April 16, 2010
Number 04/10 #03
As readers will be aware, US President Obama earlier this week hosted a 47-nation summit on the subject of potential nuclear terrorism, designed to create additional safeguards against that threat. This Update is devoted to analysis looking at how the achievements of the Summit relate to the ongoing efforts to halt Iran’s illegal nuclear program.
First up is a detailed analysis of what the Nuclear Security Summit achieved and did not achieve from Michael Crowley of the New Republic. Crowley notes the Summit led to a number of real achievements – not only getting states to focus on nuclear terrorism but also in putting some genuine steps in place to control or eliminate potentially dangerous nuclear material. However, he notes that these achievements do not reach some of the most important likely sources of uncontrolled proliferation – North Korea, Belarus, India and Pakistan, but more importantly, that if Iran gets a bomb, this would be a “development immensely more consequential” in terms of nuclear terrorism and proliferation than anything the US Administration could hope to accomplish in initiatives like this summit. For his full explanation why, CLICK HERE.
Next up, the Wall Street Journal makes some similar points in an editorial. While saluting the achievements of the Summit, the paper’s editors basically argue that by avoiding “touchy subjects” like Iran and North Korea, the Summit ignored the most important dangers in terms of nuclear terrorism. The paper argues that “Nuclear material in the hands of well-run democracies that play by international rules”, which was the Summit’s focus, are a much less important danger. The paper also comments on reported plans by some states to target Israel at the Summit. To read it all, CLICK HERE. However, in the event, the expected pressure on Israel did not eventuate during the Summit, at which Israel was represented by Deputy PM and Minister for Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor, as discussed here and here.
Finally, Alejo Vidal-Quadras, who is Vice-President of the European Parliament and himself a nuclear physicist, uses the Nuclear Summit to launch into a review of past mistakes made in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. Reviewing the history of European “critical engagement”, and the failures of the Obama Administration’s outreach effort to lead to a breakthrough, he concludes that both have just bought the Iranian regime time to continue its program. He argues that although those pursuing “a policy of appeasement” always argue that this is the only alternative to a military attack, “Biting sanctions… could have and still could work.” For Vidal-Quadras’ complete plea for strong sanctions now, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, two leading Arab journalists explain what the consequences of an Iranian bomb would be.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Others making the case that Iran remains the key issue on the nuclear front include academic Walid Phares, thinktanker Clifford May, former official Paul Wolfowitz, as well as the Jerusalem Post and, for those who didn’t see it, the Australian.
- There are reports of progress made among the UN Security Council P-5 on a new Iran resolution in the wake of the Summit, but according to US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, the US is lowering its sights and prepared to settle for virtually any level of sanctions in order to get something through.
- Meanwhile, on the sanctions front, Malaysia’s Petronas has reportedly stopped selling refined petroleum to Iran out of concern about future US sanctions. However, China seems poised to take up the slack.
- Some discussion of Turkey’s complex and ambiguous role in the sanctions debate is here.
- Three quarters of the US Congress sign a letter calling for “crippling sanctions” on Iran.
- Some additional criticism of Obama’s approach to Iran is coming from other American political leaders, including Senator Joe Lieberman and former Republican Presidential candidate John McCain.
- US officials says Iran has enough material to make a nuclear bomb in less than a year, but probably will take longer.
- Syria is denying those US and Israeli reports it supplied Hezbollah with Scud missiles and claiming they may be an Israeli pretext for attacking Syria. Meanwhile, Washington Institute scholar Andrew J. Tabler reports on how this story, if true, may affect both US efforts to engage with Syria and possible Israeli reactions.
- Obama has called for Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israeli experts debate this idea, as well as ending the policy of nuclear ambiguity,
- Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have offered re-assurances that they will not try to impose a Middle East peace. Barry Rubin looks at Obama’s statements and argues that he is conveying that he “wants to build an image of relative toughness on Israel, for his foreign Muslim and Arab audience, but has low expectations” about the peace process.
