President Obama is currently engrossed in a battle over the ratification of his New START treaty with Russia—along with the urgent news that North Korea’s previously covert uranium enrichment program is up and running, and now affords it something else scary to export. Yet, there is another related issue that Mr. Obama must decide upon, which could easily do as much damage to his drive toward zero nuclear weapons: How will America handle the overt spread of civilian nuclear technologies which other countries might divert to make bombs?
Last year, President Obama finalized a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The deal would allow the United States to provide technology to help the UAE generate nuclear energy, but only if the UAE meets a new set of nonproliferation conditions. First, the UAE must forego making nuclear fuel. Second, it must open its nuclear facilities up to intrusive nuclear inspections established by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under a set of rules known as the Additional Protocol. The administration proudly proclaimed this arrangement as the international nonproliferation "gold standard."
Now, there are signs that the administration's commitment to the “gold standard” may be slipping. This summer, word leaked out that State Department officials are hoping to delete the nonproliferation conditions from proposed civilian nuclear cooperation deals with Vietnam and Jordan. According to the State officials, the UAE agreement’s nonproliferation conditions were now just “a standard” to be applied when possible, rather than “the standard” to be applied to all future U.S. civilian nuclear cooperative agreements.
Will the United States insist on the UAE nonproliferation standards in the case of Jordan and Vietnam? The National Security Council has passed the decision to President Obama's inbox. If the president blinks on this issue, it would set an extremely dangerous precedent: While neither Vietnam nor Jordan is that likely to develop a nuclear weapons option, holding either of them to a lower bar would set off a chain reaction, which would virtually ensure that no future nuclear cooperation agreement is subject to the UAE conditions.
If he decides to give Vietnam a pass but not Jordan, Obama would risk validating Jordanian and Muslim complaints that the United States is using double standards. On the other hand, backing off of Jordan's requirements would nix any chance that the United States can secure stringent nonproliferation conditions with any other country in the Middle East. Even the original UAE agreement would be in jeopardy, because a key provision of the U.S.-UAE nuclear deal stipulates that if the United States reaches a nuclear agreement with another Middle Eastern state which is more generous in its conditions, the UAE would have the right to demand renegotiation to secure similar terms.
This would weaken the nonproliferation regime at a time when it is already coming apart: Earlier this month, President Obama caved to Indian pressures to back its membership in an international nuclear control cartel known as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). This effectively would allow India, which flagrantly broke NSG rules for decades illicitly importing controlled nuclear goods for its nuclear weapons program, to become a full member in good standing. Meanwhile, another NSG member, China, has announced its intent to export NSG-controlled nuclear reactors to Pakistan even though the NSG prohibits the latter from receiving such goods. These are all signs that NSG’s ability to block dangerous nuclear exports is failing, and Washington should be strengthening its nonproliferation rules in order to take up the slack.
And, fortunately, this is also a time when the United States has more leverage to get other key nuclear supplier states to follow its lead. The French want to expand their civilian nuclear business in the United States by building nuclear reactors and fuel making plants with U.S. taxpayer help—i.e., with billions of dollars in U.S. Department of Energy contracts and federal nuclear loan guarantees. The Russians, who want to build a large commercial uranium enrichment plant in the United States, will be asking for the same.
A backlash to the State Department's proposal is already brewing. In a bipartisan letter to President Obama that was published last week, 17 of the nation’s leading nuclear nonproliferation experts asked the president to deny loan guarantees to French nuclear companies unless they adopt the higher U.S.-UAE nonproliferation standards when signing their nuclear cooperation agreements. A bipartisan group in Congress is also pushing back: The House Committee on Foreign Affairs has made it clear that whatever the president decides, the committee is likely to table legislation that would require both Houses to approve any proposed nuclear cooperative agreement that does not meet the UAE conditions.
The House understands that if the United States fails to convince nations everywhere to forswear making nuclear fuel, little will stop them from being able to make bombs of their own. Both Republican and Democratic members of the committee understand that that would dash any hopes of getting anywhere close to zero nuclear weapons, and it could easily catalyze North Korean efforts to expand its nuclear export market. The only question now is what the president will decide to do.
Henry Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia and is editor of Nuclear Power’s Global Expansion: Weighing the Costs and Risks (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, forthcoming).