Tag: nuclear proliferation (page 1 of 3)

Institutional Aspects of the Iran Deal

I woke up this morning to read (a few hours behind most of you…one of the few downsides to living in the Pacific Northwest is living behind the news cycle!) about the finalizing of a nuclear deal between the E3/EU+3 and Iran. I’ll leave it to others to analyze whether the deal is a good one and whether it will indeed limit the ability of Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Charles Krauthammer hates it. Joe Cirincione loves it. Jeffery Goldberg isn’t quite sure what he thinks of it.  My own thinking tends towards agreeing that the agreement isn’t spectacular, but that it might be the least worst option of military strikes (unlikely to have a meaningful, lasting impact and almost certain to increase Iran’s resolve to develop an extant weapon) and indefinite sanctions (a degrading commodity that have limited impact).

Still, rather than focus on the efficacy of the agreement and its details, I’d like to talk about a different aspect: what we can learn about Iran’s intentions to comply with the agreement or build a nuclear weapon. My first published work, “Institutional Signaling and the Origins of the Cold War,” addressed the ability of states to use international agreements and organizations to force other states to reveal privately held information about their preferences and intentions (as my institution has a subscription to Taylor and Francis, I’m not sure if the article is behind a paywall. If it is, you can also find it here or e-mail me and I’ll send it to you). To make a long article short, I argue that:

the process of negotiating and creating international institutions plays a critical role in enabling states to send and evoke credible statements of preference. Institutions, by virtue of their ability to impose costs on states as a result of compliance with the rules and obligations,provide a means of generating signals that will be accepted as credible by the policymakers of a given state. Those signals will be interpreted as revealing vital information about the true nature and interests of other states.

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Wednesday Linkage

Editor’s note: this post originally appeared on my personal blog. It contains some links to posts that appeared here at the Duck.

1. An interview with Jim Fearon about Ukraine. Lots of good stuff here, both about Ukraine and in general. As you’d expect.

2b. Some thoughts from Branislav Slantchev about Russia’s Cold War Syndrome. c. Anna Pechenkina reacts. d. Slantchev responds.

3. Still want to read more about Ukraine? Okay, check out Taylor Marvin on why it doesn’t make much sense to use force in Syria in order to signal resolve. I agree. Using force in one crisis to influence perceptions about your willingness to do so elsewhere may make sense under certain conditions, but the crises would have to be pretty similar. Unlike some, I’m not convinced that failing to poke out the eyeballs of someone who flipped you off will lead the world to think that you wouldn’t lift a finger to stop someone from beating your children to death with a baseball bat.

4. Also, check out this nice post by Anita Kellog on what the crisis does (or does not) tell us about the impact of economic interdependence. Key quote: “In 2012 total trade with Russia (imports and exports) accounted for 26% of Ukraine’s economic activities, whereas this trade accounted for only 2% of Russia’s GDP.”

5. Assad announces bid for reelection. He’s, um, expected to win.

6. A call for partition of Central African Republic. Key quote: “‘The partition itself has already been done. Now there only remains the declaration of independence,’ said Abdel Nasser Mahamat Youssouf, member of a youth group lobbying for the secession of the north, as he pointed to the flag of what he said would be a secular republic.”

7. This isn’t everything you need to know about Israel and Palestine, the title notwithstanding, but it’s still a nice resource. Fairly comprehensive, but still concise. Worth assigning to students.

8. The Marshall Islands is suing the world’s nuclear powers (h/t Holly Gerrity). Key quote: “While the suit seems unlikely to end in any country being compelled to disarm, it will at the very least highlight the fact that while existing nuclear powers frequently invoke international law to argue for why countries like Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, they tend to gloss over the other part of the deal—that they will work to fully eliminate their own arsenals.”

9. A trade spat between the US and Mexico over sugar (h/t Rebecca Johnson). Key quote: “John W. Bode, the president of the Corn Refiners Association, ‘The political influence of the US sugar industry is legendary…. They may be only 4 percent of US agriculture but when you look at political contributions, they account for a third.'”

10. Writing a great abstract (h/t Brent Sasley). A lot of good advice. Key quote: “The ideal abstract…has three parts. 1. statement of the area of concern or disputation 2. statement of the thesis or argument 3. implications for further research.”

11. Interview with GRRM. The whole thing is worth reading, but I found this quote to be of particular interest: “The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, ‘What the hell were we fighting for? Why did all these millions of people have to die? Was it really worth it to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that we wiped out an entire generation, and tore up half the continent? Was the War of 1812 worth fighting? The Spanish-American War? What the hell were these people fighting for?'”

11. John Oliver on India’s election.

2014 Grawemeyer Award Winner

Congratulations to Jacques E.C. Hymans for winning the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The award is administered by the University of Louisville’s Department of Political Science. Disclosure: I’m currently the Department chair and for 17 years I directed the award (1994-2011). There’s more on the local angle at the end of this post.

Hymans won the $100,000 prize for his 2012 book Achieving Nuclear Ambitions; Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation. Here’s a brief description from the Cambridge University Press webpage: Continue reading

Explaining Butter for Bombs Agreements

In 1963, JFK predicted that there would be as many 25 nuclear powers by the 1970s.  Yet here we are, some 70 years later, and the number of states believed to possess nuclear weapons has grown from 4 to 9.  Why haven’t more states joined the club?

