Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


How much has the Republican Party on Capitol Hill lost its equilibrium? Just hear the histrionics about the Iran deal — a deal which has the unanimous support of the UN Security Council and every U.S. ally and friend around the world save one: the Government of Israel. A deal that prevents Iran from producing nuclear weapons for 10-15 years and perhaps much longer. And a deal that has no support among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.

Instead, these leaders are in lock-step with Party insurgents. They’ve signed up rather than be overrun. Even the thoughtful Republican Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, has brought a harsh, new demeanor to these hearings.

Most Republicans will vote to torpedo the deal and can be expected to try repeatedly to block its implementation. Far too few are reserving judgment, engaging in fact-finding, genuinely hearing people out and weighing down-side risks. For all but seven Republican senators (now six, with Corker’s declaration at the outset of the hearings), certainty has come quickly. Very decent and highly capable people in the Obama Administration have tried their best to prevent Iran from getting the Bomb and the United States from fighting another unnecessary, preventive war in the Middle East. In return for their efforts they received invective. Denunciations flowed. Pithy, cutting quotes were at the ready. The auto-da-fé was teed up and the grandstand wasn’t disappointed.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact has gotten a pass. Naysayers, including Charles Krauthammer, are certain that this is the worst agreement ever negotiated. Krauthammer & Co. were equally certain about the need for a preventive war to rid Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. Republican newcomers to Capitol Hill who weren’t present and voting for that historic mistake are leading the charge against the Iran deal. One is Freshman Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who has the brains (Harvard, Harvard Law) and combat experience (Afghanistan) to be wary of asking U.S. military forces to fight another preventive war in the Middle East.

Instead, Cotton rounded up all but the aforementioned seven Republican colleagues to send an open letter to the Mullahs seeking common cause to nix the deal. This is what passes for leadership these days in the Party whose Presidents forged strategic arms limitation agreements with the Soviet Union, broke the back of the superpower arms race, and opened doors to “Red” China.

Opponents of the deal, taking their cues from Benjamin Netanyahu, say that a “no” vote is not a vote for war. It’s a vote for a better deal. Right. And when a better deal is not forthcoming, when sanctions unravel, and when Tehran carries out activities that are banned by this agreement, then what? The choices are war or a climbdown – just as with Saddam Hussein.

Barack Obama was first elected president on a platform to bridge domestic divides. No longer. Partisanship is worse now than at any other time in U.S. history – even as U.S. forces remain in harm’s way. Is it any wonder why Obama chose to seal this deal as a political compact rather than a treaty? By going this route, and by announcing up front his intention to veto Congressional resolutions of disapproval, he has made reflexive Republican opposition to this deal easier. But had he not done so, would there have been more reflection and less reflexive opposition? Would there have been more serious contemplation about the costs of rejection? Or handing Netanyahu a veto over U.S. national security policy in the Middle East? I seriously doubt it.


A “free” vote on Capitol Hill is one without negative consequences. Republicans and Democrats can line up with party activists and showboat without risk because they will be unsuccessful. Hard decisions can be sidestepped and political posturing is easy when negative consequences are blocked by the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers.

Republicans have proven to the party faithful their sincere opposition to Obamacare by voting against it over fifty times. They were free votes because opponents couldn’t override a Presidential veto. When conservative activists turned to the Courts, Chief Justice John Roberts bailed out Republicans from earning the wrath of millions of Americans left without coverage, facing steep and sudden rate increases. By voting against Obamacare and failing to kill it, Republicans can blame rate increases and public dissatisfaction with health care on the Democrats.

Democrats on Capitol Hill demonstrated their sincere opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact by voting against fast-tracking it, to the satisfaction of the energized, populist wing of their party. These votes didn’t entail the loss of export-related jobs to high hourly-wage countries because the White House was subsequently (and predictably) able to cobble together enough pro-trade Democrats to join most Republicans in reversing course.

Partisan divides on Capitol Hill have become the norm. The rest of the world can look on with bemusement at divisions over Obamacare and other domestic policy issues. But when partisan divides occur on national security issues, America’s friends are not amused and adversaries look for ways to take advantage. The debate on the Iran deal now taking shape is emblematic of what ails Washington. Opposition to the Iran deal, mostly along partisan lines, is sincerely held, but the issue here isn’t sincerity; it’s the herd instinct and the absence of better alternatives.

Voting in favor of an arms limitation agreement with an adversary is hard – even when, as in this case, the arms limitations are completely one-sided in Washington’s favor. Voting to demonstrate distrust of Iran is easy. It’s politically safe to oppose the lifting of sanctions and providing Tehran with a “windfall” as sanctions are lifted. The Revolutionary Guards and other retrogrades can be counted on to act reprehensibly – witness the incarceration of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian – even if Tehran abides by the terms of the agreement. If Iran cheats at the margins or in significant ways, then “nay” votes will look even better. If, alternatively, the deal goes surprisingly well, voters will have forgotten this roll call ten years from now. (Extra credit goes to ACW readers who remember which Democrats voted against authorizing the George H.W. Bush administration’s spectacularly successful military campaign against Saddam Hussein.)

Votes against the Iran deal may be principled and cunning, but they aren’t free – even if those opposed to the deal fail to override a Presidential veto. They are not like votes on Obamacare and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They have great consequence. As I wrote in an op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times, nothing would diminish U.S. global leadership, destabilize the Middle East, further exhaust American military forces, and weaken the U.S. Treasury more than the one-two punch of a war to rid Saddam of fictional WMD followed by undermining an agreement that effectively limits Iran’s all-too-real nuclear capabilities.

