Tag: Nuclear weapons

Nonproliferation shortcomings

Pantelis Ikonomou, former International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear safeguards inspector, writes:

The on-going North Korean nuclear crisis, in addition to the previous nuclear crises with Iraq and Iran, demonstrates that we lack a coherent, peaceful approach to respond decisively to major nuclear proliferation threats.

In all three cases, world leaders have wavered between war and diplomacy. The results have been suboptimal.

Iraq: war was an excessive response

In September 1980, Iranian airplanes bombed Iran’s French-origin research reactor Osiraq. The facility was partially destroyed. Teheran called the attack a preventive act. Notably, Iraq was a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), subject to international Safeguards inspections, and free of anomaly reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Eight months later, in June 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed the Osiraq reactor. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the UN General Assembly, and the world’s mass media rebuked the Israelis for the attack. Remarkably, the US administration called it an act of defense.

In 2003, the United States accused Iraq of having restarted a nuclear weapons program. Reference was made to nuclear weapons related activities, detected in 1991 during the first war Gulf War. This embryonic nuclear program was destroyed by international inspectors immediately thereafter. The IAEA did not support the 2003 allegations. Nonetheless, the US decided that diplomacy had failed and, without UN endorsement, invaded Iraq with a coalition of the willing.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq did not disclose a clandestine nuclear weapons program. In 2005, the IAEA’s Director General ElBaradei and nuclear inspectors were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Iran: limited diplomatic postponement

Iran’s nuclear program included sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities, such as enrichment and reprocessing. These were conducted in line with the NPT, but nonetheless contained a possible military dimension. The existence of dual-purpose nuclear activities within the NPT constitutes the Treaty’s Achilles heel. While presumed nefarious intentions can cause heightened alertness, they cannot be legally penalized.

Iran’s steady development of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities caused international concern that slowly developed into a crisis. In the years after 2006, the UNSC imposed economic and trade sanctions, leading to diplomatic negotiations with Iran by the P5+1: the US, Russia, China, UK, France plus Germany. The July 2015 P5+1 nuclear agreement imposes a 10- 15-year reduction and freeze of Iran’s sensitive activities along with gradual lifting of sanctions.

IAEA inspectors are monitoring and verifying the implementation of an agreed plan, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. If Iran breaks out of the 2015 agreement, it would need ten months or longer to produce the nuclear material required for a nuclear weapon, which is enough time for response measures.

North Korea: an on-going threat

North Korea joined the IAEA in 1974, signed the NPT in 1985 and in 1992 signed its NPT Safeguards Agreement. From the very beginning, Pyongyang’s behavior was not consistent with its binding international commitments. Already in 1992, IAEA inspectors found inconsistencies in North Korea’s declarations and the year after North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT.

Just one day before the withdrawal was due to take effect, the US persuaded North Korea to suspend its decision. Six months later, in December 1993, IAEA Director General Hans Blix announced that the Agency could no longer provide “any meaningful assurances” that North Korea was not producing nuclear weapons.

A US initiative saved the situation. On 21 October 1994, an Agreed Framework was signed between the US and North Korea in Geneva. The UNSC then requested the IAEA to monitor the freeze of North Korea’s nuclear facilities under the Agreed Framework.

In December 2002, North Korea tampered with IAEA surveillance equipment and a few days later requested the immediate removal of IAEA inspectors from the country. Then, on 10 January 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT and in April 2003 declared it had nuclear weapons.

During the six-party talks (USA, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and North Korea) starting in 2003 on solving North Korea’s nuclear crisis, North Korea was repeatedly accused of violating the Agreed Framework and other international agreements, thus triggering several IAEA and UNSC resolutions.

North Korea’s capability to produce both plutonium and uranium nuclear weapons is rapidly advancing. Its capacity to enrich uranium has doubled in recent years. US and Chinese officials believe that there are more than 20 nuclear bombs in its arsenal.