A variety of factors are undoubtedly at work (see this piece by Gartzke and Joon for a good attempt at bring systematic evidence to bear on this question). In this post, I am going to discuss one in particular: what William Spaniel refers to as “butter-for-bombs” agreements, wherein one state makes concessions to another in attempt to dissuade them from proliferating.

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Why worry about an Iranian bomb?

With sanctions and talks – and a big stick in the background – the United States and its allies are trying to curtail Tehran’s nuclear programme. Australia is playing its part. Canberra recently blocked a shipment of industrial equipment to Iran. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, believes preventing a nuclear Iran is vital. Is he right?

Kenneth Waltz thinks not. The celebrated American political scientist says we should redefine the problem. The real difficulty in the Gulf is not Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he argues. It is the fact that one state in the area (Israel) has a nuclear monopoly. An Iranian bomb would be a good thing. It would create a healthy balance of power, and restore equilibrium to an anxious region. Far from being the crisis, Waltz sees an Iranian bomb as the solution.

At this stage, his argument is hypothetical. To the best of our knowledge, it is not clear that the Islamic Republic has decided to go beyond uranium enrichment and build a bomb. It is not clear that it will. Efforts to dissuade it through economic sanctions, threats of regime change or actual military action may work. Or they may be perverse, motivating Tehran to go for weaponisation.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa against the making and use of nuclear weapons in 2005. Yet if Iran changes its mind, it has a doctrine of flexibility that it used during the Iran-Iraq war to justify starting a chemical weapons programme, allowing the needs of the Islamic Republic in extremis to trump Islamic law.

But if Iran keeps enriching to weapons-grade level, what then?


Waltz builds his case on a reading of diplomatic history. This is where the mischief lies. Claiming that the emergence of two nuclear states stabilises regions, he points approvingly to the example of India and Pakistan.

In doing so, he steps lightly over the history of standoffs, confrontations and escalations between those adversaries, whose mutual fears are worsened by ongoing clashes in disputed territories and the ambiguous role of armed proxies.

In the wake of 9/11, a Pakistani army general warned India that his country could launch a rapid nuclear attack, telling Alastair Campbell to remind the Indians: ‘It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over.’ If this volatile frontier is a signpost of things to come in the Gulf, then the future is dark.

Waltz also builds his case on a rosy view of nuclear deterrence in the Cold War (1947-1989). For him, nukes have a constraining effect because of their own terrifying logic. Mutually Assured Destruction works. After all, the world has had multiple nuclear states in it since 1949, without a nuclear war.

But we have come close. In the Cold War, despite a deterrence system in a supposedly ‘stable’ bipolar contest, there were still a series of high-stakes ‘near misses’ where fear, misperception, false alarms or system errors nearly resulted in nuclear war. In 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged the Kennedy Administration to attack Cuba, not knowing that Soviet combat forces possessed nuclear-tipped missiles and were authorised to use them. A Soviet submarine commander believed the war had started, and had to be dissuaded by fellow officers not to fire a nuclear torpedo. It was bad enough with two adversaries familiar with each other. A world of more nuclear states makes it harder still. We have avoided Armaggeddon through luck, not just statecraft.

So we should be cautious about Waltz’s ahistorical faith in a stable deterrence system.

More deeply, we should not be narrowly obsessed with the issue of rationality and intentions. Waltz and others assure us that a nuclear Iran would be well behaved, that nukes have a constraining effect. Pessimists often claim the opposite. They fear that a nuclear Iran would be more dangerous than deterrable adversaries such as the Soviet Union, because the theocratic regime is mad and/or bad.

These fears are questionable. That the regime is homicidal does not necessarily make it suicidal. Its commitment to survival was clear during the Green uprisings of 2009. It barks aggressively, but its bite is underwhelming. Recall its hollow threat to block the Straits of Hormuz. It has sound defensive reasons to acquire a nuclear deterrent given its dangerous neighbourhood, encircled by enemy forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and now an Israeli airbase in Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, Israel could be forgiven for staying alert. Tehran has made death threats against it. It officially sponsored a holocaust denial conference. ‘Death to Israel’ is its populist catch cry. Do we expect a people that has been through genocide and wars of survival to dismiss such rhetoric as mere words? As a holocaust survivor once said, ‘if someone says they want to kill you, believe them.’ A nuclear Iran would frighten Tel Aviv, not to mention Riyadh and Cairo, however reasonable those fears would be. That in itself is dangerous.

The issue is not whether Iran or any state is mad or bad. The issue is that they are uncertain, insecure and lack full knowledge. The existential fears of Iran and Israel are strong. They have no strong dialogue in which to signal and communicate. All this is ripe for accident or error. It makes nuclear weapons a problem when they eyeball each other.

Even if Iran turned out to be a sober and responsible nuclear power, the danger would be considerable. A Gulf with two nuclear enemies in it could generate a witches’ brew of fear, suspicion, sabre rattling and a fresh arms race. That could take the region – and the world – to the brink.

