The Pope Visits the Iraqi Horn

Mar 5, 2021,

09:04am EST

Photos: Pope Francis Arrives In Iraq, Marking The Nation’s First Papal Visit

Palash GhoshForbes Staff

TOPLINE Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad on Friday—the first ever papal visit to Iraq—despite the Covid pandemic and ongoing violence in a country with a dwindling Christian population.

ROME, ITALY – MARCH 05: Pope Francis waves as he

Pope Francis, 84, arrived in Baghdad at 2 pm local time, along with his security detail, aides and about 75 journalists, for the three-day trip.

To protect the pontiff, the Iraq government has deployed thousands of security personnel, a few days after the al-Asad airbase in western Iraq which hosts U.S. and coalition troops was targeted by at least 10 rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias

India and Pakistan: Preparing for the first nuclear war: Revelation 8

India and Pakistan: More of the Same Ahead?

Whether the February 25 recommitment to a ceasefire by both sides yields lasting peace remains to be seen.

‘Beating of Retreat’ Ceremony at the India-Pakistan international border at Wagha, 2010.

Credit: Flickr/Koshy Koshy

On February 25, after talks between director generals of military operations (DGMOs), India and Pakistan reached a ceasefire agreement on the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir from midnight of February 24-25. Exchange of artillery fire had become commonplace over the last few years as India-Pakistan relations came under increasing strain. Terror attacks by the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pathankot and Uri, both in 2016, and in Pulwama in 2019 led to military operations by Indian forces across the disputed border in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and in Pakistan in the shape of special operation and air strikes on terrorist launch pads and camps.

These events had subsequently led to a growing number of ceasfire violations (CFVs), as both sides prefer the use of this low-intensity option to express their differences under the ostensible safety of the nuclear umbrella. India’s defense minister, Rajnath Singh, stated before parliament that there had been 5,133 instances of CFVs along the LoC in 2020 with Pakistan last year, which had resulted in 46 fatalities. This was the highest number since a ceasefire agreement was reached in 2003. The recent agreement therefore brings much needed respite from the competitive excesses of the rivalry.

But what does this agreement really augur for bilateral ties? Should it be viewed as a significant breakthrough? Recent history does not inspire confidence. In 2018, both armies had similarly agreed to adhere to the tenets of the 2003 ceasefire agreement in “letter and spirit” to maintain peace and tranquility on the disputed border. The prominent concern then was for civilians who had been inadvertently caught in the crossfire. Later, in September 2019, Indian news outlets reported “2,050 unprovoked ceasefire violations in which 21 Indians [had] died.” The last agreement did not endure.

There are two reasons for this. First, in the absence of enforcement mechanisms or even a written agreement there isn’t much to hold both parties to their commitments. The ceasefire offer was first made by Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali on November 23, 2003 and reciprocated by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs a few days later. But it has never been formalized. In these circumstances, the sanctity of the agreement is only tenuously held in place by expedience, and is greatly susceptible to political pressures at the domestic level. Also, since it does not create dependencies, there isn’t much at stake for either party. Second, as Happymon Jacob highlights, CFVs “are generally not planned, directed, or cleared by higher military commands or political establishments, but are instead driven by the dynamics on the frontlines.” When signaling from the political leadership is ambiguous, local military factors have a more autonomous function in terms of performing CFVs.

Perhaps it is better to wait and watch. As Jacob has argued, ceasefire agreements have typically been followed as part of a “tit-for-tat” strategy, in periods when peace dialogue between both countries is seen as progressing. These are periods in which the political leadership is arguably more attuned to the conditions at the tactical level. While the current ceasefire agreement is somewhat consequential in itself, if we see more positive signs and conformity with the agreed terms in the near future, it may speak to real progress and a genuine appetite in leaders on both sides to make headway. Earlier, Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa did claim he was “extending [the] hand of peace in all directions.” The joint statement mentioned that both states had “agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns.” This could mean that cross-border terrorism and the Kashmir issue could be back on the negotiation table to accommodate both India and Pakistan’s interests.

