Nuclear powers, a disputed border and an uneasy truce: Explaining the India-China conflict

A border clash between the two nuclear armed neighbors has drawn the world’s gaze to a disputed region in the Himalayas.
Image: Galwan Valley

Galwan Valley, which lies between China’s Tibet and India’s Ladakh regions on Tuesday. 2020 Planet Labs, Inc. / AFP – Getty Images

By Saphora Smith

High up in the Himalayas, Indian and Chinese armed forces warily eye each other across a disputed border region that has become the scene of a tense standoff between the two nuclear powers.

The conflict in the remote Galwan Valley that spans their shared border sparked into life Monday with the killing of 20 Indian soldiers, the first reported deaths in 45 years. China has not disclosed whether its forces suffered any casualties, according to a report in its state-run newspaper, the Global Times.

The deaths have drawn the world’s gaze to a region that the two most populous countries have been contesting for decades. The implications go far beyond the lonely snowcapped mountains of this geopolitically complex region.

Image: Burning posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping
Siliguri Youth Congress activists burn posters and effigy of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest in Siliguri, India on Wednesday. Diptendu Dutta / AFP – Getty Images

Chinese and Indian forces clashed along the 2,100-mile-long Line of Actual Control, a demarcation line established after a war between the two nations in 1962 that resulted in an uneasy truce.

No shots are reported to have been fired since 1975, according to the Indian press, but troops occasionally engage in hand-to-hand scuffles and throwing rocks.

So what happened this week?

The details of exactly what happened Monday remain in short supply.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a phone call with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, on Wednesday that Indian troops had crossed the line of control to “deliberately provoke and even violently attack” Chinese officers and soldiers, the Chinese foreign ministry said.

Meanwhile, on the same call Jaishankar accused China of seeking to erect “a structure” in the Galwan Valley on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border.

“The Chinese side took premeditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement. “It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”

Why is this happening now?

Thousands of troops have been camped either side of the Galwan Valley, in the mountainous region of Ladakh, for weeks.

The tense standoff started in early May, when Indian officials said Chinese soldiers crossed the boundary in Ladakh at three different points, erecting tents and guard posts and ignoring verbal warnings to leave, according to The Associated Press. That triggered shouting matches, stone-throwing and even fistfights between the two sides, much of it replayed on television news channels and social media, the news agency reported.

What are the possible motivations behind the clashes?

Under India’s Hindu-nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, the country wants to be seen as strong, according to Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in London.

“The one country that doesn’t respect India to the degree India would like is China,” he said. “India wants to be seen as an equal to China and talks about a multipolar Asia, but then it sees China as wanting dominance in Asia.”

However, Price said he thought it was unlikely that India would want to provoke China potentially to war particularly in the midst of a pandemic.

“It also knows China is bigger,” he said.

China on the other hand may have possible reasons to provoke a confrontation with India, Price said, although he cautioned that an overriding motivation there also remained unclear.

Among the reasons raised by analysts include China’s objection to India’s construction of a road through the Galwan Valley connecting the region to an airstrip, New Delhi’s increasing close alliance with Washington, and Beijing’s support for Pakistan in its dispute with India over the Kashmir region.

Image: An Indian army convoy
An Indian army convoy moves on the Srinagar-Ladakh highway at Gagangeer, north-east of Srinagar, India, on Wednesday. Mukhtar Khan / AP

Others also pointed to China’s increasing assertiveness in the region as a potential broader explanation.

Walter Ladwig III, a senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London, pointed to its more forceful conduct in the South China Sea and Hong Kong in recent months.

“There definitely is a clear sense that China is much more forceful at the moment than it has been in the past,” he said.

“They’re throwing their weight around a lot more in all theaters, both domestically and in terms of their foreign relations,” said Nick Reynolds, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.

How dangerous is the clash?

India has said both sides had agreed not to “escalate matters and instead, ensure peace and tranquility.”

Modi echoed this but also underlined that India would give a “befitting reply” to any provocation. “India will firmly protect every inch of the country’s land and its self-respect,” he said.

The Chinese foreign ministry also said both sides agreed after Monday’s clash to “cool the current situation” as soon as possible and “safeguard peace and tranquility in the border areas.”

The stakes are high. In the past year, China has increased its nuclear arsenal from 290 to 320 warheads, and India from 130-140 to 150 warheads, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI.

Experts say the broader dispute itself is not going away any time soon and Price points out that an agreement between New Delhi and Beijing after clashes in 2017 did nothing to stop this week’s deaths.

“No troops have died on this border since 1975, so this is kind of new territory,” he said.

Both Price and Reynolds said it would be difficult for either government to be seen to back down, considering their domestic politics. But Reynolds said international pressure may help and Price said there may be a way for both countries to claim victory but at the same time mutually back away.

“The elevation and terrain of this area means it’s highly unlikely this could escalate large scale,” Ladwig said. “But there’s plenty of opportunity for small-scale mistakes, skirmishes, accidents.”

Here Are The Top 10 International Threats According To Americans

By Victoria Simpson on June 19 2020 in World Facts

Image credit: Ra2 studio/
Image credit: Ra2 studio/
  • Americans fear the spread of infectious disease the most, followed by terrorism and the threat of nuclear weapons, as reported in a survey conducted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In addition to international terrorism, domestic terror is also considered a threat to Americans.
  • Experts are warning that more pandemics may come our way if we are not careful.

Today’s world is full of good people, and it is also home to many conflicts and problems. Some international threats that affect many people include terrorism such as that presented by groups like ISIS, and the threat coming from nature of global warming. In order to gain some insight into what Americans are fearing when they lie in bed awake at night, Pew Research Center conducted a survey in the spring of 2020 by asking 1,000 US adults a series of questions over the phone. This survey took place from March 3-29, 2020, and as such, occurred during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. This time saw tens of millions of American workers lose their jobs due to temporary or permanent layoffs in the face of the virus.  Stock prices plummeted, and the value of oil hit rock bottom as countries across the globe came to a stand still.

In light of this, it comes as little surprise that the top international threat people in the US listed at this time was the spread of infectious disease. Following this, people said they feared the threat of terrorism, and the spread of nuclear weapons. The remaining factors in the list of top ten international threats according to Americans in descending percentage order included cyberattacks from other countries, global climate change, the condition of the global economy, large numbers of people migrating, and long-standing conflicts between countries or ethnic groups.

What do these threats consist of, and what is the world doing about them?

