Washington double-talk on nukes

Walter Pincus
Reporter April 23, 2012

The United States needs a consistent position on nonproliferation if its efforts to lower the nuclear weapons threat is to be taken seriously.

The last two weeks prove the point.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

On Thursday, India successfully tested what it called its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Agni V. Since it traveled only 3,000 miles, the missile would be considered an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) in U.S. terminology. ICBMs travel 6,000 miles or more. Nonetheless, the Agnni V would enable India to strike inside most of China.

On Saturday, however, A. Sivathanu Pillai, an official with India’s Defense Research and Development Organization, told reporters that the Agni V had not been tested at its full range and could reach targets in Europe, 4,800 miles away.

The White House’s initial response to the test shot was equivocal at best. “We urge all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear and missile capabilities, and continue to discourage actions that might destabilize the South Asia region,” press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

The Chinese news media had already asserted that “Western powers were not condemnatory enough” of the Indian missile test. Carney’s statement didn’t hint at any criticism of New Delhi for pushing out the range of its ballistic missiles, which was in sharp contrast to the repeated U.S. condemnation of North Korea for trying on April 13 to use a multi-stage rocket to launch a satellite. Pyongyang was using the satellite launch, which failed minutes into flight, to hide its development of an ICBM, the United States argued.

Faced with that comparison, Carney explained, “I would simply point out, because comparisons have been made to [North Korea] and its actions, that India’s record stands in stark contrast to that of North Korea, which has been subject to numerous sanctions, as you know, by the United Nations Security Council.”

Before I focus on the somewhat hypocritical foundation of that statement, it is worth noting last week’s other U.S. action that illustrates the ambiguities other countries see in Washington’s nonproliferation approach.

On April 15, during its parade in Pyongyang marking the 100th anniversary of the late Kim Il Sung’s birthday, North Korea showed off what appeared to be six mobile ICBMs. Last June, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that North Korea was trying to develop an ICBM that was “potentially a road-mobile” missile. Some 17 days later, in a Newsweek interview, Gates said, “They are developing a road-mobile ICBM. I never would have dreamed they would go to a road-mobile before testing a static ICBM.”

Yet last week, some analysts studying the pictures of those parading missiles on large trucks concluded that they were not real. “At first glance, the missile seems capable of covering a range of perhaps 10,000 kilometers [6,000 miles]. However, a closer look reveals that all of the presented missiles are mock-ups,” wrote Markus Schiller and Robert H. Schmucker, analysts with Schmucker Technologie in Germany and leading experts on North Korean missiles.

As Schiller and Schmucker pointed out, the ICBMs on the trucks appeared to be solid fueled or liquid fueled. If the latter, they would be too heavy and too dangerous to carry when fueled. Therefore, at best the missiles would be moveable, rather than mobile, since they still would require hours — at least — to be set up for launching. The analysts also noted that the missiles displayed in Pyongyang did not line up with the vertical launching gear on which they were carried.

Real or not, their appearance gave the United States something new to chew over. It appears that the vehicles carrying the missiles may have come from the Chinese. And if they were sold to the North Koreans knowing that they were to be used for mobile ICBMs, the Beijing government would be in violation of Security Council resolutions that bar providing items “which could contribute to DPRK’s nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction-related programmes.”

U.S. officials quickly said that they will question the Chinese on whether they are contributing to the North Korean program, setting aside the fact that Beijing joined the United States and others in condemning Pyongyang’s satellite launch.

Washington’s shifting positions on nonproliferation are noticed. For example, this self-identified Iranian reader comment, taken from the Voice of America Web site following its report on India’s missile test: “If North Korea or Iran would test such [a] missile it will soon be condemned BY AMERICA AND ITS ALLIES. Now they are very very calm what is the reason?? Power is Power.”

Then there is a more basic nonproliferation problem for the United States. Its 2008 nuclear agreement with India, signed during the George W. Bush administration, permits New Delhi to keep operating its military nuclear reactors and building nuclear warheads to mount on its new longer-range missile.

Of course, India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But neither has Pakistan nor Israel, two other countries that Washington supports militarily.

The hypocrisy attributed to Washington is that the United States talks about enforcing nonproliferation when it comes to countries it does not like but who have signed the treaty, but gives assistance to those countries friendly to it who have not signed the treaty. Both groups are violating the intent of the treaty.

That makes nonproliferation for the United States not a principle but a negotiable position depending on Washington’s view of its national interests. However, the United States appears not to want other, often unfriendly countries, to practice that same flexibility when it comes to nonproliferation.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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