Republicans, with a few notable exceptions, are nonetheless herding and gearing up to oppose this deal. If they fail to override a Presidential veto, expect a long campaign to place roadblocks against implementation. Also count on a perpetual campaign to declare Iran in violation of ambiguous provisions. And count on efforts to re-institute sanctions lifted by Executive Order. Opponents can vote repeatedly against the deal without taking responsibility for its demise – unless they succeed.

If Tehran cheats egregiously and repeatedly, the deal’s failure and its consequences are on Tehran. If this deal unravels because hard-core opponents on Capitol Hill lay minefields blocking implementation, Tehran will be the principal beneficiary. If Republicans and Democrats aren’t on the same page for retaining some sanctions and lifting others, the world’s focus will be on Washington, not Tehran.

The United States will be the big loser if a Republican Presidential candidate wins in 2016 and follows through on his campaign pledge to walk away from the deal. In this event, don’t count on a unified front by the P5+1. Don’t count on tougher sanctions. Do count on Tehran to re-litigate its concessions – or to blow past them. Also count on proliferation concerns growing. They are manageable with this agreement and worse without it.

The skeptics have spent many months critiquing the Obama Administration. They will continue to do so for the next 60 days.This is the agreement we’ve got, and it’s surprisingly good. Implementation will be challenging, even if all parties are acting in good faith, not just because these constraints are entirely new and complicated, but because irreconcilables in Iran and the United States will favor its demise.


This assessment of the core monitoring provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is necessarily hurried and preliminary. I invite ACW readers to weigh in with their comments. The text of key provisions follows my first-cut assessment.

The agreement’s provisions are extremely complex and detailed. Reading the fine print brings flashbacks of the most detailed nuclear arms reduction provisions negotiated between the Kremlin and the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. All of this is new. At the outset of these negotiations, no one expected constraints this deep or this long.

Detail, complexity and novelty lend themselves to hiccups, even if everyone is acting in good faith. If opponents of this deal decide to legislate their interpretations and preferences of agreed provisions, there will be endless grounds for alleging violations. Even if they do not, there will be repeated charges of Iranian noncompliance, whether warranted or not. Sorting through these issues behind closed doors will not produce prompt rebuttals. If Tehran does not go the extra mile to clarify that concerns over noncompliance are unwarranted, there will be choppy passages ahead. Tehran’s willingness to go the extra mile will depend, in turn, on whether the United States is carrying out the deal’s terms in good faith.

The administration gets high marks for monitoring Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain, from uranium mining and milling to its centrifuge manufacturing and storage facilities for 25 years. The monitoring provisions relating to uranium enrichment, and even more so for plutonium production and reprocessing, are extremely good at declared sites. The monitoring of R&D for Iranian work on better centrifuge designs at declared facilities is also extremely good, but will not assuage critics that oppose any Iranian work on improved centrifuge designs.

The suspect site provisions reflect hard compromises and could involve difficult sledding if put to the test. The White House Fact Sheet on the deal says, that “It ensures both timely and effective International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to any site in Iran necessary in order to verify Iran’s compliance, including military sites such as Parchin.” But implementation won’t be smooth: the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been separated at birth, and getting to know one another at suspect sites won’t be easy. Negotiating these provisions was a significant achievement. Making them work will be possible, but even more remarkable.

Challenge inspections were exercised in Iraq and succeeded in large measure, even against Saddam Hussein’s obstruction. But the Iraqi case, as with the constraints placed on another defeated state — Germany after World War I — was exceptional. Challenge inspections (the term is not used in the text) in Iran would traverse new and difficult terrain. The Chemical Weapons Convention’s challenge inspection provisions have never been exercised. This Convention has not stopped outliers, like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but the CWC’s norms have helped keep the number of outliers limited – even without exercising the right of challenge inspections.

The Iran agreement’s provisions would permit access of suspect sites within 24 days, following voting procedures that are weighted in favor of the United States and its allies. Delays at several stages in the process could allow Tehran to clean up some kinds of activities, but not others.

The key question underlying suspect site provisions — and the agreement as a whole – is whether Tehran has gone to such great lengths to accept severe limits on its bomb-making capabilities for extended periods of time in order to disregard these obligations. Critics assume this to be the case, during or after sanctions’ relief, even as they argue that there is no need for Iran to cheat because the terms are insufficient and time-limited.

A subsidiary question is where Tehran would try to cheat, if it chose to do so. Inspections at military facilities have been a significant point of contention. Iran’s Supreme Leader has weighed in, ruling them out. The provisions of the agreement do not rule them out, while placing hurdles before ruling them in. One of many challenges to the United States and Iran is, in effect, to resolve questions of compliance before feeling obliged to exercise the right of challenge inspections.

Key Monitoring provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action:

Iran will permit the IAEA the use of on-line enrichment measurement and electronic seals which communicate their status within nuclear sites to IAEA inspectors, as well as other IAEA approved and certified modern technologies in line with internationally accepted IAEA practice. Iran will facilitate automated collection of IAEA measurement recordings registered by installed measurement devices and sending to IAEA working space in individual nuclear sites.

Iran will make the necessary arrangements to allow for a long-term IAEA presence, including issuing long-term visas, as well as providing proper working space at nuclear sites and, with best efforts, at locations near nuclear sites in Iran for the designated IAEA inspectors for working and keeping necessary equipment.

