Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


“Obama imagines that this deal will bring Iran in from the cold, tempering its territorial ambitions and ideological radicalism.” — Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, April 9, 2015

“If the world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal is signed, at the very least they should insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal expires.” – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a Joint Session of Congress, March 2, 2015

Critics are trying to have it both ways: The Obama administration’s framework agreement is bad because it fanaticizes improved Iranian behavior. Or the agreement is bad because it won’t change Iranian behavior. Both critiques are wide of the mark. This agreement has a narrow but essential purpose: it seeks verifiable limits on Iran’s capabilities to make nuclear weapons. U.S. observers will probably be the last to recognize improved Iranian behavior, should it occur. Few U.S. analysts predicted that Iran’s leaders would accept limits this constraining three years ago, and Americans know far too little about Iran to make confident predictions about its behavior over the next decade and longer. Whether Iran’s external policies remain bad or change for the better, a verifiable deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities makes good sense.

“Absent the linkage between nuclear and political restraint, America’s traditional allies will conclude that the U.S. has traded temporary nuclear cooperation for acquiescence to Iranian hegemony.” – Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2015

Three underlying assumptions lie behind this sweeping assertion: that linking behavioral change with nuclear restraint is essential; that absent linkage, friends and allies in the region will bend to Iran’s power; and that the United States will not be able to contest Iranian ambitions.

Linkage is a luxury that serious negotiators like Kissinger and Shultz have not previously allowed to get in the way of deals to reduce nuclear dangers. Their historic accomplishments, the SALT I accords and the INF Treaty, would not have been finalized had the Nixon and Reagan administrations insisted on linkage. When Kissinger and Shultz negotiated with what Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire,” Washington shored up friends and allies that were concerned about Soviet intentions and military capabilities.

Analogous support for friends and allies concerned about Iranian intentions and military capabilities will take many forms, including high-profile visits to the region, military assistance programs, military advisers, multilateral military exercises, arms sales, sanctions that will not be removed as a result of the nuclear deal, the Fifth Fleet, alliance ties with Turkey, close ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, improved ties with Egypt, and reaffirming support for Israel despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s destructive behavior. These initiatives do not add up to “acquiescence to Iranian hegemony.”

“You set out to prevent proliferation and you trigger it. You set out to prevent an Iranian nuclear capability and you legitimize it. You set out to constrain the world’s greatest exporter of terror threatening every one of our allies in the Middle East and you’re on the verge of making it the region’s economic and military hegemon.” — Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, April 9, 2015

“At a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations.” – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a Joint Session of Congress, March 2, 2015

Nuclear deals are always more suspect during adverse developments abroad. Support for strategic arms limitation waned when the Soviet Union seemed to be gaining ground in the Horn of Africa and Angola. Lingering hopes for SALT II ratification were dashed when the Soviet Union “gobbled up” Afghanistan. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that some meals are hard to swallow – even for superpowers – and that concerns about an adversary’s “strategic” gains in unruly places are usually overblown.

Is Iran on the march in Yemen? Don’t jump to conclusions. But Iran has gained significant ground in Iraq after the George W. Bush administration decided to topple Saddam Hussein. Iran’s inroads in Lebanon and Syria are also undeniable. These concerns will have to be addressed by countermeasures alongside a verifiable nuclear deal.

“I’ll say it one more time — the greatest dangers facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons.” — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a Joint Session of Congress, March 2, 2015

Precisely. Which is why a verifiable deal that constrains enrichment to levels at the very bottom of the cartoon bomb that Netanyahu used as a prop at the UN is essential, along with foreclosing the plutonium route to the Bomb, and securing inspections at suspect sites.

“Inspectors knew when North Korea broke to the bomb, but that didn’t stop anything. North Korea turned off the cameras, kicked out the inspectors. Within a few years, it got the bomb.” — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a Joint Session of Congress, March 2, 2015

Actually, the North Korean framework agreement delayed a bomb for eight valuable years. Then North Korea kicked out inspectors and withdrew from the Non-proliferation Treaty. If Tehran wants to have other states in the region build nuclear weapons, it can act like North Korea. Or future Iranian leaders could decide that reviving their country’s economic fortunes without having more nuclear-armed states in the region makes more sense than building nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s aspiration may be sinister, but U.S. wars of regime change in Iraq and Libya have shown other nations the advantages of possessing nuclear weapons… Iran is going to be a nuclear power if it intensely wants to be — and it does; no practicable sanctions can be severe and durable enough to defeat this determination.” — George Will, Washington Post, April 10, 2015

A very different takeaway from U.S. wars of regime change is that nuclear weapons are not needed to effectively counter U.S. expeditionary forces. Will’s proliferation fatalism is widely shared by critics of the deal who can foresee only two outcomes – that Iran cheats early on or that it waits patiently to build a stockpile after key provisions lapse. A third possible explanation for the framework agreement, entirely consistent with the terms under negotiation, is that Iran’s leaders want the benefits of economic growth more than the risks associated with a stockpile of nuclear weapons. This way of thinking makes little sense to those steeped in western precepts of nuclear deterrence, where weapons in hand have more deterrent effect than a capacity to make them. Whichever scenario comes to pass, verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear capabilities are essential.

