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One-Sided Arms Control April 26, 2010

Posted by SV in Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations, Uncategorized.
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[This article was first published by the Center for Vision and Values here: http://www.visandvals.org/One_Sided_Arms_Control.php]

President Obama signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in Prague on April 8—and did so to global accolades. It was the culmination of years of negotiations and a major triumph to finally achieve agreement with Moscow. Unfortunately, President Obama’s signature was attached to a naïve arms control treaty that threatens the strength of the U.S. nuclear umbrella that defends over 30 friends and allies. It compromises American interests while benefiting the Russians and weakening international security and stability.

On the surface, START looks like a reasonable albeit constrictive treaty. The 800 delivery-vehicle limit on bombers and missiles is about 100 below what is currently deployed. The 1,550 nuclear-warhead limit can easily be achieved by retiring some aging B-52s and changing the way they are counted. The treaty provides for telemetry exchanges (information from missile test launches), which promotes mutual trust. It also contains no overt constraints on missile defense or the ability to deploy non-nuclear systems with global reach.

A quick glance at the treaty’s effects is more troubling. The 800 delivery-vehicle limit will cut valuable systems used to defend the United States and reassure its allies. Conversely, Russia only has to continue already planned decommissioning of obsolete missiles and submarines. The U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force will probably have to be reduced from 450 to 400 deployed missiles. The most survivable nuclear platforms, stealthy ballistic-missile submarines, will shrink by two submarines to remove four dozen missiles from accountability.

The bomber fleet will be limited to 18 stealth B-2s and dozens of 50-year-old B-52s. The remainder will be converted to conventional-only capabilities or simply eliminated. The future triad of missiles, submarines, and bombers will therefore be smaller, less flexible, and less capable of reassuring America’s friends and allies in threatening environments.

These cuts may seem minimal, but when the missile reductions are combined with the cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program, they could severely weaken the already decimated industrial base. The solid-rocket-motor industry is particularly vulnerable to collapse. An inability to sustain and replace valuable systems like ballistic missiles will have long-term negative consequences for our scientific and deterrent capability.

While the new warhead limit is 30 percent below the Moscow Treaty of 2002 limit, complicated counting rules give the Russians a whopping advantage. Each Russian bomber can carry eight warheads on cruise missiles, with the potential for more in the bomb bay. Under the New START, those 76 bombers count as only 76 warheads. Therefore, Moscow could deploy 500 or more warheads above the 1,550 limit, which would put it equal or above the Moscow Treaty limits. The United States, with its strict adherence to treaty law, will not imitate such devious accounting to ignore the 1,550 limit. Can we say the same for the Russian Federation?

The Bush administration began talks on a successor to START in its final years. The Obama administration publicly designated negotiations as the centerpiece of its “reset” with Russia and rushed negotiations in such a manner that the Russians knew exactly who wanted the treaty more. As former Bush administration official Stephen Rademaker has argued, you do not go to a car dealer and say “I absolutely positively have to have that car and I need it today, how much is it?” However, that is exactly what the president has done. In an effort to meet arbitrary deadlines, the American negotiators made multiple unnecessary concessions, most notably abandoning the missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Now Russia is objecting to any future missile-defense deployments, saying they would be cause to withdraw from the New START.

This treaty is different from past nuclear reductions in one important aspect: It is meant as a “down-payment” on President Obama’s pledge for moving toward a “world without nuclear weapons,” rather than to primarily improve U.S. national security. President Obama needs START to (among other things) justify his Nobel Peace Prize. He will push senators to provide their advice and consent for ratification of a bad treaty. Although many senators will want to avoid the pro-nuclear weapon label, the existence of these weapons has guaranteed American security for over 60 years.

The New START has turned out to be a golden missed opportunity. Instead of negotiating a treaty with modest reductions and extensive verification provisions, the administration opted for a bold approach. Proponents argue that the United States no longer needs the nuclear force structure it has from the Cold War. They assert that America’s conventional superiority can increasingly fulfill the mission of nuclear weapons. Conventional weapons, however, do not have the same deterrent effect provided by nuclear forces. As Margaret Thatcher observed, “There are monuments to the futility of conventional deterrence in every village in Europe.” Until the international security environment is severely improved, drastic reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons will not make the world more secure. Address the root causes of conflict between states, and wider nuclear reductions will be more successful and constructive.

The CTBT Revisited: Has Anything Really Changed? September 22, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Iran, Israel, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Science, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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[This article was picked up by the Center for Vision and Values and is available here: http://www.visandvals.org/New_Life_for_the_CTBT.php]

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), an agreement which would ban all nuclear tests, may soon be revived from its purgatory in the Senate.   It was signed by President Clinton in 1996 and rejected by the Senate in October 1999.  The arguments that denied ratification by a 19 vote margin still ring true today.    In his Prague speech, however, President Obama called for prompt U.S. ratification of the treaty.  He is expected to do the same at the UN later this month.

In rejecting the CTBT, Senate opponents listed several concerns that motivated their decision.  They believed the CTBT was unverifiable and that others nations could easily cheat; the ability to enforce the treaty was dubious; the U.S. nuclear stockpile would not be as safe or reliable in the absence of testing; and the benefit to nuclear nonproliferation was minimal.[i]

Ten years later, many of these concerns are still relevant.  The issue of verification has been improved but not settled.  The CTBT Organization has set up a network of 228 monitoring stations around the world, but significant gaps still exist.[ii] There are no stations in India or North Korea, and only one in Pakistan and Turkey.  Sixty-one stations detected North Korea’s nuclear test in May 2009, but none detected radioactive gases to corroborate the seismic data.[iii] If North Korea was able to conceal such radiation, there is no reason to believe China or Russia could not as well.

As the continuing crises with North Korea and Iran illustrate, enforcing treaty obligations or punishing rule-breakers is not always effective.  It is often, in fact, completely ineffective due to a lack of international cooperation.  If a nuclear test were detected in Pakistan, India,[iv] or China, what would happen next?  If the record with Pyongyang or Tehran is any indicator, the violating state would take some rhetorical heat and little more than a toothless UN Security Council resolution (if that).  The CTBT will not immediately change other states’ policies.

The last decade has not been kind to the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.  Though the Stockpile Stewardship Program has successfully replaced older components, confidence in reliability has declined as the warheads age.[v] Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stated that a credible U.S. deterrent cannot be maintained without testing or modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons.[vi] If modernization is not pursued, many experts believe testing will be needed to guarantee the weapons’ reliability.

Most significantly, the treaty’s perceived benefits toward enhancing nuclear nonproliferation are still debatable.  Pro-CTBT voices have made several valid claims to consider.[vii] They argue that without the CTBT the nuclear arms race will continue, especially in Asia, with more states hedging their capabilities to be able to assemble a nuclear weapon quickly.[viii] Treaty advocates are quick to point out that the U.S. has already received a benefit for pursuing ratification – the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995.  The NPT, which divides the world into five nuclear weapon states (NWS) and the rest as non-NWS, is up for review in May 2010. The non-NWS are likely going to insist on CTBT ratification in exchange for nonproliferation cooperation.[ix]

These arguments still do not explain how the CTBT will be good for nonproliferation.  For one, the existence of a nuclear arms race (outside India and Pakistan) is suspect, given the fact that the U.S. and Russia are reducing their nuclear stockpiles.  Nuclear hedging is a problem to be tackled by IAEA monitoring; not by attempting to ban nuclear tests (the NPT already does this for non-NWS).  Though the non-nuclears may insist on entry into force of the CTBT, there is little reason to believe they will take tougher actions on Pyongyang and Tehran once the U.S. ratifies it.  If unilaterally and bilaterally reducing nuclear arsenals and not testing for 17 years have done nothing to convince non-NWS of U.S. leadership, why will the CTBT?

The CTBT is simply not in the U.S. national interest.  The U.S. would not be guaranteed a seat on the Executive Council, which geographically would be unfriendly to Washington.[x] Since it requires North Korean, Pakistani, and Egyptian ratification (to name a few), the U.S. would be binding itself to a treaty unlikely to ever enter into force.  Though there would be a growing ability to detect nuclear tests, there would be no effective way to enforce the treaty.  The U.S. stockpile would continue to atrophy as explosive testing for reliability would be prohibited, which could spur proliferation.  The CTBT needs to be rewritten to mitigate these drawbacks, not “immediately and aggressively”[xi] brought before the U.S. Senate.


[i] Kathleen Bailey and Robert Barker, “Why the United States Should Unsign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Resume Nuclear Testing,” Comparative Strategy 22 (2003): 131.

[ii] Kathy Sawyer, “Experts say new sensing tools could help ease concerns on Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” AAAS News Release, 10 August 2009.

[iii] http://www.ctbto.org/press-centre/highlights/2009/experts-sure-about-nature-of-the-dprk-event/

[iv] “No CTBT, India needs more nuclear tests; Pokhran II coordinator,” Hindustan Times, 27 August 2009.

[v] William Perry and Jim Schlesinger, America’s Strategic Posture, May 2009.

[vi] “Inside Obama Administration, a Tug of War over Nuclear Warheads,” Global Security Newswire, 18 August 2009.

[vii] Raymond Jeanloz, “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty and U.S. Security,” in Reykjavik Revisited, 2008.

[viii] For a discussion on nuclear hedging, see Ariel Levite, “Never Say Never Again: Nuclear Reversal Revisited,” International Security 27, no. 3 (Winter 2002/03), 59-88.

