Initial Thoughts on Iran Joint Action Plan Interim Agreement

On January 16th, the White House released a summary of the technical agreement worked out with Iran and the P-5.  The technical agreement enables the Joint Action Plan to go into force on January 20th.

It will take some time to research the full agreement, but here are some initial thoughts:

The agreement addresses all known avenues for Iran’s production of nuclear materials that could be used for weapons.

½ of all centrifuges installed at Natanz and ¾ of centrifuges installed at Fordow are going off line on January 20th.  They will not be permitted under the agreement to enrich uranium, greatly reducing Iran’s ability to produce enriched uranium.  All next generation advanced centrifuges are covered under this enrichment freeze.

Iran is not permitted to produce new centrifuges except to replace damaged units – no growth in capacity during interim period.  Can use the interim agreement to build a stockpile of units ready to break out.

½ of all of Iran’s near 20% enriched uranium to be diluted with uranium hexafluoride – can remain as UF6.  The other ½ stockpile to be converted to uranium oxide – a substance that requires additional process to be re-enriched.  This means Iran will stay well below the amount of 20% enriched material needed to make a break for a bomb.  Israeli PM had made the amount of 20% a milestone of concern – the interim agreement addresses this effectively.

Progress on Arak reactor all but frozen.  No fueling, transfer of equipment, no production of fuel allowed.  Also, construction of reprocessing facilities not allowed under interim period.  No reprocessing – no access to plutonium.   About all Iran can do is produce heavy water, but not in itself a break out issue.

Iran agrees to daily access of enrichment sites, monthly access to Arak.  Moreover, Iran agrees to provide for the first time:

1)   Design information on Arak – enables outside work to know what it is, what it is for, what it could do in future if ever completed.

2)   Managed access to centrifuge production sites and uranium mines and mills.

Parties also establish a Joint Commission – a group of technical experts from each country to monitor compliance and raise issues that might arise to the political directors level.

The agreement freezes almost the entirety of Iran’s nuclear material production complex and provides time for a comprehensive agreement to be negotiated.  Such efforts may fail, but the the US and Israel will lose no ground or security while this agreement – assuming it is faithfully implemented – is in place.

No Way To Run A Deterrent

The U.S. nuclear deterrent is facing a military command crisis. The dismissal of a second command officers in the U.S. nuclear weapon complex in less than one week should sound alarm bells in not only Secretary of Defense Hagel’s office, but in the White House.  It should also lead to a wholesale reevaluation of the entire nuclear command structure, including the Joint Chiefs, and lead to changes in the way the men and women who control U.S. nuclear forces are recruited, selected and evaluated.

If consecutive Presidents from both parties cannot ensure that our most capable leaders manage our most powerful weapons then it raises new questions about our commitment to maintain a safe and secure arsenal.  It should also remind us that we maintain a more diverse and expansive nuclear arsenal and complex than required by security and that the costs associated with doing so are growing more significant day by day.Image

Nuclear weapons are the President’s weapons and the ultimate deterrent power at the disposal of the United States.  Their complete and professional control and management at all times is critical to our security and to our global leadership.  Coming after several inexcusable events under Secretary Gates and President Bush, including the unauthorized transport of nuclear-armed cruise missiles – and event that led to the firing of the Secretary of the Air Force in 2008 – The dismissal of the Deputy Commander at US Strategic Command and now Air Force general in charge of our nuclear-tipped long-range land based missiles makes clear that this is not a republican or democratic issue, but one of internal military oversight and decision making.

Put simply, nuclear weapons are a backwater for military command advancement.  The military enlist to serve their country and conventional combat operations – particularly in the wake of two long wars – have been seen rightly as national priorities and the compelling path for accomplishment and advancement.  Far form the years of the cold war when the nuclear deterrent was the programmatic assignment of choice, nuclear command positions are now less attractive for the best and brightest in uniform, making nuclear assignments harder to fill, manage and motivate.

The time may have come for specialized recruitment approaches to be developed to ensure that those assigned to manage and, in the worst case, employ U.S. nuclear weapons are among the best our military has to offer.  Just as defense reform in the 1980s required anyone seeking promotion to General or Admiral had to serve in a joint post outside of their own service, the time may now have come for anyone aspiring to serve on the joint chiefs to have served in a nuclear command.

In addition, the time may also be ripe to adopt a new requirement – that all offers being assigned command of a nuclear deterrent mission – in the Navy, Air Force or at U.S. Strategic Command  – be personally authorized by the President and Secretary of Defense and their performance annually reviewed by the Joint Chiefs. 