Cross-posted at The Offshore Balancer

Kahl et al. on Iran and US Options

Colin Kahl sent me a list of recent work he’s done on the US-Iran standoff. The first is a CNAS report, Risk and Rivalry: Iran, Israel, and the Bomb (PDF). The abstract:

As Iran’s nuclear progress continues and negotiations fail to reach a breakthrough, the threat of an Israeli preventive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities grows. In Risk and Rivalry: Israel, Iran and the Bomb, authors Dr. Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine argue that despite the abhorrent threats by some Iranian leaders to “wipe Israel off the map,” the actual behavior of the Islamic Republic over the past three decades indicates that the regime is not suicidal and is sufficiently rational for nuclear deterrence. The report finds that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a much more dangerous adversary but that Iran is unlikely to deliberately use nuclear weapons, or transfer a nuclear device to terrorists to use, against Israel. The authors recommend that while preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons should remain an urgent priority, rushing into preventive war would risk making the threat worse and force should be seen as a last resort.

Jeffrey Goldberg has a good synopsis and there’s an article-length version in Foreign Policy.  The report and article provide good ammunition for those opposing military action but concerned about Iranian proliferation.

Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit

This week is the big nuclear security summit in Seoul, with something like 60 attending countries and over 40 heads of state or government. A friend from a Korean expat magazine here in town asked me for a brief write-up. Here are the issues as I see them from Korean IR and the local media. For full-blown think-tankery on the summit, try here.

1. Obama’s personal commitment to de-nuclearization: I can’t think of any president since Reagan who seems as personally offended by nuclear weapons as Obama. Back in the day, Reagan watched ‘The Day After,’ ‘Wargames’ and other nuclear war movies and came to dramatically oppose mutually assured destruction as it had underpinned US policy since flexible response. This helped Reagan achieve the first nuclear stockpile  reduction in history (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – a point anti-New Start neocons conveniently forget). But Obama is going beyond that, talking about ‘global zero’ – the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere. Wow. This is why there have been two of these summits in three years, but nothing like this under Bush. To be honest, I don’t think the complete elimination of the American nuclear deterrent is probably not a good idea (although we can go pretty low); nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of US sovereignty and democracy, and many US allies, like SK, rely on our extended deterrence. In any case, Obama’s personal interest in this issue is a major driver for this thing.

2. NK, always and again: It takes absolutely no imagination to realize that NK is, inevitably, the big focus on these sorts of gatherings. The placement of the summit in SK is to make that pretty clear. NK is easily the most dangerous nuclear-weapons state in the world. (Even Israel’s most dire opponents would probably accept that; well, ok, maybe they wouldn’t.)  Not only is its policy process incredibly opaque and its leadership capricious, NK has no declaratory policy on use (such as NATO’s ‘no first-strike, but reserved first-use’). So we have no idea what NK’s redlines are (which is probably one reason why no further retaliation for Yeonpyeong was approved). Beyond that, NK is a well-established proliferator with known involvement in the programs of Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. To boot, it is a delivery system (i.e., missile) proliferator too. They’re so desperate for cash, it seems like they’ll sell anything. With Kim Jong Il deceased, a new push to move NK toward denuclearization is likely, and this summit is part of the pressure to get NK back into the Six Party Talks to deal for real this time. Similarly, it is likely that the Summit will strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is also aimed primarily at NK. (On the problem of retaliation and the risk of out-of-control escalation in Korea after Yeonpyeong-style incidents, try here; on nuclear first-use in a Korean war scenario, try here.)

3. Heading off a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: To everyone’s relief, India and (less so) Pakistan are managing their nuclear stockpiles pretty well. There will be little pressure on South Asia. The US interest in nuclear materials safety within Pakistan probably won’t be mentioned publicly, because we so desperately need Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror. Instead, the geographic focus, after NK, is almost certain to be Iran, and possible cascading Sunni nuclearization (Saudi Arabia and Egypt particularly) if Iran weaponizes. As Obama noted at AIPAC, there is a lot of ‘loose talk’ floating around about war with Iran. So this summit will probably be yet another venue for the administration to blunt the Likud-neocon demand for airstrikes. If Obama can get some global commitment, particularly from Asian states like Japan and Korea, for sanctions against Iran, that buys him time to defuse the war he’s partially backed himself into.

4. Materials Security: In the early post-9/11 years, there was a lot of talk at the conferences about the so-called ‘hand-off’ – a rogue state would hand-off a nuke to a Qaeda-style group who would then use it in a western city. This threat thankfully seems to have been overblown, but there’s a lot of nuclear material floating around. About 2,000 tons to be precise. That’s actually pretty terrifying if even just one-third of that were in corrupt, semi-dysfunctional states like Russia, NK, and Pakistan. In fact, I gotta agree with Graham Allison that it’s fairly amazing there’s no been nuclear use since the Cold War’s end, given how much processed plutonium and uranium there is in weak Eurasian states and how big the black market for it is now. Inevitably, the conference will emphasize security at the source. It’s obviously far easier to prevent proliferation than to rein it in once material is out the door. This also means more funding and inspection capabilities (also informally pointed at NK) for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

5. Fukushima and Nuclear Power: This isn’t technically a weaponization issue but a production one. And under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, states have the right to pursue nuclear power for energy (weaponization is a different story). But clearly the catastrophe of last year hangs over all this. In East Asia, it’s gotten, lots of press as you might imagine. Ironically, nuclear power is fairly safe, but the public has taken an especial fear to it. (My guess is that this fear comes from too many scary images in movies and TV and because if nuclear plants do meltdown, the potential catastrophe is enormous and unusually unpredictable because of the fallout). So there will be long-term commitments to find alternative energy sources.

