Melissa HanhamNuclear Claims at the First Debate

Nuclear weapons were on the agenda in last night’s debate. So, in the spirit of public service, Lauren Sukin and Selim Sazak take the liberty of fact-checking and analyzing both candidates in regards to nuclear policy in a guest post.

On The Threat Nuclear Weapons Pose

Hillary Clinton: The number one threat we face in the world [is nuclear weapons] and [that] becomes particularly threatening if terrorists ever get their hands on any nuclear material.

LS & SS: Hillary Clinton has qualified political scientists backing her claim (“Terrorists have made clear that they want nuclear weapons and are working to get them.”) Stealing nuclear materials is not only theoretically possible, but has already been accomplished. [MH: There have been hundreds of confirmed cases  of radiological materials that have been lost, stolen or otherwise gone out of regulatory control. While there are only a few cases of lost or stolen fissile material,] the security of stocks of potential bomb material is a source of concern.

Graham Allison famously wrote “a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States will be more likely than not in the decade ahead.” His prediction did not come to pass and remains a contested subject, with another camp of scholars, such as Daryl Press and Keir Lieber or John Mueller, who believe, respectively, that states will never give terrorists nuclear weapons and that terrorists “lack the means or the inclination to strike from abroad.”

On Iran and The Nuclear Deal

Hillary Clinton: [Before the nuclear deal] Iran was weeks away from having enough nuclear material to form a bomb.

LS & SS: This is mostly true. Three months before the signing of the nuclear deal, Harvard University’s Belfer Center published a study by former IAEA safeguards director Olli Heinonen, revealing that Iran had 9,000 functioning centrifuges and just as many inactive ones. At the upper range of estimates, Iran was said to be just six to seven months away from a nuclear weapon.

But the timeline could have been shorter–by some estimates, just two to four weeks. That’s because, first, Iran had amassed substantial stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride; had Iran been feeding this stockpile to its centrifuges, breakout time would have been just three months. Second, as much as half of Iran’s enrichment capacity was lying dormant. And Iran had already developed a more advanced centrifuge with a higher enrichment rate. Had all of Iran’s centrifuges been fully online, including the newer ones, the country’s breakout time would have been greatly reduced.

Donald Trump: This is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history. The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems…Hillary Clinton: If he’s going to criticize a deal that has been very successful in giving us access to Iranian facilities that we never had before then he should tell us what his alternative would be.

LS & SS: Trump’s opposition to the Iran deal has been uncharacteristically consistent. In the early days of the negotiations, Trump explained, “having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon, that’s in my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.” (Trump’s opponents, though, now view him as that very madman.) Trump criticized the deal for being too lax, repeatedly calling it “one of the great dumb deals of our time” and saying that, as president, he would “police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance.” As early as 2011, Trump asserted: “America’s primary goal with Iran must be to destroy its nuclear any and all means necessary. Period.” As is his forte, he never offered much in the way of specifics.

Is Trump right? Probably not. The White House called its deal, “the historic deal that will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” An all-star, bipartisan roster of national security and arms control experts support the deal. Even erstwhile critics like Gary Samore, Obama-advisor-turned-Iran-deal-opponent have endorsed the deal. Here’s an Arms Control Wonk visualization of the before and after.

Donald Trump: Iran is one of [North Korea’s] biggest trading partners. Iran has power over North Korea. And when they made that horrible deal with Iran they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea.

LS & SS: This rates as patently false. 86 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade is with China, accounting for $2.67 billion in exports and $3.49 billion in imports. India is Pyongyang’s second-largest export destination with a paltry $71.6 million. And Thailand trails China with just $100 million in sales to the DPRK. The remainder of Pyongyang’s major trading partners are Pakistan, Russia, Nigeria, Brazil, Singapore…and, not Iran.

This seems like one instance that Trump didn’t quite read his briefing book.. Iran and North Korea did trade in missile technology, although there’s little evidence of nuclear cooperation. Iran acquired its Soviet-made Scud ballistic missiles from Pyongyang and is believed to have solicited technical assistance for its indigenous missile program.

Donald Trump: The [Iran nuclear deal] is one of the great giveaways of all time… including four hundred million dollars in cash–nobody’s ever seen it before–that turned out to be wrong. It was actually 1.7 billion dollars in cash… Whether it’s the Iran deal that you’re so in love with where we gave them 150 billion dollars back.

