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The US Withdrawing from the INF: Reasons and Consequences

Hossein Asgarian
November 2018

US President Donald Trump got the world riveting on him once again on October 20, after he announced that his country was withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Perhaps the US withdrawing from international treaties in a unilateral manner under the Trump administration – from the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to the Paris Agreement on climate change – has made analysts totally familiar with Washington’s new practice with regard to such treaties. However, the questions, which remain to be answered in this regard, are: What is the goal that Trump seeks to achieve through such measures and what are their consequences?
After Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen as secretary general of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party in 1985, negotiations with the United States progressed for the achievement of a treaty meant to restrict proliferation of medium-range missiles. In the fall of 1986, Gorbachev revealed a plan, according to which some sort of balance was to be established between the Soviet Union’s SS-20 missiles and the missiles that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had deployed to Europe. The United States welcomed that plan and in 1986, the scope of negotiations expanded to include all the American and Soviet missiles across the world.
However, Gorbachev and then US president, Ronald Reagan, started a move toward conclusion of a treaty, which was meant to restrict production of the two countries’ medium-range missiles. That move finally led to the conclusion of the treaty known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on December 8, 1987. The treaty, which entered into force as of January 1, 1988, required the United States and the Soviet Union to stop testing and deploying land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometer (300-3,400 miles).
During the past four years, the United States has frequently accused Russia of violating the INF. The first instance of such accusations came from the administration of former US president, Barack Obama, in 2014, in a report by the US Department of State on “Treaties and Agreements.” The United States claims that Russia is using tactical nuclear weapons in order to scare those former republics of the Soviet Union, which have already forged close relations with the Western countries.
Washington believes that in violation of its commitments as per the INF, Russia is developing a land-based missile system, which allows this country to launch nuclear attacks on Europe in the shortest possible time. On the opposite, Moscow has rejected this accusation, alleging that it is the Americans, who have violated the INF by deploying MK-41 vertical missile launchers to Romania and Poland as part of their general plan to deploy anti-missile systems to Eastern Europe. They claim that these launching pads are capable of carrying and delivering various kinds of ballistic and cruise missiles.
Bilateral and multilateral reasons behind the US withdrawal from the INF
•Strengthening its nuclear capability and mounting pressure on Russia to reduce the number of its missile tests and production of ultramodern weapons: Since his election, Trump has been persistently following up on his strategy to modernize the United States’ totally aggressive nuclear arsenal while announcing readiness to resume the arms race with Russia. At the present time, and within the framework of his new nuclear doctrine, the United States is planning to build new nuclear weapons to prevent any possible conventional assault from Russia in Europe, or even hit Russia’s military targets in case of a bilateral conflict. Therefore, this country is trying to find an excuse to quit nuclear arms treaty with Russia in order to follow up on this strategy.
•Military and weapons reason: “Making America Great” was Trump’s main election motto, and a major component of that motto was the special attention that he paid to development and renovation of the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Former US president, Barack Obama, had allocated a special budget to developing and strengthening the United States’ arsenal, which included redesigning bombs that enjoyed high destruction capacity. In other words, Trump intends to get rid of the obligations resulting from this treaty and is taking steps to develop new ballistic missiles with a longer range. In addition, this measure by the United States was in reaction to Russia's plan for the renovation of its military forces and production of advanced weapons by that country. This is especially true after Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled his country’s advanced and sophisticated weapons last year, stirring panic among American leaders.
A glance at the approach taken to China by the incumbent US administration – which is led by Republican and some neoconservative politicians – would reveal that one of the important reasons behind the United States’ withdrawal from the aforesaid treaty is a more general concern about the developing capabilities of China in all areas of national power, including the software and hardware aspects of power. As a result, and due to recent threats, the rivalry between these two countries is sure to become more intensified in all hardware fields, especially with regard to military and security matters.