Bonus Silliness: Finally, it wouldn’t be a global conference of consequence in Korea without some cringe-inducing, gratuitously inappropriate K-pop addendum to trivialize it all. Really, who vets this stuff? ‘Enjoy’ that uber-cheese vid above if you can actually make it through to the end. I sure wish the ROKG would stop looking at these sorts of conferences as a marketing gimmick for Korea (don’t miss the daily countdown marker in the top left corner of all Arirang broadcasts now and the relentless advertising blitz) and stay focused on the weighty issues at hand. Just as CNN International blew its credibility by re-cycling Demi Moore (?), complete with drug problems, as a wholly unconvincing ‘anti-slavery campaigner,’ I can think of no better way to drain the gravity of nuclear disarmament than to pointlessly shoehorn in a Korean soap opera actress and boyband with orange hair. Good grief – who thought that would raise the level of discussion? Just a few more rads of gamma rays, boyo, and that hair really will be orange. God save us from Hallyu shallowness…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and Busan Haps.

Reading Schelling in Iran

The CFR public-relations office certainly thinks they’ve got a winner in the “attack Iran debate.” Here’s a video of the recent “live” debate between Colin and Matt on the subject.

Iran Attack: National Journal #Fail

UPDATE: Deazen has made significant corrections to the article. It still implies, I think, more than is warranted, but the egregious misrepresentations in his article are gone.

SECOND UPDATE: In case anybody thought that this was anything other than a National Journal fail, it it turns out that Matt himself was instrumental in getting Deazen to correct the story.

Yochi J. Deazen of the National Journal details a high-level fight in the Administration about whether or not to attack Iran. His evidence? The juxtaposition of Matt Kroenig’s and Colin Kahl’s pieces in Foreign Affairs

Now, however, competing essays by Matthew Kroenig and Colin Kahl, who just stepped down as the Pentagon’s top two Mideast policy officials, are offering an unusual look inside the White House deliberations about how far to go to stop Iran.


With American-Iranian tensions rising by the day, the essays in Foreign Affairs—one making the case for striking Iran and one making the case against—illustrate why the U.S. and its allies are having such a difficult time deciding how to respond to Iran’s ongoing progress toward building a nuclear bomb. The White House declined comment on the essays.

Kroenig, one of the protagonists in the debate, left the Pentagon last summer after serving as a special adviser on Iran policy to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The title of his essay, “Time to Attack Iran,” leaves no doubt about his thinking.

For reasons that I detailed in my earlier post, this is bull$h*t.

Matt was not a “special advisor to Robert Gates.” He describes himself as having been a “special adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.” He was engaged in advisory activities in International Security Affairs-Middle East, a division within OSD(P).


But Deazen’s description is ludicrous. As an IPA in ISA-ME, Matt was beneath (at least) a Director and a Principal Director, although I’m sure he had direct access to his DASD, Colin Kahl. Next in the chain of command was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDASD), followed by the Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) for ISA, then the Undersecretary…. you get the picture.


To be blunt, The piece still implies that Matt was an administration official and that he “stepped down” from his position. In reality, his one-year fellowship ran out.  [T]o the extent that their is a constituency favoring military action against Iran, Matt’s views are his own—they say nothing about the state of play in the Obama Administration.

Scholarship and Advocacy: Bomb Iran Edition (UPDATED)

My colleague, Matt Kroenig, has generated a ton of buzz (and not a little vitriol) for his Foreign Affairs piece in which he advocates imminent US military action against Iran. What’s probably less well known, however, is that Matt and Mike Weintraub, a graduate student at Georgetown, have a working paper in which, as they write:

We argue that nuclear superiority, by increasing the expected costs of conflict, improves a state’s ability to deter potential adversaries. We then show that states that enjoy nuclear superiority over their opponents are less likely to be the targets of militarized challenges. Arguments that contend that a minimum deterrent posture is sufficient to deter militarized challenges do not find support in the data.

As I’ve been discussing with Matt on Facebook, I see a real tension between these findings and claims that a nuclear Iran poses such a grave danger to US national interests that Washington must, as soon as possible, launch a military strike against Iranian facilities. After all, if Matt and Mike are correct then we should expect both that the massive asymmetric nuclear advantage enjoyed by the US will deter Iran, and that Iran’s possession of a few nukes will not greatly alter its behavior.

If I am right, then Matt joins a long line of international-relations academics whose policy advocacy doesn’t entirely cohere with their scholarship. For example, a significant number of offensive realists signed letters opposing the Iraq war, even though their theories suggest that states should, and will, maximize power in the international system.

Given all this, I’m curious what other Duck readers and writers think should be the relationship between academic scholarship and policy advocacy.

Do we have an obligation to be completely consistent across both domains, or do the real differences between our political and academic roles suggest otherwise? How much “policy weight” we should give to any particular academic finding? If we are skeptical of extrapolating too much from one or more pieces of international-relations scholarship, does it matter if that scholarship is our own and we are making the policy recommendations? Does the methodology of the work matter, e.g., if the piece involves a linear regression such that we expect individual cases to be outliers? And what is the comparative “truth value” of our policy advocacy?

