Washington split by revised US nuclear strategy

White House reconsiders nuclear weapons policy. Pakistani Taliban chief killed by US airstrike. Dubai moves to tighten Israeli entry ban. All this and much more, in today’s security briefing.
Dries Belet
2 March 2010

A key review of US nuclear strategy has been delayed again, as US President Barack Obama decides on a broad new policy for nuclear weapons. Obama is planning “dramatic reductions” in the nuclear arsenal, a senior White House official told the BBC, as the president met with Defence Secretary Robert Gates. The new strategy would go further than previous reviews in “embracing the aims of non-proliferation”, and puts great emphasis on the use of conventional weapons for deterrence. Other senior aides said that Obama plans to reduce the American arsenal by thousands of weapons, The New York Times reported

The much-delayed Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was scheduled for release on Monday, after previous deadlines of 1 December, and then 1 February were missed. Now, publication is not expected until late March or early April. The review has been delayed over key issues such as the kind of weapons the US will retain, and in what circumstances it would resort to using them. The Obama administration already decided to scrap new nuclear weapons programmes from the Bush-era, such as the so-called 'bunker buster' penetrative nuclear warheads.  Officials say the strategy document will be a significant step towards Obama’s declared goal of preventing nuclear proliferation and working towards a world without nuclear weapons.

The openSecurity verdict: With this latest postponement,  April 5 looks like the most likely date for the announcement of the NPR, exactly one year after Obama’s radical Prague speech. There, he put forward a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, speaking of putting an end to Cold War thinking. Obama stressed that the US, as the only power ever to have used a nuclear weapon in war, has the “moral responsibility to act”, and he called for new partnerships to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. A principal reason for reworking the existing draft for the NPR is that it fell well short of the expectations raised in Prague.

The clause containing the circumstances under which the US would use nuclear weapons has been a key sticking point. Leading members of Obama’s own Democratic Party have pushed for a declaration that the “sole purpose” of the country’s nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear attack. However, hawks inside the administration and the defence establishment want a more ambiguous wording, with a clause that deterring nuclear attacks is only the “primary purpose” of the US arsenal, holding on to previous assertions that nuclear weapons could be used in the case of a conventional weapons attack on the US or one of its allies. This would leave scope for using nukes against enemies with biological or chemical weapons, or against states perceived to be arming proxy groups with nuclear weapons. Sceptics in bodies such as the National Security Council claim that Obama’s push for an abolition of nuclear weapons is not realistic, and think it is very risky at a time of nuclear threats from ‘rogue states’.

Opposing the self-proclaimed realists, advocates of disarmament argue against the ambiguity of such a clause, saying it would undermine US credibility, because the US has insisted that states such as North Korea and Iran have no strategic reason to pursue a nuclear capability. They point out that any such ambiguity would be inconsistent with Obama’s aspirations, made clear at Prague. Without a clear American lead (in tandem with Russia), it is very doubtful that other states will feel any moral obligation to disarm.

Starting on 3 May, the Eight Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) promises to be a crucial crossroads. After the previous conference in 2005 ended in deadlock, the treaty may start to unravel if the 189 member states of the NPT cannot reach an agreement for a final text this time round. The international security situation will certainly not be improved if the talks fail to address US-Iran antagonism and Israel’s threat to bomb Iranian nuclear sites, as well as its own undisclosed nuclear arsenal. Iran's nuclear programme risks a cascade of nuclear proliferation across the once nuclear free middle east. If Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, other major states in the region, such as Saudi-Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, might initiate nuclear weapons programmes of their own. In addition, North Korea’s ambiguous position within the NPT (it has declared its unilateral withdrawal from the treaty, but has not followed the proper procedures to withdraw) forms another problem, as does Israel, India and Pakistan’s non-commitment to the NPT.


Article VI of the NPT commits the nuclear powers to continue negotiations in good faith for further measures to halt the nuclear arms race with the ultimate aim of nuclear disarmament. Since the entry into force of the treaty in 1970, non-nuclear countries have continually reproached the nuclear states for holding on to their arsenals in light of their commitment. It is clear that the intransigence of the nuclear states cannot continue for the indefinite future without undermining the entire NPT. President Obama should take the initiative for a shift in the US nuclear posture, and in that way set a bold example on the fortieth anniversary of the treaty in 2010.

Pakistan Taliban chief killed by US airstrike

A senior commander of a Pakistani militant group was killed by a US drone attack in northwestern Pakistan. The Pakistan Taliban confirmed the death of Mohammed Qari Zafar, who was wanted by the US for the 2006 bombing of the US consulate in Karachi. Zafar is believed to have led Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni extremist group with close links to Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. According to the BBC, Zafar has been replaced by Mufti Abuzar Khanjari. 

In their statement, the Taliban said Zafar was a martyr and claimed they would take “revenge against the Pakistani government for his killing anywhere in the country”. The statement was quite uncommon, since the Taliban rarely confirm deaths by missile strikes. The US had offered 5 million dollars for information on his whereabouts. Zafar’s death will be portrayed as another success for Washington’s covert CIA drone sorties in Pakistan, where unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have killed several senior militant leaders. The UAV programme is highly controversial, with Pakistan routinely protesting against the violation of its sovereignty without effect.

Dubai moves to tighten Israeli entry ban

Dubai will implement stricter screening measures for persons entering the country, enforcing a ban on Israeli dual nationals, its police chief said. Israel citizens are not allowed to enter the United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai. However, in the past, Israeli dual citizenship holders could use their other passport to get into the country. Dubai will now block those dual nationals, identifying them by “physical features and the way they speak”, Lt. Gen. Dahi Kahlfan Tamim said. He added that Israel “must not carry out its assassinations in our land”, and called the fact that the killers abused passports and murdered people on UAE soil “disgraceful”.

Israeli officials have either denied or withheld all comment on allegations that the Mossad secret service was behind the killing of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhoub in his hotel room in Dubai. General Tamim claimed that there is a “99 percent” chance that Israel was behind the assassination.

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