Looking Beyond New START to the Future of U.S.-Russian Arms Control Treaties

On October 1,, 2015 the U.S Department of State’s Bureau for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance released its count of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons covered under the New START treaty. For the first time since the treaty entered into force on February 5, 2011, the United States has dropped below the imposed limit on deployed strategic warheads.

Humanitarian Conference: Nukes and Humanity are Incompatible

The Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons took place in Vienna last week, and generated momentum towards the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament.  The two day conference concluded with an expected “Chair’s Summary,” reflecting the main findings of the conference: nuclear weapons and humanity are incompatible, and an unexpected “Austria Pledge”, in which Austria acknowledged the inherent risk nuclear weapons pose to humanity and vowed  to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and “cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.” In addition, Austria called on all members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to renew their commitment to meeting the disarmament pledge and take concrete steps towards reducing the risk of nuclear detonations.  

The conference was attended by 158 countries, including four nuclear-armed states (United Kingdom, United States, India and Pakistan), alongside delegates from the United Nations, the Red Cross, and a wide array of civil society organizations dedicated to reducing the global threat posed by nuclear weapons. This was a continued improvement from humanitarian conferences of the past; the United States and United Kingdom both sent official delegations for the first time and even China sent an observing party.

While lacking in tangible policy agreements, the conference demonstrated a growing consensus around the danger that nuclear weapons pose on humanity. Survivors of nuclear attacks and tests, the Pope, diplomatic leaders, alongside various academics and celebrities all spoke out against the dangerous reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence and stability. The crowd was particularly captivated by the remarks of Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima explosion, whose testimony highlighted the indiscriminate and widespread nature of an atomic detonation. This testimony supported the presentations by scientists and members of civil society, who agreed a nuclear detonation would have catastrophic, long-lasting effects on human existence while providing little opportunity for humanitarian organizations to mitigate the suffer.

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and its sister organization, Council for a Livable World, signed a letter with its partners urging the United States to attend the conference. Angela Canterbury, executive director of both organizations, emphasized the importance of including the humanitarian perspective in nuclear weapons discussions: “The nuclear weapons employed today are magnitudes more powerful than their World War II predecessors and their devastating effects cannot be contained by state boundaries, presenting risks on the regional and global scale. It is the United States’ responsibility to champion smart policy that deemphasizes the role of these catastrophic weapons in national security.

Many non-nuclear weapons states, who are frustrated with the stagnation of reduction efforts by nuclear-armed states, hope to use this conference’s momentum to renew calls for nuclear reductions and disarmament. Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, was an attendee of the Vienna Conference. Reif commented that the conference was not just a “flash in the pan”: ““The frustration among many non-nuclear weapons states with the pace of progress on nuclear disarmament is palpable. The humanitarian consequences discussion has brought in voices and representatives that haven’t typically been part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review process and figures to be a major issue at the 2015 NPT Review Conference.” With the NPT Review Conference approaching in the spring 2015, we are likely to see a resurgence of calls to ban nuclear weapons, especially if the proposed efforts outlined by the Austria Pledge yield legal frameworks for pursuing those ambitions.  

Only time will tell if the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons will maintain its momentum gained during the Vienna Conference. Though with 44 states, the Pope, and scientists and celebrities from around the globe calling for a prohibition on nuclear weapons, their voices are growing stronger.

Greg Terryn is a Scoville Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

Rose Gottemoeller Announces New Disarmament Verification Initiative

In a speech at the Prague Agenda 2014 Conference yesterday, Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller announced a new “International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification” initiative. The project will be a collaborative multi-national effort spearheaded by the U.S. government and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). According to Gottemoeller, the initiative will bring together “both nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapons states to better understand the technical problems of verifying nuclear disarmament, and to develop solutions.”

The project will build on the Innovating Verification: New Tools & New Actors to Reduce Nuclear Risk report series published in July 2014 by NTI, which outlines a framework for their Verification Pilot Project. NTI, founded by Ted Turner and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, is a collaborative private-public sector partnership that aims to reduce the global threat of weapons of mass destruction.

This announcement comes just days before the United States is scheduled to attend the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, December 8-9.