The best that can be hoped for with North Korea is an immediate freeze of nuclear and ballistic missile activities. A return to zero nuclear weapons capability is a utopian expectation. With only one exception, no non-NPT member with nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan, and possibly Israel) has ever returned to zero nuclear weapons capability or indicated intentions to do so. The one exception is South Africa, which voluntarily destroyed its nuclear weapons in 1990 under IAEA supervision, as apartheid fell.


Though nuclear proliferation is a leading global threat, we have failed to demonstrate sufficient competence in responding.

The rhetoric of terror on both sides combined with the risk of miscalculation or a military error is extremely worrying. It only accelerates a dangerous nuclear vicious cycle.

PS: With apologies to Dr. Ikonomou, this seems an only slightly appropriate place at which to share John Oliver’s view of North Korea and prospects for opening good communications, among other things via the accordion:

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It keeps getting worse

The problem today is not Charlottesville. The problem is the White House, starting at the top. The President can’t bring himself to denounce white supremacists, or even to say that Nazi flags have no legitimate role in American politics, even if the constitution protects their display. His acolytes likewise willfully ignore white supremacists who have killed many more Americans since 9/11 than Islamist extremists have.

If you put America first and want to protect its citizens, you would deal with the violent protesters in Charlottesville first and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria later. Or at least you would pay some attention to denouncing the thugs who think you are their leader–they gleefully shout “Heil Trump”–and skip the bromides about unspecified violence and vague “unity.”

You would also want to maintain America’s international credibility. Trump has spent the week shredding it. After threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” and claiming we are “locked and loaded,” it appears virtually none of the necessary preparations for military action against Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs have been taken. Forces have not been deployed, civilians have not been evacuated, and the Pentagon is denying that the use of force–notably not yet authorized by Congress–is imminent.

To top it off, Trump threatened military action also against Venezuela, where we would almost surely be better off to let nature take its course in ending President Maduro’s shambolic governance.

Trump’s threats are not credible, which means it will be far more difficult to mount a credible threat in the future. We are already at the point that many in the US government are ignoring the president: the Pentagon is not implementing his ban on transgender people, Secretary of State Tillerson is trying to stifle talk of war with North Korea, Republicans in Congress are heading towards a compromise on maintaining Obamacare. Other governments are laughing at Trump’s obsession with undoing whatever his predecessor did. If Trump fails to follow through on his threat against North Korea, and the North Koreans continue to test missiles and nuclear weapons, how much credibility will the United States have in the future?

Of course it is possible Trump will follow this week’s bluster with a cruise missile attack on North Korea, hoping to reproduce the applause he got after the attack on a Syrian air base in April and distract attention from the investigation of Russian interference in the election. But that attack was a one-off that has had little impact. Assad has continued to use small quantities of chemical weapons and to prioritize attacks against the relatively moderate opposition in Syria. A similar one-off against North Korea would predictably have no serious impact on its well-dispersed and hidden missile and nuclear programs.

Nor will many applaud. North Korea might strike back, most likely against Guam, but possibly also against Seoul or even Tokyo. How long do we think America’s friends and allies will remain friends and allies if Washington is seen as having started a war from which they will suffer the most? What are the odds that NATO could be held together once the Europeans conclude the President is rash, unreliable, and likely to provoke adversaries?

The Europeans can be sure of one thing, however: the adversary Trump will never provoke is Vladimir Putin. The reason is increasingly apparent: Russian money sustains Trump’s real estate empire, which was likely used to launder ill-gotten gains of Putin’s best friends. Trump can never turn on Putin, lest Putin pull the plug on Russian financing. This is blackmail, not collusion. We needn’t worry too much about Trump intentionally coming to blows with Moscow, which is using its leverage over the President to gain advantages in Syria.