“If it comes to it, air strikes to set back the Iranian nuclear weapons program are preferable to this deal” — Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard, April 4, 2015.

Those who believe that military action against Iran can be confined to air strikes and can succeed by air strikes alone are guilty of wishful thinking far more damaging than that which they ascribe to the Obama administration. The best rebuttal to war hawks has been provided by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who told an audience of West Point cadets in February 2011 that, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Speaking before a Jewish group in Philadelphia last month, Gates was equally candid, saying “If you think the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe.”


The framework agreement reached by the United States and its negotiating partners with Iran is a significant accomplishment, imposing substantial constraints on Tehran’s ability to make nuclear weapons. If it is finalized, only one other executive agreement dealing with nuclear weapons will have been more consequential — the first Strategic Arms Limitation accord negotiated by President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger with the Soviet Union in 1972.

SALT I was deemed an “Interim Agreement” — it was supposed to be a placeholder until a new treaty could be negotiated. Because it placed important limits on US and Soviet nuclear weapon delivery vehicles, the Nixon administration decided to seek the Congress’s approval in the form of a legally binding congressional-executive agreement. Simple majorities in both Houses of Congress were required for its passage. The Senate and the House of Representatives approved the Interim Agreement with just two and four dissenting votes, respectively. A companion agreement, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, was sent to the Senate for its advice and consent. Only two Senators disapproved of its ratification.

The framework agreement with Tehran which must now be finalized in painstaking detail, places all of its constraints on just one party – Iran. As such, there is no legal requirement for the Obama administration to secure Congressional consent under the provisions of Section 33 of the old Arms Control and Disarmament Act, which was preserved after the demise of ACDA and is now codified at 22 US Code, Section 2573 (b). (I know this because my mentor on the legal aspects of arms control, David Koplow of Georgetown Law School, tells me so.)

Here is the language of 22 US Code, Section 2753(b):

“No action shall be taken pursuant to this chapter or any other Act that would obligate the United States to reduce or limit the Armed Forces or armaments of the United States in a militarily significant manner, except pursuant to the treaty-making power of the President set forth in Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution or unless authorized by the enactment of further affirmative legislation by the Congress of the United States.”

Many Republicans on Capitol Hill will remain unalterably opposed to the framework agreement, notwithstanding the unprecedented constraints it places on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Republican majorities have shown their hand by giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a megaphone to imply that President Barack Obama is a modern-day Neville Chamberlain and by writing an open letter to Iran’s theocratic leadership seeking common cause in killing a deal. To reverse course now would clarify poor judgment earlier; to stay the course would confirm past misjudgment.

Republicans don’t trust Obama to serve U.S. national security interests. But “just saying no” to diplomacy is far less trustworthy. The Obama administration deserves the time to finalize the details of this agreement without Congressional attempts to blow it up by the pursuit of new and stronger sanctions. Killing this agreement will lead to the implosion of the negotiating coalition and the very sanctions that some Members of Congress seek to strengthen. Worse, limitations on Iranian nuclear capabilities will erode quickly, placing great stress on the Non-proliferation Treaty. Killing the deal also raises the likelihood of another open-ended U.S. military campaign in the region.

The Washington-based Republican Party has changed radically since Nixon and Kissinger negotiated arms limitation with the Kremlin and opened doors to “Red” China. Republican administrations have previously been instrumental in drawing down nuclear excess and in negotiating nuclear arms reduction treaties. In a bygone era, President Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall while working with him to tear down nuclear force structure. President George H.W. Bush and his advisers negotiated not one, but two strategic arms reduction treaties.

President George W. Bush’s administration significantly reduced the U.S. nuclear stockpile, but was unenthusiastic about treaties. By the turn of the century, accomplished elders in the Republican Party’s national security establishment were replaced by a generation more reckless in the use of American power and ideologically opposed to negotiating with evil. One result was unconstrained nuclear programs by North Korea and Iran.

Democratic Presidents have always had difficulties securing Republican support for nuclear negotiations, in part because they have been perceived as being too lax in dealing with adversaries. Obama will need to emulate Reagan’s dealings with Gorbachev in seeking both a nuclear agreement with Iran and countering Iranian moves that worry friends and allies. My sense is that this dual-track strategy is already underway, as is evident by the administration’s decision to resume arms sales with Egypt.

How and when sanctions are lifted matters greatly. Most Republicans on Capitol Hill won’t be happy with the timing. But Obama, unlike Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, isn’t negotiating a treaty. He is negotiating an executive agreement that is clearly within his presidential authority. The Iran agreement, unlike the SALT I Interim Agreement but like most executive agreements, will be politically, but not legally binding. This presidential authority is as clear as the authority to withdraw from treaties, as Bush 43 demonstrated with respect to the ABM Treaty.


On March 24th, the Carnegie Endowment gifted me with the Thérèse Delpech award. In thinking about what to say about this honor, I gravitated toward the twin themes of meaningful work and gift-giving, which is another, less taxing way to think about the hard slog of our daily pursuits. A video of my remarks can be found here. My prepared remarks follow.

This award means a great deal to me.

The Carnegie Endowment sets the bar very high in this field. How high? How long did it take you to get here? And look around you. Look at the company you keep.

