U.S. Pressured NATO States to Vote No to the Ban Treaty – Including with Legal Argument

I saw this story originally over at the very useful ICANW website. The story links to a memo sent by the U.S. to NATO states, in which it urges them to vote no on the UNGA First Committee resolution to begin the process of negotiating a nuclear weapons ban treaty.

I found the U.S. memo interesting for lots of reasons, including its review of the provisions that the UNGA’s Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) has recommended for consideration and possible inclusion in such a ban treaty. The OEWG’s report that is referenced in the U.S. memo can be found here. Skip down to page 19 of the OEWG report to see the list of suggested provisions in Annex II.

It’s probably important to bear in mind that this seems to just be a list of possible provisions to consider when negotiating the structure of the treaty. They aren’t presented in any kind of organized, coherent fashion as they would need to be in a draft treaty text. Some of them seem pretty straightforward. Others, like a provision requiring “national legislation criminalizing support for activities proscribed under the convention,” are very problematic.

I really don’t know how much support each of these suggested provisions has among the states and civil society groups who will be influential in orchestrating proposals for structuring the treaty during the negotiations.

My understanding has been that the plan is to proceed in a two-step treaty making process, as I discussed in this post from earlier this year, reviewing a piece by Tom Sauer. So I was a little surprised to see that the OEWG included among its suggested provisions a section on “phases for elimination,” including “Obligations to eliminate nuclear arsenals within an agreed time frame and in a specific manner . . .”  I thought that the actual elimination of nuclear weapons stockpiles – through agreed schedules, methods, and verification mechanisms – was a subject that was going to be saved for the second step of treaty making, i.e. an actual nuclear weapons convention. And that the initial nuclear ban treaty that will be the subject of the negotiations beginning in March 2017, would really only include fairly general normative provisions prohibiting possession, proliferation and use.

I’m sure there are differences in thinking on these issues of structure and sequencing even among the core nuclear weapons ban movement members. But I hope they are thinking this all through with the help of legal advice.  March is just around the corner, and the U.S. memo to NATO states gives just a taste of the kinds of legal arguments that nuclear weapons states will make in an effort to undermine the effectiveness of a new nuclear ban treaty if it isn’t structured in the right way.

I’m certainly available to advise on these issues is anyone is interested.


BTWC 8th RevCon Final Document

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

The 8th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) ended today, 25 November, in great disappointment. While during the preparatory meetings in April and August it was already clear that the exercise would be difficult, nobody really anticipated that so much would be lost in two days. There is even less than in the previous final documents: the meetings of experts (MX) held during the summer have been stopped; the meetings of states parties (MSP) have been preserved, but without a sense of purpose. Except as a way to preserve the Implementation Support Unit (ISU).

The number of staff of the ISU was not increased. The still incomprehensible Spanish veto against the expansion of the ISU in the final two hours of the 7th Review Conference in 2011 (despite EU consensus to support such increase of staff) is having lasting consequences of ever greater impact. I guess that we can be grateful that nobody raised the flag to argue that with the elimination of the MX the ISU would have a reduced workload (not exactly true, but then politics are about perceptions, not truths).

In their final declarations many countries, especially from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), put the blame squarely on Iran (without naming the country). This country’s obsession with returning to a negotiation format like the Ad Hoc Group to achieve the higher goal of a legally binding instrument—possibly with the sole goal of antagonising the USA—led it to exploit to the fullest to principle of consensus decision-making to torpedo any effort at compromise. Many NAM countries—often developing nations—lost out on concrete opportunities for international cooperation and assistance. They were acutely aware of what they were losing. Having participated in four review conferences, I cannot remember so much direct criticism directed against one of their own.

More was on offer, and for a moment in the late morning and early afternoon expectations rose that a meaningful outcome might still be possible. By 4pm those hopes were dashed; even the continued existence of the ISU was in doubt. Fortunately, that danger was averted.

I will write up some personal recollections and impressions over the next week or so. There were more dynamics driving the negotiations that prevented useful compromises during the endgame.

Meanwhile, I have scanned the final document and the budget assessment (BTWC 8th RevCon – Final doc (Scan)) as it was distributed to delegates. These documents contain typographical and grammatical errors. A clean version will soon be published by the ISU.


This little pearl of a blog post over at Iran Review was brought to my attention today. Its actual title is “Anti-Joyner: Debunking the Misinterpretation of the JCPOA.” In it the author, Kaveh Afrasiabi, who is a political science PhD, argues that I have a pro-U.S. bias and that I’m just parroting the arguments of the U.S. State Department.

I have to say that’s a new one! In all the criticism I’ve received in the past, I’ve never been argued to be a USG shill. In fact it’s usually exactly the opposite.  I think the U.S. government would be just as surprised and amused as I am to hear that allegation! This, to me, just means that Afrasiabi has no idea who I am and probably just assumed that anyone making the argument that the JCPOA is legally non-binding must be acting on behalf of the U.S. government.

Anyway, Afrasiabi goes on to argue at some length that I am incorrect in my determination that Security Council Resolution 2231 did not have the effect of making the JCPOA legally binding on the states parties to it.