- By contrast, the New York Times sees a new policy direction in recent Obama statements indicating that Israeli-Palestinian peace is a US “vital interest.”Israeli author and security analyst Avigdor Haselkorn notices something similar resulting from the presence of US troops in the region.
Behold, the Obama doctrine (and its limits).
The New Republic, April 13, 2010 | 7:28 pm
Call it the Obama doctrine. The central theme of Barack Obama’s foreign policy to date has been simple: He wants to lower the risk that a nuclear weapon will be exploded inside the United States. Think back. Obama’s first foreign policy address, delivered in Prague last April, called for a nuclear-free world—not a short-term practical goal, of course, but an ideal meant to shape our thinking and discourse. His top strategic priorities are stopping Iran from developing a nuclear bomb and stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan; Obama is investing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of U.S. troops in that region largely to ensure that Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal remains secure and out of the hands of jihadists. He convened a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council last fall to discuss the nuclear threat. He recently invested considerable prestige in the START treaty that mandates arms reductions with Russia. And he invited demagogic attacks from critics like Sarah Palin when he added new limitations to America’s nuclear-weapons doctrine.
Obama’s cool response to the Detroit underwear bomber showed that he doesn’t want America overreacting to the threat of conventional terrorism. But nuclear terror—that’s another matter. “It would be a catastrophe for the world,” Obama explained at the 47-nation nuclear summit he hosted in Washington this week. Groups like Al Qaeda are trying to acquire nukes, he warned, and would surely use a bomb if they got one. “The risk of a nuclear attack has gone up,” Obama said. Coming from Dick Cheney, words like that had a way of sounding like a scare tactic. Coming from Obama, they are genuinely scary.
Unfortunately, one summit won’t be enough to put our fears to rest. The Obama administration is billing this event as a huge leap forward for global nuclear security. Conservatives are sneering that it is a symbolic sideshow which sidesteps crucial issues like Iran’s nuclear program. Neither argument is quite right. The nuclear security summit will help to advance Obama’s new doctrine by focusing world attention on the nuclear threat, as well as achieving some tangible security steps. But some of the hardest work still lies ahead. And much of it does, in fact, have quite a lot to do with Iran.
Critics may complain that the nuclear summit was a glorified photo-op. But even merely gathering world leaders to discuss nuclear terrorism is an achievement. As Harvard’s Matt Bunn has noted, some top foreign officials are surprisingly sanguine about the possibility that terrorists could acquire a bomb. In 2002, Anatoliy Kotelnikov, the man in charge of Russia’s nuclear complex, called it “absolutely impossible” for terrorists to create a nuclear bomb even if they were to get their hands on nuclear material. That’s simply wrong, but the dangerous misimpression persists. Bunn argues that convincing foreign leaders to take this threat seriously—getting them to understand that it is something more than the stuff of “24”—is an essential first step to getting their countries to beef up security around their nuclear production, storage, and research sites. “[T]he effort to overcome complacency [is] a fundamental element of a global nuclear security campaign,” Bunn writes in the latest iteration of his annual Securing the Bomb report. In that sense, merely getting people to focus on nuclear terrorism in this way is a step forward.
Of course, Obama’s summit wasn’t simply about symbolism. Ukraine agreed to surrender 90 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU)—enough for terrorists with moderate skills and funding to build several crude nukes; Canada will return a supply of spent nuclear fuel to the United States; Malaysia will tighten its nuclear controls; and Russia agreed to shut down a plutonium factory. Looking ahead, the summit concluded with a communiqué in which the participating nations agreed to a raft of new measures to step up nuclear security and interdiction.
All well and good. But the international community is forever making pledges to act that sputter out when confronted with the realities of global politics. And indeed, the summit’s communiqué was filled with words like “will promote,” “will strive to,” and “are encouraged to.” Unfortunately, fully securing nuclear material around the world will require an almost unprecedented level of international cooperation and transparency—especially in the military and security realms where nation-states most prize their sovereignty and secrecy. The most promising ideas involve the creation of global standards, ideally set by the United Nations, that would dictate minimum security conditions for all nuclear materials worldwide—complete with verification measures and possibly even international inspections. (Various existing agreements are vague and lack enforcement mechanisms.
