Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


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.


The United States wants to pivot to Asia, but the Middle East keeps getting in the way. Likewise, India wants to pivot to China, but Pakistan keeps getting in the way. Pakistan matters to India for two primary, interconnected reasons: its home-grown terrorists and its nuclear-weapon programs. The pathway to crisis and war on the Subcontinent begin with the actions of violent extremist groups based in Pakistan. As long as this pathway remains open, deterrence stability does not improve with nuclear modernization programs. Instead, stability is dependent on Indian restraint after severe provocation.

The nuclear competition between Pakistan and India now qualifies as a serious arms race. Since the 1998 tests, when both expressed fealty to credible, minimum deterrence, they have flight-tested fourteen types of nuclear-capable missiles. Both countries have embraced cruise missiles and sea-based capabilities. Pakistan advertises its short-range Nasr missile as being nuclear-capable. If Pakistan’s military leaders have established a requirement for a nuclear-tipped Nasr, they could employ the same logic to produce other types of battlefield nuclear weapons as well.

Both countries have recently flight-tested longer- as well as shorter-range ballistic missiles. India can now reach targets throughout China. Pakistan can reach targets in all of India – and the Middle East. India and China have the means to place multiple warheads atop some of their missiles and to deploy limited ballistic missile defenses. The flight-testing and induction of MIRVs, even on a small scale, would have ripple effects in Pakistan, as would the deployment by India of limited ballistic missile defenses.

Since the 1998 tests, India and Pakistan have fought one limited war, experienced one crisis sparked by an attack on the Indian Parliament building that triggered full-scale mobilizations, and another crisis resulting from a mass slaughter in Mumbai. It’s been seven years between crises and seven years since the last crisis. There has been no progress on the diplomatic front, no movement to resolve the Kashmir dispute and no agreement to set it aside. There has been no significant increase in direct cross-border trade, and still no direct trade between Karachi and Mumbai. The last nuclear risk-reduction measure negotiated by India and Pakistan was in 2007.

Government officials in India and Pakistan seem unable to ameliorate the arms race unfolding on the Subcontinent. New Delhi is troubled by China’s strategic modernization programs. Initiatives to improve relations with Pakistan are hard to pursue when the “mastermind” of the Mumbai attacks, Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, receives a get-out-of-jail-free card. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finds it hard to take initiatives with India that his military leadership opposes. All of which means that not much has changed with respect to the causes of potential conflict on the Subcontinent since the 1998 tests. But much has changed with respect to the consequences of potential conflict, given the enlarged and diversified nuclear arsenals now in place.

The Stimson Center has published a new collection of essays, Deterrence Instability and Nuclear Weapons in South Asia, to call attention to these developments. China figures prominently in these pages, but our focus is on India and Pakistan, where the potential for conflict is greatest. The nuclear arms competition between India and Pakistan spells trouble ahead – especially in the absence of sustained, top-down efforts to improve ties.

The circumstances for another serious crisis between India and Pakistan remain in place. The Pakistani military’s laudable counter-terrorism efforts in the tribal belt will garner no sympathy if the Lashkar e-Toiba or another Punjabi-based group carries out spectacular acts of violence against India. In this event, all eyes will be on Prime Minister Modi, who is a “decider” rather than an agonizer, like his predecessors. He may decide, as A.B. Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi, and Manmohan Singh did, that India’s economic growth is of paramount importance and that it’s not worth fighting another war with Pakistan. In which case, Pakistan would once again lose while India continues on its path of accumulating power. Or he may decide to hit back, in which case both Pakistan and India could lose quite a lot.


It’s not easy to make nuclear weapons, build missiles to carry them long distances, and to produce highly enriched uranium or plutonium. It’s even harder to keep nuclear weapons safe so they do not detonate except under orders from a National Command Authority. If a single mushroom cloud appears at a time of crisis or warfare because of an accident, inadvertent or unauthorized use, escalation control will be extremely difficult and all of the presumed benefits of nuclear deterrence can be lost.

