Tag: Nuclear weapons

Trump’s threat to the nuclear deal

Pantelis Ikonomou, former IAEA nuclear inspector, offers this reflection on President Trump’s continuing threat to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal: 

Last Friday, the US president said he is extending the sanctions waver for Iran one last time, for another 120 days, so Europe and the US can fix the nuclear deal’s “terrible flaws”.

Should we be relieved? Rather disappointed for the continuation of an ambiguous policy with unclear scope and dangerous consequences.

What are the “terrible flaws” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA)?

Crown points of concern for the US president are the nuclear agreement’s “sunset clauses” and  “suspicious sites” in Iran, which are not monitored.

How can these be fixed in the upcoming 120 days?

The agreement’s deadlines regarding specified actions and defined sanctions have been thoroughly discussed and agreed upon by all signatories, including the United States.

As for “suspicious sites”, the IAEA has the agreed right and obligation to request access to any site it might consider necessary under the scope of the agreement. Such a request would be based on an IAEA assessment of credible open-source or other information provided by an IAEA member state, including the US.

Antilogos to Trump’s stance:

The IAEA confirmed in a succession of reports that Iran is fully complying with the commitments made under the JCPOA, the world’s “most robust nuclear verification regime”.

The European High Representative Federica Mogherini, one day before Trump’s decision Friday, following a meeting in Brussels with the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, the UK and Iran, stated that “the continued successful implementation of JCPOA ensures that Iran’s nuclear programme remains exclusively peaceful.” Europe considers that the agreement “is crucial for its security (and)…is determined to preserve it.”

Neither Russia nor China are backing president Trump’s stance on the Iran agreement. To the contrary, they both defend JCPOA, which they have both shaped and signed. It is in fact a multilateral agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council.

Trump’s position on the deal keeps Iran in closer ties to Russia, its foremost geopolitical ally; it could also push Tehran closer to Beijing.

Moreover, hardliners in Iran might assume full control of power in Tehran, triggering this time a non-safeguarded nuclear program, thus “pushing” other candidates in the region to follow Iran’s nuclear breakout.

At a time of acute nuclear threat, in particular the open-ended North Korean crisis, jeopardizing the integrity of the non-proliferation architecture, along with breaking solid bridges with historical friends and steadfast allies, could create a paramount threat to global security.


Pantelis Ikonomou

Former IAEA nuclear inspector

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Rouhani’s moment of truth

Ed Joseph, having asked some questions Tuesday, answers today: 
So now the true cause of the Iran protests emerges: an unprecedented release, possibly by President Rouhani himself and possibly due to new regulations, of secret parts of the Iranian budget revealing expenditures for pet hard-line projects like the country’s religious institutes.  This much more plausibly explains the intense anger of the protesters than vague, ‘disappointed expectations.’  Here’s how one protester recorded his reaction to the budget: “It made me angry,” said Mehdi, 33, from Izeh, a town in Iran’s poor Khuzestan Province, who asked that his family name not be used out of fear of retaliation. “There were all these religious organs that received high budgets, while we struggle with constant unemployment.”
Unfortunately for Rouhani, public anger appears equally distributed at him and the hard-liners.  A popular chant making the rounds is, ‘Reformers, Hardliners, the game is now over!’  So, even if the protests eventually fizzle out, some damage is likely permanent: the end of the dominant paradigm of an Iran caught in a struggle between ‘reformers’ (Rouhani, Zarif and their associates) and ‘hardliners’ (Khamenei, the religious establishment, the IRGC and their associates and henchmen.)  It certainly appears as if Iranians from across the country, even from rural areas thought to be bastions of support for the regime, discern little difference between the two erstwhile factions — indeed, see them as co-conspirators in a corrupt governing enterprise that impoverishes the people.
This means that it’s now Rouhani’s moment of truth: either stand up and distinguish himself from the hardliners, or die a death of irrelevance.  Yes, Rouhani would risk the wrath of those hard-liners, but now is the time to incur that risk, gambling that he can get the public on his side at this dramatic moment.
Here’s an imperfect historical precedent.  In 1968, widespread student protests rocked Communist, dictatorial Yugoslavia.  The usual police response failed to subdue the protesters.  Tito, rather than intensify the crack down on the students, watched for a bit and then sided with them.  “The students are right,” he famously said.  This took the wind out of the protests.  Some time later, Tito jailed the instigators or otherwise banned them from the Communist party, a course of action that Rouhani need not follow.  True, Tito was ‘supreme leader’ and Rouhani is not.  But given the stakes for Rouhani — and for his country — perhaps this could be inspiration.  What does he have to lose except his tattered reputation?
If Rouhani fails to find his patriotic mettle, then what replaces our guiding paradigm for understanding Iran?  After all, it was the hope for evolutionary change guided by reformers like Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif that undergirds the ten-year time limitation on enrichment technology development in the Iran nuclear deal. The idea was that the lifting of sanctions and improvement of the economy under the deal would create space for Rouhani, Zarif and others to wean Iran away from isolation and regional destablization, and ultimately, from the need to pursue nuclear weapons.  Up to now, the need to ‘support the reformers’ has restrained US policy on Iran.
This month is the deadline for Congress to act on President Trump’s October decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA)  How will the protests influence how Republicans approach the issue?  Predictably, Trump and Pence are already seizing the opportunity to impugn the Obama Administration, which stayed quiet, out of caution, during the widespread 2009 protests.  Will Republicans take their anti-Obama obsession to the next level, and imperil the JCPOA itself?  Another question is how the protests will color the views of Democrats and Europeans who don’t want to kill the nuclear deal, but now have a weaker basis to sustain belief in it.  Without the Rouhani moderate vs. Khamenei paradigm, the core arguments left are tactical and tentative: ‘if we kill the deal, then we make the protests about us’ and ‘the deal still beats the alternative.’  That could embolden the JCPOA’s opponents and wreck Rouhani’s most important achievement.


