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Amb Sheelkant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA
A Global Nuclear Order in Crisis
Why China is Using NPT to Block India's Entry into the NSG
Forecast 2016: Fruits of Diplomacy
US-Russia and Global Nuclear Security: Under a Frosty Spell?
India's Nuclear Capable Cruise Missile: The Nirbhay Test
India-Australia Nuclear Agreement: Bespeaking of a New Age
Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Musings on the Bomb
The Second Nuclear Age in the Asia Pacific
Iran Nuclear Deal: Regional Shadows
Ukraine: Implications for Global Nuclear Diplomacy
Nuclear Security Summit 2014 and the NTI Index
Nuclear Power: An Annual Report Card
#5422, 22 January 2018
A Global Nuclear Order in Crisis
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative of India to the UN Office in Vienna & the IAEA

The year 2017 saw the iconic clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists slide to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. It is set closer than ever to the brink except in 1952 when US-Soviet hydrogen bomb tests within six months of each other had pushed it to two minutes to midnight. In fact, the furthest it came from midnight was 17 minutes in 1991 after the end of the Cold War with a raft of nuclear arms control measures agreed by Washington and Moscow. In the past 26 years, that reassuring distance from doomsday has again diminished steadily as deterioration rather than improvements have been the hall mark of great power relations. Besides, since 2007, the danger of a climate change catastrophe has combined with nuclear peril in the analysis of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

The last hopeful moment for this clock was in 2009 when the  Nobel Prize for peace was awarded to President Obama. That was an investment in hope aroused by Obama’s pitch on abolition of nuclear weapons and his inclination to drafting a Nuclear Posture Review much less prone to resort to nuclear weapons (all he could eventually muster in 2010 was narrowing the definition of the country facing an “extreme circumstance”). In contrast, last year’s Nobel to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for its determined campaign for the Ban Treaty had a marked sense of despair. In just eight years, hope has given way to rising unease and hopelessness.

As things stand today, even tentative global rules – written and unwritten – for managing the nuclear age and avoidance of nuclear war have suffered severe damage. The damage appears to have been to the core. These rules as one understood them comprised a seven decades-old informal taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, a tacit assurance among nuclear weapon states about not crossing red lines regarding respective security sensitivities, and observance of the international as well as bilateral treaties and understanding. All that compendium is severely undermined today by a number of threatening developments. A fervent urgency to respond with finality to North Korea’s provocations and North Korean actions in continued defiance are on one end of the spectrum. The weak response to the Ban Treaty by the nuclear weapon states while dismissing its clarion call figures somewhere in the middle. The inherent logic of the Ban Treaty’s prohibition is not challenged by those rejecting it. Among the argumentation adduced for their rejection are the familiar deterrence stability theories and security architecture based on nuclear weapons and also fears about the adverse impact of the Ban Treaty on the long-standing NPT.

A breakdown in communication between Moscow and Washington about the path-breaking treaties of late last century seems to be almost complete with openly voiced intentions on their part to outstrip the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing new medium range missiles. The entente among the P5 about managing a world with nuclear weapons is at its weakest. Politics among nations seem to override today the almost century old wisdom of commonly pursuing agreed restraints on weapons; restraints which commenced with the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and progressively gained heft in the half century after World War II. The chimera still burns of a miracle breakthrough in technology that would trounce one’s adversary by beating all technologies of weapons, both offensive and defensive. Outlaws like North Korea meanwhile resolutely pursue the trodden path to acquire and test old-fashioned nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The past year saw a harrowing spectacle of it in North Korea’s tests of hydrogen bomb and long range missile capable of hitting mainland US; capped by the threat of a demonstrative atmospheric nuclear test. Were that to happen the comity of nations would backtrack to 1980 when China had last conducted its nuclear test in the atmosphere.

 There is no realistic chance in this setting of nuclear 'haves' agreeing to move further on reductions or even accept declaratory constraints on use of nuclear weapons. India and China maintain No First Use (NFU) doctrines although given the miasma that prevails, such exceptions are likely drowned in uncertainty.

The roots of this uncertainty stem from widening divergence and lack of trust among Russia, China and the US on security, growing gaps in their approaches to global tensions, including in Ukraine, North East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, and flaring up of dangerous psychoses in West and South Asia against Iran, Syria and in Afghanistan. One captious ground against the ‘deterrence-only’ role of nuclear weapons has been extended deterrence, which seems to be challenged when South Korean president shows his pronounced unease about the dangerous nuclear war rhetoric. South Korean preference for dialogue and sanctions is reminiscent of Helmut Kohl’s Cold War Oestpolitik and the panic of many in Germany as potential victims of deterrence failure rather than beneficiaries of European missile deployment. 

The passionate advocacy of the Ban Treaty falls short of carrying conviction with those toward whom it is directed. Only a minority among the nine nuclear-armed states values the merit of the campaign which highlights that the world is just "a tantrum away" from doomsday, to quote from the Nobel ceremony. The latest news reports indicate that a draft US Nuclear Posture Review in US visualises a devastating cyber attack as an "extreme circumstance” for resorting to use of nuclear weapons. A host of questions arise about likely pre-emption or retaliation targets and a repeat of post 9/11 arguments about terror attacks justifying nuclear weapons’ use. On the other hand, reports about Russian possession of an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven intercontinental nuclear torpedo portend a new spiral of escalation.

There is, for an optimist, a faint trickle of light that shines on North Korea’s upcoming participation in the Winter Olympics in South Korea and prospect of dialogue or positive turn of events there, Iran deal’s surviving yet another killer deadline and unconfirmed informal contacts between US State Department officials and counterparts in Moscow on these issues. The enlightened appeal of the Ban Treaty in these trying times, however, is for doing much more than clutching at straws in the wind.

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#5041, 27 May 2016
Why China is Using NPT to Block India's Entry into the NSG
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative of India to the UN Office in Vienna & the IAEA

There is unusual and shocking stridence in China's very vocal stand, and its timing, demanding adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the criterion for India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Such insistence on being party to NPT as condition is just a foil to China's opposition to India's NSG entry. Are the roots of China's opposition geopolitical?

NSG's objectives in regard to non-proliferation are met by India's consistent policies and practices conforming to global export control norms, non-proliferation goals and nuclear disarmament. The exemption granted to India by the NSG in 2008 was in recognition of India's record, commitment and responsible behaviour.

Over the past decade or so since that exemption was given, nothing has been done that should give rise to any doubts about India's commitments and performance as a recipient of nuclear transfers to meet its mounting energy needs.

As the US qualified in its 'food for thought' paper before the NSG in 2011, adherence to NPT was one of the factors for consideration but not mandatory for entry to NSG which in the US view rested on a combination of several factors.

These factors add up to the overall impact of a country's policy and practice in support of global non-proliferation goals. US has since categorically stated at the highest level that it considers India as meeting the requirement to join the NSG as a member.

China and the NSG

China's association with NSG is comparatively recent. It was neither the founder nor shaper of the evolution of NSG. Nor for that matter has China been a long time standard bearer for the NPT. It began moving towards NPT in measured steps in the mid-nineteen eighties when it needed to import nuclear technology for power in the hay day of Sino-American bonhomie.

The Safeguards Agreement that China signed with the IAEA in 1988, INFCIRC/369, was a voluntary offer agreement along the lines of those done by the other P5 states i.e. nuclear weapon states.

However, in contrast with other P5, China makes no mention of NPT in INFCIRC/369.

In fact the 1992 accession of China to NPT might have been chronologically convenient in this regard. Be that as it may, China's subsequent agreement with the IAEA in 1998, which was an Additional Protocol to its 1988 safeguards agreement, even that makes no mention of NPT or China's commitment thereto. Thus even the legal commitments of China with the IAEA are bereft of any NPT reference while all other P5 make it a point to refer to the Treaty.

France, which like China, acceded to NPT in 1992 had maintained nonetheless that even from outside the treaty fold France behaves as if it was a party to NPT.

While acceding to the Treaty itself, China did so as a nuclear weapon state and thus was absolved of any verifiable obligation. China's statement at the time of accession played down legal implication of the preamble and Article VI concerning cessation of the arms race and nuclear disarmament.

