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Obama Reaps Early Success At Nuclear Security Summit

  • Heather Maher

U.S. President Barack Obama and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev held a bilateral meeting in Washington on April 11

U.S. President Barack Obama and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev held a bilateral meeting in Washington on April 11

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama's nuclear security summit has opened on a high note, with the dramatic announcement by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych that he will dispose of his country's entire stockpile of weapons-grade uranium.

Yanukovych made the pledge during a lunchtime appearance before the U.S.-Ukrainian Business Council and the reaction from the White House was immediate.

"This is something that the United States has tried to make happen for more than 10 years," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "The material is enough to construct several nuclear weapons. And this demonstrates Ukraine's continued leadership in nonproliferation and comes in an important region where we know a lot of highly enriched uranium exists."

The move by Ukraine is precisely what Obama is hoping other world leaders gathered at this summit will do: commit to concrete steps that will keep weapons-grade materials from falling into the hands of terrorists and non-state actors.

'Impressive Response'

At Obama's request, an unprecedented 47 world leaders are in Washington, under extraordinary security, to spend two days focusing solely on how to keep the world's loose nuclear material safe.

It's the latest of a series of White House moves in support of Obama's stated goal of helping rid the world of nuclear weapons. Last week, he signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia and unveiled a new national strategy that reduces U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons for security.

During a break in his daylong schedule of back-to-back bilateral meetings with selected leaders, Obama gave his assessment of how things were going so far. He called the response "impressive" and said it was "an indication of how deeply concerned everybody should be with the possibilities of nuclear traffic."

He also predicted that by the end of the summit there would be "some very specific, concrete actions that each nation is taking that will make the world a little bit safer."

Growing Threat

Late on April 12, Obama hosted a working dinner with discussion revolving around how to secure separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the ingredients that can be used to build crude but potentially devastating nuclear weapons.

Obama's coordinator for WMD counterterrorism and arms control, Gary Samore, told reporters at a presummit briefing that if governments can keep those two types of materials away from terrorists, the threat is eliminated.

That threat is real and growing, according to John Brennan, the White House's top antiterrorism adviser. Speaking at the White House briefing on April 12, Brennan said obtaining a nuclear weapon and using it "is the ultimate and most prized goal of terrorist groups," including Al-Qaeda.

"The threat of nuclear terrorism is real, it is serious, it is growing, and it constitutes one of the greatest threats to our national security and, indeed, to global security," Brennan said.

His comments echoed Obama's on April 11, when the president also said the summit, if successful, could "change the security landscape of [the U.S.] and...the world for years to come."

Iran Sanctions 'In Weeks'

A secondary theme of the conference is Iran and the growing international impatience with Tehran's refusal to prove to the world that its nuclear program is not aimed at acquiring a weapon.

The White House said at Obama's bilateral meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, both men agreed to work together on a package of potential UN sanctions that leave Iran in no doubt what the cost will be if it continues to defy the international community.

A White House official said the Chinese are "prepared to work with [the United States]" on sanctions, which Washington has for months been pressing its allies to support.

Deputy National Security Council adviser Ben Rhodes added that the White House expects a resolution "this spring, which would be a matter of weeks."

Along with North Korea, Iran was not invited to the summit because it is considered in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted President Mahmud Ahmadinejad as telling delegates at a domestic tourism industry event in Iran that "world summits being organized these days are intended to humiliate human beings."

Pakistan Disappoints

The United States is keen to secure support for sanctions from China and Russia, both of whom sit on the UN Security Council and have veto power. Neither has been a strong supporter of Iran sanctions in the past.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told ABC television's "Good Morning America" show today that Iran's nuclear program merited close watching but that any potential sanctions package would have to be smart because sanctions often don't work.

He said any potential penalties "should not lead to humanitarian catastrophe, where the whole Iranian community would start to hate the whole world."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- in town for the summit and set to meet with Obama on April 13 -- added his voice to the growing chorus of leaders against nuclear weapons, saying in a speech at a local university that he doesn't want Iran or any other country to posses them. Turkey holds a rotating seat on the UN Security Council and is one of the countries the United States is hoping will support strong sanctions against Tehran.

On April 11, Obama held bilateral meetings with Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazerbaev, who has charted his own country's nuclear-free course by abandoning its weapons program and setting itself up as a model not just for Central Asia but the world. A White House statement said Obama praised Nazerbaev for his leadership on nonproliferation issues.

Obama's meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani reportedly didn't go as well.

"The New York Times" reported on April 12 that Pakistan is preparing to expand its production of nuclear weapons-grade fuel and blocking progress on a treaty that would halt global production of new nuclear material. The newspaper quoted a senior U.S. official as saying that during their meeting April 11, Obama "express[ed] disappointment" at Gilani's position.

According to the report, Pakistan is building two new reactors for making weapons-grade plutonium, and one plant for salvaging plutonium from old reactor fuel.