Kerry May be onto Something on Syria

Intention or not, the statement by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria could avoid a U.S. military strike by quickly putting all of its chemical weapons capability under international inspection opens up an important opportunity to avoid direct U.S. strikes. The White House is right to interpret any positive response by Russia and Syria to this off the cuff proposal as a sign that the debate over the use of military force by the United States has both capitols worried.  As such, tactically delaying a vote in Congress a few days makes sense.  The response, which the U.S. should pursue with enthusiasm, should also lead all members of Congress leaning against authorizing the use of force to think again about such a vote.

That the Russian government has endorsed the proposal and Syrian officials have spoken favorably about it mean the following scenarios are possible:

We have a deal – Russia and the U.S. convince Assad’s force to put all CW and related sites under immediate inspection by international forces, leading quickly (in a few months) to their destruction.   This would be, by far the best outcome and if implemented faithfully achieve the same goal as the planned U.S. strike – degrade Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.  Monitors of such control and elimination – preferably from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or OPCW, the institution established by the Chemical Weapons Convention – would have to be protected and empowered to report any violations or movement of CW stocks to the UN Security Council.  Moreover, their role would have to be temporary and only serve as a short prelude to the rapid demilitarization of Syria’s massive chemical weapons. 

At the same time, any such an effort would need a solid international legal basis.  No time exists for Syria’s signature and accession to the CWC as a formal member.  As such, the U.S. should insist that Syria’s leaders make a political commitment to abide by the CWC, followed immediately by a binding U.N. Security Resolution codifying any Syrian decision.  While Russia might balk at a UNSC document, no stand alone political commitment from Assad should be acceptable and Russia would have little excuse to oppose such a document if Assad had endorsed the initiative.  Russian endorsement of this resolution would be a great improvement from their past opposition to any such resolutions on Syria from the UNSC.  It would be a challenge, though not impossible, for Russia to oppose such a document after having endorsed the idea first posed by Kerry.

Cat and Mouse, Syrian Style – In this scenario, Syria conditionally accepts Kerry’s proposal but delays any real steps to implement.  Such a bait and switch tactic must not be allowed to derail the Congressional vote on the use of force.  Moreover, the United States should do everything it can to cloak this proposal as a joint US-Russian initiative.  As such, any balk attempt by Syria would invest Russia in taking stronger action against its erstwhile ally. While delay by Damascus might not alter Russia’s strategic view, should Assad reject a way out of U.S. strikes without undermining his continued hold on power, Russia might finally recognize that its own international position is undermined by its steadfast refusal to address the horrific use of CW by the regime.

Thanks but no thanks – We may find out very quickly that Syria and Russia are not serious about pursuing Kerry’s proposal.  Any effort to delay, obfuscate or overly complicate the political agreement by Assad to eliminate his CW should put the White House and Congress right back where they woke up Monday morning, with a tough vote and no good outcome – but one where no action is arguably worse than a limited strike to reestablish the norm against CW use by Assad.

In the end, the Congress will likely have to vote on the possible use of force by the United States in Syria.  However, just the threat has had an influence on Syria that thirty years of political pressure from all manner of states has failed to achieve.  If there is any chance Syria will admit its possession of CW, and take real and fast steps to put them under international control leading to their elimination, it is a chance worth pursuing.

A Personal Reflection on Syria

Conflicted, Syrian Style

I am torn.  I have spent my professional career working to address the dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons.  I abhor the thought of their use by anyone, state or terrorist, and believe such weapons reflect the worst in humanity and our ability to be inhumane to each other.  As such, I have worked for decades to reinforce the legal regime created to help prevent the proliferation and use of these weapons, and the norm against their use.

At the same time, I am very wary of using nonproliferation as the justification for taking new military action in the Middle East.  In part, this is a reflex to the dishonest and calculated manipulation performed by the Bush Administration leading to the Iraq war.  The actions by the last Administration will rightly haunt American credibility for many years to come, and the damage the last Administration did to American security will take many more years to undo.   Hopefully, anyone working nonproliferation issues during that period has reflected on what role, if any, they planned in that farce.

But my wariness also reflects what I believe are broader concerns shared by other Americans – a concern about stepping up American military action just as we are finally extracting ourselves from the two longest and costliest wars in our history.  The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, whether you believe them just or not, dominate the consciousness of a new generation of Americans.  Whether justified or necessary now, military action against Syria is something that will add to that perception with long-standing consequences that we must start to pay greater attention to as a society.

