Earthquakes May Endanger New York More Than Thought, Says Study
A study by a group of prominent seismologists suggests that a pattern of subtle but active faults makes the risk of earthquakes to the New York City area substantially greater than formerly believed. Among other things, they say that the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plants, 24 miles north of the city, sit astride the previously unidentified intersection of two active seismic zones. The paper appears in the current issue of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.
Many faults and a few mostly modest quakes have long been known around New York City, but the research casts them in a new light. The scientists say the insight comes from sophisticated analysis of past quakes, plus 34 years of new data on tremors, most of them perceptible only by modern seismic instruments. The evidence charts unseen but potentially powerful structures whose layout and dynamics are only now coming clearer, say the scientists. All are based at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which runs the network of seismometers that monitors most of the northeastern United States.
Lead author Lynn R. Sykes said the data show that large quakes are infrequent around New Yorkcompared to more active areas like California and Japan, but that the risk is high, because of the overwhelming concentration of people and infrastructure. “The research raises the perception both of how common these events are, and, specifically, where they may occur,” he said. “It’s an extremely populated area with very large assets.” Sykes, who has studied the region for four decades, is known for his early role in establishing the global theory of plate tectonics.
The authors compiled a catalog of all 383 known earthquakes from 1677 to 2007 in a 15,000-square-mile area around New York City. Coauthor John Armbruster estimated sizes and locations of dozens of events before 1930 by combing newspaper accounts and other records. The researchers say magnitude 5 quakes—strong enough to cause damage–occurred in 1737, 1783 and 1884. There was little settlement around to be hurt by the first two quakes, whose locations are vague due to a lack of good accounts; but the last, thought to be centered under the seabed somewhere between Brooklyn and Sandy Hook, toppled chimneys across the city and New Jersey, and panicked bathers at Coney Island. Based on this, the researchers say such quakes should be routinely expected, on average, about every 100 years. “Today, with so many more buildings and people, a magnitude 5 centered below the city would be extremely attention-getting,” said Armbruster. “We’d see billions in damage, with some brick buildings falling. People would probably be killed.”
Starting in the early 1970s Lamont began collecting data on quakes from dozens of newly deployed seismometers; these have revealed further potential, including distinct zones where earthquakes concentrate, and where larger ones could come. The Lamont network, now led by coauthor Won-Young Kim, has located hundreds of small events, including a magnitude 3 every few years, which can be felt by people at the surface, but is unlikely to cause damage. These small quakes tend to cluster along a series of small, old faults in harder rocks across the region. Many of the faults were discovered decades ago when subways, water tunnels and other excavations intersected them, but conventional wisdom said they were inactive remnants of continental collisions and rifting hundreds of millions of years ago. The results clearly show that they are active, and quite capable of generating damaging quakes, said Sykes.
One major previously known feature, the Ramapo Seismic Zone, runs from eastern Pennsylvania to the mid-Hudson Valley, passing within a mile or two northwest of Indian Point. The researchers found that this system is not so much a single fracture as a braid of smaller ones, where quakes emanate from a set of still ill-defined faults. East and south of the Ramapo zone—and possibly more significant in terms of hazard–is a set of nearly parallel northwest-southeast faults. These include Manhattan’s 125th Street fault, which seems to have generated two small 1981 quakes, and could have been the source of the big 1737 quake; the Dyckman Street fault, which carried a magnitude 2 in 1989; the Mosholu Parkway fault; and the Dobbs Ferry fault in suburban Westchester, which generated the largest recent shock, a surprising magnitude 4.1, in 1985. Fortunately, it did no damage. Given the pattern, Sykes says the big 1884 quake may have hit on a yet-undetected member of this parallel family further south.
The researchers say that frequent small quakes occur in predictable ratios to larger ones, and so can be used to project a rough time scale for damaging events. Based on the lengths of the faults, the detected tremors, and calculations of how stresses build in the crust, the researchers say that magnitude 6 quakes, or even 7—respectively 10 and 100 times bigger than magnitude 5–are quite possible on the active faults they describe. They calculate that magnitude 6 quakes take place in the area about every 670 years, and sevens, every 3,400 years. The corresponding probabilities of occurrence in any 50-year period would be 7% and 1.5%. After less specific hints of these possibilities appeared in previous research, a 2003 analysis by The New York City Area Consortium for Earthquake Loss Mitigation put the cost of quakes this size in the metro New York area at $39 billion to $197 billion. A separate 2001 analysis for northern New Jersey’s Bergen County estimates that a magnitude 7 would destroy 14,000 buildings and damage 180,000 in that area alone. The researchers point out that no one knows when the last such events occurred, and say no one can predict when they next might come.
