Michael KreponYear’s End Kudos, 2015 Edition

A year of mostly bad headlines is almost behind us. ‘Tis the season not to dwell on sorrows, but to remember reasons for gratitude and good cheer. So let us pause to acknowledge those who took steps to reduce nuclear dangers – steps that could yield greater benefits in the years to come. The Arms Control Association has its own list of worthy persons of the year, covering a broad spectrum. Topping my list are the prime movers and shakers in fashioning an agreement rolling back Iran’s capacity to produce fissile material suited for nuclear weapons.

Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Ernest Moniz received brickbats as well as kudos for their efforts in the United States, just as Hassan Rouhani, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Ali Akbar Salehi did in Iran. One measure of the potential value of this agreement is the extent to which hardliners in both countries and elsewhere are opposed to it.

Irreconcilables in Iran are pushing back with domestic repression and other provocations. Hardliners in the United States are also doing what comes naturally, pressing for Iran’s diplomatic isolation rather than engagement – a strategy that has heretofore yielded the centrifuges and fissile material stocks that are now being downsized. This inter-active process continues, with Iran’s sentencing of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian on non-existent espionage charges and the continued flight-testing of ballistic missiles. Hardliners on Capitol Hill will continue to respond by seeking to block sanctions relief.

Next year, the Obama Administration can expect more grief for trying to limit Iran’s bomb-making capacity, punctuated by repeated assertions that Tehran is violating constraints that weren’t part of the deal. Readers with long memories will remember when the Soviet Union was effectively accused of violating SALT I provisions on ICBM modernization – loopholes that the Nixon administration was unable to close. A campaign along these lines has now begun with respect to the repeated flight-testing of Iran’s ballistic missiles, which are not part of the deal but are the subject of a UN Security Council resolution. (Editorial in the Chicago Tribune: “Iran’s already cheating.”)

This is par for the course when negotiating with a bad actor: critics will reliably focus on what hasn’t been accomplished rather than what has. The utility of this agreement can only be demonstrated with the passage of time – if it can withstand implacable domestic opposition in both countries. The Obama Administration’s best defense against criticism is succeed at the primary goal of sustained reductions in Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Iran’s ballistic-missile flight tests warrant improved regional missile defenses and stepped-up efforts to shore up friends and allies. All are well underway.

The Administration will need continued support from allies on Capitol Hill. House Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dick Durbin deserve kudos for keeping defections within their ranks limited on the Iran nuclear deal, thereby giving the accord a chance to be implemented and preventing Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu from gaining a veto over U.S. national security policy in the Middle East.

Kudos are also due to the International Atomic Energy Agency for reporting on Iran’s prior work related to nuclear weapons, as well as what it could not find out because of stonewalling. The [strike the word “possible”] military dimensions of the Iranian program come as no surprise, which is why observable limitations on all of its key aspects are essential. Now the Agency will have the difficult task of insisting on proper oversight procedures during the implementation phase.

Many U.S. hardliners who bemoan the absence of the Obama Administration’s leadership abroad deeply oppose the two most striking examples of it – the Iran nuclear deal and on climate change. Obama and Kerry deserve more kudos for pushing for meaningful constraints on carbon emissions in the Paris climate pact (the official name is too long, even for an acronym). OK, it’s not nuclear-risk reduction, but the number of premature deaths due to terrible air quality as well as the casualty counts and costs of dealing with monster storms and rising waters mirror calculations of death and damage due to limited nuclear warfare. Climate change negotiations have so far succeeded where multilateral arms control negotiations have not, by engaging China, India, and Pakistan.

Kudos to Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, for taking on hard-core threats to internal security in 2015. Hemming and hawing politicians have followed his lead. Nuclear dangers in Pakistan cannot be reduced unless and until Pakistan gets its house in order. Skeptics abound as to whether Raheel will take on the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which has an extensive social-welfare network, but he’s already gone farther than his predecessors.