Making a rare D.C. appearance today is my partner, my wife of forty years, the wisest member of the family – by far – and the mother of our two amazing kids who now have amazing kids of their own – Josh, who is here, and Misha, who is on the west coast with our grandson. I’d like to introduce you to Sandra Savine.

Many of you have not had the privilege of knowing Thérèse Delpeche. She was a strong woman with a fierce intellect. Her views had intercontinental range. Thérèse was the embodiment of meaningful work in our field.

We have been granted the gift of meaningful work. That’s the thread that connects every one of us. That’s what brings us together here.

I know, from first hand, that all work that helps to raise kids, that puts food on the table and that pays the bills is meaningful.

My father and mother did meaningful work. They didn’t have college educations.

Their hopes and dreams are embodied in my work, and the work of my sisters, Carol and Belleruth, who are here today.

Our meaningful work – the works that brings us to the Carnegie Endowment’s Nukefest — tries to make the world a less explosive place.

There are many explosions in this battered world of ours, but not the kinds that we worry most about.

Think of what has been accomplished by the meaningful work of those who preceded us. The work we carry on.

A world in which mushroom clouds have not appeared on battlefields for almost 70 years.

A world in which two ideological and geopolitical rivals managed to limit, reduce and eliminate a great many of their most powerful weapons and means of delivery.

A world in which there are surprisingly effective treaties against the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Yes, there are important outliers. Think of how many more there would be without these treaties.

A world in which there is a norm against testing nuclear weapons, thanks to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. A world in which the permanent members of UN Security Council have not tested nuclear weapons for about two decades, in some cases more.

A world in which the collapse of the Soviet Union, possessing 17,000 nuclear weapons and enough fissile material to produce three times as many, did not result in our worst nightmares.

A world in which meaningful constraints on Iran’s nuclear program is within reach.

None of these extraordinary accomplishments were assumed possible when first tackled.

From Day One, this work has been subject to harsh criticism, pessimism and bitter opposition.

From Day One, practitioners have been derided as naïve and misguided.

Well, look at what has been accomplished, despite the odds, despite the opposition.

Progress in our line of meaningful work is never linear.

We live in hard times.

All the more reason to remember this:

Our aims are true.

Our accomplishments fall short of our aims.

Even so, our accomplishments are significant. This meaningful work – our work – has made the world a safer place.

And we have a lot more work to do.

Thank you.


Another rare interview with our wet and muddy guest contributor, Chauncey Gardiner:

MK: Chauncey, I love it when you get down and dirty.

CG: Mucking the ponds.

MK: What’s your technique?

CG: Work around the gooey masses of frog eggs. Remove leaves by hand in the shallows. Use the pole and net for deeper ledges. Scrape the mud and pull up soggy leaves. Throw back the salamanders.

MK: Sounds like heavy lifting.

CG: Compared to what? Cleaning up the muck in Washington? There are no salamanders on Capitol Hill.

MK: Not good vote-getters.

CG: Very fragile, but they cleanse the ponds. Ditto for snails. And goldfish to eat mosquito larvae when it gets warmer. What cleansing mechanisms are there in politics?

MK: I wouldn’t know – I live in Virginia. The pols in Richmond have locked up state and congressional districts. Ten per cent victory margins are the norm. Single-party districts don’t get cleansed; they get polarized.

CG: The cost of cleaning up the ponds is a couple of Advils and $29.99 for this net. What’s the price of cleaning up Washington?

MK: The Supreme Court says we can’t put a price on it.

CG: I’ll leave the mess in Washington to you. I hear the Republicans can’t wait to sink their teeth into the Iran nuclear deal.

MK: The hard part is giving Members of Congress a say without giving them license to mug the agreement.

CG: It’s been a while since I took civics class, but I still remember Constitutional checks and balances. Now it’s checks without balance. No way to keep a pond healthy. Gotta run. The moss is asking to be weeded.


The Obama presidency has greatly disappointed supporters who view the President as being too aloof and for losing his progressive focus. The best rebuttal to these complaints is to read — or better yet watch — the President’s speech in Selma honoring those who were beaten by Alabama state troopers while demonstrating for their right to vote fifty years ago. In this place, on this anniversary, Obama’s words echoed powerfully, part Church sermon, part civics lesson — a reminder of how he won the presidency despite long odds. Seven years later, intractable problems and relentless opposition have turned his hair gray. His commitment to many causes has not wavered, but his passion has been applied selectively.

At Selma, Obama was the best he could be. A second chorus of criticism is that Obama is not a master of the legislative process, twisting arms, building bridges and framing terms of debate. The result has been gridlock on Capitol Hill. In other words, he’s not Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose string of domestic legislative accomplishments was second only to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Supporters yearn for Obama to be the LBJ captured in photographs of him towering over and browbeating Senator John Pastore. One of these photos hangs in President Frank Underwood’s Oval Office in “House of Cards,” evoking this fictional President’s brutal powers of persuasion.

Nobody will confuse Obama for LBJ, but the Grand Old Party of the 1960s was a different breed than the Republican Caucus today. LBJ’s nemesis and foil, 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, famously said during his nomination speech that, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The current Republican vernacular holds that, “Extremism in opposition to Obama is no vice. And moderation in pursuit of bipartisanship is no virtue.”