“We need to step backward from the simple old model, where you worry about one large, obvious fault, like they do in California,” said coauthor Leonardo Seeber. “The problem here comes from many subtle faults. We now see there is earthquake activity on them. Each one is small, but when you add them up, they are probably more dangerous than we thought. We need to take a very close look.” Seeber says that because the faults are mostly invisible at the surface and move infrequently, a big quake could easily hit one not yet identified. “The probability is not zero, and the damage could be great,” he said. “It could be like something out of a Greek myth.”
The researchers found concrete evidence for one significant previously unknown structure: an active seismic zone running at least 25 miles from Stamford, Conn., to the Hudson Valley town of Peekskill, N.Y., where it passes less than a mile north of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. The Stamford-Peekskill line stands out sharply on the researchers’ earthquake map, with small events clustered along its length, and to its immediate southwest. Just to the north, there are no quakes, indicating that it represents some kind of underground boundary. It is parallel to the other faults beginning at 125th Street, so the researchers believe it is a fault in the same family. Like the others, they say it is probably capable of producing at least a magnitude 6 quake. Furthermore, a mile or so on, it intersects the Ramapo seismic zone.
Sykes said the existence of the Stamford-Peekskill line had been suggested before, because the Hudson takes a sudden unexplained bend just ot the north of Indian Point, and definite traces of an old fault can be along the north side of the bend. The seismic evidence confirms it, he said. “Indian Point is situated at the intersection of the two most striking linear features marking the seismicity and also in the midst of a large population that is at risk in case of an accident,” says the paper. “This is clearly one of the least favorable sites in our study area from an earthquake hazard and risk perspective.”
The findings comes at a time when Entergy, the owner of Indian Point, is trying to relicense the two operating plants for an additional 20 years—a move being fought by surrounding communities and the New York State Attorney General. Last fall the attorney general, alerted to the then-unpublished Lamont data, told a Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel in a filing: “New data developed in the last 20 years disclose a substantially higher likelihood of significant earthquake activity in the vicinity of [Indian Point] that could exceed the earthquake design for the facility.” The state alleges that Entergy has not presented new data on earthquakes past 1979. However, in a little-noticed decision this July 31, the panel rejected the argument on procedural grounds. A source at the attorney general’s office said the state is considering its options.
The characteristics of New York’s geology and human footprint may increase the problem. Unlike in California, many New York quakes occur near the surface—in the upper mile or so—and they occur not in the broken-up, more malleable formations common where quakes are frequent, but rather in the extremely hard, rigid rocks underlying Manhattan and much of the lower Hudson Valley. Such rocks can build large stresses, then suddenly and efficiently transmit energy over long distances. “It’s like putting a hard rock in a vise,” said Seeber. “Nothing happens for a while. Then it goes with a bang.” Earthquake-resistant building codes were not introduced to New York City until 1995, and are not in effect at all in many other communities. Sinuous skyscrapers and bridges might get by with minimal damage, said Sykes, but many older, unreinforced three- to six-story brick buildings could crumble.
Art Lerner-Lam, associate director of Lamont for seismology, geology and tectonophysics, pointed out that the region’s major highways including the New York State Thruway, commuter and long-distance rail lines, and the main gas, oil and power transmission lines all cross the parallel active faults, making them particularly vulnerable to being cut. Lerner-Lam, who was not involved in the research, said that the identification of the seismic line near Indian Point “is a major substantiation of a feature that bears on the long-term earthquake risk of the northeastern United States.” He called for policymakers to develop more information on the region’s vulnerability, to take a closer look at land use and development, and to make investments to strengthen critical infrastructure.
“This is a landmark study in many ways,” said Lerner-Lam. “It gives us the best possible evidence that we have an earthquake hazard here that should be a factor in any planning decision. It crystallizes the argument that this hazard is not random. There is a structure to the location and timing of the earthquakes. This enables us to contemplate risk in an entirely different way. And since we are able to do that, we should be required to do that.”
New York Earthquake Briefs and Quotes:
Existing U.S. Geological Survey seismic hazard maps show New York City as facing more hazard than many other eastern U.S. areas. Three areas are somewhat more active—northernmost New York State, New Hampshire and South Carolina—but they have much lower populations and fewer structures. The wider forces at work include pressure exerted from continuing expansion of the mid-Atlantic Ridge thousands of miles to the east; slow westward migration of the North American continent; and the area’s intricate labyrinth of old faults, sutures and zones of weakness caused by past collisions and rifting.
Due to New York’s past history, population density and fragile, interdependent infrastructure, a 2001 analysis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency ranks it the 11th most at-risk U.S. city for earthquake damage. Among those ahead: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. Behind: Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Anchorage.
