Sarin in Syria: what standard of proof?

Damsascus

Damascus. Photo Credit: Flickr/sharnik.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Yesterday US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said it was likely that chemical weapons (CW) had been used on a ‘small scale’ in Syria. President Obama claimed in August that the use of CW in Syria would change his calculus on US intervention, but the intelligence must be examined carefully to assess whether his ‘red line’ on CW has actually been crossed.

On Thursday, the White House said that although it was likely the nerve gas sarin had been used, the evidence was still too thin and that it needed ‘credible and corroborated facts’. President Obama is being pilloried in some quarters for not following through on his earlier red line. But after the misuse of intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq ten years ago, the bar for concluding that Assad used chemical weapons must naturally be set high. The standard of evidence should meet at least three conditions: clear-cut evidence of use, meaningful quantity, and purposefulness.

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Yongbyon restart: North Korea’s new threat

Siegfried Hecker examining lathes from Yongbyon machine shop Phot W Keith Luse via Stanford University

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Among Pyongyang’s recent inflated threats, the announced intention to ‘readjust and restart’ its nuclear facilities is the most worrisome.

If implemented, North Korea will be producing both kinds of fissile material that can create nuclear explosions: plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

The handful of nuclear weapons – from four to 10 – that North Korea presumably already possesses are based on plutonium that was produced at the small 5MW reactor at Yongbyon prior to mid-2007.

Whether it also has uranium weapons is unknown.

Why North Korea abandoned the plutonium programme and instead prioritised uranium enrichment has been a mystery.

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Nuclear escalation in South Asia

India-Pakistan border from space. Photo NASA

India’s presumed ‘Cold Start’ doctrine posits limited incursions over the border into Pakistan

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

During visits to New Delhi and Islamabad last week, I was disheartened by some of the discussions I had on nuclear doctrine. In both capitals, a dominant theme was the perceived need to restore credible deterrence, with seemingly little consideration for the implications of sparking a nuclear war.

In New Delhi, leading members of the strategic community insisted that the restraint India had shown after terrorist attacks in 2001 and 2008 linked to Pakistani officialdom only encouraged further attacks. They argued that when Pakistan-based terrorists struck again – and without doubt the question was when, not if – India would have to respond forcefully ‘to teach them a lesson’.

In Islamabad, ‘plugging the deterrence gap’ was the reason given for Pakistan’s recent pursuit of battlefield nuclear weapons. India’s presumed ‘Cold Start’ doctrine (or ‘proactive strategy’ as it is now called) posits rapid mobilisation and limited incursions across the border into Pakistan. In Islamabad this was considered to be a fully resourced plan and a cunning way to attempt aggression without triggering a strategic nuclear response.

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North Korea’s third nuclear test shows military still first

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a  Secretaries Of Cells meeting

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

North Korea has again shown with today’s nuclear test that it marches to its own drum – and a decidedly militaristic drumbeat it is. The sole country to have pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and indeed, probably the only one to have signed the treaty with the clear intention of violating it, North Korea has been alone in the past 15 years in defying the international norm against nuclear testing.

Defiance might be called the national trait, and North Koreans may be proud to be described that way. In conducting its third nuclear test, Pyongyang not only defied warnings from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, but also the cautions of its friends in Beijing and Moscow. In recent weeks, selective Chinese state media had been unusually blunt in threatening consequences if North Korea went ahead with its planned test. Now it is likely that China will allow additional Security Council sanctions. It may even apply selective sanctions of its own, as it reportedly did in 2003 in disrupting the flow of oil during the first North Korean nuclear crisis.

The test shows yet again North Korea’s priority for guns over butter, and that its policy of ‘Songun’ (‘military first’) is much more than a mere slogan. In addition to risking a cut-off of Chinese aid and oil, Pyongyang has also made it difficult for South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye to follow through on her election promise to resume humanitarian aid to the North.

Likewise, the new team that US President Barack Obama is assembling for his second term will be disinclined to pursue any new engagement policies with North Korea. Instead, new sanctions will be applied, especially to try to prevent North Korea from helping nuclear-weapons aspirations elsewhere.

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Khamenei douses hopes for nuclear talks

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

He is a mad mullah after all – mad meaning angry, that is. Following the positive notes sounded by US Vice President Joe Biden and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Munich last week, it did not take long for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to quash any optimism over the next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the international community. These are scheduled to take place in Almaty on 26 February.

In a speech on 7 February, Khamenei ruled out holding bilateral talks with America on his country’s controversial nuclear programme so long as Washington continued pressure tactics. He claimed the US was proposing talks while ‘pointing a gun at Iran’, adding that: ‘Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America [but] negotiations will not solve the problems.’

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Bushehr fears stem from Iran’s nuclear deceit

Bushehr nuclear reactor. Photo: Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Let’s not exaggerate. Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant is not another Chernobyl in the making. Unlike the ill-fated Ukrainian facility, Bushehr’s fuel rods are moderated and cooled by water, not flammable graphite. Bushehr also benefits from modern design improvements, including automatic control and containment systems.