Iran will increase the number of designated IAEA inspectors to the range of 130-150 within 9 months from the date of the implementation of the JCPOA and will generally allow the designation of inspectors from nations that have diplomatic relations with Iran, consistent with its laws and regulations.

Iran will permit the IAEA to monitor, through agreed measures that will include containment and surveillance measures, for 25 years, that all uranium ore concentrate produced in Iran or obtained from any other source, is transferred to the uranium conversion facility (UCF) in Esfahan or to any other future uranium conversion facility which Iran might decide to build in Iran within this period.

Iran will permit the IAEA regular access, including daily access as requested by the IAEA, to relevant buildings at Natanz, including all parts of the FEP and PFEP, for 15 years.

Requests for access pursuant to provisions of this JCPOA will be made in good faith, with due observance of the sovereign rights of Iran, and kept to the minimum necessary to effectively implement the verification responsibilities under this JCPOA. In line with normal international safeguards practice, such requests will not be aimed at interfering with Iranian military or other national security activities, but will be exclusively for resolving concerns regarding fulfilment of the JCPOA commitments and Iran’s other non-proliferation and safeguards obligations.

If the IAEA has concerns regarding undeclared nuclear materials or activities, or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA, at locations that have not been declared under the comprehensive safeguards agreement or Additional Protocol, the IAEA will provide Iran the basis for such concerns and request clarification.

If Iran’s explanations do not resolve the IAEA’s concerns, the Agency may request access to such locations for the sole reason to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA at such locations. The IAEA will provide Iran the reasons for access in writing and will make available relevant information.

Iran may propose to the IAEA alternative means of resolving the IAEA’s concerns that enable the IAEA to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA at the location in question, which should be given due and prompt consideration.

If the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA cannot be verified after the implementation of the alternative arrangements agreed by Iran and the IAEA, or if the two sides are unable to reach satisfactory arrangements to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA at the specified locations within 14 days of the IAEA’s original request for access, Iran, in consultation with the members of the Joint Commission, would resolve the IAEA’s concerns through necessary means agreed between Iran and the IAEA. In the absence of an agreement, the members of the Joint Commission, by consensus or by a vote of 5 or more of its 8 members, would advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA’s concerns. The process of consultation with, and any action by, the members of the Joint Commission would not exceed 7 days, and Iran would implement the necessary means within 3 additional days.

The Joint Commission is comprised of representatives of Iran and the E3/EU+3 (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), together, the JCPOA participants.

The Joint Commission may establish Working Groups in particular areas, as appropriate.

The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (‘High
Representative’), or his/her designated representative will serve as the Coordinator of the Joint Commission.

Review and approve in advance, upon request by Iran, the design, development, fabrication, acquisition, or use for non-nuclear purposes of multi-point explosive detonation systems suitable for a nuclear explosive device and explosive diagnostic systems (streak cameras, framing cameras and flash x-ray cameras) suitable for the development of a nuclear explosive device, Review, with a view to resolving, any issue that a JCPOA participant believes constitutes nonperformance by another JCPOA participant of its commitments under the JCPOA, according to the process outlined in the JCPOA…


The text of the nuclear limitation agreement with Iran (AKA “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”) has been released and can be found here [link fixed]. Several key provisions are reprinted below. I’ll post key verification provisions separately, with my assessment of their utility.

Iran will begin phasing out its IR-1 centrifuges in 10 years. During this period, Iran will keep its enrichment capacity at Natanz at up to a total installed uranium enrichment capacity of 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges. Excess centrifuges and enrichment-related infrastructure at Natanz will be stored under IAEA continuous monitoring.

There will be no additional heavy water reactors or accumulation of heavy water in Iran for 15 years. All excess heavy water will be made available for export to the international market.

For 15 years Iran will not, and does not intend to thereafter, engage in any spent fuel reprocessing or construction of a facility capable of spent fuel reprocessing, or reprocessing R&D activities leading to a spent fuel reprocessing capability, with the sole exception of separation activities aimed exclusively at the production of medical and industrial radio-isotopes from irradiated enriched uranium targets.

Iran will fully implement the “Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues” agreed with the IAEA, containing arrangements to address past and present issues of concern relating to its nuclear programme as raised in the annex to the IAEA report of 8 November 2011 (GOV/2011/65). Full implementation of activities undertaken under the Roadmap by Iran will be completed by 15 October 2015, and subsequently the Director General will provide by 15 December 2015 the final assessment on the resolution of all past and present outstanding issues to the Board of Governors, and the E3+3, in their capacity as members of the Board of Governors, will submit a resolution to the Board of Governors for taking necessary action, with a view to closing the issue, without prejudice to the competence of the Board of Governors.

Iran will allow the IAEA to monitor the implementation of the voluntary measures for their respective durations, as well as to implement transparency measures, as set out in this JCPOA and its Annexes. These measures include: a long-term IAEA presence in Iran; IAEA monitoring of uranium ore concentrate produced by Iran from all uranium ore concentrate plants for 25 years; containment and surveillance of centrifuge rotors and bellows for 20 years; use of IAEA approved and certified modern technologies including on-line enrichment measurement and electronic seals; and a reliable mechanism to ensure speedy resolution of IAEA access concerns for 15 years.

Iran will not engage in activities, including at the R&D level, that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device, including uranium or plutonium metallurgy activities.

The EU and its Member States and the United States, consistent with their respective laws, will refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of this JCPOA.

