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Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), 1987

In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty. This landmark agreement proposed to eliminate all intermediate and short-range ground-based missiles and launchers from Europe.

The deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe by either country had long been a source of contention. As a part of the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the United States removed its intermediate-range Juniper missiles from Turkey while the Soviet Union pulled its own missiles from Cuba. During the 1970s, the Soviet Union deployed a number of SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, alarming U.S. allies in Western Europe. In response, U.S. President Jimmy Carter promised a "dual track" response: the United States would deploy Tomahawk cruise missiles and Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missies in NATO countries, but at the same time it would increase efforts to negotiate with the Soviet Union for limits to total deployments. When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, he quickly discovered that the Europeans expected him to follow through with this formula for balancing arms with negotiations. Although members of his administration considered making a proposal to the Soviet Union that both sides reduce their deployments in Europe, Reagan preferred to have either an arms control agreement that involved meaningful reductions in weapons or nothing at all. This inclination translated to a public statement in 1981, in which Reagan committed the United States to dismantling its Pershing II and Tomahawk missiles if the Soviet Union agreed to discard its SS-20 missiles. The proposal became known as the "zero option." It created a dilemma for the Soviet Union, as it was very concerned about the security implications of having U.S. missiles stationed in Europe but reluctant to give up its SS-20s. In late 1983, the United States deployed the missiles to Europe as planned, and the Soviet Union responded to that act by walking out of ongoing arms control discussions.

In early 1985, the two countries finally returned to the negotiating table to discuss three issues related to arms control: the disposition of intermediate-range nuclear forces, the strategic arms reductions treaty, and Soviet displeasure with Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Each side broke its delegation of negotiators into three teams so talks could progress on all three issues simultaneously. At that time, the two sides considered the possibility of completing an "interim agreement" on the INF issue that was divorced from either START or SDI. Discussions at this point focused on limiting each country to a token number of intermediate-range missiles, although the Soviet Union remained concerned about the nuclear capability of U.S. allies Britain and France and the United States expressed reticence to sign any agreement that did not include the highly mobile SS-20s the Soviet Union had deployed in Asia. Meanwhile, some NATO members expressed their own concerns about the zero option, which they worried would leave them too vulnerable to the superior conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact countries. In the end, however, public opinion in Europe far preferred the zero option and that factor proved decisive in bringing the NATO governments in line.

Talks reached an impasse in early 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev put forward a proposal for the elimination of INF forces and substantial reductions in strategic weapons, linked to a call for the U.S. abandonment of its missile defense research conducted through SDI. Although negotiations on all aspects of arms control continued in the year that followed, no significant progress was made on any one point as the Soviets continued to insist on linkage, and the United States continued its Strategic Defense Initiative.

In the fall of 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev held a summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland that signaled a breakthrough. At the meeting, Gorbachev suggested that he would reconsider the idea of concluding an INF-only treaty and proposed that it be expanded to include shorter-range missiles as well. This meeting revived the zero option, this time as a double zero: neither side would maintain either intermediate or short range missiles in Europe. Having proposed the zero option in the first place, the Reagan Administration was more inclined to consider the suggestion. At this point, the agreement suffered a familiar setback, as the Soviet Union returned to the theme that the United States should give up SDI before signing any arms control agreements. Talks stalled once more, but this delay proved relatively short-lived, and the final negotiations moved forward the following year. In the summer of 1987, the last major obstacle to accepting the Soviet proposal was overcome when a meeting of the NATO foreign ministers approved the plan.

On December 8, 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in Washington, D.C. The final treaty eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, restricting the deployment of both intermediate and short-range land-based missiles worldwide. The treaty also called, for the first time, for extensive verification measures, including intrusive inspections. It was the first arms control agreement the two nations had completed since the SALT II agreement failed at ratification, and the first treaty that required the destruction of existing weapons, instead of simply setting future limits on deployments. Opposition to the treaty from U.S. Senators concerned about the future security implications for both the United States and Europe delayed its approval in U.S. Congress, but the measure ultimately passed in time for Reagan to exchange ratifications with Gorbachev at their 1988 summit meeting in Moscow.


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