But there isn’t much to justify such optimism. Mainly, since it is unlikely that perceptions of enmity have changed, material weaknesses could be driving conciliatory behavior. Pakistan’s  annual economic growth rate has shrunk from 5.8 percent in 2018 (when Imran Khan took over as prime minister) to 0.98 percent in 2020 and could decline further. Additionally, it remains on the Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list” for terror financing. India’s GDP on the other hand, contracted by an astounding 23.9 percent in the first quarter of 2020 and only now seems to be on the mend. Also, although there is no evidence of the China factor playing a direct role, the rise in tensions on the Sino-Indian border could have softened India’s stance on CFVs on the Indo-Pak border. In essence, if the current agreement has been produced by specific pay-off structures, it will weaken as these inevitably change in the future.

If the ceasefire agreement does not hold, it will be clear that it was a momentary respite in a routinized escalatory/de-escalatory dynamic. Certain fault lines are evident already. India’s Ministry of Defense clarified that the DGMO level talks took place “at the behest of Pakistan.” The statement specifically mentions flagging terrorist infiltration in the north of Pir Panjal mountain ranges. Furthermore, the Indian Army added that “no let-up in counter-terror operations” would occur due to the agreement, and that they “retained the right to respond in case there is a terror attack in the future.” The message to domestic publics was clear: this does not change India’s stance on terrorism or Pakistan.

Similarly, Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted to commemorate the anniversary of Pakistan’s response to India’s air strikes, which he referred to as “reckless” and “irresponsible military brinkmanship.” He welcomed the ceasefire agreement but added that the “onus of creating an enabling environment for further progress” now rested with India. Khan believes India must “take necessary steps to meet the long-standing demand and right of Kashmiri people [for] self-determination.” The message to domestic publics here: this does not change Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir or India.

In the end, it may not be the achievement of a ceasefire agreement, but rather what the two states do in its aftermath that will provide the clearest indication of where the India-Pakistan rivalry is headed. Although less discussed, occasional cooperation in areas that look to reduce risk of inadvertent escalation have been nearly as predictable as CFVs in India-Pak relations. For example, India and Pakistan already keep their nuclear arsenals disassembled, have a moratorium on nuclear testing, and under a 1988 agreement, routinely exchange lists of nuclear sites on the first day of every calendar year. They also have flag-staff meetings and regular military contact at the DGMO level, which are of an ad hoc character and serve as ready mechanisms to de-escalate tensions in crisis situations. But none of these measures have been able to alter the substantial nature of the rivalry and streamline peace dialogue. While risks of needless escalation and saber-rattling may have been lessened, the prospects for genuine progress are still dim.

Ameya Pratap Singh is a Ph.D. student in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford.

US Airbase Hit by Rockets in Iraq

Rockets Hit Iraqi Base Where U.S. Troops Are Stationed

At least 10 rockets were fired on the Ayn Al Asad air base one week after U.S. airstrikes on Iran-backed militia positions along the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The Ayn Al Asad air base in Anbar Province, Iraq, in 2019. It is one of the last remaining bases in Iraq where U.S. troops are stationed.

Nasser Nasser/Associated Press

By Jane Arraf and Helene Cooper

March 3, 2021
Updated 2:59 p.m. ET

DOHUK, Iraq — A barrage of rockets was fired on Wednesday at the Ayn Al Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar Province — one of the last remaining Iraqi bases where U.S. forces are stationed.

An Iraqi security statement and one released by the Pentagon said 10 rockets were launched toward the sprawling base.

A senior Defense Department official said a U.S. contractor had died of an apparent heart attack during the rocket barrage. Officials in Washington did not identify the group responsible for the attack.

The Pentagon said in a statement that the missile defense system at Al Asad “engaged in defense of our forces” and added, “We extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones of the individual who died.”

President Biden was briefed on the attacks, his top spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

Ms. Psaki said officials were leaving their options open, pending an investigation of the incident, but she acknowledged a caution against making “a hasty or ill-informed decision” that “plays into the hands of our adversaries.”