Obama’s cool demeanor on all but a few issues belies his commitment, now evident in his pursuit of an agreement with Iran that constrains its bomb-making capability in verifiable ways. This intention has prompted extreme measures by Republicans on Capitol Hill. Forty-seven Republican Senators signed an “open letter” making common cause with Iranian hardliners opposed to an agreement, following on Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver a speech before Congress depicting Obama as a modern day Neville Chamberlain. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not previously known as an acute observer of the American scene, characterized the Republican senatorial missive as “a sign of a decline in political ethics and the destruction of the American establishment from within.”

The open letter and Netanyahu’s speech did not spell out an effective way to block Iran’s path to the bomb. If these Senators and Netanyahu were more candid, they would acknowledge that the only way to achieve their agenda is through military strikes rather than negotiations. In this event, Iran would have far more reason to build a stockpile of nuclear weapons as quickly as possible.

If Members of Congress who favor an agreement were candid, they would acknowledge that it will weaken global norms for non-proliferation. If, however, the Congress kills a deal that effectively constrains Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the consequences for proliferation will be far worse.

Congress, like Obama, is in a bind. Both are long past the point of closing the barn door on Iran’s enrichment capability. Tehran built this capability during the George W. Bush administration, which rejected diplomatic initiatives to constrain Iranian nuclear capabilities at very low levels. Tehran expanded its capabilities greatly in the Obama administration. At this juncture, the best of a poor set of choices is to limit Iran’s nuclear capability under close scrutiny.

Alternatively, Congress can seek ways to reject or block an agreement, assuming one can be successfully negotiated. The open letter by all but seven Senate Republicans aims to do just this. Rejecting a useful agreement limiting Iran’s capabilities to make nuclear weapons could well lead to the expulsion of international inspectors, increased enrichment and air strikes. Air strikes would lead down many roads, none of which point to safe destinations.

Non-proliferation has taken a hit because Iran’s nuclear facilities are sized for bomb-making rather than electricity. Non-proliferation will take a more severe hit unless these facilities operate at only a small fraction of their capacity. Iran’s neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, have also decided that they must have nuclear power plants – the purported rationale for Iran’s enrichment facilities. Uranium enriched to five per cent, appropriate for generating electricity, is readily available for purchase. Purchasing low-enriched uranium, however, comes with inspectors and safeguards. Enriching uranium to 90 per cent suitable for bombs requires having an unsafeguarded, indigenous capability.

Whether more uranium enrichment plants are built in the Middle East, and whether enrichment occurs under inspection depends, in large measure, on the outcome of these negotiations. The same holds true for the design and safeguards associated with Iran’s Arak research reactor. The spread of unsafeguarded enrichment or reprocessing plants in the Middle East will doom the Non-proliferation Treaty.

An effective agreement will be possible if Iranian leaders see more risk than reward in acquiring nuclear weapons. Opponents of an agreement cannot imagine this to be the case. They are convinced that Iran’s leaders will use the Bomb to backstop their ambitions in the region. Even worse, religious zealots in Iran might not hesitate to start a nuclear war. Just read their threats about burying Israel.

This pessimistic appraisal might be right. It might also be wrong, in which case it would be foolish and tragic to assume the worst and then unwittingly help make it happen. Nikita Khrushchev threated to bury the United States during the Cold War. This threat was taken seriously, but was overtaken by realism and affected by political engagement. The Soviet Union decided that the Bomb was too dangerous a weapon to use. Instead, a succession of Soviet and U.S. leaders agreed to do things that only wishful thinkers could have hoped for: Washington and Moscow agreed to limit, reduce, and even eliminate many of their most powerful weapons and means of delivery. They even agreed not to test nuclear weapons – and haven’t done so for over twenty years.

These achievements, which remain in place even under Vladimir Putin, happened despite the warnings of pessimists who couldn’t envision how geopolitical and ideological adversaries could reach such accommodation. Rewards came to those who took risks for negotiated settlements, while being prepared for the consequences of failure. U.S. negotiations with the Soviet Union and Iran are different in many ways, but alike in how little the two sides can relate to each other. During the Cold War, U.S. war plans were predicated on managing escalation, while the Soviet General Staff disregarded this. The two superpowers nonetheless found common ground and reached accords despite their differences.

How do Iran’s leaders really think about nuclear weapons? Are we to take Iran’s Supreme Leaders literally when they talk about annihilating Israel, but not when they say that the Bomb is an “un-Islamic” weapon? If the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations practiced selective literalism, they wouldn’t have been able to reduce nuclear dangers. The Obama administration seeks to constrain Iran’s nuclear capabilities in ways that can dampen proliferation elsewhere in the Middle East. U.S. interests and those of friends and allies in the region would be better served by limiting Iranian capabilities in verifiable ways than by demanding the impossible, watching sanctions erode, and seeking temporary solutions in bombing runs.

Nuclear dangers have been reduced and our worst nightmares have been avoided, thanks to leaders who were willing to take risks to reach unlikely agreements. The Obama administration and Congress are at this juncture once again. Demanding a say in any agreement that is reached is one thing; torpedoing it is another. An agreement with Iran that effectively constrains its bomb-making ability in verifiable ways is worth trying. Rejecting or blocking such an agreement concedes failure without trying.

Note to readers: A shorter form of this essay ran in Roll Call on March 12th.