New York’s first seismic station was set up at Fordham University in the 1920s. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in Palisades, N.Y., has operated stations since 1949, and now coordinates a network of about 40.
Dozens of small quakes have been felt in the New York area. A Jan. 17, 2001 magnitude 2.4, centered in the Upper East Side—the first ever detected in Manhattan itself–may have originated on the 125th Street fault. Some people thought it was an explosion, but no one was harmed.
The most recent felt quake, a magnitude 2.1 on July 28, 2008, was centered near Milford, N.J. Houses shook and a woman at St. Edward’s Church said she felt the building rise up under her feet—but no damage was done.
Questions about the seismic safety of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which lies amid a metropolitan area of more than 20 million people, were raised in previous scientific papers in 1978 and 1985.
Because the hard rocks under much of New York can build up a lot strain before breaking, researchers believe that modest faults as short as 1 to 10 kilometers can cause magnitude 5 or 6 quakes.
In general, magnitude 3 quakes occur about 10 times more often than magnitude fours; 100 times more than magnitude fives; and so on. This principle is called the Gutenberg-Richter relationship.
Dec 7, 2020, 12:18 PM
A top Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated with a machine gun aimed by artificial intelligence that was controlled via satellite, a senior Iranian commander was quoted as saying by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, per Reuters.
Ali Fadavi, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, said that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed with a machine gun with a “satellite-controlled smart system.”
“No terrorists were present on the ground…Martyr Fakhrizadeh was driving when a weapon, using an advanced camera, zoomed in on him,” Fadavi said. “The machine gun was placed on a pick-up truck and was controlled by a satellite.”
“Some 13 shots were fired at martyr Fakhrizadeh with a machine gun controlled by satellite…During the operation artificial intelligence and face recognition were used,” Fadavi added. “His wife, sitting 25 centimetres away from him in the same car, was not injured.”
There have been conflicting reports on Fakhrizadeh’s death, and it’s unclear precisely what transpired.
Fakhrizadeh was widely considered to be the “father” of Iran’s nuclear program and the US and other countries have said he spearheaded a covert military operation to conduct research on a nuclear weapon. But the Iranians have long denied having such ambitions.
Iran has blamed Israel for Fakhrizadeh’s death, though no one has claimed responsibility. Israel has been blamed by Iran for a number of assassinations of scientists in recent years. The Israelis were also suspected of coordinating an act of sabotage on Iran’s main nuclear facility over the summer.
Some experts and former US diplomats have suggested that Israel assassinated Fakhrizadeh with the blessing of the Trump administration in order to derail President-elect Joe Biden’s plans of restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“Israel and the Trump administration apparently fear that a Biden administration would seek a quick return to the nuclear agreement, which could revive Iran’s struggling economy and make it harder to contain its influence in the Middle East,” Barbara Slavin, who directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said in a recent op-ed for The New York Times. “Killing Mr. Fakhrizadeh makes that all the more difficult.”
Topic | Saudi Arabia
Published: 7:25am, 3 Dec, 2020
Updated: 7:25am, 3 Dec, 2020
Maj. Shane Praiswater
December 7, 2020 03:28 PM ET
An unarmed Minuteman III, the current version of the ICBM, launches during a developmental test at 12:33 a.m. Pacific Time Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Clayton Wear
America’s intercontinental ballistic missile force is fading. 400 Minuteman IIIs — the remnant of a fleet deployed in the 1970s — will by mid-decade need too much maintenance to threaten the largest strikes contemplated by deterrence strategists. Refurbishing these aging missiles would cost more than replacing them, so the Air Force has given Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion contract for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a new ICBM that might cost nearly $100 billion.
The GBSD program has its fair share of critics. Arms control advocates question whether the Air Force needs to replace the current ICBM fleet at all. Some prefer to just upgrade the Minuteman III, while others would rid the United States of ICBMs altogether. Stealthy Ohio-class submarines, whose own replacements are on their way, carry more than twice as many warheads as the current Minuteman fleet, while bombers bearing cruise missiles offer the flexibility of taking off without committing to delivery. Isn’t this deterrence enough?
Sadly, no. New technology and enemy efforts are likely to end the missile submarine’s half-century of invulnerability, while advanced air defenses have already reduced U.S. bombers’ ability to strike. ICBMs remain key to effective nuclear deterrence, and fortunately, GBSD is far cheaper than extending the Minuteman. Even better, its acquisition gives arms control advocates an effective bargaining chip in any future negotiations over eliminating ICBMs. After all, if Russia or China held an absolute strategic advantage with their modernized ICBMs versus America’s obsolete Minuteman, why would they cede it?
