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Nuclear Agenda Rising to Top of World Issues in 2010

Interviewee: Paul Lettow, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor,
December 24, 2009


A CFR expert on nuclear issues, Paul Lettow, who worked in the George W. Bush National Security Council, says President Barack Obama's agenda will be heavily tilted toward nuclear issues in 2010. Among the featured events: Obama's own summit-level nuclear security conference in April and a review conference on the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty in May. He says this is "the ideal moment for strong American leadership on these issues."  Lettow says despite Obama's disappointment in not wrapping up a new START treaty with Russia by the end of the year, he expects that treaty to be signed early in the new year and the administration to seek an early vote on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

As the year comes to an end, President Obama's focus has been on his domestic healthcare legislation and on the recent Copenhagen climate conference. He met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Copenhagen, but they didn't conclude an agreement to have a second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Could you outline briefly this agenda that Obama has set on nuclear weapons?

President Obama had initially intended to have the START treaty wrapped up by the end of the year. It looks like that will not happen, but it should be wrapped up fairly soon in the new year.  Point two is, of course, that President Obama has been a strong advocate for U.S. ratification of the comprehensive test-ban treaty [CTBT], and Vice President [Joe] Biden and his staff are leading the effort to have the treaty ratified in the Senate next spring. And the intention there is to at least hold a hearing, presumably before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, before a review conference in May for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was originally signed in 1968.

The Obama administration would say it is pursuing arms control and disarmament measures both on their own merits [and] as a means of generating leverage and credibility with which to address the nonproliferation concerns.

And isn't Obama hosting a nuclear security conference?

That's right. It was originally set for March, but now it will be in April. He discussed it in his Prague speech earlier this year and then also during the UN Security Council session that he chaired in September. It's been a high priority of his, and the advantages are that it will force the agenda of nuclear security at the highest level--that is, heads of state. And it will also, the administration hopes, force action on those issues.

President Obama has talked in general terms about abolishing nuclear weapons, although he did add at one point it wouldn't happen in his lifetime.

And that we wouldn't go first. That we would maintain our nuclear weapons as long as others do.

The most specific problems right now are those of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In particular, North Korea's leaving the NPT and building its own nuclear weapon and Iran's nuclear program, which most countries seem to think is a precursor to giving them the opportunity to have nuclear weapons if they so choose. How important is the nonproliferation issue in all this?

We saw that exact tension play out publicly in the UN Security Council session that President Obama chaired this past September. He did win passage of a resolution that addressed both arms control and disarmament issues on the one hand and nonproliferation issues on the other. There was clearly some tension with some other leaders, including French President [Nicolas] Sarkozy, about the relative weights of those issues. President Sarkozy was fairly assertive in stating that while the agenda to abolish nuclear weapons by steadily reducing them was important and worthwhile, there were also very pressing issues in Iran and North Korea that needed to be addressed immediately. The Obama administration would say it is pursuing arms control and disarmament measures both on their own merits but also as a means of generating leverage and credibility with which to address the nonproliferation concerns.

The administration has been talking about giving Iran until the end of the year to get into negotiations to show other countries that it's not on a nuclear weapons track. What do you think's going to happen at the end of the year?

The various partners in the Iran talks have met in recent weeks in Europe to discuss what the response will be if Iran does not clear up various issues or otherwise address concerns over their program, which they almost certainly will not. And the next phase will be moving toward much stronger and stricter sanctions. We've heard that time and again from the Obama administration and from European allies, both individually and through the EU. And we will see a strong push for additional sanctions if there is no accord.

What should President Obama be doing in the conferences that are coming up next year?

This is almost the ideal moment for strong American leadership on these issues. Both the nuclear security summit that Obama himself is hosting and the NPT review conference are coming up this spring, and the administration surely is now working on an agenda to pursue at both of them. But there are a number of specific steps that the administration can set out and then, at a very high level, reach out to allies and partners at the political level to build consensus for an agenda on concrete steps to be taken, not just at these summits and conferences but through, for example, the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council, independently of the timetable of these conferences in the spring.

[T]here are a number of specific steps that the administration can set out and then…reach out to allies and partners at the political level to build consensus for an agenda on concrete steps to be taken…independently of the timetable of these conferences in the spring.

The Obama administration has been pushing for what's called a criteria-based system within the nuclear suppliers group. There would be a number of criteria that a recipient or buyer country would have to meet in order to receive certain kinds of facilities or equipment or technology for enrichment and reprocessing. And the Obama administration is pushing hard, as I understand it, to secure that agreement, and it would be worthwhile and useful. So that's just one example. The others would include addressing the IAEA's ability to detect noncompliance with safeguard obligations in a timely manner. That will be addressed in part, or could be addressed through the IAEA. And then there are questions of enforcing the rules that exist in the problem of withdrawal from the treaty.

Let me just end by winding up on the START treaty. What is expected to come out of the U.S.-Russia negotiations on this? A treaty that will do what?

You'll have a treaty that will set limits on strategic warheads, set limits on delivery vehicles--sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and long-range bombers. The third piece it will address [is] verification measures. And by all accounts, the verification measures will not be as stringent as they were in the in the original START treaty that was signed in 1991 by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. But the administration is pushing to have verification measures that are strong. This differs from the Moscow treaty, which is still in effect, which President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin signed in 2002 with limits on operationally deployed warheads but not on delivery vehicles. It did not have detailed verification measures but rather relied on the previous START measures. So this treaty will be a bit unlike both the Moscow treaty and the START I treaty, but from the administration standpoint, what they'd like to do is have a binding, verifiable treaty that brings levels both of strategic warheads and delivery levels from current numbers.

And what are those numbers?

The idea will be to bring the number of strategic warheads down to the 1,500 to 1,675 range, and we can expect that the delivery vehicles in total will be around the eight hundred range. There was some talk that it might go below that to about five hundred; there might be some opposition on Capitol Hill if it gets down to that kind of range. So I expect to see something around eight hundred or maybe a little bit below. At the peak, both countries had thousands and thousands of warheads and delivery vehicles.

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