A Lovely Day For War With Iran

Hey, what better way to spend the holiday weekend than pushing for yet another war?

I can’t imagine why anyone would think that a war with Iran is a good idea. We are already involved in two wars in the region, one of them a direct consequence of the 2003 war on Iraq. Iran is a larger country, in a more strategic geographic position. As I continue to read material from the warmongers, I recall a saying attributed to Michael Ledeen:

Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.

This, presumably, is consistent with the swagger Mike Pompeo wants to bring to the State Department.

The latest war drums began beating just before the holiday. Ambassador Kenneth Ward, U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons voiced concern that Iran has an ongoing chemical weapons program. The reports are thin, but it appears that the evidence for the concern is that Iran did not declare the transfer of chemical weapons to Libya in the 1980s, even after Libya declared those weapons to the OPCW in 2011. It’s not clear why this came up now, as it is hardly new news.

At about the same time, the New York Times published an op-ed by Michael Doran and Tony Badran from the Hudson Institute and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Both are highly conservative thinktanks, both of which have close connections to and probably funding from the UAE, an ally of Saudi Arabia against Iran. Jeet Heer wrote this up in a Twitter thread and a short post. Turns out the two thinktanks are friendly with a couple of sleazeballs that have turned up in the investigations of Russian (and other) influence on Donald Trump and the 2016 election.

Ali Gharib is also tweeting about this.

Matthew Kroenig, an associate professor at Georgetown University and deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, provided another set of justifications for war against Iran in an interview, a small masterpiece of bad faith.

Kroenig frames his concern in terms of nuclear nonproliferation, but what he is doing is making a case that can be used to justify war against Iran. He talks about “allowing” Iran to enrich uranium. There are two ways to “disallow” other nations from doing what we don’t want them to do: provide motivations to end the actions, or declare war on them. The JCPOA provided motivation to end Iran’s movement toward a bomb: ending sanctions and collaborative work with the rest of the world to develop peaceful nuclear power. That collaborative work, along with the IAEA inspections that were part of the deal and part of Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, provide eyes on Iran’s nuclear program as an early warning system against any movement toward a bomb.

Kroenig abstracts a warped reading of that to proclaim that the JCPOA was not in American interests. What he wants is regime change, although he dances around particular meanings of particular words to deny that. Everything is on Iran to change its behavior, according to Kroenig. No incentives to be given, with the United States out of the JCPOA. Only the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure.”

We may conclude, then, although Kroenig has denied this, that 1) the United States must “disallow” Iran’s uranium enrichment and 2) the only means to do this is pressure. Kroenig does not mention war, but his writing off the possibility of incentives leaves only war when Iran does not yield to sanctions and bluster.

The United States, of course, would have to prosecute such a war without our European allies, who continue with the JCPOA. Our major ally would be Saudi Arabia. And what they offer us is…?


Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.

Calling Cheryl and Adam, Impending Nuclear Holocaust Edition

Somehow I missed this kinda important story this weekend:

Donald Trump has confirmed the US will leave an arms control treaty with Russia dating from the cold war that has kept nuclear missiles out of Europe for three decades.

“We’ll have to develop those weapons,” the president told reporters in Nevada after a rally. “We’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out.”

Trump was referring to the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), which banned ground-launch nuclear missiles with ranges from 500km to 5,500km. Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, it led to nearly 2,700 short- and medium-range missiles being eliminated, and an end to a dangerous standoff between US Pershing and cruise missiles and Soviet SS-20 missiles in Europe.

No prizes for guessing whose fingerprints are all over this measured, well thought out decision:

The Guardian reported on Friday that Trump’s third national security adviser, John Bolton, a longstanding opponent of arms control treaties, was pushing for US withdrawal.

There are arguments! There always are.  In this case, it’s an allegation that Russia is violating the agreement w. a cruise missile development program, and that China is looming, outside the treaty.  I’m way out of the zone of what passes for my expertise here, so I’ll leave it to Cheryl and/or Adam to weigh in on these claims. Here I’ll just note both claims have the look of assertions that are drummed into service to fill in the gaps marked “pretextual verbiage needed here” on the form providing cover for what one wants to do anyway.

