Senator Corker and the Nuclear Agreement

Paul Pillar

Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long given us hope for reasonableness even when he and we have been surrounded by partisan rabidity and a lack of reason. Corker was one of the few Republican senators to refrain from signing the Tom Cotton letter that lectured the Iranians on how they cannot count on the United States sticking to any agreement that Iran may reach with it. When others in Congress were looking for ways to use new sanctions to torpedo preemptively any agreement on restricting Iran's nuclear program, Corker was working on legislation to provide structure to Congressional review of any agreement that emerged from the negotiations. The initial version of his bill was studded with poison pills, but Corker showed the flexibility, working with acting ranking Democrat Ben Cardin, to revise it into something balanced enough that it was enacted with broad bipartisan support and signed by the president.

It has been a fairly safe bet for some time that Corker would eventually oppose the nuclear agreement; with Jeff Flake, the only Republican senator who was possibly in play on the issue, having announced his opposition the other day, the GOP ranks in the Senate will be completely closed. But still one might hope to see signs of well-informed reasonableness, especially as a welcome contrast with the bombast of the presidential campaign, in which those vying for primary votes from the party base are striving to outdo each other in denouncing the agreement with comparisons to genocidal ovens and the like. We will have enough to worry about concerning the future of the agreement and thus the ability to restrain Iran's nuclear activities if one of those candidates, laden with such campaign baggage, makes it to the White House.

It thus is sad, but also revealing, to see how utterly weak are Corker's announced reasons for opposing the agreement, at least those he can fit into the space of an op ed. Well-informed reasonableness this is not.

Corker says that rather than ending Iran's enrichment program, the deal “industrializes” it—whatever that means. Ending Iranian enrichment of uranium altogether was never feasible. The agreement severely restricts both the level of enrichment and the amount of enriched uranium Iran can stockpile. Maybe “de-industrialization” is a term that could more aptly be applied to what the agreement accomplishes on that score compared to what the Iranians had been doing before the preliminary agreement was reached. In observing the terms of that agreement, Iran already has substantially walked back its program from what was taking place earlier.

The senator speaks of an inspection process that is “deeply flawed,” with “unorthodox arrangements” and “secret” agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, the negotiated inspection arrangements are consistent with the Additional Protocol for IAEA inspections, and they conform to the usual practice of having individually negotiated procedures that are kept confidential between the IAEA and the member state. The only respect in which the procedures are “unorthodox” is that they are more extensive and more intrusive than any other nuclear inspection arrangement—the most extensive and intrusive that any nation has ever agreed through negotiation to place its own program under. The constant and detailed monitoring of declared facilities is supplemented by inspections of any other suspect Iranian facilities through carefully drafted procedures that ensure that if there is any disagreement, the Iranians get outvoted and the facility gets inspected.

Corker then gets into non-nuclear issues in ways that are nothing short of strange. He writes that “we will be relying on Iran to help achieve our goals in Iraq, Syria and perhaps elsewhere.” So is he saying it would be better if Iran not help us to achieve our goals in such places? He does say “this abrupt rebalancing could have the effect of driving others in the region to take greater risks, leading to greater instability.” The parties to the nuclear agreement have, throughout the negotiation, all stayed focused on the nuclear issue itself, and any rebalancing that results will hardly be “abrupt.” It also is hard to see how restricting what Iran can do with its nuclear program produces instability. Besides, if other parties in the region are going to engage in risky behavior that is a problem with them, not with Iran, and such behavior needs to be addressed directly. Corker tries to tie this confused set of issues back to the agreement by saying that Iranian awareness of all this “helped the regime continually erode the deal to its benefit.” Erode from what? The obligations in this agreement, other than reducing the punishment of Iran, are all obligations for Iran to fulfill. The starting point, before negotiations began, was an Iranian nuclear program subject to no restrictions at all beyond Iran's basic obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Corker tries to cast a general aspersion on the negotiations by stating that “since negotiations began in earnest” all sorts of nasty things have happened in the region that involve Iran in some way: that Iran has “doubled down on its support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad,” and “cemented Hezbollah as an expeditionary shock force” while lots of people have died in the Syrian civil war and ISIS has been doing bad things in Iraq. Nothing whatever is provided in the way of either evidence or reasoning that any of this has anything to do with either the negotiations or the agreement that emerged from them. Besides the absence of logic and evidence, this blurt contradicts Corker's use in the next paragraph of the now shop-worn theme that sanctions relief will give the Iranians “hundreds of billions of dollars”—a gross overestimate—to do those proverbially nefarious things in the region. If that theme were valid—i.e., that Iran's regional policy will be dictated by its available financial resources—then we should have seen a reduction in Iranian regional activity when the sanctions began to bite, and a further reduction when oil prices plunged. But Corker, in his effort to suggest that bad things happen whenever one negotiates with Iranians, is telling us that the opposite has occurred. In fact, if there is any pattern at all in Iranian regional activity over the last several years it is that the activity is reactive, with the Iranians responding to civil wars or the emergence of extremist mini-states or and any other events that affect Iranian interests.