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Size doesn’t matter

President Trump outdid The Onion yesterday, tweeting:

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!

Apart from the obvious stupidity of engaging in a fourth-grade ego contest with a nuclear-armed dictator, this tweet alone demonstrates how unfit Trump is to be president. Let’s consider the reasons why:

  1. Kim’s warning that he now had nuclear capability (and implicitly could hit the US mainland with it, not only US troops in South Korea and Japan) had been issued two days earlier, not just before this tweet. Trump is often criticized for acting too quickly, but one has to wonder whether his TV schedule is allowing enough time for intel briefings, never mind reading a newspaper.
  2. North Korea is a lot less “depleted and food starved” than once it was. Kim has improved its economic performance notably, even if the benefits are largely swept up by a small elite. Does that sound familiar?
  3. American nuclear weapons are unquestionably more powerful than whatever Kim has got, but the real issue is whether Trump is willing to risk loss of Los Angeles or New York (never mine Washington DC). Any US threat or attack, conventional or nuclear, could escalate in that direction.
  4. The world sees tweets like this one as demonstrating that the President is not rational. Who wants to be allied, or even friendly, with a nut?

Size really doesn’t matter. Kim has what he needs: enough credibility for his nuclear and missile capabilities to deter the US from either attacking or pursuing regime change. Nor does he need to turn to those capabilities in the first instance. He has also got a more than credible conventional threat to rain artillery shells on Seoul and much of South Korea, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, wrecking the world’s 11th largest economy, and ending the long peace in East Asia.

Kim’s problem is that he can’t be sure Trump is rational. The Administration likes to advertise this uncertainty as an advantage. No one really knows what the President will do, which he presumes will make them think twice before crossing him.

That however is not how things really work. Uncertainty in international relations makes people hedge. South Korea is doing that already by trying to open an “Olympic” dialogue with the North, which Kim has accepted. If he can open some space between US war threats and South Korean jaw-jaw, Kim will have achieved a great deal. The US will be marginalized from issues on the peninsula and reduced to a second-rate player in the Asia Pacific, where Trump has already ceded trade (by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the South China Sea to Beijing dominance. Kim will hedge too, turning to Russia to replace the support he has traditionally received from China, and trying to work something out on the economic front with the detente-seeking administration in Seoul.

Trump’s blustering and bullying is self-defeating. The Administration has been successful in tightening UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang. The President’s tweet will undo a good deal of the benefit from that significant achievement. He is isolating and weakening the United States, not to mention risking nuclear war. When will the Republicans in Congress wake up to their responsibilities?

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In response to protests in Iran, President Trump is calling for regime change:

The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change, and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most….

Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever, and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice. The world is watching!

He is also suggesting that the United States might do something about oppression:

Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!

Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!

Is this wise?

As regular readers will know, I am an enthusiast for civil resistance. Not only because people have the right to express their views, but also because nonviolent protests are the safest and best way to promote democratic reform. While Iran experts are still debating the character and significance of the last week of protests in Iranian cities, it is clear that at least some of them, while triggered by economic disappointment, are also seeking political change, targeting in particular the Islamic Republic and its Supreme Leader.

Supreme Leader Khamenei has so far been silent. President Rouhani has defended the right to protest but also warned against violence and disorder. The internet has been either blocked or slowed. At least a dozen people have been killed, apparently by the security forces. They could still react more forcefully. The last time widespread protests erupted in Iran, in 2009, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps rolled out the pro-regime paramilitary forces known as the basij, who beat and shot protesters into submission.

Former Obama Administration official Phil Gordon thinks Trump speaking out in favor of the protesters will do more harm than good. I agree. It tars them with an American brush that many Iranians despise: a president whom they perceive as unreliable and reprehensible, because of his opposition to the nuclear deal and his concerted efforts to deny Tehran the benefits of it. In order to be effective, the protests need to have an entirely indigenous flavor. The regime will rejoice if they come to be seen as instruments of American foreign policy, especially if the source for that impression is Trump.

No doubt the President figures he is a winner either way. If the protests succeed and lead to real change in Iran, he’ll claim credit and point to the contrast with President Obama’s restrained reaction in 2009. I can hear the chest thumping already. If they fail, he can complain bitterly about repression and heighten his rhetoric against the Islamic Republic.

But the truth is the President is undermining pillars of democracy at home and abroad by harsh attacks on the US press and independence of the US judiciary as well as his affection for would-be autocrats in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Russia, and elsewhere. He has no standing at home or abroad for a pro-democracy Twitter campaign that lacks any serious follow-through. Rested from five or six days of golf at one of his own resorts, Trump is starting the New Year with the same lack of wisdom that has characterized his presidency since last January 20.

PS: Vice President Pence has now chimed in:

As long as is POTUS and I am VP, the United States of America will not repeat the shameful mistake of our past when others stood by and ignored the heroic resistance of the Iranian people as they fought against their brutal regime.

The bold and growing resistance of the Iranian people today gives hope and faith to all who struggle for freedom and against tyranny. We must not and we will not let them down.

This certainly implies that Washington will do something more than tweet. What is that? Where is the game plan? How will we not let them down?

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Reality bites

It happened in Alabama last night. A favored candidate of the Republican revolt against its traditional establishment lost to a Democrat in a dyed-red state. Black voters turned out in unprecedented numbers while some Republicans stayed home rather than vote for a racist child molester removed twice from the state bench for defying court orders. My compliments to both groups, though it is still disturbing that upwards of 48% of Alabama voters yesterday thought Roy Moore was a tolerable choice. My compliments also to Doug Jones, the successful Democratic candidate, who refused to abandon his pro-choice, pro-integration positions.

It is also happening with American policy towards North Korea. Secretary of State Tillerson has abandoned the pretense that Pyongyang will have to give up its nuclear weapons before Washington will talk. President Trump’s promise that Kim Jong-un would not get a missile that could deliver a nuclear missile to the US has in effect been abandoned. The North has gotten there, though it likely can’t yet marry the missile to the warhead and enable the warhead to survive re-entry into the atmosphere. Its rapid technological progress lately suggests there is no stopping the North from becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons state.

This means the US no longer has many options. It can attack the North, but that would trigger a massive artillery barrage against Seoul and much of the rest of South Korea. Escalation to a nuclear exchange would be a real possibility. The only other option is containment and deterrence. There is no real issue of containment with North Korea: its hostility to the South is real, but it is mainly concerned with preservation of its own regime. US officials have been insisting that deterrence is not an option, but it is and they know it. There is no reason to believe that Kim Jong-un would be willing to risk a nuclear exchange except in extremis. He thinks of North Korea’s nuclear weapons as deterring the US from an invasion.

Letting Kim keep his nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles is not good. It will encourage other governments to consider getting the same capabilities, not least because of uncertainty about US commitments. This is especially true for South Korea and Japan, but the Iranians will also be watching what happens with North Korea with an eye to the eventual expiration of many of its commitments in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, aka the Iran nuclear deal). Many countries have given up the nuclear option because they felt more secure without than they would with, but that era seems to be coming to a close.