Can Ukraine be far behind? My guess is that the Administration is busily trying to cut a deal on Ukraine, one that it could argue should lead to lifting of the sanctions on Russia. Fortunately, sharp eyes in Congress will examine any such proposition. It will be difficult for Trump to sell the Ukrainians short, the way he did the Syrian opposition.

The United States matters to friends, allies, and enemies less today than at any time during my lifetime, which corresponds to the entire post-World War II period. The damage to our web of alliances, our international credibility, and our position of leadership in the past seven months is gigantic. Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster are proving incapable of blocking the President from his worst instincts. The only relief will come when Trump is gone. But none of us can tell when that might be. It keeps getting worse.

PS: It got worse within minutes of my publishing this piece. Trump said, in response to a car plowing into peaceful counterprotesters: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.”

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North Korea has the upper hand

I won’t have time this morning to write about President Trump’s foolish “fire and fury” threat against North Korea, which provoked a specific Pyongyang threat against the US territory of Guam. In any event, I wouldn’t do better than Robert Litwak, who had intelligent things to say about the issue this morning on NPR: 

Secretary of State Tillerson is wandering around the world saying the US wants to talk with North Korea, while the President blusters. That isn’t a good way to get the diplomacy going, because the North Koreans have a better alternative to a negotiated solution (BATNA) than we do: they need only continue their nuclear and missile programs and be prepared to launch a conventional artillery attach on Seoul if we start to act. In the game Trump is playing–military threat–North Korea has the upper hand.

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Counterbalancing Iran

On Wednesday, Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE) paid a visit to the Middle East Institute to deliver a keynote address entitled “Challenges in U.S.-Iran Foreign Policy.” The senator’s speech highlighted the importance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and maintaining a balance of power in the Middle East to counter Iranian influence.

Despite its flaws, the JCPOA has succeeded in its primary objectives: freezing Iran’s nuclear program, supporting global counter-proliferation efforts, and opening channels of communication to prevent the escalation of hostilities between the United States and Iran. While decrying Iran’s abysmal human rights record and acknowledging that several members of Congress seek to undo the landmark agreement, Coons insisted that commitment to the JCPOA is the United States’ best bet to contain the Iranian nuclear threat and prevent direct conflict.

“We should only walk away,” countered the senator, “when there is clear cause to do so.”

Coons was adamant that “calls for regime change or war with Iran are reckless.” One needs look no further than Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya to see examples of failed U.S. initiatives in the region. Moreover, regime change raises the threat of a power vacuum and jihadi forces ready to fill it.

Conditioning US-Iran relations is a delicate project. Ultimately, concerns about the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East must inform the US stance on governments and organizations as diverse as Iraqi Kurdistan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In particular, the impending September 25 referendum on Iraqi Kurdish independence presents a minefield for American rhetoric and policy: the referendum, if approved, would weaken the integrity of the Iraqi state and shift the country’s Sunni-Shia sectarian balance to a Shia majority, increasing Iran’s clout. Yet the argument for Iraqi Kurdish self-determination is compelling, and Kurds have been strong regional allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

Additionally, announced Coons, the GCC feud must be put to rest. It weakens the Middle East’s strongest anti-Iran bloc and American ability to counter Iranian sway.

The Senator pins hopes for the future of US-Iran relations on Senate Bill 722: the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017. The bill, which has stalled in the House of Representatives following a constitutional challenge, would impose non-nuclear sanctions on Russia and Iran to punish Iran for “unacceptable non-nuclear behavior,” including support for the Assad regime in Syria, threats to Israel, and antagonism towards U.S. allies in the Gulf. The senator also advises American diplomats to negotiate a successor agreement to the JCPOA, which will be critical as sunset clauses in the existing agreement go into effect.

Crucially, American officials must restrict their antagonism to the Iranian government—not the Iranian people. The May 19 Iranian presidential elections, which re-elected moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani, indicate that Iranians want a less repressive regime and a more open society. President Trump’s Muslim ban and inflammatory rhetoric do nothing to serve American interests—they only stoke anti-American sentiment among the Iranian people.