That statement wrapped the legal aspects of its treaty commitment in a welter of generalities. It is worth pointing out that China at that time (in December 1991) had formally declared that it would first like the countries with the largest nuclear arsenals to make drastic reductions.

Disarmament was extensive and promising then as things stood in end 1991 between Washington and Moscow (after Soviet collapse). In the past quarter century, from the stockpiles of much more than fifty thousand weapons the US and Russian Federation have brought numbers down to around 1500 each - which still does not qualify for the "drastic" reductions for China to join the process. And as for the arsenals of France and UK, according to western assessments even Pakistan is rearing to surpass them within a decade.

Furthermore, there were certain expectations of the 2010 NPT Review Conference from the P5. However, the non-proliferation annals do not find Chinese record edifying in the least in meeting those expectations even partially as compared to P5 peers. This makes it hard to dismiss comments that China generally has a free ride in the global order.

Whenever the UN Security Council deliberated on North Korean defiance through nuclear tests in flagrant violation of international norms what would be China's counsel? It advised US and other concerned parties to the Six Party dialogue to engage with North Korea and called for all round restraint, thereby, implicitly condoning North Korean tests as common responsibility of Japan, South Korea and the US.

Only lately has there been some glacial movement on China's part when the impact of Iran deal on global opinion is in stark contrast to North Korea's January 2016 "Hydrogen Bomb", and subsequent missile tests. 

 This short foray into China's record on NPT is based on well documented accounts. And one has avoided on purpose details of the story of China's nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, for whose comfort perhaps Beijing now shocks India by displaying its hand on NSG entry.

China had last invoked the NPT for India in concert with the United States in the June 1998 Joint Statement while reacting to India's nuclear weapon tests. At that time China told India about "mainstream" global norms against nuclear tests - norms which it had conveniently flouted in 1996 just before finalisation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

At any hand, a great deal of diplomatic energy has since been fruitfully invested between not only India and the US but also between China and India. Much water has since flown in the rivers in China and India as the two countries have forged strong bilateral cooperation with 75 billion dollar of peak annual trade and sustained exchange of visits and dialogue at the highest levels.

China stridence about NSG can hardly be the zeal of a 'new convert' since it has scarcely treated NSG with the seriousness with which those who support India's entry have treated. US, France, UK, Russia as well as Germany, Canada, Australia and Japan attach due importance to the NSG and are in favour of India's entry.

An example of the high importance attached was the US Congressional requirement of a NSG waiver for India before a vote could take place on the India-US Agreement on Nuclear Cooperation. China, in contrast, while joining the NSG is reported to have explained away its transfer of Chashma 3 and 4 to Pakistan as the 'last transfers' under the so called grandfather clause.

Nonetheless, a decade later it contracted to supply several more reactors to Pakistan and explained nothing to the NSG. Therefore it comes as a jarring note when China expounds about NPT's criticality in regard to India's NSG admission.

Originally published by Catch News on 24 May 2016, here. Reprinted with permission.

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#4976, 29 January 2016
Forecast 2016: Fruits of Diplomacy
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA

But for the Iran nuclear accord, the year 2015 would have been a wasted year for arms control and non-proliferation. All high praise and superlatives marking Iran’s implementation of the nuclear deal with P5+1 are fully apt. Iran’s entry into the global nuclear community was sealed on 19 January 2016 in the statement by the Director General of the IAEA that "Iran is a normal state."

The IAEA’s professional contribution in this context has been outstanding. The tireless diplomatic marathon that brought this about and the leadership provided by US and its partners in P5+1 have been unprecedented. They would not have made headway without the sagacity, wisdom and forward looking disposition of the leadership in Tehran, particularly after the 2013 elections. In terms of dispelling war clouds and letting diplomacy win in the Middle East, one can find in it shades of Anwar Sadat’s fateful diplomatic offensive resulting in the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, which too, in a sense, had foreclosed repetition of a full-scale war. However, the peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear imbroglio is truly in a class of its own, without a parallel.

Its larger political impact will take time to show. However, to fully grasp the importance of the nuclear accord, a brief historical prelude may be pertinent. The nuclear file on Iran which the IAEA scrambled to construct in 2002 has grown over the past decade plus, and has entirely new features different from past experience with proliferation. The 1990 disclosures about Saddam Hussain’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme had already led to substantial strengthening of IAEA safeguards through the 1990s under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including the Additional Protocol to the mandatory comprehensive safeguards.

After a series of undeclared and suspicion-causing nuclear activities in Iran came to light in 2002-03, the IAEA prepared a questionnaire and sought closer engagement under its Statute to come to grips with the implications of Iran’s actions. Iran responded by fielding a team of negotiators with IAEA as well as the EU-3, namely, France, Germany and UK. This team was then led by present President Rouhani in his earlier avatar as Chief Negotiator. With efforts on EU’s part, there seemed a chance and a fledgling hope in late 2003 of Iran resolving the issues and coming clean. However, the opening up and readiness of Iran to accept obligations under the Additional Protocol, pending ratification - which Rouhani was able to do - was not enough for its interlocutors. They conveyed the strict US demand for a complete cessation of suspicious activities, total transparency about what was underway, and unhindered access to sites in Iran to IAEA inspectors for monitoring and verification of Iran’s compliance with enhanced safeguards obligations under a provisional Additional Protocol.

This was a tall order for Iran and failed to get any traction whereas new evidence surfaced from Libya about Iran’s forays into nuclear weapon design and related work. By the end of 2004, a downward spiral set in on Iran’s engagement with the EU interlocutors and the IAEA. What followed 2005 onwards was massive and defiant escalation of all nuclear activities in Iran even as it carried on with implementing the IAEA’s NPT safeguards minus the Additional Protocol. Thus the Iran file gathered mass through monitoring, inspections, and analyses as well as open source and intelligence inputs by several states – all of which figured in the regular reports to the Board of Governors under a special agenda item on Iran every quarter. In addition, Iran’s alleged breach of safeguards obligations was referred to the UN Security Council, much to Iran’s annoyance.

While negotiations, in spite of the shadow of Security Council sanctions, still continued from 2005 till 2012, they were marred by upsets. The upsets were caused by revelations of undeclared nuclear activities such as a huge new underground centrifuge plant for uranium enrichment, a plutonium reactor project, heavy water production and trappings of a range of processes dealing with uranium metal in chemical forms suitable for possible weapons purpose. On the other hand, as Iran’s credibility dipped, the UN Security Council kept up with more censure and tighter sanctions; also covering Iran’s ballistic missiles program. Iran chose defiance and set on course to build, operate and refine thousands of centrifuges and amass tons of low enriched uranium by 2011, as its right under the NPT, even while complying with the IAEA’s inspections and verification. There was increasing clamour during 2011-12 about a military solution and resorting to force alongside sabotage of Iran’s nuclear programme. The vice grip of tighter sanctions by the US, UN and EU became nastier on Iranian society.

The challenge for diplomacy to find a modus vivendi in this difficult situation was two-fold. First, Iran’s interlocutors sought to compel it into full compliance with obligations under the NPT, to roll back its huge enrichment venture at every place, and to abandon the plutonium reactor project and all suspected activities with possible military use. Second, to reduce all capacity and capability of Iran to a level which would rule out a ‘break out’ scenario under which, like North Korea, Iran too could at some point in time scrap engagement with the IAEA, expel inspectors, terminate safeguards and give up on the NPT to proceed to weaponisation. Since Iran, however, held that its nuclear programme was permissible under the NPT, that it remained in compliance with the NPT and that it had no weapons programme, the interlocutors’ demands were dismissed as being without any justification based on facts.

The stalemate hardened and led to mounting threats of the exercise of a military option both by Israel and the US. It is in this scary backdrop that a change of guard took place after general elections in Iran in 2013 and President Rouhani assumed office, with the blessings of Supreme leader Khamenei.

As it turned out, informally and through back channels with the US, President Rouhani’s team was already exploring options to turn the page on the impasse and to explore negotiating options for the lifting of sanctions. A very consistent and serious endeavour, therefore, was made on the part of all sides to seek a breakthrough by talks not just under the P5+1 format but also bilaterally between the US and Iran.

