Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


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.


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

This award means a great deal to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress in our line of meaningful work is never linear.

We live in hard times.

All the more reason to remember this:

Our aims are true.

Our accomplishments fall short of our aims.

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

And we have a lot more work to do.

Thank you.


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

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

CG: Mucking the ponds.

MK: What’s your technique?

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

MK: Sounds like heavy lifting.

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

MK: Not good vote-getters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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