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Arms control negotiations and nuclear modernization are not mutually exclusive. If tensions with Russia and China cool, perhaps the United States and its adversaries will find it beneficial to reduce the number of ICBMs via a mutually beneficial and verifiable agreement. However, the United States cannot afford to mortgage the security of its citizens and allies on hope, particularly when Russia and China intend to challenge the United States. GBSD offers the best of both worlds in that it maintains deterrence at the most efficient price.
A failure to modernize the ICBM fleet would leave the United States vulnerable as its adversaries reinforce their nuclear triads. Russia committed to updating its triad in 2018, and China is feverishly working to bring its nuclear submarines and bombers to a level commensurate with U.S. forces. Especially given the uncertain future facing New START – the 2010 U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty set to expire in February 2021 – and America’s increasingly fraught relations with Beijing and Moscow, GBSD is critical to deterrence and fiscal responsibility.
Arguments that the United States could make do a nuclear “dyad” underestimate America’s adversaries and overstates the ability of U.S. bombers and submarines to deter a nuclear conflict without ICBM support. As it stands, Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization plans already seek to overcome America’s present military superiority. Russia, for example, has committed 5 percent of its “2027 military vision” budget to procure 300 additional ICBMs and sub-launched ballistic missiles, enough to overcome any missile defenses the United States might install.
China has also rapidly expanded its nuclear arsenal, most notably by developing the DF-41 mobile ICBM, the JL-3 sub-launched ballistic missile, and a stealth bomber. Beijing has shown no interest in arms control measures that might bring transparency to its nuclear capabilities and programs. There is also increasing evidence that China seeks to equal, if not surpass, U.S. nuclear capabilities.
China’s desire to surpass the United States on a global scale is no joke, and assessing Beijing’s true nuclear capacity is impossible without an arms agreement. Even if China does not currently have the ability to strike 400 American ICBM sites (as Russia does), the United States must assume that is China’s eventual goal. China’s official language has already evolved from maintaining a minimum deterrent to seeking “nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for maintaining its national security.” The Defense Intelligence Agency also stated last year that Beijing is likely to more than double its stockpile in the next decade. These actions, and the bellicose language of Premier Xi Jinping, imply that China will inevitably bring its forces to a level commensurate with Russia’s.
Moving to a dyad or delaying the deployment of GBSD would leave the United States at a severe strategic disadvantage. Hopes that Russia might voluntarily limit its stockpile seem overly optimistic, and China would welcome the U.S. adoption of such a self-imposed restriction. The risk of conflict with either state would increase, as confidence in their nuclear advantage might embolden aggression in Eastern Europe or the Pacific. The elimination of any triad component risks making a first-strike strategy conceivable for Russia or China, heightening the odds of a limited conflict turning into a massive nuclear exchange.
Nuclear modernization is not cheap, but according to Air Force leadership, it has a high “value-proposition” because it deters aggression and reassures vulnerable allies. In other words, while the cost of a nuclear triad is significant, it pales in consideration to the costs of losing deterrence. If the United States resorted to a dyad, China and Russia would maintain their arsenals, while America’s allies, worried about the U.S. nuclear umbrella, might restart their individual nuclear weapons programs. South Korea and other nations have all considered building nuclear weapons in the past as a bulwark against the perceived uncertainty of U.S. commitments.
These realities persuaded former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to accept the triad, as he personally explained in his introduction to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The triad works because each leg provides unique capabilities, and each leg covers the others’ vulnerabilities.
Underscoring the triad’s redundancy are common misconceptions about the invulnerability of U.S. submarines. Sub-launched ballistic missiles, to put it bluntly, are not necessarily as survivable as some believe. Without U.S. ICBMs, Russia or China could employ a first-strike tactic without fear of reprisal should they be able to locate U.S. nuclear submarines beforehand. Just as the United States planned to slip attack subs into the North Sea to hunt Russian boomers during the Cold War, Russia or China will undoubtedly seek to mitigate SLBMs should tensions spike. Russia has already proven its ability to move modern attack submarines undetected into the Atlantic, and detection technologies, while not necessarily mature today, are always evolving. Either way, U.S. strategists underestimate our adversaries if they do not think every effort will be made to locate American submarines. Even the ability to locate the general location of a submarine would allow Russia or China, freed from the constraint of defeating ICBMs, to attack American submarines with multiple nuclear strikes over a large oceanic area.