A serious competition between two nuclear-armed rivals is very hard to stabilize. When one rival increases its nuclear capability, the other does, too. Then both rivals feel less secure – even when they possess secure retaliatory capabilities. It’s even harder to stabilize a triangular nuclear competition. Isosceles triangles don’t exist in the nuclear business, and three unequal sides do not make for stable geometry.

Triangular competitions are never static. Gregory Koblentz characterizes three-sided competitions as “trilemmas.” Like two-party competitions, they can only be stabilized when disputes are resolved or set aside, direct trade increases, and rivals tacitly agree to restrain their nuclear capabilities.

Stabilization requires roughly balanced strategic modernization programs, conventional capabilities and national trajectories. These conditions were absent during the Cold War. The triangular competition among United States, the Soviet Union and China was particularly unstable because it involved shifting allegiances. Moscow and Beijing colluded at first, and then became bitter rivals, even engaging in a border clash. Once Beijing acquired a minimal deterrent, it dropped out of the nuclear competition, focusing instead on domestic and economic priorities. Today’s triangular competition among the United States, China, and Russia is also unstable. Russia is helping China to compete, even though Moscow understands that Beijing will pose as much of a strategic concern in the future as the United States.

The triangular nuclear competition among China, India and Pakistan is inherently unstable, with features that were not present during the Cold War. The Chinese and Indian legs of the triangle are growing taller, but unevenly. Pakistan’s leg is shrinking despite the growth of its nuclear arsenal, because of weak social and economic indicators. Pakistan measures its strategic requirements against India, while India measures against both its nuclear-armed neighbors. Even if Pakistan were to drop out of the nuclear competition, which is unlikely, India will continue to measure itself against China. China and Pakistan are becoming closer, while Washington gravitates increasingly toward New Delhi. Now add border disputes and violent extremist groups in Pakistan to ongoing nuclear modernization programs, disparate conventional military capabilities and national trajectories.

Nuclear weapons do not stabilize this geometry. Border disputes are certainly not dampened by off-setting nuclear capabilities. In two cases – India and Pakistan as well as the Soviet Union and China – border clashes occurred after the weaker rival acquired a usable nuclear deterrent. On the other hand, border disputes do not necessarily accelerate nuclear competitions. China did not ramp up its nuclear capabilities because of its border dispute with the Soviet Union; nor has the nuclear dynamic between India and China been affected by their unresolved border. Pakistan, in contrast, has upped its nuclear weapon requirements to deal with a border dispute with a rival than enjoys convention military advantages.

If domestic political compulsions do not permit the resolution of border disputes, the most promising way to stabilize a triangular competition is through direct trade and tacit agreements. The most important tacit agreement available to China and India would be to end aggressive patrolling along their disputed border. The most important tacit agreement for India and Pakistan would be to refrain from inserting or supporting violent extremists in Kashmir and Baluchistan. Tacit agreements not to play with fire in these disaffected regions would be necessary but insufficient to reduce deterrence instability. For example, a quiet Line of Control dividing Kashmir will not reduce the risk of conflict if violent extremists based in Pakistan attack iconic Indian targets elsewhere. To guard against this possibility, the intelligence cooperation between India and Pakistan – agreed in principle but poorly implemented in practice – could help defuse nuclear-tinged crises and military clashes.

Tacit agreements are also possible with respect to nuclear weapon-related programs. All three states are on course to increase their nuclear arsenals. Over the next decade, China and India could decide to place more than one warhead atop single missiles and to field ballistic missile defenses. These capabilities will be hard and expensive for Pakistan to acquire. Increases in deterrence instability will grow proportionately along with the extent to which Beijing and New Delhi decide to embrace multiple warhead missiles and missile defenses. Improved missile accuracy and multiple warheads could lead to increased targeting lists that take on a war-fighting character.

A tacit agreement between Beijing and New Delhi not to field missile defenses, or to deploy them only for narrow missions, could serve useful purposes. Tacit agreements to forego nuclear war-fighting capabilities and to adhere to well-established, non-offensive Chinese and Indian nuclear postures could also dampen deterrence instability amidst strategic modernization programs.

China and India have ample resources for the growth of their nuclear capabilities. Pakistan does not. The wisest choice of the weakest competitor, as the Soviet Union and China demonstrated in different ways during the Cold War, is not to engage in a nuclear competition. Pakistan is on a different course, however, because of prior investment decisions. Even as Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities grow, it will fall further and further behind an India led by governments that are more inclined to compete.

However many nuclear weapons Pakistan has, deterrence stability will be elusive unless Pakistan and India improve relations. China and India have a modicum of deterrence stability, despite their growing arsenals, improved conventional capabilities and economic dynamism because they have set aside their territorial dispute while increasing direct trade and investment. With two strong, risk-taking leaders, they might even be able to address their border dispute. After decades of deferring a settlement, this would come as a surprise.

In contrast, there is little evidence that India and Pakistan will try to resolve the Kashmir dispute, or that spoilers would accept an agreement, even if one could be reached. Absent a Pakistani strategy to adopt Beijing’s approach toward New Delhi, India and Pakistan will face conditions of significant deterrence instability in the years ahead.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in Dawn, a Pakistani daily, on March 3rd.


