The future of counter proliferation

Recent international events have proven Barack Obama cannot sideline nuclear proliferation.

North Korea has a curious habit of gaining the attention of new presidents. Indeed, saber rattling is instrumental to getting noticed âÄî and thus getting aid money in exchange for promises to cease nuclear weapons research. The North Korean economy even depends on such an arrangement, and it has happened before. Shortly into Barack ObamaâÄôs presidency, not only did the hermit kingdom seem poised to test another missile, but its stock of plutonium may be fully weaponized. This alone is troubling, but last week the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report claiming Iran had more enriched uranium than it had admitted. Iran itself had recently launched a satellite into space âÄî seen as a potential step towards a nuclear delivery vehicle. But any threat is far from imminent. What these events should do is focus the mind on the fact that the Obama administration still has the question of nuclear proliferation to deal with. ObamaâÄôs predecessor was vocally concerned about rogue regimes gaining access to nuclear weapons. President George W. Bush did much to undermine existing nuclear counter-proliferation regimes that were already in existence. Clearly the war in Iraq is most salient, but it is not the most relevant example. The nuclear cooperation deal the Bush administration signed with India was the most flagrant upset of the international nuclear order. India, whose program was born in the early 1970s, is an example of a country that intended nuclear technology only for civilian purposes but could not resist weaponization. Pakistan quickly followed suit, demonstrating the speed at which an arms race can develop. The deal the United States now has with India appears harmless; the terms stipulate only civil cooperation. But for the deal to form, India was granted an exempted access to the Nuclear Suppliers Group , a cartel of nuclear-capable countries that controls access to technology. India is now the only country in the group who is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The precedent is not welcome. If India can gain international legitimacy for a program it developed outside of NPT guidelines, then so-called rogue states will take notice. Yet Bush did not stop there. Quietly, on Jan. 15, he signed a nuclear cooperation deal with the United Arab Emirates . That, coupled with other less formal pledges with Saudi Arabia, had a clear intention: to contain Iran. The wisdom in this is beyond questionable, but may have been less intentional than it appears. France has been signing deals with many Middle Eastern countries as well, and the Bush administration may have just had to strategically one-up the French in a vital, energy-rich region. Such power politics come at great expense. The most worrying aspect of a nuclear Iran is how its neighbors would react. By giving its Arab competitors nuclear capacity, Iran will have very little reason for abandoning its capability, and the arms race has already begun. Does this mean that progress on the Iranian weapons program is all but lost? Not necessarily. Most agree that dialogue with Iran is the right approach. The standoff policy of the Bush administration was not fruitful, and Iran ultimately wishes to shed its pariah label. In fact, soon after Obama came to office, it became known that unofficial U.S. experts had been in meetings with Iranian diplomats in Europe last year. These talks, called âÄútrack-twoâÄù negotiations and considered unofficial, were nevertheless attended by current members of the administration, âÄúin their private capacity.âÄù The significance of the meeting is still vague, but it shows that preparatory groundwork is at least underway for official talks. Those will not likely come until the elections in Iran have concluded in June. When Obama offered a hand to unclenched fists in his inauguration speech, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed interest, while demanding an official U.S. apology for its transgressions against the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, it was not quite the olive branch it seemed. Especially before elections, the party that secured an apology from the Great Satan would score a political grand slam. It remains to be seen if the Iranian government regains its obstinate stance. The one factor that could influence any cooperation is the price of oil. With oil a far cry from its peak last summer, the Iranian budget is suffering. In return for aid and the lifting of sanctions, Iran may come to the negotiating table. Does the United States have a place controlling nuclear proliferation? Is it not a sovereign choice? In the end, even if Iran was willing to accede to international standards, is it worth the time of the Obama administration to commit so many resources to fighting nuclear proliferation? Short of large-scale bombing, the experience with North Korea suggests Iran will cooperate just enough to get what it wants. The Obama administration must. Wanton proliferation is a real threat. Pakistan recently released the infamous father of the nuclear black market, A.Q. Khan , from prison. Russia, hurting from low oil prices itself, is signaling more willingness to renegotiate the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December. The United States, which has the most nuclear weapons to speak of, has an unavoidable role in fighting their spreading to places too unstable to control them. And nuclear weapons have too much devastating potential to be left to overly abstracted concerns over imperialism. St. JamesâÄô Street welcomes comments at [email protected]