Obama's nuclear summit report card: incomplete, for now

In many ways, the nuclear summit was a victory for President Obama. But it also suggested that his goal of putting nuclear weapons under lock and key won't be realized quickly or easily.

Charles Dharapak/AP
US President Obama pauses during a news conference at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington Tuesday.

President Obama basked in the glow of the conclusion of his nuclear summit Tuesday, in which nearly 50 countries endorsed his four-year goal of securing nuclear materials at risk of falling into terrorist hands.

But also Tuesday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said that it could be 2011 before the Senate takes up the arms reduction treaty the president signed last week with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

That was just one of a number of reminders that Mr. Obama’s vision of reducing the nuclear threat hanging over the world – whether from thousands of nuclear warheads or from materials that could become "loose nukes" – will not be realized quickly or easily.

Even victory at the summit Tuesday – with countries such as India, Pakistan, Israel, and Egypt all signing on – was, in a way, an indicator of the difficulties of achieving even his relatively narrow goal.

Obama originally set the four-year goal for securing loose nukes in an April 2009 speech in Prague. But it took a year simply to produce the communiqué – issued at the summit Tuesday – that includes few specifics and no enforcement mechanisms.

Obama: a safer world

Still, Obama said in concluding the two-day summit Tuesday that “the American people will be safer and the world will be more secure” because of the common commitment to keeping materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons out of terrorists’ hands.

Saying the leaders had eschewed long speeches in favor of “concrete commitments and … tangible steps,” Obama cited Pakistan’s commitment at the summit to increasing port security and preventing smuggling of nuclear materials as an example of steps countries had agreed to take.

And the president said the US had its own work cut out, acknowledging that it needs to adopt several existing international treaties related to securing nuclear materials. But he cited one positive step: the conclusion of a long-delayed agreement between the US and Russia on plutonium disposal. The State Department says it will result in destruction or conversion of enough fuel for 17,000 nuclear weapons.

What's next on Iran

At a press conference following the summit, Obama also addressed his effort to see sanctions imposed on Iran “within weeks” over what he called Tuesday Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.” Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes, although international experts including at the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency have concluded that some of Iran’s nuclear program is incompatible with the needs of a power-generation program.

Obama said he discussed with Chinese President Hu Jintao some of China’s concerns about the potential economic impact of a new set of sanctions on Iran. But he said he told the Chinese leader that Iran also has to realize the price to pay for “flouting” its international commitments, including on nuclear nonproliferation.

“Words have to mean something. There have to be some consequences” for a country like Iran that ignores its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, he said he told Mr. Hu.

Obama refused to repeat his earlier call for UN Security Council action on Iran within “weeks not months,” saying only that he wanted the international community to “move boldly and quickly” so as to convince Iran to “change its calculations” on the costs and benefits of keeping its course.

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