This endeavour bore early results by November 2013: Iran accepted a specified scaling down and verifiable freeze of all its alleged nuclear activities in return for limited sanctions’ relief; pending the time-bound pursuit of a comprehensive solution through intensive negotiations under agreed terms of reference.

The first taste of success was in the outlines of a comprehensive deal which emerged by April 2015 even though it faced sustained opposition from hardliners in the US, Israel and in the Gulf states as also by the religious orthodoxy in Iran. The outlines indicated that both sides had bridged the gaps substantially on multiple aspects to block all pathways for Iran to acquire a bomb in return for lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions. The mainstay of the vehement campaign against an accord was the breakout scenario – i.e. regardless of the nature of Iran’s expanded commitments, what if Iran were to rescind them all at the time of its choosing and rush for the weapon?

The accord at hand today has effectively addressed this breakout dimension and it is here that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) marks another leap on the non-proliferation front. This leap goes further than the mandate of the Additional Protocol and comprises closer, continuous monitoring of the permissible running of about 6,000 centrifuges for 3.6 per cent enrichment at Natanz by, among other things, latest equipment capable of real time data transmission; the IAEA’s control on dismantled parts of more than 12,000 centrifuges and the plugging of all gaps in the IAEA’s information base about military dimension of Iran’s activities – none of this was hitherto imagined within the NPT’s legal remit. Iran has demonstrated its resolve and openness by accepting this vastly expanded IAEA role, albeit only within a specified and limited timeframe. The IAEA’s 15 December 2015 report is a landmark on non-proliferation annals in that it brings out in the open Iran’s past undeclared dabbling in military use of nuclear technology and details how that has ceased.

There were instances after the Cold War, of South Africa, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus returning to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states but the IAEA’s verification of that transformation was nowhere as intrusive and extensive as it is in Iran’s case. It is here that the disclaimer in the JCPOA as well as the related Security Council resolution that the agreement with Iran does not set a precedent is pertinent. This protects Iran’s emergence, by and by, as a ‘normal’ member of the international community, as the timelines set by the JCPOA kick in and sanctions are lifted. It possibly also sets at rest apprehensions about the IAEA’s expanded non-proliferation mandate being applied elsewhere.

Nonetheless, in terms of new and advanced verification and compliance activities by the IAEA – and that too with a cooperative negotiated process bearing the UNSC’s stamp – the Iran agreement has scaled new frontiers and established new benchmarks.

No wonder that the successful implementation of the deal has engendered an all-round trust that underpins the mainstreaming of Iran not only within the nuclear community but also the global economy and trade. Iran is confident that it richly deserves the end of its isolation even as it voices its undiminished scepticism about the West and eschews broader cooperation. The US too remains careful and delicately balances claims about the success of diplomacy with a good deal of caution; particularly not to let die hard domestic critics of the JCPOA impede implementation of the deal in this election year. Hence the broader political ramifications would need to be harnessed with a calibrated pace.

Ruffled sensitivities are in full display among Iran’s neighbours who in these past several decades became confident of a new regional dispensation against Iran whereby even the Persian Gulf of all history was being rechristened as mere ‘Gulf’, if not Arab Gulf. Iran’s emerging from isolation in the new avatar seems set to shatter that confidence. With the nuclear shadow out of the way, Iran’s allegations against its detractors may not be so easy to dismiss, especially in regard to grappling with the Daesh menace and resolution of the crisis in Syria. Hence, there is severe unease among the US allies and partners in the region. At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jing Ping’s much heralded visit to Tehran shows how others are rushing in to capitalise on the opportunity. Pakistan too, by visits of its prime minister and the army chief to Iran and Saudi Arabia, is exploring ways to derive what advantage it can in the situation. The question naturally for a New Delhi observer is what initiatives India should be contemplating at this juncture.

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#4752, 20 November 2014
US-Russia and Global Nuclear Security: Under a Frosty Spell?
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Offices in Vienna & the IAEA

It is twenty years since acute concern about unauthorised and malevolent access to sensitive nuclear material and radioactive substances, particularly from successor states to the former Soviet Union, roused the international community in 1994. Nuclear security has since remained at the centre of post-Cold War cooperation between the US and Russia over these past two decades - till that cooperation was given severe body blows by the chill that has set in the relations between Putin’s Russia and the West. While the immediate root of this frosty development lies in Ukraine and Crimea, President Putin’s Sochi speech last month seemed to lay down a new manifesto for a Cold War redux. The APEC summit in China and the G20 meeting in Australia earlier this month failed to dispel the frost and, on the contrary, hardened it as the Russian president was cold shouldered and treated with concerted tough talk by his Western interlocutors.

Even prior to these summits Russia had put an end to the twenty year process begun by the famous Nunn-Lugar team in the US to salvage nuclear material, technology and installations in Russia and its Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as Moscow used to describe them. This programme championed by the Nunn-Lugar team has been a success story that now risks being burnt up by the exacerbating diplomatic fracas with Russia. Even someone as committed to the transformation of East-West relations as Gorbachev has voiced fears about a renewed Cold War.

The Nuclear Security Summit process which has been the high point of Barack Obama’s presidency, and supported widely by 59 states, is not spared anymore by an irate Russia which has advised US and all concerned that it would only work for nuclear security within the IAEA framework. Russia announced it would not join the Sherpas’ meetings for the next NSS which is going to be hosted by US in 2016. There has been in addition a whole slew of international initiatives geared to securing nuclear materials, facilities and the enterprise in general from threats of terrorism. In all of these Russia had been an active and willing partner. Since its nuclear enterprise remains vast and as diversified as that of the US it is hard to visualise the future of all those initiatives without a well disposed Russia.

Fear of nuclear terrorism has gone up a few more notches in the past year due to the unmitigated horrors disseminated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and its propensity to stop at nothing. Among the elaborate action points deliberated and recommended by the Nuclear Security Summits so far, not all are limited to the IAEA even though its centrality has been progressively underscored. The principal requirement in grappling with threats to nuclear security is the combined unbroken pressure from moral, diplomatic, civil society and legal angles. The existing legal instruments and the Security Council edicts are still in the formative stage of enforcement. Undiminished support and cooperation of all major countries with nuclear materials and technology is the sine qua non. It remains to be seen how Russia will play ball in diverse forums.

There have been critiques of the post-Cold War world order, some of them quite harsh too, but to leverage such critiques to a particular situation of conflict and tension, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This applies to both sides of the tense situation in Ukraine just as it does to the ongoing talks about Iran’s nuclear future. A relapse to a Cold War-like division of the world would benefit no one just as it did not help even during the heady years of the last Cold War. Neither the triumphalism that marked the 1990s nor a panicked reassertion of destructive power as witnessed in recent months can help in stabilising international nuclear diplomacy, be that in regard to non-proliferation or strategic arms reduction or nuclear security. The edifice created over the past two decades in regard to each of these spheres merits preserving.

Absence of negotiated agreements has also presaged a host of sub-legal or voluntary arrangements to fix the problems posed by inadequate controls on nuclear material - these voluntary arrangements ought not to be interrupted in pique or partisan parsimony as in budget cuts in the US Congress on valuable nuclear security programmes. As regards the centrality of the IAEA, that has also been a result of the growing common understanding about a range of voluntary steps that have been generally supported over the past two decades such as peer reviews, advisory services or collation of related data banks or coordination of intelligence and forensics among different organisations.

Prime Minister Modi stated in Canberra this week that we do not “have the luxury to choose who we work with and who we don’t.” This sentiment remains key to strengthening and sustaining a norms-based order to cope with new age threats like nuclear terrorism. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism are two significant examples in this regard. The entry into force of the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material can be a big step forward where cooperation of major players remains crucial. 

It is to be hoped that the tough talk possibly conceals quiet diplomacy to restore balance and stability in great power relations and pave the way forward. Until there is progress in that direction a climate of suspicion is unlikely to help global endeavour towards greater nuclear security.

