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WASHINGTON: The Trump administration on Saturday launched a new nuclear strategy which commits the United States to making new tactical nuclear weapons and retains the option to respond decisively against potential nuclear and non-nuclear threats.

The new policy, called the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, identifies Russia and China as main nuclear adversaries that are developing both strategic and tactical weapons, and warns all state and non-state actors that Washington will hold responsible if terrorists ever get access to a nuclear weapon.

“Important to this deterrence is maintaining our capabilities so that the United States can respond decisively across the full spectrum of potential nuclear and non-nuclear scenarios,” said US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon.

He did not rule out the possibility of a US response to a nuclear threat, but said that “the United States will only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies and partners”.

In a statement issued by his office on Friday evening, US President Donald Trump said the new strategy, also “commits to improving efforts to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear terrorism”.

Mr Shannon further explained the US position on this issue at a Pentagon news briefing, saying that the new strategy “makes clear that the United States will hold accountable any state or non-state actor that supports terrorist efforts to obtain or employ a nuclear weapon”.

He was among half a dozen senior officials from the US departments of defence, state and energy briefed the media on the new policy, which, Mr Shannon said, takes the threat of nuclear terrorism very seriously.

“The potential threat of non-state actors getting their hands on a nuclear weapon remains at the front of all of our minds,” and “we must work to mitigate (this threat) at every opportunity,” Mr Shannon said.

The new strategy also commits the US to developing a new batch of smaller nuclear weapons, arguing that these tactical weapons will work as a greater deterrent because enemies might think the US might actually use them.

The new strategy puts Russia and China top on a list of states that pose a nuclear threat to the United States, claiming that both have “added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behaviour, including in outer space and cyber space”.

North Korea is mentioned as well, as a state that continues its “illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities” in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

Iran comes next, which agreed in a pact it signed with the United States and other world powers two years ago to constrain its nuclear programme. But the document claims that despite the agreement, Iran “retains the technological capability and much of the capacity necessary to develop a nuclear weapon within one year of a decision to do so”.

In his brief statement, President Trump assured the international community that his new policy would make the “use of nuclear weapons less likely” by enhancing “deterrence of strategic attacks against our nation, and our allies and partners”.

The strategy also “reaffirms our commitment to arms control and nuclear non-proliferation (and) maintains the moratorium on nuclear testing,” he added. But Russia disagreed. In a statement issued by his office in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was “disappointed” with the “bellicose nature” of the new US nuclear policy. “From first reading, the confrontational and anti-Russian character of this document leaps out at you,” he added.

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2018