Day: October 12, 2017
Pantelis Ikonomou, a former IAEA safeguards inspector, writes:
The nuclear threat is at a historical high. The North Korean crisis and US President Trump’s intention to decertify the Iran Nuclear deal are the tip of the iceberg.
Neither the Treaty on Non Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT), nor the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its safeguards inspectorate nor numerous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions could stop the world’s nuclear race in recent decades. The number of countries possessing nuclear weapons (NW) increased from five, which are the recognized nuclear weapon states and permanent members of the UNSC, to allegedly nine.
While the rationale for developing and deploying of NW has always been national security through deterrence, hence war prevention, the prospects for maintaining global peace are thinner than ever before.
Just to mention some of the risk factors related to the major nuclear threat:
- There are currently about 15,000 nuclear warheads in the arsenals of 9 countries (about 14,000 of them possessed by Russia and the US), capable of devastating our globe many times. Additionally, the nuclear material stored under various security conditions in civil and military facilities around the world is estimated to be sufficient to produce 240,000 nuclear devices. As of end 2016, about 204,000 of these are under IAEA safeguards.
- The NPT is not applied universally. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are not parties to the treaty, thus not legally obliged to its restrictions.
- The majority of states in the international community are disappointed in NW states for not fulfilling their NPT commitments on nuclear disarmament (NPT Art. VI)
- The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the continuing North Korean crisis, and the up to 15 years limited Iran deal have revealed glaring non-proliferation shortcomings.
- The failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference in New York indicated clearly the international community’s distrust in a fair (without double standards) enforcement of international nuclear law.
- In July 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted by a vast majority a NW Ban Treaty. It is a legally binding instrument towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons that will enter into force after 50 signatures and ratifications.
- The 2017 Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to ICAN, a worldwide coalition of NGOs campaigning against NW. Notably, the same award was given in 2005 to the IAEA’s staff and Director General, basically for the Agency’s unbiased and courageous statements failed to deter the invasion of Iraq.
In such an adverse nuclear climate there are two leaders with a finger on the button, Kim Yong-un and Donald Trump, who according to prevailing assessments have dubious nuclear decision capability. This is the fact that creates the highest current risk of major nuclear threat.
Regarding the tough responsibilities of a US president to decide on pushing the nuclear button in a matter of minutes, with no checks and balances by Congress or anyone else, Bob Woodward recalls (The Washington Post, 12 Nov 2016): «In 2008, after then-President-elect Obama was given one sensitive intelligence briefing at a secure facility in Chicago he joked, “It’s good that there are bars on the windows here because if there weren’t, I might be jumping out.”
A historic period not only for US contemporary politics but for the direction of global developments might prove to be the period 15 October to 15 December 2017. President Trump will apparently submit in the next few days to Congress for approval his decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. Congress will either approve it or send it back with no action, for the president to implement, or not.
A unilateral decision to scrap the deal would mean that the US would not keep its commitments under an agreement reached not only with Iran but with China, Russia, UK, France and Germany and finally adopted by the EU and endorsed by the UNSC Resolution 2231 on 20 July 2015. Moreover, decertifying the Iran deal will mean that the US disrespects and disagrees with the assessments of the responsible UN organization, the IAEA, that Iran is in compliance with the agreement since implementation day 16 January 2016.
Such a decision will open Pandora’s box. Some negative consequences are obvious. It will cloud Iran’s nuclear and political future, worsen the North Korea crisis, degrade political and economic relations of the US with the other five agreement parties and the EU, and increase the international community’s distrust of the UN system, international law, and justice. It will also severely damage the authority of the world’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.
Mitigation and finally elimination of the highest risk factor related to the current major nuclear threat is the topmost task in any comprehensive nuclear security plan. It is therefore now a chief challenge to get the US to preserve global peace, in accordance with its leadership responsibilities.
It can be problematic to take the “Middle East” as a single entity–to speak of it generally risks ignoring nuances and dangerously simplifies conversations and engagements with the region. At the Brookings Institution’s “Middle East Crises and Conflicts – The Way Ahead” event, however, John R. Allen of the Brookings Institution argued that one of the United States government’s flaws was its divided outlook toward the region, seeing the countries in it as “separated blocks” rather than parts of a larger, interrelated region. Finding a balance between examining the region’s countries separately and seeing them as part of a whole is what Allen, Mara Karlin, Daniel Byman, and Federica Saini Fasanotti, all experts at the Brookings Institution, made an effort to do on Thursday, October 5. The panel was moderated by Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon.