The State Department’s decision to attend this year is significant considering the U.S. declined to attend the last two conferences in March 2013 and February 2014. This new initiative, as well as the decision to attend next week’s conference in Vienna, demonstrates Obama’s continued commitment to nuclear safety and disarmament; however, it does not suggest a change in U.S. nuclear policy.

“We are participating [in the conference] to reinforce the messages I have put forth here – that the practical path we have followed so successfully in the past remains the only realistic route to our shared goal of a nuclear weapons- free world. We cannot and will not support efforts to move to an amorphous nuclear weapons convention or the false hope of fixed timeline for the elimination of all nuclear weapons,” said Gottemoeller.

Throughout her speech, Gottemoeller reinforced the United States’ commitment to a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal that is not mutually exclusive with U.S. disarmament goals.

Five years ago, during his historic 2009 Prague speech on nuclear weapons, President Obama said:

“Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. (Applause.) And as nuclear power — as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.”

Obama has made strides towards this commitment to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism since he stepped into the White House. Since his 2009 speech, “over 3 metric tons of vulnerable HEU and plutonium material have been removed or disposed of, and 11 countries have removed all HEU from their territory,” and the P5+1 are on the brink of a historic deal with Iran on their nuclear program.

But the President has more to do in order to ensure he leaves an impressive legacy on increasing nuclear security and reducing the role of these weapons in our national security strategy.

Chemical Weapons Removed from Syria: But to Where?

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced today that the final consignment of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile has been removed. Operating under the oversight of the OPCW and the UN, the removal process involved over 30 countries and the European Union.

IAEA reports on continued progress in Iran

A new report from the IAEA, the latest in a series of monthly reports on Iran’s progress under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), confirms that Iran has continued to comply with its obligations under the agreement. In addition, Iran has completed six initial practical measures agreed to with the IAEA in November 2013, along with seven additional measures agreed to in February 2014.

The Saga in Syria Might Not Be Over Yet

To date, about 86.5% of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stocks have been surrendered. Current projections keep the program on track to meet the April 30th deadline to remove all chemical weapons from Syrian territory. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has hailed recent shipments of chemical weapons, but has stressed the need for continued and accelerated removal of the declared stockpile.

Despite good news on the deadline front, recent allegations of further chemical weapons use inside Syria have raised questions as to whether Syrian President Assad is truly committed to ending his use of chemical weapons. Recent reports have claimed the Assad regime has targeted rebels with chlorine gas, a toxic poison not covered by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) given its numerous commercial and industrial usages, including pool chlorination. While possessing chlorine gas may not be a violation of the CWC, using the gas as a weapon is a violation of the spirit of the CWC, which defines a toxic chemical as: “Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, one U.S. official, has hinted that undeclared weapons might remain in the hands of the Assad regime, while Russia and Assad suggest that rebel “extremists” are responsible for the chemical weapons use.  Another equally disconcerting possibility is that the regime used declared materials that had not yet been shipped.

UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2118, adopted on September 27, 2013, calls for “the expeditious destruction of the Syrian Arab Republic’s chemical weapons program,” but even before these most recent allegations came to light, a U.S. official had suggested that Syria may possess undeclared chemical weapons. Given the continued chaos, it is hard to say with certainty whether the Assad regime or rebel groups are responsible for the alleged chemical weapons usage, but the fact that chemical weapons may have  been used again in Syria is cause for concern.  The nature of the problem lies in who used the chemical weapons. If the regime used declared chemicals, Assad has clearly flouted Resolution 2118 and the numbers used to confirm total export of the program may not match the initial OPCW declaration. If, as the regime charges, rebel groups used chemical weapons, this would mean that Syrian chemical weapons are not properly secured or rebel groups have procured or produced chemical weapons. Either way, the Syrian civil war is getting worse.

Resolution 2118 is clear that Syria’s complete chemical weapons stockpile must be surrendered and destroyed—chemicals that should have already been declared are no exception. The OPCW Executive Council Decision on the Syrian chemical weapons program, which is included as an annex in Resolution 2118, calls for the “elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment” in Syria. It is difficult to come away with a looser interpretation.