Of course, bombers would still scramble in such a scenario, but they are increasingly vulnerable before takeoff due to hypersonics and sea-launched weapons near the U.S. coast. Going up against enemy triads and advanced anti-access and area-denial systems, U.S. bombers would hardly be an effective deterrent on their own. The deterrence provided by the triad exists because it allows, during the course of a devastating nuclear conflict, the United States to lose one or two legs and remain strategically viable. If the United States relied on a dyad, that sustainability would be alarmingly fleeting.
Communications are also an important component of the existing triad. Submarines face multiple issues staying in contact with leadership while also remaining stealthy, and bomber communications can be jammed or compromised. A large part of the triad’s deterrent value lies in that fact that under any practical circumstance, any adversary cannot prevent U.S. national leadership from communicating with ICBM operators. The systems are incredibly redundant.
Disregarding the differences in response times between submarines and ICBMs really gets to the core of pro-dyad arguments, or even fears that a “use it or lose it” mentality would risk unnecessary escalation. Betting on the invulnerability of submarines implies either a belief that a nuclear war will never occur or that an adversary will not be willing to risk absorbing a nuclear strike to win a major conflict. This is a significant assumption. Relying on a dyad accepts that an ICBM-armed adversary will never take advantage of its nuclear superiority in a major conflict that threatens the survivability of its regime. It also accepts that if an adversary crosses the nuclear threshold, the best the United States could hope to do is respond, and only then if the enemy was not able to mitigate American submarines. Winning a nuclear war, however grim that aftermath might be, would be out of the question.
ICBMs are the key to nuclear deterrence: They guarantee that no adversary can attack the United States without inviting a massive nuclear response, and their redundant safeguards ensure that an accidental launch cannot occur. These separate sites would also be critical in a major nuclear conflict because they complicate adversary targeting and force them to consider expending hundreds of nuclear weapons that otherwise might target U.S. forces (submarines and bomber bases in particular), allies, or population centers.
ICBMs, despite the fears of some, are not on a “hair-trigger” alert. They are not recallable after launch, but there is no way to employ an ICBM without presidential orders and a thorough verification process. While it is true that ICBMs are frighteningly responsive given authorization, the missiles are targeted against open oceans on a daily basis. Targeting the missiles would occur on the lower rungs of an escalation ladder, in which case, the de-escalating deterrent value of ICBMs would balance any concerns about rushed strategic decisions. It is the existence of ICBMs, on both sides of a conflict, that prevents national leaders from acting too rashly in highly chaotic situations.
Therefore, given the political and strategic realities surrounding the nuclear triad, funding GBSD is critical. The Air Force has extensively used digital engineering to save money on designing GBSD, and its hardware is purposefully flexible to accommodate future upgrades well into the 2070s. The program is purposefully efficient: Nuclear modernization will account for, at its highest point, only 3.7 percent of the Defense Department’s budget. Particularly as the deficit skyrockets, acting now provides a significant financial advantage over attempting to extend the MMIII. The cost is not inconsequential – $85 billion to $100 billion over 20 years – but that is still far cheaper than essentially rebuilding an ICBM that was originally intended to last only 10 years.
We all yearn for a day when nuclear weapons are not needed, but until that day comes, it defies logic not to make the triad as fiscally efficient as possible without sacrificing effectiveness and nuclear deterrence.
Maj. Shane Praiswater is a visiting military analyst at the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a Ph.D. student at Pepperdine University. Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department, or any other government agency.
President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater, on Dec. 4, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. AP / Andrew Harnik
By Michael Goodwin
The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist counts as a rare piece of good news from the mad mullahs’ gulag. It eliminates a key player in the bid to get nuclear weapons and creates a safer world.
The event is being celebrated by the Trump administration, which has been relentless in bringing Iran to its knees. Israel, which likely carried out the bold hit, is delighted by the demise of a man whose weapons threatened to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Also cheering are the Sunni Arab nations whose governments are targeted by Iran.
In short, the death of Moshen Fakhrizadeh is an unmitigated good thing to millions upon millions of innocent people. Yet to read The New York Times or listen to Joe Biden, the death is a bad thing because it complicates Biden’s plan to persuade Iran to rejoin the nuclear pact that President Trump wisely scuttled.
“Iran Pact’s Fate Dealt New Blow By Assassination,” read a mournful piece in the Times last Sunday.
Biden said it is “hard to tell” how much more difficult it will be now to get Iran to back to the deal, but remains determined to try.
Welcome to a bizarro land ruled by nostalgia for a past that never was.
In the real world, Fakhrizadeh’s death is a gift to Biden, and if he has any sense, he will recognize it as such. The next president might even whisper, “Thank you,” to Trump and the Israelis.