UPDATE: Matt weighs in below on the substantive merits. Someone also pointed to a draft of Matt’s forthcoming piece, which I think reinforces the questions I raise, insofar as it is an example of an academic paper with policy recommendations. For example:

Given that the most likely conflict scenarios between these two states would occur in the Middle East, the balance of political stakes in future confrontations would tend to favor Tehran. The brinkmanship approach adopted in this paper concurs that proliferation in Iran would disadvantage the United States by forcing it to compete with Iran in risk taking, rather than in more traditional arenas. On the other hand, the findings of this paper also suggest that the United States could fare well in future nuclear crises. As long as the United States maintains nuclear superiority over Iran, a prospect that seems highly likely for years to come, Washington will frequently be able to achieve its basic goals in nuclear confrontations with Tehran.

As we all agree, Matt’s model points to increased risk. But do such conclusions really support the notion that the United States must strike immediately or face apocalyptic consequences?

Is Herman Cain Angling to Defeat LBJ?

At about 13.10 GOP poll-leader Herman Cain reveals the shocking news that the People’s Republic of China is seeking nuclear-weapons capability.

Watch Monday, October 31, 2011 on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Next interview: Cain discusses the threat posed by UK, French, and Russian nuclear proliferation. George Will swoons.

Explosive Pakistan

Is “people power” contagious? It’s easy to find examples of journalists, policymakers and/or analysts, and some scholars arguing that opposition to authoritarian rule is spreading like a winter virus from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen. In this case, many optimists argue (though some merely hope) that the viral idea will result in more democratic governance for millions of people that have long lived under autocratic rule. Moreover, many think (or hope) that the contagion will spread to other similar states with large Arab or Muslim populations.

However, the skeptics and pessimists have keyboards too. IR realists have already provided plenty of reasons for skepticism. For example, even during the so-called “third wave” of democratization some years ago, many states merely transitioned from authoritarian to semi-authoritarian rule.

The worriers are concerned about the fact that Egypt has long been the second largest recipient of American foreign aid. Indeed, many believe that the American government is quite cautious and fairly openly favors the status quo. Egypt has received substantial aid in large part because of its continued support for the Jimmy Carter-brokered Camp David peace agreement; thus, many friends of Israel are more than a little concerned about the current situation.

In any case, I have been thinking about the prospects for internal upheaval spreading to Pakistan — ground zero in the current war and a nuclear-armed state with a history of conflict with its neighbors. Vice President Joe Biden, who like me sometimes worries about the relationship between Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and its internal stability, largely dismisses the prospects of contagion effects. However, he acknowledged to PBS interviewer Jim Lehrer on January 27 that “there’s a lot going on across that part of the continent, from Tunisia into — all the way to Pakistan, actually.” Lehrer explicitly asked Biden to compare the situation in Tunisia and Egypt to events in Eastern Europe more than 20 years ago.


Biden was not biting:

…the difference between Tunisia and Egypt is real, beyond the fact that Egypt’s the largest Arab country in the world.

So, I don’t see any direct relationship…But I don’t — I think it’s a stretch at this point. But I could be proven wrong. But I think it’s a stretch to compare it to Eastern Europe.

However, in a weekend Press TV news report (from Iran) about the continued unpopularity of American drone attacks, a man identified by name as a human rights activist openly declares (in English): “There will be an uprising in Pakistan. After Tunis example, after Yemen…I think so, now it is our turn. Now is Pakistanis turn.” See about 1 minute into this report, which differs somewhat from the one linked above that is currently on Press TV’s website:

Obviously, any mass uprising in Pakistan would be important for a large number of reasons, but today’s Washington Post centers on one key concern — Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal:

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal now totals more than 100 deployed weapons, a doubling of its stockpile over the past several years in one of the world’s most unstable regions, according to estimates by nongovernment analysts.

As the article notes, U.S. policymakers frequently “voice confidence in its [Pakistan’s] strong internal safeguards, with warheads kept separate from delivery vehicles.”

Perhaps these policymakers are simply whistling past the graveyard as a number of Wikileaks documents highlight genuine US and British concern about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. As the BBC reported in December:

senior UK Foreign Office official Mariot Leslie told US diplomats in September 2009 that Britain had “deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”.

In another cable seven months earlier, then-US ambassador Anne Patterson told Washington: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in the government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”

Potentially, that smuggling task would be easier in a context of internal disorder. Imagine if the state security apparatus is distracted by mass upheaval.

The 22 September 2009 cable quoting Leslie was written in London by Ellen Tauscher, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. It is available at the Wikileaks collection on The Guardian website and is quite intriguing for another reason. It suggests that Pakistan is fearful of an entirely new form of American counterproliferation:

The UK has deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and Pakistan has accepted nuclear safety help, but under the IAEA flag (albeit British technicians). The Pakistanis worry that the U.S. “will drop in and take their nukes,” Leslie said.

Could the U.S. really “drop in and take” Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?

Granted, it seems foolhardy to speculate about second and third-order consequences of internal upheaval in Pakistan. The drone attacks in Pakistan have long been unpopular, but it is possible that Biden is correct and that neither Washington nor Islamabad have anything to fear from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Perhaps readers should take solace in the words of Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK Wajid Shamsul Hasan, who told the BBC in December that his government “had a very successful, foolproof control and command system looking after the nuclear arsenal.”

Maybe we should keep on whistling.

