The Beginning of a New Nuclear Arms Race?

Published in the Hindustan Times on January 13, 2022

Mixed signals emerging in 2022 reflect the challenge in dealing with rising nuclear risks in an increasingly polarised world. On the face of it, the January 3 Joint Statement by the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon States (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races should have been a matter of global relief. However, statements and actions by the US, Russian and Chinese leaders indicate growing tensions and the beginnings of a new nuclear arms race with rapidly receding prospects of any arms control.

The Statement reiterated the declaration made by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and underlined that nuclear weapons “serve defensive purposes.” The five leaders also committed to create a security environment “more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Yet, the message failed to convey a new found sense of commitment for nuclear disarmament. First, four other states possessing nuclear weapons (India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan) were missing because they hadn’t been invited to join. Second, the statement was a collection of pious homilies, at odds with ground reality.

The Statement was intended for the 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and only the five are party to the NPT; the other four are not because of a quirky arbitrariness that the NPT only recognises a nuclear weapon state if it exploded a bomb before January 1, 1967! The conference thrice postponed thrice and scheduled to begin on January 4, but Omicron intervened. The statement was negotiated by diplomats and released as planned.

The following day, reality intervened rudely as Chinaese President Xi Jinping signed off on the annual mobilisation order for the military for 2022, instructing “the armed forces to closely follow the evolution of technology, warfare and rivals, better combine training with combat operations, to develop an elite force capable of fighting and winning wars.” Simultaneously, China declared that it will continue to modernise its nuclear arsenal while urging the US and Russia to reduce their stockpiles.

It is true that Russia and the US have approx. 6000 weapons each compared to China’s modest arsenal estimated at 350 warheads. However, from satellite imagery of at least four new missile storage sites being developed, testing of a hypersonic glide vehicle capable of fractional orbital bombardment and larger ICBMs and SLBMs, the Chinese arsenal is expected to double by 2027 and treble by 2030.

Russia too has been modernising its nuclear arsenal for a decade. New ICBMs, Topol and Yars, are being deployed and Sarmat, capable of going over the South Pole, evading US missile defences, has been tested. In addition, Russia has deployed a hypersonic missile Zircon, is in the process of deploying a hypersonic glide vehicle Avangard, and testing a nuclear-powered torpedo to be used by underwater drones. Russia has maintained a large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons (2000-4000 bombs) giving rise to apprehensions about early use in a conflict.

The last US Nuclear Posture Review in 2018 announced a significant shift by recommending an increase in the types of weapons in the arsenal as also in their potential role, reflecting new strategic rivalries. The Review retreated from the earlier goal of seeking to limit the role of nuclear weapons to the sole purpose of deterring nuclear attacks; and instead, widened it to hedge against emergence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic threats and to prevail against both nuclear and non-nuclear strategic attacks. For this, the US is developing more flexible and tailored nuclear options including low-yield weapons.

Ahead of the US-Russia Strategic Stability Talks that began this week in Geneva, Russia has presented two parallel draft texts, to the US and NATO, aimed at securing legally binding security guarantees. Shifting the focus away from Ukraine, Russia is demanding an undertaking about no eastward expansion of NATO, withdrawal of US nuclear forces from Europe and restricting NATO forces to its 1997 boundaries. This has sent reverberations all through Europe, making the 14 east European and Baltic states more eager to cling to the US nuclear umbrella.

Meanwhile, US warships continue exercises in the western Pacific, undertaking more Freedom of Navigation Operations through the South China sea even as Chinese aircraft violate the Taiwan ADIZ with growing impunity. The announcement of AUKUS with US and UK joining up to provide nuclear powered submarines to Australia, a non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT, is directed at growing Chinese assertive behaviour.  

This reality is not lost on the other parties to the NPT and this is why 86 of them have signed on to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that entered into force in January 2021. These countries are concerned about growing nuclear risks and unhappy that the NPT’s five nuclear powers have not undertaken any meaningful steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. The nuclear powers like to pretend that the TPNW doesn’t exist, setting the scene for a contentious Conference whenever it takes place.

NPT is not the only arms control treaty under strain. ABM treaty and the INF Treaty between US and Russia are already history. Both these countries have exited from the Open Skies Treaty. The CTBT has not entered into force after 25 years.

The real reason is that the old arms control model was a product of the Cold War reflecting a bipolar world. The challenge now is to create an arms control model that reflects the reality of today’s multipolar world.