Corker winds up by talking about “leverage” as if the more sanctions that are in place, the more leverage we have. That represents a fundamental misunderstanding, or misprepresentation, of leverage and where it comes from. Leverage comes from the ability and prospect to reward someone if they do as we want or to punish them if they were to act contrary to our wishes. The prospect of sanctions relief is what gave our side the leverage to induce Iran to agree to place its nuclear program under extraordinary restrictions. The prospect of reimposition of sanctions will be one of the incentives (though not the only one) for the Iranians to abide by their obligations in the agreement. Sanctions per se give us no leverage. The belief that sanctions will stay in place no matter what gives Iran no incentive to concede, to comply, or to do anything else in accordance with our wishes.

Bob Corker has an important role to play in Congressional oversight of implementation of the nuclear agreement, especially assuming continued Republican control of the Senate and thus continuation of Corker's chairmanship of the foreign relations committee. He can still play that role positively and constructively. He has been responsible enough and careful enough not to tie himself in the kind of constraining rhetorical knots that several of the presidential candidates have. Let us hope that he can discard the crummy arguments and, once the agreement is implemented, perform his oversight function vigorously. Meanwhile, his posture on the agreement is a demonstration of just how weak the arguments against it are.                                           


TopicsIran Nuclear Proliferation RegionsMiddle East

This GOP Presidential Hopeful Says America Needs 15 Aircraft Carriers

The Buzz

Republican presidential hopeful and Ohio Governor John Kasich says the United States should build five more aircraft carriers.

Speaking at a forum on national security in South Carolina on Monday, Governor Kasich argued that the United States should try to have around 15 aircraft carriers.

“We have about 10 carriers now, my goal would be to get closer to 15. And you’ve got to have the ability to project power when you get there,” Kasich said, the Columbus Dispatch and Politico reported.

Speaking to reporters after the forum, Kasich clarified his remarks by saying that the project to build five additional aircraft carriers would have to be done “over time. It’s not going to be done in a day. It has to all be done calmly and over time.”

The crux of the issue for Kasich, as is so often the case when it comes to the defense spending and the Navy in particular, is cost. The latest U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, cost between $6 billion and $10 billion to build, according to the Columbus Dispatch (other estimates put the cost of the lead ship at upwards of $12 billion). Adding an additional five aircraft carriers to the ones America already intends to build would be an enormous burden on federal spending.

This is problematic for a candidate like Kasich, who is running in no small part on his ability to balance the federal budget. Repeatedly on the campaign trail Kasich has touted his experience as the chairman of the House Budget Committee, noting that he held this position the last time the U.S. government managed to successfully balance the budget. In an op-ed on CNN on Monday, Kasich sent so far as to declare “I support a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.”

Still, Kasich’s fiscal prudence does not appear to extend to the U.S. Navy, which the Ohio governor is a strong proponent of expanding. At the South Carolina forum on Monday, Kasich said that the U.S. Navy should be expanded to “at the minimum we ought to try and build up to 300 [ships],” up from just 272 ships today. In the aforementioned CNN op-ed, Kasich linked to a 2014 report calling for the U.S. Navy to be expanded to 346 ships.

In the same op-ed Kasich made a valiant defense of expanding the U.S. Navy, calling it his second priority after balancing the federal budget.

“Our second priority must be renewing our Navy. Other services have legitimate needs too, but reinvigorating the Navy's ability to project power globally is critical to defending and advancing American interests, including ensuring the free flow of global commerce,” the governor wrote.

