Thirty years ago, when the Berlin Wall was brought down marking the end of the Cold War, the threat of conflict between two nuclear-armed, ideologically opposed superpowers receded, and my generation, which had grown up in the shadow of the bomb, breathed a sigh of relief. Although the nuclear threat did not vanish then, it certainly became subdued as the process of disarmament and control seemed to move forward along a clear path of no return.
Today is the JCPOA’s third birthday – will it have another one?
Three years ago, Iran and global powers implemented the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), curtailing the country’s nuclear weapons programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The deal continues to hang together – but only just. There are growing indications of signatory states’ fatigue and frustration in attempting to prevent the collapse of the JCPOA, following the US withdrawal from it last May. In this climate, it is important for the deal’s stakeholders to remember why it remains valuable:
Over recent years, a somewhat geeky debate has emerged among the exponents of deterrence and assurance. Although the discussion typically occurs between Americans and nationals of an allied country, it’s overly simplistic to describe it as one between the US and its allies—the divisions aren’t that clear-cut.
The debate is part philosophical and part phraseological. At its core sits a single adjective. Some Americans (including policymakers) say that what the US offers its allies is ‘extended deterrence’. But a number of allied nationals (again, including policymakers) find the phrase underwhelming; they’d prefer that it read ‘extended nuclear deterrence’. And so we come directly to the crux of the argument: the presence or absence of the word ‘nuclear’ in the assurance that the US provides to its allies.
North Korea’s state-owned news agency ran a wire story with tremendous significance just before Christmas, making clear that unilateral denuclearization is not going to happen. As part of a detailed explanation of Pyongyang’s position, it said: “When we refer to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it, therefore, means removing all elements of nuclear threats from the areas of both the north and the south of Korea and also from surrounding areas from where the Korean peninsula is targeted. This should be clearly understood.” The text also states that “the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula means ‘completely removing the nuclear threats of the U.S. to the DPRK.’”
Russia will present the expected withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Elimination Treaty (INF) as a step forcing a military response from Moscow. Even if the Russian Federation were to violate the INF by deploying new cruise missiles with a range greater than 500 km, the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty creates opportunity to blur responsibility. In the event of divided opinions within NATO, Russia’s position in arms control might be stronger vis-à-vis Europe and, indirectly, the United States. Moreover, Russia will continue expansion of its arsenal of ground-launched missiles.