Even though the contractor who died did so of a heart attack, Mr. Biden may feel he needs to respond, officials said. “If we determine a response is necessary, we will do so at a time and manner of our choosing,” said John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.

The Sabareen news outlet, which is affiliated with Iran-backed militias, said three U.S. soldiers had been killed in the attack — a report completely at odds with the official Defense Department account.

The assault came just under a week after the United States attacked Iran-backed militia targets at the Syria-Iraq border. Those airstrikes, ordered by the Biden administration, hit a collection of buildings on the Syrian side of a border crossing. Mr. Biden had originally approved two targets inside Syria, administration officials said.

The Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah said one of its fighters had been killed in those airstrikes. It identified him as a member of Popular Mobilization Forces that are officially part of Iraqi security forces helping prevent infiltration by the Islamic State.

The second strike Mr. Biden approved was aborted at the last minute after American forces learned that there were women and children at that site, also in Syria, administration officials said. Two F-15E Strike Eagles dropped seven 500-pound satellite-guided bombs on nine buildings at Abu Kamal, the first site, the officials said.

Mr. Biden chose targets in Syria to avoid political blowback on the Iraqi government, officials said.

The assault on the base on Wednesday came just days before a visit by Pope Francis to Iraq beginning on Friday — the first ever papal visit to the war-ravaged country.

Iraqi security forces are on heightened alert, with Baghdad going into full lockdown on Friday. Security forces have been deployed in large numbers to all of the cities Francis plans to visit on his three-day trip.

The attackers who targeted the base on Wednesday used BM-21 “Grad” rockets, fired from about five miles from the base, officials said.

A local paramilitary leader near the base said he had heard the impact of the rockets and then gone to investigate. The leader, Sheikh Qutri Kahlan al-Obeidi, said he had found “a burned vehicle — a Mitsubishi pickup,” rigged with rocket launchers, that appeared to have been used in the attack.

No group took responsibility, but any additional deaths will add pressure to the Biden administration to respond, even as the pope’s visit could complicate any immediate military escalation.

The last major assault on the base was a little over a year ago, when dozens of U.S. soldiers and support personnel were injured in a missile attack. That assault was in retaliation for the U.S. drone killing of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Jane Arraf reported from Dohuk, and Helene Cooper from Washington. Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt and Glenn Thrush from Washington.

The Obama Deal Won’t Be Restarted Soon

Former U.S. ambassador doesn’t see Iran nuclear deal happening this year as escalations mount

Natasha Turak

A series of back-and-forth retaliatory moves and antagonizing statements between Washington and Tehran are putting the Biden administration’s plans for a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal into greater peril by the day.

“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” President Joe Biden told reporters Friday, describing his message to Iran after he ordered airstrikes against buildings in eastern Syria that the Pentagon says were being used by Iranian-backed militia.

The strikes were in retaliation for a Feb. 15 attack that saw rockets hit Erbil International Airport in Iraq, which houses coalition military forces. The attack, which Western and Iraqi officials attribute to Iranian-backed militia forces, killed one contractor with the U.S.-led coalition and injured several others, including an American service member. Iran rejects accusations of its involvement.

None of this bodes well for what the Biden administration considers a foreign policy priority: a return to the Iranian nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, that was penned under the Obama administration with several world powers and lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program.

The deal has all but collapsed since the Trump administration unilaterally ditched it in 2018 and re-imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran that have crippled its economy.

Whether or when the deal can be revived is a critical question for the Biden team’s foreign policy and legacy in the Middle East. Former U.S. diplomat Joseph Westphal, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Obama’s second term, doesn’t see it happening in the near or even medium term.

“I don’t think we’ll see a deal” this year, Westphal told CNBC’s Dan Murphy on Monday. “I think we may see the start of negotiations to get to a deal. The end of the year is coming fast. And I think these things take a lot of time.”

An invitation and a rejection

Earlier in February, the Biden team took a major step in offering to start informal negotiations with Tehran, signaling the first U.S. diplomatic outreach in more than four years. Iran’s leadership over the weekend rejected the invitation.