DPRK’s attention-deficit disorder (updated)

Pyongyang’s “pay attention to me! right! now!” routines seem calculated to convince the United States, South Korea, and Japan of one thing: that military force is the only effective long-term solution to North Korean intransigence. Which means, naturally enough, that Pyongyang’s recent rounds of “WTF” are most likely driven entirely by domestic DPRK politics.

World history is flush with with examples of more prosperous states repeatedly buying off uncouth and belligerent barbarians. But one has to wonder how far Pyongyang can push the South Koreans. Will there come a point when Seoul decides to risk war rather than see the DPRK’s retrograde regime become even more awash in “Sampson Option” capabilities? I assume that the South Korean policy toward North Korea is rooted in a belief that, if Seoul waits long enough, the regime will implode. But what if that calculation changes?

What makes this interesting (and dangerous), is that ROK forces–even without U.S. help–are more than a match for anything that the North Koreans can field. This means that the South Korean leadership has any number of plausible military options; if the South Koreans begin to significantly alter their assessment of current trends, these military options will likely appear increasingly attractive.

Still, none of this suggests an alteration in the basic factors that restrain Seoul:

  • Before they collapse, North Korean forces will kill a lot of South Koreans and do a lot of damage to South Korea’s economy;
  • The United States has no appetite for taking part in an additional large-scale military conflict;
  • Uncertainty surrounding Beijing’s likely actions in the event of a conflict; and
  • The significant challenges that would come from assuming control of North Korean territory if the conflict leads to ROK victory in a full-blown war. 

These four factors–two of which aren’t particularly manipulable–make significant escalation unlikely. But with the developments of the last two days, I’m less sanguine than I was even after the sinking of the Cheonan–especially about the long-term prospects for a peaceful Korean peninsula.

UPDATE: that there’s some serious brinksmanship.

South Korea warned today that it will unleash “enormous retaliation” if North Korea launches fresh attacks against its territory.

North Korean troops bombarded Yeonpyeong, an island in disputed waters, with dozens of rounds of artillery earlier today, reportedly killing two South Korean soldiers and injuring around 20 people.

Seoul placed its military on its highest non-wartime alert level, scrambling F-16 fighter jets to the western sea and returning fire, officials said. It warned that the attack was a violation of the armistice that ended the Korean war in 1953.

The South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, who convened an emergency security meeting shortly after the initial bombardment, said an “indiscriminate attack on civilians” could never be tolerated.

“Enormous retaliation should be made, to the extent that [North Korea] cannot make provocations again,” he said.

While war remains unlikely, audience-cost dynamics can combine with political miscalculations in unexpected, and unpleasant, ways.

The Osirak Myth (again)

I failed to comment on Jeffrey Goldberg’s September 2010 Atlantic Monthly piece about US or Israeli responses to Iran’s apparent nuclear weapons program. Goldberg has the threat meter set to nearly 10 as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly said this summer that Iran is one to three years away from building a nuclear weapon (p. 60).

A lot has been said and written about this piece, but this claim has not received enough attention (p. 58):

Israel has twice before successfully attacked and destroyed an enemy’s nuclear program. In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting—forever, as it turned out—Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions; and in 2007, Israeli planes destroyed a North Korean–built reactor in Syria. An attack on Iran, then, would be unprecedented only in scope and complexity.

Dan Reiter of Emory, however, has published some work that directly challenges the claim that the Osirak bombing was a success.

Some years ago, Dan and I worked together with a group of scholars to look at the preventive use of force. In October 2004, Pittsburgh’s Ridgway Center issued Policy Brief 04-2, “The Osiraq Myth and the Track Record of Preventive Military Attacks.”

This is the summary:

The 1981 Israeli aerial striike on Iraqi nuclear facilities at Osiraq is frequently cited as a successful use of preventive military force, and may be used to justify similar attacks in the future. However, closer examination of the Osiraq attack reveals that it did not substantially delay the Iraqi nuclear program, and may have even hastened it. Attempts to replicate the “success” at Osiraq are likely to do even worse, as proliferating states are now routinely dispersing and concealing their nuclear, biological, and chemical programs to decrease their vulnerability to air strikes. Given the poor track record of preventive attacks in controlling the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, American interests will be best served in the future by embracing other tools of counterproliferation.

The brief includes some discussion of the fairly dismal record of preventive attacks. Such strikes, Reiter concludes, “generally fail.”

Later, Dan published a longer report on this topic for the Army War College, as well as the chapter in the book the research group produced together. The book’s Major Findings Summary Sheet concluded: “The 1981 Israeli attack on the Osiraq nuclear reactor, for example, drove the program underground, accelerating Iraq’s drive to develop nuclear weapons.” The book editors published an op-ed on “The Osirak Illusion” as well.

Another Iran data point

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden (who served George W. Bush) said something fairly provocative on CNN in late July — but Fox News trumpeted the story:

Michael Hayden, a CIA chief under President George W. Bush, said that during his tenure “a strike was way down the list of options.” But he tells CNN’s State of the Union that such action now “seems inexorable.”

During the cold war competition with the Soviet Union, Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, was famously quoted as saying, “when we build they build; when we stop, they build.” (It was apparently a paraphrase.)

Conclusion? Nothing worked to stop inexorable Soviet advances in the arms race.

Hayden said much the same about Iran:

“We vote for sanctions. They continue to move forward. We try to deter, to dissuade. They continue to move forward,” he added.