Transition Day is the date 8 years after Adoption Day or the date on which the Director General of the IAEA submits a report stating that the IAEA has reached the Broader Conclusion that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities, whichever is earlier. On that date, the EU and the United States will take the actions described in Sections 20 and 21 of Annex V respectively and Iran will seek, consistent with the Constitutional roles of the President and Parliament, ratification of the Additional Protocol.

If Iran believed that any or all of the E3/EU+3 were not meeting their commitments under this JCPOA, Iran could refer the issue to the Joint Commission for resolution; similarly, if any of the E3/EU+3 believed that Iran was not meeting its commitments under this JCPOA, any of the E3/EU+3 could do the same. The Joint Commission would have 15 days to resolve the issue, unless the time period was extended by consensus. After Joint Commission consideration, any participant could refer the issue to Ministers of Foreign Affairs, if it believed the compliance issue had not been resolved. Ministers would have 15 days to resolve the issue, unless the time period was extended by consensus. After Joint Commission consideration – in parallel with (or in lieu of) review at the Ministerial level – either the complaining participant or the participant whose performance is in question could request that the issue be considered by an Advisory Board, which would consist of three members (one each appointed by the participants in the dispute and a third independent member). The Advisory Board should provide a non-binding opinion on the compliance issue within 15 days. If, after this 30-day process the issue is not resolved, the Joint Commission would consider the opinion of the Advisory Board for no more than 5 days in order to resolve the issue. If the issue still has not been resolved to the satisfaction of the complaining participant, and if the complaining participant deems the issue to constitute significant nonperformance, then that participant could treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part and/or notify the UN Security Council that it believes the issue constitutes significant non-performance.

Upon receipt of the notification from the complaining participant, as described above, including a description of the good-faith efforts the participant made to exhaust the dispute resolution process specified in this JCPOA, the UN Security Council, in accordance with its procedures, shall vote on a resolution to continue the sanctions lifting. If the resolution described above has not been adopted within 30 days of the notification, then the provisions of the old UN Security Council resolutions would be re-imposed, unless the UN Security Council decides otherwise. In such event, these provisions would not apply with retroactive effect to contracts signed between any party and Iran or Iranian individuals and entities prior to the date of application, provided that the activities contemplated under and execution of such contracts are consistent with this JCPOA and the previous and current UN Security Council resolutions…. Iran has stated that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.


Now that the negotiating endgame for a nuclear limitation agreement with Iran has been extended to July 7th, critics and kibitzers have had an extra seven days to push, prod and excoriate the Obama administration. It’s far easier to criticize an agreement-in-progress for not being good enough than to defend it – even when the outlines of the deal negotiated in early June were surprisingly good.

Critics and kibitzers fall into various camps. There are “friendlies,” “wary-ies,” and “hostiles.” The Washington Institute issued a public statement by an influential group of “friendlies” and “wary-ies” itemizing details where the Obama administration needed to be bucked up. One friendly, Bob Einhorn, subsequently amplified that none of these benchmarks were “poison pills.” But if they aren’t met, Bob could be wrong.

David Albright has suggested that the Congress underscore Tehran’s obligations under an agreement. This approach would hand over the interpretation of imprecise or purposeful diplomatic compromises to legislative opponents of an executive agreement. This happened after the 1972 SALT I Interim Agreement, when Republicans on Capitol Hill termed every Soviet action on every provision that the Nixon Administration was unable to nail down as a damning violation.

One veteran of these negotiations, Al Carnesale, has weighed in by suggesting a simple question when evaluating the final agreement: “Compared to what?” Advocates will certainly do this, but “wary-ies” and opponents will have different metrics of measurement.

There’s a slight groundswell on Capitol Hill, including Presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, in favor of the status quo rather than a negotiated deal – but this assumes that Tehran would be willing to continue a policy of weapon-related restraint absent the prospect of sanctions relief. The safest position for nay-sayers to take, as exemplified by Presidential candidate Marco Rubio and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is to advise the Obama Administration to “just walk away” while toughening up sanctions. But then what? No deal would satisfy critics who take their cues from Benjamin Netanyahu.

Which leads us to the non-negotiation-from-strength camp. This school of punditry argues that we wait for a regime’s collapse, or actively assist in its demise, or set conditions for a negotiated settlement that won’t happen, thereby holding the high ground and not being tainted by compromise. For much of its tenure, the George W. Bush administration adopted this stance, with minor variations, toward North Korea and Iran, while watching their nuclear capabilities grow.

Matt Kroenig, a member of the non-negotiation-from-strength camp dressed up as the negotiation-from-strength camp, has written that “the only way to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran would be to eliminate its uranium enrichment capability.” I, too, would prefer this outcome, but I understand that it won’t happen. Since Matt is a very smart guy, I presume he does, too. This leaves three options: watching dangerous stockpiles grow, limiting Iran’s capabilities through a negotiated agreement, or bombing Iran’s nuclear production complex.

Matt and a few others from the non-negotiation-from-strength camp get high marks for candor in acknowledging support for the military option – a tough sell for a war-weary American public and overburdened U.S. military forces that have been tasked with tidying up messes made by elected officials in the Middle East while gearing up to counter a revanchist Russia and the rise of China.

Secretary of State Colin Powell once invoked, regrettably without much emphasis, the “Pottery Barn rule”: you break it, you own it. Powell was prescient but still wrong about Iraq. The George W. Bush Administration broke plenty of pottery, but never owned Iraq, despite spending a trillion or so dollars there. It rejected the possibility of a negotiated settlement that could assuage concerns over Iraq’s WMD programs after Saddam sent feelers out: The Bush Administration didn’t want to negotiate from strength; it wanted regime change.