The attempt at some sort of rapprochement is a tricky one for Biden. He faces substantial domestic opposition on the Iran deal and doesn’t want to appear “soft” on the country’s regime, especially at a time when Iran is ramping up its uranium enrichment and stockpiling in violation of the deal, moves that bring it closer to bomb-making capability.  

Tehran insists that this is in response to U.S. sanctions, and that its actions can be reversed if the sanctions are lifted first; Biden, meanwhile, says he’ll only lift the economic penalties if Tehran walks back its violations. So the two are at an impasse.

Tehran last week limited the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s access to its nuclear activities, putting the deal in further peril, though the inspectors still retain some access. And on Monday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of being behind an attack on one of its tankers off the coast of Oman on Friday. Iran denies any involvement.

Attempts to level the playing field

Still, not everyone believes a return to the JCPOA can’t happen this year. Ayham Kamel, Middle East practice head at political risk consultancy the Eurasia Group, sees the current escalations as an attempt to even the playing field.

“There is no easy path for JCPOA plus. I think whatever is happening now in the region — some of the escalation in Iraq, some of the escalation in Iran, even the Iranians rejecting the first offer for direct negotiations with the U.S. — I think that’s all pre-negotiation negotiation,” Kamel said.

“It’s an effort to really balance the field, the Iranians trying to get the maximum that they could out of this process. The JCPOA will happen, re-entry will happen at some point this year in my view, but it will be tough.”

Kamel added that the Iranian leadership itself remains divided over returning to the accord, as it weighs the need for economic relief from sanctions and its opposition to cowing to U.S. demands.

“The supreme leader wants a deal, but many in the IRGC (Revolutionary Guard Corps) do not necessarily want to see a weak negotiation start,” he said, referencing Iran’s powerful and ideological parallel military force. “They want negotiations to start from a strong position, and the regional escalation is all part of that.”

Others believe a return to the deal is inevitable simply because Iran’s economy has been so devastated by the sanctions. Its currency is in free fall, its exports have been slashed, and Iranians are struggling to afford food and medicine.

“I think, ultimately, a deal is possible,” Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told CNBC earlier this month, “because the Iranians need money.”

Pope Prepares to go to the Iranian Horn

Intense preparations before pontiff meets Iraqi ayatollah


March 03, 2021 – 7:40 AM

BAGHDAD — In Iraq’s holiest city, a pontiff will meet a revered ayatollah and make history with a message of coexistence in a place plagued by bitter divisions.

One is the chief pastor of the world-wide Catholic Church, the other a pre-eminent figure in Shiite Islam whose opinion holds powerful sway on the Iraqi street and beyond. Their encounter will resonate across Iraq, even crossing borders into neighboring, mainly Shiite Iran.

The Iran Deal is Dying

Iran Refuses U.S. Nuclear Talks As Tensions Rise in Persian Gulf, Syria and Iraq

By David Brennan On 3/1/21 at 5:51 AM EST

Fresh violence in the Persian Gulf and Syria is ratcheting up regional tensions as the U.S. and Iran remain locked in a stalemate over the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

This weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran for last week’s explosion aboard an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman. His accusation came just after Syria reported an Israeli missile attack launched from the annexed Golan Heights at targets around the capital Damascus on Sunday night.

The incidents follow tit-for-tat actions by Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups and U.S. forces in the region over the past month, which threatened to hamstring the multilateral efforts to revive the JCPOA.

The spike in violence comes as Tehran continues to refuse talks with the U.S. over the JCPOA, demanding instead that all sanctions are lifted before any further negotiations.

Netanyahu said on Monday that Thursday night’s attack on the MV Helios Ray vehicle-carrier “was indeed an operation by Iran. That is clear.” Asked whether Israel would retaliate, he replied: “You know my policy. Iran is Israel’s biggest enemy. I am determined to fend it off. We are striking at it all over the region.”