Infectious Disease

Image credit: Nikolai  Moiseenko/

The novel coronavirus has made a deep impression in the minds of Americans. In the survey, 79% said it presented a major international threat, 19% saw it as a minor threat, and just 2% said it was not a threat at all. In essence, about 98% of the adults surveyed in the country found that infectious disease is at least a minor international threat to humans.

The novel coronavirus is just one in a slew of infectious diseases that have targeted humanity in the last century. The avian (bird) flu has caused several outbreaks around the world in the last century. H5N1, one type of bird flu, appeared in a goose in China in 1996, and spread to people a year later. SARS, also known as “severed acute respiratory syndrome” was first reported in Asia in the winter of 2003, and subsequently spread to about two dozen countries, infecting thousands and killing hundreds.

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) began infecting people in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread globally. This disease has a very high death rate, reportedly killing between 30 and 40% of those it infects. Ebola is another deadly infectious disease that has gripped humanity in recent times. This illness struck people living in West Africa between 2014 and 2016, but it has actually been with us for longer than that, dating back to 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. During the most current outbreak in Africa, 28,600 people are thought to have caught the virus and 11,325 died.

Experts are now warning that these outbreaks could be marking the beginning of a time when deadly viral outbreaks will become more common worldwide. Some experts believe the outbreaks are happening more often because humans are encroaching more and more on wild animal habitats.


Image credit: Prazis Images/

Terrorism comes in second as a perceived international threat among people living in the US. The survey done by Pew Research Center found that 73% of those surveyed felt terrorism is a major internation threat, and 25% felt it is a minor threat. Just 2% felt that terrorism was not a threat internationally.

Terrorism throughout the world has been in the media headlines frequently.  Globally, it has its roots in recent historic times in the 1980s, according to the FBI. According to the Bureau’s website, prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on New York City, the 1983 truck bombings of U.S. and French military barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed 295 people constituted the most deadly terrorist attacks.

Some say the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center towers marked the beginning of international terrorists targeting people indiscriminately. Over 3,000 people who died in this attack were civilians.

Domestic terror is also a concern in the US. The FBI states that between 1980 and 2000, 335 incidents or suspected incidents of domestic terrorism happened in the US, and many more have taken place in the last 20 years.

The Spread of Nuclear Weapons

Image credit: Mwreck/
The third largest worry when it comes to international threats among Americans is the spread of nuclear weapons. As with international terrorism, 73%  of those surveyed said they felt it was a major threat.

Nuclear weapons were first tested in 1945, for use during the Second World War. On August 6, 1945, the US famously dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, in a violent attack that killed and gravely wounded about 130,000 people. The US also bombed Nagasaki following this, and killed about 74,000 people. This devastation led to the end of WWII but also to the beginning of a new era of violent threat.

Nuclear threats exist today. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has now abandoned a deal to end testing nuclear weapons and missiles within its borders and has started doing this again. The country of Iran has also dropped its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal, and has started running its nuclear program anew. India and Pakistan both have their hands on nuclear weapons as well, and the two countries do not always get along, causing international worries that one could someday strike the other.

The explosion of a nuclear weapon releases deadly radiation that can have a devastating effect on humans. It can set fire to buildings for miles, and cause something called nuclear fallout, which spreads radiation for days after a bomb has exploded. This makes nuclear weapons something to be feared.

How These Threats are Being Addressed

Each of the international threats listed above presents a valid global concern. When it comes to disease, experts are currently working towards developing a vaccine to treat the novel coronavirus, and there is a group of scientists who are working to predict which infectious diseases might come to us next, from the animal kingdom. It is their hope to discover these illnesses and to develop treatments for them before another pandemic hits.

When it comes to terrorism, international organizations such as NATO and governments worldwide are attempting to combat the violence. Counter-terrorism policies are focused on reducing global terrorism, and armies are often sent abroad to fight terrorism in countries in which it has a strong hold such as in Iraq, Syria, Nigera, and Pakistan. It is an ongoing fight.

As for nuclear weapons, organizations such as the United Nations are working towards disarmament through the development of bilateral and plurilateral treaties and arrangements with governments. These projects seek to eliminate or reduce certain nuclear weapons in the world, to ensure peace for all. Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons in the world and can wipe out entire cities with just one explosion.

By working together and increasing trust among nations, it is possible that the world could reduce the major concerns of many people, in order to make the Earth a safer place to live.

Here Are The Top 10 International Threats According To Americans

Rank Threat % who say it is a major threat
1 Spread of infectious disease 79
2 Terrorism 73
3 The spread of nuclear weapons 73
4 Cyberattacks from other countries 72
5 China’s power and influence 62
6 Global climate change 60
7 Russia’s power and influence 56
8 The condition of the global economy 55
9 Global poverty 49
10 Large numbers of people moving from one country to another 42

Risk of Nuclear War Rises as US Deploys New Nuke for First Time Since Cold War

The Federation of American Scientists revealed in late January that the U.S. Navy had deployed for the first time a submarine armed with a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead. The USS Tennessee deployed from Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia in late 2019. The W76-2 warhead, which is facing criticism at home and abroad, is estimated to have about a third of the explosive power of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) called the news “an alarming development that heightens the risk of nuclear war.” We’re joined by William Arkin, longtime reporter focused on military and nuclear policy, author of numerous books, including “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.” He broke the story about the deployment of the new low-yield nuclear weapon in an article he co-wrote for Federation of American Scientists. He also recently wrote a cover piece for Newsweek titled “With a New Weapon in Donald Trump’s Hands, the Iran Crisis Risks Going Nuclear.” “What surprised me in my reporting … was a story that was just as important, if not more important, than what was going on in the political world,” Arkin says.


AMY GOODMAN: As the nation focused on President Trump’s impeachment trial, a major story recently broke about a new development in U.S. nuclear weapons policy that received little attention. The Federation of American Scientists revealed in late January the U.S. Navy had for the first time deployed a submarine armed with a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead. The USS Tennessee deployed from Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia in late 2019, armed with a warhead which is estimated to have about a third of the explosive power of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima.

The deployment is facing criticism at home and abroad. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN, called the news “an alarming development that heightens the risk of nuclear war.” On Capitol Hill, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said, quote, “This destabilizing deployment further increases the potential for miscalculation during a crisis.” Smith also criticized the Pentagon for its inability and unwillingness to answer congressional questions about the weapon over the past few months. Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by saying, quote, “This reflects the fact that the United States is actually lowering the nuclear threshold and that they are conceding the possibility of them waging a limited nuclear war and winning this war. This is extremely alarming,” he said.