A world with a lot more nuclear weapons states is no more attractive than a world with Roy Moore in the Senate. We need to be doing everything we can to avoid both. But this President supported Roy Moore and mishandled North Korea. His weakness both at home and abroad is little comfort. Trump could issue a tweet tomorrow that would strip Tillerson of any semblance of credibility and put the US on course towards nuclear war. Transformation to a presidency that is more judicious both domestically and internationally is much to be wished, but little to be expected. Reality bites.

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Peace picks November 20 – 24

  1. Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s New Zone of Confrontation with Iran? | Monday, November 20 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Under the new leadership of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has found itself in the middle of a storm generated by internal opponents to his rule, the country’s foreign adversaries, and partly by the young ruler himself. Earlier in November, Saudi air defenses intercepted a missile fired at Riyadh by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. On the same day, Saudi authorities arrested dozens of senior figures, including well-connected royals like Prince Walid Bin Talal, on corruption charges and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while traveling in Riyadh, announced his resignation and denounced Iran’s long arm in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Saudi officials followed Hariri’s statement with warnings of their own, explaining that as long as Lebanon was controlled by Hezbollah, it would be treated as an enemy. Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s newest regional theater of conflict with Iran, after Yemen and Syria? What’s the Crown Prince’s next move? What does it mean for Lebanon if Hezbollah’s base of operations is now a potential conflict zone? And how is the Trump administration managing its regional partners and the larger strategic picture in the Middle East? On November 20, join us at Hudson Institute for an important and timely lunchtime panel discussion moderated by Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute, and featuring Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, Mohammed Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, and Tony Badran Foundation of Defense of Democracies.
  2. Iranian and Russian Involvement in Syria: Purposes and Prospects | Monday, November 20 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | International Institute for Strategic Studies | Register Here | Syria may be the theatre where Western interests clash most directly with those of Iran. Russian and Western policies have also come into direct clash over Syria. In these clashes, Russia and Iran have been tactical allies, but their goals are not wholly congruent and their partnership shows fragility. Please join us in the next installment in the IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 Discussion Series to explore the involvement by these two powers in Syria. This series, focusing on political, economic, social, and security challenges in and around the Middle East and North Africa, will be held before and after the December IISS Manama Dialogue. This event will be a timely discussion of the current security and political challenges in Syria, the roles that Iran and Russia have played in the conflict, and what can be expected in the months to come. Speakers include Dr. Mark N Katz of George Mason University and Dr. Neda Bolourchi of the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory. Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS-Americas will chair the conversation.
  3. Costing U.S. Nuclear Forces | Monday, November 20 | 1:00 – 2:30 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | The United States has embarked on the process of modernizing almost every component of its nuclear forces, sparking a debate about the costs of such a project. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released a report estimating that the nuclear force plans that the Trump administration inherited from its predecessor would cost $1.2 trillion between 2017 and 2046, and outlining options to reduce or delays costs. Michael Bennett from the CBO will present the report’s findings, and Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association will discuss its implications for policy. Other speakers include Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute and James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  4. Putting Sectarianism in Perspective | Tuesday, November 21 | 3:00 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute is pleased to host a conversation with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, editors of the new book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. Their book critiques the reliance on religious identity as the explanation for the region’s violence, and analyzes the ways in which geopolitical rivalries or domestic grievances have become, or been mobilized into, sectarian wars. How, Hashemi and Postel ask, can the region’s politics be “de-sectarianized” Register now to join this valuable conversation moderated by MEI senior vice president for policy research and programs Paul Salem.
  5. The U.S. Policy on Iran: The Way Forward | Tuesday, November 21 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Organization of Iranian American Communities (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | We are delighted to announce the upcoming event scheduled for November 21, 2017 at 10:00 am at the National Press Club, Holeman Lounge.  The event is the second in a series of discussions on “The U.S. Policy On Iran: The Way Forward”. As part of implementing its new Iran policy, the administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity (SDGT). Moderator Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan of the University of Baltimore will speak to Senator Joseph Lieberman, formerly of the U.S. Senate, and Gen. Chuck Wald, formerly of the U.S. air force.  
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