Nukes plan faces many obstacles

Posted May 20, 2009, at 8:54 p.m.

President Obama’s ambitious agenda to revive Ronald Reagan’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons drew significant support in the last month from two major, bipartisan groups. Both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States recommended that the United States take the lead in a new campaign to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons.

A crucial conclusion, one that may ease congressional support, was recognition that “an appropriately effective nuclear deterrent force” will be essential to provide security against rogue regimes and potential use of nuclear material by terrorist groups. Thus, “zero’ nuclear weapons is confirmed as an ultimate end-state that may never be attained, but a goal that should motivate responsible leaders to reverse the nuclear arms race and begin to manage this issue more effectively.

A major obstacle remains the huge stockpiles of Russia and the U.S., which account for 95 percent of nuclear weapons. Initial steps are under way to recharge discussions on renewal of the vital START accord, which expires in December.

Progress on extending that treaty, gaining congressional ratification of the test ban treaty and developing an international regime for the sharing of nuclear energy remain key objectives to broadening international support.

As mentioned in last month’s column, the hardest cases of all — beside the broader challenge of nuclear terrorism — are the arsenals or ambitions of four states: Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Israel. The main reason to include Israel among the “hardest” cases is its understandable unwillingness, at this point, to give up its weapons in light of the hostility that prevails in the Middle East and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Iran poses the most urgent threat in large part because of the tensions in the Middle East and the risk and consequences of conflict in the region, the source of so much of the world’s energy, and because of the aggressive policies, and support for terrorism, of part of the Iranian leadership.

President Obama has shifted away from George W. Bush’s policy of unlimited hostility to the Iranian regime — a short-sighted policy that only guaranteed an equally hostile response from Tehran. Whether Obama’s more pragmatic approach will be successful remains an open question, partly dependent on Iran’s presidential election next month. President Obama remarked Monday that he expects results — such as a positive response from Tehran — by the end of the year.

North Korea’s arsenal of up to 10 weapons remains shrouded in secrecy. Given the isolated, unpredictable nature of its leadership, the risks of war on the peninsula can not be minimized. Various efforts by the Bush administration and the six-party talks have born little fruit. A major obstacle to progress, ironically, is the fact that possession of these weapons is the only “success” or asset North Korean leaders have as leverage.

While one can’t discount conflict, North Korea, one expert says, “is surrounded by large, hostile states, and its leaders know that they have nowhere to go by starting a war.”

Pakistan’s arsenal, a direct byproduct of India’s development of nuclear weapons, poses a grave risk due to the danger of a collapse of the state — and the potential for terrorism. The advance of extremist forces in major areas of Pakistan has made the stability of the country a top concern in Washington and other capitals. New reports that Pakistan has been using some U.S. aid to expand its nuclear arsenal are also disturbing, especially in light of the growing instability and a receding threat from India.

While unconfirmed, it is reported that U.S. and Pakistani leaders are cooperating on developing more effective systems to secure Pakistan’s arsenal of 80 to 100 weapons.

While few parties prefer further proliferation of nuclear weapons, it is possible that Iran will gain the capability through its continuing uranium enrichment programs — so far undeterred by international diplomacy and sanctions.

Given the lateness of the hour and recognition of the dubious value of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, de facto “capability” may yet prove to be the most realistic way to limit proliferation. Japan, for example, has the capability — knowledge, satellite technology, etc — to develop nuclear weapons, but has not moved to weaponize for historic, moral and practical reasons, such as the U.S.- Japan alliance.

A key piece of the puzzle would be creating an international body to share enriched uranium for energy purposes, but with strict accounting and viable inspection systems. Also, a clear statement by major powers that any move to weaponize by Iran would lead to punitive measures. But steps must be taken soon to reverse the ap-peal of “the nuclear club.” As a recent comment in The New York Times noted, “The problem with nuclear weapons is that there is no stable status quo. We must radically devalue them or face a new era of proliferation, with greatly increased risk of regional nuclear wars or nuclear terrorism.”

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He may be reached at hill207@juno.com.

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