If the Assad regime is attempting to maintain a chemical weapons stockpile or stockpile of munitions, it would be in violation of Resolution 2118, the OPCW Decision, and their stated commitments “not use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons”. In response the United States and the European Union could lead the charge for further sanctions against the Assad regime, potentially increase assistance to rebel group, and/or even re-debate the use of force against Syria. Indeed, if the Assad regime is not in compliance with the Resolution, the United States may well attempt to circumvent Russian shielding of Assad under Chapter VII of the United Nations charter as stated by UNSC Resolution 2118.

The deadline for the removal of chemical weapons from Syria is the end of April, a date shifted from the initial early February goal. While various OPCW and US officials have expressed hope that Syria will meet this revised deadline, the presence or use of any undeclared stocks, including the use of chlorine gas, could further set back the process. Resolution 2118 is unambiguous. As a first step, any suspected chemical weapons use in Syria must be thoroughly investigated.

Disclaimer: This situation in Syria is rapidly evolving. This post reflects the most accurate public data available as of 1PM EST on April 22, 2014. Please check back for future updates on this matter.

Revisiting the Syrian Saga: The End is (Still) Nigh

Author’s note: Significant departures or shifts in timeline are bolded.

A revised plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons has been announced, though technical details remain to be negotiated with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The physical plan remains largely unchanged, but the original deadlines have been shifted back. The original plan called for most of Syria’s chemical weapons to be removed by the end of 2013 and the remainder to be removed by early February 2014.  Destruction of all materials was slated for June. This revision gives Syria until April to surrender their chemical stockpiles while maintaining the end-of-June deadline for their destruction.

The revised plan, like the original plan, will advance in four stages and will involve cooperation from at least six different countries: Denmark, Italy, Norway, Russia, Syria and the United States. Russian involvement does not seem to have been jeopardized by the crisis in Ukraine.

In the first stage, approximately five hundred metric tons of mustard gas and binary components for sarin nerve agent will be transported from storage facilities overland to the Port of Latakia on the northern part of Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Russia has offered assistance to Syria in completing this stage of the process. The new plan calls for this removal step to be completed by the end of April.

Ahmet Uzumcu, the Executive Director of the OPCW, correctly predicted that the security situation in Syria would cause delays, compounding the difficulties presented by Syria’s stonewalling. The new plan assumes the chemical weapons can be destroyed by the end of June as originally planned so long as they are removed by late April. To date, Syria has surrendered 29% of its chemical weapons material, and that figure will rise to 35% by March 9th. This includes 23% of Syria’s Priority 1 chemicals and 63% of its Priority 2 chemicals.

Second, the chemical weapons will be placed on vessels provided by Denmark and Norway and joined by a Russian naval escort. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, “We will be ready to provide Russian navy ships to escort those vessels with toxic agents in order to provide the safety of this operation.”

These deliveries slowed during February after Syria missed its initial deadlines, but the new plan calls for accelerated deliveries throughout March and into April.

Third, the Danish and Norwegian vessels will transport the chemicals to the Italian cargo port of Gioia Tauro. The Italian Foreign Ministry has stressed that the weapons would not touch Italian soil, though locals remain wary of the incoming chemical weapons shipments. The weapons will then be loaded onto a Japanese-built roll-on/roll-off vessel that is part of the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, the Cape Ray.  The vessel is being leased by the Navy’s Military Sea Lift Command.

Finally, The Cape Ray, which is currently anchored in Spain and awaiting deployment, will enter international waters and neutralize Syria’s arsenal using low-temperature hydrolysis. The ship has been equipped with the U.S. Army’s Field Deployable Hydrolysis System. After destroying the chemical weapons at sea, crews will store the byproducts until they can dispose of them at commercial ports which are being independently contracted by [private firms https:/www.opcw.org/news/article/opcw-receives-tenders-from-14-private-firms-to-destroy-syrian-commodity-chemicals-and-effluents] with the OPCW.

Fundamentally, the core elements of the original plan remain in place. Initially, the end-of-June deadline for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons was to be met by removing the entirety of the stockpile by February 6. Having missed that deadline, the new plan sets the end of April as the deadline for the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. Ten of the twelve chemical weapons storage sites are to be cleared by April 13th, and chemical weapons will be removed from the final two sites by April 30th. The United States will require at least 90 days to destroy the 500 metric tons of Syria’s most potent chemical weapons. Given the April 30 surrender deadline, it may be impossible to destroy all of them by late June. Yet, Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch diplomat leading the international effort, affirmed on March 4 that the June deadline remains attainable.

