U.S. says nuclear agreement is near

President Obama said he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are "quite close" on a nuclear pact.
President Obama said he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are "quite close" on a nuclear pact. (Susan Walsh/associated Press)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009

President Obama said Friday the United States and Russia are "quite close" to reaching an agreement that would cut their nuclear stockpiles and allow the world's atomic giants to keep monitoring each other's arsenals. But they are unlikely to meet their goal of getting an accord by year's end.

The new pact would be a successor to the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which helped maintain stability between the countries for nearly two decades before expiring Dec. 5. Obama hopes the new accord will show the world the United States is serious about arms control, as it pushes for tougher action against such countries as Iran, which may be seeking their own nuclear weapons.

People close to the negotiations said the White House is frustrated that the accord has not been concluded. There appeared to be no breakthrough in Obama's talks Friday with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, the latest high-level meeting aimed at overcoming the final hurdles. The two were in Copenhagen for the U.N. climate talks.

"We are quite close to an agreement," Obama told reporters, adding without elaboration that it would be completed "in a timely fashion."

Medvedev said that most issues are "almost closed," and that some "technical details" remain to be ironed out. "I hope that we will be able to do it in a quite brief period of time," he said.

Officials from both sides said negotiators will probably recess in coming days and resume talks in January.

Analysts said the delay might not be significant if the two sides could quickly wrap up a solid agreement on their return. But some expressed concern that, having blown two deadlines, negotiators could feel less urgency.

The Obama administration is hoping a new agreement will give it enhanced credibility at an international conference in May to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1968 pact in which most countries agreed to forsake nuclear arms in exchange for gradual disarmament by world powers. U.S. officials want to promote tougher compliance measures to keep the world's non-proliferation system from unraveling.

But it is not clear whether the Senate would ratify START by then. The process could take months, especially since Republican arms-control skeptics have indicated they want to use the hearings to scrutinize administration plans for maintaining the country's nuclear weapons and facilities.

One sticking point in the current START talks involves procedures to verify missile production, according to officials and analysts close to the negotiations. Specifically, the Russians are balking at continuing to send their U.S. counterparts electronically transmitted data from their long-range missile tests, they said.

Analysts said it is difficult for U.S. negotiators to give ground, since verification will be a major issue in the Senate ratification process.

"As Ronald Reagan said, 'Trust but verify.' The Russians are obviously interested in a much less intrusive verification scheme," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said.

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