We’re joined now William Arkin, longtime reporter who focuses on military and nuclear policy. He broke the story about the deployment of the new low-yield nuclear weapon in an article he co-wrote for the Federation of American Scientists. He also wrote the cover story for Newsweek, which is headlined “With a New Weapon in Donald Trump’s Hands, the Iran Crisis Risks Going Nuclear.” He’s the author of many books, including Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.

Bill Arkin, it’s great to have you back.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Thanks for having me on, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, to say the least, this has been an explosive week of news in Washington, D.C., and your news, which has hardly gone reported, is — should really be one of the top news stories of these last weeks.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, during the very time when the Iran crisis was at its highest, the United States, last December, deployed a new nuclear weapon, the first new nuclear weapon to be deployed, Amy, since the end of the Cold War. So here we have not just a momentous occasion, but a weapon which is intended explicitly to be more usable — and not just more usable against Russia and China, but to be more usable against Iran and North Korea, as well. It seemed to me that looking more deeply at this weapon, looking more deeply at the doctrines behind it, and then, really, what surprised me in my reporting, looking more at Donald Trump and the role that he might play in the future, was a story that was just as important, if not more important, than what was going on in the political world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this — what does it mean, “low-yield” nuclear weapon?

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, “low-yield” is actually a little bit wrong. The United States actually possesses nuclear weapons with even smaller yields than five to six kilotons, which is what this is estimated at. That’s 5,000 to 6,000 tons. And so, that would be — if you thought of it in Manhattan terms, it would be probably something on the order of 20 square city blocks obliterated and radiation coming from that area. So, to say “low-yield” is, of course, a little bit wrong. But it is the lowest-yield missile warhead available to the strategic nuclear forces.

And the real reason behind deploying a Trident warhead with this low-yield weapon was that the United States, the nuclear planners, felt that they didn’t have a prompt and assured capability to threaten Russia or threaten other adversaries — “prompt” meaning that it would be quickly delivered, 30 minutes, or even, if a submarine is close, as low as 15 minutes, and “assured” meaning that it isn’t a bomber or an airplane that has to penetrate enemy air defenses in order to get to the target. So, those two things, prompt and assured, is what they really wanted. And putting a warhead on the missiles on the submarines allowed them both covert deployments as well as getting close to the target.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this means between the United States and Russia.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, between the United States and Russia, I think it really doesn’t change very much. The Russians can denounce the Trident warhead, but the reality is that they have 2,000 of their own small nuclear weapons of this sort opposite Europe. And one of the justifications for the deployment of this new nuclear weapon, Amy, was that the Russians in fact had, if you will, a numerical advantage against NATO, and there was a desire to have a more “usable” nuclear weapon in order to eliminate that advantage. I think the U.S.-Russian situation is certainly tense, but it’s not really what this weapon is about. What this weapon is about is having a more usable nuclear weapon against countries like Iran and North Korea, where in fact a shocking first use of nuclear weapons, a preemptive use of nuclear weapons, would be used to either stop a war or to destroy a very important target, say, for instance, if there were a missile on a launchpad ready to strike at that United States.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2017, General John Hyten, who’s now vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. already has military capabilities to respond to Russian deployment of nuclear weapons.

GENJOHN HYTEN: The plans that we have right now — one of the things that surprised me most when I took command on November 3rd was the flexible options that are in all our options today. So we actually have very flexible options in our plans. So, if something bad happens in the world and there’s a response and I’m on the phone with the secretary of defense and the president and the entire staff, which is the attorney general, secretary of state and everybody, I actually have a series of very flexible options, from conventional all the way up to large-scale nuke, that I can advise the president on to give him options on what he would want to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Arkin, if you could respond?

WILLIAM ARKIN: Options. That’s what they’re always saying, “options.” They need better options to do this, better options to do that. You have to look at this new weapon and say, “In its most basic terms, what does it give the United States that it doesn’t already have?” And those two things that I already mentioned: a prompt capability, being able to strike at a target in 15 minutes or less, and, second, an assured capability — that is, a missile that’s able to penetrate any enemy air defenses.

That makes it a particularly dangerous weapon in the hands of the current president, because I’ve heard from many people, more than I expected in my reporting, that they were concerned that Donald Trump, in his own way, might be more prone to accept the use of nuclear weapons as one of options when he was presented with a long list of options. One senior officer said to me, “We’re afraid that if we present Donald Trump with a hundred options of what to do in a certain crisis, and only one of them is a nuclear option, that he might go down the list and choose the one that is the most catastrophic.” And that officer said, “In 35 years of my being in the military, I’ve never thought before that I had to think of the personality of the president in presenting military options.”

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about Iran now and what this means for Iran.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, the deployment, it happened very quickly. The decision was made in February 2018. The Trident warhead was already on the production line for the strategic submarines. So, at the end of the run of these warheads, they made about 50 new ones that were of the low-yield variety, because the production line was already operating and hot. So it happened very quickly. Ironically, it happened at the very time that the House of Representatives was debating whether or not the weapon should even be deployed. And by the time that was finished and President Trump had signed the defense appropriations bill on 20th of December, the weapon had already been in the field. So, it shows really a disconnect, as well, in the congressional debate between what’s actually happening on the ground and what it is that they’re talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, for this to have been passed, you know, the House isn’t the Senate. The House is controlled by Democrats, so the Democrats passed this.

WILLIAM ARKIN: That’s correct. But in the end, the Senate turned down the House recommendation that the weapon not be deployed. And really, the tragedy here is that all of this occurred while the Tennessee was being loaded with a new missile, while the Tennessee was being prepared to go out on a new patrol, while the Tennessee actually went out into the Atlantic Ocean.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk again about Iran, exactly.

WILLIAM ARKIN: So, Iran is important because in June, when the drone was shot down, the president declined to retaliate militarily. And I think he got a lot of criticism from his party, from his wing, that he had made the wrong decision, that the United States should have retaliated against Iran. I think that stuck with Donald Trump. And I think, in the end, when it came to the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, in Baghdad, killed on the 2nd of January, that strike, people have told me, specifically was approved by Donald Trump, enthusiastically pushed by Donald Trump, because it kind of erased the mistake of him not retaliating in June.

At the same time, the United States was also increasing the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, in the Iran area. B-52 bombers were flown to Qatar. The USS Abraham Lincoln was sailed into the region. And there was a general buildup of defensive forces in places like Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia.