[ix] William Perry and Brent Scowcroft, commissioners, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy,” Council on Foreign Relations, 55.

[x] “The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” available at http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/ctbt/text/ctbt1.htm

[xi] See text of President Obama’s “Prague Speech.”

U.S. Walks Away from the Missile Defense Third Site (and European Allies) September 17, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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In an excellent WSJ article, Peter Spiegel details the reasons behind the Obama administration’s shelving of the missile defense third site in Central Europe.  Though they are claiming that it was based on a technical assessment and that Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program is proceeding slowly, it should be apparent to the casual observer that this has been Obama’s plan since January 20th.  In a move to appease Russian objections to installing U.S. military assets in their “sphere of influence,” the U.S. has walked away from defense commitments made to Poland, the Czech Republic, and other nations within range of Iranian missiles.  This decision is misguided and dangerous for several reasons.

First, the procurement issue.  Even if you accept the delay in Iranian ICBM capabilities until mid-2010s, due to the slow acquisition process (and slower deployment timetable), that is about the time the Third Site would become operational.  By shelving the plans, the U.S. will be putting itself in the position where it finds the Iranian missile program progressing faster than its missile defense deployment.  In the time period between Iranian long-range missile capability and U.S. BMD deployment, Iran may be able to coerce the U.S. or Europe by threatening unprotected European cities.  Their stopgap measure of rotating terminal-phase missile defenses (those that intercept the missile in its last minutes of descending flight) through Europe will leave plenty cities vulnerable and will take just as long to deploy (and probably cost more).

Second, the timeline issue.  The 2007 national intelligence estimate, which had a lot of political influences, delayed the timeline of Iran’s nuclear program.  However, it failed to account for technical surprise, and it is likely the missile estimate failed to do so as well.  In 1998 virtually every intelligence agency in the world was surprised when North Korea launched a three-stage ICBM.  In 2003 the unraveling of (some of) the A.Q. Khan network revealed how private individuals could essentially proliferate nuclear weapon technology to any country with cash.  The point is that a significant surprise – such as North Korean or private-network assistance, could propel Iran to an ICBM capability far sooner than the intelligence currently suggests.  The third site would have provided valuable insurance against this possible eventuality.

An Iranian Shahab-3 has a range of 1,600 km

An Iranian Shahab-3 has a range of 1,600 km

Third, the allies’ defense.  True, the administration is pledging to deploy some missile defenses, like terminal-intercepts, but this is a far cry from the planned midcourse-intercept system that could have provided coverage of virtually all of Europe.  Terminal systems have a small “footprint” that can only cover smaller areas, like a city.  In a must read letter to the Obama administration, current and former leaders of Central and Eastern Europe basically ask not to be forgotten or sacrificed.  They state “all is not well in our region or in the transatlantic relationship…storm clouds are starting to gather on the foreign policy horizon… [Russia] at a regional level and vis-a-vis our nations, increasingly acts as a revisionist [power].”  They worry that Russia’s intimidation and influence-peddling will lead to a neutralization of their region.

Regarding the missile defense site, they pointedly write that “regardless of teh military merits of this scheme and what Washington eventually decides to do, the issue has become a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region… The small number of missiles involved cannot be a threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, and the Kremlin knows this.  We should decide the future of the program as allies and based on the strategic pluses and minuses of the different technical and political configurations.”  They conclude on this subject that “abandoning the program entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it without consulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibility of the U.S. across the whole region.”  Central and Eastern Europe would know about Russia’s operations.  They lived under their iron boot for generations.

Finally, the Russian problem.  The Russians have protested loudly to the planned third site since it was first announced, despite the fact it is only 10 defensive interceptors that would be incapable of countering one SS-18 or even catching up with its missiles if they headed out over the polar routes.  Once again, our allies understand the situation: “When it comes to Russia, our experience has been that a more determined and principled policy toward Moscow will not only strengthen the West’s security but will ultimately lead Moscow to follow a more cooperative policy as well.”  This would require firmness in negotiations with Putin and Medvedev.

The third site was likely the price the Obama administration figured it could pay to get Russian assistance on sanctions against Iran and in order to conclude the START follow-on.  If anyone is convinced the Russians can exert the leverage to make the Iranians comply with their obligations (forget the UN Security Council, China will still block that), they have not been paying attention.  Short of a crippling cut-off of all gasoline imports or nuclear reactor fuel from Russia, Iran is unlikely to even consider talks about its nuclear program.  As I stated in a previous post, linking the new START to removal of the missile defense site from Europe would be unacceptable.  Linking offensive and defensive weapons is walking right back into the Cold War paradigm the Clinton and Bush administrations did so much to end.

