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Nuclear family

Print edition : May 21, 2010 T+T-
Barack Obama with the heads of delegations attending the Nuclear Security Summit on April 13.-ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG

Barack Obama with the heads of delegations attending the Nuclear Security Summit on April 13.-ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG

PRESIDENT Barack Obama seems to be working overtime on issues relating to nuclear proliferation. In mid-April, he hosted a meeting of the worlds leading nuclear powers in Washington, D.C. Leaders of the five nuclear weapons states and 42 other nations attended the meeting, billed as the biggest international summit convened in the capital of the United States in the past 60 years.

While allies of the United States, such as Georgia, were invited, Iran, North Korea and Syria were kept out. Iran and North Korea, which have been calling for a negotiated settlement to the nuclear dispute with the West, have been the main targets of the U.S. Syria has been attacked by the U.S. for allegedly trying to set up a clandestine nuclear plant. The absence of these countries made the summit, whose central theme was confronting the threat of nuclear material falling into the hands of terror groups, less meaningful than intended.

On the sidelines of the conference, Obama was busy trying to convince countries such as China, Russia, India and Brazil to support the implementation of a draconian sanctions regime against Iran. He told the visiting leaders that the possibility of terrorist organisations obtaining a nuclear weapon was the single biggest threat to global security. He said that organisations such as Al Qaeda were in the process of trying to secure nuclear weapons and warned that such groups would not have any compunction about using them.

Nuclear experts believe that around 500 tonnes of plutonium and 1,600 tonnes of highly enriched uranium are scattered all over the world. The Obama administration wants the international community to ensure that all nuclear material around the world is secured within the next four years.

Obama sought a commitment from the summiteers on securing the stockpiles of separated plutonium and uranium so that they cannot be stolen or sold. Ukraine and Chile have announced that they are sending their stocks of highly enriched uranium for safe-keeping to Russia and the U.S. respectively. Obama said that the summit was a key step in his agenda of making the world free of nuclear weapons. The participating leaders pledged to do their best to secure their nuclear arsenals. There were, however, no written commitments on stopping the production of weapons-grade material. The stated aim of Obama of achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world continues to be a mirage. The U.S. itself does not want to give up its position as the pre-eminent nuclear power.

The summit took place immediately after the U.S. and Russia signed a nuclear arms treaty. The new Strategic Arms Treaty (START) aims at substantially reducing the number of nuclear warheads in the American and Russian arsenals. The two countries have promised to cut their strategic warheads by 50 per cent in the next seven years. But Russia has warned that if the U.S. goes ahead with its plans to install missile defence shields along its borders, then it would use the option of walking out of the treaty. Between themselves the U.S. and Russia control 90 per cent of the 27,000 nuclear weapons that are known to exist in the world. The U.S. maintains 200 tactical nuclear warheads in Europe, despite many of the governments there wanting them removed.

Before the Washington conference, the Obama administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The document has reiterated the essential role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. security doctrine. Importantly, the U.S. has not given up the right of first use of nuclear weapons. In the second week of April, Obama said that the U.S. would use atomic weapons only in extreme circumstances but would not target non-nuclear states. However, he named outlier states such as Iran and North Korea as exceptions to the rule.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. was making this distinction because Teheran and Pyongyang had repeatedly defied the United Nations Security Council resolutions over their nuclear programmes. They are not in compliance with the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. So for them all bets are off. All the options are on the table, Gates told reporters in Washington. Russia, China and India have all renounced the first use of nuclear weapons. Gates also said that the nuclear option was also open if the U.S. was attacked by non-state actors such as Al Qaeda which might acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran and North Korea reacted angrily to the NPR. Irans Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Obama had implicitly threatened Iranians with nuclear weapons. He urged the international community to take serious note of the disgraceful comments of a head of state in the 21st century threatening a nuclear attack. The Iranian Majlis (Parliament) has urged the government to file a complaint with the U.N. against Washingtons threat against international peace. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad characterised the new position adopted by the Obama administration as a cowboy policy.

The U.S. is the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons. The August 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 350,000 people. Before the Washington summit began, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boasted that the U.S. was stronger than anyone, as weve always been with more nuclear weapons than are needed many times over.

Iran and the international community have other important reasons to be angry with the apparent double standards of the U.S. position on nuclear weapons. The U.S. has granted de facto nuclear weapons status to Israel, India and Pakistan. These three countries are not signatories to the NPT. At the same time, the U.S. is indirectly threatening to drop an atom bomb on Iran, which is a signatory to the NPT.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fearing that uncomfortable questions would be asked about his countrys nuclear status, decided to skip the summit altogether. His absence suited his hosts, who feared that the issue of Israels nuclear capability would hijack the summit. Turkey, Egypt and Jordan had warned that they would raise the issue. The leaders of these countries have said that Israels belligerent nuclear stance is blocking moves for the creation of a nuclear-weapons-free West Asia. The Arab League has said that the Wests excessive focus on Iran has only served to distract attention from Israels vast nuclear arsenal.

Israel got off lightly at the summit as the agenda revolved mainly around counter-proliferation measures. The NPT review conference scheduled for May will be a different ball game altogether. There will be demands from Arab and other Muslim states to make West Asia a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Avher Cohen, the author of the important study Israel and the bomb, told a news agency that although the West had granted Israel legitimacy as a responsible nuclear stakeholder, the international community at large viewed the countrys opacity on nuclear issues as tiresome and anachronistic, and is incompatible with todays norms and conduct.

The Obama administrations special relationship with India and Pakistan on sensitive issues did not escape the notice of the commentators writing on the Washington summit. The U.S., in a deal signed earlier in the year, has allowed India to extract plutonium from spent U.S. nuclear fuel for the nuclear energy plants it plans to construct.

India is now in the company of Japan and leading European nations that receive spent nuclear fuel from the U.S. Critics of the deal argue that India could easily divert the plutonium for weapons production. The chief problem with this agreement is that the U.S. is allowing a non-NPT member rights that we are not offering to NPT members, according to Daryl G. Kimball of the Arms Control Group.

The U.S. has also refused to put overt pressure on India and Pakistan to sign the NPT. Ellen Tauscher, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, who is responsible for the Obama administrations non-proliferation policies, said recently that the two countries were very special friends with whom Washington held conversations every day. While stating that the administration wanted all countries to sign the NPT, she refused to specifically single out India, Pakistan or Israel, the three significant holdouts.

The Israeli media reported that Ellen Tauscher assured Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon that the U.S. will strive to protect its allies and work against countries which violate the NPT, such as North Korea, or countries that fail to meet their commitments to the international community like Iran.

Ellen Tauscher assured Tel Aviv that the Obama administration would continue with the policy of calculated ambiguity with countries that had not signed the NPT but did not pose a threat to the U.S. As a Congresswoman, she had strongly opposed the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal.