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"ACA's journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent."

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
United States

REMARKS: Gorging at the Nuclear Buffet Table


May 2019
By Sen. Chris Van Hollen

Before I ever thought of running for elected office, I interacted a lot with folks at the Arms Control Association and in the arms control community back in the 1980s. I grew up in a Foreign Service family in many places around the world, but one of the things that I remember most and that had a great impact on me was when I read Jonathan Schell’s New Yorker series, “The Fate of the Earth,” that described what would happen to the planet after a nuclear war. That, among other things, led me to concentrate in graduate school on international security matters, and I went to work on Capitol Hill in the mid-1980s as the legislative assistant for defense policy and arms control to former Maryland Senator Mac Matthias, who was a liberal, moderate Republican of the civil rights era.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) argues against unrestrained nuclear weapon spending during his remarks at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting.  (Photo: Allen Harris/Arms Control Association)Part of my portfolio was NATO, and I worked on the ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty back in the day. Then the Berlin Wall came down. The Cold War ended. It was great news for the world; it was great news for the country. It ushered in a period of relative stability, including on arms control agreements, the most recent one being the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

But now, we gather here at another urgent moment. It has been important work all along, but we are in an urgent moment now. Because with the Trump administration, all signs indicate that we’re jettisoning, we’re abandoning what has been a bipartisan tradition of recognizing that we need to modernize our nuclear forces, we need to modernize our triad, we need to make sure its survivable and resilient, but that we should do it within the framework of an arms control architecture that leads to predictability, stability, and transparency. That has been an important formula even as relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, have gone up and down. We have still maintained that conversation, we have still maintained that structure, and that structure has helped keep the peace.

Now with this new administration, with [National Security Advisor] John Bolton in the White House, we are in a very different world. He has not found a nuclear arms agreement or, as far as I can tell, any multilateral agreement or international agreement that he likes.

But when it comes to arms control, despite his being a foe, he has never explained how an unconstrained nuclear arms race would actually make us any safer. He can never answer that argument. He just tells us what he doesn’t like, but he doesn’t tell us what is better, that would make us more stable.

That’s where we are right now. The tearing up of the INF Treaty was an early indication of where this administration is going.

I want to be really clear. The Russians violated the agreement, and there is a consensus in NATO that they violated the agreement. We can’t just stand idly by.

But there is a big gulf between standing idly by and being the first to initiate tearing up the agreement. There is a whole area of engaging in the act of diplomacy and enforcement and looking for every other alternative first. That, this administration has not done.

The notion that we should therefore just proceed with developing not just one, but multiple noncompliant INF missiles makes no sense. We already have a robust capability when it comes to responding to anything in the European theater. We already have dual-capable bombers with gravity bombs, we have air-launched cruise missiles, we have a range of weapons that already serve as a deterrent. So, just building more for the sake of building more doesn’t do us any good, and it creates more instabilities.

In addition, I don’t buy the argument that we need to have an intermediate-range missile on Guam with the purpose of holding the Chinese in check. There are lots of things we need to be doing in that region, but I don’t think a missile on Guam does the job. As you know, our other allies, Japan and South Korea, have made it very clear they won’t deploy this kind of missile.

There is really no good argument for rushing to tear up the agreement. Obviously, it has created a lot of anxiety among our European allies. I was at the Munich Conference when Prime Minister Angela Merkel spoke. She was very upset at the way this had all rolled out and with the result. Now, our NATO allies are putting a game face on. You saw the secretary-general here addressing the U.S. Congress, but NATO would have preferred to see a very different outcome.

Of course, what is happening on INF leads to an even more worrisome situation with respect to New START. Because if you get rid of INF and New START, you’re in a world where there are no enforceable, written, agreed-on limits on our nuclear forces. So, that is why a group of us wrote to President Trump urging the administration to get going on a discussion to extend the New START agreement.

Russia has complied with the New START agreement. And as we modernize our nuclear forces, which we need to do to maintain our own deterrent, it is a much better world to do that where we have predictability and stability knowing what the Russian strategic forces are and what limits they’re under. This is in addition to the important transparency and inspection regime that the treaty brings. You get rid of New START, you get rid of INF, you are potentially flying entirely blind unless both sides voluntarily agree to comply, but that is not guaranteed. That is a big, big issue.

The other issue I want to focus on has to do with the overall nuclear posture that this administration is pursuing when it comes to nuclear weapons. I think we all agree that we need to modernize our nuclear forces, but we don’t need to add on every single, conceivable new capability.

It’s like showing up at a buffet and, instead of having a balanced meal, you say, “I will just gorge on every single capability that is out there.” When you only need a balanced meal to do the job, you don’t need to eat everything at the nuclear buffet table, including offensive and defensive weapons.

Unlike a dinner buffet where it’s “all you can eat at a fixed price,” the nuclear buffet table requires you to pay for everything. With the current spending plan, that is right now estimated to be $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years by the Congressional Budget Office. If you add on all the other capabilities this administration apparently wants to add on, you’re talking about an even bigger price tag.