•Economic reason: Apart from the effort made to modernize the United States’ arsenal and counteract Russia's military and weapons renovation policy, Trump has also set his sight on the economic benefits of withdrawing from the aforementioned treaty. The United States is the world’s biggest exporter of weapons and if the arms race is intensified, its revenues will increase likewise. Trump’s decision to leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty means a return to the time of arms race with the goal of making the US Department of Defense invest billions of dollars in its arms industry while creating military deterrence in the face of Russia.
Political reasons: Another reason for the United States to withdraw from the INF is to mount pressure on Russia in order to begin talks on the extension of new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) and also to revise its policy to support Iran and North Korea. As a result, one can claim that the United States’ threats about leaving the 1987 INF treaty are more of a tactical nature, so that, if new talks begin on this treaty or on the extension of the START in 2021, Washington will have the upper hand.
As for Russia's support for Iran, the noteworthy point is that the United States has already imposed a new round of oil sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, it seems that Americans are planning to convince Russia to join them in imposing these sanctions. In addition, Iran is known as one of the countries capable of producing medium-range missiles. This issue can serve as a factor to prompt the United States to formulate new criteria in order to restrict production of such missiles. Another important point is that by threatening to leave the INF, the United States can use this issue as a tool to mount pressure on the European Union with regard to Iran’s nuclear deal, officially known as the JCPOA.
The effort made by the United States to get Russia's support for its strategy toward North Korea can be considered along the same lines. The United States has accused Russia of violating sanctions imposed on North Korea and has asked Moscow to comply with those sanctions in order to help promote nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula.
Consequences of the US withdrawal from the INF
•Failure of the nuclear deterrence regime: If Trump’s decision to leave the INF becomes final, START III treaty, which is to expire in 2021, will be gone too. On the other hand, the United States’ new threat against Russia will certainly elicit a severe reaction from Russians and Moscow will make a decision to mount pressure on and pose new military threat to neighboring countries hosting the United States’ military bases. In that case, threats and insecurity will spread across the globe and international concerns will increase about the possibility of a major arms race between big powers, which will disrupt the global stability and security.
•Casting doubts on security and military cooperation with Europe: Withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty will face Europe with complicated problems. What looks certain is that if Trump’s decision becomes final, Russians will adopt a more aggressive policy toward European countries and will also boost their effort to develop nuclear weapons, especially nuclear submarines, to threaten the US territory. This comes at a time that Europe is not willing to get involved in a new arms race with Russia and even all European countries are not willing to host American missiles systems on their soil.
•Affecting military and security future of China: The possible withdrawal of the United States from the INF will have the following consequences for China:
-The United States will have more latitude to continue “power projection” in China’s peripheral regions;
-The United States will put more pressure on China in the East China Sea and the South China Sea;
-Washington will start a new process to sell more conventional weapons to its allies in the abovementioned regions;
-The United States will increase military support for Taiwan.
Unpredictable and destabilizing measures taken by Trump since the beginning of his presidency have caused withdrawal from international treaties and declaring trade war against friends and enemies not to look very surprising anymore. In the meantime, it seems that the United States’ withdrawal from the INF can affect a host of military, security, political and economic issues. For example, it can affect international and regional relations among big powers in structural terms and on both multilateral and unilateral levels.
Meanwhile, withdrawal of the United States from the INF may usher in a new age of strategic rivalry between this country and Russia, and more importantly with China in Asia and Oceania. Apart from such large-scale issues, the United States is trying to use any issue as a tool to mount pressure on Russia with regard to Iran. Iran, for its part, is now known as one of the countries, powerful enough to produce medium-range missiles, and this can serve as a factor for the United States to formulate new criteria to restrict production of such weapons.
As for European countries, they will demand a new and more comprehensive nuclear protection compared to NATO by getting closer to the United States. Perhaps, such a demand would provide grounds for Europe to get more in line with the United States’ purported regional and international orders. In the meantime, quitting the JCPOA and cooperation with the United States for increasing pressure on Iran can be part of that deal. In other words, by threatening to get out of the INF, the United States may be trying to use this issue as a tool to put pressure on Europe with regard to Iran nuclear deal.