Nor is Bushehr likely ever to suffer the fate of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. The shallow Gulf waters bordering Bushehr cannot produce the kind of massive tsunamis that inundated Fukushima’s electricity and backup cooling system.

It should also be clear by now that Bushehr is not a proliferation threat. The reactor is used for electricity production and the spent fuel will be returned to Russia so the plutonium will not be available for reprocessing for weapons, if Iran were to obtain that technology. In any case, no country has ever used spent fuel from power plants for weapons purposes.

But let’s not sweep aside the environmental and safety dangers either, as Iranian officials are wont to do. Bushehr is located on an earthquake fault. The dust and heat of the local climate contributed to construction delays because of the difficulty of keeping equipment clean and cool. The grafting of a Russian-designed reactor onto the remains of an incomplete German structure and Iran’s contractual requirement for Russia to employ 35-year-old, leftover German pumps and other equipment made for other glitches.

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Hoping for good news from Pyongyang

Fireworks over Pyongyang. Photo Korea Friendship Association

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address earlier this week drew international attention both because it was the first in nearly 20 years that any North Korean leader had delivered in person, and because of its conciliatory tone towards South Korea. Kim said it was time to ‘remove confrontation between the North and the South’.

The new tenor has to be welcomed, given the vile invective that North Korean state media have heaped upon Seoul, and particularly President Lee Myung-bak, during the past five years . Whether the kinder words represent any real chance, however, remains to be seen. Like the North Korean agricultural reforms reported last summer, one waits for meaningful implementation.

The wait may not be long. Just a day after Kim took the high road in his speech, North Korea’s highest organ, the National Defence Commission (NDC), reverted to form in a threatening statement that condemned the ‘Lee Myung-bak group of traitors’ and called the South Korean president a ‘rat and an idiot’.

In language clearly directed towards President-elect Park Geun-hye, who takes office on 25 February, the NDC statement said ‘inter-Korean relations now stand at a crossroads’, and that ‘south Korean authorities would be well advised to make a responsible choice’.

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Rising concern over Syria’s chemical weapons

Visit to NATO by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at NATO

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Anticipating that Iran nuclear questions would feature prominently at the IISS Manama Dialogue, I set to work yesterday updating my briefing papers on the status and options. No sooner had I begun, however, than the phone began ringing, with calls from journalists asking about different kinds of weapons in two other countries in the region. Could we trust reports that Syria was mixing chemical-weapons components, and what were the implications of NATO deploying Patriot missiles to Turkey? Similar questions are likely to come up at the Manama Dialogue.

It is clear to me that there is good reason to worry on the first point, even if there is no guarantee that Syria really is readying sarin nerve-gas weapons by mixing the two main chemical precursors. The media reports of this are all sourced to unnamed US officials, and many simply echo articles on Wired’s Danger Room and CNN from 3 December.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stressed that the reports had not been confirmed. There are ample signs, however. The forceful, pointed warnings from President Barack Obama and other Western leaders reflect the alarming nature of the intelligence information being collected last week.

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Myanmar ‘delivers’ nuclear transparency

President Barack Obama tours the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

In the run-up to presidential visits aides look for achievements that can be announced, typically agreements on trade and the like. Called ‘deliverables’ in the diplomatic argot, they are often the currency of exchange for deciding on travel destinations.

So when it was announced that US President Barack Obama would include Burma in his mid-November trip to Southeast Asia, there were concerns and questions, including from Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, about whether Myanmar deserved the honour. What ‘deliverable’ would warrant bestowing a presidential visit on a country that had not yet fully emerged from its decades of authoritarianism and human-rights abuses?

But as it turned out, the quid pro quo for Obama’s visit was significant indeed. To the delight of the
non-proliferation community, Myanmar said it would accept the global standard for nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), known by the catchy name of the ‘Additional Protocol’.

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Obama’s second chance at Prague nuke agenda

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The US electorate has spoken, and most of the international diplomats, academics, and others with whom I spoke on the day after our presidential election on 6 November breathed a sigh of relief that the stewardship of the world’s (still) sole superpower will remain in safe hands for another four years. The rest of the world famously backed Barack Obama, so while much of the satisfaction I heard about the Democrat’s re-election pertained particularly to the nuclear-policy matters being addressed in my various meetings, I also found myself, as an American citizen abroad, congratulated more broadly.

The election turned on domestic issues, and even the presidential debate that was supposed to be dedicated to foreign policy pivoted back to the American economy and education system. Nevertheless, the question that I have been asked most is how Obama will use his renewed lease on the White House to address global issues. In my area of specialisation on arms control and non-proliferation, everyone agrees there is much to be done. Unfortunately, there seems little scope for Obama to do it. And, of course, Iran looms large on his agenda.

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