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#4713, 22 October 2014
India's Nuclear Capable Cruise Missile: The Nirbhay Test
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Indian Permanent Representative to the UN Office in Vienna & the IAEA

India’s test of the nuclear capable cruise missile Nirbhay last week was immensely significant in two ways. First, it marked the culmination of DRDO’s efforts of not only the past decade but also the ambitions of its heads. It was in 1987 that the then DRDO Chief Arunachalam is reported to have said that he was launching a study towards making a cruise missile like the then famous Tomahawk. The then Soviet Union had agreed with the US in 1987 to the historic INF Treaty; eliminating, inter alia, a whole class of medium range missiles including the nuclear capable ground launched cruise missiles of range 500-5000 km. The INF treaty then was the high point of interest for disarmament and armament aficionados going all the way up to then PM Rajiv Gandhi and therefore it was smart to want to study how the Tomahawk came into being. Even so, 37 years is a rather long time. However, given the enormous constraints and challenges under which the DRDO works in India the successful test is certainly “better late than never.” This is especially so since China savvy Pakistanis have already tested the Babur missile several times and like to brandish it to silence any tough talk by India about their transgressions across the border or trans-border terror outfits functioning from Pakistani soil.

Second, a cruise missile like Nirbhay has two main components, namely, the rocket launching it into space and the propulsion system that kicks in after the missile separates, brings out its wings and flies like an aircraft. The second component has been advanced in several stages from the original cruise missile that the Germans toyed with almost seven decades ago during World War II. Its latest version uses supersonic propulsion, not subsonic, and the scramjet engine for that purpose is also in its second if not third decade, ever since the Russians tested a cruise missile with supersonic speeds around 1994. The Indian technology elite must come up to the table to be counted. That India still tests an indigenous cruise missile with turbofan engine and can claim all parameters working to copybook precision is more on the side of contentment than resolve to really make it to the big league. If the Maruti 800 of 1980s vintage is surpassed today by much better Indian cars, why should India remain satisfied with claiming success about a strategic system that belongs well in the last century?

As regards encouragement to Indian scientists and engineers, a comparison with the subcontinental rival may be instructive: the maker of the Pakistani bomb had to suffer only the optics of incarceration by a military regime despite serious allegations and pressure from donors and allies, whereas a top DRDO scientist in democratic India has to suffer post-retirement for due diligence demanded by compulsions of jurisprudence in regard to dismissal of a lower-echelon employee, unconnected with acquisition of cutting edge technologies or state of the art missiles.  

The problem that the defence institutions face in India today must not be suppressed by patriotic pride about the accomplishment, which is justified at all times, but must be addressed head on. Why is India not able to make the engine fly the state- of-the-art aircraft? The Light Combat Aircraft is a project going apace with DRDO but with an imported engine with attendant restrictions. The Brahmos missile is supersonic but its range is MTCR compliant under 300 km and its engine is Russian. Former President Abdul Kalam is on record talking about the hypersonic missiles in his time as DRDO head as he propounded a 2020 vision. That was at a time when India had just emerged post 1998, shattering global misperceptions about its inherent strength and external powers’ erroneous complacence about India’s timidity (that it would not dare to cross the Rubicon). However, the DRDO has had to languish in the past decade plus with sub-critical progress on the technology front even when the only superpower recognised Indian prowess and appeared well disposed to see India’s rise, particularly in the technology arena.

The pace of the global march of advanced technology is far too quick for our establishment’s glacial responses and capricious working environment. Just let us look at the present controversy between the US and Russia about the latter’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty by testing advanced cruise missiles supposedly proscribed by the Treaty, and the Russian counter-allegation about the US testing and deployment of systems covered by the Treaty’s remit. Regardless of how Moscow and Washington settle this issue or fail to do so, the current reports have a Cold War ring about them, are becoming voluminous, and show the sheer sweep of new technologies that are in the works. The world is on the cusp of a veritable new age of weapon systems for long and short range strikes, with or without nuclear weapons. These technologies are as usual dual purpose and subject to controls - but such controls were also in vogue twenty years ago when, for instance, the Chinese weapon systems were still of much older vintage and were struggling to come of age. Nonetheless, the hype about China, then as now, would remain hard to fathom - then about its impending irresistible rise and now about its having arrived with real strength and considerable clout over today’s technology. So, the lesson is to plan for at least two decades hence, provide the scientists clear policy guidance, required support and protection from systemic infirmities, and an atmosphere for perseverance and striving.

Just in case this emphasis is mistaken for trite arms race enthusiasm, it must be stated that the arms race is in any case already thrust upon India, either from behind or from the front by its colluding neighbours. An action like the testing of an older missile system like Nirbhay too might bring the moral high priests against it and it would not be a surprise if old hat clamour surfaces about destabilisation in South Asia. But in the end it is the prowess that is recognised and cutting edge ability that is respected. DRDO has miles to go before it can have a justified - and overdue - boast in that regard.   

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#4650, 8 September 2014
India-Australia Nuclear Agreement: Bespeaking of a New Age
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA

The conclusion of a nuclear cooperation agreement between India and Australia last week is indeed a landmark achievement for their bilateral relations. Before leaving for his India visit, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was confident of reaching an agreement with India as he stated in Canberra that “We ought to be prepared to provide uranium to India under suitable safeguards.” Considering the chasm that separated their positions twenty years ago on the main issues in the global nuclear mainstream, Abbot’s statement bespeaks of a coming of age. He declared in India that “…there is a very high level of trust between us, and that is why we are signing this agreement.” Australia has provided full assurance that it will be a long-term reliable supplier of uranium to India. Australia also supports India’s joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a member.

The agreement will also cover other key areas in nuclear technology such as supply of isotopes and cooperation in regard to nuclear safety. Although Australia does not run nuclear power plants, it has an extensive nuclear enterprise comprising not only mining but also research in diverse areas including, for example, on making the safeguards system more effective. It is to the credit of India’s nuclear program that it receives recognition from Australia in unequivocal terms, like “trust” and scrupulous adherence to international laws “regardless of the ups and downs of the political situation in New Delhi.” This level of understanding and confluence of mutual interest takes the relationship to a truly strategic scale of cooperation; energy being central to it.

Looking at Australia’s immense natural resources and the vast unpolluted continent that lies at its disposal, Canberra’s role and profile in international arena in the coming decades will certainly grow much bigger. So far, it has played a modest role in the Asia Pacific compared to its potential albeit as a dependable and steadfast US ally and a robust economic partner for ASEAN and China. India and Australia, as the Joint Statement issued after the prime minister’s visit demonstrates, are set to do a whole lot of things together for mutual benefit. The nuclear accord encapsulates and symbolises that coming together just as the seminal agreement between India and the US did in 2006. In recent years, a definitive sense has emerged in the Australian worldview that a strong and prosperous India will be a factor for peace and stability in Asia and the world.  

Coming to the uranium metal, its fortunes fluctuate wildly depending on the temperamental swings of the mass psychosis about “radiation” on the one hand and the inexorable push of nuclear power as a relatively cleaner and sustainable energy option for the energy hungry planet. From its highs in the short years of nuclear renaissance in the middle of last decade, uranium prices have come down to nearly half that peak post the Fukushima disaster and subsequent sharp retardation in nuclear power prospect – not only in Japan and Germany but also in liability-obsessed India. India’s vacillation on nuclear power projects is particularly shocking since its power needs today exceed its production by figures that approach a 100000 Megawatt and even coal fired thermal plant capacity languishing in shortfalls as big as 90000 Megawatt due to fuel crunch, according to some estimates. It is significant that Australia has come forward as a reliable supplier not only for nuclear fuel but also for coal.

An uninterrupted supply of uranium and its augmentation to meet the requirements in Indian nuclear power plants will also raise their capacity factors to record highs.

As it is the global openings since the US deal have brought enormous improvements in fuel situation and the Rawatbhata nuclear power plant units today can boast of achieving a global peak in continuous, unbroken running of a plant.
Australia has, along with its neighbour, New Zealand, considerable moral clout in the realm of global nuclear and advanced technology. India should benefit from the Australian leverage for its entry in the NSG – Australia has kept the nuclear option out for meeting its power needs despite its vast uranium resources.

So, its support may hopefully carry greater clout with conscientious objectors of nuclear power like New Zealand, Austria and Ireland that are not easily persuaded to relax the rules for India. The commercial factor in uranium deals, while important for the Australian mining industry, is hardly so big as to be accused of driving its government’s stance in the energy debate. The environmentalists, as Prime Minister Abbott has stated, are a highly significant lobby in Australia – that constantly oversees the mining industry to ensure that the green standards are observed to the utmost level of satisfaction.