That is easier said than done. Some countries don’t give a whit about such high-minded calls to action. Belarus, for instance, has a substantial stockpile of bomb-usable HEU that it has refused to surrender—and its international standing is poor enough that the nation’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, wasn’t even invited to this week’s summit. And you can forget about any help from North Korea.
What’s more, even some close U.S. allies aren’t overjoyed with such gauzy talk about international nuclear security regimes. India, for instance, has long refused nuclear security cooperation with America, and Pakistan’s paranoia about outsiders nosing around its complex is even more intense; U.S. officials admit they’re not even sure where all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are stored, and Pakistan is not about to tell us.
There was one huge problem this week’s summit couldn’t adequately grapple with: Iran. While worthwhile, Obama’s confab was not focused on building international pressure against Tehran’s nuclear program. Yet stopping Ahmadinejad’s path to the bomb remains a vital component of the fight to prevent nuclear terrorism. Never mind the frightening question of what controls Iran may or may not maintain over its own nuclear material. The even greater concern is whether an Iranian nuclear capability would lead several of its neighbors—including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt—to begin their own nuclear programs, ostensibly for peaceful purposes but in reality aimed at balancing Iran’s new strategic power. Few things would increase the threat of nuclear terror than the initiation of several new nuclear programs in the Middle East.
To be sure, stopping Iran’s path to the bomb won’t be easy; it may even be too late now. But the fact remains that an Iranian nuclear capability could push us to the edge of a new nuclear tipping point, at which several more nations begin seeking admission to the nuclear club, with or without American approval. That, unfortunately, would be a development immensely more consequential than this week’s latest iteration of the Obama doctrine.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.
Sorting the real, from the phony, nuclear proliferation threats.
Wall Street Journal, APRIL 13, 2010
As far as grand summitry goes, an American President hasn’t hosted something like the current two-day talk-in on nuclear security in Washington since—well, as the Obama Administration described it, not since the San Francisco Conference of 1945. That meeting created the United Nations and helped establish the postwar world order. The agenda for the party that started yesterday is far more modest, but also hard to dislike.
President Obama invited the leaders of 46 countries to brainstorm ways to secure weapons-grade plutonium and uranium and ensure that terrorist groups don’t get their hands on a bomb. At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. tracked and locked down nuclear material in the former Soviet Union with admirable success through the Nunn-Lugar program. In our current post-9/11 era, al Qaeda and like-minded Islamists badly want a bomb, and this Washington gabfest can usefully focus minds and highlight best practices for governments willing to stop global proliferation.
Any achievements will be modest. Ukraine yesterday agreed to eliminate its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, nearly 16 years after giving up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union. Kiev isn’t a proliferator of nuclear weapons, and while welcome, this deal won’t make anyone in the free world sleep better at night.
In his remarks on Sunday, President Obama declared that: “The single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is something that could change the security landscape in this country and around the world for years to come.”
That’s true enough, which only underscores what isn’t on the table this week. Namely, proliferation by Iran and North Korea. U.S. officials say they avoided these touchy subjects to ensure that all countries came on board. China might be annoyed by raising such state-sponsored proliferation, goes the argument, and in any case that’s being pursued at the U.N.
Really? Nuclear material in the hands of well-run democracies that play by international rules isn’t likely to fall into the hands of terrorists. However, were Iran to develop an atomic bomb and the means to deliver a warhead, the danger automatically rises that the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism might share it with its friends in Hezbollah or Hamas. Or imagine a North Korea hard up for cash and willing to sell a device to al Qaeda.
The restrictions on sensitive topics evidently doesn’t apply to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled plans to attend after Turkey and Egypt declared their intention to turn the spotlight on Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal. Who wants to travel across the ocean to listen to insults?
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared the Jewish state “the principal threat to peace in the region today.” But Israel’s nukes aren’t prompting him or the Saudis or Egyptians to kick-start their atomic programs; an Israeli bomb poses no threat to them. An Iranian bomb would.