Nuclear safety and security techniques and practices are designed to prevent these eventualities. Gates and guards and personnel reliability programs help with nuclear security. All states with nuclear weapons employ these practices. Nuclear weapon design features and other safety techniques help provide insurance against accidental, inadvertent, or unauthorized detonations. Nuclear safety and security reinforce each other. Sometimes these categories merge. For example, authorization codes required to arm and use a nuclear weapon — permissive action links — can be considered as essential for both nuclear safety and security. Additional design features, including the use of insensitive high explosives, are required besides PALs to prevent unwanted mushroom clouds.

The United States has a “one-point safety” standard for all of its nuclear weapons. This standard means that the probability of achieving a nuclear yield greater than four pounds of TNT must not exceed one in a million for any event involving the initiation of the warhead’s high explosive at a single point on its periphery. The United States achieved this exacting safety standard after decades of effort, significant investment, and a learning curve derived from nuclear testing.

Warhead safety mechanisms can be put to the test by many kinds of accidents. They can also be sorely tested in the event that nuclear-armed states engage in conventional warfare. Prior to conflict – and to avoid conflict – nuclear-armed states have been known to signal resolve with increased readiness levels for nuclear-capable delivery vehicles, missile flight tests, and ostentatious missile movements. Pakistan, the weaker nuclear-armed state on the Subcontinent, has employed these signaling devices not only to warn New Delhi of the possible consequences of a clash, but also to spin up Washington to engage in high-level crisis management. India also relies heavily for deterrence purposes on medium-range, mobile, nuclear-capable missiles. Medium-range missiles on the subcontinent can have stabilizing effects because they can be kept far from potential zones of fighting and are hard to target.

Short-range missile systems constitute a new feature in deterrence equations in South Asia. India has flight-tested the Prahaar, a missile with up to 350 km range. Pakistani analysts assert that the Prahaar could carry nuclear weapons, but there are no indications from Indian political and military leaders that this is the case. Pakistan has flight-tested the nuclear-capable Nasr with a range of perhaps 60 km. The Nasr has been advertised as being capable of carrying nuclear warheads to reinforce “full-spectrum deterrence” and to offset the Indian Army’s advantages. Pakistani military leaders believe that short-range systems like the Nasr have “poured cold water” on the Indian Army’s ambitious but unfulfilled plans for “Cold Start.”

To have their proper deterrent effect, short-range missile systems and other tactical nuclear weapons need to be positioned close to the forward edge of prospective battlefields. In the event that crisis management fails and warfare begins, missiles like the Prahaar and Nasr will be fair game for Pakistani and Indian Air Force pilots, who are trained to employ aggressive tactics. If these missiles are struck, if they are carrying nuclear weapons, and if these weapons do not incorporate advanced safety features, mushroom clouds could result along with the dispersal of very hazardous fissile materials.

While much is known about how to make nuclear weapons, fissile material and delivery vehicles, very little information is in the public domain about mechanisms for nuclear safety. States that already have decades of experience can share best practices regarding nuclear security, but some critical information regarding nuclear safety remains highly classified. Even if long-time nuclear weapon states were willing to share sensitive information, potential recipients would not allow outsiders anywhere near their nuclear design information. In other words, there is a mutual taboo about information exchanges on certain topics relating to nuclear safety.

Understanding nuclear safety issues is hard for political and military leaders. Regardless of nationality, they are not trained in nuclear physics, mechanical engineering, and chemistry. They cannot make independent judgments about nuclear weapon safety and must rely on guarantees provided by technical experts and laboratory heads.

U.S. Presidents have relied on competing design teams at different nuclear labs to double-check assurances they have received and to confirm technical calculations. Because U.S. labs have had comparable design capabilities and are highly competitive, this has been an effective way to confirm assurances given. In addition, junior analysts at U.S. national labs have been encouraged to question the design decisions of their elders, and could do so without sacrificing their professional advancement.