By the way, August 26th will mark the 8th anniversary of Dick Cheney’s speech about Iraq to the VFW. In that address, he kicked off the campaign for war, declaring

The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents. And they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago….Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.

Let’s see if September signals louder war drums.

Hypocrisy watch

Before departing on vacation, Stephen Walt posted about a rift between South Korea and the United States concerning spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. The U.S. is opposed, primarily because plutonium is a byproduct, while South Korea wants to reprocess waste so as to reduce the volume of nuclear refuse from its large-scale atomic energy program.

To reduce proliferation fears inherently tied to plutonium production, South Korean policy in this area reflects a pledge (and as Walt notes, implicit threat), that “We will never build nuclear weapons as long as the United States keeps its alliance with us.”

After making other interesting points about the dispute, Walt makes an argument that I have often discussed in the past. The U.S. view on nonproliferation is laden with hypocricy:

it’s hard not to be struck by the basic hypocrisy of the U.S. position, which it shares with other existing nuclear powers. Washington has no intention of giving up its own nuclear weapons stockpile or its access to all forms of nuclear technology. The recent New START treaty notwithstanding, U.S. government still believes it needs thousands of nuclear weapons deployed or in reserve, even though the United States has the most powerful conventional military forces on the planet, has no great powers nearby, and faces zero-risk of a hostile invasion. Yet we don’t think a close ally like South Korea should be allowed to reprocess spent fuel, take any other measures that might under some circumstances move them closer to a nuclear capability of their own.

Walt and I agree about what counts as hypocrisy, what about the implications for foreign policy? Walt:

In my view, there’s nothing reprehensible or even surprising about this situation; it merely reminds us that no two states have the same interests and that hypocritical (or more politely, ‘inconsistent’) behavior is common-place in international politics.

Criticial theorists like me are a lot lest sanguine about the meaning of hypocrisy. In fact, critical theorists see it as a basic function of their scholarship to reveal hypocritical policies and arguments in order to foment emancipatory political change. If the illogic undergirding inconsistent positions is revealed and thus undermined, replacement policies and arguments are more likely to reflect something like well-reasoned consensus. At least that’s a central purpose of immanent critique.

As I’ve argued previously, many contemporary neorealists like Walt seem also to prefer a world with less hypocrisy. The short blog post about the U.S.-South Korea dispute is no exception:

But the U.S. ability to persuade others not to flirt with their own nuclear capabilities might be a lot stronger if we didn’t place so much value on them ourselves.

Read differently: if the U.S. was less hypocritical, its policies would be more effective.

Some NPT Reading… if you’re out of summer novels.

International Affairs – the (increasingly policy oriented) official journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (aka Chatham House) has published a “virtual” issue of articles on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) dating back to 1968 and going up to the present. It includes one by Hedley Bull published in 1975 which (although very much dated) highlights the dilemmas of nuclear diplomacy during the period of detente and when India shocked the world by conducting a nuclear explosion in 1974 and China re-emerged as a major player on the world stage.

Not exactly beach-y kind of summer reading, but an interesting collection nevertheless – and possibly of use to some readers.

Nuclear Myanmar

A recent credible report by the Democratic Voice of Burma that North Korea may have assisted Myanmar’s junta to acquire nuclear weapons technology has raised concerns at the international and regional levels.

Myanmar is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it is technically exempt from IAEA inspections. If it is in fact pursuing a nuclear weapons program aided by North Korea, it would represent one more nail in the coffin of the non-proliferation regime.

The US response has been limited so far, most likely due to the fact there are potentially more pressing violations of the NPT in the Persian Gulf. However, Senator Jim Webb, the chair of the Foreign Relations panel on East Asia, cancelled his scheduled trip to Myanmar last week. The US approach to this development will most likely continue the establishment pattern of seeking to isolate and impose sanctions rather than engaging in a dialog with this repressive regime.

From a regional strategic perspective, a nuclear armed Myanmar would be a serious concern for India. The prospect that India would be surrounded by an axis of three nuclear powers is a major challenge to India’s ambition of transcending its regional shackles.

If Myanmar is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, it is most likely intended to deter America rather than India.  (The project may also be intended to ensure the domestic longevity of the regime.) India and Myanmar are not enemies. While Indian influence in Burma pales relative to China, India has been engaging with the regime for years and it has achieved a measure of cooperation in building a “land bridge” from Imphal to Mandalay which is designed to facilitate trade and help India police its troubled Northeast region (currently the road only extends to Kalewa, which is still 482km from Mandalay).  Nevertheless, India will have to look at capabilities rather than just intentions.

Similarly, Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, several of which are closely tied to the US, might also feel threatened by a nuclear armed Myanmar. The issue has already created a stir in ASEAN circles.  At the Shangri-la Dialog last week, Myanmar denied to the Singaporeans that it was pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

In any case, if the allegations are true, Myanmar is clearly in the very early stages of its program and it does not have sufficient delivery mechanisms even if they were to develop a nuclear weapon in the future. Experts also doubt that Burma has the economic resources and scientific resources to sustain this program.

Of course, one is reminded of similar arguments about Pakistan’s technical and economic ability to acquire a nuclear weapon, but as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s prophetically quipped, “… we will eat grass or leaves, or go hungry, but we will get one [nuclear bomb] of our own.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way…

Relieved? Why HEU should still worry.