That Biden is instead complaining and trying to woo Iran illustrates how stuck in the past he is. The Mideast has changed dramatically for the better since he left office in 2016, or maybe he hasn’t noticed that Israel and Arab states signed historic accords of mutual recognition, trade and tourism and are united in opposing Iran. Kosher food is now available in Dubai!
The shifting sands of alliances were underscored last month when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince met, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also there.
And Jared Kushner was in the region last week trying to heal a breach between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in hopes of widening the anti-Iran coalition before the Trump administration leaves office.
Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s death was much needed in deterring Iran’s threats to Israel and America’s allies in the Middle East.
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
These are remarkable developments signaling that a generational realignment is taking place. For Biden to endanger it by courting Iran is beyond foolish.
The core problem is that he and the Democrats’ media handmaidens continue to fetishize the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran as a triumph of diplomacy and believe in Iranian “moderates” the way children believe in Santa Claus. In fact, the terms of that deal, negotiated by John Kerry and approved by the Obama-Biden White House, were a surrender that paved the way for the mullahs to get nukes in due course.
Why would anyone want to go back to that time, especially when subsequent events weakened Iran and put it on defense?
The Trump breakthrough started with his first overseas trip as president, in May of 2017, with a stop in Saudi Arabia. Some 54 Arab and Muslim nations attended a summit there designed to create a unified front against Iran and the spread of terrorism.
A year later, Trump made good on a campaign promise to pull out of the nuclear pact and reimpose harsher sanctions than those Obama lifted in 2015, putting pressure on the Iranian economy and its ability to finance murder and mayhem.
Trump later underscored his intent to keep Iran boxed in by droning Qasem Soleimani, the military mastermind responsible for killing many American soldiers in Iraq. Recall that Biden said he would not have carried out that strike.
Israel also played key roles. It brazenly stole Iran’s nuclear archives to reveal how the mullahs had deceived the world, and repeatedly bombed Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. In addition to the hit on Fakhrizadeh, Israelis, or Farsi speakers working with them, carried out other assassinations and sabotage at military sites.
Although Iran’s leaders responded by exceeding the uranium-enrichment limits called for in the 2015 deal, they mostly appear stunned by the nonstop assaults. So much so that Ray Takeyh, an Iranian-American Middle East scholar, wonders whether the ayatollah’s grip is slipping, writing that “the Islamic republic today suffers from persistent intelligence failure, an ominous sign for a regime that rules through fear.”
These changes add up to an enormous opportunity for Biden, but instead of seizing it, he’s already invited Iran to rejoin the deal and brought back Kerry and other retreads to set the stage for another round of failure.
Biden said the mullahs must adhere to the enrichment limits before he removes sanctions and wants to expand talks to include the proxy wars and missile production. In response, Iran, sensing that Biden seems desperate, demands that he simply drop all sanctions and says no talks are needed.
However he frames it, Biden is negotiating against himself. Iran is weaker than it’s been for a long time and would use sanctions relief to ramp up its aggression and nuke program, just as it did before. Why give it another chance to do the same thing?
Netanyahu, in an interview with Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, cited the Iranian pattern in urging Biden not to rejoin the flawed pact, saying it would be a “mistake.”
Left unsaid is that in the last 40 years, Israel destroyed two nuclear reactors built by its enemies, in Iraq and Syria. Biden and Iran should remember that history.
‘Elex Fix’ is logical
Reader George Molé concedes it is difficult for Trump lawyers to prove the election was stolen, but still believes “widespread fraud is responsible for the supposed Biden victory.”
He adds: “Can we really believe that, with safeguards for the integrity of the voting process removed, the same hatred that led Democrats to persecute President Trump for four years would not also lead them to cheat to remove him?
“Whether or not the fraud is provable, I am among the half of the country who will continue to believe Biden’s victory was illegitimate.”
by Durward Johnson and Heather Tregle
On October 24, 2020, following Honduras’ ratification, the UN announced the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) would enter into force on January 22, 2021. Accompanying this announcement, the UN Secretary General’s spokesman asserted the soon-to-be legally operative TPNW “is the culmination of a worldwide movement to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. It represents a meaningful commitment towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons, which remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations.” The Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) celebrated the treaty’s milestone moment by claiming, “This is a new chapter for nuclear disarmament. Decades of activism have achieved what many said was impossible: nuclear weapons are banned.”
Asserting in its preamble that any use of nuclear weapons would already be “contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict,” the TPNW will be the first legally binding treaty that completely prohibits their use. Of course, ratifying states will be bound by that ban. However, for states not party to the TPNW including the United States and all other nuclear-armed states, this moment begs the question of whether the treaty is, as suggested in the four corners of the instrument itself, a reflection of an underlying customary international law norm that proscribes the use of nuclear weapons. Setting aside the moral aspects surrounding the use of nuclear weapons, in our view, it is not.