It now remains for the company representatives from both sides to thrash out the details of contract terms for supply of uranium. India’s Nuclear Power Cooperation Limited has been keen to build lifetime inventories for suitably safeguarded nuclear plants and would naturally want to obtain long-term supply guarantees. This should not pose a problem to arrive at, given the India’s record commitment to its safeguards obligations.   

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#4621, 21 August 2014
Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Musings on the Bomb
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA

August is the month of remembrance of the ghastly tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such remembrance is far from a mere annual routine of some ritual happenings – there is no dearth of moral, ethical, legal or humanitarian condemnation of those two atomic bombings. Even at the risk of being repetitious, these occasions merit every word uttered, every gesture shown, every action demanded and visions invoked, inspired by the memories of those towns and their people who were eviscerated. The contrived relief of non-repetition of that horror falls flat when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists displays its doomsday clock close to midnight.

The best and brightest of the last century who took part in that Manhattan Project before 1945 had serious qualms as the days progressed in July 1945 to the Trinity Test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, which would turn the ‘gadget’ into a ‘bomb’. They were, most of them, opposed to its use against Japan; and their revulsion has been detailed in numerous books.

As for India, it is a peculiar coincidence of history that even though it was trapped in the chains of a dominion struggling for independence in 1945, lacking its formal say in the then comity of nations, an ardent scholar in the person of the father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, invoked India’s cultural heritage of the millennia past. Oppenheimer, as is widely known, recited a shloka from the Bhagavad Geeta on seeing the ‘gadget’ explode in the Trinity test in July 1945: ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ was the metaphor from the Bhagavad Geeta; and a science historian, Robert Jungk, titled his account of the Manhattan Project with this metaphor. “I am become Death, the destroyer of the worlds” recited Oppenheimer from the Bhagavad Gita.

There is another quote from Indian scriptures in Sanskrit which Oppenheimer translated and read to another physicist on 11 July (five days before the Trinity Test):
“In Battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”

This was reflective of the inner torment of the scientist who, nine years later, would pay for his sanity and sincerity in the McCarthy era; when he was humiliated and incarcerated as a security risk. Those times are recalled to point out how uncertain and unfounded the claims were of those who came to justify the bombing of Japanese towns in the face of revulsion from the great scientists. In fact, as the history of that period shows, practically every danger that is attached to nuclear weapons today, including nuclear terror, was visualised even in that period just after World War II.

It has become conventional wisdom to speak about deterrence theories in the context of nuclear weapons. It is taken as almost a given that nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapons because resorting to their use has not been repeated since 1945. Study and analysis of deterrence doctrines and theories has generally proceeded basically from a rational, game theoretic process, the provenance of which can also be traced to military procurement, deployments, logistics and inventory control during World War II that preceded nuclear bombs, and such provenance is rooted in the technology of that era. On the other hand, the unravelling of the nuclear age has brought to the fore a difficult diversity about approaches, technologies, compulsions and purposes for acquisition and amassing of nuclear weapons. This diversity is not amenable to simplistic norms, understandings or solutions.

In the disarmament lexicon enormous weight is placed on ‘universalisation’ or universal acceptability. However, a reality check tends to show that among various nuclear-armed states, both existing and potential, the underpinnings of nuclear deterrence theories are scarcely universal. They vary according to countries, regions and situations. In fact the march of history in recent decades has catapulted well-worn concepts and theories of deterrence into an expanding universe, as it were, where the seekers find convergence progressively more and more elusive. Theory therefore faces today big challenges and severe limitations in the actual realm of various nuclear deterrents. The spectre of deterrence failure persists and cannot be banished until nuclear weapons are abolished.

Even after acquiring nuclear weapons, for example, a State need not automatically achieve autonomy of decision-making because the security contexts, stakes and inter-play of diverse priorities that are inherent to its international situation and its political economy may differ substantially from what may be applicable to others. On the one hand there is the original war-time motivation and military exigency of developing a weapon - to end all wars - which lay behind the advent of the nuclear age. On the other hand, the subsequent evolution of the pursuits of that deadly weapon by multiple nations lacked that war-time exigency. The more the nuclear age sank into the great divide between East and West, and thence to MAD doctrines of ‘total war’ and extermination of the enemy, the more it moved away from the acute and intense phase of conventional war-fighting (eg in the Pacific after April 1945). The theoretical constructs to justify nuclear weapons after the war delved into conflict planning and management, crisis prevention, escalation control, and gaming consoles, and thus a whole architecture of national nuclear deterrents. In each of these dimensions closure on complex issues got more and more rooted in the political economy of the States concerned, thereby eluding the tight grasp, say, as was held by the military leaders at the inception of nuclear armament. The scientists, historians, economists, business, industry, political parties, and a whole spectrum of interest groups inevitably developed direct stakes and came to influence decision-making. This, as records coming out of the former Soviet Union also show, applied even behind the Iron Curtain, albeit with far less transparency. While the Cold War still offered an overarching compulsion to downplay and hide divergences within each block, the end of the Cold War and the fall of the USSR had taken away that overarching and compelling force from the dynamic of deterrence planning, notwithstanding the continuance and expansion of NATO.

Latter day theoretical constructs and inventions such as discriminate deterrence, or the ‘war on terror’, struggled to lend a semblance of totalisation to an inherently uncontainable universe of deterrence discourse and arms competition. Technology has played its role in confusing the picture and offering illusions of breakthroughs via the pursuit of invincibility. But each such illusion has led to more complex and interactive competition and theoretical abstractions. Missile defence is the most prominent example of this complexity, but the push of technology does not stop at missile defence alone and an entire range of futuristic options, such as cyber warfare or hypersonic missiles or global prompt delivery vectors are jostling for the attention of the most advanced economies. However, at a different level of technological advance and in an altogether different setting, this evolution mutates in other forms.

Take the subcontinent. Its main arms competitors a decade ago were approaching nuclear stockpiles of roughly 45-60 according to some estimates. Were they less secure than today when that magic figure may be over 100? In what way has that figure of 100 granted more operational manoeuvrability or control on the use of the oft-parroted strategic assets to further essential national interests or defend them? Regardless of the received wisdom of deterrence theories from older nuclear weapon States, the inherent features of the political economy of newer weapon States render their weapons in varying shades of purpose or uselessness. In the case of Pakistan, the politico-military elite may struggle to view its assets in triumphal terms and may, as is widely believed, treat them as a certain guarantee under which it seeks to pursue and promote jihad. This is entirely different from India’s case where its domestic challenges of poverty and comprehensive economic development, and of transcending social tensions and exclusion within a democratic polity find no panacea in nuclear weapons - which remain a categorical imperative rooted in the vulnerability flowing from its external security environment. The dialogue between the two remains mired in a hopeless predicament given the elusive grasp of each other’s motivations and compulsions. Moreover, this predicament belongs to a universe orthogonal to or detached from the space within which they articulate their deterrent doctrine or posture and justify their build-up.

In human history, wars, weapons and their exigencies came and went over time but nuclear weapons have created powerful illusions of permanent presence and need – the sustenance of which hardly squares up with the political economies of the States involved. Hence, probably, the quest for non-proliferation sometimes mutates into a desperate quest for ‘regime change’ as part of strategies for non-proliferation. This is also because the idealists and rationalists find no rationale for the pursuit of nuclear weapon capability except as obsessions of particular political groups or regimes. Be that as it may, so long as nuclear arsenals are in the possession of powerful countries, there will always be others who would aspire to possess them - alas!

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#4499, 9 June 2014
The Second Nuclear Age in the Asia Pacific
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA

President Obama’s West Point speech in 2014 reflected a qualified fatigue with internationalist causes. The recent Chinese comment on North Korean threats about an impending test had an interesting term in cautioning its difficult but important neighbour: that there is no justification for a new nuclear test and that North Korea should not do it. It implies some kind of acceptance of the status quo. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ye during his Seoul visit continued to press for all in the six party talks to persevere peacefully towards a denuclearised peninsula. Visits and parleys among key members of the six nations, with a focus on North Korea, including Japan and North Korea, indicate chances of a reactivation of the process. Meanwhile, Russian anger against US and the G7 is being cited as reason for Moscow’s new look at expanding relations with Pyongyang. Russian support has expanded over the past one year and particularly since the onset of the crisis in Ukraine.