Even if the new sanctions against Iran prove effective at stopping an Iranian bomb, security analysts will not be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Eben Harrell in Time, April 8, 2010, explained the global distribution of highly enriched uranium:

All told, over several decades, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council distributed some 44,000 lbs. (20,000 kg) of HEU — enough for 800 nuclear weapons — to around 50 countries as diverse as Australia, Jamaica and Vietnam. Although that figure is a drop in the bucket compared with the estimated 4.4 million lbs. (2 million kg) of HEU in weapons and storage in the U.S. and Russia, the Atoms for Peace HEU is of particular concern because it is used in civilian reactors that are often poorly guarded and vulnerable to theft. As William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at California’s Monterey Institute of International Studies, points out, “If you are a terrorist, you don’t necessarily go where there is the most material. You go where the material is most accessible.”

The story quotes Graham Allison hyping the threat and John Mueller downplaying it.

Today, reading this piece, I’m leaning toward Allison’s view over Mueller’s (who nonetheless supports reducing HEU stockpiles around the world). Unfortunately, the National Nuclear Safety Administration, a US government agency, has met some difficulties in achieving its task of reducing HEU globally:

So far, the NNSA has removed a total of 5,935 lbs. (2,692 kg) of fissile material from 37 countries and has its sights on 4,190 lbs. (1,900 kg) more….But many countries see HEU-fueled research reactors as symbols of prestige and don’t necessarily share U.S. and Russian concern that fissile material may fall into terrorist hands. Canada and South Africa, which both have large stockpiles of HEU, argue they need it to make medical isotopes profitably. Politics comes into play too: poor relations between Ukraine and Russia have hampered efforts to move Ukraine’s large stocks of HEU to Russian facilities.

Anecdotal evidence suggests those states should be worried:

[I]n November 2007… two teams of armed attackers stormed Pelindaba, a supposedly secure facility that houses hundreds of kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in South Africa. The attackers gained access to the facility’s control room and shot an emergency-services officer in the chest. They fled without making any effort to steal the nuclear material, and the reason for the break-in and the attackers’ identity remain a mystery.

So, don’t break out the champagne just yet.

Iran’s setbacks: Buying time?

According to Gary Samore, Iran’s nuclear enrichment program has had some important recent setbacks. The AP, last week:

Setbacks in Iran’s uranium enrichment program have significantly delayed its progress toward building a nuclear weapon, President Barack Obama’s top nuclear adviser said Tuesday.

…On Iran’s enrichment program, Samore said that Tehran had been set back by problems with its centrifuges and by disclosure of an enrichment plant near Qom that the United States alleges was part of a secret nuclear program.

Samore said that because of the setbacks, “the nuclear clock is not ticking as quickly as some had feared.”

Samore’s lengthy title is “Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism.” So he should know, right?

Samore seems to be saying that this threat is not yet technologically imminent. The statement is not quite as precise as the 2005 NIE, which reportedly said that Iran’s nuclear bomb was at least a decade away, but it’s still good news.

The comments seem to be directed at Iran hawks, of course, and also at the policy wonks who have recently been upset by Iran developments. For example, in a February blog post, my go-to source for proliferation information Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, emphasized the very bad news in Iran’s just-announced plans to enrich uranium to 20%.

If Iran enriches a significant amount of U235 to 20 percent — and that’s a stated goal right now, not yet an actual achievement — then Iran would be able to “top off” the enrichment [at] a small, clandestine facility like the one revealed near Qom.

In a comment to the Lewis post, Yale Simkin simplified the problem for those of us without a lot of nuclear physics:

Imagine a bowl with 1,000 ping-pong balls in it. 993 of the balls are green. 7 of the balls are red. The balls are at “0.7% Red Enrichment.”

Now imagine reaching in the bowl and pulling out unwanted green balls. You are doing “separative work”. You will be leaving the red balls in the bowl.

Remove 840 green balls, a long and tedious job. Now you have 153 green balls and 7 red balls.

You are now at “4.4% Red Enrichment”

Last step. This time remove only 152 green balls.

This leaves 7 red balls and 1 green ball or an “88% Red Enrichment.”

So note: It took EIGHT-FIVE percent of the work to go from 0.7% to 4.4%!

That is why “Peaceful” enrichment is a fraud…

What other wonks have been worried about Iran policy?

Back in February, the Leveretts argued that the Obama administration was dithering recklessly in the ongoing negotiations:

…the Obama Administration and its European partners have effectively rejected these Iranian positions—precisely because accepting them would mean that the Obama Administration would not have a year or more to sort through what it is prepared to do regarding the prospective substance of U.S.-Iranian engagement. Instead, the Administration would have to make strategic choices and develop real positions on important issues much sooner than it had contemplated. And, rather than do that, the Obama Administration is moving to embrace the same counterproductive and feckless policies aimed at isolating and pressing Tehran that the George W. Bush Administration employed.

I too have expressed fears that the Obama policy looks too much like the Bush Doctrine in the right light.

Sixteen months into this administration, the U.S. should clearly work “faster, please” to achieve results in the Iran negotiations. Election-year promises about bargaining without preconditions are beginning to fade from memory even as blustering threats are occasionally made public. The so-called “Zombie fuel swap” proposal may not be a sufficient solution.

In any event, this latest news is perhaps a sign that the world has more time to work out a reasonable compromise.

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