Syria’s delays in giving up its chemical weapons underscore the extent to which the OPCW is dependent on Syrian cooperation. Announcing the new plan, Uzumcu stated that, “The Syrian government has reaffirmed its commitment to implement the removal operations in a timely manner.” In order to secure the Syrian regime’s compliance, however, the United States and the other powers involved in this mission, especially Russia, must continue to press for prompt Syrian compliance with its obligations. The OPCW cannot go it alone.

A new kind of IAEA report (The kind with good news)

Over the past few years, reading the IAEA’s regular reports on Iran has become a bit tedious – much like a game of “Where’s Waldo,” searching for the small bits and pieces that have changed, for better or worse. But with the implementation of the November Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) and separate agreements with the IAEA, the game has changed. My eyes almost don’t know how to read an IAEA report with so much good news.

Rather than list the same ongoing concerns and nuclear progress that was almost always for worse, the IAEA’s latest report shows that Iran is complying with the restrictions required by the November first step deal. For the first time in four years, the size of Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium has gone down. As required by the JPOA, the IAEA has confirmed that Iran is not enriching uranium above 5 percent at any of its declared facilities; is not operating any of its cascades in an interconnected configuration; is continuing to dilute and convert its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (and currently has no process line to revert that converted fuel back into 20 percent); and has not conducted “any further advances” at its enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow or its heavy water reactor at Arak. This includes the installation of any additional IR-1 or IR-2 centrifuges.

Since the IAEA’s previous report in November, Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium has grown by 37.4 kg, to 447.8 kg. Of this, 160.6 kg remain in the form of uranium enriched up to 20 percent. This is 35.4 kg less than the IAEA’s previous report. Additionally, Iran has reconfigured its centrifuges at Fordow to produce only uranium enriched to 3.5 percent as opposed to 20 percent.

On January 20, pursuant to the implementation of the JPOA, Iran ceased its production of 20 percent enriched uranium and began downblending some of what it had produced into uranium enriched to no more than 5%. The remainder is being converted into uranium oxide.

In addition, the IAEA has installed additional containment and surveillance measures at Iran’s nuclear facilities to confirm compliance with the JPOA, and has been granted daily access to Natanz and Fordow. The IAEA was also able to visit Iran’s centrifuge assembly workshops, rotor production facilities, and centrifuge storage facilities.

Despite this progress, however, the IAEA report documented plenty of areas of continuing concern and is yet another reminder that there is still much diplomatic work to be done to lengthen breakout timelines, shorten our ability to detect breakout, and ensure Iran is not pursuing a secret path to the bomb.  

For example, the report documents the IAEA’s outstanding questions regarding the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program including its request for access to Parchin.  The details of Iran’s past weapon’s related work will be one of the top topics of discussion between the P5+1 and Iran in discussions that began in Vienna this week on a final deal. A good omen for progress on this front came as part of an agreement earlier this month between the IAEA and Iran, in which Iran agreed to provide information on its need for the development of Exploding Bridge Wire detonators.

Also of some concern is Iran’s intention to begin testing a new centrifuge, the IR-8, at Natanz, and its intention to build a new light water reactor that would be fueled by 20 percent enriched uranium. While these issues are of some concern, any construction is likely many years off and continued research and development on centrifuges is allowed under the JPOA. Iran’s future centrifuge and reactor plans are still unclear, and neither poses a threat at this time. These are issues that will be dealt with as part of a final deal.

Although Iran still has a long way to go to prove that is program is exclusively peaceful, and a final deal is still an uncertain prospect, as someone who’s gotten used to such a dearth of good news on Iran, especially from the IAEA, this latest report is a refreshing break. A final deal with the P5+1 will address the additional concerns on the table and ensure that Iran is put farther away from a nuclear weapon than at any time since it began enrichment, so it’s good to see implementation of the JPOA going smoothly, bringing us one step closer to that final deal.

The “Dismantlement” SNAFU

Last week, in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in Davos, Switzerland, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that Iran will not destroy any of its approximately 19,000 centrifuges, roughly 10,000 of which are currently being used to enrich uranium.