Russia and the US: Has a season of nuclear disarmament finally arrived?

The US-Russia nuclear arms deal that Obama is slated to sign April 8 signals a modest, but significant, step forward.

The financial crisis and global warming have had the world’s attention in recent years. Thanks to President Obama’s initiative, perhaps the season for nuclear disarmament has finally arrived.

On April 8, Mr. Obama will meet Russian President Medvedev in Prague, Czech Republic, to sign a nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia that will reduce their arsenals by 30 percent.

The new US-Russian treaty will be received positively. There will be praise for the Obama administration’s attitude toward arms control and disarmament and for Russia’s readiness to join hands with the US. However, as welcome as it is as a significant signal of future cooperation, the new treaty is a relatively modest disarmament measure.

IN PICTURES: Nuclear power around the world

Though not achieving the drastic cuts in nuclear arsenals and delivery vehicles that the world is longing for, the US-Russian treaty is important and encouraging.

After Bush administration policies that nearly sent the two states into a new cold war, the new treaty constitutes the resetting of an important button. It preserves arrangements for confidence building and mutual inspections, and sets the stage for negotiating more far-reaching cuts.

We should be aware, however, that a next step of deeper reductions will hardly be attainable unless there is agreement on extensive cooperation on missile defense. Russia is deeply suspicious that the missile shield could enable the US to launch an attack on any target in Russia while itself remaining immune to such attacks. Further bilateral disarmament will also be impeded if Russia feels that the NATO alliance seeks to encircle it by expanding its military cooperation through membership or otherwise with more states neighboring Russia.

The April 8 signing will take place one year after Obama’s presentation in Prague of a detailed program for the revival of global nuclear arms control and disarmament. Later in April he will be the host in Washington of a large summit meeting that will focus on nuclear security. In May, the operation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will be the subject of review at a conference in New York in which nearly all governments in the world will take part. The review that took place in 2005 ended in acrimony and some predicted the end of the treaty. How will it turn out in May?

Through adherence to the NPT that was concluded in 1970, states have committed themselves to staying away from nuclear weapons or to moving away from these weapons. If all states had joined and fulfilled their commitments the treaty would have led by now to a world free of nuclear weapons. They have evidently not done so. The number of nuclear weapons peaked at more than 50,000 during the cold war and it is still over 20,000 – most of them in the US and Russia. The number of states with nuclear weapons has gone from five to nine since 1970.

There is also frustration at the lack of progress on many important items relevant to the treaty. For instance, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has not entered into force because the US, China, and a number of other states have not ratified it. The negotiation of a convention prohibiting the production of enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons remains blocked at the Geneva Disarmament Conference. The additional protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency for strengthened safeguards inspections remains unratified by a large number of states, including Iran.

Some items are bound to attract much attention in May. One is that, 20 years after the end of the cold war, the obligation of five nuclear weapon states that are parties under Article VI of the NPT to negotiate toward nuclear disarmament has not led us anywhere near zero. Another grievance – especially among Arab states – is that Israel has refrained from adhering to the treaty and acquired nuclear weapons. A third is that the treaty was violated by several states. Although Iraq and Libya have been brought into compliance, North Korea has not and Iran (and perhaps others) might aim at ignoring the treaty.

Views on Iran’s program for the enrichment of uranium have long been divided and they are likely to remain divided at the NPT conference.

There are many reasons for suspecting that the aim of Iran’s enrichment program is the development of a nuclear weapon in breach of NPT obligations or, at least, to move close to the ability to make a weapon. This has already resulted in a dangerous increase of tension in the region.

Why has it not been possible so far to persuade Iran to abandon or suspend the enrichment program? While there is a right under the NPT for parties to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes there is certainly no obligation to use this right.

It is hard to avoid the impression that the approach to Iran has often been highhanded and clumsy. Iran has been told that negotiations about a variety of benefits would be open but only on the condition that the enrichment program first be suspended. Who gives up a trump card before the game?

Obama has had the good sense to authorize direct talks without preconditions. These talks are now stuck, but should be resumed.

States developing nuclear weapons have mostly done so for perceived security reasons and for status. When Iran allegedly began its enrichment program in the 1980s it might have rightly perceived Iraq as a future nuclear threat. With that threat gone, how wise has it been for the US and Israel to float the idea of bombing Iran’s enrichment facilities?

Would it not be wiser to offer diplomatic relations and guarantees against armed attacks/subversion as a part of a nuclear deal? This was done in the case of North Korea. Why not in the case of Iran?

The NPT review conference will hardly enter into these questions but it will probably discuss how the concept of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction can be taken up for consideration. Such a zone could well be designed so as to facilitate ventures to use nuclear power for electricity generation or desalination of water, perhaps even on a regional basis.

However, to reduce tensions in the region the concept needs to exclude from the whole zone not only nuclear weapons but also plants for the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of plutonium.

In the last few years the appeals have intensified for government policies aiming, as the NPT does, to free the world from nuclear weapons. In January 2007, former US Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, and former Sen. Sam Nunn published an article in which they reminded the US and the world that the cold war was over. They argued that if the US, Russia, and others continued to see nuclear weapons as necessary for their security others would see the same thing and proliferation would result. They urged that the US and Russia should take the lead in a long process that would eventually result in a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Their plea has had a broad and strong response in the world. While focusing on many near-term measures, such as the current deal, Obama and Mr. Medvedev jointly espoused the long-term aim of full disarmament in a declaration in London in April 2009.

Is this long-term aim naive and utopian? Not necessarily. Between 1910 and 1945 the world experienced two World Wars and a collapsed League of Nations. Much could happen between 2010 and 2045. Interdependence is rapidly accelerating and forcing states to show regard for each other’s security interests. For the moment, however, there is only a hopeful start on a long journey.

IN PICTURES: Nuclear power around the world

Hans Blix headed the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997 and was the chief UN arms inspector for Iraq from 2000 to 2003. Since 2003 Dr. Blix has headed the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission and heads the advisory board on the nuclear program of the United Arab Emirates.

©Global Viewpoint/ Tribune Media. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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