In a speech delivered at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday, President Obama outlined many of his global ambitions for his second term. Among those was a renewed global push for nuclear disarmament:
“President Obama plans to use a speech in Berlin on Wednesday to outline plans for further reductions in the American nuclear arsenal if Russia agrees to pare back its weapons at the same time, administration officials said Tuesday.”
“Mr. Obama will propose trimming the number of strategic warheads that each of the two big nuclear powers still maintains by up to a third, taking them below the 1,550 permitted in the treaty he signed with Russia in his first term, a senior administration official said. That would leave each country with just over 1,000 weapons.”
“Mr. Obama will also declare that he will work with NATO allies to develop proposals for major cuts in tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by the existing treaty. Russia, which has far more tactical nuclear weapons deployed than the United States and Europe do, has firmly resisted such cuts. There are fears that its tactical weapons are in parts of Russia where they risk being seized by terrorist groups.”
“The president, who once talked about eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons, faces enormous obstacles to any further reductions, both in Moscow and in Washington. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has demanded further concessions on missile defense before entertaining deeper nuclear cuts, and Republicans in the Senate have made clear they would resist any treaty that went beyond the New Start pact ratified in 2010.”
Despite obstacles, it is heartening to see President Obama placing nuclear disarmament on his second term agenda. It is important if the U.S. seeks legitimacy in talks with Iran and North Korea; both countries, in a recent change of tone, seem ready to begin talks with the U.S.
“North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission announced on Sunday that Pyongyang was ready to hold ‘broad and in-depth discussions’ with the US on a range of issues, including the building of ’a world without nuclear weapons.’”
“The country warned, however, that talks cannot take place if the US continues to set preconditions for direct dialogue. Washington has repeatedly said that North Korea must take concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program before negotiations can take place.”
“The Obama administration said Sunday it was receptive to North Korea’s proposal for high-level talks, but wanted “credible negotiations” that would lead to a nuclear-free North.”
“National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement: ‘Our desire is to have credible negotiations with the North Koreans, but those talks must involve North Korea living up to its obligations to the world,’ including UN resolutions, and ‘ultimately result in denuclearization.’”
The U.S., preempting an obvious North Korean objection of America’s vast nuclear program, is taking the first step towards realizing a “world without nuclear weapons”. The issue remains whether Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea can be a credible negotiating partner.
China will have a key role to play in such negotiations, which it is hopefully ready to do after Presidents Obama and Xi summit meeting in early June. There are reasons to be optimistic, China has signed onto UN sanctions against North Korean in response to nuclear testing, frozen North Korean assets in major Chinese banks, and generally taking a much firmer tone than usual on the issue of North Korean denuclearization.
“The election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s next president creates an opportunity to move forward on a negotiated agreement to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and to begin to repair three decades of hostility with the United States.”
“During his first news conference on Monday, Mr. Rowhani promised to “follow the path of moderation” and allow greater openness over the nuclear program. But he also restated Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment as the United Nations Security Council has demanded.”
“Iran is ready to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, a key demand of world powers at talks over its disputed nuclear program, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
In return, the Persian Gulf nation must be offered “weighty reciprocal steps,” including a gradual lifting of unilateral and United Nations sanctions, Lavrov said in an interview with the Kuwaiti news service Kuna posted today on the Foreign Ministry’s website.”
“‘This could become a breakthrough agreement that could largely remove the tension surrounding the existing problems, including concern about enrichment rising to weapons level,’ he said. ‘It would be unforgivable not to use this opportunity.’”
“Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili said that while his country would consider the step of suspending enrichment at 20 percent levels, ‘we must know upon what foundations it rests.’ Recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful use under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would move the talks forward, he said.”
The interesting issue here is Iran’s continued insistence that its uranium enrichment is for peaceful means. As an American of Jewish decent, I have many reservations about legitimizing the nuclear capacity of a nation that has a history of promoting both anti-Western and anti-Israeli values.
However, the development economist and human rights advocate in me agrees with Mr. Jalili than Iran has a “right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes”. The fact that it is expressly stipulated in the NPT gives legal backing to the human rights implications of nuclear capability.
Enriched uranium can be used for peaceful purposes, such as nuclear energy and medical isotopes. Is it not the right for Iran’s citizens to have access to cheaper electricity and advances in medical care as the nation modernizes, unlocking resources for further modernization?
Further complicating matters is that nuclear energy has virtually zero GHG emissions; it is hypocritical to promote sustainable development (as Obama has done and continues to do) and at the same time disallow Iran from using nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is part of a “comprehensive energy portfolio” needed to combat climate change.
The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?
The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes.
What do my readers think? Are nuclear capabilities a “right”? Can either Iran or NK (or both) be credible negotiating partners? Does nuclear energy have a role to play n combating climate change? Global denuclearization is the definition of a long-term normative goal, but we must start somewhere. To paraphrase Voltaire, we should not let perfection impede progress.