Theocracy and Polls: The Iran Way

Published in the Hindustan Times on June 24, 2021

Last Friday, Iran elected its eighth president since the 1979 Islamic revolution that ended the Pahlavi dynasty. As expected, Ebrahim Raisi, the chief of the judiciary since 2019, is set to take over from President Hassan Rouhani on August 3. Given Iran’s complex governance structure of a theocracy with partial elective democracy, the elections are pre-determined, though sometimes surprisingly competitive. This time, a low turnout of less than 50% after extending the voting deadline, showed that even by Iranian standards, the non-contest failed to generate interest.

Iran’s governance structure

At the top of Iran’s governance structure is the supreme leader, currently 82-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power since Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989. He is the commander-in-chief of all armed forces and security services, appoints the heads of radio and TV networks and judiciary, and half the 12 member Guardian Council (GC). The GC members need parliamentary approval and in turn, vet candidatures for all elected positions – 290-member parliament, 88-member Assembly of Experts and the President. In addition, GC also examines all legislation to ensure its conformity with Sharia. In case of differences, matter is referred to the 45-member Expediency Council, chosen by the supreme leader. The principal task of the Experts’ Assembly is to approve the new supreme leader.

While the supreme leader is there for life (or till he chooses to retire), the president is limited to two 4-year terms, defining where the balance of power rests between them. Speculation that a new supreme leader is likely to be appointed in coming years made this election critical as Khamenei has to ensure a smooth transition while ensuring preservation of his legacy.

Raisi, a hardliner, owes much of his career progression to the supreme leader and is also seen as a potential successor to the supreme leader. Incidentally, Khamenei too was president from 1981-89 and shortly before Khomeini died, he anointed Khamenei as his successor.

Consolidation by conservatives

Born in 1960, Raisi was a theology student in the holy city of Qom and joined the anti-Shah movement as a teenager. After the Islamic revolution, he embarked on a legal career as prosecutor and during the 1980s, moved to Tehran. Following the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, thousands of political prisoners (declared anti-national and supporters of Saddam Hussein), were sentenced to death by a four-member committee that included Raisi. Later he was deputy chief of the judiciary (2004-14) and the prosecutor-general. In 2017, he was runner-up when Rouhani won his second term in a 73 percent turnout, and appointed judiciary chief later. In 2019, both US and EU imposed sanctions on Raisi on account of his human rights record, for 1980s executions and lethal crackdowns on anti-government protestors, in 2009 and 2019.

Raisi’s victory was clear on 25 May when the GC disqualified strong contenders such as the former speaker Ali Larijani and current vice-president Ishaq Jahangiri, setting the stage for him. Many civil society leaders launched calls for a boycott that reduced the turnout to below 49%, and a record 3.7 million votes cast were blank and void. As an Iranian explained, “How do you pick an orange when all that is on offer are five bananas”? Conservatives already enjoy over two-thirds majority in parliament after the 2020 election.

Setting the stage

Rouhani’s eight-year tenure has been dominated by the nuclear issue and relations with the US. Talks began in 2013 but it was Rouhani’s moderate credentials together with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s diplomatic skills that enabled progress. Secret talks with the US in Oman proved invaluable and in July 2015, the nuclear deal (JCPOA) was concluded between Iran and P5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France, Germany and the EU). Iran accepted certain constraints on its nuclear programme, especially the uranium enrichment activities, in return for sanctions relief.

Iran’s economy, hurting under the sanctions registered a 12% growth in 2016 only to start shrinking after Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and adopted a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ to coerce Iran back to the negotiating table. Iran responded with a policy of ‘maximum resistance’.  The economy has been in recession for three years now, amid rising unemployment and inflation running at 40%. Since 2019, Iran began to step up certain nuclear activities, while emphasising that its actions were reversible if sanctions relief was restored, balancing hardliners at home while putting pressure on the EU.

With Joe Biden in the White House, prospects for reviving JCPOA improved. Six rounds of talks in Vienna registered limited progress. However, Rouhani’s hands were tied. Khamenei clearly wanted that a deal, even partial, only be concluded after the elections, in remaining six weeks of his tenure. Rouhani will be responsible for any shortcomings while any relief credit will accrue to Raisi.

Given the situation, the US has played along but the hard negotiation begins now. US will only offer partial relief in return for some Iranian roll-back, holding back to engage the new regime in Tehran. With hardliners now dominant, US expects that internal bickering will end.

Meanwhile, talks last month between Saudis and Iranians in Iraq have raised hopes of movement on Yemen. A change of guard in Israel may provide breathing space in Lebanon and Gaza. The sands in West Asia may be shifting, though ever so slightly.