As an aside, it never ceases to amaze me how confident non-lawyers often are – particularly in the nonproliferation area – in engaging in international legal analysis on complex legal questions. Do you think these people are just as confident in giving medical diagnoses? Maybe Afrasiabi should take a shift at his local emergency room and give the poor medical doctors a break.

I’m not going to dignify his post any further by serious substantive engagement with it here.

Incidentally, though, in my response to a question posed in the comments to my recent post over at Ejil:Talk I give a basic guide to UNSCR interpretation that Afrasiabi would do well to consult if he wants to understand the errors in his analysis.

Emergency assistance: Triggering Article VII of the BTWC

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Tabletop Exercise (TTX) on the Implementation of Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)

8-9 November 2016, Palais des Nations, Geneva

(Provisional report)

[Prepared by Élisande Nexon, Ralf Trapp and Jean Pascal Zanders]

Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) provides that

Each State Party to this Convention undertakes to provide or support assistance, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, to any Party to the Convention which so requests, if the Security Council decides that such Party has been exposed to danger as a result of violation of the Convention.

In recent years, considerations such as emergence and re-emergence of diseases, including Ebola, or the use of chemical weapons in Syria, have highlighted challenges pertaining to public health and assistance facing the international community. Many lessons have in the meantime been learned. The Eighth Review Conference gives the international community the opportunity to consider the potential contribution of Article VII to those considerations.

20161108 BTWC Article VII TTX-01

French Ambassador Alice Guitton opening the tabletop exercise

To this end the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) convened a workshop on 8 and 9 November 2016.  The primary goal of the exercise was to stimulate reflection on the decision-making processes both within a BTWC State Party and by the international institutions that may become involved if Article VII were to be activated. It also aimed to identify issues that require further study and clarification.

The workshop benefited from financial support by France and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Twenty-six national representatives and experts from civil society organisations, including public health and disarmament experts, participated in the exercise.

Fostering discussion on the implementation of Article VII: General framework of the tabletop exercise

The exercise enabled participants to exchange views based on a scenario involving a pneumonic plague outbreak in several locations. All victims had been exposed to the same genetically-modified strain displaying enhanced antibiotic resistance. The circumstances aroused suspicion about possible deliberate release. The scenario covered only the timeframe between the detection of an outbreak and the moment when the international community would be called upon under Article VII of the BTWC to offer assistance to the country suffering a major outbreak.

The exercise comprised three breakout sessions. In each session the plot advanced to the next stage of major decision-making by governments. Workshop participants were instructed not to play the scenario, but to consider themselves as a committee of government officials that has to assess alternative policy options and make a final recommendation to the minister. Participants split into three groups, each one representing a different perspective, namely that of the country in which the outbreak was first noticed, the neighbouring country suspected of being the perpetrator of the attack, and a nearby neutral country that might conceivably become an assistance provider.

The exercise was designed to examine specifically in which ways the BTWC as a disarmament and security treaty could contribute to mitigating a (suspected deliberate) outbreak in addition to other international assistance mechanisms. It factored in the current lack of procedures or mechanisms for its implementation.

This synthesis aims at underlining the main conclusions reached and questions raised during the tabletop exercise.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Trump Presidency and the Iran Nuclear Deal: Initial Thoughts

Well it’s been a rough few days here as I and many others in America have gone through the stages of grief following Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election last Tuesday. I learned about the results as I was walking through Frankfurt airport, on my way back from a week in Amman, Jordan.

The Flight from Frankfurt to Chicago was a very difficult one, as I grappled with the reality through the haze of lack of sleep and disorientation.

Among the many issues that will be affected when Trump assumes the U.S. presidency in January is of course the Iran nuclear issue. Trump famously stated on the campaign trail that “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”  I don’t actually think this is his number one priority, but nevertheless a President Trump and his foreign policy team will most definitely not be the champions of the JCPOA that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been.

Of course this all comes as a shock to most of us who work in the nonproliferation area. I genuinely thought that the JCPOA would, under a Hillary Clinton presidency, perhaps not be as positively supported by the U.S. administration as it had been, but that nevertheless the U.S. would seek to keep its commitments under the deal.  And as a side note, I also thought that this meant I probably wouldn’t be writing that much more about the JCPOA, and I welcomed that.

But now we are faced with a new reality and a lot of uncertainty about specifically how Trump and his foreign policy team will treat the JCPOA, as well as whether Republicans in Congress will now – with Trump as president and willing to sign it into law – be successful in imposing new economic sanctions on Iran through statute.

I thought I would just offer a few initial observations and thoughts about the various questions that we now face relative to the JCPOA:

1. I have seen arguments circulating around that because the JCPOA was endorsed by the U.N. Security Council in Resolution 2231, the commitments made in the JCPOA are therefore legally binding obligations under international law, and that President Trump therefore legally cannot withdraw the U.S. from participation in the agreement. This is incorrect. The JCPOA is not a legally binding agreement (i.e. a treaty) under international law. And the hortatory endorsement of its terms in Resolution 2231 does not change that fact. From a legal perspective, President Trump could declare that the U.S. no longer intends to comply with the terms of the JCPOA without incurring the legal responsibility of the United States.  The JCPOA is a set of political commitments undertaken by its parties. It is only the political will of the parties that keeps the agreement together.

2. That being said, some of the JCPOA’s commitments – a number of which have already been implemented by the parties including the U.N. Security Council itself – have legal implications. Iran’s provisional application of the IAEA Additional Protocol, the U.N. Security Council’s removal of its economic and other sanctions on Iran through Resolution 2231, and the removal of unilateral economic sanctions under domestic law by the U.S. and the European Union, have all already occurred as of Implementation Day, as stipulated in the JCPOA. President Trump could unilaterally decide to remove the presidential waivers that have implemented most of the U.S. unilateral sanctions relief. The most extreme legal move the U.S. could make under President Trump would be to trigger the snapback procedure stipulated in Resolution 2231 in order to re-apply the now removed U.N. Security Council sanctions.  Here is a link to my chapter on the JCPOA from my – now even more timely! – recently published book as a reference for reminding readers about what is in the JCPOA.

3. What is President Trump (and by the way you have no idea how much it pains me to write that phrase) likely to do with regard to the JCPOA once he takes office in January? The short answer is that nobody knows. What could he do? Well, he could do a number of things. He could:

A) simply adopt a hostile tone and approach to the JCPOA, stopping any rhetorical and other activities encouraging foreign banks and businesses to engage with Iran, but not formally state the U.S. intention to not comply with the JCPOA going forward;

B) adopt a hostile tone and approach and additionally allow Congress to adopt new non-nuclear economic sanctions on Iran that do not per se violate the letter of the JCPOA, but that undermine its spirit and effects;

C) adopt a hostile tone and approach, and actually abrogate the JCPOA by re-applying the now waived nuclear sanctions through presidential action, in addition to going along with new non-nuclear sanctions by Congress;

D) as the most extreme legal option, adopt a hostile tone and approach, formally abrogate the JCPOA by reapplying nuclear sanctions, allow Congress to apply new non-nuclear sanctions, and initiate the snapback procedure under Resolution 2231 to re-apply the now lifted U.N. Security Council sanctions.

And there are of course a number of other different permutations of these same options.

4. With each one of these courses of conduct by the United States, both the other members of the P5+1, as well as Iran, will face a different reality to what they have faced to this point, and will have to decide how to react .

It seems to me that European states, as well as Russia and China, are likely to maintain their current course of support for the JCPOA and re-engagement with Iran even if the U.S. decides to pursue any of options A-C above.  I don’t think that there is any will to go back to the pre-JCPOA posture of unilateral sanctions on Iran by any of these states, and I expect that the slowly but surely building current of trade deals being made between businesses in these states and Iran are likely to be allowed to continue.

If the U.S. were to re-impose or even strengthen secondary banking sanctions on foreign banks, it’s hard to say if that would have any effect on the pace of re-engagement with Iran by European and Asian businesses, mostly because they’ve already had to find ways to work around unclear U.S. banking sanctions, and haven’t relied on fearful big European banks with strong connections to the U.S.  So even the re-imposition or strengthening of U.S. unilateral sanctions wouldn’t seem likely to seriously change the current dynamics of re-engagement between Iran and other countries.

5. It seems to me that there are only a few scenarios in which the JCPOA, and the essential dynamics of its current implementation, could be seriously threatened. One would be if the U.S. took the ultimate legal step and initiated the snapback procedure to re-impose U.N. Security Council sanctions. These sanctions include prohibitions on trade as well as asset freezes on individuals and entities, and they would be binding on all U.N. member states. That’s not to say that the Security Council sanctions in and of themselves would grind re-engagement to a halt, as they only explicitly cover relatively discrete sectors of trade.  But I think that there would be a significant chilling effect on most all foreign business transactions with Iran which would flow from the re-imposition of Security Council sanctions.

This is to say nothing of the political implications in Iran which would flow from such a step.  It’s hard to predict how the domestic political forces in Iran would react to U.S. action pursuing options A-C above. President Rouhani might, and I stress might, be able to keep conservative groups within the Iranian government from forcing him to withdraw from the JCPOA if the U.S. pursues any of options A-C, although I have serious doubts about his ability to do so in response to option C.  However, I don’t think the moderate forces in Iran would triumph if the U.S. actually forced the re-imposition of U.N. Security Council sanctions under option D. I think that would be too much for conservatives, and in particular Ayatollah Khamenei, to swallow, and that Iran would under that circumstance likely withdraw from the JCPOA and possibly dramatically resume the nuclear work it ceased under the JCPOA’s terms.  I readily confess that I am out of my element of expertise here in trying to guess how the Iranian government, in all of its complexity, would respond to U.S. actions. Perhaps I can get a better informed expert on Iranian politics, like Aniseh Tabrizi or Sanam Vakil, to provide some more insight.

Those are some initial observations. A lot will depend on just how aggressive Trump and his foreign policy team decide to be in their efforts to undermine the JCPOA.

Here’s a picture of me at Petra to brighten my and maybe your spirits.