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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
Greg Thielmann

Dealing with Putin's Russia

Rarely are foreign and security policy challenges characterized by such strong countervailing pressures or outcomes so replete with irony as in the conduct of U.S.-Russian affairs after Moscow’s 2014 military intervention in Ukraine. As Washington policy-makers and politicians try to settle on new guidelines for the bilateral relationship, they should seek a tough-minded but pragmatic diplomacy, realizing that, without U.S.-Russian negotiations, there will be no significant progress on either nuclear nonproliferation or nuclear disarmament. Number One Enemy? Americans now view Russia as the...

Iran Nuclear Deal Creates Opportunity for Adapting Missile Defenses

Although there are many challenges ahead for successful implementation of the Iran nuclear deal reached on July 14, it is not too soon to contemplate some of the wider effects of that agreement. At the top of the list should be the opportunity it affords to make adjustments to the shape of U.S. ballistic missile defense programs, adapting program content to the evolving threat. For more than a decade, U.S. missile defense efforts have been driven by the threats from existing and future North Korean and Iranian ballistic missiles. Now, the July 14 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and...

Addressing Iran’s Ballistic Missiles in the JCPOA and UNSC Resolution

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For more than a decade, the possibility of Iran developing nuclear warheads for its medium-range ballistic missiles has been at the top of U.S. security worries for the region...

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Volume 7, Issue 8, July 27, 2015

For more than a decade, the possibility of Iran developing nuclear warheads for its medium-range ballistic missiles has been at the top of U.S. security worries for the region, followed by Iran’s potential to expand the range of its missile forces to threaten Europe and the United States.

Now, with the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)between the P5+1 and Iran, which will block Iran from building nuclear weapons for at least 15 years, along with a new UN Security Council resolution (2231) on the nuclear deal, which extends restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities and trade, the potential threat from Iranian ballistic missiles has been radically reduced.

Negotiations Were About Nuclear Warheads, Not About Missiles

In the long negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the parties had avoided contentious issues beyond the nuclear realm in the belief that resolving the nuclear imbroglio was the highest international security priority and including other issues could overload the agenda and jeopardize reaching any agreement.

Senior U.S. officials stressed the talks were focused exclusively on resolving concerns about Iran’s growing nuclear program—not, for example, on its support for terrorism, behavior in the region, or human rights practices.

However, among the restrictions established by six UN Security Council resolutionsin response to Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities are restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities relating to the delivery of a nuclear weapon and restrictions on heavy conventional arms transfers to Iran.

UN Security Council Resolution 1737, passed in December 2006, states that countries must not provide technical or financial assistance, training, or resources related to certain nuclear and ballistic missile-related goods, and that all member states must refrain from importing designated nuclear and ballistic missile-related items from Iran.

UN Security Council Resolution 1929, passed in June 2010, establishes a comprehensive arms embargo on Iran, banning the sale of “battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems” to Iran.  Iran is also prohibited from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles, and the resolution requires states to take necessary measures to prevent technology relevant to ballistic missiles from reaching Iran. 

The primary purpose of these resolutions was to restrict Iran’s sensitive nuclear activity until such time as negotiations could resume and lead to an agreement preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman had assured Congress during her early testimony on the negotiations that Iran’s ballistic missiles would be addressed, but she did not specify how this would occur.

Iran’s position was that the negotiations were about its nuclear program and not about its ballistic missiles or conventional military capabilities; a replacement resolution in response to an agreement on the nuclear issues should therefore not maintain any restrictions on its ballistic missile activities and acquisition of conventional arms. The Russians and Chinese were in support of Iran’s view.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Kerry acknowledged in response to a question at his July 14 press conference that “[UNSC Resolution 1929] says specifically that if Iran comes to negotiate – not even get a deal, but comes to negotiate – sanctions would be lifted.”