This is perhaps the administration’s worst foreign policy action to date.  It delays deployment of a real capability that could not only defend European allies but also the eastern United States from Iranian missiles.  It cannot be viewed as anything other than backing away from commitments made to Central and Eastern European allies and ignoring their legitimate concerns.  The Senate should reject ratification of the START follow-on treaty and mandate the deployment of the planned missile defenses as the price for their support.  Given this decision and the administration’s likely objection to warhead modernization, it will be hard to get 67 votes to ratify START.

America’s Nuclear Deterrent 64 Years After Trinity July 16, 2009

Posted by SV in China, History, Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Science, U.S. Government.
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Today, July 16th 2009, marked the 64th anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test in Alamagordo, New Mexico.  That test brought the world unambiguously into the Atomic Age.  Since that day nuclear weapons have played a critical role in U.S. defense policy, first as the ultimate tool with which to win the Second World War and almost immediately thereafter as a critical tool to deter aggression against the United States and its allies.  This mission became of even greater importance with the Soviet testing of an atomic bomb in August of 1949.

Despite serving as the most powerful deterrent against threats to the U.S. homeland and its allies, and by preventing a massively destructive conventional (or nuclear) war between the major powers, the nuclear deterrent of 2009 is atrophying and declining in reliability and safety.  As the Congressionally-mandated Strategic Posture Commission pointed out in its final report, the current nuclear weapons complex suffers from a lack of funding, a lack of emphasis on maintaining the intellectual base, and an almost hostile attitude by policymakers.  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Jon Kyl and former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle charged the president with neglecting to support a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent as well as endorsing the unverifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Senate rejected in 1999.

As the U.S. nuclear inventory continues to age, life-extension or stockpile stewardship programs continue in their attempt to increase the weapons’ service lives.  However, with each further modification, the weapon design is taken farther from the actual model that was proven successful through testing.  Also, each passing year sees more scientists who had experience with nuclear testing retiring.  Therefore the hands on expertise that was produced through a rigorous and scientific development and testing process is declining precipitously.  Crucial skills and knowledge, some of which may only be understood through testing, are being lost.

Though the proponents of a CTBT argue that it will strengthen Washington’s hand in promoting nonproliferation and tougher sanctions toward Iran and North Korea, there is little evidence to support this.  No matter if every other third-party nation suddenly endorsed U.S. nonproliferation efforts, as long as Russia and China continue to block effective measures, which have been within their interests, no amount of political good-will generated by CTBT ratification will stop proliferation.  Therefore, the CTBT could only bring into question more the reliability of America’s nuclear deterrent.  If the U.S. is to deter aggression and assure its allies (so that they do not develop their own weapons), it will eventually have to test a new, modern, safe nuclear warhead design to replace the Cold War-era stockpile.

If one wants to reach a compromise position, I would suggest following the French example.  France conducted its last nuclear test in 1995, providing it with a modern, reliable, and proven warhead design that would serve French purposes for decades to come.  Within the next year it signed and ratified the CTBT.  The U.S. could develop a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) that would have  a service life of decades, test it to verify its reliability and effectiveness, and then ratify the CTBT.  Though a skeptic or pessimist may still argue that the U.S. may need to test a new or different design in the future, there is a “supreme national interest” clause in the CTBT that would allow the U.S. to withdraw if it served to further U.S. national security.  International agreements, after all, should only be abided to in order to further the national interest.

Alamagordo brought the world, willing or not, into the Atomic Age, which we remain in.  The Trinity test was the epitome of the scientific process.  Theorize, hypothesize, predict, and finally test.  Testing, as with any military weapon system, is a crucial option to have available.  Theory with testing is science.  Theory without testing is theology.

Trinity Test

Obama’s Moscow Summit – Which Way to START? July 5, 2009

Posted by SV in Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are meeting in Moscow to discuss a successor to the soon-to-expire Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).  On the table for consideration (according to U.S. and/or Russian officials) are levels of deployed and stockpiled strategic nuclear warheads, strategic delivery systems (intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and bombers), and missile defense.  Off the table are nonstrategic (short-range) nuclear weapons, which the Russians hold in abundance.

Truly understanding the situation between Washington and Moscow requires a brief look at the numbers.  The United States deploys around 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads (and ~ 2,500 reserves) on less than 1,000 missiles and bombers.  Russia deploys about 2,700 strategic nuclear warheads (and thousands in reserve) on roughly 650 missiles and bombers.  In nonstrategic nukes, Russia holds a massive advantage (3,000-5,000) over the United States (400-500).  In terms of strategic delivery systems, the U.S. still has decades before most of its systems will need replaced, while many Russian systems will reach the end of their service lives within the next decade, reducing their numbers to around 330.