The negotiating endgame with Iran is upon us. The Obama administration had no choice but to hold fast to the March 31st deadline, allowing further time only to add detail if a framework agreement can be reached. Restiveness on Capitol Hill is growing and Republican support is hard to detect. Extending these talks once again would whip up stronger opposition in Congress without providing any additional leverage on Iran’s Supreme Leader to make concessions. A firm deadline is needed to finalize an agreement that effectively constrains Iran’s bomb-making capabilities in verifiable ways.

Supporters and opponents of trying to reach an agreement with Iran have tried to move the goalposts for an acceptable agreement as the negotiations have progressed. U.N. Security Council resolutions beginning in 2006 have demanded that Iran suspend its enrichment program. The Government of Israel, vocal domestic critics, and Members of Congress who oppose an agreement now insist that Iran have no enrichment capability whatsoever. For its part, the Obama administration and its negotiating partners have shifted from suspension to allowing enrichment under observable constraints.

Critics, including the editorial board of the Washington Post, oppose the amount of enrichment that the Obama administration seems willing to accept. According to press leaks, the United States and its negotiating partners have upped the allowable number of first-generation centrifuges operating under an agreement from 1,500, to 3,000/4,500 to perhaps 6,500. Iran has around 19,000 centrifuges at two sites, with the production capacity to make more, and more efficient, machines.

Heavyweight and bellwether Henry Kissinger has criticized the administration’s negotiating tactics with this artful formulation, provided in congressional testimony on January 29th:

“Nuclear talks with Iran began as an international effort, buttressed by six U.N. resolutions, to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option. They are now an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability through an agreement that sets a hypothetical limit of one year on an assumed breakout. The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.”

Moving away from unrealistic opening gambits in order to find mutually acceptable common ground is standard negotiating practice. Kissinger got hammered for doing just this by critics of the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation accords. The most prominent exception to this practice – the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty – came as a disconcerting surprise to those anti-arms controllers in the Reagan administration who supported the “zero” option in the confident expectation that it would not be negotiable.

What matters most in Kissinger’s formulation – but not to diehard critics of any agreement with Iran – are the particulars of the word “capability.” The Obama administration has defined this term as Iran’s ability to be in a position to have a usable nuclear weapon in a year’s time. The package of constraints now under negotiation is designed to address this “breakout” scenario, which Houston Wood of the University of Virginia and David Albright at the Institute for Science and International Security have done much to advance.

Some argue that designing an agreement against a breakout time of one year is too exacting; others that it is not nearly exacting enough. A third view holds that breakout from facilities under close scrutiny is unlikely, and that if Iran sprints for the Bomb, it will do so at secret sites. Provisions allowing access to undeclared facilities are needed to address this concern.

Current events in Ukraine lend support to designing an interlocking series of constraints around a one year timeline for breakout. The coalition of states required to work in tandem to implement an agreement with Iran will have different timelines and thresholds to make hard decisions, as is evident from the reluctance of Germany and France to draw a hard line against Vladimir Putin’s encroachments in the Donbas region. If Iran violates its commitments under an agreement, lining up the requisite will and support for remedial actions could take months.

Sanctions have been an effective tool to engage a deal-minded government in Iran, but sanctions, no matter how tough, will not shut down Iran’s enrichment activities. The ‘no enrichment’ camp, led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been handed even more of a megaphone by House Speaker John Boehner, seeks to stymie ongoing negotiations or kill any agreement reached. If Tehran responds to either of these eventualities with the expulsion of foreign observers at its nuclear facilities, tougher sanctions and bombing runs are likely to follow. Netanyahu would prefer the United States to undertake these airstrikes, which would have to be repeated periodically, each time with diminished support. If the U.S. Congress blocks or rejects an agreement that effectively curtails Iranian enrichment, and if Israeli or U.S. air strikes follow, Washington would be placed in an untenable position globally.

Opponents of an agreement – assuming one can be reached that effectively establishes constraints commensurate to a one-year breakout capacity – are obligated to explain how blocking or rejecting it would advance U.S. national, regional, and international security interests. How, for example, would rejecting an agreement that curtails Iranian enrichment affect proliferation prospects in the greater Middle East? Instead of providing forthright answers to hard questions, opponents take refuge in legislation for tougher sanctions.

Constraining Iran’s enrichment capability in effective, verifiable ways is far better than leaving it unconstrained and unmonitored. Iran’s nuclear programs have already prompted hedging strategies in the greater Middle East, as is evident by plans to proceed with nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. The extent of these hedging strategies will depend on the extent to which Iran’s nuclear capacity can be effectively constrained.

There are serious risks ahead whether or not an agreement can be negotiated. The agreement the Obama administration seeks would have less pernicious proliferation consequences than by torpedoing it. Those who oppose an agreement with Iran unwittingly invite more nuclear proliferation in the region.

Note to readers: A shorter form of this essay appeared in the March 1st edition of the Los Angeles Times.


Nuclear postures matter. They frame requirements, add to or detract from stability, and can affect outcomes when deterrence fails, which happens more than expected. Vipin Narang covers this ground in his masterful new book, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (2014). Finally, we have a book on proliferation that is rooted in the discipline of Political Science with persuasive explanatory powers and great analytical value. Vipin’s book has one chapter that only Political Scientists can relate to, but the rest is highly accessible.

