Obama’s acid test: To make N-weapon-free world

CAMBRIDGE: The announcement of a secret uranium enrichment facility located on a military base in Iran has sharpened President Barack Obama’s efforts to place nuclear proliferation issues at the top of the world agenda. 2010 will be a critical year.

In September, both at the United Nations and at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, many countries agreed to work on Obama’s nuclear agenda. But, in the midst of those meetings, it was revealed that Iran has been secretly building a second enrichment facility with the potential to produce weapons-grade uranium.

In early October, Iranian officials met in Geneva with representatives of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (plus Germany) and agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the hitherto secret plant. In addition, the Iranians said that they would export their existing low-enriched uranium to be fabricated into nuclear fuel outside of Iran.

If these measures are implemented, they will represent important steps. There has been widespread fear that Iran would abrogate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and use its enrichment facilities to develop a nuclear weapon. It is not yet clear whether words will be matched with deeds.

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia, whose stockpiles contain more than 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, are negotiating in Geneva to produce a strategic arms reduction treaty to replace their START I arms-control agreement, which expires in December. If those talks are successful, they may yield cuts of up to one-third of all strategic nuclear warheads.

The US Senate would then consider the new treaty for ratification next year. The Obama administration is also consulting with Congress on when to re-submit the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was rejected by the Senate 10 years ago.

International agreements regulating the size and composition of national defenses have often been controversial in the Senate. The new strategic arms-reduction treaty, which is still a work in progress, and the CTBT have already aroused scepticism from opposition legislators and opinion-makers. If Obama submits both treaties to the Senate in 2010, he will need to convince the public that they serve an integrated strategy for enhancing national and international security. If he fails and the Senate rejects one or both of the treaties, it could have a strong negative effect on the non-proliferation regime.

In May, 189 member states of the NPT will meet in Vienna to review its status. When the NPT entered into force in 1970, it was intended to limit the number of nuclear-weapons states to five (the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China). Overall, the treaty has been a success. Many people, including President John F. Kennedy, believed in the 1960’s that there would be dozens of countries with nuclear weapons by now, and that their use would be highly probable. Fortunately, this has not been the case.

Since 1970, three states that never signed the treaty have acquired nuclear weapons (India, Israel, and Pakistan). In addition, North Korea violated its treaty obligations and exploded two crude devices. Iran’s

suspected nuclear-weapons program has now raised

new fears that the

global nonproliferation regime may unravel.

Averting that danger will require multiple, coordinated, and sustained efforts for many years to come, but ratification of post-START and the CTBT would help. For example, a new arms-reduction agreement would improve the US-Russian relationship, and that, in turn, could translate into a more constructive Russian position on Iran in the Security Council. Senate approval of the CTBT would also restore America’s credibility in its efforts to get other countries to forgo nuclear testing.

Next March, Obama will host a Global Nuclear Security Summit with the aim of developing new means to combat nuclear smuggling and terrorism. In addition, his proposed long-term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons will require a great deal of preparatory work before it becomes an operational rather than an aspirational objective.

Obama will need to begin discussions with the Russians, for example, on how to handle the question of short-range nuclear weapons, and how to regulate anti-ballistic missile defenses to maintain stability in a world of fewer offensive weapons. At some point, he must open discussions with countries like China, France, and Britain to understand better the conditions for transparency and verification that would be necessary for a clearer path toward eventual elimination of nuclear weapons in accordance with Article VI of the NPT.

At the same time, Obama cannot allow these long-term issues to divert his attention from crucial short-term issues. So long as the world remains a dangerous place with several nuclear weapons states, Obama must reassure its allies about the credibility of American guarantees of extended deterrence. Otherwise, reductions that create anxieties in other countries could lead them to develop their own weapons and thus increase the number of nuclear weapons states.

Obama will also need to pursue negotiations to persuade North Korea to return to the Six-Party talks with the objective of eventually giving up its nuclear weapons (as South Africa once did). And, of course, he will need to pursue the negotiations with Iran to persuade them to keep their word and remain in the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.

How successful Obama is in managing the domestic politics and international diplomacy of his nuclear agenda will be an important factor in his effectiveness as a world leader. Even more important, his progress in 2010 will say a lot about the world’s ability to maintain the existing 60-year taboo against the use of nuclear weapons.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.