The Obama Administration, in its rush to conclude the START follow-on by the current treaty’s expiration date on December 5th, is therefore playing into the Russians’ hands.  By pushing for deep warhead cuts (the Russians will not go below 1,500 deployed) and considering a further reduction in the permitted number of strategic delivery vehicles, U.S. negotiators are essentially getting nothing for something.  Since the Russians will have to eliminate many of their aging warheads, missiles, and bombers with or without an arms control treaty, they are trying to maintain parity with the United States through a new START accord.  In return, the U.S. is getting something it would have gotten without having to reduce the survivability and flexibility of its nuclear arsenal.

Until recently, the Obama Administration was seemingly giving credence to Russian objections to a third missile defense site in Central Europe.  Even former Secretary of Defense (and nuclear abolitionist) William Perry (D) stated in House testimony that trading missile defense for Russian promises was absolutely unreasonable.  The president’s special assistant, Michael McFaul, stated last week the U.S. was “not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense.”  This is a step in the right direction.  Tying defensive conventional systems to offensive nuclear systems, which President Medvedev is still insisting on, is a relic of the Cold War “mutually assured destruction” thinking.

Therefore, the U.S. approach to the START follow-on has been fundamentally flawed.  By agreeing not to include nonstrategic nuclear weapons in the limits, the U.S. allowed Russia to maintain its biggest geopolitical advantage.  Many experts believe it is these “battlefield” nuke stockpiles that will be the likely source of any future nuclear terrorism or nuclear use by a state (Russia explicitly states they would be used to “de-escalate” an invasion of their homeland).  Furthermore, once U.S. warhead and delivery system levels have been drastically reduced, Washington will little leverage to urge Moscow to reduce its tactical nukes.

The arms control process is also misguided in the link some are attempting to make between a new START and “global zero,” the nuclear abolitionist movement.  The bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission determined that complete nuclear disarmament required a “fundamental transformation of the world political order.”  Guiding a new treaty along what optimists consider a decades-long goal is a recipe for miscalculation and bad decisions.  The Obama Administration needs to take a step back, assess U.S. interests over the long term, and proceed with a modest START follow-on from there.  Idealism is one thing.  Dealing with the Russians about nuclear weapons is entirely different.

The Limits of the Iranian Election June 12, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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Much has been made about the Iranian election between current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and challenger Mir Hossein Moussavi (and two other candidates) taking place today, 12 June 2009 (see here and here for news coverage).  While there are significant differences between the candidates, the impact of a possible Moussavi victory would be limited.  There are indications that he would be more receptive to Obama’s overtures, that he would be less provocative in his statements (which may significantly alleviate, though not eliminate, Israel’s fears), and that he would place a higher priority on correcting the Iranian economy, which has been wracked by double-digit inflation and sanctions imposed for Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism.  In these areas, Moussavi may prove to be a welcome change from Ahmadinejad for the West and Iran’s large young and educated population.  The limits of his victory, however, would be noticed in two key areas.

Iranian Foreign Policy – here power has always rested with the Iranian clerics and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Though the president of Iran is the highest envoy that represents the government to the international arena, the real power in foreign policy lies with the Iranian religious leadership.  Thus while Moussavi may be willing to improve relations with Washington, the decision to do anything substantive in that direction (versus simply warm talk) will come from the Ayatollah.

Iranian Nuclear Program – there is wide popular support in Iran for the nuclear program, with the BBC reporting in mid-2007 that a poll suggested 80% of Iranian’s believe their country needs nuclear energy.  Furthermore, though they may not come out and advocate having nuclear weapons, many Iranians would want their country to have the option of producing such weapons through uranium enrichment capability.  With many remembering the Iran-Iraq War and Saddam’s use of chemical weapons on Iranian cities, they recognize the utility of having a weapon powerful enough to deter such attacks from taking place again.  As Willis Stanley points out in Strategic Culture and WMD, the Ayatollah and the clerics have recognized the value in possessing nukes, believing they would help fulfill Iran’s ambition to be leader of the Islamic world.

Therefore there are significant limits to the impact of the Iranian election.  Obviously if Ahmadinejad is reelected, the situation will not change at all.  If Moussavi succeeds in replacing him, however, relations with the West and Israel may improve as he would likely scale back provocative statements and work to lift sanctions to help reinvigorate Iran’s economy.  This may assure Israel, the EU, and the U.S., but it is not likely to herald a transformative new relationship.  Israel will still be nervous about an Iranian nuclear program, unlikely accepting it at all.  The EU and the U.S. will continue insisting on IAEA inspections, which it is unclear whether the Ayatollah wishes to permit or not.  And terrorism financing will likely continue through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard regardless of who is president.  Far from being a silver bullet to mend international relations with Iran, the Iranian election, like most politics, is inherently local.

North Korea Conducts Another Nuclear Test May 25, 2009

Posted by SV in China, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On 25 May 2009, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted its second nuclear test in three years (as well as three short-range missile tests).  While South Korean security experts currently estimate the test was only several kilotons, Russian defense sources believe it to have been 10-20 kilotons (about equivalent to the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  If this latter estimate is indeed true, or closer to the mark, it will signify a marked improvement in the DPRK’s nuclear capability since its October 2006 test.  For the full stories on the test so far, see here and here.