LS & SS: Trump cites his numbers with such effortless legerdemain that interpreting them is an exercise in mental gymnastics. Four-hundred-million dollars is the amount of cash the United States transferred to Tehran on  August 3, two weeks after the nuclear deal and a few days before the release of four American hostages in Iran. There was then a second payment of $1.3 billion, totaling $1.7 billion. Furthermore, there’s the $150 billion figure, which is the upper-range estimate for Iran’s frozen assets returned after sanctions relief.

The $1.7 billion payment had nothing to do with the nuclear deal. It was related to the refund of U.S. weapons that the Shah purchased but were never delivered after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, something legal scholars say was a claim Iran looked likely to win at the U.S.-Iran Claims Tribunal. Similarly, sanctions relief was, at some point, inevitable.

On North Korea, East Asia, and America’s Alliance Commitments

Hillary Clinton: And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them…. It is essential that America’s word be good.

LS & SS: Watching Trump in action would have had Bernard Brodie rolling in his grave and and [MH: Thomas Schelling rolling his eyes.] The central tenet of deterrence theory is that the deterrent’s utility is as a bargaining chip. For this to work, the adversary has to believe that a certain action would trigger a forceful response. Arguably, this was the problem with Obama’s “red line” in Syria or the United States’ abandonment of Ukraine (and previously, Georgia) in the face of Russian aggression.

Secretary Clinton, having been through the rounds, is keenly aware of the importance of signaling: “Let me start by saying words matter when you run for president,” she said in the debate, “and they really matter when you are president.” She’s right. America has mutual defense commitments to both Japan and South Korea. If the American president signals, as Donald Trump did, that these commitments will not be honored, then the United States no longer has any deterrent effect on any potential adversary like China that might be interested in taking on these countries, and by extension, the United States.

Hillary Clinton:  He has said repeatedly that…Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia, [should develop their own nuclear weapons.]

LS & SS: Trump has indeed suggested that Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons may result in the United States being “better off” because it would no longer have to pay for military support and other elements of the security guarantee. Their proliferation is “going to happen anyway,” he said, “it’s only a question of time,” though that’s an entirely baseless claim. Trump has also argued that the United States’ East Asian allies could use the weapons to protect themselves against North Korea, saying that “if they fight, that would be terrible…but if they do, they do.”

With his words, Trump tossed out the nonproliferation agenda America has pursued for 70 years, but, thankfully, neither South Korea nor Japan share Trump’s enthusiasm for proliferation.

Is there any weight to the claim that U.S. allies are freeriding? Most allies are in fact paying directly for America’s security umbrella. Seoul paid almost $900 million—about 40% of the total cost—for U.S. military presence in South Korea while Japan spends around $4 billion annually. Each year, Germany contributes nearly $1 billion to the upkeep of U.S. bases. The same holds true of almost every other allied country. And the amount of hard dollars an allied country pays for America’s security presence makes for a short-sighted metric. From defense-industrial ties to preferential economic treatment to expanding cultural influence, there are innumerable dimensions yielding returns for America’s investments abroad. There’s a reason why there’s no Trump Hotel in Pyongyang.

Donald Trump: Russia’s been expanding. They have a much newer [nuclear] capability than we do. We have not been updating…We are not keeping up with other countries.

LS & SS: The United States and Russia have roughly equal numbers of nuclear weapons in their stockpiles. When you break that down, Russia has more weapons that are retired, as well as more that are deployed, while the United States has great numbers stockpiled. In the last few decade or so, there have been complaints about the lack of “updating” in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but Obama authorized a $1 trillion nuclear modernization package designed specifically to resolve this problem. Russia has engaged in modernization as well, but altogether the playing field looks even.

Modernization is likely to be a central nuclear issue that the next president will face—and we haven’t heard much from either candidate in the way of a comprehensive nuclear weapons policy. In broad terms, though, Trump has shown a willingness to consider using nuclear warheads, has pushed for a hard-line approach to Iran and an adoption of counterproliferation strategies more generally, and has indicated his intentions to reconsider the alliances that make up the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Clinton, on the other hand, has suggested that she thinks modernization “doesn’t make sense,” and has been clear that she intends to honor status quo commitments to Iran and U.S. allies (including those in East Asia and NATO), is staunchly against U.S. nuclear use, and would continue nonproliferation efforts.