While the fiftieth state’s ratification of the TPNW is certainly a momentous occasion for those who support the admirable goal of eradicating nuclear weapons, the moment is, unfortunately, more symbolic than it is indicative of a customary proscription on their use.
What is the TPNW?
The TPNW was adopted during a UN General Assembly conference on July 7, 2017. Among the treaty’s provisions are prohibitions on developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, otherwise acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, transferring, and receiving nuclear weapons. It further bars states from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any activity prohibited by the treaty, and seeking or receiving any assistance, in any way, from anyone to engage in activity prohibited under the treaty. The treaty also prohibits states parties from allowing another state to station, install, or deploy nuclear weapons in its territory. Most notably, the treaty completely bans using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. Simply put, the treaty seeks the total elimination of nuclear weapons to ensure they are never used again.
Currently, eighty-four states are signatories, with fifty states having ratified the TPNW at the time of this writing. Significantly, no state with nuclear capability is a signatory to the treaty, nor has any NATO member, or any other state that benefits from a nuclear umbrella agreement, signed it. In fact, the Netherlands was the only NATO member that participated in the treaty negotiations leading to its adoption. The United States has urged other states to withdraw their support for the TPNW.
Treaties and Customary International Law
Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, a provision with which all states agree, characterizes “a general practice accepted as law” as a primary source of law, together with treaties and general principles of law. These binding norms are known as “customary international law,” which emerge through “extensive and virtually uniform” state practice engaged in, or refrained from, out of a sense of legal obligation (opinio juris). While treaties are a distinct primary source of law, in certain circumstances, treaty provisions may be reflective of existing customary international law, “or indeed [of] developing [new customary norms].” The question is whether a proscription on the use of nuclear weapons is one such rule.
The terms of treaties predating the TPNW demonstrate the lack of a customary prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons at the time they were adoped. Consider the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in March 1970. Today, there are over 190 states party to the agreement. Under the NPT, non-nuclear states agreed not to receive, transfer, manufacture, or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons. Nuclear states agreed not to transfer nuclear weapons to, or otherwise assist, or encourage non-nuclear weapon states in acquiring nuclear weapons. Five nuclear weapon states are party to the NPT—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Other states parties do not have nuclear weapon capabilities and are prohibited from gaining those capabilities.
The NPT also led the nuclear powers to agree to a no-use commitment that obligates them to refrain from using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states parties and to assist states that are attacked by nuclear weapons. With the exception of China, they made an exception to the no-use commitment “in the case of an invasion or any other attack against them” carried out by a non-nuclear state that is supported by a nuclear power. In May 1995, the NPT was extended indefinitely, with China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States all reconfirming their prior no-use commitments.
The text of the NPT and the resulting no-use commitments by the five nuclear powers evince that at least as late as 1995 there was no customary norm prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons. The very existence of the treaty recognizing retention of the weapons by some states is inconsistent with a customary rule proscribing use. And while Article VI contemplates the pursuit of negotiations toward the potential complete disarmament in the future, it does not require it. Obviously, a treaty cannot affirmatively allow for possession of an “illegal to use” weapon. Moreover, the exceptions to the negotiated no-use commitments illustrate that states parties did not view the use of nuclear weapons as an unlawful act.
The practice of the few remaning states that are not party to the NPT also contradict the existence of a customary rule proscribing nuclear weapons. Since the treaty entered into force, at least two states that are not party to the treaty (India and Pakistan) obtained nuclear weapon capabilities. Israel is also reported to have them, and North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT in 2003, has since openly tested its nuclear weapon capabilities (While North Korea’s actions have been widely condemned by the international community, the condemnation is more indicative of the fact North Korea was not acting in good faith when it withdrew from the treaty rather than the emergence of a customary norm).
In addition to the NPT, there are many other multilateral treaties regulating the use of nuclear weapons. For instance, there are numerous regional nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties. These treaties prohibit the use of nuclear weapons within certain regions, such as Antartica, Africa, South & Central America, the South Pacific, outer space, and the ocean floor. The language of these treaties arguably suggests that states parties recognize there is no blanket customary norm prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons and therefore they have to carve out specific regions where use is prohibited by treaty. As the International Court of Justice (ICJ) concluded in its Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons advisory opinion, “these treaties could  be seen as foreshadowing a future general prohibition of the use of [nuclear weapons], but they do not constitute such a prohibition by themselves.”