At this very moment when U.S.-Iranian relations are at such a deep, I think, divide and at a time also when Iran is free — and it’s not clear that they will, but free — to continue to pursue the development of nuclear materials and nuclear weapons, I think that we see maybe the beginning of a little bit of a creation of an argument that Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction and that the United States is going to have to take action against that. And you’ve seen now from the president a number of very blunt statements that have said, “We will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.” That’s not necessarily what anyone I’m talking to in the military is focusing their attention on. They’re much more concerned about Iran in Syria, Iran in Yemen, Iran’s role in Iraq. But in terms of war planning, I think at the highest levels within the U.S. government there’s a general consensus about Iran as being still one of the “axis of evil,” still being in pursuit of nuclear weapons. And the Trump administration, particularly if it’s re-elected, is going to make Iran, I think, the centerpiece of a new defense strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, it is President Trump that set that situation up by pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear accord and decimating it.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Yes, that and also the second decision that was made, which was designating the Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organization. This, ironically, in kind of the bureaucracy of terrorism, triggered a number of decisions and a number of actions, one of which was, with foreign terrorist organizations, the U.S. military then begins the process of targeting their leadership. And that’s what resulted in their starting to track Qassem Soleimani and then ultimately killing him. So it seems to me that we have these two separate tracks kind of converging at the same time: a foreign terrorist organization designation, on the one hand, and weapons of mass destruction, on the other.

AMY GOODMAN: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently advanced the Doomsday Clock 20 seconds closer to midnight, the clock a symbolic timekeeper that tracks the likelihood of nuclear war and other existential threats. It now stands closer to catastrophe than at any time since its creation in 1947. This is Mary Robinson, former Irish president, former U.N. human rights chief, speaking last month as the clock was set to 100 seconds to midnight.

MARY ROBINSON: The Doomsday Clock is a globally recognized indicator of the vulnerability of our existence. It’s a striking metaphor for the precarious state of the world, but, most frighteningly, as we have just heard, it’s a metaphor backed by rigorous scientific scrutiny. This is no mere analogy. We are now 100 seconds to midnight, and the world needs to wake up. Our planet faces two simultaneous existential threats: the climate crisis and nuclear weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Irish President Mary Robinson. The significance of the Doomsday Clock, Bill?

WILLIAM ARKIN: I think the real significance is the lack of public interaction and public activism on the question of nuclear weapons. Really, that’s the missing ingredient today, Amy. We have a situation where the United States and Russia are engaged in multi-hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of nuclear modernization, at a time when the United States is at a high level of crisis with Iran and North Korea. And where is the public? Where is the public? And where is the anti-nuclear movement? And where even is any candidate speaking up about this subject?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of the anti-nuclear movement, the nuclear-armed submarine we’re talking about was deployed from Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia. This is the same base where seven Catholic peace activists were recently found guilty on three felony counts and a misdemeanor charge for breaking into the base on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birth [sic], on April 4th, 2018. This is Plowshares activist Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day. It was actually the anniversary of his assassination. But this is Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, speaking after she was convicted.

MARTHA HENNESSY: The weapons are still there. The treaties are being knocked down one after the next. But we are called to keep trying. And we will do this together. And we have no other choice. Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Martha Hennessy is the granddaughter of the Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, one of the seven who were found guilty when they went onto that nuclear base. So, Bill, in this last comment, if you can talk about the significance of their action? And also, when you say “low-yield” nuclear weapon, it must calm people. But this is a third of the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima?

WILLIAM ARKIN: So, “low-yield” is merely the title. It’s like saying that a Hummer is a small truck. I think that what’s important for people to take away from this development is that the United States has a new usable nuclear weapon, what the military itself considers to be more usable. That’s the change. And it’s also a weapon that can be stealthily and covertly deployed in the oceans. And that’s a change. And we do it at a time when, at least against Russia and North Korea and Iran, the United States is engaged in nuclear brinksmanship, at a time when it seems to me that the Congress is out to lunch, and there isn’t really an anti-nuclear movement in the United States, a mass movement, that could take up arms against this.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of Martha Hennessy, Liz McAlister, the peace activist and widow of Phil Berrigan, and others getting convicted on their protest at the base?

WILLIAM ARKIN: I started writing about nuclear weapons in 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president. I believe that’s about the time when we met. And then we had marches in which hundreds of thousands of people were in Central Park and in Europe and around the world. And today we have nothing of the sort. So, yes, it’s important that these peace workers continue to do their work and continue to do their important attention operations and exercises, their own, if you will, actions against nuclear weapons. But it’s not enough. The public has to be more engaged. And I believe that the Democratic Party candidates for president need to speak up and say something about nuclear weapons, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there is a debate tonight in New Hampshire. We’ll see if that question is raised. William Arkin, longtime reporter who’s focused on military and nuclear policy, author of many books, including Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. And we will link to your articles and your cover story in Newsweek magazine.

Doomsday Clock nears apocalypse over climate and nuclear fears

The Bureau of Atomic Scientists unveil the clockImage copyrightBAS

The symbolic Doomsday Clock, which indicates how close our planet is to complete annihilation, is now only 100 seconds away from midnight.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) said on Thursday that the change was made due to nuclear proliferation, failure to tackle climate change and “cyber-based disinformation”.

The clock now stands at its closest to doomsday since it began ticking 1947.

The idea began in 1947 to warn humanity of the dangers of nuclear war.

graphic shows the clock
Presentational white space

Last year the clock was set at two minutes to midnight – midnight symbolises the end of the world – the same place it was wound to in 2018.

BAS President Rachel Bronson told reporters in Washington DC on Thursday that the time was now being kept in seconds rather than minutes because the “moment demands attention” and that the threats level is worsening”. She said the world was now menaced by powerful leaders who “denigrate and discard the most effective methods for addressing complex threats”.

The decision is made by the BAS Science and Security Board, which includes 13 Nobel Laureates. For the first time this year, the board was joined by members of The Elders – a group of international leaders and former officials first founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007.

“We must act and work together,” said former UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, a member of The Elders. “Not a single country or person can do it alone. We need all hands on deck and we can all work together.”

Media captionGreta Thunberg and Donald Trump give different takes on climate change

Former California Governor Jerry Brown, another member of the panel, said: “Dangerous rivalry and hostility among the superpowers increases the likelihood of nuclear blunder. Climate change just compounds the crisis. If there’s ever a time to wake up, it’s now.”