Given the results of the presidential election and the tentative success of the JCPOA, the Trump administration would be foolish to sabotage relations with Iran.

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No, Turkey isn’t going nuclear

The issue of Turkey’s nuclear intentions has generated speculation: Is Turkey Secretly Working on Nuclear Weapons? | The National Interest

Pantelis Ikonomou, a former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector, writes: 

  • Does Turkey aspire for nuclear weapons?
  • Is Turkey’s ambitious civilian nuclear program the cover for a military aim?

These tough questions arise when Turkey’s nuclear energy program is viewed in the perspective of other factors. Turkey has signed bilateral agreements that in principle cover the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Those with Russia and Japan include clauses related to enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. These have raised concerns about nuclear ‘’weaponization.’’ In addition, Turkey’s is determined to achieve regional political hegemony along with its latest advances in military industry, missile development and space technology. The nuclear cooperation of Turkey with Pakistan and A. Q. Khan’s network in the 1980s adds another significant dimension.

A state like Turkey that adheres to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would have two routes to developing nuclear weapons:

  1. “Sneak-out” by trying to carry out clandestine activities related to nuclear weapons development (as were the cases of Iraq 1991, Romania 1992, North Korea 1993, Libya 2004 and lastly Iran 2006).
  2. “Breakout” of its Safeguards Agreement (as North Korea did in 2003) by using advanced components – enrichment or reprocessing – of its civilian program for military purposes.

Both options would cause severe international responses, but more importantly neither is currently feasible.

Turkey, as a signatory of the NPT is subject since 1982 to the Safeguards inspection regime of the IAEA, whereby the ‘’correctness’’ of its State Declaration is continuously verified. Since 2001 Turkey has also accepted the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards agreement that provides for confirmation of the ‘’completeness’’ of the State Declaration. This confirmation stems from a “broader conclusion” drawn from implementation of rigorous and unrestricted monitoring and verification based on State-specific parameters, relevant satellite imagery and reliable third-party information.  The broader conclusion for Turkey has been drawn annually since 2012 and confirms the ‘‘absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities for the State as a whole.’’ Sneak-out is not a viable option.

So far as break-out is concerned, Turkey’s State Declaration to the IAEA includes only two small research reactors, one of them inactive, and one pilot fuel fabrication plant on an experimental level.

Turkey has decided for two Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) projects of four reactor units each for electricity production. One project is to be built and operate at Akkuyu and the other at Sinop.

The Akkuyu project officially started in 2007, but its progress is unusually slow. Although the agreement between Turkey and Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) to build, operate and own (BOO) the NPP was signed in May 2010, final approval of the site license was granted in February 2017 and application for the construction license of the first reactor at Akkuyu was submitted in May 2017. Turkey has also signed a preliminary protocol with Rosatom to acquire a 49 percent stake in the Akkuyu NPP, which will further delay the pre-construction process. Turkey plans to commission the first reactor at Akkuyu at the centenary of the Turkish Republic in 2023 and the second in 2024.

The Sinop project has practically not yet started. Since May 2013, when the relevant cooperation agreement between Turkey and Japan was signed, no application for site licensing has been submitted.

The overriding fact is that there are no NPPs in operation or under construction in Turkey. Likewise, there are no nuclear materials, facilities and activities related to any dual use capability.

If Turkey’s ambition were to achieve nuclear-weapons capability through “breakout,” an advanced civilian nuclear program including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities would be the decisive prerequisite. They do not exist and are an improbable long-term hypothesis. Moreover, the “sneak-out” option of a concealed military nuclear program would be practically not achievable under continued IAEA comprehensive Safeguards measures, including country specific monitoring of the Additional Protocol.

Turkey’s nuclear armed capability shouldn’t be a real concern. It is rather an induced fear, or even a destructive phobia.