The question arising now is how the international community will respond.  President Obama has stated the DPRK is “directly and recklessly challenging the international community” and that it “constitutes a threat to international peace and stability.”  He further notes that “such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea’s isolation.”  Thus while there is a clear recognition of the seriousness of these events, there appears to be no clear strategy for responding to them.

This problem cannot be laid entirely at Obama’s feet, however.  During the Bush Administration, Washington placed several clear redlines to North Korean behavior (stop the nuclear program, no more missile tests, and finally no nuclear tests).  When Pyongyang broke every one of these, the U.S. response was to call for a new round of Six-Party talks – which spent half their time trying to get the DPRK to the table.  In fact, it became evident that a clear motivation for North Korea to take these actions was that it received substantial aid (food, energy) in exchange for it showing up at the negotiations.  (If you go farther back, you can blame Former President Jimmy Carter for rushing to North Korea in 1994 to establish the Agreed Framework when the Clinton Administration was about to get really tough with the Kim clan).

Regardless of the history, the United States is now faced with a growing challenge.  Though North Korea has likely not miniaturized its nuclear warheads to the point when they could fit on a missile, it may only be a matter of time.  And though they may have only 6-10 nuclear devices, they may see that as enough to deter U.S. intervention in their attempt to force reunification of the peninsula.

How should the Obama Administration react to these developments then?  Reinforcing the importance of the Six-Party talks is a waste of time.  This should only be pursued if Washington has an absolute guarantee from Beijing and Seoul that they will cut off all aid and assistance to the DPRK.  Emphasizing irrelevant steps like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is also detrimental to U.S. security.  The U.S. has not conducted a nuclear test in over 15 years, and still the DPRK conducts tests – ratification of the CTBT will give the U.S. nothing in its toolbox to deal with North Korea while unnecessariliy constraining U.S. options (especially as its nuclear deterrent atrophies).  So unless President Obama wants to do this same song and dance throughout his presidency (DPRK provocation, 6-Party Talks, DPRK aid), he will have to take forceful and concrete steps now, whatever they may be.  North Korea is one of the most isolated nations in history, sanctions to isolate it further are next to impossible to enact.  Exhibit leadership, consider all U.S. options, for the good of the national interest.

The Realist and the Idealist: the Netanyahu-Obama Meeting May 18, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, Israel, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On 18 May 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Barak Obama to discuss a wide range of issues, but in particular the progress of the Iranian nuclear program and the possibility of a separate Palestinian state (see story here).  The biggest agreement that came out of the meeting was the recognition that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be an existential threat to Israel and “profoundly destabilizing” to the world order.

There was, however, significant disagreement over the importance of working towards a Palestinian state.  President Obama indicated his belief that real progress towards such a goal, including the rollback of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, would garner broader Arab and world support in the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, recognized the reality that Israel faces.  Reflecting Israeli strategic culture, he knows that Israel’s survival is constantly at stake, it must maintain military superiority (including nuclear) in the region, and Israel will use any means necessary to ensure its defense and survival.  The issue of Palestinian statehood, therefore, can be left to the future when other preconditions of Israeli security are met.

The problem with President Obama’s approach – pushing for statehood as a prerequisite to attempting to court Arab support against Iran – is that it gives the Israelis little in return for a significant compromise to their security.  A combination of realism and strategic culture explain why Arab support will be forthcoming anyway.

First of all, Iran is a significant regional power in Southwest Asia.  It is a nation of 70+ million people, located astride of huge petroleum and natural gas reserves, and with a history of regional imperial domination (Persian and Parthian Empires).  If it does end up going nuclear, it will create anxieties among its influential neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirate Statse, and Turkey (Iraq being virtually under the U.S. umbrella).  Unless these countries go nuclear, they fear Iran will use its new threat capability to exploit Saudi Arabia’s (Shia minority) and Turkey’s (Kurdish minority) internal problems.  It’s sheer size and proximity will also allow it to more easily intimidate the Gulf states, perhaps convincing them to evict U.S. troops.  Furthermore, if Saudi Arabia acquires a nuclear capability, Egypt will likely follow suit, seeing itself as the preeminent leader of the Arab world.

Second of all, Iran is the predominant (and a revolutionary) Shiite country in the region.  As such, this will also create additional tensions with Saudi Arabia, which is the “holy land” of Sunni Islam.  Also Turkey, an avowedly secular nation (though trending differently recently), will feel threatened by a revolutionary Iran armed with nukes.  Which brings us to Israel, which as the only Jewish state in a sea of Muslim states, sees a nuclear armed Iran as an existential threat.  Fearing that one bomb would irreversibly devastate Israel, its leaders will do whatever it takes to prevent another holocaust.