Iran denied the claim, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh telling reporters Monday: “The security of the Persian Gulf is extremely important for Iran.” But Tehran has been implicated in similar attacks in recent years, and international shipping in the strategic waterways off its coast offer Iran easy and high-profile targets for limited escalation and retaliation.

Israel is already staunchly opposed to the revival of the JCPOA, claiming the deal is deeply flawed and will only embolden the regime in Tehran to expand its weapons research programs and use of regional proxy militias. Netanyahu said last week: “With or without an agreement we will do everything so [Iran is not] armed with nuclear weapons.”

But the Biden administration is pushing ahead with its plans to return to the deal despite opposition from regional allies and conservatives in the U.S. The White House and Tehran have both said they want the deal to succeed, but the two sides are stuck in a stalemate over who will take the first step.

Iran has expanded its nuclear program beyond what is allowed under the JCPOA since Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and began applying ever-harsher sanctions on the country.

Iran wants Biden to lift these Trump-era sanctions before it scales back its nuclear activity. But the Biden administration says it will not lift any sanctions until Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA.

The Biden administration has said it is now willing to meet with JCPOA signatories to find a way to resurrect the deal. The White House hopes the JCPOA can become the basis for a “longer and stronger” agreement placing limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional militia network; two key concerns among JCPOA critics.

The European Union has also suggested unofficial talks between the parties as a prelude to full negotiations. The EU and the three European signatories of the deal—Germany, France and the U.K.—could serve as referees for a phased return to the deal for both the U.S. and Iran.

But Khatibzadeh said Sunday that it is too early for talks. “In view of the recent stances and measures taken by the United States and the three European countries, the Islamic Republic of Iran believes this is not a good time for holding an unofficial meeting on the accord,” he said in a statement.

“There has been no change in the United States’ stances and behavior, and the Biden administration has not only failed to abandon Trump’s failed policy of maximum pressure, but has also failed to declare its commitment to the implementation of all its obligations under the JCPOA,” the spokesperson added.

“The path forward is quite clear: the U.S. must end its unlawful and unilateral sanctions and return to its JCPOA commitments,” Khatibzadeh said.

This picture taken on February 28, 2021 shows a view of the Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai’s Mina Rashid cruise terminal. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Iran Enriches More Uranium: Daniel 8

Iran enriching uranium in second set of centrifuges in Natanz: IAEA

Updated 03 February 2021 Arab News February 02, 2021 16:33

JEDDAH: Iran has again increased enrichment of uranium at its Natanz underground nuclear plant, UN atomic watchdog inspectors reported on Tuesday.

And Tehran boasted that it now had two clusters of advanced centrifuges running at the site that would almost quadruple its ability to produce fissile material.

“Thanks to our diligent nuclear scientists, two cascades of 348 IR2m centrifuges with almost four times the capacity of IR1 are now running successfully in Natanz,” said Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  “Installation of two cascades of IR6 centrifuges has also been started in Fordow. There’s more to come soon.”

The increased enrichment is the largest breach so far of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of economic sanctions. Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, since when Iran has gradually ramped up its violations of the accord’s terms.

Tehran has started enriching uranium to higher purity, returning to the 20 percent it achieved before the deal from a previous maximum of 4.5 percent. The deal sets a limit of 3.67 percent, far below the 90 percent required to build a weapons.

Under the agreement, Iran can refine uranium only at Natanz, with first-generation IR1 centrifuges with uranium hexafluoride (UF6) feedstock. Last year it began enriching there with a cluster of much more efficient IR2m machines and in December said it would install three more.

“Iran has completed the installation of one of these three cascades, containing 174 IR2m centrifuges, and on Jan. 30 it began feeding the cascade with UF6,” the IAEA said on Tuesday.

The agency later confirmed that enrichment had begun with the second cascade.

The increased uranium enrichment ramps up pressure on the new administration in Washington over the future of the JCPOA. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said the US would return to compliance with the deal if Iran did too, but the US also wants a “longer and stronger” agreement that addresses Iran’s ballistic missile program and other issues.

The Trump administration had “seriously damaged Iran’s nuclear project,” Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Tuesday. “In terms of enrichment, they are in a situation of breaking out in around half a year,” he said. “As for nuclear weaponry, the range is around one or two years.”