Karlin gave an overview of the situation in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, a victory over ISIS would result in political reconciliation and stabilization. Iraq would go through reconstruction, a main component of which would be the return of the country’s refugees. Not included in this vision of Iraq’s future are the Kurds, who, envision a separate future for themselves, as expressed in the Kurdish referendum of September. The formation of an independent Kurdistan, however, would bring its own set of challenges, as it would be landlocked and surrounded by hostile neighboring countries.
While Karlin’s assessment of Iraq contained some hope, her assessment of Syria was grim, as she labeled it a “humanitarian catastrophe” even if the conflict seems to be nearing an end in which the Assad regime regains control over the majority of the country. Although he seems to have an advantage, Allen contended that Assad will not win, attributing Assad’s advantage to several factors. One was the disconnect between US strategy to defeat ISIS and its anti-Assad stance, which would have attracted more Syrian support but remains no more than a “policy aspiration.” Another shortcoming on the part of the US was its delayed support to the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Defense Force, as well as its failure to act upon its “red line” threats in 2013.
Shifting the focus away from the US, Allen said that the Gulf states have also been creating obstacles in Syria, as they are supporting opposing militias. Karlin agreed that certain events had made it more difficult for the opposition to succeed, citing the US response to the war in Libya and its failure to design a response that would be appropriate for the Syrian context. Karlin disagreed with Allen, however, in that she maintained that a victory for Assad seems realistic and upcoming.
Saini Fasanotti spoke about the numerous dimensions that characterize Libya’s present situation. The international community’s recent actions, including the appointment of Lebanese Ghassan Salame as the new UN special envoy to Libya, represent positive steps towards stabilization. However, she criticized the divisions that exist among both external and internal actors, considering they are Libya’s biggest obstacles. More generally, she suggested that efforts to achieve further stabilization in Libya could not be expected to follow other models in the region, as Libya “has never been a state since the Ottoman Empire,” referring to the colonization of Libya by Italy and even to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. He worked to increase the country’s divisions rather than to unify it, making Libya’s current goal the establishment of a unified, independent country, and not the restoration of one that existed previously.
Byman discussed the state of counterterrorism efforts in the region, beginning with some promising signs: Al Qaeda has been largely inactive and seems to have submitted to pressures exerted on it by international actors, and ISIS is losing battles in Iraq and Syria. However, Byman pointed out that while the US has the capabilities of defeating these groups, it has not historically been successful at supporting a transition for governments after such successes. The rapid rise of ISIS suggests that the idea necessary to form such a group are present, making the job of supporting states to gain stability more important. Shifting the focus to the West, Byman noted how terrorist groups in the Middle East have influenced policies and attitudes in Western countries, exemplified most clearly by the hostilities that Muslim communities are facing. The demonization of Muslims has also led the US travel ban on citizens from Muslim-majority countries and its efforts to slow its refugee resettlement program.
Addressing the situation both in the Middle East and the West more broadly, Allen recalled the Arab Spring – which he suggested be renamed the “Arab Tsunami” – and reminded the audience of its negative consequences: the vulnerable positions that states have fallen into, the increasing social and economic difficulties, radicalization, and the refugee crisis. Refugees have particularly affected Europe, testing its social fabric and resilience and causing social and political divisions. Such repercussions have resulted mainly from the numerous attacks that Europe has witnessed since the beginning of the crisis, causing an increasing preoccupation with security precautions and a fear of refugees and immigrants.
Discussing policy options for the US, there was consensus on the need to prioritize economic assistance to the region as a whole. Karlin added that the US needs to be aware of the distractions that Iran and the nuclear deal have posed. Instead of the nuclear deal, Karlin argued, Iran’s role in destabilizing countries in the Middle East should be the US focus. In Libya, Saini Fasanotti urged the West to adopt a “bottom-up” approach, reiterating her views on Libya’s nationhood (“in a nation that does not exist, you cannot look at the top”). She emphasized the importance of giving citizens a role and a choice, responsibilities that they were not granted under the Ottomans, Italy, or Gaddafi.
Byman pointed to the dangers of the approach that the West has taken in dealing with refugees, especially the poor treatment of refugees in Europe despite the welcoming front exhibited by accepting large numbers, which h argue, has caused radicalization to occur in most cases inside Europe and not outside of it. He also referred to the West’s failure to treat all types of violence equally. Not taking right-wing violence seriously further isolates and demonizes refugee and immigrant groups. Saini Fasanotti suggested that Europe in particular needs a “real strategy” to effectively welcome and integrate refugees, referring to her personal experience in Italy and the increasing hostility towards refugees that she has witnessed.