Therefore the Netanyahu-Obama summit illustrated the disconnect between the two leaders.  Obama clearly hopes to build an international consensus on Iran by “solving” the Palestinian question.  Netanyahu recognizes that Arab support is already there and that Israel must first confront the immediate threat of Iran before solving the long-term conflict with the Palestinians.  With time dwindling before Iran assembles a nuclear device, there are few opportunities left to address this dire security threat.  The international non-proliferation effort depends on a concerted and strong response.

Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card at 50 Days March 11, 2009

Posted by SV in Asia, China, Iran, Japan, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations, United Nations.
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A brief look at President Obama’s foreign policy performance over the first 50 days of his tenure in office in no particular order:

Russia: D+

Main issue: There are no mulligans in international relations.

Analysis: At the suggestion of Vice President Biden that the US should somehow “reset” its relationship with Russia after the cooling tensions during the second term of the Bush Administration, Secretary of State Clinton had a red “reset” button made for her Russian counterpart to press.  Never mind that the translation was actually “overcharge” (as if that doesn’t sound bad enough), the issue is in the gesture.  As one should recall, the reason for cooling relations with Russia were mostly due to Russian provocations.  Let’s examine the record: attempted radiological assassination of dissidents in the UK or political opponents in Ukraine, a cyber attack on Lithuania, a coercive shut-off of European natural-gas supplies, and, most significantly, the invasion of Georgia during the “let’s-all-come-together” spirit of the Olympics.  If anyone should be coming to a meeting hat-in-hand and apologizing for past conduct, it should be the Russians.  That being said, improving relations with Russia is a worthy goal.  However, by going about it through new arms control and nuclear reductions treaties, the US is still stating that its relationship with Moscow is based on the number of warheads each country has pointed at the other.

Lesson: The Cold War is over.  Russia is fundamentally weak both economically and demographically.  Keep Moscow happy by making it feel like its opinion matters, even if it doesn’t (i.e., missile defenses).

North Korea: B+

Main issue: Satellite launches? Baloney – everyone knows what North Korean missiles are for.

Analysis: During her Asian tour, Secretary of State Clinton was preempted in her agenda by aggressive statements from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that threatened new ballistic missile launches.  Rather than discuss global warming and trade, (thankfully) she was forced to put her emphasis on security matters.  Secretary Clinton delivered a tough line by stating that the US would regard any new missile launches as hostile and damaging to the US-DPRK relationship.  She also wisely reassured Japan that the US would honor its nuclear guarantee to Tokyo, staving off talk about Japan becoming a nuclear weapons power.  Standard military exercises involving the US and Republic of Korea (ROK – South Korea) have continued despite routine yet dramatic objections from Pyongyang.  And the US has not (yet) taken the possibility of shooting down a North Korean missile off the table (thank you, President Bush for those missile defenses).

Lesson: Taking a tough line demonstrates resolve to North Korea.  Don’t make regime change the stated policy.  Keep the pressure up, get China and ROK to turn off the spigot of food and energy, and then maybe Pyongyang will disarm.

Iran: C -

Main issue: Once Iran enriches Uranium to 20%, its a matter of weeks until they have the bomb.

Analysis: Admittedly, Obama inherited a bad situation with Iran.  Trying to make the most of it, he has attempted to start up talks in secret and in public to get the Iranians to the table.  With every day that goes by (and especially without IAEA inspectors at Natanz), Iran comes closer and closer to enriching Uranium to the 20% level, after which it takes weeks to months to enrich it to 90%, which is weapons-grade.  What more, then, could Obama be doing?  It is clear to everybody; let me rephrase, to all members of the UN Security Council, that Iran is in clear violation of its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and IAEA obligations.  With his supposed global popularity, Obama should be trying to get a resolution passed with teeth that mandates immediate inspections of Iranian facilities and places sanctions on Tehran’s critical nodes – oil technology, foreign investment, and nuclear-related equipment.  However, the Iranians continue to stall for time, endlessly playing the great powers off of each other and approaching that necessary enrichment level more and more.

Lesson: The time for open-ended diplomacy is at an end.  Iran needs to be presented with stark choices, juicy carrots or hickory sticks, and realize the threat of force from the global community is real.  Best outcome?  Iran verifiabily limits its nuclear program to civilian power.

China: C +

Main issue: You DO NOT mess with the US Navy.