In a veiled threat to China and Iran, he added: “Those who mistakenly think they can deny access to a corner of the world—particularly in the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf—need another visit from a carrier battle group to remind them that the global commons are, in fact, just that: the world's shared real estate.”

As Politico points out, Kasich has not always been so hawkish on weapons procurement. During his days in Congress, for instance, he opposed purchasing additional B-2 stealth bombers and said there were major savings to be had by overhauling the Defense Department. And, although he supported invading Iraq in 2002, he clarified this week that he now believes that was a mistake. He has suggested in recent months that the United States might need to put boots on the ground to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The United States currently plans to build 10 Ford-class carriers through 2058 at a pace of one per five-year interval.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Todd P. Cichonowicz

TopicsSecurity RegionsAmericas

Implausible Deniability: Pakistan and Mullah Omar’s Death

The Buzz

So it turns out that Mullah Muhammad Omar, undisputed leader of the Afghan Taliban, died in the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi over two years ago, in early 2013. Rumors of his demise have been common currency among observers of Afghanistan and within the U.S. government, but one after the other, they seemed to have been false. Apparently not.

Denials, accompanied by new policy pronouncements, allegedly from Mullah Omar, were released by the Taliban’s “Quetta Shura” from its “headquarters” in Pakistan. But Mullah Omar’s declarations were never oral. They were all written and attributed by various spokesmen to Mullah Omar, who has almost never met with journalists, never appeared live on radio or television, and for whom only a few very old photographs exist.

The first oddity is how such a reclusive and relatively uneducated man was accorded such religious and organizational veneration as the Taliban’s mullah primus inter pares.  Second, how did such a recluse who abjured contemporary mechanisms of communication (telephones of all kinds and recordings let alone radio or television) hold such undisputed authority for nearly 15 years over a very quarrelsome insurgency which, now in his absence, may well fall into irreconcilable internal disputes? Third, how did the Taliban hold his death so closely for so long? The answer to the third question lies in the sheer fact of the second: since he never communicated directly with his followers, almost any directive attributed to him was as authoritative as the next. But since there are contending factions and policy differences within the Taliban, why did none of the factions “call out” any of these declarations?

All of these questions will be fodder for discussion and analysis. Perhaps most disturbing, however, is once again, the relation between the government of Pakistan and the government of the United States. The poisonous atmosphere between the two is likely to receive another dose of venom. Already there were accusations by the United States about Osama bin Laden: that Pakistan, if not exactly a formal ally then at least a recipient of millions of dollars of military and non-military assistance from the United States, knew that Osama bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, Pakistan a few hundred meters from the Pakistan Military Academy (Pakistan’s Sandhurst). And that he could not have been living there without the knowledge, and probably complicity, of the government of Pakistan, or at least of the Army and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) directorate. In other words, Pakistan had actively harbored one of the most sought after individual nemeses of the United States, a man with a $10 million bounty on his head.

Now, it turns out that Mullah Mohammed Omar died in a major Pakistani hospital two years ago. Moreover, the announcement was made, two years later, not by the government of Pakistan but by the government of Afghanistan. Apparently when then-CIA Director Leon Panetta shared some preliminary intelligence to that effect with then-President Asif Ali Zardari, he denied any knowledge of it. Even in the unlikely possibility that Zardari did not know, surely the ISI did, because the ISI has had continuous contact with the Taliban (in its prior forms) since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Indeed, when the United States was semi-covertly supporting the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, the ISI was its insurgents’ patron and “case worker.” Yet, even now, the announcement was made, over two years later, not by the government of Pakistan but by the government of Afghanistan.


So there are two possibilities. Either the ISI and the Pakistanis did share their intelligence with the United States, which chose not to act on it. Or the United States was, again, blinded by an erstwhile partner.