Russia has waved huge loans (US$10 billion) owed by North Korea since the Soviet times and has offered US$1 billion for a trans-Siberian railway project through North to South Korea, received North Korean president at the Sochi winter Olympics and sent a ministerial delegation on a visit to Pyongyang to sign up on important economic and trade cooperation. This refashioning of ties between the Cold War allies might add heft to Pyongyang’s hard stance for resumption of the six party talks without preconditions. The G7 brandishing to Putin more sanctions for Russian actions in Ukraine may have the effect of diminishing Russian interest in tighter sanctions on North Korea. As for Japan, a distinct possibility of Prime Minister Abe making a visit to North Korea is being seen in the announcement in the Diet by his foreign minister about an upcoming official visit. Some headway has been made in a meeting in Sweden in the direction of the return of the Japanese kidnapped in North Korea and Japan’s provision in turn for food supplies. This may also be helpful to resume the six party talks.

The growing tensions in Southeast and East Asia between China on one side and Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines on the other are giving rise to new ways to deal with China, but possibly without disturbing the existing non-weapon status of the highly developed Japanese and South Korean nuclear enterprises. The so called break out fears, much talked about in the context of Iran, do not come to fore because of the impeccable record of Seoul and Tokyo with the IAEA. However, China has begun to raise questions about the high plutonium holdings of Japan. The reason advanced by Japan, namely, plutonium to meet fuel requirements for its breeder programme, may be less credible in the wake of Fukushima-induced anti-nuclear sentiment. As for Seoul, it appears inclined to try non-nuclear options like building its own ground-based mid-course missile defence to cope with nuclear threats from the North, instead of contemplating any deterrent route.

Within US too there are the long-held views being reinforced by profound thinking that foresees far more problems for strategic stability in case new allies develop their own deterrent. Hence the reinforcing of US rebalancing and commitment to the Asia-Pacific allies as witnessed in the annual Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore in end-May 2014. US Defense Secretary Hagel was so candid in voicing concern about China’s threatening actions in the South China Sea that the Chinese reacted equally forcefully and virtually told Hagel to lay off.

These are the facets of diverse approaches for the management of the second nuclear age in the Asia-Pacific and do not provide much reassurance. The latest Pentagon reports show that China is underreporting its defence expenditure by 20 per cent and suggest that the correct annual figure should be US$145 billion, almost four times that of India and ahead of Japan. China’s air force is said to be growing at an alarming rate, including with development of advanced drones and testing of hypersonic missiles, which when combined with earlier stories about its SSBNs and improvements in its strategic forces, send unmistakable messages about where China is headed. The recent US Justice Department’s charges against Chinese generals about cyber attacks against US businesses and China’s strong reaction and counter-charges against the US demonstrate an escalation of the Cold War-like rhetoric in Asia.

Putin’s closeness to China as reflected in the conclusion of a US$400 billion, thirty year, gas deal and a host of others including about defence procurements as well as Russian-Chinese joint veto in the UN Security Council are indications of emerging new configurations in geopolitics. These will call in to question what was suggested even as recently as 2012 by the Yale Professor Paul Bracken about an abiding common interest of the existing great powers in managing the second nuclear age (ie the age when new proliferating States emerge). If anything, China and Russia appear to be set to devising ways to mount a concerted challenge to what the Chinese openly call US hegemony.

This is the short take from the dynamic that is evolving in Asia. The news story about Russian arms to Pakistan in this setting should raise Delhi’s heckles – the new fangled diplomacy of Kerry and Hagel to woo Pakistan (propensity of US think-tanks to reward Pakistan with a nuclear deal), Russia’s indulgence, and China’s all-weather friendship firmly backing its trusted ally compounds the strategic scenario for India. A perceptive remark by a former Indian Ambassador to Russia is poignant to the US-India situation: “The US has been looking to cooperate with an India that is strong enough to be a balancer of China but (should not be strong) enough to cause concern to Pakistan.” Talking of paradoxes, the US is not alone. China’s position for continued peaceful engagement and diplomacy about North Korea, and its consistent reluctance to put Pakistan or its terror outfits on the spot is in contrast with the increasing severity with which it reacts to Japan and bristles over outsiders counsel on maritime disputes with Japan and in the South China Sea.

China has generally refused dialogue with India as a nuclear weapon state invoking what it called the international mainstream (eg NPT) whereas on Japan and South China Sea it rejects anything that differs from its own national hard line regardless of the weight of international mainstream, eg, UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, freedom of navigation and security of the sea lanes. 

In short, rules are less and less likely to govern the evolving uncertainties in Asia except the inherent strength and might of nations, or a concert thereof, backing whoever takes a stand. This is the setting for the first high level Sino-Indian diplomatic engagement which begins over this weekend. As a special envoy of Chinese president Xi, Foreign Minister Wang Ye is set to meet the new government in Delhi with a message comprising all the right and reassuring points.

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#4388, 14 April 2014
Iran Nuclear Deal: Regional Shadows
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & the IAEA

There are indications of further substantive progress in P5 plus Germany’s negotiations with Iran in the latest round in Vienna. Iran has shown readiness and given plans to change the design of the Arak research reactor to drastically reduce plutonium in its spent fuel. While Iran has no reprocessing plant and the Arak reactor is still under construction, the plutonium production risk has been one of the main sticking points about Iran’s nuclear programme. The comprehensive agreement which the negotiators hope to achieve by July 2014 looks distant still. It will need considerable hard work and has 50-60 per cent chance of happening by the deadline; going by the comments of the Chinese and Russian negotiators after the latest round.  

Iran’s stance as revealed in statements by the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif remains consistent with its line since November 2013, that it will take steps to reduce the enrichment level, output and stocks at both locations alongside agreed improvement in transparency and access required for IAEA’s close monitoring. While the Iranian part of the deal is focused on its nuclear programme the other side, particularly the US academics, congressmen and the Israelis have shown differing views of what should constitute an acceptable agreement to reward Iran with lifting of sanctions. On the one hand, despite the heightened tensions about Ukraine, Russian negotiators seem to show that there is no impact on their (constructive) role in the P5-plus-one process. On the other, there is a rising domestic chorus in the US putting pressure on its negotiators about the full range of demands from Iran in these negotiations.

In recent weeks, more and more concern has come up front that mere nuclear concessions by Iran should not earn it the desired sanctions relief. The regional impact of Iran’s role and policies has loomed large in recent weeks as evident in commentaries about the visit of President Obama to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East shuttle diplomacy of Kerry, the role of Hizbullah and the situation in Syria since the failure of Geneva II.

An article in the Washington Post co-authored by Gen Petraeus on 10 April about these negotiations with Iran goes to the extent of putting the clock back on the entire contour of the Iran imbroglio over the past two decades. Petraeus and his co-author stress that “a successful nuclear deal with Iran could result in the United States and its partners in the Middle East facing a better-resourced and, in some respects, more dangerous adversary”. This, they argue, is ‘because sanctions relief would bolster Tehran’s capability to train, finance and equip its terrorist proxies’ and therefore ‘sanctions related to terrorism should remain in place’ and should even be enhanced. Another very exhaustive paper by well known US non-proliferation scholar, Robert Einhorn, spells out the strict requirements of a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran – while stating at the outset that he does not at all address the sanctions relief part of the bargain. Israel’s position on the accords since November 2013 has been of stout negation of anything good in this process since it would only relax the hold of tight sanctions on Iran and remove its isolation – and with no sight of reliable nuclear guarantees.

Ironically, if such arguments receive greater credence, they would reinforce Iran’s innate fears from the very beginning that the whole nuclear issue has been raked up with ulterior regional aims. This line was probably felt in Tehran particularly starkly in 2002-03 in the context of a similar case against Iraq. Hence perhaps the concessions that Iran was offering in its talks with the European-3 (Germany, France and UK) in October 2003. The whole point of the relaxation of the situation after Rouhani’s election in 2013 and subsequent back channel progress between the US and Iran was to reach a breakthrough with a limited focus on Iran’s nuclear programme and sanctions relief. Iran is on record stating that the deal will be dead if sanctions persist.

