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The Candidates on Nuclear Proliferation

Issue Tracker

Updated: October 31, 2012
This publication is now archived.

Concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions--heightened by a November 2011 International Atomic Energy Commission report that raised "serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions" to Iran's nuclear program--has so far dominated discussions in the presidential race over nuclear proliferation. Other issues such as reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the nuclear test ban treaty, North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions, and missile defense have remained in the background.

President Barack Obama has pursued a number of nuclear nonproliferation initiatives as president. He also concluded the New START Treaty on nuclear arms reduction with Russia in 2010. Obama has steadily increased sanctions on the Iranian regime--an effort some analysts credit with bringing Iran back to negotiations on ending its uranium enrichment activities but so far has achieved few results. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has offered tough talk on action against Iran and criticized Obama's stance on anti-missile system deployment in Europe.

Editor's Note: Click here for more CFR Issue Trackers and other 2012 campaign resources, which examine the foreign policy and national security dimensions of the presidential race.


Barack Obama

Democratic Incumbent, Running Mate Joe Biden

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In a 2009 speech in Prague, Obama outlined a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. In April 2010, the Obama administration issued a Nuclear Posture Review Report that included a pledge not to use nuclear weapons against any country in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It also included a commitment to maintain its current weapons arsenal, and not to build new ones.

Obama hosted the Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010 in Washington, DC, urging greater cooperation in working against nuclear terrorism, which he called "one of the most challenging threats to international security." In April 2010, he signed the New START Treaty with Russia--ratified in February 2011--reducing the two countries' nuclear stockpiles. During the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in March 2012, Obama said he wants to work with Russia on a missile defense shield in Europe--an issue that remains under dispute between the two sides--and eventually more nuclear arms reductions. At the summit, Obama also called on China (Reuters) to use its influence in Pyongyang to stop it from ratcheting up global nuclear tensions.

In November 2011, following the IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program, the Obama administration signed the Iran Sanctions Act into law, tightening restrictions on the country's petrochemical, oil, and gas sectors, and in July 2012 offered even tighter penalties for entities that do business with the country's oil sector.

In his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2012, the president said, "We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained."

Mitt Romney

Republican Candidate, Running Mate Paul Ryan

Romney opposed the New START Treaty, which he criticized (BostonGlobe) for limiting U.S. missile defense options, contributing to Russia's "substantial nuclear advantage over the United States," and having an inadequate verification protocol. While, "ideally, we would [like to] rid the planet of nuclear weapons," Romney writes in his book, No Apology, "we are unlikely to be successful in doing so, at least within the coming decades," and therefore "America's strategic defense relies on credible nuclear deterrence."

In a November 2011 Republican debate in South Carolina, Romney said if "crippling sanctions" and other strategies fail, military action against Iran would be an option, a position he has reiterated throughout the campaign. Romney called the Bush administration's Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism "a good start," but said it should be accelerated and expanded.

In April 2012, Romney condemned the attempted missile test by North Korea and criticized the Obama administration for not approaching North Korea from "a position of strength."

"Although the missile test failed, Pyongyang's action is another blatant violation of unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and demonstrates once again that Pyongyang is committed to developing long-range missiles with the potential of carrying nuclear weapons. Its weapons program poses a clear and growing threat to the United States," he said.

In March, Romney criticized Obama for asking Russian president Dmitry Medvedev for "space" on missile defense (ABCNews), in comments made during discussions on the sidelines of the Seoul summit. In July at the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nevada, Romney repeated the criticism, calling it a "unilateral concession to the Russian government." He also repeated concerns about Tehran's nuclear program and said the "the threat of weapons of mass destruction proliferation is ever-present."

A Romney adviser told South Korea's Yonhap News in October that Romney supported the Six-Party Talks, but was concerned that Pyongyang would exploit the talks to expand its nuclear arsenal.

At the final presidential debate on foreign policy on October 22, Romney said that he sees U.S. influence receding around the world vis-ŗ-vis nuclear nonproliferation, and cited North Korea's exporting of nuclear technology and Russia's cancellation of an arms-reduction treaty as examples of this dangerous trend.

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