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Opinion

How an Obama shift helps unstable regimes get nuclear weapons

In past nuclear cooperation agreements, the US has required nations to commit to not enriching uranium and opening nuclear sites to inspections. The Obama administration has just done away with the requirement. Congress needs oversight to combat this possibility of nuclear proliferation.

By John Bolton and Edward J. Markey / February 10, 2012

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaks at a ceremony in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran on April 9, 2007.

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP Photo

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Washington

For over half a century, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons has been a fundamental American foreign-policy objective. The Obama administration took office with a nonproliferation goal of “a world without nuclear weapons.” But it recently announced a change of course that will enable more nuclear weapons to end up in the hands of unstable regimes.

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At issue are the conditions Washington should place on agreements enabling the sale of civilian nuclear technologies to other countries.

Nonproliferation advocates argue that, when dealing with countries that lack nuclear weapons, the US should only enter into nuclear cooperation agreements if those countries formally agree not to manufacture their own nuclear fuel, either by enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium. This is because fresh or spent nuclear reactor fuels can be processed to make nuclear weapons.

In 2009, in a burst of nonproliferation enthusiasm, the Obama administration insisted that a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates, signed by the Bush administration, be reopened to include a legally binding commitment by the UAE not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium and to open its nuclear sites to intrusive international inspections. The State Department trumpeted this new set of conditions as the “gold standard” for future agreements.

But the Obama administration is now poised to send this “gold standard” to the trash heap. On Jan. 11, senior Obama administration officials informed lawmakers that instead of requiring the highest nonproliferation standards from every future nuclear trade partner, they would impose no standard, undertaking instead a “case-by-case” approach. This may expedite the profitability of such agreements for the nuclear industry, but will do so at the expense of US and world security.

The nuclear industry bizarrely argues that relaxing nonproliferation standards would actually advance US nonproliferation policy because more deals would provide new opportunities for the US to influence nuclear decision-making in partner countries. But this assertion ignores the fact that any decision to clandestinely acquire nuclear weapons will certainly not be taken in consultation with the US.

Instead, the far more likely result of jettisoning the “gold standard” will be throwing open the doors to the spread of nuclear weapons. America will likely soon find itself in the inadvertent business of helping a multitude of countries pursue their deadly nuclear ambitions.

Equally troubling, the Obama administration appears to have no red lines on who would qualify for that “help.” It is already actively engaged in nuclear trade talks with South Korea, Vietnam, and Jordan. South Korea is demanding that we allow it to make nuclear fuel in its new trade agreement. Not surprisingly, Jordan is complaining that if the US allows South Korea make nuclear fuels, it would be unfair not to allow Jordan to do so as well.

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