Iran Blows Up Israeli Ship

Israel says initial assessment is Iran behind explosion on its ship

February 28, 2021

JERUSALEM: Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz said on Saturday his “initial assessment” was that Iran was responsible for an explosion on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman.

The ship, a vehicle-carrier named MV Helios Ray, suffered an explosion between Thursday and Friday morning. A US defence official in Washington said the blast left holes above the waterline on both sides of the hull. The cause was not immediately clear and no casualties were reported.

“Iran is looking to hit Israeli infrastructure and Israeli citizens,” Gantz told the public broadcaster Kan. “The location of the ship in relative close proximity to Iran raises the notion, the assessment, that it is the Iranians.”

“Right now, at an initial assessment level, given the proximity and the context – that is my assessment,” Gantz said, adding a deeper investigation still had to be carried out.

There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials.

The ship is owned by a Tel Aviv company called Ray Shipping through a company registered in the Isle of Man, according to a UN shipping database.

Israeli Channel 13 News said defence officials believed the Iranian navy had launched a precision strike to avoid casualties, firing two missiles at a part of the ship that if damaged would not have sunk the vessel.

It added an Israeli delegation was en route to Dubai, where the ship was docked, to investigate.

Reuters was not immediately able to confirm the report.

Kan named the owner as Rami Ungar and quoted him on Friday as saying: “The damage is two holes, diameter approximately 1.5 metres, but it is not yet clear to us if this was caused by missile fire or mines that were attached to the ship.”

Iran said in November it would make a “calculated” response to the killing of its top nuclear scientist, which it blamed on Israel.

Tensions have risen in the Gulf region since the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after then-president Donald Trump withdrew Washington from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers.

Washington has blamed Iran for a number of attacks on shipping in strategic Gulf waters, notably on four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, in May 2019. Iran has denied carrying out those attacks.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal May Be Dead

Iran Balks at Resuming Nuclear Talks with US

Iran on Sunday balked at holding an informal meeting with the United States and three European powers about reviving the 2015 accord that restrained Tehran’s nuclear development program to keep it from developing nuclear weapons.

Tehran said that before talks are held, the new U.S. administration of President Joe Biden must first lift its unilateral economic sanctions against Iran.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that “considering the recent actions and statements” by the U.S., Britain, France and Germany, “Iran does not consider this the time to hold an informal meeting with these countries,” which was proposed by the European Union foreign policy chief. Iran has said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

A White House spokesperson responded Sunday by expressing “disappointment” with Iran’s response, but said the U.S. is ready to “reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA commitments,” referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal.  

Washington will consult the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – Britain, China, France and Russia – plus Germany on the best way forward, the spokesperson said.  

Former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal, but Biden during his presidential campaign against Trump and since he took office has said he wants to rejoin the pact that includes Russia and China. The U.S. has also opened talks with Iran over the fate of at least five American hostages being held by Tehran.

At the same time, Biden has pressured Iran militarily, ordering airstrikes last week on buildings in Syria that the Defense Department says were used by Iranian-backed militias. The U.S. said the rocket attacks were in retaliation for missile attacks on U.S. targets in neighboring Iraq.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday the attacks in Syria killed at least 22 militia fighters, although the Pentagon did not confirm the figure.

The forgotten nuclear threat: Revelation 16

The Week Staff

Constraints on nuclear proliferation have lapsed or been loosened in recent years. How great is the danger? Here’s everything you need to know:

Who has nuclear weapons?
The vast majority — some 91 percent — of the world’s 13,400 nuclear weapons are owned by the U.S. and Russia, which each have the power to render Earth an uninhabitable nuclear wasteland. The other early developers of nuclear arsenals were the U.K., China, and France. In an attempt to prevent further spread, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was adopted in 1970, pledging those five powers to eventually disarm in return for other states promising not to pursue the bomb. But more than 50 years later, all four of the countries that aren’t party to the treaty — India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea — have nuclear arsenals (although Israel has never confirmed it), and at least one signatory, Iran, has taken steps to build its own. Another treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, just came into force in January, but none of the nuclear states signed it. Though public concern about nuclear war has faded since countries became preoccupied with terrorism, climate change, and now, viral pandemics, the threat remains very real. Potential triggers of nuclear conflict include India’s border disputes with both Pakistan and China, Iran’s threats to destroy Israel, Israel’s pledge to prevent Iran from getting nukes, China’s designs on Taiwan, and North Korea’s threat to South Korea.