Regime change by use of military force in Iran is out of the question. Waiting Iran out isn’t an option, either, leaving periodic aerial sorties to keep Iran from acquiring the means to make nuclear weapons. Tehran’s countermoves will place even more burdens on U.S. military forces, and are likely to include blowing past the nuclear constraints that opponents rail against as being insufficient. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates estimated the time bought by bombing runs as perhaps two to three years. Compare this to provisions the Obama Administration is negotiating that would extend limitations on Iran’s bomb-making capability from ten to twelve years and perhaps longer. Those calling for military strikes are, in effect, arguing that extending limits on Iran’s nuclear program for ten or more years is insufficient, while delaying it for two to three years is good enough.


Aspiring Wonks: Time once again to whet your appetite by dipping into a classic text waiting for you online or at the library – one that applies to the P-5+ 1 negotiations with Iran. These passages are from the first chapter of Nobel Laureate Thomas C. Schelling’s Arms and Influence (Yale University Press, 1966).

“Diplomacy is bargaining; it seeks outcomes that, though not ideal for either party, are better for both than some of the alternatives. In diplomacy each somewhat controls what the other wants, and can get more by compromise, exchange, or collaboration than by taking things in his own hands and ignoring the other’s wishes… Whether or not there is a basis for trust and goodwill, there must be some common interest, if only in the avoidance of mutual damage, and an awareness of the need to make the other party prefer an outcome acceptable to oneself.”

“The purely ‘military’ or undiplomatic’ recourse to forcible action is concerned with enemy strength, not enemy interests; the coercive use of the power to hurt, though, is the very exploitation of enemy wants and fears.”

“Opposing strengths may cancel each other; pain and grief do not. The willingness to hurt, the credibility of the threat, and the ability to exploit the power to hurt will indeed depend on how much the adversary can hurt in return; but there is little or nothing about an adversary’s pain and grief that directly reduces one’s own… With strength they can dispute objects of value; with sheer violence they can destroy them.

And brute force succeeds when it is used, whereas the power to hurt is most successful when held in reserve. It is the threat of damage, or of more damage to come, that can make someone yield or comply. It is latent violence that can influence someone’s choice… Whether it is sheer terroristic violence … or cool premeditated violence… it is the expectation of more violence that gets the wanted behavior, if the power to hurt can get it at all…”

“The victim has to know what is wanted, and he may have to be assured of what is not wanted. The pain and suffering have to appear contingent on his behavior; it is not alone the threat that is effective – the threat of pain or loss if he fails to comply – but the corresponding assurance, possibly an implicit one, that he can avoid the pain or loss if he does comply. The prospect of certain death may stun him, but it gives him no choice.”


Five years ago (5/6/10), during the 2010 NPT Review Conference, you can find my blog post on “Egypt, the Spoiler?” After the 2015 RevCon, we can dispense with the question mark. What happened in New York was symptomatic of a broader malaise affecting arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament: acts of personal and national projection without due regard for consequences have become commonplace. Acting out trumps substance and imbalance is unbounded. Foundations of international security built with great care and considered effort in past decades are undermined. The commonweal yields to narrow agendas. The center continues to slip away.

Witness Cairo’s behavior at the 2015 RevCon. Here’s what I wrote five years ago:

The more Iran pursues nuclear capabilities, the more Cairo rails against Israel’s Bomb. In diplomacy, as in sports, this is known as a misdirection play: The nuclear threat posed to Egypt by Israel, with whom it signed a peace treaty in 1979, hasn’t changed. The big change in Egypt’s neighborhood has been attempts by Iraq, Libya, Iran and Syria to acquire capabilities to make nuclear weapons.

A subsequent postmortem on the 2010 RevCon (6/2/10) argued thus:

Any conference that requires consensus, with almost two hundred potential vetoes, has two most likely outcomes: a lowest common denominator success or an ugly mess. The 2005 NPT Review Conference was an ugly mess. The 2010 Rev Con was a lowest common denominator success.

Treaty guardians have bought a few more years of time, but new challenges lie ahead, one of which is a conference of Middle Eastern states to promote a NWFZ, as championed by Egypt. Convening a conference on this subject without the proper ground work is akin to complaining that NWS are slow-balling disarmament, requiring a timetable to speed up the process. In both cases, unforgiving political conditions are not improved by setting dates and convening conferences.

Actually, the 2010 RevCon wasn’t a lowest-common-denominator success, since it established an ambitious plan of action. But the hard realities of international relations between major powers, regional adversaries, outliers, and throughout the chaotic Middle East foiled progress on this work program in the five years between RevCons.

Vladimir Putin is in tear down mode (as in the post-Cold War status quo around Russia’s periphery) and is not yet interested in President Barack Obama’s offer of one-third reductions from projected New START levels. China has begun MIRVing. Pakistan and India are engaged in a bona fide nuclear arms race, with Pakistan in the lead. North Korea is forging ahead with its nuclear stockpile and ballistic missiles. Sykes and Picot are long dead; their map-drawing handiwork in the Middle East didn’t survive the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Against these circumstances, what could a RevCon hope to achieve? To use this RevCon as leverage for an unworkable, non-diplomatic, anti-Israel agenda, as Egypt did in New York, was an act of brazen disregard for the global goods and services provided by the NPT and its ancillary bodies. Cairo acted to ensure failure in New York, and deemed it a success. Folks: by characterizing the RevCon as a failure because the participants could not agree on a consensus document is to unwittingly do Cairo’s bidding.