As so while I am torn, I am also encouraged by two important facts.  The first thing that gives me hope is the Administration is making clear that any action would be designed to punish the Assad regime for the use of these weapons and to deter their future use by Syria.  White House Press Secretary told reporters on August 26 that this is not a step toward regime change, but has a specific purpose.  This will disappoint those who are trying, again, to use the cause of nonproliferation as a catalyst for regime change.  I hope they remain disappointed.  They may have a case to make that the region and the world may be better off without Assad in charge, but I for one am glad that the White House is resisting their attempts to use the WMD as the trigger for that cause.

The second thing that encourages me is the continued approach taken by President Obama that steadfastly avoid being drawn into a new broader war in the Middle East.  He ran as the anti-Iraq war candidate and is fulfilling his pledges to end both wars.  I have my complaints about the broader Administration record on a host of issues, as is my right as an American.  But I give the President credit for doing what he said he would in Iraq and resisting the pull to remain in Afghanistan for many years to come.  Having set the stage to end two wars, I am glad he is working to avoid being sucked into a third.

It appears, form the outside looking in, that a major factor in the President’s mind is how to respond effectively to deter future CW use without owning the conflict and how to anticipate any likely Syrian response and avoid that being its own escalatory step toward broader war.  Syria will likely respond, and Israel and America are likely targets.  How to ensure these steps do not happen or don’t spiral out of control is the trick that no one is able to answer.

In the end, perhaps there is no way for the United States to act without being dragged into a broader conflict.  The President is right to consider such consequences before weighing action.  At the same time, it appears there is a cost to be paid for American investment and leadership in the nonproliferation regime.  Having led the effort to create and reinforce the norms of nonproliferation and non-use, and having benefitted from the results, American action may now be required to live up to those past efforts.

If and when the bombs fly, I will not feel good about it and it will give me no satisfaction.  But in the end, I understand why the use of these horrific weapons justifies the use of force.  I can only hope that it does not lead down a path we should not travel, that of never ending conflict.

Paka (See You Later) Arms Control

Let me be clear. Negotiated nuclear arms control treaties are good for American security. They help provide certainty and transparency, and a legal framework for managing what can often be challenging and complex issues. A process where two countries have to agree on something that meets their mutual interest moderates the behavior of both states and can produce associated benefits for the broader relationship.  And in the case of strategic nuclear arms control between the United States and Russia, arms agreement have wider benefits in helping to sustain the broader international diplomatic effort to improve the nonproliferation regime.

All this as a given, there has been little cause for optimism that the United States and Russia will be able to agree on a new agreement to reduce mutual arsenals below the 1550 strategic offensive nuclear weapon levels established in New START Treaty anytime soon.  Russia has tried to load up the list of demands with too many unrelated issues and, frankly, depends more on its nuclear weapons than does the United States.  They need more nuclear weapons than we do to feel secure.

Given Russia’s lack of interest in reductions, it is unwise to create a situation where Russia has veto power over how America sets its nuclear priorities or allocates its scarce defense dollars.  If Moscow wants to waste its money on nuclear weapons they can’t use, why should America be forced to do the same?  America’s military and civilian leaders believe we have many more nuclear weapons than we need, regardless of Russia’s arsenal.  Why should we maintain an oversized force just because Russia’s conventional forces are weaker than our own.

However, the decision by President Putin to give former NSA contractor Edward Snowden asylum essentially kills any chance of a negotiated treaty with Russia for the remainder of the Obama presidency.  Even if Russia were ready to deal, no US-Russia Treaty will be approved by the United States Senate in the Snowden aftermath.

Even before Snowden fled to Moscow, there was a solid block of 20 GOP Senators ready to oppose any Obama initiative based purely on its source.  This bloc is simply unprepared to cooperate with President Obama on the nuclear reduction agenda.  Some believe the U.S. should maintain or even expand its current nuclear forces, other do not trust the President and still others are seeking to deny the President any political victories on any subject.  In sum, any Treaty submitted by President Obama would have been a tough sell, as witnessed by the New START battle.

Now, in the wake of Snowden’s successful asylum request, any Treaty with Russia would be more radioactive than the warheads it would seek to eliminate.  Those predisposed to see Russia as a geo-political adversary see vindication and others, perhaps half a dozen thought to be running for President in 2016, would seek to posture against Russia at the expense of any nuclear Treaty.  Striking at a nuclear reduction agreement with no material affect on them or their states would be too tempting a target to pass up.