So, in addition to having a big price tag, you’re also talking about building additional capabilities that are not only unnecessary, but can be very destabilizing. That is especially true when it comes to the administration considering two new capabilities with submarine-launched ballistic missiles, putting a low-yield warhead on some, as well as resuscitating the nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile.

I think that if you look at the direction we’re going, it is very worrisome from a price tag perspective when we have so many other national requirements and priorities. But also, we are going to be spending taxpayer money on something that actually makes us less, not more, safe by lowering the threshold of use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, we’re increasing the risks of an all-out
nuclear war.

The reason we have arms control agreements to begin with is the idea that when you start building all these new capabilities, it inevitably touches off an action-reaction cycle. Whether you are doing offensive weapons only or defensive ones too, you are bound to create a new arms race. That is expensive and destabilizing, and it risks nuclear confrontation and war, which obviously means the end of life on Earth as we know it.

In our office, we are very focused on this. We are going to be teaming up with Senator Jeffrey Merkley (D-Ore.) and others on the Appropriations Committee to try to zero out the funding for these low-yield warheads. They are unnecessary. Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is pursuing a similar approach.

Now that we have a majority in the House that share that view, we will see how all this works out. We need to make sure that we don’t get into this conversation, which we seem to be with the Trump administration, about how you can actually think about winning a nuclear war or prevailing in a nuclear war. We all know that there is no winning a nuclear war, and we need to make sure we never go in that direction.

So, I will just close with the statement that was jointly made by Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Geneva, 30 years ago: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Let us dedicate ourselves to making sure that remains the case, that nobody thinks they can win a nuclear war. Because that will be, as Jonathan Schell described, the end of the earth.


Excerpted from remarks delivered by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting on April 15 in Washington. Elected to the Senate in 2016, Van Hollen previously represented Maryland’s Eighth District in the House of Representatives.

 

Senator Van Hollen argues against unrestrained nuclear weapon spending.

U.S. to Quit Arms Trade Treaty


May 2019
By Jeff Abramson and Greg Webb

The United States will drop out of the Arms Trade Treaty, the 2013 pact designed to regulate the international trade of conventional arms, President Donald Trump announced April 26.

Speaking to the National Rifle Association on April 26, President Donald Trump displays an order he signed during the speech for the United States to reject the Arms Trade Treaty. (Photo Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)“The United States will be revoking the effect of America’s signature from this badly misguided agreement,” Trump told a large audience at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Indianapolis. “The United Nations will soon receive a formal notice that America is rejecting this treaty.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed the pact in 2013, but the United States has not ratified it. On stage in Indianapolis, Trump signed a message to the U.S. Senate asking it to discontinue the treaty’s ratification process.

International and U.S. treaty supporters decried Trump’s decision. The pact is the third major arms-related agreement from which the United States has withdrawn since he took office in January 2017.

Latvian Ambassador Janis Karklins, who will preside over the upcoming August 26-30 conference of the treaty's states parties in Geneva, said, “I hope that the U.S. administration will reconsider its decision in the future.”

“This is yet another myopic decision that jeopardizes U.S. security based on false premises and fearmongering,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was echoed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) who said, “It is abhorrent to use international diplomacy for blatant political pandering.”

Although popular today internationally, the treaty was not concluded easily. Measures to curb illegal and define responsible arms sales were discussed for decades, and a special treaty negotiating process failed in 2013 when Iran, North Korea, and Syria refused to join a consensus agreement. Instead, the pact was taken to the UN General Assembly days later and approved there against their “no” votes. It entered into force on Dec. 24, 2014. Today, the treaty has 101 states-parties and another 34 signatories that have not yet ratified.

The treaty is the first global accord to regulate a broad array of conventional weapons. It establishes common international standards that must be met before states authorize weapons transfers. The treaty generally seeks to reduce the illicit arms trade, reduce human suffering caused by illegal and irresponsible arms transfers, improve regional security and stability, and promote accountability and transparency by state-parties concerning transfers of conventional arms.

U.S. negotiators made clear during the treaty-making process that the pact would not threaten the right to bear arms afforded by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It has no authority over national gun control laws.

Nevertheless, U.S. gun-rights organizations, led by the NRA, have alleged that the treaty would impose limits on U.S. domestic gun sales, and Trump repeated those claims in his NRA speech. “Under my administration, we will never surrender American sovereignty to anyone. We will never allow foreign bureaucrats to trample on your Second Amendment freedom.”

Such rhetoric was misplaced, according to Thomas Countryman, the lead U.S. negotiator of the treaty and now the chair of the Arms Control Association board. “The treaty, if ratified by the U.S. Senate, would not require the United States to change anything in its law or procedures,” he said. “The president's action today is yet another mistaken step that threatens to make the world less
safe rather than more secure.”

Trump to revoke U.S. signature of treaty regulating international trade of conventional weapons.