Most of the deterrence literature spawned by the Cold War has little applicability to newer entrants into the nuclear club. For example, we can’t tell from this literature what nuclear posture newcomers will chose, and why. Vipin offers three basic choices: (1) assured retaliation; (2) catalytic (a posture designed to prompt the intervention of a patron); and (3) asymmetrical escalation. At present, India and China have adopted assured retaliation. South Africa, Israel, and Pakistan initially chose catalytic postures. France, and now Pakistan, adheres to asymmetrical escalation. Vipin concludes that an assured retaliation posture doesn’t fare well when paired up against asymmetrical escalation.

Nuclear postures aren’t immutable. He argues, quite cogently, that Pakistan switched from a catalytic to an asymmetric escalation posture after testing nuclear devices in 1998. He argues, less persuasively, that Israel switched from a catalytic to an assured destruction posture after the 1991 Gulf War. More on this later.

Why do countries choose one posture or another? Vipin argues that states optimize force structure and posture “for their external security and their internal threats and constraints.” Does the state have a reliable patron? If so, a catalytic posture might fit. Does it have assertive civil-military relations and confidence in its conventional capabilities? Then assured destruction is a good fit. Is a state disadvantaged conventionally and does its military hold sway? Then look for tactical nuclear weapons and asymmetric escalation. Here’s what the decision tree of Vipin’s “Posture Optimization Theory” looks like:

Vipin has persuaded me that his theory has stronger explanatory power than analytics grounded in realism, technological determinism, and strategic culture. His theory also does well in explaining when nuclear postures shift. His argument that, “If a state’s available options to augment deterrence through external balancing disappear and it faces extremely binding security constraints, a regional power has no option but to adopt an asymmetric escalation posture” fits Pakistan to a “T.” His characterizations of Indian, Chinese, French and South African nuclear postures are also quite good.

Israel is the outlying case, where Vipin’s theory falls short, as he readily acknowledges. He makes a convincing argument that Israel’s nuclear posture shifted away from catalytic after the 1991 Gulf war undermined assurance that Washington would intervene even more emphatically after Saddam Hussein’s Scud attacks. But shifted to what? Vipin’s typology suggests a shift to assured destruction, but this seems uncharacteristic of a nation that does not accept a mutual deterrence relationship with other states in the region.

All nuclear postures project mixed messages of catalytic, assured retaliation, and asymmetric escalation capabilities. Vipin maintains that “the primary envisioned employment of these three postures is mutually exclusive.” I’m not capable enough to parse Vipin’s coding methodology, but his analysis rings true, with the exception noted above.

Vipin’s analysis suggests that if Iran’s nuclear program is unconstrained, it could adopt either asymmetrical escalation or assured retaliation, depending on the state of civil-military-Revolutionary Guard interactions. As for the DPRK, Vipin’s typology suggests a catalytic posture as long as China is viewed as a reliable patron. If not, expect an asymmetric escalation posture.


One paradox of nuclear deterrence has always been that whatever utility the Bomb provides is lost once the nuclear threshold is crossed, however large or small the boom. There is no bigger blunderbuss than a nuclear weapon atop a long-range missile. Smaller-yield message-senders have been created in the form of tactical nuclear weapons, but any advantageous battlefield use of nuclear weapons against a similarly armed foe requires heroic assumptions. Basic nuclear deterrence is measured by non-use. The derived benefits of “strengthening” deterrence by means of more discriminating or improved methods of delivery have been completely conjectural.

How much of a deterrent is a weapon that hasn’t been used on battlefields for almost 70 years? Deterrence strategists object to this formulation. They argue that, even without mushroom clouds, the Bomb has leveraged favorable outcomes in diplomacy, crises and wars.  These arguments do not withstand close scrutiny. The Bomb has indeed energized diplomacy to defuse crises – after exacerbating them. It has also reinforced the common sense of major powers not to fight full-blown conventional wars. Beyond reinforcing caution, the Bomb’s suasion is limited. It can’t override bad national decisions, local circumstances, and differentials in commitment to achieve preferred outcomes. The Bomb hasn’t proven its worth when nuclear-armed states square off against non-nuclear-weapon states, as is evident by a painfully long track record of conventional wars, limited wars, proxy wars and unconventional wars.

The quest to fine-tune deterrence to increase leverage above and below the nuclear threshold is nonetheless an endless project. As missile accuracies improved and warheads multiplied, thanks to MIRVs, targeting lists grew. Limited and not-so-limited options were added to massive targeting plans in the quest for leverage, advantage, or war-winning capabilities.

Deterrence benefits from limited nuclear options are based on two dubious presumptions — that escalation can be controlled and that an adversary will not skip rungs on the escalation ladder. Mental gymnastics have always been required to derive deterrence benefits out of plans for massive retaliation.

In the 1990s, the advent of precision-strike conventional capabilities promised greater diplomatic leverage and militarily effectiveness without crossing the nuclear threshold. But air power alone has always had limited effectiveness and suasion. “Prompt global strike” and hypersonic weapons are now advanced in the pursuit of more discriminate, effective deterrence. Their promise also rests on risky assumptions – that strikes will not mistakenly hit nuclear-armed or related targets, and that a foe will accept attrition without crossing the nuclear threshold.

