Talks with Russia for further mutual reductions in their arsenals appear stuck. More important, the world's two outlier nations in an effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons – Iran and North Korea – are as defiant as ever against calls to rein in their nuclear ambitions.
Their obstinacy comes despite President Obama's willingness to talk to these two regimes with more openness and potential compromises than did the Bush administration.
Iran has now backed away from a recent offer to ship most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia for additional processing and eventual return as fuel for a civilian reactor. And North Korea said this week that it is reprocessing plutonium once again, which would allow it to make another atomic weapon. It had agreed in 2007 to disable its main reprocessing facility in exchange for aid.
These setbacks require Obama to engage more forcefully with other nations – especially China – to apply pressure on Iran and North Korea and possibly impose greater sanctions on them.
The politically hot issues of healthcare reform and a possible troop surge in Afghanistan should not divert the White House from achieving the more important goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Such a vision was heartily endorsed in 2007 by an eminent, bipartisan group of former top US leaders: Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz. And Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month in large part because of his strong stance on nuclear nonproliferation.
As for Iran, Obama needs to set a firm deadline for the ruling clerics in Tehran to meet the terms set by the West that will ensure a peaceful use of the Iranian nuclear program. And during his trip to China later this month, Obama must gain firm assurances from Beijing that it will use its leverage over its economically weak ally to bring North Korea to multilateral talks for the purpose of dismantling its still-small nuclear arsenal. China must also curb its growing trade with Iran.
Such steps are necessary if Obama is to expect much success from a world summit on nuclear terrorism that he promises to hold next March.
Talks with Iran and North Korea alone are not sufficient to achieve Obama's grand vision. He must also use the considerable clout of a US president to reverse nuclear proliferation.
Before his popularity starts to ebb in other nations, Obama must create a critical mass of diplomacy that will force Iran and North Korea to join the global efforts to move toward zero nuclear weapons.