The Cable Foreign Policy's Josh rogin

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Nuclear treaty faces tough slog on Hill

One of President Obama's signature initiatives -- the completion of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia -- faces a steep challenge in obtaining Senate approval this year, lawmakers and staff members in both parties tell The Cable.

Negotiations on the treaty, a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, were supposed to have been completed in December when the old agreement expired, but the U.S. and Russian sides have failed to reach a deal.

The delay has led many on Capitol Hill to warn that there is just not enough time to go through a lengthy ratification process that Congress hasn't attempted in years. Many are also skeptical that leading critics of the administration's arms-control policies will allow ratification to go through, even when it reaches the Hill.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who will be responsible for shepherding the treaty through the Senate, said its survival will depend on when it materializes and whether the administration is able to keep contentious issues such as missile defense out of the document.

"It depends on when we get it; we haven't seen it," Kerry said in an interview. "The administration is appropriately holding out for what we need to make the treaty verifiable, and that will help it pass."

"It's going to be hard to get it ratified," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). Hill staffers said reviewing and clarifying questions about the treaty would take at least six months -- and then there is the August recess.

Kerry said there are legitimate disagreements with the Russians, mainly over how to address U.S. missile defense plans, but the administration has to try to minimize issues that could "be exploited" by leading GOP skeptics such as Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

"If it has those kinds of questions, it could be problematic," Kerry said. As for whether there are 67 votes for it in the Senate, Kerry said, "I have no idea."

Committee ranking member Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) was more optimistic. "I remain hopeful that it will be signed and that there will be time assigned on the floor for debate and a vote this year," he said.

New intelligence estimate about Iran on the way?

The Cable is hearing from congressional sources, diplomats and former officials that the Obama administration is getting ready to finalize a National Intelligence Estimate that is expected to back off some of the conclusions of the 2007 report on Iran's nuclear program.

The new NIE has been anticipated for a while, but now it seems to be close to release. Sources said they are being told that there will be no declassified version this time, but they expect the new estimate will declare that Iran is on a path toward weaponizing nuclear material.

Many feel the administration needs to correct the record by somehow disavowing the intelligence community's controversial 2007 conclusion: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."

The new estimate might not directly contradict that judgment, but it could say that although the intelligence community has not determined that Iran has made the strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, Iran is seen to be working on the components of a device, a parsing that some would see as too clever by half.

David Albright, a nuclear weapons expert and president of the Institute of Science and International Security, said the administration might want to avoid a lengthy and complicated public debate about the estimate's conclusions. "They owe it to us to provide clarification of their position publicly," he said. The NIE is compiled by the National Intelligence Council, but rollout and classification decisions are ultimately made by Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence. Blair's office declined to comment.

Arms control bureaus to undergo a reshuffle

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced plans last week to reorganize the arms control bureaus at the State Department, seeking to roll back changes made during George W. Bush's presidency that led many top staffers to leave the agency.

Ellen O. Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control, explained the rationale in a meeting with about 200 staffers recently.

"Arms control, verification, compliance and nonproliferation will no longer be starved for resources," she said. "Quite the contrary, these missions, along with our political-military efforts, will be adequately resourced and well staffed with first-rate professionals."

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