Analysis: On 8 March 2009, 5 Chinese ships (some of them part of the PLA Navy) shadowed and harassed the USNS Impeccable while it was mapping the ocean floor in international waters in the South China Sea.  The US crew responded by shooting a water hose at the approaching Chinese ships, causing their sailors to strip off their clothes in taunting.  In response to this provocation, Secretary of State Clinton met with her Chinese counterpart and both agree incidents of this kind should be “avoided” in the future.  In the words of a second grader, “well duh.”  What would have been more meaningful would have been if the Chinese had issued an apology for harassing a US Navy vessel in international waters.  The US Navy is the most feared and respected navy in the world because people understand its awesome power.  Letting a state get away with this, and making it seem that both sides were at fault, undermines this image.  As far as the economic crisis goes, the Obama Administration has at least worked cooperatively with the PRC and prevented them from unloading some of their $1.5 trillion in US debt holdings.  So, for not making economic matters worse with our biggest trading partner, they get a C minus.

Lesson: Primacy is a difficult burden to bear, but if you begin to relax it, other states get uppity.  Insist on respect to the US armed services deployed around the world and that any “rogue commanders” are publicly reprimanded.

United Kingdom: A -

Main issue: I know we’re in a recession, but that’s not an excuse for being a cheapskate.

Analysis: Though little covered in the American press, more was made of the exchange of gifts between President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the UK media.  While Obama received a pen carved from a 19th-century ship used to suppress the slave trade, Obama’s gift to Brown was a collection of 25 DVDs (I don’t know if they were region 1 or 2) of American classics.  That’s not to denigrate the gift; the films were all undisputably American classics (actually they’re the top 25 from AFI’s 2008 list of the top 100 American films), some of them the best films ever made (see: Casablanca and The Godfather).  Though, I might be worried that Brown would attempt to burn the White House down (a la the War of 1812) if he is subjected to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  On more meaningful matters, the alliance still holds and economic cooperation is continuing.

Lesson: Rookie mistakes are embarassing but seldom have long-term consequences.  I know money’s tight, but show some class in your gift-giving.  Don’t tempt foreign prime ministers to be re-gifters.

Average: C+

Room to improve, but the sooner Obama gets his sea legs and stops making amateurish mistakes, the better for everyone.

The Nuclear Entrepreneur: A.Q. Khan is Released from House Arrest February 8, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, Science, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On Friday, 6 February 2009, the man most responsible for nuclear proliferation in the world today was released from his light punishment of house arrest in Pakistan.  Abdul Qadeer Khan was released from house arrest (see here) after, according to his lawyer, he was ruled to be not guilty by the Islamabad High Court.  While the State Department thought this ruling was “extremely regrettable” (see here), it warrants a much more outraged response towards Pakistan.

Volumes have been written on A.Q. Khan’s illicit activities and nuclear proliferating; a comprehensive work is Shopping for Bombs by Gordon Corera.  However, the story received little critical attention in the media, as the economic stimulus package continued to dominate the coverage.  A brief synopsis of Khan’s activities illustrate why this is an important issue.  While working as a metallurgical scientist in the Netherlands in the 1970s, Khan stole plans and blueprints for centrifuge equipment (used for enriching uranium) and brought it back to Pakistan.  During the rest of that decade and the 1980s, he worked on building a nuclear bomb for Pakistan using the technical data he had stolen, contacts he had made with businesses that manufactured the specialized equipment that he needed, and uranium and a nuclear warhead design imported from China.  During the 1980s and 1990s he turned entrepreneur and began exporting this technology and organizing sales of specialized equipments to countries that were willing to pay the price.  Because of the extent and capabilities of the A.Q. Khan Network, North Korea was able to develop nuclear weapons and Iran is well on the way to achieving the same feat.  Libya was also on the path to this capability until it turned over its nuclear program to the US and UK in 2003 (which included the blueprints for a nuclear warhead obtained from Khan as a “bonus” to a sale of 20,000 centrifuges).

The A.Q. Khan Network thus become known as the Wal-Mart of nuclear technology.

The damage this network did to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime and arms control is virtually irreversible.  Taking full advantage of the globalized world, it exported nuclear technology and equipment to any nation that could pay the price, and suffered almost no punitive consequences (it was, after all, not a state).  It almost single-handedly added two new nuclear-weapons states to the international system (three if Libya had not given up its program when it did), and allegedly had contacts with many more nations that may be going nuclear (Saudi Arabia, Egypt).  We now live in a much more dangerous world due to the activities of this group, driven by ideological and monetary motives.

Pakistan’s weak punishment to the center of this network is indicative of the growing influence of Islamists in the country.  A.Q. Khan is heralded by many of them as the “Father of the Islamic Bomb” and, as such, is considered a national hero.  It is perhaps a warning sign that Islamabad will not remain friendly to the US for long.  Pakistan is increasingly becoming a dysfunctional democracy, with little control over most of its territory, that is on the brink of either collapse or internal regime change.  It is time the US move closer to India and Iran to try to limit the damage that may be caused when this nuclear-weapons state simply implodes or changes governments.  Tragically, it could become a failed state with nuclear weapons, much more dangerous than Iran to US interests.

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