U.S. Seeks Broader Nuclear Arms Pact


May 2019
By Kingston Reif and Shervin Taheran

President Donald Trump has ordered his staff to seek a new agreement on nuclear weapons that would encompass all Russian and Chinese nuclear arms, senior administration officials told reporters in April. Currently, the United States and Russia abide by the bilateral 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that limits only deployed strategic weapons and does not involve China. The treaty is due to expire in February 2021, but the pact allows the two sides to extend it for up to five years.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (center), speaking here at January conference in Beijing, suggested in April that any future U.S.-Russian arms control talks would need to address a variety of previously unnegotiated issues. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Getty Images)“The president has made clear that he thinks that arms control should include Russia and China and should include all the weapons, all the warheads, all the missiles,” said a senior White House official on April 25. “We have an ambition to give the president options as quickly as possible to give him as much space on the calendar as possible.”

Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, suggested Moscow’s response would depend on the nature of any U.S. proposals. “Further steps towards nuclear disarmament will require creating a number of prerequisites and taking into account many factors that have a direct impact on strategic stability” including missile defense systems, cyber weapons, weapons development in space, and advanced conventional arms, he said in an April 26 news briefing.

The Trump administration has shown no indication that it would be willing to limit these weapons in an agreement with Russia and China. Even if it were willing to do so, it is highly unlikely an agreement could be reached before New START expires in less than two years.

The president’s new order followed his April 4 comments at the White House, while sitting next to Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He, on the need for the United States, Russia, and China to reduce the numbers of and spending on nuclear weapons.

“Between Russia and China and us, we’re all making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nuclear [weapons], which is ridiculous…. We have to be the leader. I think it’s much better if we all got together and we didn’t make these weapons…. And those three countries, I think, can [come] together and stop the spending and spend on things that maybe are more productive toward long-term peace,” Trump said.

Senior administration officials echoed the president’s desire to include China in arms control. The Trump administration is “at the very beginning of conversations about renewing” New START, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April 10 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If we can get the deal right, if we can make sure that it fits 2021 and beyond, President [Donald] Trump has made very clear that if we can get a good, solid arms control agreement, we ought to get one.”

Remaining unclear is whether Pompeo was referring to conversations within the Trump administration, conversations with Russia, or both. Administration officials have been saying for months that they are in the early stages of formulating the U.S. position on an extension, arguing that plenty of time remains before the treaty lapses. Several factors would guide a decision, according to the officials, including how Russia pursues its concerns about U.S. compliance with the pact, whether Russia would agree to limit new strategic weapons it is developing, and Russian compliance with other arms control agreements.

Pompeo appeared to add additional factors at the hearing, suggesting that future arms control agreements should incorporate more nations. “We need to make sure that we've got all of the parties that are relevant,” he said. “It’s very different today in the world than it was” when New START was completed, he added. Asked to clarify which nations should be included, Pompeo said, “[I]t’s certainly China that has large numbers.”

Russian officials have also offered ambiguous projections for New START’s future. Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the United States, said Russia is ready to discuss extending the treaty, but repeated previously stated concerns about U.S. compliance with some of the pact’s conversion procedures.

“The extension of the New START is not a simple technicality that could be resolved in a couple of weeks,” he said at the Arms Control Association’s April 15 annual meeting. “Serious issues must be settled.”

Antonov also said that the full array of Russia’s planned new nuclear weapons would not be covered by New START, so any limits on them would need “another round of negotiations,” which would require Senate and Duma approval.

Meanwhile, the treaty’s dispute resolution forum, the Bilateral Consultative Commission, met in April, according to an April 12 release from the U.S. State Department. It was 17th meeting of the commission, which meets twice yearly.

Several current and former U.S. military officials have recently lamented the reduced level of communication and dialogue between the United States and Russia.

“During the Cold War, we understood each other’s signals. We talked,” said U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the top military commander in Europe, in an April interview. “I’m concerned that we don’t know them as well today.”

 

Administration opens door to negotiations on new weapons, new partners.

U.S. Conducts ‘Salvo Engagement’ GMD Test


May 2019
By Shervin Taheran

U.S. missile interceptors successfully destroyed a mock intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on March 25 in the most realistic test so far of U.S. defenses against long-range missile attacks, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announced.

A ground-based interceptor is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., March 25. This and another interceptor successfully destroyed a long-range missile target, according to the Missile Defense Agency. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)After launching a “threat representative” ICBM target from the Kwajalein Atoll, the agency dispatched two ground-based interceptors (GBIs) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to destroy the target. It was the first time such a salvo engagement had been tried, and MDA Director Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves called the test a “critical milestone.”

The two interceptors launched exoatmospheric kill vehicles (EKVs) to identify and destroy the mock warhead. The first EKV attacked the target. The second assessed the resulting debris field, determined that the initial target was no longer present, and then struck “the next ‘most lethal object’ it could identify,” an MDA press release reported.

The test was “the most complex, comprehensive, and operationally challenging test ever executed,” Greaves said in April 3 congressional testimony. The test’s success in assessing the debris field meant that “any concept of operations which seek[s] to confuse our missile defense system by launching junk or debris would not be successful. That’s why it was a success,” he added.

Congress first required a salvo test of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system in 2001, passing legislation that said the “early stages of system development” should incorporate “events to demonstrate engagement of multiple targets, ‘shoot-look-shoot’, and other planned operational concepts.”