Kudos also to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who, after a few false starts, has agreed to engage Pakistan in ways that could significantly reduce nuclear dangers on the subcontinent. There are no arms-control treaties in the offing, and confidence-building and nuclear-risk reduction measures, while essential, can only help at the margins. The most direct way to reduce nuclear dangers on the subcontinent is to normalize relations between India and Pakistan.

Nixon went to China, and Modi is planning on a visit to Pakistan in the fall of 2016 – if spoilers don’t intervene. A.B. Vajpayee – the last Prime Minister from Modi’s political party– went out of his way to normalize ties, only to be foiled by Pakistan’s military leadership. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also wanted to improve relations with Pakistan, but was unable to do so, in large measure because of the 2008 Mumbai attacks carried out by the LeT with help from Pakistan’s intelligence services.

Modi has boundless energy and runs the show. His opposite number, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, does not. Progress on what’s now called the “comprehensive” dialogue can once again be blown up extremists and slowed to a crawl by risk-averse diplomats. Or Modi, Raheel and Nawaz Sharif might just be able to engineer positive results. The onus will be on Modi to offer serious initiatives, and on Raheel to shut down spoilers. Time will tell. But any time there is the possibility of nuclear-risk reduction on the Subcontinent is cause for thanks.

Kudos to the Government of Austria and others for calling attention to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons’ use, and for establishing an ad hoc, open-ended forum under the UN’s auspices to discuss measures to reduce nuclear dangers. Now comes the hard part: identifying, facilitating, and enacting specific measures. (More on this in a subsequent post.)

Lastly, kudos go to the McClatchy News Service for its investigative journalism reminding us that casualties of war extend far beyond battlefields. McClatchy’s team estimates over 33,000 deaths and over 107,000 casualties from cancers and other diseases incurred by workers building and maintaining the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

This is an admittedly short list of positives, especially compared to negative developments over the past year. Moreover, all of the positive steps taken by governments require difficult follow-up to realize gains. Even so, these accomplishments are worthy of praise. My advice when dealing with adversity is to remember the positives and focus on expanding their scope. We still have much to be thankful for at this time of family gatherings. Best wishes for a happy and healthy new year.


  1. Gregory Matteson (History)

    According to all the reports I’ve seen on the internet, the Iranian missile test was an operational test of an existing, liquid fueled and hence globally obsolete, missile from stockpile. Perhaps someone here can enlighten me as to how hectoring the Iranians for a technical violation of a UN resolution which they have never shown any inclination to honor advances the goal of preventing Iran from arming up with nuclear armed missiles, or for that matter advances the cause of security in the region?

  2. Bradley Laing (History)


    But surviving Air Force missileers, many of them interviewed for the first time, told Stars and Stripes the account is implausible. An investigation by this newspaper discovered their attempts to shoot down Bordne’s claims were ignored or hidden.

    The controversy unveils the little-known world of Air Force nuclear launch crews on Okinawa – many of them young enlisted men fresh from stateside training – who more than a half-century ago kept watch on the Soviets from reinforced bunkers during one of the most dangerous moments in human history.

  3. Anon2 (History)

    This might make you happy Prof. Krepon

    “A hug and high tea: Indian PM makes surprise visit to Pakistan”

    There is always hope.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Very pleasantly surprised, indeed.
      Mr. Modi is definitely capable of surprise. He is a man in a hurry.

  4. ab sharma (@ab_absharma12) (History)

    Can we expect Italy to stop being sissy on their frivolous objection to India’s entry in MTCR.

  5. Carey Sublette (History)

    News of the departure of the Mikhail Dudin setting sail for Russia with Iranian enriched uranium on board should be a nice year-ending note.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      for sure.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)
  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    According to “Wikipedia,” although labeled as 2. 3 and 4, only three “Texas Towers” were built, and after the collapse of “Texas Tower No.4” they were decommissioned in 1963. Tower 3 was dismantled for scrap, but Tower 2 collapse with no one aboard, before it could be dismantled.