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.
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.
Meanwhile, if Washington does not require Jordan to meet the same nonproliferation conditions of the UAE deal, the UAE has a legal right under the terms of its agreement to drop these key nonproliferation provisions. It’s a nuclear house of cards, set to collapse at the first rumble from one of these nations. And of course, the whole world is watching, including Saudi Arabia, which is loathe to see Iran’s nuclear program mature further without acquiring the same capabilities.
Iran’s belligerent threats to shut the Strait of Hormuz in response to global sanctions aimed at thwarting its reported bid to acquire nuclear weapons demonstrates what happens when a “peaceful” nuclear program turns out to be not so peaceful.
Under the outdated legislation governing nuclear agreements, there is little that Congress can currently do to reject or modify even the most egregious deals made the White House. It is a strange approach indeed to national security to require Congressional approval for agreements involving cars, yarn, and peaches but not for those concerning nuclear matters.
There is an easy fix: Bipartisan legislation by Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida and Howard Berman (D) of California makes reasonable modifications to current law to give Congress more power to reject nuclear cooperation agreements that don’t include the UAE’s “gold standard” commitments. If a country agrees to the gold standard, the existing expedited process for Congressional approval remains in place. But if a country decides to retain the options of enrichment and reprocessing, the agreement must first be approved by Congress.
It is alarming that precisely when the global nonproliferation regime is breaking down, and as North Korea, Iran, and Syria set a model for other regimes dreaming of their own nuclear weapons, the Obama administration would further undermine the already weak, eroding restraints on the spread of these instruments of unparalleled terror and destruction. The money to be made from surrendering America and the world to the ambitions of nuclear-armed regimes will be long forgotten when the tragic consequences of these deals become a reality.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, previously served as US Ambassador to the United Nations and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Congressman Edward J. Markey (D) of Massachusetts is Ranking Member of the Natural Resources Committee and founder of the Congressional Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation.