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Obama Set To Bring Nonproliferation Case To UN

  • Heather Maher

U.S. President Obama's Security Council appearance this week will push the vision he set out in Prague in April.

U.S. President Obama's Security Council appearance this week will push the vision he set out in Prague in April.

WASHINGTON -- On September 24, Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to preside over a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, and he plans to use the opportunity to bring before its members a resolution advancing his goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

It's an idea the U.S. president first laid out in April in Prague in a speech that was remarkable for its vision.

"So today, I state, clearly and with conviction, America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," Obama said.

But the speech was also tempered by pragmatism.

"I'm not naive," he said. "This goal will not be reached quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we too must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist: Yes, we can."

Obama's appearance at the Security Council is part of the White House's attempt to repair its partnership with the UN after years in which the George W. Bush administration often pursued its global agenda without building consensus within the world body.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week that Obama plans to use his few hours at the Security Council to "emphasize the importance of strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime."

Indeed, Security Council members are expected to unanimously adopt a U.S.-drafted resolution that declares there is a "need to pursue further efforts in the sphere of nuclear disarmament" and urges all countries that have not signed the 1970 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to do so.

Joseph Cirincione, president of the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund, says Obama goes into the meeting with a strong hand and in lock step with at least one major international partner: Britain.

The British position was outlined in an op-ed in the September 20 edition of the "Guardian" newspaper by Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who called the nonproliferation issue "one of the most critical issues we face."

"[If we] get it wrong...," he wrote, "we face the spread of nuclear weapons and the chilling prospect of nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists."

The View From Moscow

Cirincione says Russia is also on board with Obama's goals.

"The Russians are also committed to this, perhaps not as eloquently as the Americans or the British," he told RFE/RL. "But Dmitry Medvedev has expressed his interest, echoed by Vladimir Putin, to seek a world free of nuclear weapons and to go forward on negotiated treaty reductions with the United States."

At least eight countries are known to have nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, France, North Korea, India, and Pakistan. Israel has a long-standing policy of not disclosing whether it is or is not a nuclear power, but it is widely assumed to be.

"This goal will not be reached quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence," Obama said in his April speech in Prague.
Iran's nuclear program is the subject of intense international suspicion.

A draft of the resolution Obama plans to bring to a vote was given to the permanent members of the Security Council last week, at the start of the 2009 General Assembly.

Revisions have since been made and a final draft is said to indicate that the council will stop short of endorsing a call for the eventual phasing out of all nuclear weapons.

France is said to have insisted on more ambiguous wording that instead references the creation of "conditions" for a world free of nuclear weapons.

But the precise wording may not matter that much.

James Lindsay, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the resolution is aimed at jump-starting the moribund nonproliferation movement.

"In the short term what the administration is trying to do is to reinvigorate the bargain that had existed at the heart of the NPT...which is that countries that don't have nuclear weapons pledge not to obtain them and countries that do have nuclear weapons pledge to reduce and eventually get rid of their nuclear weapons," Lindsay said.

In the long term, Lindsay adds, the White House is looking to gain momentum for the major international conference it will host next spring to discuss the NPT, which is up for review in 2010.

A Tale Of Three Treaties

The NPT is just one of three international weapons treaties under debate or up for renegotiation that in one form or another come into play on the nonproliferation and disarmament issue.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is another, which the United States adheres to informally but has never ratified.

Arms control experts say Obama's desire for the United States to lead the world in nuclear disarmament -- as he says its status as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon morally compels it to do -- will be weakened if he is unable to persuade Congress to ratify the test ban treaty. The last attempt to do so, by former President Bill Clinton, ended in defeat on the Senate floor.

But the Council on Foreign Relations' Lindsay warns that Obama will need to decide which foreign policy issues are worth a fight in Congress, or risk looking politically ineffective.

The nuclear-free movement has been stalled for years.
"Disarmament is an issue that I think is close to the president's heart," Lindsay said, "but right now he faces very difficult decisions about Afghanistan, about Pakistan, the Middle East, and [one is] tempted to say: 'Well, they're all important problems. We should try to do them all at once.' But the reality of life in Washington is that if you don't pick priorities, you end up in a great deal of trouble."

The third weapons treaty in the mix is the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which is due to expire at the end of the year.

Russian and U.S. negotiators resumed talks this week in Geneva on a new version of what has long been considered the most important arms agreement between the two countries.

Securing a new START agreement is at the center of White House efforts to "reset relations" with Russia and represents a key component of its hope to restart international nonproliferation efforts.

In July, Obama and Russian President Medvedev agreed to slash their deployed nuclear arsenals to between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads. Both countries are currently bound to a limit of 2,200.

Obama has already begun to fulfill the U.S. side of that agreement. Last week he ordered the Defense Department to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the country's nuclear strategy, arguing that the nation's nuclear arsenal falls within the president's purview.

U.S. and Russian negotiators have been meeting for months now, and Obama and Medvedev are expected to meet on the sidelines at the UN on September 23, but Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko recently said that "contradictions remain" between the two sides.

Major differences reportedly include Russian desires for deeper cuts in nuclear-capable launchers and bombers and U.S. attempts to leave out of the treaty nuclear-capable delivery systems that have been reconfigured as conventional weapons.

There are reports that officials on both sides have abandoned plans to seek ratification of a new version of the treaty before its expiration and instead are looking into temporarily extending it.

Showdown On Iran

On at least one key related issue, though, Russia and the United States may soon be in agreement.

Thursday's UN meeting will take place exactly one week before the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France -- plus Germany are due to meet with Iran's top nuclear negotiator in Geneva.

It will be the latest attempt by the international community to get Iran to halt its uranium-enrichment program, which they suspect is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Tehran insists its nuclear program only exists to generate electricity.

The ongoing tug of war has taken on added urgency with last week's release of a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that says Iran now has enough knowledge to make a nuclear warhead and had already tested one component of such a device.

If the October 1 meeting fails to produce a breakthrough, as most observers say it will, the next step will likely be a multilateral sanctions program by the Security Council. In the past, Russia has blocked or watered down such attempts.

But Obama's decision last week to scrub the Bush administration's plan for a missile-defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic was welcomed by Russia, which from the start has viewed the plan as a hostile move against it.

Speculation is high that if another round of sanctions is initiated against Iran following the October 1 meeting, Russia may have fewer objections.

Obama himself has hinted at that possibility. In a statement issued shortly after the new missile policy was announced, he said: "We welcome Russia's cooperation to bring its missile-defense capabilities into a broader defense of our common strategic interests, even as we continue...our shared efforts to end Iran's illicit nuclear program."

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