The March test was the 19th overall and the 11th reported as successful. The previous test was conducted May 30, 2017. (See ACT, July/August 2017.) The next test has not been announced.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has raised concerns that none of the previous GMD tests included “realistic decoys” or “other countermeasures that the system could be expected to face in a real attack,” according to a January 2019 report, which said that some of the tests included decoy balloons, which are easier for EKVs to distinguish from mock warheads or other objects because of their distinguishing characteristics. The May 2017 test included at least one decoy, but it is unclear whether the 2019 test used any decoys or other countermeasures designed to fool the kill vehicles.

The GMD system currently consists of 40 GBIs deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four more at Vandenberg. In its 2019 Missile Defense Review, the Trump administration proposed raising the total number to 64 by 2023 by adding new GBIs at Fort Greely armed with the new Redesigned Kill Vehicle, which the review calls “more effective, reliable, and affordable.” Developmental delays, however, could slow the fielding of the new version to fiscal year 2025, according to recent budget request documents. (See ACT, April 2019.)

The Missile Defense Agency declares success after first-of-its-kind missile defense test.

Congress Seeks Light on U.S. Nuclear Transfers


May 2019
By Shervin Taheran

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation in April to increase transparency into U.S. efforts to export civilian nuclear technology. The action followed reports that the Trump administration quietly issued routine notifications about nuclear information transfers to Saudi Arabia and withheld them from public view in a break from traditional practice.

Hashim Yamani, president of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, addresses an IAEA meeting in September 2017. International pressure has grown on Saudi Arabia to upgrade its IAEA safeguards agreement as the nation works to develop a nuclear energy program. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)After news reports revealed the existence of the notifications, Energy Secretary Rick Perry confirmed in late March that he had approved seven authorizations for the transfer of nuclear information to Saudi Arabia. The authorizations are known as Part 810 authorizations, referring to the portion of the U.S. Code that permits the transfer of certain intangible nuclear technology and assistance to foreign nations.

Perry said the Saudi authorizations were kept private to protect proprietary information provided by U.S. nuclear vendors, but several U.S. senators expressed concern that the Trump administration was trying to conceal its efforts to transfer U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.

In an April 2 letter viewed by Arms Control Today, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs nonproliferation subcommittee asked the Energy Department to provide details of the approvals. “I fully understand and respect the need for U.S. companies to protect their proprietary information from competitors,” Sherman said. “At the same time, however, Congress must be given sufficient information to fulfill its constitutional oversight responsibilities.” Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) shared their “deep concerns” about the authorizations in another letter the same day, seeking the contents of the Part 810 authorizations.

The Energy Department is leading U.S. discussions with Saudi Arabia on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, commonly called a 123 agreement for a section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. This agreement is necessary for the export of U.S. nuclear materials, equipment, or components and requires congressional approval. Unlike a 123 agreement, the Part 810 authorizations do not require congressional approval, but there are several provisions for congressional notification. The fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act required the energy secretary to submit an annual report of the department’s review of Part 810 authorization applications, and Section 303b of the Atomic Energy Act requires any agency to “furnish any information requested” by the relevant Senate and House committees “with respect to the activities or responsibilities of such agency in the field of nuclear energy.”

In April, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Rubio, and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced a bill to amend the 1954 Atomic Energy Act and require the executive branch to regularly disclose when it allows companies to engage in nuclear energy cooperation with foreign countries through Part 810 authorizations.

Part 810 authorizations often cover information transfers before a 123 agreement is needed. According to the Congressional Research Service, the energy secretary must consider several factors before determining whether a specific authorization would serve U.S. interests, such as whether a 123 agreement is already in place with the United States and whether the state is a party to and in full compliance with its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The Saudi Part 810 authorizations reportedly include approvals for U.S. vendors to share information, but not at a level that would require a 123 agreement.

Ongoing U.S.-Saudi 123 agreement negotiations have been slowed by Saudi reluctance to adopt the “gold standard” of nuclear cooperation agreements, which call on nuclear importers to forgo uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing activities and to adopt an additional protocol to their International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement, which empowers the agency with enhanced monitoring and verification tools.

Saudi Arabia plans to generate 50 percent of its electricity from nonfossil fuels by 2032, according to the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, and it intends to build nuclear power reactors to contribute to this aim. The kingdom has begun exploratory discussions with multiple nations with nuclear exporters, and it was recently reported that it would select a vendor in 2020.

Saudi Arabia has expressed possible interest in purchasing nuclear powers from South Korea like these under construction in the United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation)Sherman and Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), supported in the Senate by Markey and Rubio, introduced legislation on Feb. 28 to require affirmative congressional approval of a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia, different from the current process in which the agreement, after it is submitted, goes into effect unless Congress specifically disapproves it. (See ACT, April 2019.) Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) spearheaded a Feb. 12 sense of Congress resolution that a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia must adhere to the strongest possible nonproliferation standards.

Adding controversy to U.S.-Saudi 123 agreement talks is an ongoing congressional investigation into potential conflicts of interest among members of the Trump administration and congressional concerns about Saudi Arabian human rights practices. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Further complicating the issue was an April 15 report from the Daily Beast describing how U.S. nuclear vendors are considering expanded partnerships with foreign vendors, particularly from South Korea, as a way to reduce or eliminate the need for a U.S. 123 agreement.

