Hans Blix on Iran
In remarks at the Arms Control Association annual luncheon in DC on January 25, 2006, Hans Blix indicated that IAEA Board referral of the Iran situation to the Security Council may not be the most productive course. He also said that, regardless of the forum, what is needed is a better offer to Iran to induce it to drop its uranium enrichment program. Lacking so far, he stressed, has been security guarantees of the kind offered to North Korea.
Michael Spies, program associate for the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP), and I attended and were struck that Blix’s discussion of Iran was broadly consistent with the letter sent to the IAEA Board on January 23 by LCNP and Western States Legal Foundation. For other topics covered by Blix, see David Ruppe’s story in Global Security Newswire and the ACA transcript.
Blix of course was head of UNMOVIC, in charge of inspecting Iraq for biological and chemical weapon and missile programs prior to the illegal U.S. invasion which, consistent with UNMOVIC’s reporting, found no such programs. In the 1980s, he was director general of the IAEA. He is now chairman of the WMD Commission established by Sweden, whose report will be released in May.
Regarding Security Council consideration of the Iran situation, Blix said that an upside is that it would put China and the United States at the table. But downsides are that it would increase expectations and pressure; harden the Iranian position; and lead to chatter about economic and military sanctions. It is certainly the case that the U.S. media tends to assume, wrongly, that Security Council consideration is necessarily about whether to impose sanctions. It is also true that the credibility of the United States, the permanent five, and the Council is seen to be at stake, reducing flexibility and increasing the risk of confrontation.
Blix said that if the Security Council takes up the matter, it may then just send it back to the IAEA with an exhortation to Iran to cooperate. The IAEA might then be able to close the file regarding Iran’s past violations of its Safeguards Agreement and its current intentions. However, that would leave the issue of Iran’s enrichment program still outstanding. Blix believes that it is important that Iran end the program. Perhaps he thinks that under all the circumstances, including the nature of the present Iran government, this is the only way to achieve certainty regarding Iran’s future course.
Similarly, in our letter, we said that a “non-confrontational solution [outside the Security Council] is achievable and efforts to this end are ongoing. Additionally, the IAEA investigation into Iran’s past nuclear activities has not yet reached a conclusion. Escalation would needlessly and artificially create a condition of crisis and tension which could easily undermine the diplomatic and IAEA processes, and pave the way for dangerous confrontation in the future.” Also worth noting is that Kofi Annan has indicated that referral is premature, at least until the March report of the director general. (more…)
U.S. strategic weapons programs: too many to talk about
In a January 19 entry to his blog “Early Warning,” William Arkin notes the proposed conversion of Trident submarine launched ballistic missiles to carry conventional warheads:
“Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has given the Navy go ahead to develop a conventionally armed Trident missile. Two dozen existing nuclear-armed submarine-launched missiles will be converted to carry conventional warheads. The missiles will then be assigned “global strike” missions to allow quicker preemptive attacks.
For the first time since intercontinental ballistic missiles were “captured” in arms control treaties 40 years ago as unique and potentially destabilizing weapons, the United States will muddy the waters by modifying an existing nuclear weapon for use in day-to-day warfare.
The conversion of Trident missiles abandons the strict segregation of nuclear from conventional weapons.”
Arkin credits Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News with breaking the story, which can be found here: “U.S. May Arm Subs With Conventional Warheads for Quicker Strike”
There are other proposals and ongoing R&D programs to upgrade long-range missile capabilities. These range from incremental upgrades to existing systems like Trident and the land-based Minuteman ICBM to options like the Common Aero Vehicle (CAV), a maneuverable re-entry vehicle that could carry a variety of conventional or nuclear payloads and that could be delivered by either intercontinental ballistic missiles or by more exotic means, such as a space shuttle-like military space plane. Arkin was one of the first to write about the CAV in a 1999 piece in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ( not available on-line). I have followed some of these programs over the past few years in papers for the Western States Legal Foundation, including The Military Space Plane, Conventional ICBM’s, and the Common Aero Vehicle: Overlooked Threats of Weapons Delivered Through or From Space (2002), Missiles of Empire (2003), and War is Peace, Arms Racing is Disarmament: The Non-Proliferation Treaty and the U.S. Quest for Global Military Dominance (2005)
The bigger picture is that the United States is in the process of planning and developing a new generation of strategic weapons. Among other things, military planners hope to continue to make significant increases in accuracy for all kinds of weapons, from those delivered by aircraft to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Improved accuracy may allow them to do a number of things, particularly destroying some targets with less energy. This is why, for example, they are considering non-nuclear warheads now for intercontinental ballistic missiles — before, you couldn’t hope to get close enough at that range to destroy things reliably with non-nuclear payloads. These same improvements may also make it possible to destroy some targets with lower yield nuclear weapons. Other technologies being considered for long range missiles, and for associated sensing, targeting and command and control systems, may allow the destruction of other kinds of targets that previously were hard to hit with long range missiles, for example things that move, like mobile missiles. (more…)
“The Man Who Averted Nuclear War”
On January 19, 2006, at the UN in New York, the Association of World Citizens presented an award to Stanislav Petrov. On September 26, 1983, Petrov was the duty officer at a Soviet command and control center who declined to pass along to headquarters apparent signals from satellites showing incoming U.S. missiles. In his comments, Petrov said he was not a hero, as several described him at the event, but rather somebody doing his work, along with others in his unit. But he did seem convinced that the decision likely averted catastrophe, in the form of a Russian counterstrike. He indicated that the decision could have gone the other way, saying that he was not sure he had made the right one until it was confirmed later that the signals were a false alarm.
The Russian Mission to the UN distributed a press release at the event. This curious document is worth quoting at some length:
“On January 19, 2006, former Russian colonel Stanislav Petrov will receive an award from the Association of World Citizens ‘for a unique act of heroism that saved the world’. According to representatives of the Association in 1983 Petrov did not react to an erroneous computer warning of a US missile attack on the Soviet Union and thus ’saved the world from nuclear war’.
It is not a secret that warnings of missile launches took place both in the Soviet Union and in the United States. Often natural phenomena like flocks of birds or the Northern Lights were taken as ICBMs. Under no circumstances a decision to use nuclear weapons could be made or even considered in the Soviet Union (Russia) or in the United States on the basis of data from a single source or a system. For this to happen, a confirmation is necessary from several systems: ground-based radars, early warning satellites, intelligence reports, etc. Therefore, even if one officer had ‘reported a satellite signal about an incoming nuclear missile’, the nuclear war would have never started. Besides, one should keep in mind that both in the United States and in the Soviet Union (Russia) the information automatically fed from satellites is directed to various recipients, and a single hero or miscreant cannot stop it.”
Afterwards, I asked one of the speakers, Bruce Blair, what he thought of the Russian statement. Blair, now president of the Center for Defense Information and formerly of the Brookings Institute, is a former missile control officer who became a leading scholar of nuclear command and control. He also became a key advocate of standing down nuclear forces, often called “dealerting,” by a range of measures, from taking the launch keys away from missile control officers to removing missiles from silos and submarines. Blair said that there were basically three factors involved, also mentioned in the Russian release: 1) data from early warning satellites; 2) data from ground radar; and 3) the overall assessment of the strategic situation. In 1983, the Soviet assessment of the strategic situation was dire, not surprisingly; that was when, among other things, the Reagan administration was talking freely about fighting and winning a nuclear war. Data from ground radar would come in later than satellite data, and might be missing or otherwise inconclusive or too late to stop a process underway. Blair’s comments indicate that while there is much that is not known about this incident, and while it’s inherently difficult to say given X, Y would have happened – there could be other intervening variables, nonetheless it’s not farfetched to call Petrov, as he was in the award given him at the UN, “The Man Who Averted Nuclear War.” Blair noted that Petrov was an engineer who was aware that the Russian systems were new and in need of debugging. If it had been more of a “warrior” type, primed to act reflexively…
As Blair observed in his public remarks, incredibly, today the United States and Russian Federation remain locked in the hair-trigger nuclear standoff that existed in 1983. In a side conversation I asked him what the current numbers are: how many warheads are the two countries capable of launching within a matter of minutes after an order to do so. The range that disarmament NGOs have been using for several years is four to five thousand. Blair said that while he has not analyzed the matter in the last couple of years, his off-the-cuff estimate would be around 3000: 1000-1200 in Russia, 1600-1700 in the United States. Or, put another way, about 75,000 Hiroshima bombs.
Current data on the world’s nuclear arsenals can be found at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Iran and the United States: assessing the nuclear threats
Several recent articles have appeared on the web and have been widely circulated within the disarmament community suggesting that the United States is likely to launch a preventive war against Iran that will include planned nuclear strikes. These include:
Jorge Hirsch, How to Stop the Planned Nuking of Iran: Congress should enact emergency legislation (”…America is embarked in a premeditated path that will lead inexorably to the use of nuclear weapons against Iran in the very near future.”) and
Michel Chossudovsky Nuclear War against Iran (”The launching of an outright war using nuclear warheads against Iran is now in the final planning stages.”)
Many of the individual statements in these articles are true. But they make inferences about potential U.S. nuclear weapons use in wars against states that lack nuclear weapons that I do not believe are supported by the documents they refer to, if looked at as a whole. In particular, I believe they overstate the likelihood of a planned preventive nuclear strike against a state that does not have nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear weapons in the course of a war in which an adversary uses chemical or biological weapons, or in which the U.S. suffers catastrophic military reverses, is another matter. (more…)