Sure, there were lots of fractious reasons why this RevCon wasn’t a feel-good exercise. But only one of them seems to have been a deal-breaker. Cairo demanded a zone in the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, to be launched by a conference without an agreed agenda between states whose diplomats have a hard time shaking hands or even being in the same room together. It is remarkable that only the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada refused to sign up to this language. More remarkable still was that their refusal was widely characterized as resulting in the failure of the RevCon. Since when does the refusal to submit to extortion constitute failure?

Aside from the dispute over the Middle East, the draft final document was unremarkable – another lowest-common-denominator text reflecting the tugs and pulls of competing agendas.

I salute those who wish to bring the humanitarian consequences of nuclear warfare to the forefront. Good things can come from efforts to strengthen the threshold against nuclear use anywhere in the world. Bad things can come from holding the NPT hostage to this agenda. I support abolition, but do not have the hubris to think that it can be achieved except when political conditions permit and on a step-by-step basis. Movements that focus on end states run out of steam. Where help is needed most urgently, while international relations are perversely messed up, is on preventing the first use of nuclear weapons since 1945.

In this bleak canvass, the most significant ray of hope emanates from a prospective nuclear limitation agreement with Iran. One would think this would be good news for countries in the Middle East, including Egypt. Instead, Cairo has ratcheted up its campaign to hold the NPT hostage to Israel-bashing. Cairo signaled the death-knell of the RevCon on its first day, with Moscow serving as its Chief Abettor. There was no preparatory diplomacy before the RevCon to work out next steps, necessarily halting, to move forward on this agenda item. Cairo wanted its way or “failure.” Disagreement on a final text followed. I have company in being at a loss in figuring out a strategic plan behind Cairo’s tactics.

The policies pursued by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu are entirely worthy of criticism. Israel’s domestic and national security policies lead straight toward increased isolation, with RevCons being one manifestation. But to damage the NPT for the actions of a non-member is akin to railing against human rights organizations while shooting at street demonstrators.

So where do we go from here? I’ve blogged previously about the Dunn Theorem (3/18/13), named after Lew Dunn, the Bronx’s gift to the NPT. Lew’s theory about RevCons is that back-to-back successes are a rarity. More likely, in his view, every other RevCon is a flop. Lew was proven right in 2015, but his theory is now in jeopardy. The contentious issues on display at the 2015 RevCon aren’t going away. They could all be accentuated, unless and until the litany of woe described above shifts for the better. We’ll see whether Cairo is chastened or emboldened by this RevCon. Unless Cairo’s behavior is called out by other states, I’m not optimistic.

If the RevCons here on out are to be a month-long scratching of wounds, creative ideas will be needed to add balm to this gathering. Demanding timetables for states possessing nuclear weapons to reduce reliance on them, regardless of the state of the world, isn’t a remedy.


[Note: This post has been corrected.]

Very bad news often follows when adversaries give up on improved relations. We’re at this juncture now on the Subcontinent. High-ranking Indian and Pakistani officials are lobbing over-heated public recriminations about abetting terrorism in each other’s sensitive spaces. Pakistan has elevated the Kashmir issue – never a good sign for Pakistan or for India — and firing across the Kashmir divide has increased in recent years. Absent top-down initiatives to mend fences – initiatives that New Delhi appears unwilling to take and that Pakistan’s civilian government is handcuffed from taking – the stage will be set for another nuclear-tinged crisis in the region.

Increased firing across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir accompanied the advent of another Pakistani government led by Nawaz Sharif, who makes no secret of his desire to improve relations with India. Firing intensified after the election of a new Indian government led by Narendra Modi, who has made no secret about responding in more than tit-for-tat fashion to cease-fire violations.

Indian officials see bad omens in Pakistan’s release from polite confinement of Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi – the Lashkar e-Toiba’s operational commander who was deeply involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Intercepts of communications confirming Lakhvi’s role are publicly available, and copious evidence against Lakhvi provided by New Delhi was initially deemed inadmissible in Pakistani courts; his release was accompanied by statements blaming India for insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

Pakistani officials read bad omens in statements by senior Indian officials regarding a willingness to engage in “sub-conventional” warfare, if warranted by Rawalpindi’s actions. Before becoming National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval gave a talk in February 2014 in which he conveyed the message that, “You can do one Mumbai and you may lose Baluchistan.” Last month, Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, a neophyte in the art of public obfuscation, warned Pakistan against stepping up a proxy war in Kashmir: “There are certain things that I obviously cannot discuss here. But if there is any country, why only Pakistan, planning something against my country, we will definitely take some pro-active steps.” Parrikar used the the colloquial Hindi phrase for “removing a thorn using another thorn,” adding, “We have to neutralize terrorists through terrorists only. Why can’t we do it? We should do it. Why does my soldier have to do it?”

Hopes for improved relations generated by Modi’s invitation to Nawaz to attend his inauguration in May 2014 have now ebbed completely. Nawaz is in a bind. He has nothing to show for accepting Modi’s invitation. Civilian-led governments in Pakistan have been unable or unwilling to reciprocate India’s granting of Most Favored Nation trade status back in 1996. Pakistan understandably uses different terminology – non-discriminatory market access – which the previous government led by Asif Ali Zardari chose not to finalize, and which Nawaz is in no position to pursue. If he takes further initiatives and is left empty-handed, he will be in an untenable position back home. With Rawalpindi now signaling a hard line, this is out of the question.