Even in the darkest days of the cold war, the United States and Soviet Union found ways to manage their nuclear competition.  Perhaps the Senate took their responsibilities more seriously then, or perhaps our political system as become too ionized and toxic for Senators to rise above too many issues.  Regardless, any US-Russia nuclear pact submitted to the Senate has zero chance of approval in the next three years.

This is a bigger issue than whether the President should meet with Russian President Putin in Moscow.  If there is progress to be made on the nuclear agenda or elsewhere, the President should pursue it. But given the conditions in the United States, discussions should focus on possible bilateral reciprocal steps both countries can take to further reduce nuclear numbers and increase nuclear transparency. Anything else is likely wasted effort.  Worse, completing an agreement likely to be rejected by the Senate would create a point of conflict where one need not exist.

Instead, the President and his advisors should prepare other options for reducing the nuclear arsenal to the lowest level consistent with American security.  A recent review has found that level to be perhaps 30% below those set in New START.  The costs of maintaining an oversized arsenal may be manageable in the next few years but replacing aging system one for one will be prohibitively expensive.  At the same time, GOP members of the House and Senate are already seeking to tie the President’s hands and deny him funds to implement even those reductions already approved in New START and the law of the land.  Veto threats will be required to protect the President’s authority as commander in chief to set U.S. military requirements, an prevent Congress for deny him funds to eliminate systems no longer needed for deterrence or security.

That Russia should shelter Edward Snowden is an unfortunate body blow to the already weakened US-Russian relationship.  To be sure, we continue to have shared interests and should work together where we can to pursue them.  But the political  fallout from the asylum approval make all but clear that codifying nuclear reductions by Treaty will be impossible, leaving the President with fewer options for further reducing the role of American nuclear weapons in our security policy.  But those options remain viable and for our security must be pursued.

How Do You Say “Do You Have Anything Else” in Japanese?

Old Habits Die Hard

News reports out of Tokyo indicate that the Obama Administration is trying to reassure our understandably nervous Japanese allies about America’s commitment to their security.  Facing an increasingly capable China and a host of other instabilities, Japanese officials have recently toured major U.S. nuclear installations, including U.S Strategic Command in Nebraska, a nuclear missile site in Montana, and an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine in the great state of Washington.  The message American’s are sending to our Japanese allies is that the U.S. remains the world’s most well equipped and prepared nuclear weapon states and, in the words of President Obama “has your back”.  But if we are serious about reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons, we need to have a much broader and higher profile alliance relationship that stresses not only our nuclear assets, but our conventional military as well as our economic, political and cultural commitments and investments in Japan.

Having on-going discussions about nuclear extended deterrence with our allies in Japan is all fine and well.  We have been doing the same with our European allies for over a generation.  Japan lives in a tough neighborhood and is going through stressful times and America is a strong state, possesses nuclear weapons and maintains a policy where we are prepared to use our nuclear weapons to protect our allies, including those from NATO and in East Asia.

But “using” our nuclear weapons to reassure our allies is not without costs.  The fact that we have stressed our nuclear assets in NATO for long is part of what makes it so hard to eliminate the last vestiges of our tactical nuclear weapons dedicated to NATO’s defense, but that even our military says no longer have a military mission. Continually stressing the role of nuclear weapons for extended deterrence undermines the Administration’s stated goal to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our security affairs and ignores the non-nuclear aspects of our extended deterrence policy.

The President understands that the more we, the world’s most capable conventional state, has to rely on our nuclear weapons for defense and reassurance, the greater the urge among both our friends and adversaries to pursue or maintain their own nuclear capabilities.  This is not to say states will abandon nuclear ambitions because we rely less on ours.  They won’t.  But if we take the challenge of proliferation and nuclear use seriously – as we should – then we should not brandish our nuclear weapons unnecessarily.

This is where things get interesting because, in fact, the United States is equipped to rely on things other than its nuclear weapons for our security and the protection of others.  Our conventional capabilities – even after two major wars in 10 years – remains unmatched.  Our defense spending remains over 5 times higher than that of China, and by most estimates our technological advantage in conventional weaponry is perhaps 20 years ahead of Beijing’s.  Not a permanent state of affairs to be sure as China advances and it becomes clear that our level of defense spending is unsustainable, but one that means the United States has many other ways to reassure our allies.