In a worsening situation, if these talks founder, Iran’s regional concerns too might come to the fore and pull back its leadership from the statesmanship demonstrated over the past year. The reports about Saudi Arabia’s mounting unease with prospects of Iran emerging from the cold and speculations about Riyadh’s drastic review of its strategic posture are significant. Mutual apprehension between Iran and Saudi Arabia and suspicions about the likely Saudi nuclear outsourcing to Pakistan are likely to enormously complicate the situation. Iran-Pakistan strains have been skillfully managed so far despite provocations arising out of sectarian strife in the region, the reported role of Pakistani regular or retired troops in Bahrain, and recent stories about Pakistani jihadis having joined the opposition in Syria.

Sartaj Aziz has hinted at Pakistan’s mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and going by past history of Pakistan’s deft and uncanny ways in this regard, it might be difficult to rule such stuff out in the unfolding scenario of leverages and diplomacy. Is nuclear-armed Pakistan thus again on the threshold of a big role post the US exit from Afghanistan, with its human resources deployed in Syria and who knows where else, and go-between diplomacy elsewhere? Are the straws in the wind about the likely relaxation of US (and NSG) strictures on nuclear Pakistan integral to any larger pattern, overlooking the terrorism angle? 

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#4332, 10 March 2014
Ukraine: Implications for Global Nuclear Diplomacy
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA

The news stories of the past week are a powerful throwback to an era to which we thought the world bid goodbye in the 1990s – the mutually opposing stance of Russia and the West on the developments in Ukraine, Russian troops in Crimea and the US-Europe combined talk of sanctions against Russia are heating up the theatre. The attack on President Putin by the US State Department through a point-by-point rebuttal and Moscow’s repartee thereto are vintage Cold War stuff. Still, John Kerry and Lavrov have held meetings in Paris and Rome and the US and EU are working on exploring diplomacy alongside threats of visa refusals to Russians, sanctions, and even skipping the G8 meet in Sochi - the list is growing by the hour. The problem can be characterised in a number of ways. It is bilateral between Russia and Ukraine, European because of Ukraine being under Russian coercion against joining the EU, transatlantic because of the 1994 agreement about Ukraine between the US and Russia, and multilateral in view of its shadow over the G8 summit.

This puts paid to the hope that came to life in September 2013 with a breakthrough on Syria between the US and Russia and the successful launching of chemical disarmament of Syria under OPCW, the historic November 2013 agreement in Geneva of Iran with the Group of 6 i.e. US, EU, France, Germany, Russia and China – which hinges on the removal of on Iran. It is anybody’s guess how Russia could endorse continued sanctions on Iran by the same powers who are threatening it with sanctions about actions which Russia considers dictated by its legitimate interests. China, which has been building a closer and closer partnership with Russia over the past decade has suddenly lapsed into its Cold War style equivocation of ‘be good’, ‘be peaceful’ advice to both sides without any word to show its understanding with the Russian position on Ukraine. To Iran’s credit so far, its team in Vienna and Paris are carrying on the positive track set by the November agreement and subsequent arrangements worked out in January this year. Iran has even stated that Ukraine would have no influence on its continued work with its interlocutors.

While the resolution of the Iran imbroglio seems like work in progress, questions arise about a full-range of bilateral, regional as well as multilateral agendas. What will happen to bilateral nuclear accords between US and Russia? This is not only about reduction in strategic arms but also important processes like the Megatons to Megawatts programme whereby Russian-origin HEU is down-blended and burned in nuclear power plants to produce power, which is substantial and earns revenue for Moscow up to as much as USD 25 billion. Will sanctions under consideration in the US derail this process that started in 1995 around the same time that newly independent Ukraine surrendered the strategic weapons on its territory to Russia and acceded to the NPT? Even the burning of excess plutonium as MOX has been part of the US-Russia cooperative threat reduction programme.

The process which has since continued over the past two decades comprises valuable assets in diplomacy. Russia has worked with US and its Western allies on practically all disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation initiatives. President Obama’s Prague speech and subsequent launch of the biennial Nuclear Security Summits has so far received Russian cooperation with participation at the summit level in Washington and Seoul. Will warnings issued now from Washington and others from the G7 to skip the Sochi Summit in June affect Putin’s approach to the Hague Summit later this month? That seems more and more likely as the East-West contention over Ukraine gets worse. The NSS with the participation of 53 countries has meant a lot in a time of multilateral paralysis on nuclear disarmament and arms control. Without Russia, it will be much less credible.

The actions of both sides seem to come in a time warp – the Russian missile test of last week and possibly another to come soon, the invoking of NATO’s article IV by some US allies led by Poland for consultations, the hard-liners in Washington making reckless demands (including expulsion of Russia from the Security Council?) on a president they consider weak and indecisive, Secretary of State John Kerry’s tough warnings despite continued contacts with his Russian counterpart, talk about Russian troops in Crimea implying end of diplomacy are ominous pointers to what might go wrong. With all unresolved tensions still festering in Asia and the Middle East, the entrenchment of a Cold War mentality is bound to be for no one’s gain. Putin may show military muscle to drum up nationalism and brandish Russian strategic systems but will he gain anything? The Europeans are still looking for saner options and seeking to dispel tensions by cooperation with Russia and Ukraine but Russian refusal to meet the new leadership in Kiev is like Western refusal to do anything with the besieged ruler of Syria. Will money from the EU, IMF and other institutions to Ukraine uplift its sinking economy; especially if the worsening situation in Crimea can derail Russian economic interdependence with the rest of Europe? There is too much at stake and even if Europeans succeed in defusing the crisis, chances for which seem fainter than ever before, the taste of bitterness may persist and would virtually stall all forums engaged in diplomacy based on global coordination among great powers and emerging countries. Non-proliferation and arms control will be just the thin end of such a cold war redux.

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#4300, 10 February 2014
Nuclear Security Summit 2014 and the NTI Index
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA

President Obama’s major initiative launched in Washington in 2010 will enter its next stage with the convening of the third Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague. The fourth one is set for Washington in 2016. This process of Nuclear Security Summits is unique in many ways. It has brought together Heads of States/Governments from over  fifty nations to discuss, define and put in action a concerted global campaign to deal with the challenges posed by nuclear terrorism by addressing threats to nuclear enterprises from theft, sabotage, unauthorised access with malevolent intent, subversion of personnel and terrorism in general.

The heightened concern about certain aspects of security of nuclear enterprises, that is, of nuclear material including uranium and plutonium and radioactive substances involved in various nuclear facilities, reactors and nuclear fuel cycle, has been there since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The US took the lead in 1994 in getting the IAEA to commence a whole spectrum of activities to prevent and combat illicit nuclear trafficking and to enhance physical protection of nuclear material and facilities. In parallel, the hugely successful Nunn-Lugar programme was also launched bilaterally with Russia to salvage nuclear material in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.

Initially the effort was driven by fear of proliferation but it assumed a magnified threat perception after 9/11 since it was felt that suicide-bands of non-State actors could lay hands on nuclear material or dangerous radioactive substances to create mass panic or attack nuclear reactors to release radioactivity. While the responsibility to comprehensively enhance protection of nuclear enterprises to avert, prevent and combat such menace lay squarely on the governments concerned, support has steadily grown for international response through cooperation and assistance including through provision of equipment and advisor services, sharing of best practices and broad awareness raising about danger of nuclear terrorism.

The IAEA has completed several five-year action plans to help its member states, on request, in diverse aspects of nuclear security in the same way as it has put in place a systematic programme for assisting countries regarding nuclear safety. While safety-concerned public health implications of the phenomenon of radiation is inherent to peaceful uses of nuclear energy and has received funding from the regular budget, the security-related programme has generally been funded by extra-budgetary contributions led by generous US funding.

