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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Can China end the DPRK’s nuclear blackmail?

Then Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie addresses the 2011 Shangri-La Dialogue

By Dr William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

Members of the United Nations Security Council, including China, have strongly condemned North Korea’s nuclear test last week, and that rare unanimity could be useful for regional security. If China were to put pressure on North Korea (an historic development that looks possible) while the United Nations Security Council tightened the vice of sanctions, perhaps Pyongyang could be pressured to at least suspend further tests?

This, however, is probably not to be. North Korea has maintained its missile and nuclear programmes as a going concern for years, despite a growing raft of sanctions. In addition, sanctions have done little to change the decision-making of other worrisome countries such as Iran.

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US must overhaul North Korea policy: expert

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By Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Research Assistant for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The United States needs to push North Korea straight to the top of its policy agenda, says academic Joel Wit (above), saying that Pyongyang might already possess 25 nuclear weapons and may have deployed a prototype road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Speaking at the IISS several days before Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test on 12 February, the former State Department official and Visiting Scholar at the US–Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) said he thought the passive policy of ‘strategic patience’ during the Obama administration’s first four years had failed.

As the administration entered its second term, he suggested, the White House should take a more proactive approach to North Korea – especially given President Barack Obama’s recommitment to Asia and his outspoken advocacy on nuclear issues.

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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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Pushing for US-Russia ‘reset 2.0’

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By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant editor

The US ‘reset’ towards Russia during the first Obama administration had created ‘dividends for European security’, the IISS’s new senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia told an audience in London this week – even if this positive effect was underappreciated. However, relations with Russia in Obama’s second term would be complicated by Vladimir Putin’s recent return to the presidency and Putin’s less apparent warmth towards Washington than predecessor Dmitry Medvedev.

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Forward? Barack Obama’s second term

By Chris Raggett, Assistant editor

Although foreign policy played a small role in the US presidential campaign late last year, the way Barack Obama handles Iran before 2016 could determine how the president goes down in history. So argues Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the IISS’s non-proliferation programme, speaking at a discussion meeting last week about Obama’s upcoming second term.

Over the weekend, Iran signalled it might return in late February to talks with the international community over its disputed nuclear programme. However, the country has also recently notified the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, that it will be installing new, more efficient centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. This would dramatically shorten the time it would take Tehran to ‘break-out’ and make a nuclear bomb after expelling IAEA inspectors. Fitzpatrick, who believes there is the chance that some sort of military action ‘may come into play’ in the next four years to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, has said the installation of new centrifuges would be a ‘game changer‘.

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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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A nuclear pact just right for India and Pakistan

Reagan and Gorbachev sign the INF treaty in 1987

By Daniel Painter, Research Assistant, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Twenty-five years after the signing of a landmark nuclear-arms agreement between the US and the Soviet Union, the world is facing a new atomic-weapons race in South Asia, where similar controls would be useful.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty inked by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on 8 December 1987 was the first such agreement to eliminate entire weapon systems, rather than to merely limit the size of nuclear arsenals. India and Pakistan, which both continue to increase their nuclear arsenals, have not engaged in arms-control negotiations. If they were, however, an INF-style agreement would be a good first step towards stabilising the region.

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