What is missing from the discussion with Japan, however, are the broader economic, cultural and societal ties that make clear America has Japan’s back.  Over 45,000 Americans live in Japan and over 1 million Japanese live in the United States.  Japan is America’s 4th largest trading partner, and while it ranks behind China, remains one of our most important economic and political relationships.

Of course, if the Defense Department is hosting our Japanese allies they will be showcasing our defense capabilities.  As well they should.  But it is unfortunate that our alliance management is all too often left to the larger and better-financed Department of Defense and our other agencies and civil society tools are not brought to bear.  Until we have a combined message that inflates the importance of our nuclear capabilities, it will be harder for the President to achieve his stated goal of creating the circumstances where the sole purpose for our nuclear weapons is nuclear deterrence.

I Don’t Think That Letter Means What You Think It Means

Republicans are up in arms that President Obama might eliminate nuclear weapons we no longer need for our security.  And as we have seen in other areas, the President’s political opponents are not going to let facts and history get in the way of a good argument.

In a major address in June, the President announced that he would be seeking to negotiate a new round of nuclear reductions with Russia.  In doing so, he left open the option of reducing U.S. forces by something other than a legally binding agreement.  One options suggested by some outside the government would be something like the 1991 reciprocal, political commitments by the US and Russia to withdraw and eliminate most tactical nuclear weapons.  The United States has maintained more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security for many years, but in his June address, the President announced that new nuclear guidance had been endorsed by the Joint Chiefs and U.S. Strategic Command enabling even deeper reductions,  down to perhaps 1,000 strategic deployed weapons.


At the moment, however, Russia does not appear very interested in a new Treaty and has said as much.  This stance reflects either standard Russia negotiating tactics or a sincere aversion to further reducing its nuclear forces.

As a result, the President has left the door open to getting rid of nuclear weapons even the military agrees we do not need even and doing so even if Russia does not negotiate a new Treaty.  At this, Republicans are crying foul and trying to cite, of all people Vice President Joseph Biden, to back up their case.  As the Chairman of the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, then-Senator Biden wrote Secretary of State Collin Powell along with then Committee Ranking Member and famous arms control agreement hater Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).  The letter stated that “[w]ith the exception of the SALT I agreement, every significant arms control agreement during the past three decades has been transmitted to the Senate pursuant to the Treaty Clause of the Constitution.”

This language is now being used by a group of GOP Senators, including Presidential hopeful and GOP Senate newcomer Marco Rubio to oppose any possible move by the President to reduce American nuclear forces outside the auspices of a legally-binding treaty approved by the U.S. Senate.  They wrote former Senator and SFRC Chairman Secretary of State John Kerry that “It is our view that any further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal should only be conducted through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.  This view is consistent with past practice and has broad bipartisan support, as you know from your service in the Senate.” And then the GOP letter goes on to cite the Biden/Helms letter to back up their case.

This is where the facts come in.  A simple reading of the 2003 Biden/Helms letter makes clear that the authors were writing about preserving the Senate’s role in approving Treaties and rejecting the possible use of Executive Agreements, not whether President Bush might pursue reductions independent of a formal agreement.

The letter, in fact, begins by saying that “your February 5 testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations indicates that the administration has decided to negotiate a legally binding agreement with the Russian Federation on further strategic arms reduction.”  The issue of whether cuts would be made in an agreement, therefore, was already settled. The issue at stake was whether the cuts might come through a Treaty, requiring a 2/3 Senate majority to approve or through an Executive Agreement – a legal document that be subject to a majority vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Biden/Helms letter makes clear that the concern is about whether “international agreements” that contain significant obligations on American nuclear force would constitute a “Treaty” as they maintain it would, not whether the President might reduce weapons independent of Russia action or via some reciprocal bilateral political agreement.

The lack of any reference to the 1991 and 1992 decisions by the United States and Russia to make unilateral but parallel reductions to their nuclear forces in the letter is an omission that speaks loudly.

Senator Rubio can perhaps be excused for not knowing what the letter is about since he was not in office at the time, but other co-signers including Senators Hatch, Roberts, Inhofe and others should get no pass, especially when trying to re-write history. These are complex questions and serious matters, and relying on facts, not smoke screens, would reflect better on the Senate and its members.

There is room to debate the costs and benefits of taking independent action to reduce the cost of our nuclear forces and eliminating unnecessary and dangerous nuclear weapons from our Cold War Era arsenal.  But given the decision by the President’s opponents to make up their own facts because the real ones don’t support their case does not bode well for their future success.