Menendez and Rubio also requested on March 15 that the Government Accountability Office conduct an “urgent review” into the Trump administration’s efforts to promote nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia since January 2017. Their request letter asked for the probe to cover all Trump administration interactions with official or nonofficial Saudi organizations, to describe all related negotiations conducted by the executive branch between December 2009 and January 2017, and to investigate “the specific initiatives or proposals for nuclear cooperation that have been presented or discussed in those interactions.” That investigation is ongoing.

Saudi Research Reactor and IAEA Safeguards

Saudi Arabia has made progress constructing a small nuclear research reactor in the kingdom with Argentine collaboration, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) asked Riyadh in April to enable stricter IAEA oversight of the facility before nuclear fuel is loaded.

Saudi Arabia currently has a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA that has a Small Quantities Protocol (SQP), which allows reduced monitoring for nations that have no or limited amounts of nuclear material.

As the first Saudi reactor nears completion and the nuclear program grows, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano told reporters on April 5 that the IAEA has “proposed to Saudi Arabia to rescind and replace [the SQP] by the full-fledged comprehensive safeguards agreement.” He added, “They didn’t say no, they didn’t say yes, and they are now giving thoughts. We are waiting. For now, they don’t have the material, so there is no violation.”

Amano has been encouraging all nations to go beyond the standard comprehensive safeguards agreement by voluntarily adopting an additional protocol that gives the IAEA substantially more monitoring and verification capabilities.

“That includes Saudi Arabia,” he said in early March.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, Argentina’s envoy to the IAEA, said his country would require Saudi Arabia to upgrade its IAEA safeguards agreements before Argentina would complete the project. “Saudi Arabia will have to move to a full-scope comprehensive safeguards agreement with subsidiary arrangements before the unit is fueled,” Grossi told reporters April 3.

The new reactor is likely to be a 30-kilowatt research reactor that would be used to train nuclear technicians as Saudi Arabia develops its nuclear energy program, according to an April 4 report in The Guardian, to which Grossi said that the reactor should “be operational” roughly “by the end of the year.”—SHERVIN TAHERAN

Lawmakers pursue several avenues to get more information on Trump administration efforts to promote nuclear trade with Saudi Arabia.

Renewing Waivers for Nuclear Projects with Iran Serves U.S. Interests

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Volume 11, Issue 7, April 29, 2019

A critical decision in the long-running effort to block Iran’s potential path to nuclear weapons is just days away. The Trump administration must decide by May 2 to renew sanctions waivers allowing required nuclear cooperation projects with Iran detailed in the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal to continue or let the waivers lapse. Failure to grant the waivers would jeopardize U.S. nonproliferation priorities and increase the risk that the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will collapse. Tehran is already threatening to withdraw from the JCPOA and, more seriously, the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) after the United States announced April 22 that it would no longer grant waivers to states seeking to purchase Iranian oil.

When the Trump administration first issued the 180-day nuclear cooperation waivers Nov. 5, it stated that allowing these projects to go forward would “impede Iran’s ability to reconstitute its weapons program and lock in the nuclear status quo until we can secure a stronger deal”—a clear acknowledgement that the U.S. benefits from these crucial nonproliferation projects.

The waivers were necessary after U.S. President Donald Trump violated the JCPOA by reimposing sanctions on Iran–despite Tehran’s clear record of compliance—and withdrew from the accord in May 2018. Had the Trump administration not issued the waivers, the United States could have penalized foreign entities involved in the nuclear projects for conducting legitimate work required by the JCPOA and endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2231.

Despite the fact that these nuclear cooperation projects help to reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons potential, the White House may allow the waivers to expire in order to try to ratchet up the pressure on Iran even further. Six Republican Senators wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo April 9 encouraging the Trump administration to allow the waivers to lapse in order to put additional pressure on Tehran. These members of Congress and some officials within the Trump administration appear to believe that the United States can coerce Iran’s leaders into a new set of negotiations designed to produce a “stronger deal” that addresses Iranian regional activities that Washington views as destabilizing and requires Tehran to capitulate to all U.S. demands on the country’s nuclear program. So far, this strategy has only isolated the United States and damaged Washington’s credibility.

In an April 11 Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Pompeo said the decision regarding the nuclear cooperation projects is “complicated,” but did not indicate if the waivers would be renewed. Reportedly, Pompeo favors granting the waivers, but Iran hardliners in the National Security Council are opposed to renewal.

Failure to renew the waivers for JCPOA-related nuclear cooperation projects will not advance the Trump administration’s plan to maximize pressure on Iran in pursuit of a mythical “better deal,” which appears to be a thinly disguised call for regime change. Rather, it would be an own goal that sets back U.S. nonproliferation priorities and compounds Trump’s irresponsible decision to jeopardize the JCPOA by reimposing sanctions. It also risks putting the remaining P4+1 parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the EU) in violation of the deal by preventing them from meeting obligations under the agreement to assist Iran with certain nuclear projects, thus giving Iran a further justification to abandon the agreement.