In South Asia, as elsewhere, acquiring nuclear weapons to deter potential adversaries has been of paramount importance. Ensuring the safety of weapon designs typically takes time, in part through the testing of nuclear devices. Clashes over how best to proceed between out-sized personalities are not uncommon in the early stages of nuclear weapon programs. In Pakistan, for example, A.Q. Khan and Munir Ahmad Khan were adversaries, competing in an environment where one was favored at the expense of the other. Their labs worked on different means of creating mushroom clouds. A collaborative as well as competitive laboratory culture did not exist in their time; the situation is no doubt better now. Senior officials involved in India’s nuclear program have also had sharp disagreements. Differences of view were publicly aired concerning the advertised yields of India’s 1998 tests. Pakistani claims for its nuclear tests have also been questioned.

Are there stringent internal processes to cross-check, question, and resolve differences of view regarding nuclear safety mechanisms in India and Pakistan? Top-down decisions in South Asia are hard to challenge, and juniors typically do not question seniors. Indian officials, like their Pakistani counterparts, are tight-lipped about the standard of safety they deem necessary for their weapons – as is the case for other states possessing nuclear weapons.

One responsibility of national leadership is to ensure collegiality as well as competitiveness at nuclear labs. This mix can be put to good use developing improved safety features for nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan most assuredly possess nuclear weapons that will create mushroom clouds. Their numbers are growing, and that their means of delivery are diversifying. Do these weapons have safety mechanisms able to meet severe tests that could lie ahead?

Nuclear dangers will grow if there is a resumption of nuclear testing on the Subcontinent. Nuclear dangers will be reduced by avoiding intense crises and warfare. Re-thinking dangerous military practices is another way to improve nuclear safety and security. Weapons that are hardest to maintain control over in wartime and closest to live fire are, by definition, the least safe and secure. If weapon designs are not one-point safe, the best insurance policy against the accidental, inadvertent and unauthorized use of nuclear weapons is making them hard to find and keeping them at a distance from ongoing military operations.

(Note to readers: a shorter form of this essay appeared in Dawn, a Pakistani daily, on April 28th.)


I was in New Delhi when I first felt the lump in my chest. At that moment, in 2007, the slow, progressive decline in my health could no longer be wished away – not when I had a tumor the size of an orange growing through my sternum. I learned subsequently that my cancer was at Stage 4 and that there were other tumors. (Oncologists are notoriously chary with information that isn’t helpful to recovery.) This past weekend I learned that my wife’s friend has the same adversary – Large B-Cell Lymphoma — in the same place.

During chemotherapy, I was editing Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb. The subtitle was in place before the chemo but took on greater meaning during my illness and recovery. As a young congressional staffer, I helped my boss to delete funding for binary nerve gas munitions that the Army’s Chemical Corps then wanted to produce. Thirty years later, I joined the legions of those whose lives have been extended by chemical warfare.

Aggression can be turned against the aggressor, in medicine as in international relations. Every action begets counter-actions; timelines and results vary. Large B-Cell Lymphoma is a very aggressive adversary. It’s like a heavyweight boxer who throws haymakers while leaving his body wide open to counter-punches. The chemo cocktail designed for this particular cancer is a fierce counter-puncher.

The ironies of my experiences with chemical warfare pale in comparison to the ironies associated with the Bomb – a weapon so powerful that its owners shy away from its use. Threatening use to deter threats is another matter. Russia, North Korea, and Pakistan resort to nuclear threats more than other states, but rational leaders do not wish to cross the nuclear threshold, even in extremis. And if deterrence fails, which it often does, nuclear weapons are more dangerous than helpful. What could be more ironic than spending large sums for weapons that if used on battlefields can result in ruin? Still, we live with the Bomb because we are attached to our ironies, our adversaries, and our fears.

* * *

Note to readers: While under the influence of chemo, I wrote a small book of axioms, Life Lessons: Dealing with Chemo & Serious Illness. It might be helpful for someone you know going through this ordeal.


“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.