What about arms control treaties?
Few remain. During the Reagan era, the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to slash their nuclear arsenals, but most arms control treaties since then have lapsed. The Bush administration pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, which sparked an arms race in missile-defense systems, and President Trump yanked the U.S. out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, saying that Russia had violated it. So the only remaining arms treaty the U.S. observes is New START, a pact with Russia negotiated under the Obama administration. That treaty cut the number of deployed nuclear warheads that each side can have by more than half, to 1,550. Former President Trump was planning to let the treaty expire this month. But just after taking office, President Biden agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the treaty for five more years. Biden also will try to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

What is Iran’s capability?
Israeli intelligence says that the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist in November set Iran’s nuclear program back, and that it would need two years to build a nuclear weapon. In the early 2000s, the International Atomic Energy Agency discovered that Iran had been cheating on the NPT with a clandestine program to enrich uranium. Under the 2015 treaty negotiated by the Obama administration, Iran agreed to radically slash its stockpile of uranium and limit the number of centrifuges that it can use for enrichment. But since the Trump administration pulled out of the deal in 2018 and hit Iran with new sanctions, Iran has resumed production of 20 percent enriched uranium, getting nine-tenths of the way toward weapons-grade fuel.

What happens if Iran goes nuclear?
It would set off a chain of proliferation. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s enemy, has said it would seek nukes if Iran got them, and Turkey and Egypt could follow. The threat from North Korea, meanwhile, is alarming to Japan and South Korea, where factions have argued for the development of their own nuclear weapons as deterrents. Since it first tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, North Korea has built dozens of bombs and hundreds of missiles, and it now has intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach anywhere — including the continental United States. Our allies are now wondering, says Ivo Daalder of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “Will you sacrifice us for you? Will you save Seattle at the price of Seoul?” The more nuclear weapons there are in the world, of course, the more likely it is that one could be fired by accident or fall into terrorist hands.

What comes next? 
The next nuclear summit — the NPT review conference held every five years — takes place in August. That will be a chance for the Biden administration to reassure allies and to open negotiations with rising power China. China is planning to double its arsenal to 200 warheads over the next decade, and it has been pouring money into new missile designs. Adm. Charles Richard, head of the U.S. strategic command, says China will soon be a nuclear peer of the U.S., just as Russia is. “For the first time ever, the U.S. is going to face two peer-capable nuclear competitors who are different, who you have to deter differently,” he said. “We have never faced that situation before.

The trouble with missile defense 
Missile defense is a system designed to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles before they hit. But if a country can shoot down, say, 100 enemy missiles, the enemy has an incentive to fire 200 to overwhelm the defense, leading to an offensive and defensive arms race. So in their arms control treaty, the U.S. and Soviets banned most missile defenses, relying instead on deterrence — the threat of mutual assured destruction. The U.S. pulled out of that pact in 2002, saying it needed the ability to defend against a launch by a terrorist or a rogue state such as Iran or North Korea. Since then, it has deployed defense systems in South Korea and sold anti-ballistic Patriot missiles to more than a dozen countries. The danger with missile defense is that if a country believes it can reliably defend itself against retaliatory nukes, it loses the deterrence of conducting its own first strike. But so far, despite billions in expenditures, missile defense is more of a fantasy than a reality. Patriot missiles failed to knock down most missiles fired by enemies in the Saudi-Houthi conflict and the 1991 Gulf War. In fact, says arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis, there is no evidence that a Patriot “has ever intercepted a long-range ballistic missile in combat.”

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.