That view is strengthened, I think, by the fact that there isn’t a single arms control treaty these bloody incompetents have ever liked.

Bolton and the top arms control adviser in the National Security Council (NSC), Tim Morrison, are also opposed to the extension of another major pillar of arms control, the 2010 New Start agreement with Russia, which limited the number of deployed strategic warheads on either side to 1,550. That agreement, signed by Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, then president of Russia, is due to expire in 2021.

The early reviews for this buried, weekend news dump are what you’d expect:

Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said: “This is a colossal mistake. Russia gets to violate the treaty and Trump takes the blame.

“I doubt very much that the US will deploy much that would have been prohibited by the treaty. Russia, though, will go gangbusters.”

Old friend Mikhail Gorbachev adds:

Gorbachev, 87, wondered aloud: “Is it really that hard to understand that rejecting these agreements is, as the people say, not the work of a great mind.”


Gorbachev called Trump’s decision “a mistake” and “very strange.”

“Do they really not understand in Washington what this can lead to?” he asked.


And doubly, trebly concur with this:

“All agreements aimed at nuclear disarmament and limiting nuclear weapons must be preserved, for the sake of preserving life on earth,” he added, per the Times.

This is the true measure of the GOP betrayal of America.  They knew who Donald Trump was long before he became President. They knew — hell the candidates, Cruz and Graham and the rest said so out loud — that he was the last person you’d want near the nuclear button.  And yet when the choice came down to tax cuts and an anti-abortion SC vs the safety and security of the United States…

They all got in line.  We, and the world, are in ever deeper peril as a result.

Oh — and one more thing? How is this not a huge story? Republican maladministration wants Europe back on a hair trigger?  I’m looking at the New York Times home page and it isn’t there.  Our media iz not lerning.

Image: Simone del Tintore (attr.), Still Life with Mushrooms, Fruit, a Basket of Flowers and a Catbefore 1708.

The Ambassador To NATO Should Know Better Than This

Another day, another run at nuclear war by the Trump administration.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO set off alarm bells Tuesday when she suggested that the United States might “take out” Russian missiles that U.S. officials say violate a landmark arms control treaty. (Washington Post)

Her words were

The question was what would you do if this continues to a point where we know that they are capable of delivering [the banned missiles.] And at that point we would then be looking at a capability to take out a missile that could hit any of our countries in Europe and hit America in Alaska.

This is ambiguous, and Nuclear Twitter lit up. The words are ambiguous, not clearly signaling that the bombers and missiles are flying or might any time soon. But “take out a missile,” particularly since the discussion of North Korea’s nuclear capability has been phrased that way recently, are dangerous words. It could refer to a preventive attack, or it could be a brag about more than our missile defense system is likely to be able to do. Either way, probably not a good idea to threaten our nuclear equals on the other side of the globe.

It turned out that she was talking about a threat that Tom Cotton and a few other warmonger senators have made: If Russia builds a missile that violates that Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and we think they may be doing that, then we will build something equivalent. This is a dumb response to a treaty violation, but that is the timeline we are living in now.

I’ve had some respect for Kay Bailey Hutchison in the past. What bothers me is that the US Ambassador to NATO should understand the current status of missiles relevant to the INF Treaty, Russian sensitivities about the possibility of a first strike, and how to handle the English language. It appears that all three of these were absent from the speech.


The 2020 Commission Report – Review

If you want to know what the next nuclear war will be like, read Jeffrey Lewis’s The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.

Nuclear weapons have been used only once in war, by the United States against Japan at the end of World War II. Nuclear war was imagined many times, however, through the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the two countries’ nuclear arsenals grew, the common understanding became that in a nuclear war, hundreds of multi-megaton nuclear weapons would be exploded, and the direct damage would destroy the countries involved. Most of us would die immediately, more in the aftermath. It looked like the end of civilization.