Fred Iklé and Albert Wohlstetter led a study on ‘Discriminate Deterrence’ at the end of the Reagan administration. Their Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy report was released in January 1988. Contemporary readers will find no hints in this report that the Soviet Union, against which the Commission’s recommendations were primarily directed, was a house of cards. One example: “We will seek to contain Soviet expansionism in any region of the world.”

The Commission predicated its recommendations on this key finding:

To help defend our allies and to defend our interests abroad, we cannot rely on threats expected to provoke our own annihilation if carried out. In peacetime, a strategy based on such threats would undermine support for national defense. In a crisis, reliance on such threats could fail catastrophically for lack of public support. We must have militarily effective responses that can limit destruction if we are not to invite destruction of what we are defending.

How, then, to proceed? Here are some excerpts:

We must diversify and strengthen our ability to bring discriminating, non-nuclear force to bear where needed in time to defeat aggression. To this end, we and our allies need to exploit emerging technologies of precision, control, and intelligence that can provide our conventional forces with more selective and more effective capabilities for destroying nuclear targets…

We and our allies would rather deter than defeat an aggression, but a bluff is less effective and more dangerous in a crisis than the ability and will to use conventional and, if necessary, nuclear weapons with at least a rough discrimination that preserves the values we are defending…

The precision associated with the new technologies will enable us to use conventional weapons for many of the missions once assigned to nuclear weapons. The new technologies will work to strengthen the ability of our ground and air forces to defeat invasions. Particularly important in this connection is the prospective use of “low observable” (Stealth) technology in combination with extremely accurate weapons and improved means of locating targets. In the years beyond 2000, this combination will provide new ways to stop invading forces at great distances from the front lines.

Iklé and Wohlstetter were prescient in forecasting that the United States would pursue precision strike conventional capabilities, low observables, and replacing nuclear for conventional weapons against certain targets in strategic war plans. Even so, the U.S. track record of deterrence, dissuasion and compellence during the past quarter-century has not merited high marks. The awesome powers of nuclear weapons are greatly compromised in the real world. Diversified and more discriminating capabilities do not help when leaders and their followers are not amenable to deterrence. In these instances, what matters most is maintaining a firewall between nuclear and conventional capabilities.


U.S. National Security Strategy reports, like the one issued by President Barack Obama on February 6th, are quickly forgotten. They do, however, provide useful temperature-taking devices. Compare, for example, the National Security Strategy report released by the George W. Bush administration in 2002 with the Obama administration’s 2015 report.

There are many common themes in these two reports, built around values, alliances, and the like. U.S. national security strategy is, after all, built around core interests that don’t change from one administration to the next. New administrations do, however, change emphasis. They undertake course corrections, triggered by external events and the temper of the electorate.

The Bush administration’s first National Security Strategy report, issued soon after attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon by al-Qaeda operatives flying hijacked commercial airliners, presented an ambitious, muscular, and fateful course correction. Here are some excerpts:

We will defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants.

America will hold to account nations that are compromised by terror, including those who harbor terrorists— because the allies of terror are the enemies of civilization. The United States and countries cooperating with us must not allow the terrorists to develop new home bases. Together, we will seek to deny them sanctuary at every turn.

As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed… History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act. In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action.

The United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe.

Having moved from confrontation to cooperation as the hallmark of our relationship with Russia, the dividends are evident: an end to the balance of terror that divided us; an historic reduction in the nuclear arsenals on both sides; and cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism and missile defense that until recently were inconceivable.

We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends.

We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed.

We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries… The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction— and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

Compare these ringing declarations with the following passages from the Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy:

We have to make hard choices among many competing priorities, and we must always resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear.

Our resources will never be limitless. Policy tradeoffs and hard choices will need to be made.

In an interconnected world, there are no global problems that can be solved without the United States, and few that can be solved by the United States alone.

We mobilized and are leading global efforts to impose costs to counter Russian aggression

We will prioritize collective action to meet the persistent threat posed by terrorism today, especially from al-Qa’ida, ISIL, and their affiliates.

We will be principled and selective in the use of force. The use of force should not be our first choice, but it will sometimes be the necessary choice. The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our enduring interests demand it: when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; and when the security of our allies is in danger. In these circumstances, we prefer to act with allies and partners. The threshold for military action is higher when our interests are not directly threatened. In such cases, we will seek to mobilize allies and partners to share the burden and achieve lasting outcomes. In all cases, the decision to use force must reflect a clear mandate and feasible objectives, and we must ensure our actions are effective, just, and consistent with the rule of law. It should be based on a serious appreciation for the risk to our mission, our global responsibilities, and the opportunity costs at home and abroad. Whenever and wherever we use force, we will do so in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy.

[W]e shifted away from a model of fighting costly, large-scale ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the United States—particularly our military—bore an enormous burden. Instead, we are now pursuing a more sustainable approach that prioritizes targeted counterterrorism operations, collective action with responsible partners, and increased efforts to prevent the growth of violent extremism and radicalization that drives increased threats.

When Presidents are re-elected, their second National Security Strategy report is usually more tempered than the first. This is true for both the Bush and Obama administrations. The national mood shifted greatly after 9/11 and then shifted again in reaction to the dispiriting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pendulum is now swinging back again, and will gain momentum in the next administration.