By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009
President Obama will use a speech today in Prague to attempt to breathe new life into international arms-control efforts, according to administration officials.
He will repeat his call for strengthening the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and cutting the size of U.S. and Russian stockpiles through negotiating a follow-on agreement to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the officials said.
While the Bush administration began discussions with Moscow on extending the START pact, it showed little to no interest in the other nuclear treaties. Obama, on the other hand, wants to expand and enforce them. His interest stems at least in part from what his aides describe as a concern about the control of fissile materials, such as highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the fuel for nuclear weapons.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Friday that, if such materials "got into the wrong hands, [it would] present what the president believes is the gravest threat to our country." And Obama said Wednesday in London that he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev "support international negotiations for a verifiable treaty to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons."
That would be a rollback in U.S. policy and a move toward the approach of President Bill Clinton, who called in 1993 for such a production ban. Two years later, the U.N. Conference on Disarmament took up discussions of a treaty to accomplish that -- in part to try to halt weapons-enrichment programs in India, Pakistan and Israel, which had not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus were not subject to any international inspection regimen. In 2000, those three countries, the Clinton administration and the Conference on Disarmament agreed to pursue negotiations toward a Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty.
But in 2004, the Bush administration announced that it would oppose any provisions in the treaty for inspections and verification. White House officials said they had concluded that such provisions would result in costly systems that would require overly intrusive inspections and would not guarantee compliance with the treaty. The Bush team introduced a draft treaty that included no verification mechanism.
Obama has also indicated a desire to address noncompliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty among countries that have signed the pact. Recent actions by Iran and North Korea, both signatories to the treaty, have highlighted its weaknesses.
The White House's interest in ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty revives a political debate in the Senate, which rejected the pact in 1999, with opposition led by Republicans.
The Bush administration not only opposed any consideration of the treaty, it reduced the U.S. contribution toward the monitoring of possible nuclear tests. Obama has pledged that he would not send the treaty back to the Senate before making certain that both the intelligence community and the Pentagon support its verification procedures.
The 1991 START agreement with Russia limited the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers each country can have. It also restricted how many warheads each could carry, for a total of 6,000 that would be "accountable." The pact addressed only warheads mated with delivery systems, not those held in storage. It also had specific verification procedures.
In 2002, President George W. Bush and then-Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to lower the limits on deployed warheads by 2012, to between 1,700 and 2,200. But their agreement contained no verification provisions. Last month, it was disclosed that the United States had reached the goal of fewer than 2,200 warheads more than two years ahead of schedule.
Last December, then-Undersecretary of State John C. Rood said Russia wanted the START extension to cover not just nuclear weapons but also "conventional strategic forces," including "conventionally armed missiles" and "long-range bombers that drop a conventional weapon."
At the March 26 confirmation hearing for Rose Gottemoeller to be assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, she hinted that the Russian desire to count conventionally armed missiles may not be much of a problem: "While we have a very large number still of nuclear long-range intercontinental missiles . . . we would not be paying any particular price at the negotiating table if we should count conventional weapons of that kind as nuclear," she said.
"But I don't believe it sets a precedent for future negotiations," she added. "People recognize that, as numbers come down and numbers of nuclear weapons get lower, then we have to be looking at these very factors in a different way."