The former is not impossible but is extremely unlikely. It might have been in the interest of the United States to pretend that the Taliban was cohesive and well-led so that peace negotiations could be conducted with the adversary which, in turn, could deliver on a final agreement. Incongruously, the government of Afghanistan, especially former president Hamid Karzai, constantly accused the United States of undermining negotiations presumably to keep the war going and the coalition troops in Afghanistan, all the while complaining about President Obama’s plans for reductions in force. But Karzai has clearly bordered on psychotic delusions from time to time, maybe even regularly, and was clearly paranoid. The United States has been trying, at least under President Obama, to leave Afghanistan and reduce its commitments there. At times, certainly the United States did not favor negotiations with the Taliban. In particular, during the George W. Bush administration, U.S. military and civilian leaders did not want to negotiate with the Taliban except from a position of strength and without any pre-conditions about a withdrawal. But, even under that policy, no U.S. leaders would have proposed to support internal Taliban coherence. If anything the United States would gladly have exposed Taliban divisions, sought to exacerbate them, and tried to take advantage of them.

Perhaps the Obama administration, which has wanted to negotiate with the Taliban, would have preferred to reinforce the solidarity of the Taliban in order to gain a credible negotiating partner and agreement. If so, it will now have much to answer for if the story about Panetta’s meeting with Gilani (and many similar ones) was a ruse, and that Mullah Omar’s death has been well-known to the U.S. government and corroborated for some 30 months.

By far the simplest, most parsimonious, most probable explanation for this bewildering intelligence gap is that the Pakistanis knew and simply dissembled. At the very least, they knew and failed to inform or acknowledge, and at worst they denied when asked. (If the military knew and failed to inform its nominally civilian superiors, that would be even more troubling, but not unprecedented.) Why U.S. intelligence wasn’t able to pierce that prevarication is another matter, one which will no doubt be the subject of Congressional and certainly press inquiry. But if the simple answer is the right one, it would amount to just the newest example of Pakistani deception and render serious partnership even more improbable and, without a fundamental change, probably unwise. Serious partnership, based on mutual trust, may not be possible, but the stakes in Pakistan are too high simply to ignore it out of pique: a nuclear state which has already disseminated nuclear plans and weapons; a state at last grappling with its internal terrorists and violent extremists; and a state tottering on the edge of environmental, social, economic, and political implosions. Some kind of verifiable relationship, based on transactions more than trust will need to remain the modus operandi between the two countries.

Gerald F. (“Jerry”) Hyman has been Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the President of its Hills Program on Governance since 2007. From 2002 to 2007, he was the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s global Office of Democracy and Governance a senior management position. Between 1990 and 2002, he held a number of posts at USAID dealing with democracy and governance, including (from 2001 to 2002) a USAID Senior Management Group position as director of the Office of Democracy, Governance and Social Transitions in the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia. Dr. Hyman developed the programming strategy paradigm for USAID democracy and governance assistance.

Image: Wikimedia/ISAF Media

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Watch: Every Nuclear Bomb Detonation Ever

The Buzz

Nuclear weapons tests have been taking place for decades. And now you can view virtually every test that has occurred thanks to a fascinating new video posted to Vimeo.

The video is essentially a visualization of nuclear detonations from 1945 to the present. Atmospheric tests are in red. Underground tests are in yellow. Underwater tests are in blue.

While many consider nuclear weapons out of vogue, a relic of the Cold War, in many respects, they are making a comeback in strategic circles.

Consider the following from a recent TNI column noting America’s new B61-12 weapon:

“Yet the most dangerous nuclear bomb in America’s arsenal may be the new B61-12.

Much has been written about the B61-12, most of which has focused on its enormous cost. And for good reason—it is the most expensive nuclear bomb project ever.

In terms of sheer destructive capability, the B61-12 is nowhere near America’s most dangerous nuclear weapon. Indeed, the bomb has a maximum yield of just 50-kilotons, the equivalent of 50,000 tons of TNT. By contrast, the B83 nuclear bomb has a maximum yield of 1.2 megatons (1,200 kilotons).

What makes the B61-12 bomb the most dangerous nuclear weapon in America’s arsenal is its usability. This usability derives from a combination of its accuracy and low-yield.

In terms of the former, the B61-12 is America’s first nuclear-guided bomb, As Hans Kristensen of FAS notes, “We do not have a nuclear-guided bomb in our arsenal today…. It [the B61-12] is a new weapon.”

Indeed, according to Kristensen, existing U.S. nuclear bombs have circular error probabilities (CEP) of between 110-170 meters. The B61-12’s CEP is just 30 meters.”

Could we see additional future tests make an appearance in the video below (hat tip to the Lowy Interpreter)? 