In our view, “the single biggest threat to American security” would be to allow Iran to defy years of effort by the world’s leading nations and become a nuclear power. That would unleash a new age of proliferation that would swamp this week’s attempts at controlling nuclear materials. Prevent an Iranian breakout, and the risk of an al Qaeda nuclear attack falls sharply. High-profile nuclear summitry has its uses, but it won’t mean much if Mr. Obama dodges the hard decisions necessary to stop the world’s most dangerous proliferators.
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Solana, Straw, Fischer, and de Villepin have a lot to answer for since their policy bought Tehran crucial time.
By ALEJO VIDAL-QUADRAS
Wall Street Journal (Europe), APRIL 14, 2010
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted last week that the regime would install 60,000 new, “third-generation” centrifuges to enrich uranium. As world leaders met in Washington this week to discuss how to prevent nuclear terrorism, there was little doubt that time is running out to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons threat.
It is now eight years since the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran blew the lid on the mullahs’ secret atom program and disclosed the existence of a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy water plant for the production of plutonium in Arak. The NCRI also blew the whistle on the secret enrichment site in Qom back in 2005, a fact that was confirmed by world powers only last September. And yet, during all that time, Tehran has been allowed to make steady progress toward developing nuclear weapons.
Iran has had a lot of help along the way from what can only be described as appeasing policymakers who offered concessions and incentives, while telling the world that they could get the regime to change its behavior. And the regime did change its behavior: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei replaced the supposedly moderate President Mohammad Khatami with the fanatical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while Iranian officials continuously vowed not to back down one “iota” from their nuclear projects.
Regrettably, the European Union was one of the main culprits in facilitating Iran’s nuclear progress. Particularly the EU’s former high representative for foreign policy, Javier Solana, as well as the former British, French and German foreign ministers—Jack Straw, Dominique de Villepin and Joschka Fischer—have a lot to answer for. It was they who devised this policy of “constructive engagement” and thus bought the regime many of the eight years they have had to advance their nuclear program.
The most popular excuse for the failure of their Iran policy was that U.S. reluctance to negotiate directly with Iran supposedly prevented a breakthrough with the mullahs. When President Obama took office, there was much hope in Europe. Last year, he extended his hand to the Iranian leadership and set a number of deadlines for a negotiated settlement of the dispute. Iran, though, quickly repelled Mr. Obama’s hand. The President’s deadlines came and went without any Iranian “engagement.”
Now it was Washington that bought the regime additional time. The White House failed to quickly gather a coalition of the willing to implement the “biting” sanctions it had threatened. Instead, more than three months after the end of the last deadline the U.S. administration had set, “biting” sanctions are not even on the horizon. At best we can expect that after weeks of haggling in the United Nations Security Council, there will eventually be much watered-down sanctions that won’t be able to stop Tehran.
Engagement with Iran has been based on the false premise that the mullahs would respond to carrots and somehow act in Iran’s national interest. In diplomacy, there is only one thing more dangerous than failing to respond firmly to threats to international security, and that is threatening to respond firmly, but failing to follow through. The Iranian regime knows now, if it had any doubts before, that the international community lacks the courage or conviction to confront its nuclear program.
One reason why our leaders pursued a policy of appeasement toward Iran over the past decade was that they argued, falsely, that the only alternative was a military attack on Iran. Biting sanctions, though, could have and still could work. Of course, a military confrontation with Iran would be devastating for its 70 million people. But allowing the regime to gain weapons of mass destruction could in the end be even more devastating for Iran and the entire region if it triggered a wider war. Engaging the mullahs only had the effect of legitimizing them and extending their brutal reign.
It is time for Europe and the United States to redouble their efforts for winning as broad a coalition as possible for biting sanctions that stand a chance of changing the regime’s behavior. Equally important will be to politically support the opposition and the millions of brave Iranians marching on the streets and demanding change and democracy. Summits in Washington are fine, but Iran is moving much faster than that. So we’d better catch up.
Mr. Vidal-Quadras, a professor of nuclear physics, is vice president of the European Parliament.