Jeopardizing Critical Nonproliferation Projects

If the Trump administration does not issue the waivers, it will put at risk critical projects that serve U.S. and international nonproliferation and security interests, particularly the conversion efforts at the Arak reactor and the Fordow facility, a former uranium enrichment site.

Arak: Prior to the negotiation of the JCPOA, the unfinished heavy-water reactor at Arak posed a proliferation risk that the United States and its negotiating partners sought to mitigate with the nuclear deal. If Iran had completed the reactor as originally designed, it would have produced enough plutonium for an estimated two nuclear weapons per year.

As a result of the JCPOA, Iran removed the calandria, or core, from the Arak reactor, filled it with concrete, and committed not to undertake any additional work at the site based on the original design. The IAEA verified the removal of the calandria and continues to monitor the reactor site. In addition, Iran committed to modify the reactor so that, when operational, it would produce a fraction of the necessary plutonium for a nuclear weapon on an annual basis.

Iran also agreed to ship out the spent fuel from the reactor for 15 years, preventing Tehran from accumulating several years’ worth of plutonium and then reprocessing it into a form suitable for nuclear weapons. The JCPOA established a working group “to support and facilitate the redesign and rebuilding” of the Arak reactor. (See JCPOA, Annex III, Section B, Paragraph 5.1.) China agreed to lead the work with the United States providing critical support verifying the design. When the Trump administration withdrew from the deal, the UK took over the U.S. role.

If China is prevented from fulfilling its contract on the Arak work, Iran may decide at some point to restart construction on the reactor, perhaps based on the original design. If Tehran were to go down that path, it would pose a proliferation risk and provide Iran with a source of plutonium, which when separated, could be used for nuclear weapons.

However, once the reactor is converted, it would be more difficult and time consuming for Iran to use it for weapons purposes or to revert back to the original design. Given the nonproliferation benefits of modifying the Arak reactor and the risks of Iran returning to its original plan for the reactor, supporting and allowing conversion efforts to continue clearly serves U.S. interests.

Fordow: A similar argument can be made for the Fordow site. Prior to the negotiation of the JCPOA, Iran was enriching uranium to 20 percent uranium-235 at Fordow. While 20 percent uranium-235 is still far below the 90 percent considered weapons grade, it poses a greater proliferation risk as it is easier to increase enrichment from 20 percent to 90 percent than it is to move from 3.67 percent (reactor grade and Iran’s current limit under the JCPOA) to 20 percent.

As a result of the JCPOA, Iran is prohibited from enriching uranium and having any nuclear material at the Fordow facility for 15 years. Iran also had the reduce the number of centrifuges at Fordow from about 2,700 first generation IR-1 machines to 1,044. Of the 1,044 centrifuges, two cascades (348 centrifuges) will be used for stable isotope production.

The JCPOA stipulates that Iran will convert the facility into a “nuclear physics, and technology centre ” and encourage international collaboration in certain areas of research. (See JCPOA, Annex I, Section H, Paragraph 44.) The IAEA is also permitted daily access to the site under the JCPOA and the deal notes that Russia will assist with the conversion efforts.

Turning Fordow into a nuclear physics center, reducing the centrifuges at the site, and using a portion of them for stable isotope production serves U.S. and international nonproliferation interests. It significantly reduces the risk that Iran will reconstitute the facility for uranium enrichment and, by having a regular Russian and IAEA presence at the site, it provides greater assurance that if Iran were to begin to transition Fordow back to a uranium enrichment plant, the international community would quickly be alerted to that fact.

Additionally, the Fordow facility is located within a mountain that would render it nearly impossible to destroy using conventional military means. A military strike is not a viable option for addressing Iran’s nuclear program should Tehran exit the JCPOA and resume more troublesome nuclear activities, and it is more likely to incentivize the country to pursue nuclear weapons. But the invulnerability of Fordow to a strike underscores the importance of retaining the JCPOA and preventing the proliferation risk that would come if Iran were to reconstitute uranium enrichment at the Fordow site.

Other Projects: Additional JCPOA-supported projects that could be impacted if the United States does not grant waivers include the transfer of 20 percent enriched uranium fuel to Iran for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes, and Russia’s assistance at the Bushehr nuclear power reactor.

Under the JCPOA, Iran is allowed to import limited quantities of fuel enriched to 20 percent uranium-235 under IAEA monitoring for the TRR. The P4+1 are required by the deal to assist Iran in obtaining the fuel. (See JCPOA, Annex I, Section J, Paragraph 60.) If Tehran is unable to purchase the 20 percent material, it could lead Iran to resume enrichment to that level, which poses a far greater proliferation risk than the 3.67-percent uranium-235 limit that Iran is required to abide by for 15 years under the JCPOA.

At Bushehr, Iran’s sole civil nuclear power reactor is fueled by the Russians. Russia also removes the spent fuel. Sanctioning Russian entities involved in the operation of the reactor and the spent fuel removal risks incentivizing Iran to increase its enrichment capacity to fuel that reactor, again posing a greater proliferation threat.