Lakhvi’s release and Nawaz’s inability to push ahead on trade have reaffirmed New Delhi’s lack of interest in investing time and effort on improved relations. One of its key conditions for forward progress is tangible steps by Pakistan against the groups that target India. Statements by Doval and Parrikar have now allowed Pakistan to turn these tables, reverting to habitual themes about Indian subversion when bilateral relations take a turn for the worse.

A chorus of outrage has followed from the Foreign Ministry, government-inspired news accounts and opinion columns. The Chief of Army Staff has weighed in, decrying the actions of Indian intelligence services and clarifying that the fortunes of Pakistan and Kashmir are inseparable.

Modi has now entered the fray with remarks in Dhaka that, “Every now and then Pakistan keeps disturbing India, creates nuisance, promotes terrorism and such incidents keep recurring.” Modi was there to sign a long-delayed border settlement. The contrast between New Delhi’s commitment to improve relations with Bangladesh and its lack of interest in improving ties with Pakistan could not be starker.

The blame games now underway may mask an important shift in the dynamics of deterrence on the Subcontinent. New Delhi’s hand has been strengthened and Rawalpindi’s efforts to shore up deterrence by means of a nuclear buildup are being circumvented. Back in October 2014, Doval reportedly said,  “We would like to resolve our problems through negotiations, through talks. I can’t think of any problem that cannot be resolved through negotiations. But on the other hand, India would like to have an effective deterrence to deal with terrorism.” One can read the statements by Doval and Parrikar to suggest that the Modi government has landed on a strategy of sending deterrent messages in the coinage Rawalpindi understands best.

As the stronger power, India only loses by making nuclear threats, while threatening to respond to severe provocations with conventional military thrusts into Pakistan offer headache without gain — which is why the Indian Army’s interest in “Cold Start” lost traction. Doval and Parrikar may be telegraphing a different Indian response if Rawalpindi turns up the heat in Kashmir or if the LeT carries out another spectacular act of terrorism within India. New Delhi can respond in Baluchistan or exploit other internal security problems in Pakistan, of which there are many. And as with the firing along the LoC, New Delhi can respond twofold to whatever cuts Rawalpindi inflicts.

Rawalpindi has been counting on a deterrence strategy that threatens first use if conventional capabilities are not up to the task. First use includes the detonation of short-range, or tactical, nuclear weapons against Indian troop concentrations and armor. New Delhi has studiously underplayed this threat; Rawalpindi can build as many tactical nuclear weapons as it likes and still not be able to use them if New Delhi adopts a strategy of fighting fire with fire — one that the previous Congress Party-led government was loathe to pursue.

New Delhi’s recent deterrent messages are far more convincing than beefing up conventional or nuclear forces, which is why Pakistan has reacted so vigorously against them. It knows that India’s leaders will seek to avoid using nuclear weapons and that New Delhi has backed away from threats to fight a limited ground war on Pakistani soil in the past. In contrast, India’s amped-up deterrent threats of proxy or sub-conventional warfare are credible because Pakistani leaders assume that India is already swimming in these waters.

Pakistan blames India for the widespread disaffection in Baluchistan, where its own military actions have sown disaffection, just as Indian military forces’ have in Kashmir. New Delhi has been able to handle everything Rawalpindi has thrown at it in Kashmir. Can Rawalpindi do the same in Baluchistan? China’s newly-announced, high-profile infrastructure corridor will pass through this province, where gas lines are periodically blown up and where Rawalpindi is raising a special security contingent for Chinese workers.

The hullaballoo in Pakistan over Doval and Parrikar’s statements is partly contrived, since the context and conditionality of these threats have been conveniently disregarded. But Pakistan’s concerns are very real, since hopes for the country’s economic future rest on Chinese investment through this corridor.

Deterrent messages can help avoid limited wars on the Subcontinent, but they cannot improve India-Pakistan relations. Diplomatic initiatives are required for this purpose. Once the sting of Lakhvi’s release subsides, New Delhi will be well-positioned to shift gears. No one’s interests are served by concurrent proxy campaigns in Kashmir and Baluchistan, so new deterrent threats could serve a useful purpose. But what then? It has been seven years since the Mumbai attacks. How much time needs to pass before resuming the composite dialogue?


Tense situations that prompt nuclear threats occur when one (or more) of three conditions exist: when the state issuing threats feels weak in some important respects, when other means of suasion are unsuccessful, and when the stakes involved are exceptionally high. Examples abound. Kim Jong-un threatens nuclear devastation when U.S. and South Korean troops carry out joint exercises. The United States resorted to not-so-veiled nuclear threats against China when bogged down in the Korean War. Nikita Khrushchev used veiled threats during the Berlin crisis. (“It is best for those who are thinking of war not to imagine that distances will save them.”) Pakistan employed nuclear threats when both armies mobilized after the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament by extremists based in Pakistan. New Delhi threatened massive retaliation if Rawalpindi resorted to first use.

To threaten mushroom clouds when the stakes are low (see Kim Jong-un, above) devalues the currency. Ditto for repeated threats of mushroom clouds. Multiple nuclear threats are once again emanating from the Kremlin. NATO’s advance eastward and Vladimir Putin’s actions to reassert Russia’s sphere of influence along its periphery are the proximate causes.