State Practice and Contrary Opinio Juris
Turning to state practice—both physical and verbal acts—it is clear that a comprehensive prohibition on using nuclear weapons has not emerged as customary international law. Particularly relevant in this regard is the practice of states “whose interests [are] specially affected”—those with nuclear capabilities and, thus, most likely to have those weapons used against them. And “evidence of a belief that [the relevant] practice is rendered obligatory by the existence of a rule of law requiring it” (opinio juris) is needed in addition to state practice before crystallization into a binding customary rule of international law occurs.
The United States and other nuclear weapon states have all adopted a “policy of deterrence,” with some having pledged to a no-first-use policy. Nevertheless, they have all displayed a credible willingness to use the weapons should deterrence fail. This strategic posture, grounded in political and practical considerations, appears to haved worked, for it has been over seventy years since any state employed a nuclear weapon. Yet, that non-use does not qualify as state practice contributing to the emergence of a prohibition because it was accompanied by the continued possession of the weapons and statements of willingness to employ them.
Moreover, the United States has repeatedly reserved the right to use nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances to defend  vital interests, and those of [its] allies.” Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China have issued similar pronouncements. These reservations, at the least, would qualify these states as persistent objectors to any potential emerging customary norm. However, the fact that all of the nuclear power states, with the likely exception of North Korea, could be viewed as persistent objectors defies that categorization. Rather, as a matter of law, this opinio juris stands in the way of a customary norm prohibiting use.
As explained by the ICJ in its Nuclear Weapons advisory opinion, “it is a fact that a number of States adhered to that practice [deterrence] during the greater part of the Cold War and continue to adhere to it. Furthermore, the members of the international community are profoundly divided on the matter of whether non-recourse to nuclear weapons over the past 50 years constitutes the expression of an opinio juris. Under these circumstances the Court does not consider itself able to find that there is such an opinio juris.” It is clear that there is no “general practice accepted as law” that supports any claim there is a comprehensive prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons.
While the fiftieth state’s ratification of the TPNW is certainly a momentous occasion for those who support the admirable goal of eradicating nuclear weapons, the moment is, unfortunately, more symbolic than it is indicative of a customary proscription on their use. The treaty will enter into force. However, its legal effect on nuclear powers is much ado about nothing, for no nuclear weapon state has ratified the TPNW, nor is one likely to do so. And despite consistent and long-standing abstention from the use of nuclear weapons, a customary rule of international law has not emerged prohibiting their use.
It merits emphasis, however, that any employment of nuclear weapons would still have to comply with the law on the use of force—the jus ad bellum—pursuant to Articles 2(4) and 51 of the U.N. Charter and their customary international law counterparts. That includes the requirements of necessity and proportionality. Furthermore, as is the case for all weapons, actual use is also subject to the law of armed conflict rules that govern the conduct of hostilities, such as distinction, proportionality and the requirement to take precautions in attack. The effect of the application of these rules is that the use of nuclear weapons would be lawful only in limited operational contexts, such as a potential nuclear strike using a low-yield weapon on a tank formation in an isolated desert or enemy submarine fleet in the middle of the ocean. In any case, the analysis would depend on the nature of the threat, the value of destroying the objective, the character, size and likely effects of the weapon, and the magnitude of risk to civilians.
Editor’s note: Readers may also be interested in these recent articles at Just Security:
Lawrence Korb, How I Came to Support the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons, November 19, 2020|
Daryl G. Kimball, A Turning Point in the Struggle Against the Bomb: The Nuclear Ban Treaty Ready to Go Into Effect, October 27, 2020
Image: Members attend the signing ceremony for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons September 20, 2017 at the United Nations in New York. DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images
Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran seen on 10 November 2019 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]
December 6, 2020 at 1:33 pm
The Iranian Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) said on Saturday that the recent bill to increase nuclear enrichment “is not in contradiction with the [Iranian] national interests.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had objected to the Strategic Act to Revoke Sanctions bill which was approved by the Iranian parliament. Rouhani said it will be “harmful” to the country’s diplomatic efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers.
However, the SNSC said in a statement such objections will “harm the reputation of the legal institutions of the country.”
US President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on January 20, has said that he would return to the pact and would lift sanctions if Tehran returned to “strict compliance with the nuclear deal”.
On Wednesday, the Iranian Guardian Council approved the parliament’s bill that allows Iran to reduce its nuclear commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal.
The new bill requires Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation to enrich uranium at 20% purity and to increase its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium.
The 2015 nuclear deal allowed Iran only a 3.67% of uranium enrichment.
These developments came following the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last week in Tehran. Iranian officials blamed Israel for the assassination.