Additionally, these projects, particularly the conversion of Fordow to a stable isotope production and research center and the modifications of the Arak reactor, are tangible benefits for Iran that incentivize its continued compliance with the nuclear deal. Currently, as a result of Trump violating the JCPOA by reimposing sanctions, Iran’s economy has suffered, and foreign entities have withdrawn from the Iranian market. Nevertheless, research and development activities like the Fordow and Arak projects still provide Iran with benefits and incentives to remain in the agreement.

Putting U.S. Partners and Allies in Violation of the JCPOA

In addition to halting projects that benefit U.S. security and nonproliferation objectives, failure to grant the waivers allowing nuclear cooperation projects to continue risks putting the remaining P4+1 parties to the deal in violation of the agreement.

The impact of halting nuclear cooperation differs from the impact of foreign entities exiting the Iranian market in order to avoid being penalized under U.S. sanctions reimposed by Trump. Reimposing sanctions put the United States in violation of the JCPOA, but the deal does not guarantee Iran any particular level of economic benefit or require the P4+1 to guarantee that companies will do business with Iran. Therefore, the decision by companies to sever contracts with Iran did not abrogate P4+1 commitments under the deal.

However, unlike the economic sanctions, certain nuclear cooperation projects are required by the JCPOA and have been endorsed by the UN Security Council. If entities involved in these projects halt work out of fear of being sanctioned and the P4+1 are unable to meet their obligations to assist with these projects, it risks putting them in violation of the deal.

On Fordow, Annex III of the JCPOA states that “the transitioning to stable isotope production of two cascades will be conducted in a joint partnership between the Russian Federation and Iran, on the basis of arrangements to be mutually agreed upon.” (See JCPOA, Annex III, Section C, Paragraph 7.1.) Russia’s work at Bushehr would also be at risk if the Trump administration does not issue a waiver. In addition to providing fuel for the reactor and removing spent fuel, Rosatom, Russia’s state-run energy organization, is currently working on an additional two reactor units at the site.

If the United States does not grant a waiver allowing Russia’s state-run energy organization Rosatom to continue working at Bushehr and Fordow, it will put Moscow in the difficult decision of deciding between meeting its explicit commitments under the JCPOA and risking U.S. penalties or violating the nuclear deal.

Similarly, Annex III of the JCPOA states that the Arak working group “will provide assistance needed by Iran for redesigning and rebuilding the reactor” and agree upon steps to provide an “assured path forward to modernize the reactor.” (See JCPOA, Annex III, Section B, Paragraphs 5.1; 5.5.)

The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is the primary entity involved in the Arak reactor redesign project and the CNNC and Iran agreed upon a contract in 2017 for the initial phases of the work. However, despite receiving a wavier in November, Iran has raised concerns about the pace of work at Arak, as CNNC reportedly considers the guidance provided by the Trump administration on the waiver to be vague and insufficient. Given CNNC’s global reach and ambitions, the company is likely adverse to any risk of sanction by the United States and would be unwilling to continue the project without a waiver.

There are additional implications for revoking the waivers beyond the nuclear deal with Iran. Rosatom, for instance, is involved in a number of nuclear cooperation projects with U.S. entities. If Washington refuses to grant the waivers allowing legitimate work under the JCPOA to continue, Rosatom and others could choose to retaliate by terminating projects with U.S. based entities. That could inhibit competitiveness of the U.S. nuclear industry and adversely impact their operations.

The General Nonproliferation Value of Nuclear Cooperation

Beyond the nonproliferation and JCPOA-compliance benefits of issuing the waivers, there is value to encouraging and supporting additional nuclear cooperation projects suggested in Annex III of the agreement. Unlike the work at Arak, Fordow, the TRR, and Bushehr, these projects are optional, yet fulfilling them would have significant nuclear security and safety benefits. Additionally, it would continue to provide greater transparency into Iran’s civil nuclear activities.

Iran currently operates two reactors, the TRR and the Bushehr reactor, and has ambitious plans to expand its nuclear program for energy generation. Yet Iran lags behind international standards and best practices for nuclear safety and security. Iran is not a party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 amendment, nor the Nuclear Safety Convention. Iran also does not publish its nuclear regulatory practices, so it is difficult to determine if Tehran is meeting international standards for governing its civil nuclear activities. Annex III of the JCPOA encourages cooperative work to address these critical gaps on nuclear security and safety, including measures such as strengthening emergency preparedness, training and workshops on nuclear safety and security, the establishment of a nuclear safety center, and assistance to strengthen physical protection at nuclear facilities.

Cooperative work on several of these areas is already underway. The EU-Iran high-level seminars on nuclear cooperation have begun the initial phases of constructing a Nuclear Safety Center and assisting Iran with updating its regulatory frameworks to reflect international best practices. This work is proceeding and does not appear, at this time, to be impacted by U.S. sanctions.

This type of assistance project benefits not only Iran, but the entire region. A nuclear incident, caused either by accident or an intentional act of sabotage, would have an impact beyond Iran’s borders. It is in the best interests of Middle Eastern countries, particularly those in the Persian Gulf, that Iran’s nuclear activities are safe and secure. Without the JCPOA, or if the United States aggressively targets entities involved in legitimate nuclear cooperation, it is unlikely that these projects will continue.