Missile Restrictions and Heavy Weapons Embargo Extended

Despite the Russian, Chinese and Iranian opposition, U.S. negotiators dug in their heels. Although not explicitly addressed in the JCPOA, UN Security Council Resolution 2231, unanimously adopted on July 20, contains an eight-year restriction on Iranian (nuclear-capable) ballistic missile activities and a five-year ban on conventional arms transfers to Iran.

Specifically, Annex B of the new resolution calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” The resolution also grants the Security Council the authority to review and deny on a case-by-case basis any transfer to Iran of materials, equipment, goods, or technology that could contribute to nuclear weapons delivery systems.

Moreover, even after restrictions on arms sales and ballistic missile activities are lifted under the new resolution, they would still be subject to re-imposition “in the event of significant non-performance by Iran of its JCPOA commitments…”

These features of the arrangement have not gone over well in Tehran. According to the official statement from Tehran, issued in response to the resolution, “Iranian military capabilities, including ballistic missiles, are exclusively for legitimate defense. They have not been designed for WMD capability, and are thus outside the purview or competence of the Security Council resolution and its annexes.” A prominent Iranian hardliner complained, “The negotiating team was not supposed to negotiate on Iran’s ballistic missile technology.”

Despite the U.S. negotiators’ success in retaining features of the earlier resolution’s constraints on ballistic missiles and conventional arms, U.S. critics of the JCPOA either entirely ignore the UN’s adoption of a new multi-year arms trade embargo and its continuing restrictions on Iranian (nuclear-capable) ballistic missile activities or they complain that these restrictions are not permanent.

A Much Lower Threat From Iran’s Ballistic Missiles

There are many potential hurdles to implementation of the JCPOA; surviving U.S. Congressional scrutiny over the next sixty days is the most imminent. But it is important to consider how carrying out the nuclear deal is likely to affect Iran’s potential ballistic missile capabilities during the coming decade.

First and foremost, the comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran will block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons, thus ensuring that Iran cannot develop a nuclear warhead capable of being delivered via ballistic missile. This renders Iran's ballistic missiles a far less of a threat to regional and international security.

Second, even without the nuclear weapons constraints in the JCPOA, the reality of Iran’s ballistic missile program has never quite lived up to its reputation. Iran never developed or flight-tested a long-range ballistic missile; it has never even asserted a need to build one. This professed disinterest stands in contrast to Tehran’s boastful posture with regard to many other home-grown weapons programs and its explicit justification for medium-range missiles as a deterrence against Israeli attack.

In fact, after developing a modest inventory of relatively inaccurate medium-range ballistic missiles, Iran seems to have put most of its recent energies into improving the performance of shorter-range missile systems, more relevant to Iran’s immediate neighborhood around the Persian Gulf. No medium-range missiles have flown since 2012; even the long-awaited Simorgh space-launch vehicle, with technology relevant to a longer-range ballistic missile, has yet to appear. Although “death to America” may still be heard during Friday prayers in Tehran, neither the nuclear warhead nor the delivery vehicle for administering such a blow is being built.

Now, with both the JCPOA’s impediments to pursuing nuclear weapons and the new UN Security Council resolution extending restrictions on nuclear-capable ballistic missile activity and missile trade years into the future, the potential magnitude of the Iranian ballistic missile threat has been significantly reduced. —Greg Thielmann

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

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Mixed Messages on Missile Defense

The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered an unusually clear and coherent speech on U.S. missile defense polic y at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) May 19 in Washington. Although Adm. James A. Winnefeld, Jr. emphasized in his remarks that U.S. missile defenses should be of no concern to Russia or China, it is easy to see how parts of his comprehensive presentation could be viewed from Moscow or Beijing as hypocritical, or at least deeply ironic. Not About Russia and China During his presentation, Winnefeld reiterated the long-standing position of the...

Understanding the North Korean Nuclear Threat

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As the 2015 NPT Review Conference continues in New York, the international community’s failure to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea looms large.