August 1945: A Snapshot of U.S. Maritime Strategy in the Pacific

The Buzz

When Japan surrendered 70 years ago this month, the United States stood supreme in the Pacific.  Only the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy had surface combatants that could roam freely from the Indian Ocean to the East China Sea and these remained a fraction of the massive “Big Blue Fleet” the U.S. Navy had deployed.  With the exception of Taiwan, parts of the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese archipelago and a smattering of isolated South Pacific atolls, the entire offshore island chain in the Western Pacific was under the control of the United States and its allies.

Continental Asia was another matter.  U.S. and Commonwealth forces had advanced across Burma, but Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean peninsula were under the control of Soviet forces.  The U.S. government would rush battle-hardened veterans from Okinawa to occupy the southern part of the Korean peninsula and leave the vast expanse from Mandalay to Hanoi under Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command (SEAC– which American officers derided as the “Save England’s Asian Colonies” command).  In the next two decades this weak purchase on the mainland would cost over 100,000 American lives in Korea and Vietnam as policymakers debated how far to invest in the security of Continental Asia.

With respect to maritime Asia, however, there was little debate.  As Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King told the press on July 24, 1943:

“…after this war, whether we are criticized for imperialism or not, we have got to take and run the Mandated Islands, and perhaps even the Solomons. We have got to dominate the Pacific.”

King spoke for the entire naval establishment and the majority of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s senior advisors.  After fighting a bloody island hopping campaign across the Central and Southwest Pacific, there was broad consensus that America’s post-war defense line had to lie on the offshore island chains and not Hawaii or the West Coast.  As early as 1943, Navy Secretary Frank Knox ordered a review of which air and naval bases the United States would need in the Western Pacific after the war.  The U.S. Army Air Force, which had used offshore islands to such devastating effect against Japan, also came to appreciate that opponents with strong air forces did not necessarily need a large navy to threaten U.S. interests in the Pacific if they had access to air bases on the islands. Roosevelt’s closest advisor, Harry Hopkins, had confided to General Joe Stilwell that after the war the United States must have strong bases in Formosa, the Philippines, “and anywhere we damn please.”  The President’s liaison to the Chiefs of staff, Admiral William Leahy, told the President that it was critical for the United States to hold all the islands taken in the Pacific as permanent bases and not to turn them over to the UN. And in July 1945 Knox’s successor, James Forrestal, explained in testimony before a joint session of the Senate and House Committees on Naval Affairs in July 1945, the United States had to seek naval superiority in pivotal areas, including “the waters contiguous to Japan and to the Philippines.

Roosevelt was an avid student of Alfred Thayer Mahan and a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and understood the inherent importance of the offshore island chain to the security of the Pacific and the United States itself.  But FDR was also an anti-imperialist and a fervent believer in a new collective security order centered on the “Four Policemen” of Britain, China, Russia and the United States.  He mused throughout the war that the offshore island chain could host bombers to keep an eye on Japan and maintain stability after the fighting stopped.  The offshore islands were critical, he concurred, but within the context of collective security.  To the dismay of key advisors, Roosevelt turned the Kuriles over to Stalin at Yalta and agreed to put the former German colonies in the South Pacific under UN Trusteeship as a way to prod the French and British to do the same with their former colonies.  JCS planners, who had studied taking the Kuriles to bomb Japan, warned that the islands were “the obvious springboard of the most possible route of attack on us” by Soviet forces after the war, but they could not sway President Harry S. Truman from fulfilling Roosevelt’s plans in the final allied summit at Potsdam on July 18, 1945.

Over the next five years, the Navy lost political momentum in the rush to demobilize after the war.  By 1950 the Big Blue Fleet was reduced to a small fraction of its former strength, with only one carrier, two destroyer divisions, three submarines, and a pair of auxiliary ships. Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously excluded Korea from the American defense line in his January 1950 National Press Club speech.  That June, the North attacked the South.  Truman’s first reaction on hearing the news, was to ask about the threat to Japan and the offshore island chain.  The vision of offshore island control advanced by King, Knox, Forrestal, Hopkins and Leahy now became the centerpiece of U.S. strategy in the Pacific.  And though rarely stated as such, remains the centerpiece today.

This piece first appeared in AMTI’s website here

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia