By Javad Heirannia

Iran is very different from North Korea: ex-White House official

February 13, 2018

TEHRAN – Professor Frank N. von Hippel, former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology says “Iran has been very helpful in unilaterally limiting the range of its ballistic missiles to 2000 kilometers.” 

“Iran’s restraint reassures Europe and the United States that Iran is very different from North Korea,” Frank N. von Hippel tells the Tehran Times in an exclusive interview.
Following is the full text of the interview:

Q: The U.S. new nuclear doctrine was published few days ago. This document had remained unchanged since 2010. What are the reasons for new changes? 

A: Since the end of the Cold War, each new Administration has done a nuclear posture review: Clinton: 1994; Bush: 2001; Obama, 2010; Trump, 2018. 

Q: What is the most important difference between the new doctrine and the previous one? 

A: The differences are subtle but potentially important as indicators of the direction of U.S. nuclear policy. President Obama was trying to limit U.S. threats of nuclear use to the deterrence of nuclear attacks against the U.S or its allies.  That is logical if you want to get rid of nuclear weapons. It would mean that, if other countries agree to get rid of their nuclear weapons, we could too.  There was too much opposition, however, and the Obama Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review stated as a compromise that “the role of U.S. nuclear weapons to deter and respond to non-nuclear attacks—conventional, biological, or chemical—has declined significantly. The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attack.”  It also stated, “the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” 

The Trump Nuclear Posture Review renews the commitment that, “the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” 

It then hedges, however: “Given the potential of significant non-nuclear strategic attacks, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.” 

This is the general difference: less emphasis on nuclear disarmament and more on nuclear deterrence.  This includes calling on the development of low-yield nuclear warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles because threats that they might be used might seem more credible than threats to use the current high-yield warheads. 

Q: In new doctrine, the use of nuclear weapons are allowed in extraordinary situation. There are some ambiguities around this. What are those extraordinary situations exactly? 

A: The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review states, “We must, and will, posture our nuclear capabilities to hedge against multiple potential risks and threat developments. We will, for example, hedge against the potential rapid growth or emergence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic threats, including chemical, biological, cyber, and large-scale conventional aggression. The capacity to hedge helps ensure our ability to sustain effective deterrence and assurance amid unexpected change.” 

I interpret that as saying that some non-nuclear attacks could be so devastating that we must leave open the possibility of a nuclear response. 


Q: US considers the first strike on Russia allowed it means the spirit of the cold war is governing this new doctrine. Why the US has taken this approach? 

A: Aside from the general concerns mentioned above about the need to deter devastating non-nuclear attacks, I don’t see a specific threat of nuclear first use against Russia. But I do see a lot of concern about the possibility that Russia might resort to nuclear first use and efforts to leave no doubt in the minds of Russia’s leadership that the U.S. could and would respond with nuclear weapons.  These are traditional Cold War concerns and responses. It is unfortunate to see them resurface but, unfortunately, since Russia invaded Ukraine, there have been quite a few Russian nuclear threats to make sure that NATO does not use its conventional superiority in response.   

Q: How do you assess the US new doctrine toward Iran? What are the new points? 

A: The Nuclear Posture Review expresses concern that, after the limits in the JCPOA expire, Iran might use its nuclear program to acquire nuclear weapons. It also expresses concern that Iran’s ballistic missiles could in the future carry nuclear warheads. It also says that Iran could, even today, acquire a nuclear weapon within a year if it decided to do so. It also says, “Our deterrence strategy is designed to ensure that the Iranian leadership understands that any non-nuclear strategic attack against the United States, allies, and partners would be defeated, and that the cost would outweigh any benefits.” 

I can find no nuclear threats against Iran, however.  That is consistent with the assurance that “the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” Iran is a party to the NPT and, since the JCPOA came into force, the IAEA has found no noncompliance with Iran’s non-proliferation obligations. 

I would hope that we could begin to discuss post-JCPOA confidence-building arrangements such as multinational control over uranium enrichment worldwide.  But I understand that it is difficult to have such discussions while President Trump threatens to end U.S. participation in the JCPOA.  If he does (God forbid) then I hope that Iran and the other parties to the JCPOA can keep it alive and discuss how to strengthen the post-JCPOA nonproliferation regime. 

Iran has been very helpful in unilaterally limiting the range of its ballistic missiles to 2000 kilometers. 
Iran’s restraint reassures Europe and the United States that Iran is very different from North Korea. 
I am very grateful also that South Korea’s new president is trying to deescalate the very dangerous situation with North Korea.  I wish the leaders of Japan and the United States were more helpful. 

Q: German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel showed great concern over the new US nuclear doctrine saying Trump's strategy would send the wrong signal as in the days of the Cold War and pose a serious challenge to Europe. What are the EU's specific concerns? 

A: During the Cold War, NATO feared that the Soviet Union might send its more numerous tanks into West Europe and the U.S. deployed thousands of nuclear weapons into West Germany. The Soviet Union responded by deploying thousands of nuclear weapons on its side.  Today, Russia is trying to regain influence in Ukraine, the Baltic Republics, and East Europe, in part by low-level military actions, as in Crimea and East Ukraine, and in part by clandestine political interference.  It tries to deter military reactions from NATO by nuclear threats. The Trump Administration is responding by trying to make clear that nuclear actions would beget nuclear reactions.  

It is understandable that the Europeans worry about a new Cold War. We were lucky that we escaped the old Cold War without destroying civilization, starting with an accidental or unauthorized or simply stupid nuclear use.
We must put the age of nuclear weapons behind us before our luck runs out.

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