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By Greg Thielmann
May 2015

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As the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference continues in New York, the international community's failure to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea looms large. Unlike the four of the world's nine nuclear-weapon states that have shown some progress in reducing their nuclear arsenals, North Korea is working hard to expand its arsenal and make it more credible. Unlike six of the nine, which have either ratified the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or maintained a testing moratorium since the treaty was concluded, North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests, the only state to do so during the last 17 years.

Unlike the three nuclear-weapon states that never became parties to the NPT, North Korea signed the treaty, declared it was withdrawing, later pledged to denuclearize, and then reneged on its commitment.

The North's nuclear program today is out of control and accelerating, damaging both the NPT and international stability. Addressing this grim reality begins with an objective assessment of North Korea's actual nuclear capabilities and an acknowledgment that the Obama administration's "strategic patience" approach is not working.

Washington and Beijing must step up their efforts to revive the six-party process with the near-term goal of freezing Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, taking care to manage potential spoilers, Russia and the U.S. Congress.

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New START: Still Doing the Job

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the United States was signed five years ago today. Last week, Washington released the latest data exchanged under the treaty on the numbers of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons. Considering that Russia and the West are passing through the worst political-military crisis since the end of the Cold War, New START’s latest numbers are particularly welcome. President Barack Obama should further burnish U.S. nuclear disarmament bona fides by ordering an acceleration of the treaty reductions already programmed and announce it at...

Nuclear Cruise Missiles: Asset or Liability?

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The future of U.S. and Russian nuclear cruise missiles is at an inflection point.

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March 5, 2015
By Greg Thielmann

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The future of U.S. and Russian nuclear cruise missiles is at an inflection point. Russia's alleged testing of a ground-launched cruise missile has jeopardized not only the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, but other bilateral nuclear agreements as well, adding further strain to the U.S.-Russian relationship.

The U.S. allegation and Moscow's three counter charges should be resolved with the help of the treaty's Special Verification Commission, which was explicitly designed to deal with compliance issues. But the two countries need to take a broader look at nuclear cruise missiles.

New strategic cruise missiles are part of an unaffordable drive by Washington and Moscow to simultaneously modernize all three legs of their strategic arsenals. Given the increasingly marginal role that nuclear cruise missiles play in ensuring a U.S.-Russian balance and their destabilizing impact when deployed by emerging nuclear powers such as Pakistan, it is time to consider doing away with them entirely.

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Updated: Iran’s Overdue ICBM

Updated on February 2, 2015 Iran’s launch of a Fajr (Dawn) observation satellite into orbit on February 2 will undoubtedly confuse the debate over whether or not Iran will soon have an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). It should not; this was not an ICBM-related event. The space launch vehicle (SLV) used in this launch appears to have been a modified Safir, which is based on the Shahab 3 medium-range ballistic missile with an operational range of around 2,000 kilometers. The Simorgh SLV mockup displayed five years ago would, if built, be able to carry a payload 2-3 times heavier than...

Removing the Missile Defense Obstacle to Deeper Nuclear Cuts

It has been obvious for decades that advances in strategic ballistic missile defenses can complicate efforts to maintain a balance in strategic offensive forces while reducing overall nuclear arsenals. The two Cold War superpowers addressed this problem by negotiating the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972, which limited the breadth and scope of ballistic missile defense (BMD) deployments. But U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and enthusiastic pursuit of BMD by the United States has again brought the negative impact of missile defense on nuclear arms control efforts to the...

U.S. and Russia Nuclear Numbers Up During Last Six Months

The deployed strategic nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States increased in size over the last six months, according to the latest data exchange under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Taken together, operational U.S. and Russian strategic missile warheads and heavy bombers rose by 188, an amount larger than that possessed by five of the seven remaining nuclear weapons states in their entire arsenals. The uptick in strategic arsenals revealed by the most recent data exchange constitutes a surprising and troubling milestone at the mid-point for the seven-year...

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