We don’t know exactly how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, but it’s in the tens, rather than the thousands of the Cold War. That changes the leaders’ calculations. If they face a war in which using those weapons is a serious possibility, they must use them before they are destroyed. So they must be alert to signals from their enemies that an attack might be coming.

Unless the United States responded with nuclear weapons and somehow Russia and China also sent their missiles flying, the result would look more like what Lewis describes than the Cold War imaginings.

The 2020 Commission Report reads not quite convincingly as a government report. It too many emotional words. But the format allows a view into how decisions are likely to be made in such a war.

When people write serious articles in serious journals about deterrence or nuclear war, they assume rational, fully-informed decision-making. After a war starts, emotions come into play. Communications are broken. Erroneous impressions or understandings of what the other side may do have been there all along. Read more

The Moon-Kim Summit

South Korea’s President Moon Jae In met yesterday with North Korea’s President Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. They participated in a parade and discussed the future of the Korean Peninsula.

It’s best to rely on the official English translation of their joint statement, rather than statements for the news media or by third parties. The Korean version is more reliable, but I don’t understand Korean. Here’s the part about North Korea’s nuclear program.

  1. The two sides shared the view that the Korean Peninsula must be turned into a land of peace free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats, and that substantial progress toward this end must be made in a prompt manner.
  • First, the North will permanently dismantle the Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform under the observation of experts from relevant countries.
  • The North expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon, as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK Joint Statement.
  • The two sides agreed to cooperate closely in the process of pursuing complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The bottom line is that much more negotiation that includes the United States is necessary. Specifically,

the North will permanently dismantle the Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform – This is a positive step, but North Korea has developed mobile launchers for its missiles, including the intercontinental missiles that can reach the United States. Building a new test site would not be difficult.

under the observation of experts from relevant countries – Again, a positive step to include experts. North Korea explicitly excluded experts from observing the tunnel closures at its nuclear test site. But “experts” and “relevant countries” remain undefined. Defining them will require more negotiation.

The North expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures – Willingness is not action, which is fine as long as we understand that.

as the United States takes corresponding measures – The North has insisted on an action-for-action program in which they take a step, and then the United States takes a step. This is not unusual in building confidence between adversarial nations. So far, the United States has insisted on large measures from the North with no promise of specific action from the United States. Look for statements from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on this subject. If he insists on complete denuclearization or a list of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, things are going nowhere. What constitute “corresponding measures” will require more negotiation.

the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon – North Korea has promised this before. Since it depends on the United States taking “corresponding measures,” it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. The common spelling in the United States is Yongbyon. It’s the obvious central nuclear facility for North Korea. Are there others? We don’t know.

in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK Joint Statement – Donald Trump talks about a handshake and personal understandings. North Korea talks about the Joint Statement. The DPRK is doing what is normally done in diplomacy. Secret personal agreements are no part of it.

The two sides agreed to cooperate closely in the process of pursuing complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – “Complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is a standard formula describing an ideal situation in the far future. It’s good to have this kind of long-term goal stated. So far, the United States has taken that phrase to mean unlateral disarmament by North Korea. Again, look for Secretary Pompeo’s statement on this.

Trump’s statements so far have been relatively moderate. Moon is playing a skillful game to try to involve Trump, which will be necessary as talks proceed. Kim is playing a skillful game to keep his nuclear weapons and his power.


Photo credit


Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.

A Russian Nuclear Cruise Missile?

Back in March, Vladimir Putin unveiled a number of new nuclear weapons. But they’re not operational, and, in my opinion, are unlikely ever to be.

One was the Poiseidon (Status-6) underwater drone, supposedly designed to hit the east coast of the United States with a radioactive tsunami. Oh, and did I say that it’s undetectable?

Another was a cruise missile powered by a nuclear reactor.

Except for the first few seconds, the videos are animations. This does not suggest a high degree of development. Read more

Doctor Atomic

For the first time, the opera Doctor Atomic is being performed at the Santa Fe Opera, just down the road from the events at Los Alamos that it depicts.  I attended the premiere and wrote a review of it for Physics Today, the magazine of the American Institute of Physics.

Open thread.