Astrophysicist Robert Rosner, another member of the panel, said: “The fact that the clock is now a mere 100 seconds from midnight signals really bad news,” said . “What we said last year is now a disturbing reality in that things are not getting better.”

“Past experience has taught us that even in the most dismal periods of the Cold War, we can come together. It is high time we do so again,” he added.

The clock was first created by US scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the world’s first nuclear weapon.

World is getting warmer graphic

Georgetown University Professor Sharon Squassoni told reporters that the threat from nuclear weapons had increased, in part due to the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, North Korean nuclear weapons development and continued proliferation from countries such as the US, China and Russia. She called the situation “dangerous” and demanding of an “urgent response”.

Another threat the committee warned of, particularly ahead of the US presidential election in November, was “government-used cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns to sow distrust in institutions and among nations”.

Board member Robert Latiff called “untruths, exaggerations and misinterpretations” a problem that could lead to the “wholesale trashing” of scientific evidence. Deepfake videos, he said, “threaten to undermine truth from fiction”.

Former Irish President Mary Robinson said “the world needs to wake up”, equating her reaction to that of “an angry granny”.

Amid Breakdown In Nuclear Talks, North Korea Threatens U.S. With ‘Christmas Gift’

A woman watches a news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Lee Jin-man/AP

In what could be a reference to a new missile test, North Korea is threatening to give the U.S. a “Christmas gift” unless Washington abides by an end-of-year deadline set by Pyongyang for concessions in exchange for a possible deal to curb its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea accused the U.S. of stalling on diplomatic efforts between the two countries because of the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

“The dialogue touted by the U.S. is, in essence, nothing but a foolish trick hatched to keep [North Korea] bound to dialogue and use it in favor of the political situation and election in the U.S.,” the statement from Ri Thae Song, North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, said.

The statement, published in North Korean state media on Tuesday, said it was up to Washington “what Christmas gift it will select to get.” It did not clarify what the statement meant.

However, on July 4, 2017, Kim successfully carried out North Korea’s first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. According to The Associated Press, he described it at the time as part of a “package of gifts” on the U.S. Independence Day holiday.

Speaking on Tuesday, President Trump said he hoped that Kim would get rid of his country’s nuclear weapons. Kim “likes sending rockets up, doesn’t he? … That’s why I call him Rocket Man,” the president said at a NATO meeting in London, reprising a pejorative he first used for Kim during a period of especially tense relations that began in 2017.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump met in June inside the Demilitarized Zone separating South and North Korea.

Getty Images

The two leaders first met in June 2018 in Singapore. They expressed mutual admiration, and Trump announced that Kim had agreed in principle to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, a second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February ended abruptly, with Kim and Trump leaving with no agreement.

Since then, working-level talks aimed at resolving the nuclear issue have all but broken down. As NPR’s Anthony Kuhn has reported, the basic disagreement is this: “The U.S. wants North Korea to give up its nukes first, and North Korea wants the U.S. to lift sanctions first.”

In May, after news that North Korea tested new ballistic weapons, Trump said, “North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me.” He expressed “confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.” Trump made the statement after his national security adviser at the time, John Bolton, warned that the tests violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.

In recent weeks, senior State Department officials have downplayed the seriousness of North Korea’s year-end deadline. For example, special envoy on North Korea Stephen Biegun told lawmakers last month that “we do not have a year-end deadline.” He described it as an “artificial deadline set by the North Koreans, and unfortunately, it’s a deadline that they’ve set upon themselves now.”

The statement from Ri said North Korea “has heard more than enough dialogue rhetoric raised by the U.S. whenever it is driven into a tight corner. So, no one will lend an ear to the U.S. any longer.”

Last week, North Korea fired two projectiles as it tested what it called a “super-large multiple-rocket launcher,” as the BBC reported. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described them as ballistic missiles, but North Korean state media mocked him, saying Japan “may see what a real ballistic missile is in the not-distant future.”

Kim has warned that if the U.S. does not come up with a more attractive offer to North Korea by the end of the year, his country will adopt a policy he’s calling the “new way.”

While it’s not clear what he means exactly, a researcher at a think tank affiliated with South Korea’s intelligence services recently told Kuhn that the options are worrying. Choi Yong-hwan, from the Institute for National Security Strategy, said, “North Korea may choose to strengthen its nuclear capabilities, deploy nuclear weapons they already have or work on completing advanced missile technologies they haven’t completed yet.”

Asteroids, supervolcanoes, and nuclear wars could block the sun

castle bravo shrimp nuclear test blast bikini atoll mushroom cloud noaa
The mushroom cloud of the Castle Bravo nuclear test on March 1, 1954.

Research suggests the consequences of supervolcano eruptions and nuclear bombs could be similar to the aftermath of the asteroid that doomed the dinosaurs.

About 74,000 years ago, for example, the Toba supervolcano eruption sent clouds of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, cutting sunlight by as much as 90%. That volcanic winter might have reduced the global human population to just 3,000 people, based on one analysis.

If enough nuclear bombs (thousands of them) were to explode, that could also bring on a nuclear winter that would reduce sunlight levels by more than 90%, according to a 1983 paper co-authored by Carl Sagan. Global temperatures could drop up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit in that scenario.

“Such rapid and drastic cooling could make farming impossible, even in those regions spared by the missiles,” Walsh writes.

Mt. St. Helens
The Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 killed 57 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. The Toba supereruption was equivalent to 2,800 Mount St. Helens eruptions.

Without sunlight, in other words, our food system would break down.

“Maybe when humans go extinct the world will be ruled by fungi again,” Denkenberger told Walsh. “Why don’t we just eat the mushrooms and not go extinct?”

Mushrooms do grow on trees, with or without the sun

drought dead almond trees california
A field of dead almond trees after a drought is seen in California’s Central Valley, May 6, 2015.
 Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

If clouds of debris or ash were to blot out the sun and lead the climate to cool rapidly, trillions of trees would die. Humans wouldn’t be able to digest that dead wood, of course, but mushrooms could — no photosynthesis required.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but with a small post-disaster population and efficient fungus production, Denkenberger thinks it might work.

mushrooms bunker france
Oyster mushrooms grow from a substrate bloc at the “Bunker Comestible” (the “edible bunker”) in Strasbourg, France, February 19, 2018.
Vincent Kessler/Reuters

While we’re using the wood to grow mushrooms, we could use the dead trees’ leaves, too, he said.

“The ground-up leaves could be made into tea to provide missing nutrients like vitamin C, or fed to ruminant animals like cows or rats,” Denkenberger told Walsh.

Dead trees can feed other life forms, like rats and insects

Rats, much like mushrooms, can digest cellulose, the sugar that makes up 50% of wood. So anything the mushrooms leave behind could be fed to the rats, Walsh suggests. That way, any human survivors could eat meat.

rats caged
Rats are trapped in a cage in Vertou near Nantes, France, June 5, 2019.
Stephane Mahe/Reuters

What’s more, rats reproduce quickly and they probably don’t need sunlight to do it, Walsh adds. It takes a rat just six weeks to reach sexual maturity, and from there only 70 days to produce seven to nine babies. In Denkenberger’s calculations, all of humanity could be eating rats after just two years.

Insects could also provide protein, and many of them would survive a sun-blotting catastrophe.

“The same qualities that make insects so abundant and so persistent would allow many species to weather even the most extensive, climate-changing existential catastrophes,” Walsh writes. “Beetles can feast on dead wood, and humans can feast on beetles.”

Eating Insects meal worm pralines
People sample mealworm pralines.
 REUTERS/Jerry Lampen

Insects are already a staple food in some parts of the world, and they’re starting to gain traction elsewhere. Walsh describes an insect food fair in Richmond, Virginia, where he tasted a pasta dish with ground cricket meatballs, called “Orthopteran Orzo,” and deep-fried mealworm larvae.

Survivors would band together

Walsh’s book debunks another popular idea about how to feed ourselves during an apocalypse: cannibalism.

That would not help in the aftermath of a catastrophe that puts humans at risk of extinction, he says, because other people are simply not a sustainable food source. Walsh points to a 2017 study in which a group of undergraduate students calculated how long the human species would last if we subsisted on cannibalism alone. They found that only one person would remain after 1,149 days (about 3 years).

He adds, however, that building a new agricultural system would require working together. He thinks such collaboration would be likely in a disaster scenario.

VEnezuela farmers farming
Women work in a cabbage field at the expropriated Fundo Aracal in the state of Yaracuy, Venezuela, August 27, 2007.

“For all our fear of what would come after, for all our bleak stories, collapse and conflict aren’t givens after a disaster,” Walsh writes. “Human beings help each other, including in those times when it doesn’t seem to be in their interest. That’s likely how Homo sapiens survived its closest brush with extinction — the Toba supereruption — and it’s the only way we would survive the next one.”

SEE ALSO: NASA’s future missions will shoot for an icy moon of Saturn, photograph the Big Bang, and more. Here’s what’s coming in the next 10 years.

More: Environment Apocalypse Mushrooms Agriculture

Trump Reportedly Suggests Using Nukes to Stop Hurricanes

As he refuses to take action to combat the climate crisis, which scientists say is making extreme weather events more intense and devastating, President Donald Trump reportedly suggested deploying America’s vast nuclear arsenal to stop hurricanes from reaching the United States.

Axios reported Sunday that Trump asked, “Why don’t we nuke them?” during a hurricane briefing in the White House.

“They start forming off the coast of Africa, as they’re moving across the Atlantic, we drop a bomb inside the eye of the hurricane and it disrupts it. Why can’t we do that?” Trump said, according to Axios, which cited sources who heard the president’s remarks.

Trump has reportedly invoked the idea of nuking hurricanes “multiple times” in meetings with U.S. national security officials.

“Trump also raised the idea in another conversation with a senior administration official,” Axios reported. “A 2017 NSC memo describes that second conversation, in which Trump asked whether the administration should bomb hurricanes to stop them from hitting the homeland. A source briefed on the NSC memo said it does not contain the word ‘nuclear’; it just says the president talked about bombing hurricanes.”

In a tweet Monday morning, Trump called Axios‘s story “fake news” and said he never raised the idea of bombing hurricanes, which commentators described as “dangerously moronic” and “absolutely nuts.”

Donald J. Trump


The story by Axios that President Trump wanted to blow up large hurricanes with nuclear weapons prior to reaching shore is ridiculous. I never said this. Just more FAKE NEWS!

40.4K people are talking about this

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a page on its website dedicated to addressing the question, “Why don’t we try to destroy tropical cyclones by nuking them?”

“During each hurricane season, there always appear suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms,” the page reads. “Apart from the fact that this might not even alter the storm, this approach neglects the problem that the released radioactive fallout would fairly quickly move with the tradewinds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems.”

“Needless to say,” NOAA concludes, “this is not a good idea.”

Environmentalists were quick to ridicule the president’s reported suggestion and demand action to confront the climate crisis and protect vulnerable communities from extreme weather events.

“We cannot believe we have to say this but elected officials should get their climate policy recommendations from frontline communities and science, not the movie Sharknado,” tweeted “What if instead of dropping nuclear bombs on hurricanes we just passed a Green New Deal and made fossil fuel billionaires pay for the devastation of climate disasters?”

The Democratic Debates Need More Questions About Nuclear War

There is a remarkable incongruity between the existential danger of nuclear war and the absence of public discussion about preventing it.

This disconnect is all too apparent today, as arms control and disarmament treaties are scrapped, nations embark on vast nuclear weapons buildups, and governments threaten nuclear war against one another. Meanwhile, the mass media routinely avoids these issues but, instead, focuses on movie stars, athletes, and President Donald Trump’s latest tweeted insults.

Do I exaggerate? Consider the following.

At the beginning of February 2019, the Trump administration announcedthat, in August, the U.S. government will withdraw from the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty ― the historic agreement that had banned U.S. and Russian ground-launched cruise missiles ― and would proceed to develop such weapons. On the following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that, in response, his government was suspending its observance of the treaty and would build the kinds of nuclear missiles that the INF treaty had outlawed.

The next nuclear disarmament agreement on the chopping block appears to be the 2010 New START Treaty, which reduces U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, limits U.S. and Russian nuclear delivery vehicles, and provides for extensive inspection.

According to John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, this treaty, scheduled to expire in February 2021, is “unlikely” to be extended. To preserve such an agreement, he argued, would amount to “malpractice.” If the treaty is allowed to expire, it would be the first time since 1972 that there would be no nuclear arms control agreement between Russia and the United States.

One other key international agreement, which President Clinton signed ― but, thanks to Republican opposition, the U.S. Senate has never ratified ― is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Adopted with great fanfare in 1996 and backed by nearly all the world’s nations, the CTBT bans nuclear weapons testing, a practice which has long served as a prerequisite for developing or upgrading nuclear arsenals. Today, Boltonis reportedly pressing for the treaty to be removed from Senate consideration and “unsigned,” as a possible prelude to U.S. resumption of nuclear testing.

Nor does it seem likely that any new agreements will replace the old ones. The U.S. State Department’s Office of Strategic Stability and Deterrence Affairs, which handles U.S. arms control ventures, has been whittled downduring the Trump years from 14 staff members to four. As a result, a former staffer reported, the State Department is no longer “equipped” to pursue arms control negotiations. Coincidentally, the U.S. and Russian governments, which possess approximately 93 percent of the world’s nearly 14,000 nuclear warheads, have abandoned negotiations over controlling or eliminating them for the first time since the 1950s.

Instead of honoring the commitment, under Article VI of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to pursue negotiations for “cessation of the nuclear arms race” and for “nuclear disarmament,” all nine nuclear powers are today modernizing their nuclear weapons production facilities and adding new types of nuclear weapons to their arsenals. Over the next 30 years, this nuclear buildup will cost the United States alone an estimated $1,700,000,000,000 ― at least if it is not obliterated first in a nuclear holocaust.

Will the United States and other nations survive these escalating preparations for nuclear war?

That question might seem overwrought, but in fact the U.S. government and others are increasing the role that nuclear weapons play in their “national security” policies. Trump’s glib threats of nuclear waragainst North Korea and Iran are paralleled by new administration plans to develop a low-yield ballistic missile, which arms control advocates fear will lower the threshold for nuclear war.

Confirming the new interest in nuclear warfare, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in June 2019, posted a planning document on the Pentagon’s website with a more upbeat appraisal of nuclear war-fighting than seen for many years. Declaring that “using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” the document approvingly quoted Herman Kahn, the Cold War nuclear theorist who had argued for “winnable” nuclear wars — and who provided an inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s satirical film, Dr. Strangelove.

Of course, most Americans are not pining for this kind of approach to nuclear weapons. Indeed, a May 2019 opinion poll by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland found that two-thirds of U.S. respondents favored remaining within the INF Treaty, 80 percent wanted to extend the New START Treaty, about 60 percent supported “phasing out” U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 75 percent backed legislation requiring congressional approval before the president could order a nuclear attack.

Therefore, when it came to the recently concluded round of Democratic presidential debates, one would expect the CNN moderators ― as stand-ins for the American public ― to ask the candidates some questions about nuclear weapons dangers and how to reduce them. Nevertheless, in five hours of grilling the would-be Democratic nominees over July 30 and 31, the moderators steered clear of the issue of how they would deal with the alarming drift toward nuclear war.

The only time when the CNN moderators broached the subject of what should be done about the world’s 14,000 nuclear weapons was when ― in line with their frequently hostile questions ― Jake Tapper asked Senator Elizabeth Warren about her proposal to “make it U.S. policy that the U.S. will never use a nuclear weapon unless another country uses one first.”

Warren’s proposal, Tapper added, had been rejected by the Obama administration and would force the United States to “tie its own hands with that policy.” In response, Warren gamely argued that a nuclear first strike policy heightened the risks of an outbreak of nuclear war. Tapper then called upon Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who retorted that he “wouldn’t want to take that off the table.”

Tapper’s question, of course, was not directed toward averting nuclear war, but rather toward facilitating its onset.

On occasion, some candidates managed to break through CNN’s blockade on a wide-ranging discussion. Using her closing statement, Representative Tulsi Gabbard departed from the network’s priorities and denounced “Donald Trump and warmongering politicians in Washington” for “pushing us closer and closer to the brink of nuclear catastrophe.” But, given the many other questions asked of the candidates and the very limited time they were accorded for answers, their resistance couldn’t get very far.

Surely the American people, as well as people around the globe, deserve a better discussion than fostered by the mass communications media of how to prevent nuclear war.

This is a revised version of an article published by the History News Network on July 28, 2019.

Iran’s Nuclear Standoff Is About to Enter a Perilous New Phase

  • Uranium stockpile limits could be breached as soon as June 27
  • Trump prepares new U.S. sanctions, says Iran can’t go nuclear

Iran is set to breach a cap on its enriched-uranium stockpile within days, potentially pushing its conflict with the U.S. into a dangerous new phase.

Limiting the volume and purity of its accumulated uranium was a central part of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2015. The U.S. abandoned the deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions. President Donald Trump said Saturday he’ll impose “major” additional U.S. penalties on Monday.

While Trump announced the sanctions, days after Iran shot down a U.S. Navy drone, he didn’t provide details. In his Twitter post Trump specified the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, echoing comments made to reporters at the White House on Saturday.

“All I want is no nuclear weapons,” Trump said. “Let me just tell you, they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon.”

Read more: Trump Says Major Sanctions on Iran Monday After Drone Downed

In a move foreshadowed by Iranian leaders for weeks, the cap set on the country’s stockpile of enriched uranium could be broken by Thursday, a day before negotiators from the countries, mostly European, still committed to the accord meet in Vienna.

Uranium Stockpile Trajectories

Iran could have enough material for a weapon by December

Source: Data compiled by Bloomberg

“If Iran’s leadership comes to the conclusion that it has no choice other than talking to Washington, it will do so only after it has resuscitated its leverage,” said Ali Vaez, a director at the International Crisis Group. “This means that the path to new negotiations passes through another perilous nuclear standoff.”

Iran eliminated some 97% of its enriched uranium to comply with the nuclear agreement with China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and U.S. The country previously had enough material to build more than a dozen bombs. While Iran has always said its program is civilian, world powers pursued the deal because they doubted that claim.

Pressure on Europe

Iran’s president signaled on May 8 that the country would soon violate terms of the agreement unless European governments, which haven’t pulled out of the deal, guarantee the trade it envisages.

Five weeks later, Iran said it would increase the rate of enrichment. Barring policy change or mechanical breakdown, Iran could accumulate the volume of material needed to build a weapon by the end of the year.

“While Iran’s frustration with Trump’s reckless pressure campaign is understandable, we strongly urge Iran to remain in compliance with the nuclear deal,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington nonprofit, said by email.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran has “increased the risk of a new nuclear crisis,” he said.

Compliance Report

The association estimates Iran would need about 1,050 kilograms (2,315 pounds) of uranium enriched to 3.67% to build one bomb. The material would then need to undergo further enrichment. The nuclear deal was designed to prevent Iran from breaking out and constructing a weapon within a year.

International Atomic Energy Agency monitors said last month that Iran has met its obligations. Diplomats from the countries remaining in the accord will meet June 28 to discuss “Iran’s announcement regarding the implementation of its nuclear commitments.”

Trump and Iran may be on the brink of a war that would likely be devastating to both sides

Donald Trump John Bolton
President Donald Trump.
 Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Analysis banner

  • The US could be on the brink of war with Iran after weeks of rising tensions.
  • The US has sent bombers, an aircraft-carrier strike group, and more to the Middle East in response to unspecified threats to US forces or interests in the region from Tehran, Iran, prompting the Iranian government to issue warnings about the consequences of an attack.
  • Critics of the Trump administration feel the president’s Iran policy is being driven by national security adviser John Bolton, who has supported military strikes against Iran in the past.
  • A war with Iran would likely be geopolitically and economically disastrous while further destabilizing a region that has been consumed by conflict for years.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

Tensions between the US and Iran have reached historic heights in recent weeks, prompting fears of a military confrontation that could escalate into all-out war.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on, how we got here, and what the stakes are.

What’s going on with Iran?

On May 5, national security adviser John Bolton issued a statementannouncing the US was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the Middle East to counter unspecified threats from Iran.

Bolton said the US was not seeking war with Iran, but that the deployment was meant to send “a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack” on the US or its allies “will be met with unrelenting force.”

The US has since repositioned or sent other military assets to the region.

Read more: The US is sending a ton of firepower to take on Iran — here’s everything headed its way

The exact nature of the threats the US is responding to remains unclear, but officials have said there’s been indications of a “possible attack” against US forces in the region by Iran or its proxies.

Some reports have also suggested the Trump administration has discussed sending an additional 120,000 troops to the Middle East amid the tensions with Iran. The president on May 14 denied this, but said he’d be willing to send “a hell of a lot more” troops than 120,000 if necessary.

Trump has fluctuated between urging Tehran to sit down and hold talks with the US and issuing threats via Twitter.

—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 19, 2019 ” data-e2e-name=”embed-container” data-media-container=”embed” style=”box-sizing: border-box; margin: 20px 0px;”>

Donald J. Trump


If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!

126K people are talking about this

Iranian leaders have signaled they don’t want war with the US but are prepared to respond if attacked, while issuing veiled threats about their ability to quickly enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers have raised alarm bells about the White House wanting war with Iran, and they’ve made it clear they would oppose any military action without congressional approval.

At the same time, Republicans in Congress are placing the blame on Iran for the confrontation and urging Trump to “stand firm.”

How did we get here?

The US and Iran have a complicated history and have been adversaries for decades, encapsulated by the oft-repeated “Death to America” chants from Iranian leaders.

In many ways, the modern US-Iran relationship began via a CIA-orchestrated coup in the 1950s that placed a pro-American monarch — Mohammad Reza Shah — in charge of the Middle Eastern country. The Shah was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, an uprising that shaked the foundations of the Muslim world and led to theinfamous hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran that continues to be a touchy subject in Washington.

Read more: Trump says ‘I hope not’ when asked if the US is going to war with Iran

After years of animosity, former President Barack Obama sought to improve relations with Iran via diplomacy. Obama’s administration orchestrated the landmark pact known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was finalized in July 2015 and aimed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions.

Critics of the deal contended it didn’t go far enough to bar Iran from building nuclear weapons and said Tehran could not be trusted. Along these lines, Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018 despite no evidence Iran was violating its terms. This move put Washington at odds with key allies and the already contentious US-Iran relationship took a turn for the worse.

The situation was hardly improved after Trump in April designated Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terror organization.This prompted Iranian leaders to warn that any action taken against the country would lead to “a reciprocal action.”

The US and Iran have also been working against one another in the ongoing war in Yemen, where the US-backed Saudi-led coalition is fighting against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. And in the ongoing Syria conflict, Iran and its proxies have supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces Trump has launched military strikes against.

Many Democratic lawmakers and some experts feel Trump’s Iran policy is being driven by Bolton, who has long been hawkish toward Tehran. Bolton, one of the architects of the Iraq War, has expressed support for a military strike against Iran a number of times in the past.

What are the stakes?

A war with Iran would potentially be more calamitous than the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, bogged the US down in a costly and lengthy war, and helped catalyze the rise of the Islamic state group (ISIS).

Iran has a population of roughly 82 million people and its military is ranked as the 14th most powerful in the world. According to recent estimates, Iran has 523,000 active military personnel in addition to 250,000 reserve personnel.

Comparatively, Iraq had a population of roughly 25 million and the Iraqi military had fewer than 450,000 personnel when the US invaded over a decade ago.

Iran is also much bigger than Iraq geographically — 591,000 square miles of land versus 168,000 square miles, and its influence has grown as the power of its rival, Iraq, collapsed in the wake of the US war there.

If the US launched an attack against Iran, it would also reverberate across the Middle East. Iran has proxies throughout the region and is allied with militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon. A revised Pentagon estimate released in April found Iranian proxy forces killedat least 608 US troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

Read more: How the Trump administration got into a showdown with Iran that could lead to war

Moreover, Iran shares a border with a number of countries the US considers allies and has a military presence in — including Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan. None of these countries are especially stable at the moment, as they all continue to deal with ongoing conflicts and their consequences (including millions of displaced people).

In terms of other geopolitical blowback, Iran is allied with Russia and China and it’s unclear how these major powers might react if conflict breaks out. Key US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are adversaries of Iran and just a stone’s throw away from it, would also likely get sucked into a US-Iran war.

A war with Iran could also be extraordinarily disruptive economically given it borders the Straight of Hormuz, a narrow route that roughly a third of the world’s oil tanker traffic travels through. Experts have predicted that if the route were blocked it would quickly lead to a 30% drop in daily global oil exports and prices would rapidly go up, the Washington Post reported.

Iran’s forces would likely be defeated by the US, but could exact a heavy toll with cruise missiles, naval mines, and fighter jets. Any troops that survive could blend into the population and lead a brutal insurgency against the US occupation force. That was the scenario that unfolded for the US in Iraq, a country a third the size of Iran, and proved to be an insurmountable challenge.

In short, though the US has a military that is consistently ranked the most powerful in the world, evidence suggests a war with Iran would be devastating in myriad ways.