The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process raised the level of international action and concern to the highest and gave a significant political profile to all related programmes in nuclear security, whether bilateral or multilateral. Participating governments have been sensitised and spurred to act owing to a high level interest in the Summit process, preceded by preparatory ‘sherpa’ meetings and careful drafting of declarations and recommendations for action. The impact of these summits is comprehensive in that all facets of the menace are addressed, such as reducing nuclear materials (usable for bomb-making) in reactors by converting them to fuelling with lower levels of enriched uranium, eliminating surplus stocks ofsuch material as was the case with several successor states of the former Soviet Union,  adopting measures for greater security and control such as on-site physical protection, better accounting and control, prevention of threats from insiders and capability for effective response to any security-related event.

Global norms have been emphasised in terms of legal commitments internationally, such as adherence to the twelve terrorism-related legal instruments and voluntary commitments following internationally recognised IAEA recommendations and guidelines. However, global commitments in this regard being limited in scope, the NSS process also stressed voluntary building of domestic capacity to address challenges to nuclear security, for example, by strict regulations and an effective regulatory body, legislating domestic laws for security of nuclear material, and legally effective controls on non-State actors in keeping with landmark UN Security Council resolution 1540. In addition, since the IAEA’s safeguards system provided an effective route, in particular, to keep track of and account for nuclear materials, adherence to proper safeguards was also part of the slew of recommendations from the Summits. The overall purpose of these summits will be served in assembling the full set of building blocks for nuclear security architecture to be adopted by states concerned in appropriate ways by international legal instruments, domestic legislation, assurances through invited peer review mechanisms and a widely accepted security culture.

Since this entire gamut of actions can be seen by different states in different perspectives of non-proliferation or nuclear disarmament, the NSS process has been inclusive while respecting sensitivities of states that are parties to cardinal nuclear treaties such as the NPT and bilateral and multilateral accords and arrangements. In this sense the Obama initiative on NSS might serve to alleviate to some extent the effects of the current void in international negotiations aimed at effective nuclear arms control; the credibility of the initiative being bolstered by Obama’s Prague and Berlin speeches for a nuclear weapons-free world.

It is a no-brainer that no approach today would be perfect to address safety, security and proliferation challenges posed by nuclear enterprises the world over, diverse purposes of which range from limitless deterrence credibility to clean and safe energy for sustainable development. However, it is to the credit of the NSS Summits that more or less all countries with capabilities in nuclear technology are encouraged to join and invited, notable exceptions like North Korea notwithstanding.

Since the time India has been welcomed into the global nuclear mainstream with the historic nuclear cooperation agreements with the US, France and other key countries, it has become natural for India to be expected to play its due contributory role. As a developing country it was unprecedented for India, for instance, to announce a million dollar voluntary funding to IAEA’s nuclear security programme, and it reflected preference to IAEA’s central role which was also underlined by the NSS process. The long standing standard-bearers of the global nuclear order have their preferences and practices, at the same time, to which India’s approach need not be of an outsider. In keeping with its long-term plans for exploitation of nuclear energy as a critical part of a right energy mix, India’s association with the global mainstream has to be consistent and forward-looking. Hence, the association of India with the NSS process to the fullest and continued participation in it.

An off-shoot of the NSS process has been a narrowly focused civil society project by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) which has sought to create a template to observe and gauge the state of global nuclear materials security readiness through a NTI Index. It attempts to present a biennial snapshot of how weapons-usable nuclear material is secured worldwide. The second issue of the NTI Index is out but it is yet to make a desirable impact, perhaps due to grading of countries on a set of criteria that have shades of prescriptive ‘one size fits all’. It needs to respect government sensitivities and predispositions to preferred national approaches to nuclear materials security. The tricky part may be how to provide due weight to areas to which particular governments attach priority given their specific situation.

A process of realistic assessment of international preparedness would have benefited from giving, at least, space for self-assessment of countries alongside the NTI team’s view of them. The goal of global nuclear security is too critical to brook contributions which risk being seen, arguably, as one-sided, and no matter how rigorously done internally, the test of any endeavour to nuclear- materials security mapping should be coherence with the main NSS process. The grading by the Index, despite its limited focus on nuclear materials, may lead some to gloating on a good score card ascribing overall national prestige while in other cases it may be viewed as an affront.

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#4255, 13 January 2014
Nuclear Power: An Annual Report Card
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA

The global nuclear power scenario showed signs in 2013 of gradually emerging from the post-Fukushima freeze. The impact of Fukushima remained still formidable in Japan as the year saw the trickle of persistent bad news from the Daichi units in Japan and TEPCO struggling to cope with the problems. Prime Minister Abe, however, has made concerted effort to bring some traction to the Japanese nuclear industry. As the year ended, sixteen Japanese nuclear power units had filed applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority for restarting the power production. Globally, the diminishing trend in both capacity and output witnessed in 2011-12 due to Fukushima induced shut-downs in Japan and Germany seems to have stopped in 2013. While four reactors were permanently shut down in the US, new reactors were connected to the grid elsewhere, three in China and one in India (Kudankulam). Thus, the total number of operating reactors worldwide remained the same. Nuclear power’s share of world electricity production also remained around 11 per cent.

For the first time since 1974, construction commenced of two new reactors at two sites in the US. These new reactor projects were among ten that started worldwide, including one in UAE. Who in the 1970s would have imagined that the Emirates too would launch nuclear power projects?

The US posted the best global figures so far regarding the actual generation of power from existing nuclear plants. The US achieved through steady improvements high load factors and its best performing reactors now make up nearly half of the global top 50 performers – even as the four reactors that were shut down were reported to have diverse insurmountable problems that had plagued their continuation. At the other extreme, the Philippines, which had mothballed its 621 MW nuclear power reactor, built by the Westinghouse in the 1980s, was actively considering  restarting it - the IAEA in a study done in 2008 had concluded that the plant could be run safely and would be economical too if suitable upgrades were done. The Korea Electric Power Company which was hired to conduct a feasibility study for the Philippines government had recommended that the plant be refurbished.

In the context of the rising power demand, it is yet to be seen whether the severe winter storms that have raged in North America and Europe would reinitiate the skepticism about nuclear power’s role in the energy mix; skepticism that was spawned by the Fukushima aftermath. It is not wind nor solar that could provide an assured base load in such emergencies. 

As for new reactor designs, while the fast reactors still remain promising for the future, the SMR (Small Modular Reactor), also made headlines during the year, with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission giving it a nod. As the US Secretary of Energy stated “Small modular reactors represent a new generation of safe, reliable, low-carbon nuclear energy technology and provide a strong opportunity for America to lead this emerging global industry.” The US Department of Energy also authorised funding for SMR and reflected the drive in the US for new technological options for future energy challenges. It is relevant to quote the US Secretary of Energy in this context - “We think these technologies, and there are a multiplicity of them, as you know, (and) are very, very, very promising. Very interesting features, passive safety features, nice security features, underground siting, factory production, hopefully driving down costs, more flexibility, including flexibility in financing inherent to the scale, but of course we won’t really know about the cost performance until we get small modular reactors out there.” In the light of these clear positions it would not be correct to underestimate, as some anti-nuclear campaigners in India persist in doing, the true potential of India-US nuclear cooperation in diverse ways. 

China remained the leader in new constructions even though in terms of global power outputs so far China figures near the bottom of the graph where lead entries are from Russia and the OECD countries such as US, France, UK, OECD Europe and South Korea. While China’s agreement to supply four nuclear power reactors to Pakistan has been in the news, what is not examined carefully is whether China may bid to emerge as a major exporter of nuclear power plants in the coming decades. According to a US energy analyst the International Marketing Head for China Nuclear Power Engineering Company - China’s largest nuclear plant builder - plans to dominate the nuclear power market worldwide, just with present technology. Thus while others debate about the Generation 4 technology and explore options to effectively answer nuclear power critics on safety, security, non-proliferation and waste management, not to mention public perceptions, the Chinese nuclear juggernaut might be heading its own way on just what China has. If such perceptions are valid, the sheer size of Chinese nuclear enterprise might cast a different spell on NSG proceedings. Who would in the suppliers’ cartel cross-examine China? India’s place is almost invisible in the global capacity graph for nuclear electricity with less than 5000 MW out of the global total of 375000 MW. So much for the realisation of promises articulated ten years ago.

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