Conclusion

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions was irresponsible and unjustified. If the Trump administration refuses to renew the waivers allowing nuclear cooperation projects to continue it would compound his dangerous decision to abandon the agreement.

Supporting nuclear cooperation with Iran benefits U.S. nonproliferation priorities and national security. It also allows the remaining parties to the deal to meet JCPOA requirements. Additionally, these projects provide greater insight and transparency into Iran’s nuclear activities and can provide important safety and security benefits.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

Description: 

Failure to grant the sanctions waivers detailed in the 2015 Iran nucelar deal would jeopardize U.S. nonproliferation priorities and increases the risk that the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will collapse.

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Executive Summary

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The NPT and the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament


April 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

Fifty years ago, shortly after the conclusion of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States and the Soviet Union launched the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Negotiated in the midst of severe tensions, the SALT agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty were the first restrictions on the superpowers’ massive strategic offensive weapons, as well as on their emerging strategic defensive systems. The SALT agreement and the ABM Treaty slowed the arms race and opened a period of U.S.-Soviet detente that lessened the threat of nuclear war.

View of the Soviet delegation (left) and United States negotiating team (right) sitting together during Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in Vienna, Austria circa 1970. Negotiations would last from 1969 until May 1972 at a series of meetings in both Helsinki and Vienna and result in the signing of the SALT I agreement between the United States and Soviet Union in May 1972. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)The size of U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles has decreased significantly from their Cold War peaks, but the dangers posed by the still excessive arsenals and launch-under-attack postures are even now exceedingly high.

Further progress on nuclear disarmament by the United States and Russia has been and remains at the core of their NPT Article VI obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

But as the 2020 NPT Review Conference approaches, the key agreements made by the world’s two largest nuclear powers are in severe jeopardy. Dialogue on nuclear arms control has been stalled since Russia rejected a 2013 U.S. offer to negotiate nuclear cuts beyond the modest reductions mandated by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

More recently, the two sides have failed to engage in serious talks to resolve the dispute over Russian compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which will likely be terminated in August. Making matters worse, talks on extending New START, which is due to expire in 2021, have not begun.

Last year, Russia said it was interested in extending New START, but Team Trump will only say it remains engaged in an interagency review of the treaty. That review is led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, who publicly called for New START’s termination shortly before he joined the administration.

New START clearly serves U.S. and Russian security interests. The treaty imposes important bounds on the strategic nuclear competition between the two nuclear superpowers. Failure to extend New START, on the other hand, would compromise each side’s understanding of the others’ nuclear forces, open the door to unconstrained nuclear competition, and undermine international security. Agreement to extend New START requires the immediate start of consultations to address implementation concerns on both sides.

Instead of agreeing to begin talks on a New START extension, U.S. State Department officials claim that “the United States remains committed to arms control efforts and remains receptive to future arms control negotiations” but only “if conditions permit.”

Such arguments ignore the history of how progress on disarmament has been and can be achieved. For example, the 1969–1972 SALT negotiations went forward despite an extremely difficult geostrategic environment. As U.S. and Russian negotiators met in Helsinki, President Richard Nixon launched a secret nuclear alert to try to coerce Moscow’s allies in Hanoi to accept U.S. terms on ending the Vietnam War, and he expanded U.S. bombing into Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union sent 20,000 troops to Egypt to back up Cairo’s military campaign to retake the Sinai Peninsula from Israel. In late 1971, Nixon risked war with the Soviet Union and India to help put an end to India's 1971 invasion of East Pakistan.

Back then, the White House and the Kremlin did not wait until better conditions for arms control talks emerged. Instead, they pursued direct talks to achieve modest arms control measures that, in turn, created a more stable and predictable geostrategic environment.

Today, U.S. officials, such as Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, argue that the NPT does not require continual progress on disarmament and that NPT parties should launch a working group to discuss how to create an environment conducive for progress on nuclear disarmament.

Dialogue between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-weapon states on disarmament can be useful, but the U.S. initiative titled “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” must not be allowed to distract from the Trump administration’s lack of political will to engage in a common-sense nuclear arms control and risk reduction dialogue with key nuclear actors.

The current environment demands a productive, professional dialogue between Washington and Moscow to extend New START by five years, as allowed by Article XIV of the treaty; to reach a new agreement that prevents new deployment of destabilizing ground-based, intermediate-range missiles; and maintain strategic stability and reduce the risk of miscalculation.

Ahead of the pivotal 2020 NPT Review Conference, all states-parties need to press U.S. and Russian leaders to extend New START and pursue further effective measures to prevent an unconstrained nuclear arms race. Failure to do so would represent a violation of their NPT Article VI obligations and would threaten the very underpinnings of the NPT regime.

 

 

Fifty years ago, shortly after the conclusion of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States and the Soviet Union launched the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Negotiated in the midst of severe tensions, the SALT agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty were the first restrictions on the superpowers’ massive strategic offensive weapons, as well as on their emerging strategic defensive systems. The SALT agreement and the ABM Treaty slowed the arms race and opened a period of U.S.-Soviet detente that lessened the threat of nuclear war.

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