproliferation and disarmament in the EU diplomatic service, said “the European Union believe that the challenges of ensuring the safety, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities are of [a] most urgent nature and dealing with them cannot be postponed indefinitely, or held hostage to political or procedural considerations. From this point of view the finalization of the project is already overdue.”

In 2007, the EU first proposed a code of conduct for space in response to several UN resolutions calling for proposals for increased transparency and confidence-building measures among spacefaring countries.

Although the July meeting saw little visible progress toward finalizing the code’s language or establishing a process to do so, Krepon said the meeting demonstrated “a clear consensus on the utility” of a code. 

The path toward finalizing a code of conduct for outer space remains unclear after delegates from 109 countries met in July to discuss the way forward. 


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