Time, once again, to pull Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (1987) by Richard Betts from the bookshelf. Here are some passages:

Confusion is the central reality of beliefs about nuclear leverage. The source simultaneously of potential political clout and potential military disaster. Confusion can be used against against an enemy by increasing his uncertainty and encouraging caution, but it also widens the range for miscalculation…

In the first twenty years of the postwar era… presidents and their principal advisers often appeared to make the [nuclear] threats without carefully thinking through whether they would be willing to initiate the use of nuclear weapons as implied by their signals or what the consequences would be if they did. They focused more on the political imperative of blocking the adversary’s advance than on the danger of war if the enemy refused to desist and the dispute intensified.

From the record of American deliberations during past crises, it is hard to argue that any of the Soviet threats were effective; indeed, they provoked more than deterred.

If direct confrontations recur, they will probably be over peripheral areas that become central or over local conflicts that spill into more crucial arenas.

Moscow might be willing to push Washington to the brink. Or if Moscow shares Washington’s view of the balance of interests at stake in a confrontation, if Soviet protestations … are not only illegitimate in U.S. eyes but disingenuous in theirs as well, the balance of resolve will favor the U.S. position and lessen the likelihood that the Soviets would stand up to a U.S. threat.


The global nuclear order is becoming more dynamic and unsettled. The top tier is contracting, but at a slow pace. Newcomers feature prominently in the second tier, eclipsing the old-timers. And the newest entrants into the nuclear club either have or seem to want three-digit-sized arsenals – something few envisioned when these late arrivals barged into the nuclear club. A bumpy NPT Review Conference would make matters worse.

There are still two out-sized nuclear powers with roughly equivalent force structure. One is no longer a superpower and its capabilities are very uneven, as is evident by Russia’s modernization programs for missiles and submarines while losing its last functional early warning satellite. Moscow now resorts to nuclear threats and aggressive patrolling – reminiscent of the dark passages of the Cold War. These statements and practices, alongside the Kremlin’s predatory actions in Ukraine, reflect a dangerous mix of weakness and belligerence.

The “old” European second tier nuclear weapon states, Great Britain and France, are the only non-dynamic part of the current nuclear order. They struggle to pay the bills to maintain or replace their sea-based deterrents while their conventional power projection capabilities have shriveled.

The nuclear newcomers on the subcontinent, India and Pakistan, are on track to join and perhaps surpass the ex-colonial powers in the second tier. When they tested nuclear devices in 1998, both embraced doctrines of minimal, credible deterrence. Minimalism has subsequently taken a back seat to credibility.

China, the last of the P-5 to obtain the Bomb, has had very slow nuclear modernization cycles. Its second-generation ballistic missile submarine is only now undertaking sea trials — five decades after Beijing first tested a nuclear device. It took slightly more than a decade after testing ICBMs for the U.S. and Soviet Union to place multiple warheads on them. Beijing is now poised to do so – more than four decades after flight-testing its first long-range ballistic missile. India might follow suit, thereby separating itself from Pakistan. China will remain ahead of India and will distance itself from Great Britain and France.

A cardinal belief of proliferation pessimists, steeped in western deterrence theory, is that a nuclear stockpile has more powers of suasion than the capacity to build one. Another key belief is that any state wanting the Bomb will get one. If true, this would be very bad news for the global nuclear order. Their Exhibit A is North Korea, whose stockpile size by some estimates could surpass three digits before the end of the decade. Ever a stockpile half this size would create far more wobble in the nuclear order.

Proliferation pessimists assume that Iran will follow in North Korea’s footsteps. But proliferation pessimists have been proven wrong before. They hypothesize that Tehran will either cheat to acquire the Bomb during the agreement being negotiated or wait just long enough for its provisions to lapse. A third possibility, given short shrift, is that Iran’s leaders are working from a different playbook, one in which a revived Iran is worth more than a nuclear stockpile. Put another way, Iran would have more regional power and national security if Tehran, Ankara, Cairo and Riyadh did not possess nuclear weapons.

The outlines of the proposed nuclear agreement are consistent with all three hypotheses. The third hypothesis does the least damage to the global nuclear order – but still weakens non-proliferation norms. If Tehran decides to forgo nuclear weapons while retaining the infrastructure to make them, other states in the Middle East might well follow suit. Hedging along these lines would not be new — Japan being the most prominent case – but the global nuclear order will become more wobbly with more states adopting hedging strategies.

Another complicating feature of the new, unsettled nuclear order is the triangular nature of nuclear competitions. This feature is also not new, but it has become more dynamic. The central triangular nuclear competition during the Cold War was among the United States, the Soviet Union and China. But China hardly competed. So, when it switched partners from the Soviet Union to the United States, the nuclear order didn’t change, even though the geopolitical consequences of Beijing’s shift were significant.

There are two dynamic triangular nuclear competitions at present. One is among China, India and Pakistan. This triangular competition is not amenable to stabilization. It can become far more complicated if China and India place multiple warheads atop some of their missiles and deploy limited missile defenses. If New Delhi decides to MIRV, Rawalpindi will be hard-pressed to compete. But its nuclear arsenal will still grow because of prior investments.

The second triangular nuclear competition is among the United States, Russia and China. Unlike the Cold War, this time around, all three parties are competing. Impetus can come from the top down (if Washington decides to deploy certain missile defenses), the bottom up (if Beijing decided to deploy multiple warheads atop missiles), and from the middle, as Russia replaces old missiles and subs, lending impetus to U.S. strategic modernization programs.

All of this adds up to an unsettled nuclear order with many moving parts. In contrast to the dynamism of Bomb-related programs, diplomacy to reduce nuclear threats — except in the case of Iran — remains dormant. A fractious NPT Review Conference, now underway, would add even more uncertainly to our nuclear future.