Biden faces daunting challenges on nuclear issues

Scene where Iranian scientists Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated by terrorists allegedly hired by Israel, Absard near Tehran, Nov. 27, 2020.

The well-known British historian and author of books on Soviet diplomatic and military history, Professor Geoffrey Roberts wrote a letter to the FT two days ago arguing for a reset of the US’ relationship with Russia by the Joe Biden presidency. It came as a breath of fresh air amidst the avalanche of apocalyptic predictions about Biden’s likely foreign policy trajectory vis-a-vis Russia. 

The big question is how the Biden White House can navigate a reset with Russia at a juncture when that country is regarded as a threat and an adversary. Perhaps, the first prerequisite will be what Prof. Roberts suggested, namely, to step back from the ‘dangerous confrontation’ that by itself  may improve the atmosphere of Russian-American relations. 

Why not, to begin with, make the renewal of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) agreement for another five-year period a top priority for the first fortnight of the Biden presidency? The agreement is due to expire on the 5th February, which leaves just about sixteen days after the presidential inauguration. 

Two dozen arms control, environmental and other groups in the US in a Nov. 19 letter have proposed to Biden’s transition team that ahead of the inauguration day, the president-elect’s team should “publicly express their interest in a five-year extension” and designate a special representative who will engage with Russian counterparts “on day one”. 

The experts have suggested that the new administration should also announce its intention to seek to engage Russia in talks “on follow-on nuclear arms reduction agreements.” They have further proposed that US should 

  • formally adopt a no first use policy and encourage all other nuclear- armed states to adopt a similar approach; 
  • cut down the cost of the current nuclear weapons sustainment and modernisation program and focus on simply “what is necessary to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent”; 
  • reduce excessive nuclear force structure and spending on nuclear weapons; and, 
  • divert funds to priorities such as pandemic response, combating climate change, etc. 

The eminent experts have underscored the imperative need of a “renewed and active U.S. leadership… to shore-up and strengthen” the global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament architecture. Specifically, this includes: 

  • Building majority support for a plan of action that reaffirms previous NPT commitments and obligations and outlines concrete steps that would advance Article VI disarmament goals;
  • Reaffirming support for US ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty engaging with Russia and China on confidence-building steps; and,
  • Recognising the the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (which is coming into force on Jan 22, 2020). 

What is truly amazing here is that within the US strategic community, there could be such a body of opinion wedded to effective arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament. Equally, this voice is being heard at a point in time when the Trump administration in a matter of four years systematically destroyed decades worth of hard work done by previous US administrations in establishing trust, confidence, and diplomacy—on nuclear and non-nuclear issues—among both friends and foes. 

In a single term as president, Trump made sure that the prospect of nuclear proliferation, a new nuclear arms race, and even the use of nuclear weapons more likely than ever before in living memory, including the Cold War era. Trump’s abysmal nuclear legacy includes eviscerating decades of trust-building between the US and Russia and withdrawing from the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

Much hope is being placed on a Biden Administration  to repair the global nuclear damage. A good starting point will be the extension of the 2010 New START, which is the last remaining bilateral arms control agreement between the US and Russia, providing an anchor of strategic stability between the world’s two largest nuclear powers even through the current tumultuous period of tensions between the West and Russia.

Both Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have expressed the willingness to pursue an extension of the New START, and that such a step could provide the foundation for new arms control agreements. 

Next only to the New START is the critical necessity to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s withdrawal from the historic multilateral agreement prompted Iran to abandon the nuclear limits established under the agreement and restart its nuclear programme. 

Biden has indicated that he is ready to bring the US back to the Iran nuclear deal. Biden’s stated position is that if Tehran returns to strict compliance with the deal, he would “rejoin the agreement and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilising activities.” 

However, the path ahead is not going to be easy. The assassination of a top Iranian scientist near Tehran on Friday, by terrorists allegedly hired by Israel, is a stark warning that the US’ allies in the Middle East — Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — are determined to make every inch of the way ahead extremely problematic for the Biden administration. 

The very same cabal of regional states had opposed the 2015 nuclear deal but President Barack Obama persisted. That is why it becomes extremely important that the Biden camp and the remaining signatories of the JCPOA show the foresight and wisdom to condemn the incident in Tehran on Friday. 

The point is, Iran may have no problem to replace a scientist in its nuclear or defence establishment. Iran’s nuclear programme will run its course. But what is really significant here is that the Israel-Saudi-Emirati axis is testing the waters. 

There has been a steady build-up to this point through the past couple of years with covert attempts to destabilise Iran and to provoke Tehran into some sort of retaliation that could be seized as casus belli for launching a military attack. Basically, the agenda of this cabal is to vitiate the regional security climate to a point that a constructive engagement of Iran by the US negotiators may have to be deferred. 

A path that involves all at once conciliation, negotiation and compromise lies ahead for the Biden transition team to cross to address the Iran nuclear question. What complicates matters is that Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the  other war hawks in the lame duck administration will do everything in their power to prevent the Biden team from succeeding at diplomacy with Iran.  

Generally speaking, there is every hope that the Biden administration will return to the Obama-era policy trajectory of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the US national defence strategy. But a caveat must be added here too. Biden also has a formidable domestic agenda that is sure to remain his top priority — the coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery, climate change and so on.