Increasingly, the question of who should be trusted with the U.S. nuclear arsenal is becoming a centerpiece of the election, and if the veracity of candidates’ claims is a metric on which to build an answer, Hillary seems to be leaving her opponent in the dust. Indeed, the notion that Donald Trump cannot be trusted with the nuclear codes has become one of the oft-repeated sentiments of the 2016 election (Don’t trust the media? Ask Marge Simpson). And Trump’s critics don’t have to look far for evidence. Trump apparently thrice asked a foreign policy consultant why he shouldn’t use nuclear weapons, suggested during a town hall that he might use nukes in response to an ISIS attack, and when the Washington Post twice asked him to elaborate, Trump twice changed the subject. Technically, the American president has unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons should he or she choose to do so, a fact that should leave viewers of last night’s debates more than a little concerned.

Lauren Sukin is a Ph.D. student at Stanford University’s Political Science Department. Selim Sazak is a Ph.D. student at Brown University’s Political Science Department.


  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    And there was that exchange toward the end, in which Donald Trump came out for No First Use and then took it back three sentences later. I think he actually has no idea of the discussion that has been going on around No First Use and the coincidence of words was sheerly by chance.

    And I must do this, to firm up a tradition: It is uranium hexafluoride, six fluorines.

    • M Harries (History)

      A possible translation of Trump on NFU: “Would I strike first? No. Would I tell people I’m not going to strike first? No.”

    • Melissa Hanham (History)

      Friendly editor here! This is my mistake, and I have updated it.

  2. Lauren Sukin (History)

    We agree that it’s uranium hexafluoride! Apologies for the mistake.

    I think what you’re referring to here is the fact that, in answer to Holt’s question about whether Trump supported current nuclear policy, Trump remarked “We are not — we are not keeping up with other countries. I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it. But I would certainly not do first strike. I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.” That’s certainly a confusing answer that leaves unclear what Trump actually believes in regards to nuclear use policy.

    This isn’t the only time that Trump’s been unclear on the question of first use, either, from his “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?” gaffe in the primaries to his comment to the Washington Post in March that he wouldn’t “want to use” nuclear weapons against ISIS.

  3. Bob Kelley (History)

    What is the basis for the claim that there have been hundreds of cases of theft of fissile materials?

  4. Jonathan Hunt (History)

    “Technically, the American president has unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons should he or she choose to do so, a fact that should leave viewers of last night’s debates more than a little concerned” and in the Brookings report, “In short: A president could push the button all by himself or herself, legally- and constitutionally-speaking. Physically, military personnel would need to carry out the strike of course. They could choose not to, perhaps at the instruction of the secretary of defense or the four-star officer leading Strategic Command—who together constitute the chain of command between the president and the trigger-pullers. But any military officer ignoring a presidential order would be in open insubordination, subject to dismissal and court martial.”

    I’m not a legal expert, but the 2013 Employment Guidance explicitly stated that the U.S. nuclear posture would abide by the laws of war, which any uniformed military officer and conceivably the SecDef too would be bound to honor, as we’ve signed treaty commitments, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions (which we also ratified) and the 1977 Additional Protocols (which we did not). While the President could order a surprise nuclear attack against, most justifiably against a military target far from civilians, it’s hard to imagine the Pentagon carrying out a nuclear strike that violated the laws of war related to necessity and proportionality given the obsessive level of detail with which even limited drone strikes are authorized and executed.

  5. Nik (History)

    “LS & SS: Watching Trump in action would have had Bernard Brodie and Thomas Schelling rolling in their graves.”

    Thomas Schelling is still alive 🙂

  6. Jonathan Hunt (History)

    Those CNS reports specify that the vast majority were irradiated scrap metal or the like; the 2016 mentions that only 8 involved fissile material, and all 8 were subsequently found and retrieved. Seems to me the verb stolen is a stretch and the figure of “hundreds of confirmed cases of stolen fissile materials” downright misleading.

    • Melissa Hanham (History)

      Friendly editor here! This is my mistake, and I have updated it.

  7. Joshua Pollack (History)

    Psst… Tom Schelling is alive!