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Peace picks July 10-14

  1. Zapad 17: Implications for NATO and the United States | Tuesday, July 11 | 9:00 am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | As NATO steps up its exercises in the Baltic Sea region, Russia is preparing to launch a major exercise in mid-September to test the readiness and capabilities of its air, sea, and ground forces in northeastern Europe. Zapad is a recurring exercise which has included forces from both Russia and Belarus, and serves as a high-profile training event close to NATO territory. Join the Atlantic Council and the Ministry of Defense of Estonia for a public discussion on the implications of Zapad 17.
  2. Challenges in U.S. Iran Policy | Wednesday, July 12 | 12:30 – 5:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Join the Middle East Institute for a conference to examine the outlines of U.S. policy toward Iran, addressing its overall goals, the strategies pursued, and metrics of success. Panels will include: “Assessing the Threat, Calibrating a Strategy” (1:30 – 2:45 pm), “Challenges in Syria and Iraq” (3:00 – 4:15 pm), and Challenges in Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan” (4:15 – 5:30 pm). Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and proponent of the U.S. – Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will give the keynote address.
  3. The War on ISIS: The Forgotten Need for Congressional Authorization | Wednesday, July 12 | 9:30 – 10:30 am | Wilson Center | Register Here | While there is a broad consensus for pursuing ISIS aggressively, the legal grounds upon which the president can expand the use of military force against ISIS are more tenuous. In recent years, the executive branch has justified its actions by pointing to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) – legislation signed into law days after the 9/11 attacks. Is Congress abdicating its authority to authorize wars to the executive branch? Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Jane Harman (director, president, and CEO of the Wilson Center) will comment.
  4. The July 15 Coup Attempt in Turkey: One Year On | Thursday, July 13 | 9:00 – 11:00 am | Turkish Heritage Organization | Register Here | Last year’s failed coup attempt, carried out by a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), took a considerable toll on the Turkish nation and created enormous domestic, regional, and international risks. Following the death of more than 200 Turkish civilians, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency that is still in effect. Ankara has requested the extradition of suspected mastermind Fethullah Gulen from the U.S., further complicating the already strained relationship between the two NATO allies. Join THO and a distinguished panel of experts including Ambassador James JeffreyMark HallCliff Stearns, and Mujeeb Khan for a look at the July 15 coup attempt one year later. Discussion will be moderated by Alexi-Noelle O’Brien Hosein.
  5. A New Nuclear Review for a New Age | Thursday, July 13 | 12:15 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The contemporary nuclear environment is very different from that which immediately followed the Cold War. A New Nuclear Review for a New Age, a recent study published by the National Institute for Public Policy, provides timely recommendations for how the United States must respond to the changes and adapt its nuclear posture to deter enemies, assure allies, and limit damage in the event deterrence fails. The Hudson Institute will host a discussion with the director of the study, Dr. Keith Payne, and contributing authors Dr. Matthew Kroenig and Rebeccah Heinrichs.
  6. Regime Change in Iran: From the 1953 Coup to the Trump Policy Review | Thursday, July 13 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Atlantic Council presents a panel discussion featuring Sanam Naraghi-AnderliniMalcolm Byrne, and Bruce Riedel on new US government documents released about the 1953 CIA-backed coup that deposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The discussion will look at the ramifications of the coup for the Iranian people and US-Iran relations and analyze the impact of revived regime change rhetoric among some politicians and advisers seeking to influence the policies of the Trump administration toward Iran and the Middle East at large.​ Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, will be moderating.
  7. Post-ISIS Iraq and Syria: Avoiding Chaos | Friday, July 14 | 10:00 am – 12:30 pm | Middle East Policy Council | Register Here | Join the Middle East Policy Council for a conference featuring Ambassador James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; Dr. Denise Natali of the National Defense University; Mr. Wa’el Alzayat, former Syria Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State; and Dr. Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute. Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer, former ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, will be moderating.
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